Tag Archives: 1910s London

Your own private cinema

I’ve been doing some research into the history of trade showrooms lately – the places where film companies give screenings to potential customers – and thinking a bit about the difference between watching a film in a public space and watching it in private. So I was interested to read this news item on a Chinese website (the wonders of Twitter) about a new chain of on-demand private cinemas being rolled out across various cities in China.

As far as I can make out, the cinemas offer a choice of rooms (a children’s room, a ‘courtship’ room), waiter service, comfy chairs and a choice of films accessed through a large touchscreen TV. I’m reliably informed that, so far, places like this in China are associated with the young, the wealthy and with special occasions – although this new chain seems to be offering more modest prices.

'Private custom' theatre in China

I’m sure this isn’t a new idea. In fact, I know it isn’t, because something like this was already being dreamt up in 1919 in London. The ‘drawing room’ cinema (pictured at the top of the post) was an innovation of Granger’s Exclusives, who had offices at the Oxford Street end of Wardour Street in Soho. Granger’s was a rental firm founded by A.G. Granger towards the end of the First World War, with a pro-British mission to distribute homegrown films. In 1919, the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly announced the layout of the company’s new private screening space in their Wardour Street premises.

It is a drawing room with a screen within it. Even the operating box is hidden under an artistic camouflage which adds to the picturesqueness and the sense of refinement and repose which dominate the whole place. […] Its comfort and surroundings have given just that correct atmosphere which is essential if pictures are to be viewed properly.

Presumably, ‘proper’ viewing here means viewing without distractions, in a tasteful atmosphere, or whatever was most conducive to selling the film. But the article goes on to suggest ways that the spirit of the Granger Drawing Room Kinema might be extended to other commercial settings. Arthur Backner, the showroom’s designer, believed that the idea could be put into practice across London, or ‘in any centre of population where an elite clientele can be gathered together’.

A drawing-room cinema with some fifty or sixty people in it who were prepared to pay for the privileges of refinement and seclusion (and large numbers of people would do so, in his opinion), would be as distinct a novelty as it would be a success.

I’m not sure if Backner had ever reckoned with the local cinematograph licensing laws or with the economies of scale that shaped film exhibition elsewhere in London, and which would surely have put a dampener on his plans. But the idea, at least, was prescient – right down to the waiter service and the customised selection of films.

Afternoon tea could be served in the drawing room kinema, with pictures chosen specially for people who wanted that something in kinematography which was in exact keeping with their surroundings.

The public would have to wait a while for private cinemas along these lines. But the article does predict some developments which would actually happen within a few years, including the emergence of specialist, ‘high-class kinema clubs’.

Now that the cult of the kinema is becoming one of Society’s functions, there is no reason why clubs for the seeing of certain types of pictures should not be formed amongst enthusiasts – say the filming of novels, the viewing of social propaganda films, or any other subject of great public interest. Such pictures, which distinct sections of the community might wish to see under ideal conditions, could easily form the basis of picture clubs, whose rendezvous would most assuredly have to be in some such place as this Granger Drawing Room Kinema.

The article was half right. When the London Film Society was founded in 1925 as a private subscription club for the appreciation of film as art, it would meet in regular (though top-end) cinemas, rather than secluded ‘drawing room’ theatres like Granger’s. But the Film Society, and other groups like it, certainly pursued the aim of refinement in cinema-going, and kept alive the interest in finding the ‘ideal’ conditions for watching films that is evidently still being explored today.

Granger Drawing Room Kinema

References:

  • ‘Arthur Backner’s Ideal Theatre’, Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly (6 March 1919): 77.
  • Rachael Low, The History of the British Film, 1918-1929 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971), p. 72.
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Olympia

Each comer who chooses may sport with the muses

Or notice the uses of genius or skill,

And find the employment of means for enjoyment

In modern Olympia all wishes fulfil.

(Mrs. W.A. Barrett, ‘Ode to Olympia’, 1886)

Exactly 100 years ago today, the First International Cinematograph Exhibition opened at London’s Olympia.  The Exhibition ran from March 22 to 29, 1913, bringing representatives from various branches of the film business together under Olympia’s massive, barrel-shaped roof.

Progress and inclusivity were the main themes of trade press coverage of the event:

The programme set forth is most comprehensive in its nature, dealing with every phase of the industry, from the manufacture of the raw film to the finished image on the screen … Quite apart from its purely commercial side, the exhibition reveals, for the first time, the marvellous advance of cinematography. It is with no small pride that the Trade can regard its progress – unbroken, steady and continuous; and it is only fitting that its history and romance should be unfolded in such a manner.

(‘The Kinematograph Exhibition’, Bioscope, 13 March 1913)

exhibition ad 1913

Advertisement / The Cinema, 5 February 1913

Despite some notable absences, the Exhibition was imagined as a microcosm of the industry at large, which (according to a trade journalist in The Cinema) had been advancing steadily and unstoppably across London and beyond:

whereas but a year or so since the number of firms dealing exclusively in films and cinema accessories ran but into tens, to-day the number is legion. Again, it is but a short space of time since Cecil Court was all too large to accommodate the members of the trade. Now the industry has grown to such proportions that Cecil Court, Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue, Gerrard Street, Wardour Street, Rupert Street, Long Acre, Westminster Bridge Road, Gray’s Inn Road, Farringdon Road, and many other thoroughfares in the Metropolis itself, to say nothing of its suburbs, together with the large provincial cities and towns, contain representatives of the all-conquering cinematograph business. Not only have London firms opened branches further afield, but new concerns have sprung up in all directions…

Olympia was famous for its set-piece spectacles – Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West’ show, Imre Kiralfy’s recreations of Ancient Rome and Venice, Hagenback’s Wonder Zoo, not to mention R.W. Paul’s ‘Theatrograph’ displays. Like these, the Cinematograph Exhibition was designed to give visitors a chance to see a world they might not otherwise have the time or ability to reach:

…The British Isles, too, is dotted from end to end with cinema theatres, the owners of which in many instances are either too busily occupied or have neither the time nor the opportunity for periodical visits to London and have to rely for the knowledge they gain of what is doing in the cinema world upon the columns of the trade Press.

This class of person especially might be expected to look upon an exhibition in some central building and lasting for a week as a boon and a blessing…

(‘The Need for a Cinematograph Exhibition’, The Cinema, 1 January 1913)

olympia map

Map of the stands at the Cinematograph Exhibition / The Cinema, 26 March 1913

Visitors to the 1913 Exhibition could visit well over a hundred stands, all decorated in some way to attract attention (the ‘Essanay balloon’ was much remarked on). Some production companies also brought star guests with them:

The show has been visited by quite a number of picture celebrities. Many of the film producers have had their actors and actresses ‘on view’ at their stalls, and the Éclair Company, whose projection theatre has been thronged continuously, brought over Funnicus, Jane, and Softy, whose portraits are so well-known to all moving picture devotees to enable them to make a closer acquaintance with them.

(‘England Wakes Up’, The Cinema, 26 March 1913)

There temporary screening booths to show off new films and film technologies, and space was also given over to special contests. These included competitions for cinema projectionists and pianists, and one for would-be film actors. This was organized by Mr David Barnett and judged by Cecil Hepworth and George Cricks (of Cricks & Martin), and was said to have attracted more than 3,000 entrants to Olympia:

‘Amongst the competitors,’ said Mr Barnett, ‘were a German baroness and a Russian countess, and those who tried their skill in the depiction of the various emotions necessary for the little screen play arranged included men and women in nearly every calling. There were engineers, journalists, medical students, uniform nurses, market gardeners, bakers, and a large number of servants, and they hailed from all districts – Belgravia, Whitechapel, Maida Vale, and Soho. The majority were very earnest and painstaking, but a few capered about and made themselves generally most idiotic. One young gentleman, in his endeavour to express horror, acted in a most ultra-dramatic manner, and finally fell off the platform. A little comedy relief like that, you may guess, vastly amused the crowds who thronged to see the competitors.’

(‘Contest for Film Actors’, Era, 5 April 1913)

Besides these, there were representatives from institutions whose relationship to the film business was a bit hazier – groups like the Red Cross and the Boy Scouts, and organisations promoting the garden city movement or even emigration to Australia – but who presumably thought that the Exhibition represented a good opportunity to reach new audiences.

A heavy emphasis was placed on the potential educational value of moving pictures, with a special conference attended by such notables as the Headmaster of Eton. Morley Daintow, Assistant Manager of the Pulteney Council School in west London, gave his (extremely glowing) verdict on the Exhibition for the Bioscope:

My most lasting impression of the exhibition is as of one amazing wonder journey, similar to the experiences of my boyhood, when I first discovered some of Nature’s beautiful treasures. I congratulate the Trade on its achievements, and on the rare qualities of its representatives. At all stands I found men and women filled to the brim with fine enthusiasm for cinematogrpahy, and capable of so talking about it as not only to give wholesome pleasure but also useful instruction.

(Morley Dainow, ‘The Exhibition: A Teacher’s Impression’, Bioscope, 10 April 1913)

I don’t know whether the Cinematograph Exhibition succeeded either in its aim of generating business for the British film industry or promoting its usefulness as an educational tool. But it’s worth commemorating, I think, as an example of how the early film trade tried to project itself in the public eye, and as a reminder of the different kinds of activity that made up ‘cinema’ in Britain 100 years ago.

olympia wikipedia

Olympia today / Wikipedia

– –

London’s Olympia is still in use as a venue. There’s more information about its history in John Glanfield’s book, Earls Court and Olympia: From Buffalo Bill to the ‘Brits’ (2003), and on the Olympia website. Here’s the full list of stall holders at the 1913 Cinematograph Exhibition as given in The Cinema’s souvenir map reproduced above:

Row A A A

Stall

  • 1. Theatre – Hepworth Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (No. 1)
  • 2. Bamforth & Co., Ltd.
  • 3. Westminster Engineering Co., Ltd.
  • 4. R.R. Beard
  • 5. Theatre – Kinematograph Trading Co. (No. 2)
  • 6. Pathéscope Demonstrating Room
  • 7. Pathé Frères – Educational Department
  • 8. Theatre – Pathé Frères (No. 3)
  • 9-10. Theatre – Pathé Frères Offices
  • 11. Theatre – Pathé Frères (No. 3)
  • 12. Pathé Frères – Electrical Fillings Department
  • 13. Theatre – National Cash Register
  • 14. Theatre (No. 5)
  • 15. Selfridges

Row A A

  • 1. The Hepworth Manufacturing Co., Ltd.
  • 2. Cricks & Martin, Ltd.
  • 3. Heller & Co. (stencils)
  • 4. Empty
  • 5. Roll-up Metal Matting Co., Ltd.
  • 6. The Navy League
  • 7-12. Pathé Frères
  • 13. W.&R. Jacob & Co.
  • 14. Rowntree & Co., Ltd.
  • 15. Garden Cities, Liverpool
  • 16. Garden Cities & Town Planning Association
  • 17. Cadbury & Co.
  • 18. National Cash Register

Row A

  • 1. Harris and Gillow
  • 2. The Cinema News & Property Gazette, Ltd.
  • 3. Keith Prowse and Co., Ltd.
  • 4. Incorporated Association of Film Renters
  • 5. Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association of Great Britain, Ltd.
  • 6. A.A. Godin
  • 7. Williamson Kinematograph Co., Ltd.
  • 8. Addressograph, Ltd.
  • 9. Fyfe, Wilson and Co.
  • 10. The Pictures
  • 11. The Bioscope
  • 12. Chivers and Son
  • 13. Hudson, Scott and Sons, Ltd.
  • 14. James Crosfield and Sons, Ltd.
  • 15. Gas Light and Coke Co., Ltd.
  • 17. Burroughs, Wellcome and Co., Ltd.
  • 18. James Robertson and Sons.
  • 19. Webb Lamp Co., Ltd.
  • 20. Maurice F. Hummel
  • 20a. Multicheck
  • 21. F.R. Britton and Co.
  • 22. Empty
  • 23. Redio

Row B

  • 1-2. The Walturday Co., Ltd.
  • 3. Kinesounds, Ltd.
  • 4-5. Newman and Sinclair, Ltd.
  • 6. Murdochs
  • 7. Wolfe and Hollander
  • 7a. Uniform Clothing and Equipment Co.
  • 8. G. Guilbert
  • 9. The Accurate Check Taker, Ltd.
  • 10. Criterion Plates, Films, etc.
  • 11. The Electrical Engineering Equipment Co., Ltd.
  • 12. A.E. Hübsch and Co.13. Jupiter Elekrophat
  • 14. Ernemann
  • 15. Muller and Co.

Row C

  • 1-2. L. Kamm and Co.
  • 3. The Topical Film Co., London
  • 4. Alfred Hays
  • 5. The Kinematograph
  • 6. New Film Service
  • 6a. Emil Busch Optical Co.
  • 7. Harper Electric Pianos
  • 7a. British Vacuum Cleaner Co.
  • 8. Kineto, Ltd.
  • 9. The Dictaphone
  • 10. Whiting and Bosisto, Ltd.
  • 10. The Imperial Suction Vacuum Cleaner
  • 11. The Alumalite
  • 12. The Acme Patent Ladder Co.
  • 13. Joh Nitzsche, Leipzig
  • 14. Ernemann
  • 15. Muller and Co.

Row D

  • 1. The British Uralite Co., Ltd.
  • 2. Chex Ticket Machine Syndicate, Ltd.
  • 3. The Globe Pen Co.
  • 4. British Thomson-Houston Co., Ltd.
  • 5. Columbia graphophones
  • 6. R. and S. Neumann
  • 7. [Empty?]
  • 8. Cinema-Halles, Ltd.
  • 9. Tella Camera Co.
  • 10-10a. [Empty?]
  • 11. Martin’s Feature Film Co.
  • 11a. Gerrard Kinematograph Co.
  • 12. J.J. Chettle & Co.
  • 12a. J.M. Supply Agency
  • 13-13a. [Empty?]
  • 14. Big A Features
  • 14a. Central Feature Exclusive Co.
  • 15. Artograph
  • 15a. The Award Film Service / Weymouth Exoress
  • 16. [Empty?]
  • 16a. Express Film Co.
  • 17. [Empty?]
  • 17a. Kinematograph Trading Co.
  • 18. Peter & Cailler’s Chocolate
  • 19. [Empty?]
  • 20. Minerva Automatic Machine
  • 21. Stentaphone Agency
  • 22. [Empty?]
  • 23. R.R. Exclusives
  • 24. Rayflex Co.
  • 25. Dustobo
  • 26. N.B. Walters & Co.
  • 27. S. Walker & Co.

Row E

  • 1. Metropolitan Railway
  • 2. [Empty?]
  • 3. [Empty?]
  • 4-6. Gas Light and Coke Co., Ltd.
  • 7-9. Australia
  • 10. Debrie
  • 11. G. Mendel
  • 12. P. Ruez
  • 13-14. Museum

Row F

  • 1. Great Western Railway
  • 2. Post Office
  • 3. Theatre Boroid (No. 11)
  • 4. Essanay
  • 5. [Empty?]
  • 6. Theatre, Walturdaw (No. 10)
  • 7. Richard Hornsby and Son, Ltd.
  • 8-10. Australia
  • 11. [Empty?]
  • 12. Theatre Éclair Film Co. (No. 9)
  • 13. F.C. Hart
  • 14-16. Museum

Annexe

  • 1. Red Cross
  • 2. [Empty?]
  • 3. Duty and Descriptive Lecture
  • 4. Church Lads’ Brigade
  • 5. “Christian Commonwealth”
  • 6. Ragged School Union
  • 7. “Church Newspaper”
  • 8. [Empty?]
  • 9. Theatre (No. 8)
  • 10. Theatre (No. 7) Universal Screen Equipment Co., Ltd.
  • 11. London Diocese Lads Brigade
  • 12. Theatre (No. 6) Religious Educative and Social Welfare
  • 13-14. Life Target and Shooting Gallery

Gallery

  • 1. Pegamoid Leather Cloth
  • 2. Cradley Carriage Co., Ltd.
  • 3. Whiteley’s

Wonderland

After spending a while in the West End, I thought it was time that London Filmland ventured east. Following a tip-off from the erstwhile Bioscope, this post stops off at 100 Whitechapel Road, the former site of two film-related venues: the Rivoli and, before that, Wonderland. As a stalwart of the East End entertainment scene, there’s been a fair amount written about the place already, so this is an attempt to pull together information on some of the venue’s different encounters with film over the years.

Wonderland first opened its doors as a music hall in 1896, which was also when the site’s life as a film venue began. But it had been associated with entertainment since the 1830s, first as the Earl of Effingham Saloon, then as the Effingham Theatre, and later still as the East London Theatre (which burned down in 1879). Like the Pavilion Theatre down the road, the venue seems to have depended mainly on local working-class and immigrant (especially German and East European) audiences, being too far away from the city centre to attract the West End’s more well-heeled, floating clientele.

whitechapel

A Whitechapel street scene / Yoshio Markino, from The Charm of London, 1912

The proprietor of Wonderland was Jonas Woolf, who spent £5,000 fixing up the building to comply with London County Council regulations, and who went all out to compete with the other local music halls. When Wonderland opened, Woolf traded heavily on the eclecticism and exoticism of his acts, putting together what the Era called a ‘curious exhibition of freaks’ for the hall’s first programme.

wonderland times advert

Call for acts for Wonderland / The Times, 1896

Woolf also tried to drum up local support through a series of competitions, some of them designed to appeal to particular professions or social groups. So, there were contests for basket carrying (for market traders), carving up sheep (for butchers), shaving (for barbers), pram racing (for mothers), as well as others for singing, washing clothes, crawling, standing upside down, and more inventive tests of skill involving kicking a football through a hoop, and eating treacle from a swinging bread roll.

Moving pictures were first shown at Wonderland in April 1896 in the form of R.W. Paul’s ‘Theatrograph’. Sadly, the show wasn’t a success, and managed to land Woolf in Clerkenwell County Court. As the Era reported in July that year, Paul was suing Wonderland, Limited, for failing to pay the sum of £22, 10 shillings – equivalent to three weeks’ rent of electrical accumulators to power the ‘Theatrograph’ kit. Woolf’s defence was that the moving pictures had come out ‘blurred and indistinct’. It was said that the audience at Wonderland ‘used to hiss the performance, and many people had demanded and received back their money’.

wonderland patrons

Patrons of Wonderland / Photographer unknown, from H. Chance Newton, ‘Music-Hall London’, 1902

In court, Woolf went on to state that the ‘Theatrograph’ was booked as the star attraction on Wonderland’s bill, and so its poor performance had done significant damage to the venue’s earnings and reputation. This line of argument resulted in the following bizarre exchange between Woolf and Paul’s barrister, Mr. Gill, which also gives a sense of the variety acts that the ‘Theatrograph’ would have appeared alongside at the Wonderland:

Mr Gill (to Mr Woolf) – You say the “Theatrograph” was your star attraction, and that the losses of your music hall were due to its failure? Witness – The rest of the programme was mere padding.

Mr Gill (reading from a poster) – Do you call the Bear Lady padding – “A native of Africa, full grown, whose arms and legs are formed in exactly the same manner as the animal after which she is named?” – Witness – Yes, the Bear Lady was padding.

Mr Gill – And the Fire Queens, “who have appeared before the Prince of Wales, the King and Queen of Italy, and King of Portugal, who pour molten lead into their mouths, lick red-hot pokers, and remain several minutes enveloped in flames and fire?”

Witness – Yes, the Fire Queens also were padding.

Mr Gill – I am not surprised that these monstrous exaggerations damaged your business. It was not the theatrograph.

After all this, the judge decided that Woolf was at fault for failing to provide sufficiently powerful lighting, and ordered him to settle his debt to Paul.

wonderland poster

Poster for Wonderland, November 1896 / Peter Jackson Collection (lookandlearn.com)

Undeterred, Wonderland carried on showing films on and off into the 1910s. But, as the venue continued to diversify the entertainments on offer, it became best known as one of the East End’s premier boxing halls. Robert Machray gives a virtual tour of a Saturday night boxing match in Wonderland in a guide to The Night Side of London from 1902.

You pass into the building – at the door stands a solitary policeman. You pay, perhaps, the highest price, three shillings, which entitles you to a seat on the stage. You have come a quarter of an hour before the time announced for the beginning of the first match, but the vast building is already packed, except on the stage, where there is still room. And what a dense mass of human beings there is!

Machray estimated that there were upwards of 2,000 people crammed into the auditorium. To add to the activity, there were also vendors selling refreshments. During the match, patrons could purchase oranges, cigarettes, soft drinks, plus ‘the greatest of East End delicacies, the stewed eel’.

boxing at wonderland

‘Boxing at the “Wonderland”, Whitechapel’ / Tom Browne, from Robert Machray, The Night Side of London, 1902

The venue burned down (for the second time) in August 1911, sparking rumours that Woolf had been the victim of an arson attack from a former business partner. The more likely culprit, though (according to The Times), was none other than a film projector, which was being tested in the afternoon for an evening show, and had apparently been set alight by some faulty wiring. (Woolf later told the press that the fire had started in a side gallery, and not the projection booth.)

Wonderland seems to have been up and running again by the mid-1910s, and it’s listed as a film venue in the trade directories on and off until 1917. But in 1921 it was reinvented once more – this time as the Rivoli Cinema.

The Rivoli was one of the East End’s first ‘super cinemas’, a new breed of large-capacity film venue, and one of the earliest of its kind to be built anywhere in the UK. The remodelled outside of the Rivoli promised grandeur, with neo-classical columns and arches:

rivoli whitechapel 1923

Inside, there was an upper circle over the stalls, providing seating for over 2,000 people, and a large stage for variety acts:

rivoli whitechapel 1921 interior

There was also a tastefully appointed café:

rivoli 1928 cafe

Stanley Collins provided a lengthy, first-hand account of his time working at the Rivoli in the 1920s in a series of articles for the in-house magazine Gaumont-British News in 1932 (handily reproduced in a 2001 issue of the journal Picture House). Collins had been working as secretary to the US film producer and theatre manager Walter Wanger during his stint at the Covent Garden Opera House. When Wanger announced that he was taking over the Whitechapel Rivoli, Collins followed him, and was duly appointed Assistant Manager, with Hal Lewis as General Manager.

As Collins remembered it, the Rivoli under Wanger and Lewis’s management became well-known for high-quality film programmes and variety acts. ‘The cream of the variety world, at some time or other,’ he wrote, ‘trod the boards of the Rivoli’s fine stage’. Collins was less effusive about the Rivoli’s audiences (‘not exactly genteel’), claiming that fights inside and outside the cinema were frequent. Collins had fonder memories of working with Ernest Trimmingham, known as ‘Trim’, a Bermudan playwright and stage actor then living in the East End, who (as Stephen Bourne shows) was probably also the first black actor to appear in British films. During Collins’s time as Assistant Manager, ‘Trim’ was acting as ‘a sort of “barker”‘ for the Rivoli, advertising the cinema around the neighbourhood. He also did a turn on the variety stage there to an enthusiastic house.

Around 1924, Hal Lewis was replaced as manager by Billy Stewart, who set about revamping the place. Here’s Collins again:

He [Stewart] put the staff into smart new uniforms, and engaged five little blondes to open the main swing-doors to the theatre. Their smart blue pageboy tunics, short skirts, patent-leather leggings, white gauntlets and jaunty peak caps gave quite a “ritzy” touch to the front of the house. Even the four pageboys were supplied with white spats and gloves! Personally, I felt that Billy was overdoing it for Whitechapel, but I was wrong. Before long, people came from the West End to the Rivoli, so smart had the house become. The difference was so marked, in fact, that the ‘locals’ ceased their habit of dropping peanut shells under the seats, and the house at the end of a performance no longer resembled Brighton beach!

There’s a tension in Collins’s description between ‘West End’ and ‘East End’ values. I wonder how the ‘locals’ he talks about took to these changes in décor and decorum? Did they welcome the presence of a more ‘ritzy’ venue on their doorstep, or were they nudged out by the new house policy?

The Rivoli was taken over by the United Picture Theatres circuit in 1928 and by British Gaumont in 1930. But, despite all this, like the venues on the site before it, the cinema continued to have some social connection to Whitechapel residents. Research by Gil Toffell has shown how it was especially important for the East End’s Jewish audiences. In the 1930s, it was one of the few places in London where Yiddish sound films were shown – films like The Voice of Israel (1930) and Uncle Moses (screened there in 1938). The auditorium was also known to host Rosh Hashanah services when the local synagogue proved too small to accommodate the number of worshippers.

The Rivoli stayed open until 1940, when it was destroyed in an air raid. The bombed-out building was finally demolished in the 1960s. The site at 100 Whitechapel Road is now a Citroen car dealership, next door to the East London Mosque.

100 whitechapel road

100 Whitechapel Road / Google Street View

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References:

The following sources contain information about Whitechapel, Wonderland, the Rivoli, and people associated with the venues. Feel free to add more in the comments section, if you know of any.

Institute of Hygiene

Lately, I’ve been combing through a lot of film trade directories looking for information about old London cinemas. As anyone who has done research into British film history can vouch, titles like the Kinematograph Year Book are the yellowing, slightly dog-eared Wikipedias of the inner workings of the British film industry – full of interesting facts and figures, although sadly without the hyperlinks. (If you want a taster, the BFI have made the 1914 edition of the Kinematograph Year Book available online as a pdf.)

I was looking through the long list of London cinemas in the Kinematograph Year Book for 1919, when this entry caught my eye:

Institute of Hygiene, 33-4, Devonshire Street, Harley Street, W. 1. Prop[rietor]s, Institute of Hygiene. Res[ident] Sec[retary], Mr. A. Seymour Harding. Educational and Scientific Displays only, and by invitation chiefly. Largely used to illustrate lectures. No fixed programme or hours. First cinema installed in England for education work.

The entry seemed so incongruous (it’s sandwiched between the Imperial Theatre, Edgware Road, and the Abbey Picture Palace in Merton) that I thought it warranted further investigation. What films were the Institute of Hygiene showing, and why were they showing them in the first place? And was it really England’s first educational cinema? Here’s what I pieced together.

The Institute of Hygiene was founded in 1903, mainly to organize exhibitions about public health and preventative medicine. It also taught courses in hygiene for non-medical workers. The building at 33-34 Devonshire Street (a street that runs between Marylebone High Street and Great Portland Street) opened in the autumn of 1904.

devonshire street

33-34 Devonshire Street, London (Google Street View)

An issue of the British Journal of Nursing from the time explained that the central attraction at the Institute was ‘a permanent exhibition of hygienic products and appliances, and of articles of importance connected with personal and domestic hygiene’. Judging from the items mentioned in the BJN report, it seems that the Institute wasn’t averse to supporting its educational mission with a bit of product placement. Exhibits displayed ‘in the well-filled cases lining the walls’ included products from Nestlé, Cadbury’s, and other makers of ‘health’ foods and medical aids.

I can’t be sure that the Institute of Hygiene really did house the ‘first cinema installed in England for education work’, as the Kine Year Book suggests, but it seems like a reasonable claim. Films were shown there in the summer of 1912, with the intention of making them a permanent part of the exhibition. The trade magazine The Cinema reported on the first screenings in July 1912. The programme sounds like it wasn’t for the squeamish:

The Cinema and Hygiene

The use of the cinematograph as a means of education was illustrated at the Institute of Hygiene, when numerous pictures were exhibited, some in particular showing how disease is spread by flies. The ways in which flies carry disease by crawling on stagnant fish, afterwards feeding on the sugar in the house, and, alighting on the mouthpiece of a child’s feeding-bottle were shown by films. Other pictures, taken by a London doctor, indicated the most practical methods of rendering first aid in case of accident, while a series of industrial films afforded insight into the manufacture of “nut margarine,” meat extract, and other foods. Sir William Bennett, the President of the Institute of Hygiene, in inaugurating the educational cinematograph, said that while in America the cinematograph had been used for the demonstration of the details of surgical operations, and pictures of germ life had been shown in London, the instruction by this means had in the main been merely sporadic or accidental, and secondary to amusement.

This certainly seems like a pioneering use of moving pictures, even if William Bennett was selling his competition a bit short. There’s surely more than ‘accidental’ instruction at work in films like Charles Urban and F. Martin-Duncan’s series of ‘Unseen World’ pictures (the image at the top of this post comes from a 1903 ‘Unseen World’ instalment, Cheese Mites). But the point that early scientifically minded film shows tended to combine a large dose of amusement with their instruction is well taken: witness the famous Acrobatic Fly filmed by Percy Smith in 1910. Bennett was obviously trying to stress the seriousness of the Institute’s film screenings, and The Cinema went on to list some of the other ways that he intended to apply the new medium in the name of hygiene, like using microscopic images of germ life to teach food safety, or using film scenes to illustrate talks on domestic science and child-care.

I don’t know how long the Institute of Hygiene kept up their educational screenings. The organisation moved to new premises at 28, Portland Place in 1925, and merged with the Royal Institute of Public Health in the 1930s, by which time documentary science films had become more established as a genre. (Something discussed in Tim Boon’s book, Films of Fact.)

But, finding out about the Institute of Hygiene’s film work was a good reminder that, even when there was no shortage of dedicated cinemas around in London, films were still shown in a wide range of contexts, and for plenty of reasons other than commercial entertainment. In their recent edited collection of essays, Useful Cinema, Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson make a strong case for paying more attention to the history of what they call the ‘other cinema’: one that has always existed alongside the more familiar world of film-as-entertainment, but which instead set out to ‘transform spaces, convey ideas, [and] convince individuals’. Even if it wasn’t the direction that the mainstream film business ultimately took, the idea of cinema as a force for education did a lot to convince people in the early days, especially, that there was a future for moving pictures – and a useful future, at that.

Since coming across the Institute of Hygiene’s entry in the Kine Year Book, I’ve found references to a few more non-theatrical venues in London (besides churches and local halls) that seem to have shown films on a regular basis. Situated at 223, Tottenham Court Road, was the London office of the National Cash Register Company. This was licensed to show films in its ground-floor hall ‘for trade purposes only’ as early as 1914. From what I can gather, it looks like this was the company’s national sales headquarters, so it’s possible that films were used to train employees in sales techniques.

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National Cash Register Company office, Tottenham Court Road (c. 1904/Photographer unknown)

There’s a bit more information about the films shown in the second, equally unlikely film venue: the instruction depot of the London General Omnibus Company. This was located on Milman Street in Chelsea – here it is being used to instruct women omnibus drivers during the First World War:

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(London Transport Museum Collection/Photographer unknown)

According to an article in The Times in May 1913, trainee drivers in the Milman Street depot were shown something like modern road safety films. ‘Cinematograph demonstrations were used in instructing the staff for showing how common forms of accident might be avoided’, with vehicles in the films ‘arranged to make close resemblance to actual accidents’ for extra authenticity.

These examples probably just scratch the surface. We’ve become accustomed to seeing moving images everywhere in cities now, but I wonder what other early film shows were going on in unexpected corners of London.

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The collection of essays edited by Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson is Useful Cinema (2012). Simon Popple and Joe Kember mention the idea of using film to train London omnibus drivers in their introduction to Early Cinema (2004), which also includes a discussion of some of the other potential applications for the cinematograph.

Great Portland Street

I was reading George Pearson’s memoirs, Flashback, again recently because I wanted to know a bit more about the place where he first tried his hand as a film director: a film studio on, or rather underneath, Great Portland Street in central London (pictured above).

For a short while, this underground studio was the British production headquarters of Pathé Frères, who made films there under the brand names of ‘Britannia’ and later ‘Big Ben’, produced by one of Pathé’s subsidiaries, the Union Film Publishing Company (see Luke McKernan’s entry about Pathé on the BFI Screenonline website).

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Great Portland Street in the 1910s

The studio seems to have been in action from 1912 to 1914, when the company moved away from the city centre to more spacious premises at Alexandra Palace. Other directors to work there during these years included H. O. Martinek and A. E. Coleby, whom Pearson remembered being taken to meet by Pathé execs in 1912 on the set of Peg Woffington. Pearson himself arrived there at the start of 1913, having left his former career as a schoolmaster. (The local historian Stephen Pewsey mentions that Pearson’s ex-pupils at Staples Road Boys’ School in Loughton were none too happy with his replacement, a strict Welshman named Williams, who found a chalked message waiting for him on the school’s brick gate-pillars: ‘We want Pearson back, down with Williams!’)

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George Pearson, from britmovie.co.uk

Pearson described the studio when he got there as ‘a curious little place’, lit entirely by mercury-vapour tubes, under which ‘everyone looked as though suffering from acute heart disease’. The single camera was ‘mounted on a heavy capstan-head bolted rigidly to the floor’, so that the camera angle was always the same in every shot. Pearson took the camera off its mount and played around with close-ups. Given the experimentation that seems to have been going on under Pearson’s watch, it would be great if more of his early films survived.

Patricia Warren’s encyclopedic history of British film studios mentions the Union Film Publishing Company premises, but doesn’t give an exact location. So the challenge I set myself – as yet unfulfilled – was to find whereabouts on Great Portland Street this studio was situated. Sadly, Pearson doesn’t say, and, so far, Post Office directories, Ordnance Survey maps and fire insurance plans have yet to yield up a street address either (if you know any details, I’d love to hear from you).

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A view looking south down Great Portland Street 

But Pearson’s memoirs more than make up for this small omission. In fact, there’s one episode in Flashback that’s so surreal, it’s worth quoting at length:

we wanted a shot of a mounted huntsman about to ride from his country mansion, a painted and imposing doorway on a huge canvas drop-scene suspended from the ceiling. With great caution and wary pushes we had propelled a perplexed horse along a slippery stone passage that gave him no sure foothold, and gently urged him along much as an ocean liner is edged into harbour by little tugs. We got him at last on to the wooden stage floor, and into position by the ornate door, midway between the unlit mercury-light banks to his head and rear. The actor huntsman was hoisted into the saddle, and was all for the ‘take’, or as it happened, the ‘kill’, for when the signal for lights was given, and the light banks suddenly flashed on, that utterly bewildered horse saw red! He made one wild dash, and we were all mixed up with crashing mercury tubes, flying hooves, and the complete collapse of the country mansion, in the ruins of which the huntsmen was buried and lost to sight. We found the amazed horse seated on his hindquarters amid the debris of the painters’ pots and pans, probably wondering what was going to happen next! Truly they were the great days of adventure.

Pearson’s memoirs are published as Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Film-maker (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957). The book by Patricia Warren mentioned is British Film Studios: An Illustrated History (London: Batsford, 2001). The local history newsletter with Stephen Pewsey’s article, ‘George Pearson in Loughton’, is available online as a pdf.