The cinema at 20 Frith Street, known as the National Bioscope Electric Theatre, was opened in 1910 in the ground floor of a four-storey building in the centre of Soho’s Italian community.1 The owner was either a Mr E. or A. Agosti, or possibly both: Agosti Brothers, a partnership of hotel and restaurant keepers owned by E. and A. Agosti, had been trading in nearby Greek Street in 1907, and the brothers may have carried on in business after that.2 A photograph of 20 Frith Street taken around 1908 shows the ground floor in use as the Agosti International Registry Office, which suggests that it was one of a number of employment agencies in the area, many of which catered to foreign-born workers, especially those seeking jobs in the West End’s hospitality trades.3 The same photograph shows that the building next door, at no. 19, was the Piemonte Hotel, recalling the northern Italian (Piemonte) origins of many of Soho’s Italian inhabitants.4 Italians weren’t the only immigrant population in the neighbourhood. Living on the floors above the cinema, according to the 1911 census returns, were three families of Polish origin, all working as tailors.
The building’s conversion to a cinema didn’t happen overnight. In February 1910, E. Agosti was refused a cinematograph licence by the London County Council (LCC).5 After plans were made to bring the venue in line with the LCC’s regulations, the cinema was licensed from 21 July 1910 in the name of Antonio Agosti, who remained the proprietor for most of the cinema’s short life.6 Reports from the LCC suggest that the cinema seated 100 people, with standing room for 50 more. The projection box was positioned in a yard at the rear of the building, with the films being projected onto the back of the screen.7 There was an electric sign on the outside of the building to advertise the cinema, which was listed in a contemporary film trade directory as the National Bioscope.8 Over the next few years, the venue became especially popular with Soho’s children. During a cinema show on 22 February 1913, a council inspector found that children made up the majority of the audience, and the number of people attending was about double the official seating capacity of 100.9 Another visit to the cinema on a Sunday in 1914 also found the entrance crowded, mostly with children, waiting to get in. 10
Around the start of 1914, the cinema licence for 20 Frith Street was transferred from Antonio Agosti to John Trevor.11 As well as running the cinema, Trevor also traded in cinema equipment as the Kinema Auction Mart and Exchange. A newspaper notice for his auction rooms in February 1914 advertised:
a choice selection of complete programmes of Film Subjects. […] Also single Exclusives and other Films from various sources all by the best known makers, including Vitagraph, A.B., Cines, Essanay, Eclair, Gaunt, Hepworth, Pathé, Lubin, Thanhouser, etc., from a stock in hand which exceeds 3,000,000 FEET. Also nearly new Pathé, Gaunt, Wrench, Kamm, and other Projectors, Apparati, and Accessories, Furnishings, and Miscellaneous Effects.12
Trevor used the basement underneath the cinema as his storeroom. This was an arrangement that the LCC took exception to, as the stairs from the basement led directly into the auditorium, which the council inspectors saw as a fire risk.13 Trevor pleaded with the LCC to relax their rules, explaining that he was only dealing in projectors and other ‘cinema machines’.14 But the LCC didn’t budge. In the end, Trevor seems to have chosen to abandon cinema exhibition, and the National Bioscope had closed by the time the council visited on 27 April 1914.15
John Trevor’s auction business continued until at least 1920, when it was branching out into selling furniture and food.16 By this point, other film companies had moved into the building and into other addresses on Frith Street. Joseph Menchen, producer of the film The Miracle, had a business registered at 20 Frith Street from March 1914.17 Other film rental businesses followed, as Soho became the acknowledged centre of London’s film distribution trade. For a brief time in the late 1920s, the building at 20 Frith Street became a nightclub known as the Persian Garden Club or the Bat Club.18 It is now used as the stage door entrance for the Prince Edward Theatre.
Image: 20 Frith Street before it was a cinema, from the Musical Standard, 3 October 1908, supplement, p. 214.
- Jon Burrows, ‘Penny Pleasures: Film Exhibition in London during the Nickelodeon Era, 1906-1914’, Film History, 16:1 (2004), 60-91.
- Jon Burrows, ‘Penny Pleasures II: Indecency, Anarchy and Junk Film in London’s “Nickelodeons”’, Film History, 16:2 (2004), 172-97.
- Terri Colpi, The Italian Factor: The Italian Community in Great Britain (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1991).
- Allen Eyles with Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas, third edition (Swindon: English Heritage, 2014).
- Judith Summers, Soho: A History of London’s Most Colourful Neighbourhood (London: Bloomsbury, 1989).
- Terri Colpi, The Italian Factor: The Italian Community in Great Britain (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1991), p. 55. ↩
- ‘Partnerships Dissolved’, The Times, 15 May 1907, p. 3. ↩
- Musical Standard, 3 October 1908, p. 214. The building was identified as the house where Mozart stayed during his visit to London in 1764-5. ↩
- Colpi, The Italian Factor, p. 55. ↩
- Minutes of the London County Council (LCC) Theatres and Music Halls Committee, meeting of 23 February 1910, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), LCC/MIN/10,731, Item 20 (77), p. 129. ↩
- Allen Eyles with Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas, third edition (Swindon: English Heritage, 2014), p. 38. ↩
- Report by the Chief Officer of the LCC Fire Brigade to the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, dated 7 March 1910, presented papers of the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, meeting of 16 March 1910, LMA, LCC/MIN/10,936, Item 84. ↩
- Minutes of the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, meeting of 26 July 1911, LMA, LCC/MIN/10,732, p. 763; The Bioscope Annual and Trades Directory for 1912 (London: Ganes), p. 38. ↩
- Minutes of the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, meeting of 9 April 1913, LMA, LCC/MIN/10,734, Item 14, p. 455. ↩
- Report of the Chief Officer of the LCC Fire Brigade to the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, dated 9 March 1914, presented papers of the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, meeting of 25 March 1914, LMA, LCC/MIN/10,978, Item 10 (31). ↩
- Minutes of the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, meeting of 11 February 1914, LMA, LCC/MIN/10,735, Item 369, p. 254. ↩
- ‘Sales by Auction’, Daily Express, 7 February 1914, p. 9. ↩
- Report of the Chief Officer of the LCC Fire Brigade to the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, dated 21 February 1914, presented papers of the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, meeting of 25 March 1914, LMA, LCC/MIN/10,978, Item 10 (119). ↩
- Letter from John Trevor to the LCC, dated 5 March 1914, presented papers of the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, meeting of 25 March 1914, LMA, LCC/MIN/10,978, Item 10 (120). ↩
- Minutes of the LCC Theatres and Music Halls Committee, meeting of 20 May 1914, LMA, LCC/MIN/10,735, Item 121, p. 530. ↩
- ‘Trevor Auction Rooms’, Daily Express, 7 August 1920, p. 1; ‘Auction Summary’, The Times, 11 November 1920, p. 9. ↩
- ‘Menchen Film Co Ltd’, The London Project website, http://londonfilm.bbk.ac.uk/view/business/?id=592. ↩
- ‘Persian Garden Club’, The Times, 9 May 1927, p. 1; Classified advertisements, The Times, 3 December 1928, p. 1. ↩