Piccadilly Circus Cinematograph Theatre

The Piccadilly Circus Cinematograph Theatre, at 43-44 Great Windmill Street, was built on the site of a former motor garage close to the corner with Denman Street and Shaftesbury Avenue.1 It opened on 5 March 1910, and formed part of a circuit of London cinemas operated by Montagu Pyke. It survived the collapse of Pyke’s business in 1914, and remained open until 1990. In its early years, it seated around 300 people, and by 1917, it boasted a ‘vestibule lounge’, decorated to suggest ‘a drawing-room at a royal palace or ducal mansion’.2

In the summer of 1916, it was visited by Miss Gray, of Gordon Place, Kensington. Miss Gray was one of a team of ten women, all members of the Women’s Patrol Committee, tasked by the Metropolitan Police with inspecting the city’s cinemas in search of evidence of indecent behaviour among audiences. The police were mainly responding to allegations that the darkness of the cinema auditorium provided a cover for child molestation, and that female prostitutes, driven out of other public spaces in London, were using cinemas to solicit clients. But they were also on the look-out for any sexual relations between adults – behaviour which, it was thought, threatened to spread sexually transmitted diseases to soldiers, and thus undermine the war effort.3

The members of the Women’s Patrol Committee were given a list of questions to answer for each cinema they visited. More than 100 questionnaires were completed, feeding into the Metropolitan Police’s final report. Out of these, a handful of Miss Gray’s handwritten notes about West End cinemas survive. The following is what Miss Gray found in the Piccadilly Circus Cinematograph Theatre on the evening of 16 June 1916, between 6 and 7pm. Her notes offer a snapshot of a busy West End cinema during wartime, including details about some of the people in the audience. They also reveal how closely the London authorities were willing to monitor everyday behaviour in times of emergency.4

1. Is there a children’s attendant…?

Could not see one, but only 2 or 3 children with adults.

2. Are children unaccompanied by adults seated separately from the rest of the audience?

Children (are seated) with adults.

3. Is the darkness such as to make it difficult or impossible to detect indecency should any take place?

Particularly well lit, and between each film quite light, which seems a safeguard.

4. Is the structure such as to facilitate indecency?

(The chairs have) Closed backs. It would be almost impossible for bad behaviour to be unseen here.

5. Is any particular age, sex or class of spectator noticeable?

Fairly full, well to do audience.

6. General.

Woman attendant one side, youth the other. Page brought sweets or once bottles and glasses to someone behind. Two coloured men, one with a girl. Two girls with sheepdog, which I fancied to attract attention, they behaved quietly however.

The presence of Black or Asian men in the audience was evidently an unusual sight – for Miss Gray, at least – in central London, although there was already a Black population in the city before the war.5 The relative scarcity of children in cinemas in the West End, compared to other areas in London, was something that was often commented upon throughout the period.

Further reading:

  • Paul Moody, ‘”Improper Practices” in Great War British Cinemas’, in Michael Hammond and Michael Williams (eds), British Silent Cinema and the Great War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 49-63.
  • Dean Rapp, ‘Sex in the Cinema: War, Moral Panic, and the British Film Industry, 1906-1918’, Albion, 34:3 (2002), 422-51.
  • Alex Rock, ‘The “Khaki Fever” Moral Panic: Women’s Patrols and the Policing of Cinemas in London, 1913–19′, Early Popular Visual Culture, 12:1 (2014), 57-72.
  • Angela Woollacott, ‘”Khaki Fever” and Its Control: Gender, Class, Age and Sexual Morality on the British Homefront in the First World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, 29:2 (1994), 325-47.
  • Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London: Bodley Head, 2014).
  1. ‘Metropolitan Notes’, Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 4 October 1917, p. 106.
  2. Allen Eyles with Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas, third edition (Swindon: English Heritage, 2014), p. 34; ‘Metropolitan Notes’.
  3. See Paul Moody, ‘“Improper Practices” in Great War British Cinemas’, in Michael Hammond and Michael Williams (eds), British Silent Cinema and the Great War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 49-63.
  4. Report on 43-44 Great Windmill Street, 16 June 1916, National Archives, MEPO 2/1691, File 976726, ‘Indecency in Cinemas’.
  5. Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain, 1901-1914 (London: Routledge, 1998).
Centre for Humanities Interdisciplinary Research Projects (CHIRP)