Tag Archives: Edwardian London

Leicester Square

Featured image: The north and east sides of Leicester Square from a postcard, ca 1903. The caption on the back reads: ‘Leicester Square. – Popular centres of refreshment and amusement abound in and around this charming green spot amidst the roaring streets. The Alhambra [pictured on the right], the home of brilliant ballet and variety entertainment, appears in the view, its Moorish grandeur looking strangely out of place amongst so much typical English architecture.’

I’m celebrating this blog’s first birthday with a trip ‘up West’ to one of the focal points of London’s filmland, Leicester Square. I also wanted to spend a bit of time here because I’ve been thinking about a question posed early in 1913 by a writer in one of the film trade papers: who was the audience for the first West End cinemas?

What the writer, Samuel Harris, actually wanted to know was whether there was a public demand for the expensive new picture palaces appearing on thoroughfares like Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. London theatregoers, he thought, had little choice but to travel to the West End if they wanted to watch the latest stage shows. But, seeing as there were ‘far more cinema theatres by hundreds outside the West-End than there are theatres and music-halls’, and given that these cinemas generally showed the same films as those in the West End, would cinemagoers from the suburbs or further out really go the extra mile to get something already available closer to home? Plus, if West End cinemas did manage to attract regular patrons, would these be the same people who went to West End theatres and music halls? In fact, he wondered, ‘Where do the West End regular theatre audience come from’ in the first place?

Harris was an estate agent whose firm brokered some of the big West End cinema projects, so he had a personal interest in asking these questions. I’m not able to answer them all yet. But a trip to Leicester Square might provide a bit of background on the West End as a destination for amusement-seekers.

Leicester Square, ca 1906
Looking towards the north side of Leicester Square from a postcard sent in 1906.

Originally, Leicester Square was a residential spot. It was laid out and railed off from the surrounding Leicester Fields in the seventeenth century as a decorative accompaniment to the stately Leicester House. During the eighteenth century, it was hedged in by private houses – home to aristocrats and artists like William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds. There were a few shops by this point, but in the nineteenth century commerce more or less took over. Residences made way for a wave of hotels, shops, exhibition centres, institutes and museums. Compared to some of London’s other squares, this was quite a dramatic transformation. The architectural historian E. Beresford Chancellor wrote that, ‘from being as much a private square as those of St. James’s or Bloomsbury, Leicester Square has become as much a public “place” as Trafalgar Square or the Place de la Concorde’.

This commercialisation points to something that was happening more widely in the West End at the time. Wealthy residents were moving out of the area to the suburbs, leaving the major theatres (including the old patent theatres at Covent Garden and Drury Lane) in need of a new audience. In their book on nineteenth century theatregoing, Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow suggest that the Great Exhibition of 1851, which attracted upwards of 6 million tourists to London in the space of five months, gave theatre managers a feel for how they might make up for the loss of their old, local clientele. The solution managers came up with (according to Davis and Emeljanow) was to turn the West End into a kind of theatrical ‘theme park’, unique enough to entice tourists into the area. In Leicester Square, an important model for capitalising on the emerging tourist trade was provided by James Wyld, whose Great Globe stood in Leicester Square gardens from 1851 and continued to pull in visitors for several years after the Exhibition closed.

Leicester Square, ca 1904
The north side of Leicester Square, ca 1904, showing the Empire, the Queen’s Hotel and Daly’s Theatre, with the London Hippodrome in the distance.

The Great Globe vanished (replaced, until the 1870s, by what Beresford Chancellor described grimly as ‘a wilderness … and a last resting-place for dead cats’), but other attractions sprung up in its place. By the turn of the century, Leicester Square was dominated by two huge variety theatres – the Alhambra on the east side, the Empire on the north – plus Daly’s Theatre just off the square on Cranbourn Street. There was also the Queen’s Hotel, the Hôtel Cavour (the first of the square’s ‘foreign’ hotels), and a number of shops, clubs and restaurants.

The Alhambra and the Empire both showed films from 1896 as part of their variety programmes. But the first dedicated cinema, the Circle in the Square (also known as the Bioscopic Tea Rooms, and afterwards Cupid’s and the Palm Court), opened in 1909 next to the Alhambra. This was the only full-time film venue on the square until the Empire was rebuilt as a flagship cinema for MGM in 1928. The Alhambra was knocked down to make way for the Odeon in 1936. But there were other early cinemas nearby: the Cinema de Paris on Bear Street opened in 1910, and the much grander West End Cinema Theatre on Coventry Street opened – in the presence of royalty, no less – in 1913.

Who might have been in the audience at these early Leicester Square cinemas? We can guess that foreign and provincial tourists, who visited the Empire and the Alhambra, and who stayed in the area’s hotels, might have also visited the cinemas. So, too, might Londoners in search of some controlled naughtiness. Judith Walkowitz sums up the prevailing culture of Leicester Square around this time as a mixture of ‘foreigness’ and British chauvinism: ‘Sufficiently cosmopolitan to appeal to foreign tourists … as well as to Londoners desirous of a touch of the Continent’. The Cinema de Paris on Bear Street could have been named with exactly these potential customers in mind.

Leicester Square, ca 1903
The east side of Leicester Square, ca 1903. The Circle in the Square cinema opened in the building to the right of the Alhambra in 1909.

Early Leicester Square cinemas were also well placed to appeal to passing trade. When they opened, the Circle in the Square and the West End Cinema operated a policy of continuous performance, showing films Monday to Saturday from about midday to midnight (and Sundays from 6pm). Positioned next to the Alhambra and the Empire and near the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, they would have been in a good position to attract variety patrons waiting for the 8pm performance or playgoers on a night out. During the day, they might have been a stopping point for shoppers en route between the big department stores on Oxford Street and Regent Street and the railway stations at Charing Cross and Waterloo. If they wanted to, passersby were also able to come in just for something to eat: the Circle in the Square had tea rooms adjoining and underneath the auditorium and the West End Cinema had a ‘Balcony Tea Lounge’ that served drinks and snacks.

All this suggests that cinemas could have shared the audience for other West End amusements without necessarily competing with them directly, in the same way that earlier Leicester Square attractions were able to cash in on the tourist trade drummed up by the Great Exhibition. What I’d still like to know, though, is whether these early film venues brought any new visitors to Leicester Square – perhaps people who might not have been able to afford to go out there otherwise, or who might have been put off by the social niceties of West End theatregoing. Tickets at the West End Cinema were as pricey as those at the nearby theatres, but the Circle in the Square seems to have been a bit cheaper. There, customers could watch a film and enjoy a cup of tea for the same price as a seat in the pit at the Alhambra. Could the arrival of film have opened up the West End to new audiences – new ‘cinematic’ tourists?

There’s more digging to be done before I feel confident answering this question. But, as Leicester Square emerges from its recent multi-million-pound makeover, carried out (according to mayor Boris Johnson) to guarantee its status as a ‘beacon for world premieres and the stars of the silver screen’ and, consequently, as a ‘must-see destination’ for tourists, it’s interesting to think back on what impact film might have been having on the square and its visitors 100 years ago.

Leicester Square, ca 1904
Leicester Square at night, from a postcard sent in 1904.

References:

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

Cecil Court update

An out-of-focus Simon Callow unveils the Westminster City Council plaque on 27, Cecil Court, once home to the offices of early film companies Gaumont and James Williamson & Co., now Stephen Poole Fine Books:

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cecilcourt3

Afterwards, James Williamson’s film The Big Swallow gets a warm reception in the basement of 5, Cecil Court, formerly the premises of the New Bioscope Trading Co., with Cyrus Gabrische providing musical accompaniment:

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Cecil Court

Cecil Court is a small thoroughfare that runs between St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross Road. As reported last week by Silent London, the street is to get a special plaque from Westminster City Council this Thursday (13 December) to mark its place in film history. This will join the collection of commemorative signs already proudly on display in the street’s shop windows:

gaumont_hepworth_plaques

To people interested in early cinema, Cecil Court is better known by its Edwardian nickname, ‘Flicker Alley’. It’s a quaint name, a little like something out of Harry Potter, that’s liable to conjure up images of eccentric gentleman-inventors and dusty nitrate. It’s one that has been memorialized by film pioneers like Cecil Hepworth, who writes about the street in his autobiography, as well as lending itself to a company that specializes in silent film DVD releases.

cecil hepworth

Former resident of Cecil Court, Cecil Hepworth

Simon Brown’s careful study of ‘Flicker Alley’ paints a more complex picture, in which successive waves of film businesses gravitated to the street, made important connections with each other, then shipped out to larger premises, usually in Soho. In the early days, before 1907, the street was home to a number of ‘one-stop-shops’ like Hepworth’s and the British offices of the Gaumont Company. Later, more specialist businesses moved in, representing new branches of the industry – companies dealing in the sale of foreign films, film rental firms, and stockists supplying cinemas with equipment and accessories like tip-up seats, chocolates and ushers’ uniforms.

climax ticket machine ad 1913

Advert for Climax Ticket Machine, Ltd., one of the companies trading on Cecil Court in the 1910s

The process of clustering, or ‘agglomeration’, that Brown traces, in which like-minded companies converge on the same location, had distinct advantages for the businesses involved and for their customers. Brown explains:

Most showmen would have to travel considerable distances to visit London, and almost all were buying their films from many producers, so agglomeration proved a benefit both to the showmen, and to their suppliers, who did not lose business because they were geographically distant from their colleagues.

This process wasn’t unique to the early film industry. Other notable examples in London over the years have included Clerkenwell for clocks, Spitalfields for silk, Savile Row for tailoring and Tottenham Court Road for furniture. Cecil Court itself is now home to a cluster of booksellers:

cecil court books

Books on sale in Cecil Court, from patternlondon.com

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Thursday’s celebrations in Cecil Court begin at 2.30pm with a selection of films from the BFI, accompanied by the pianist John Sweeney. Tim Bryars, who runs a shop on the street, has written about its history, including its aristocratic origins and links with the book trade, for the Cecil Court website. The full version of Simon Brown’s essay, ‘Flicker Alley’, first published in the journal Film Studies is available to download free as a pdf.

Queens Cinematograph, c. 1908

I bought this postcard a while ago on eBay. What prompted me was the eye-catching structure on the left, the Queens Cinematograph – a fairground ‘bioscope’, or travelling film show. The bioscope show was a fixture (if that’s the right word to use for such a nomadic form of entertainment) of fairgrounds from at least 1897, the year that the showman Randall Williams kitted out his touring ‘ghost show’ for film projection.

By March 1908, when this postcard was sent, bioscope shows were no longer strictly a novelty. The people gathering round the Queens Cinematograph in the picture could well have visited one before. In fact, on closer inspection, the image might even reveal another bioscope show to the right-hand side – Biddall being the name of a rival bioscope family. Did visitors to Hampstead Heath in 1908 have a choice of film shows to go to?

We don’t get much of a sense of what it was like to attend a fairground bioscope show from this postcard – that is, of what went on inside the decorated booth. But we do get a snapshot of how film shows could fit into the texture of Edwardian life and leisure.

Hampstead Heath has a long history of popular entertainments. In the late nineteenth century, visitors to Hampstead Heath Fair could enjoy (writes Alan Farmer) their choice of ‘coconut shies, stereoscopes, skipping ropes, sweetmeat vendors, silhouette artists, and a machine with a “galvanic battery” which gave an electric shock’, plus the more low-tech pleasures of donkey rides and dances. A bioscope show like Queens Cinematograph would have arrived into a busy but expanding marketplace. In the 1880s, about 100,000 Londoners – and by 1910 about 300,000 – could be relied upon to visit the Heath on a Bank Holiday.

Some of the people captured in this postcard image are busy inspecting and enjoying the commercial entertainments on offer. Others seem more interested in simply taking a stroll, or, in the case of one woman framed a little below the bustle of the bioscope show, catching the eye of whoever is taking the photograph. I particularly like the woman in the bottom right-hand corner with her back to the crowds, who’s been caught looking quizzically at something (or someone) out of shot.

The person who sent this postcard doesn’t mention the bioscope show, or in fact anything about Hampstead Heath, at all. The postmark is Woolwich and the card was sent to an address in Surrey. It could be a souvenir from a day trip, or perhaps just a suitably generic tourist image of London to commemorate time spent on holiday. But, rather than the expected ‘wish you were here’, the message on the reverse of the postcard launches us into a conversation about domestic finance:

Dear W.
Did you receive p. o. I sent last week. as we have had no reply am wondering if receive it. we are leaving here for home tomorrow. shall get home about 4 oclock.
Love to all.
From
Fran [?]

What thoughts or memories the Queens Cinematograph conjured up for the writer (and whether W. ever got his postal order) remains a mystery.

There’s more about early bioscope shows in Vanessa Toulmin’s 1994 article ‘Telling the Tale: The Story of the Fairground Bioscope Shows and the Showmen Who Operated Them’, in the journal of Film History. Alan Farmer’s book Hampstead Heath (New Barnet, Herts: Historical Publications, 1984) goes into detail about the area’s place in nineteenth-century popular culture. The Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema website gives a profile of Randall Williams and his travelling cinematograph show.