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As Time Goes By: Entertainments In 1920s Islington

...With no radio or television in the 1920s, Mum would take me to the Dalston Picture House where I sat on her lap until the lights went down and I could slip off and find a vacant seat..

Eileen Perrin tells of the days when folk found richly varied entertainment outside their own homes.

For more of Eileen’s engaging memories please click on As Time Goes By in the menu on this page.

Sometimes a barrel organ was pushed to the corner of our street on a Saturday morning. Usually the repertoire included ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do...’

Once I saw a German band playing near the junction of Kingsland Road, standing on the pitch usually taken by the Salvation Army band, with their tambourines, cornets and big drum. Now I wonder how Germans came to be there in the early twenties.

Times were hard, and I recall seeing a man standing on the kerb, loudly humming a tune as he played the spoons on his thigh: his cap beside him for coins.

Often on Kingsland Waste on a Sunday morning there was an escape artist. A man would be wound up in heavy chains by his partner, and laid on the pavement while the crowd were summoned to witness the escape act. Sometimes he would be encased in a big sack to add to expectations, but the story went on for so long, as the cap was taken round for contributions, the crowd would melt away, and the performance had to come to an end.

One pre-Christmas time we went next door into Great Aunt Emma’s house in Stanley Road, where we were entertained in their front room by her daughters Lily and Edie playing the piano, while we all sang the songs. Aunt Emma’s husband, always referred to as Tommy Chalk, joined in on his banjo.

With no radio or television in the 1920s, Mum would take me to the Dalston Picture House where I sat on her lap until the lights went down and I could slip off and find a vacant seat. At afternoon performances seats were priced at ten pence in the stalls. In the silent days of the first black and white films, there was a pianist at the side of the stage who accompanied the film with appropriate music.

In the interval trays were brought round with tea and a biscuit for threepence.

Following the earlier cartoons of Felix the cat and Bonzo the dog I saw the first black and white Disney Mickey Mouse cartoons. In the silent films we enjoyed the antics of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.
In 1927 we saw the first ‘talkie’ “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’.

Mum’s heart throb was Carl Brisson; she also had a soft spot for the French accent of Maurice Chevalier singing ‘Every Little Breeze seems to whisper Louise’ from ‘The Love Parade’ in 1929. Needless to say, as Mum was always singing at home, I learnt the words of all the songs.

Sometimes we went to the Alexander theatre in Stoke Newington, the venue for Music Hall artists like Fred Karno, Florrie Ford, Billie Bennett and Nellie Wallace.
One of my favourite songs was Harry Champion’s ‘Boiled Beef and Carrots’.

‘Boiled beef and carrots,
Boiled beef and carrots,
That’s the stuff for your Derby kell
Makes you fat and keeps you well –
Don’t live like vegetarians
On food they give to parrots;
From morn ‘til night
Blow out your kite
On boiled beef and carrots.’

I recall being told that my Auntie Doll, Dad’s eldest sister, was the cook in a big house in Enfield, friends of Harry Champion, who had made the song famous. Apparently, Harry always wanted my aunt to make him a rice pudding to take home.

I was taken by bus to the Hackney Empire, and to Collins Music Hall on Islington Green, and to the Holborn Empire to see ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’. When I was older there was a fascinating puppet show at the Little Angel theatre in Canonbury.

One Sunday morning Dad took me to Club Row, where the stall-holders and men on corners had puppies, kittens, rabbits and caged birds to sell. It was just another way for the out of work to make a bit of money.

We usually travelled by bus as I never liked riding on trams as the swaying motion made me feel sick. Sometimes Dad would take me to the Monument, and we would walk round on to London Bridge. In the Pool of London, between London and Tower bridges were cargo boats alongside the many wharves. The Dutch cargo boats the Hontestroom and the Lingestroom were often there, unloading cheeses, bacon, eggs and ham from Holland. The crew wore wooden clogs.

Tugs towing strings of barges would chug past, going up and down the river Thames.

One winter evening of fiery sunset we went by bus to Hoxton market and went into the dark of Pollocks Toy Museum where Dad bought me a model stage and some cut-out characters on thick paper sheets which sold at a penny plain or tuppence coloured. When we came out it was dark and the stallholders were already lighting their gas flares to fix up on the iron corner brackets of their stalls. Looking like ragged chrysanthemums the long yellow flames guttered in the evening wind, - all looking very wizardey and strange.

Every now and again we would notice a sandwich-board man advertising a shop with a sale on. The insignificant man carrying the boards on broad leather straps over his shoulders must have been among many who were otherwise job-less in those days.

At Christmas I was taken to Gamages store in Holborn to get a gift from Father Christmas in his grotto in a corner of their wonderful toy department.

Every winter we would go to the Agricultural Hall, Islington to see Carl Hagenbeck’s Circus. My favourites were the elephants and the trapeze artists. Dad and Mum’s first choice were the horses with their trick riders swinging on and off their backs, and to see the ringmaster working with the liberty horses, eight or more abreast who circled the ring first one way, and then each in their own length, pivoting to circle the ring the other way round.

The red-nosed clowns in their baggy pants, carrying ladders and buckets of water were just fill-ins to us, and not even the sea- lions balancing balls on their noses, nor the trick cyclists, and not even the tigers and lions could impress us, after seeing the wonderful elegantly-plumed horses. But of course, we did love the elephants.

After the performance we would wander round the fairground, rolling pennies, eating pink candy-floss on a stick, visiting the elephants out the back, with myself finishing up in a tired daze after all the glaring lights and the noise of the circus band.

The old Agricultural Hall is now transformed into the Islington Business Centre.


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