We know how people before and during the First World War enjoyed themselves because the papers kept a thorough record. The People’s Pleasures section in the Doncaster Chronicle listed films, plays, sports and so forth while the Doncaster Gazette had a regular amusements section. Advertisements and reviews also help us glimpse how people let off steam in the past.
Just before the war broke out a motorcycle leger was held in Doncaster, there people could go to view row after row of bikes. Doncaster Corporation Art Gallery often exhibited contemporary art around this time. When the war started people didn’t stop enjoying themselves, if anything distractions became more important than ever. Around July 1914, a Conisboro man was charged with taking bets in the streets on postcards. What people were betting on wasn’t clear but there was no shortage of sports to choose from.
Angling and football were the most prominently displayed sports in many local papers. Angling went on all over the borough of Doncaster, and fishermen would often send the weight of their catches to the local papers as a way to compete with each other at a distance. The main football competition reported was the Midland league. Other popular sports included boxing, cricket, rugby, bowls, and golf. In 1914 Sheard Binnington, a shop at 44 High Street, had a Christmas toy fair. While girls got dolls they were still comfortable giving military themed toys to boys at this time.
The first moving pictures were shown in Doncaster inside canvas tents, in the early 1900s, by travelling showmen like G. T. Tuby. The town must have loved them because they later made him their mayor! The first Doncaster ‘cinemas’ (then often known as ‘kinemas’) opened in 1909, first Central Hall on Printing Office Street then the Bijiou in the Market. These first ‘cinemas’ were just converted meeting halls seating around 350 to 400 people. The Bijiou adapted to this limitation, later branding itself as ‘The Cosy Little Cinema’ which was ‘Always Merry and Bright With yells of laughter thro’ the night’. In 1911 the Electra became Doncaster’s first purpose built ‘Picture Palace’, seating 630 people in Frenchgate.
Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th of August 1914, and about a month later the New Picture House opened on Doncaster High Street next to Doncaster’s oldest building. The Picture House had a widely advertised café, and seated 1,000 people. It was decorated in a lavish Egyptian theme, with sphinxes and winged lions around the screen. The mayor formally opened The Picture House in September 1914. It was the first Doncaster cinema to have a regular orchestra to play over the silent films. Historical films were the Picture House’s staple at first.
Cinema tickets could be bought for between 3 and 6 pence, or between 4 and 8 for the Electra. Films rarely stayed in cinemas for more than a week, and the 3 cinemas rarely screened the same films, making each trip to the cinema a unique experience. Dramas predominated, and war films tended to look back to the American Civil War rather than any of the European or colonial wars which might have hit closer to home. Due to films still being silent French films were popular, including the exploits of the spy Protea and the criminal mastermind Fantomas.
Late in 1914 cinema listings in the Doncaster Chronicle were sometimes moved to another page to make room for important war news, and in early 1915 the Doncaster Gazette moved its film listings close to the end of the paper. This could reflect the changing priorities of people in the town. A similar shift happened in the Doncaster Gazette early in 1916.
In the meantime the other cinemas in town were just starting to adapt to the war. By the 18th of September 1914 the Bijou offered showings of ‘The Latest War Events Chronicled Nightly’. Early in October the Bijou began offering special concessions for military personnel, The Electra offered similar concessions from December. Meanwhile Central Hall screened ‘The Great European War, Actual Scenes’, and the Picture House started screening war news.
From then onwards the war became a familiar sight on Doncaster’s film screens. On the week of the 16th of October Central Hall showed ‘Sons of the Sea, or the Boys of the Bull Dog Breed’, which advertised itself on showing Britain’s finest battleships and scenes of the war in Belgium. Towards the end of October the Bijou started regularly screening ’45 minutes with the war’, which featured footage from the frontline including the Pathe Gazette newsreel section. The Electra screened the Gaumont Graphic featuring footage of the war, often accompanied by patriotic music. As October ended and November began, Central Hall entered a patriotic fervour, showing ‘The Veteran’, ‘The Sergeant’s Secret’, a topical film on French Navy manoeuvres, and the second film in ‘The Great European war’ series, this one featuring actual battle scenes from Belgium and France.
Late in November The Electra screened ‘The Spy’, a contemporary film about German spies. Earlier that month the Picture House had shown films about the war effort including ‘The Making of Kitchener’s Army’ and ‘Life on a French Warships, as well as the patriotic ‘In the Days of Trafalgar’. However, a more jovial tone was adopted towards the war when the Germans were beaten by a boy scout in ‘Young Britain Foils the Enemy’, shown in December at The Picture House.
The clearest trend in Doncaster cinemas during the war was a move towards comedy. In November 1914 Arthur Whitworth replaced Clarence Hurst as the manager of The Picture House. The same week a comedy, ‘Caught in a Cabaret’ was screened there. The Picture House was the main cinema to shift to comedies, this was a dramatic change considering a few months before they had specialised in historical epics. A change in management doesn’t fully explain this change, especially as other cinemas were affected to a lesser extent. The most likely explanation is that comedy was a way of coping with war. Comedies were often shown at the end of the night, after footage from the front, as though to diffuse the tension. The rise of comedies in Doncaster from February 1915 was soon followed by the screening of early Charlie Chaplin films; they were seldom off the screen during the war.
1916 was a good year for serials at the cinema. Visitors came weekly from as far away as Brodsworth to watch a crime serial, the ‘Exploits of Elaine’, at the packed Electra. As with modern TV series people loved to speculate on the week’s mysteries the Doncaster Gazette wrote that ‘patrons again amused themselves by juggling with surmises and theories as to the identity of the sinister “Clutching Hand”’. The move to comedy continued, in May 1916 the Doncaster Chronicle noted at the Picture House a ‘change from heavy drama introduced into the programmes at this hall during the latter end of last week and the first three nights of this, has been much appreciated by local cinema goers.’ Once again drama was replaced with largely with comedy, and the town reacted well to this.
Despite the appetite for war films being less than it had been, the war wasn’t yet so sacred as to not be mocked. In June 1916 ‘Schmits, the Spy and his Messages to Berlin’ played at the Picture House, it was a satire mocking German spies in Britain. When exactly the public lost their taste for war films isn’t clear, but it seems to have happened around 1917, or late 1916. October 1916 saw the ‘Battle of the Somme’ film play at the Electra. Film audiences had long been familiar with the war, advertising emphasised the authenticity of films ‘Actually Taken in the Firing Line’, and a review of the week at the Picture House in 1915 pointed out how ‘The War offers an excellent field for the cinematograph entrepreneur. But the ‘Battle of the Somme’ might have gotten too close, a man was shown dying on film to the gasps of the audience. The papers were filling up with the deaths of young men, physically pushing the People’s Pleasures section out of the Doncaster Chronicle in 1917. From then on the war only really came up in propaganda films.
Doncaster also had two regular theatres The Grand and The New Palace, both were managed by J. W. North and C. H. Bell. The Grand showed full plays. The New Palace had an ever changing roster of variety acts including, but not limited to: comedians, acrobats, musicians, magicians, jugglers, impressionists, ventriloquists, trained animals, and vaudeville or burlesque acts. An inventor even once put on a show there, Captain De Villiers flew his wireless electric airship from the theatre stage in May 1916. Throughout the war foreign acts, often from France or China, still performed at The New Palace. Before the war plays at The Grand often had a female lead. ‘The Woman Conquers’, ‘The Coastguards Daughter’ and ‘Only an Artist’s Model’ are just a few of them. One such play, ‘Only a Mill Girl’, was advertised for featuring realistic working looms.
The line between cinemas and theatres was rigidly enforced; a Picture Hall in Dinnington was fined in 1916 for showing a play without a license. Real life objects and set pieces was one advantage plays held over the film industry. Perhaps this is why a pantomime version of ‘Little Bo Peep’ shown at The Grand in January 1916 featured real sheep! A review of the pantomime in the Doncaster Chronicle praised it for its ‘colourful background’ and ‘old jokes made to feel fresh’. It also commented that ‘Pantomime never changes’, and familiar characters included Little Boy Blue, Bo Peep, Baron Hardup, Fairy Moonbeam, a ‘Wicked Wolf’, and the dame, Granny Brown, played by a man. Less recognisable is the character of Rastus Brown, a cook. The character likely drew inspiration from a black cook called Rastus who appeared on cereal boxes at the time as well as Rufus Rastus Brown, a stereotyped black character from a 1906 picture book. The name Rastus was also associated with blackface in American minstrel shows, a practice that had in recent decades crossed into British pantomimes, it seems likely that Rastus was played in blackface.
The theatres did not shy away from giving plays and acts a wartime touch. By February 1915 war plays were already the norm, the Doncaster Chronicle wearily titled one of its reviews as ‘Another War Play’. The play in question was a detective drama where the criminal was a German spy; the second act was set in the trenches. When the Germans appeared to have won English soldiers made a surprise entrance, saving the day to the cheers of the audience. In January 1916 The New Palace showed a naval comedy romance on a stage made to look like a modern battleship. The lively New Palace touch wasn’t lost, the show ended with the woman of the couple being fired from the ship’s guns!
Early in 1916 a movement towards comedy plays mirrored that of Doncaster cinemas, but there was less of a move away from showing the war on stage. In January the Doncaster Chronicle wrote ‘There is a demand for revues… the light sparkling, inconsequential, aimless kind of things which at the moment dominates the stage.’ This was the start of the review for a play at The Grand called ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’. The review ends by saying ‘Towards the end of the revue there is a war touch, and men in khaki and girls in Red Cross garb flit across a stage whose background is a trench. The whole thing is a couple of hours amusing entertainment.’ The sudden change of tone from the trenches to entertainment is really striking to a modern reader; it suggests the reviewer and audience could still take a relaxed, even humorous, view of the war. ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ would return to The Grand in March of 1916.
Acts at The New Palace occasionally found material in the war. In January 1915 a ‘Posing Act’ worked mockery of the war pictures shown at the cinemas into their routine. The stage reflected the screen in other ways, in June 1917 a Charlie Chaplin impersonator performed at The New Palace. The theatre, like the cinema, could be a noisy affair. When a farce called ‘Oh! I say’ played at The Grand in February 1916 the Doncaster Chronicle reported that ‘the house literally rocks with laughter’
The theatres approached the war seriously too. April 1916 saw a war drama, ‘His Mother’s Son, V.C.’, written by its lead actress Mrs Cassidy, play at The Grand. It dealt with an Irish soldier in the fictional country of Ugaria, which has sided with the Kaiser. It ended with the allies beating Ugaria, and a scene of the soldier in the trenches at Salonica. One much celebrated play was ‘The Turning Point’ shown in January of 1915, a translation of a patriotic play written by the Belgium playwright Henri Kistmaecker. Interest in this play was intensified due to the presence of Belgium refugees in Doncaster.
1917 saw a young Miss Gracie Field appear at The Grand in a short musical comedy titled ‘It’s a Bargain’. Gracie Field would go on to become a film star, singer, and a dame. She performed alongside her manager and future husband, Archie Pitt. By this time the theatres seemed less willing to confront the war. In November of 1917 a play called ‘The Maid of the Mill’ was shown at The Grand. It seemed to mark a return to plays such as ‘Only a Mill Girl’ which dominated at The Grand before the war.
- Curry, Let’s go to the Pictures: An illustrated history of the picture houses of Doncaster (Hull: The Northway Printing Company, 1987), pp. 1-3, 8, 10 & 14
Doncaster Chronicle: 17th October 1913, p. 8
Doncaster Chronicle: 24th October 1913, p. 8
Doncaster Chronicle: 31st October 1913, p. 8
Doncaster Chronicle: 7th November 1913, p. 8
Doncaster Chronicle: 12th December 1913, p. 8
Doncaster Chronicle: 26th June 1913, p. 8
Doncaster Chronicle: 17th October 1913, p. 8
Doncaster Chronicle: 4th September 1914, p. 9
Doncaster Chronicle: 4th December 1914, p. 6-7
Doncaster Chronicle: 25th December 1914, p. 4
Doncaster Chronicle: 5th February 1915, p. 3
Doncaster Chronicle: 23rd April 1915, p. 3
Doncaster Chronicle: 14th January 1916, p. 7
Doncaster Chronicle: 21st January 1916, p. 7
Doncaster Chronicle: 11th February 1916, p. 7
Doncaster Chronicle: 7th April 1916, p. 7
Doncaster Chronicle: 26th May 1916, p. 7
Doncaster Chronicle: 9th June 1916, p. 3
Doncaster Chronicle: 20th October 1916, p. 5
Doncaster Chronicle: 18th May 1917, p. 2
Doncaster Chronicle: 8th June 1917, p. 2
Doncaster Chronicle: 8th March 1918, p. 1
Doncaster Gazette: 18th September 1914, p. 3-4
Doncaster Gazette: 25th September 1914, p. 3
Doncaster Gazette: 20th November 1914, p. 5
Doncaster Gazette: 1st January 1915, p. 4
Doncaster Gazette: 8th January 1915, p. 4
Doncaster Gazette: 22nd January 1915, p. 4
Doncaster Gazette: 7th January 1916, p. 6
Doncaster Gazette: 14th January 1916, pp. 6, 10 & 11
Doncaster Gazette: 9th March 1916, p. 7
Doncaster Gazette: 26th May 1916, p. 4
Doncaster Gazette: 20th October 1916, p. 5
Doncaster Gazette: 8th June 1917, p. 5
Doncaster Gazette: 24th August 1917, p. 4
Doncaster Gazette: 30th November 1917, p. 4