Tag Archives: Soho

London’s Silent Cinemas

I’m very excited to say that a new website, London’s Silent Cinemas, is now up and running. I have been working on it for a while now. It includes a lot of the research into London’s early film culture and exhibition venues that I’ve been sharing on this blog over the last few years. The main feature is an interactive map of around 700 cinemas that were in operation in London and its surrounding areas at various points during the period 1906-1930. There are also short essays on a number of old (and in some cases long-forgotten) cinemas in Soho and the West End. The web design is the work of the brilliant Sam Nightingale.

Thanks to everyone who has helped out with the website, or who has listened patiently while I talked about the wonders of Ordnance Survey maps, Google Earth, cinema programmes and old street directories! I will still post here from time to time, but I hope you enjoy the new website too.

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Soho and the ‘worst’ cinema in the West End

I’ve been revisiting some research I did into the cinema history of Soho recently as part of a study of cinema in London’s West End. Soho is a small patch of the West End – a maze of narrow streets, once home to notorious ‘rookeries’ or slums in the nineteenth century, now famous for media companies, gay pubs and clubs (it was the final stop on last weekend’s Pride celebrations), sex shops, and late-night coffee bars.

There’s a long history of immigration into this particular part of London reaching back to the arrival of the French Huguenots, and early-twentieth-century Soho has been discussed, most recently by Judith Walkowitz in her book Nights Out, as an experiment in multiculturalism.[1] By the 1900s, it had a reputation for being ‘cosmopolitan’, as in home to immigrant or ethnic minority communities, especially French, but also Italian and Eastern European Jewish. Mainly because of these cosmopolitan associations, it attracted Bohemians and was, according to Thomas Burke, where ‘respectable’ Londoners went ‘to feel devilish’. Although the rookeries were gone, it was still a cramped neighbourhood, where visitors were surprised to find lodging houses accommodating multiple families on the same floor.

Cosmopolitan London
Screenshot from the film Cosmopolitan London (1924), introducing viewers to the variety of people and cuisines in Soho.

I’ve mentioned Soho before – and particularly Wardour Street – as one of the centres of the early film industry in London, especially for production and distribution companies. By the end of the 1910s, Soho was where lots of film businesses had their offices and private screening rooms. But Soho was also home to early cinemas. There were upmarket picture theatres like the Palais de Luxe (later the Windmill), on the edge of Soho, just off Shaftesbury Aveue. But there were also less prestigious venues deeper into the maze of streets, catering to Soho’s working-class population. It’s harder to find out about these places, not least because they didn’t last long, but also because they were in parts of the West End that most middle-class commentators would have thought twice about walking down (unless they wanted to feel ‘devilish’, of course). Luckily, historians of London’s cinemas have found out a bit about them,[2] and there are more clues in the archives. Here’s what I’ve found out so far about Soho’s earliest – and apparently the West End’s ‘worst’ – cinema, the Electric Cinema Theatre, 6 Ingestre Place.

The Electric Cinema Theatre, also known as the Jardin de Paris, seems to have been the earliest cinema to open in Soho, operating at least as early as October 1908. It’s half-remembered in Leslie Wood’s Romance of the Movies (he doesn’t mention its name) as a film venue opened in a converted stables, with horse stalls and cobble stones still visible from its former use. Wood may have been right about this. According to local council inspectors, the front part of the cinema was converted from a ground-floor dwelling, one of a row of terraced buildings on Ingestre Place. But the rear part was adapted from a stable yard, roughly roofed in and boarded over. The old stable had been part of a cluster of similar buildings called William and Mary Yard. The dancer and film star Jessie Matthews grew up there, and remembered that the stables housed cart horses for local market traders. Another woman who grew up nearby on Silver Place also remembered the stables being used to house performing animals – including elephants! – from the nearby Hengler’s Circus (a venue that occupied the site where the London Palladium was later built).

Map showing Ingestre Place
Detail from an Ordnance Survey map of the West End, edition of 1916, showing Ingestre Place. ‘Cin’ marks the site of the Electric Cinema Theatre.

The cinema was operated by Mons. Felix Haté, a French-born chemist turned cinema entrepreneur, who lived outside Soho in Earls Court, and who developed a way of ‘cleaning’ scrap film stock to extend its life span.[3] This suggests that the type of films shown at the cinema wouldn’t have been new releases, but titles that had been doing the rounds on the open market for some time, possibly years, and which had become scratched and grainy from over-use. We know from 1909 police records and a 1912 company prospectus that Haté was admitting people at a penny for children and twopence for adults for something like an hour-long show, running from around 6pm to 11pm. One local resident remembered a system of red, yellow and green lights outside the cinema to tell patrons what film was playing. From a report of a fire at the cinema in 1908, we know that – at least in its earliest years – music was provided by an automatic piano.

The cinema went through various face-lifts over its relatively brief lifetime, but in the beginning it accommodated about 180 people on wooden benches, plus standing room for 40 more, with a wood-and-metal projection box over the front entrance on Ingestre Place. The floor above was used as a workshop for Haté’s film cleaning outfit. According to the 1911 census, one of the other floors was home to the Kearey family – Amy, her four sons, and her husband Henry, who listed his job as a cinematograph show ‘porter’, or custodian. Thanks to a talk from Phyll Smith (@theautist) at the fantastic What Is Cinema History? conference in Glasgow, I now know that it was fairly common to have live-in cinema custodians in this period. Perhaps Amy and her children also helped out in the running of the cinema.

When the Metropolitan Police were asked to name the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ cinemas in their districts in November 1909, the local police branch named the Electric Cinema Theatre as the ‘worst’. There hadn’t been any complaints about crime or disruption at the cinema, although a few later mentions in council minutes suggest that local residents were sometimes irritated by children from the cinema playing outside in the street, and one neighbour at 7 Ingestre Place complained in the summer of 1912 that the cinema was staying open as late as 1am on weekdays. But it’s probably safe to assume that, for an outsider, a converted stables in Soho didn’t compare favourably to cinemas elsewhere in more affluent parts of the West End. The police inspector in 1909 described the location as ‘a very thickly populated and overcrowded neighbourhood, amongst poor tenement dwellings’. (There was also a brewery at one end of the street and a council school at the other.) Whereas the policeman saw middle-class shoppers at a nearby cinema on Oxford Street (the Cinema de Paris), the Electric Cinema Theatre was ‘Frequented by poor class Jewish, French and English youths, girls and some adults’.[4] In her history of Soho, Judith Summers writes that, in general, different ethnic populations in the area co-existed, but didn’t necessarily interact with each other. But ‘children of all nationalities and religions mixed together freely at school and in the streets’ – and, as the police report suggests, also in the cinema.[5]

We can guess from company records (Haté launched his businesses as a joint-stock venture in 1912) that the cinema carried on trying to appeal to local residents in what the company prospectus called the ‘Cosmopolitan quarter’ of Soho. Haté kept his prices low (still one or two pence in 1912) in order ‘to meet the needs of the immediate neighbourhood’.[6] Some of his investors were very local, too. William Worster, the licensee at the Fountain Inn pub (also known as the Lion Tap) at the north end of Ingestre Place was one of the company directors. But there were also investors from Paris, presumably where Haté had connections, and Kensington, where he lived. By the start of 1912, he had also acquired another cinema – the Munster Electric Theatre in Fulham – making the Ingestre Place venue part of a (very small) cinema chain. In the summer of 1910, the Electric Cinema Theatre was also doubling as the London Cinematograph College and Situations Bureau, a training school and employment agency for cinema projectionists, according to a surviving advert.[7]

Fountain Inn, Ingestre Place
The Fountain Inn, Ingestre Place, whose licensee was one of the directors of the Haté Cinema & Film Cleaning Co., Ltd. From pubhistory.com.

Haté was forced to make changes to the venue when the Cinematograph Act (1909) came into force and the local council began to regulate cinema exhibition more forcefully. He submitted various plans for altering the cinema to suit the council’s requirements, and he was also keen to expand it. Among the plans for refurbishment was a very ambitious proposal to buy up a chunk of Lexington Street behind the cinema and construct a large entertainment complex, with space for a cinema, as well as boxing, wrestling and sideshows, and which would also incorporate a restaurant with a licence for drinks (to be inherited from a pub at 24 Lexington Street, which would be demolished in the scheme). Altogether the proposed venue was to accommodate 3,100 people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plans were rejected by the council on various grounds, including the fact that ‘the streets generally in the neighbourhood are unusually narrow’.[8] In the end, the council approved a much more modest rebuilding project, involving reversing the layout of the auditorium (so that the audience now faced out onto Ingestre Place) and demolishing an adjacent stable block to make room for a second exit. The revamped cinema, newly licensed as the Jardin de Paris, was open for business in January 1913.

Despite the revamp, the proximity of the chemical works over the cinema was an ongoing problem for the council, and in November 1913 they threatened Haté with legal action unless he shut it down. The company prospectus from the previous year suggests that the chemical side of his business wasn’t actually making that much profit. But, if Haté continued to fill his programme with old, second-hand films, then it must have been handy to have the ‘cleaning’ facilities on-site. One local resident later claimed that Haté showed the films he was in the process of ‘cleaning’ in the cinema, which suggests that he may have been getting at least some of his films for free. Whether or not this arrangement carried on into the 1910s, I’m not sure.

The cinema itself lasted a few more years into the start of World War I. But, in May 1915, Haté’s company wound up its operations. When a member of the London Women’s Patrol Committee visited Ingestre Place in June 1916 (as part of another survey of London’s cinemas), she found the cinema closed and was told that the business was ‘broke’ by someone who thought she wanted to buy the empty premises.[9] Haté seems to have left England by this point. Two more businessmen – David Long and Robert Van Steenbergen, living outside Soho, and giving their nationalities as Italian and Belgian – planned to re-open the space as the Cinema de Paris in September 1916, but withdrew their application to the council because the plan was proving too expensive. A Jewish resident of Soho later recalled his father using the venue as a Yiddish theatre, the first of its kind in London outside the East End.[10] This might have been true. In 1917, Samuel Wenter, a ‘naturalised British subject of Russian origin’ according to his paperwork, applied to use the old cinema for concerts in aid of a Jewish benevolent society and for Talmud Torah classes, but he may have also used it for dramatic performances. When council inspectors visited in February 1917, they found theatrical scenery in the venue, and promptly declared it unsuitable for entertainments. By this point, there were obviously cinemas and theatres all over the West End. But this episode suggests that there was still a demand for entertainment in Soho itself that the rest of the West End couldn’t meet – either for something affordable, or for something that more closely reflected the cultures of the people who lived in the neighbourhood.

The building at 6 Ingestre Place seems to have remained empty after that. In the 1920s, part of it was demolished (along with William and Mary Yard) to make way for the multi-storey Lex Garage, now the Brewer Street Car Park. Oddly, there was a resurgence of entertainment on this spot in World War II, when the Lex Garage was used as an air-raid shelter. According to an unnamed resident quoted by Summers, the garage became a kind of social club for Soho-ites:

We children ran wild in Lex Garage, because it was so big. We had a lovely time. But we didn’t sleep very much. We played cards, and put on shows to say hallo to the soldiers and sailors. For us it was fun.[11]

So, some 30 years later, under very different circumstances, Haté’s dreams of a multi-purpose entertainment venue in this crowded part of Soho were partly realised.

Brewer Street Car Park
The front entrance of the Brewer Street Car Park, formerly the Lex Garage. From britishlistedbuildings.co.uk.

 

Ingestre Place Google Streetview
The site of the Electric Cinema Theatre, Ingestre Place, now part of the Brewer Street Car Park. The faded sign for the Lex Garage is still visible. From Google Streetview.

 

Featured image: Soho street scene from Count Armfelt, ‘Cosmopolitan London’, in George R. Sims (ed.) Living London, Vol. 1 (1901): p. 244.

 

References:

[1] Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

[2] See especially Jon Burrows, ‘Penny Pleasures: Film Exhibition in London during the Nickelodeon Era, 1906-1914’, Film History, 16:1 (2004), 60-91, and ‘Penny Pleasures II: Indecency, Anarchy and Junk Film in London’s “Nickelodeons”’, Film History, 16:2 (2004), 172-97; and Allen Eyles with Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas, third edition (Swindon: English Heritage, 2014).

[3] See Burrows, ‘Penny Pleasures II’.

[4] Memo from the Superintendent of the Vine Street Police Station (‘C’ Division) to the Chief of the Metropolitan Police dated 2 November 1909, National Archives, MEPO 2/9172, File 590446/7, ‘Cinematograph Shows’.

[5] Judith Summers, Soho: A History of London’s Most Colourful Neighbourhood (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), p. 165.

[6] Company prospectus, July 1912, National Archives, BT 31/20750, ‘Haté’s Cinema and Film Cleaning Company, Limited’.

[7] Reprinted in Colin Harding and Simon Popple (eds), In the Kingdom of Shadows: A Companion to Early Cinema (London: Cygnus Arts, 1996), pp. 213-15.

[8] Letter from the London County Council (LCC) Theatres and Music Halls Committee to R.H. Kerr dated 4 November 1910, LCC Architect’s Department Correspondence File for 6 Ingestre Place, London Metropolitan Archives, GLC/AR/BR/07/659.

[9] Miss Gray, specimen report of the London Women’s Patrol Committee dated 21 June 1916, National Archives, MEPO 2/1691, File 976726, ‘Indecency in Cinemas’.

[10] Gerry Black, Living Up West: Jewish Life in London’s West End (London: London Museum of Jewish Life, 1994), p. 49.

[11] Summers, Soho, p. 184.

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.

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: