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Ben Hur’s Stepney

November 9, 2017
by the gentle author

The Palaseum Cinema (also known as the Ben Hur) painted by Doreen Fletcher, 1985

Ian Ben Hur, grandson of Ben Hur who was both projectionist and proprietor at the Palaseum Cinema in White Horse Rd, Stepney from 1917, sent me this glorious film celebrating a party thrown by his grandfather for eight hundred children at the Jubilee of 1935. Ben placed a camera on the front of a car to take some of the shots and showed the completed film to audiences at his cinema. How much I would love to have been there to witness their reaction.

Too often, we think of the East End in the thirties as defined by social problems, the poverty and deprivation, and the rise of fascism, yet these images confront us with the vitality of that society. The delightful sequences of crowds arriving at the cinema remind me of the Lumiere Brothers’ film of workers leaving the factory, with spectators offering spontaneous greeting as they recognise the camera. Above all, the wonder of this film is the exuberance of the community which is conveyed and no viewer can fail to be touched by these joyful personalities presenting themselves to the lens with such confident self-possession.

Ben Hur was born Henry Ben Solomon, but changed his name by deed poll to Ben Hur after gaining fame by beating a market bully who was a bare-knuckle boxing champion after seventy-seven rounds. He made money with a stage act as The World Strongest Man and used it to buy businesses including the Palaseum. Renowned for his charitable endeavours including donations to the Royal London Hospital, Ben lived until in 1960.

The Ben Hur cinema which was also known as the Palaseum was converted to a bingo club in 1962 and then a snooker club in the eighties, closing in 2007 before the building was demolished in 2008.

[youtube hzZ5rPWAC_c nolink]

Celebrations in Challis Court by Rose Henriques (Courtesy of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives)

25 Responses leave one →
  1. November 9, 2017

    Wonderful film! Valerie

  2. Maggie permalink
    November 9, 2017

    Good day Gentle Author.
    Gosh! The film certainly made me smile this morning.
    Thank you for such a gentle reminder of past times.
    I do hope all that community feeling is still alive today.

  3. November 9, 2017

    I liked the film and painting. Just 4 years later we were at war, during 1940 a lot of London children in the film were being evacuated to escape the blitzkrieg or air war by the Luftwaffe. John a bus pass poet

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    November 9, 2017

    I am not ashamed to say this film brought tears to my eyes. An absolute joy to watch !

  5. Linda permalink
    November 9, 2017

    Thanks for sharing – magical!

  6. James W. permalink
    November 9, 2017

    So evocative, one can almost imagine being there.

  7. aubrey permalink
    November 9, 2017

    Brilliant just brilliant!

  8. Joy Harris permalink
    November 9, 2017

    I watch this wonderful film crying .My Nan & Grandad lived in Whitehorse Road .. my mum had her first date with my dad 1931 at the Ben Hur
    The streets around were places my Mum talked about fondly.
    Thank you so much x

  9. James Wyburd permalink
    November 9, 2017

    Magnificent portrayal of a wonderful, kindly generation, too many of whose grandchildren are imprisoned by soulless welfarism, failed state education and social breakdown. Compare the imposing gentle policeman in the film with the sacks of potatoes we now have.

  10. annette Albert permalink
    November 9, 2017

    lovely film. thank you

  11. November 9, 2017

    Charming kiddos, for sure……..but, oh MY, the spunk and spirit of those adults in this film. These folks really had a flair for goofball exuberance and festivity! I could not get enough of the ladies linking arms and doing their merry dance steps. And the gent in his “princess” costume and wig, with a constantly-falling-off crown. This film is so revealing, and had so many tiny moments — a lady breaking through the crowd, gleefully holding her feather duster aloft. Little girls in cotton dresses, although most of the crowd were bundled up in coats and sweaters. Men looking reluctant to join in the silliness, and then totally succumbing. The top of the horse’s head, as the camera rolled. The stalwart policemen, so upright and in full-on “monitor” mode; somehow apart from the fun, maintaining “order”. Every market stall that made me want to peer at the goods. Most of all: the endless smiles.

  12. Richard Smith permalink
    November 9, 2017

    Excellent film of the children – and adults!

  13. Sally Baldwin permalink
    November 9, 2017

    WHAT A TREASURE!!! Such a different time, and how wonderful to have a peek into it. I loved reading the comments as much as I enjoyed the film.

    Maine, USA

  14. neil holbrook permalink
    November 9, 2017

    What a wonderful film! My Gran lived on Belgrave street, next to White Horse Lane and was at the Jubilee street party – she would have been 13 at the time. I remember her telling me about it and how everybody was dancing in the streets. I wonder if she appeared anywhere in the film!

  15. Keith permalink
    November 9, 2017

    What an absolutely fascinating film, an age long gone, but interestingly, very comforting.

  16. Joy Harris permalink
    November 9, 2017

    Neil Holbrook
    I thought the same my Nan was 42 and my Mum 21 when the film was made . Mum & Dad married in St Dunstans Church that year.

  17. November 9, 2017

    Love the film! The bobbed haircuts, the bobbies, the hats …!

    Along with John the Poet, I thought of the impending war and how it would impact everyone pictured in so few years. But in the meantime … a good time was had by all. Including lots of fruit.

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Gentle Author.

  18. Colin Allen permalink
    November 9, 2017

    WOW! What a fabulous movie. Being born in Bethnal Green in 1947 I can empathise with these images totally. I can not watch this without a tear in my eye.
    A big thanks to the GA for bringing this to our attention.

  19. Frenchie permalink
    November 10, 2017

    Born in 44 still remember the great east end spirit, and all the coranation street party’s ,used the Ben Hur weekly , even the odd house brick rattling on the roof in the middle of a film,
    Had a mod there after school picking up rubbish , no wage , got in free and kept what you found,, wonder what happened to old charle , a one Man band who ran the Ben Hur ? ,,
    later life pints in the fish and ring , married in st Dunstans church,

  20. November 10, 2017

    Wow! What a marvellous film. Although I was born 3 years after it was made, the street scenes of old Stepney were great reminders. As a youth living there in the 1950’s I spent many evenings in the Ben Hur. I also went to the Palaseum in Commercial Road on many occasions. I recall that the first film I ever saw there was the rock & roll film “The girl can’t help it” I was surprised to read that the Palaseum was also know as the Ben Hur.

    Tom French

  21. Barbara McHugh permalink
    November 11, 2017

    Superb! Watched this with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes. Urging all of my family to watch this as we originate from the East End. A world that has disappeared but brought back to life with this wonderful film. More please if possible.

  22. Paul kerslake permalink
    May 29, 2018

    I watched my very first X film at the” Ben Hur”. It was “War of the Worlds” by Orson Wells. I was 14 and my nephew John Mason was 12, but he was much taller and bigger than me. When we walked towards the ticket office, we both had to have the feeling that we were much older as the X film only allowed entrance for those over 18. My nephew made it, but I was told I was under age. Five minutes later I made it just as the film started through the fire exit door. Needless to say I watched the film terrified half way down my seat, wondering what was coming next !

  23. Maureen Cocklin permalink
    June 1, 2019

    Thoroughly enjoyed the story and video. My parents met at Ben Hur’s in the early 50s. Also looking at The old road and Elsa Street on the video was nostalgic as my grandfather had a fruit and veg stall in the old road market and both my grandmother’s and grandfather’s family lived in Elsa Street. That’s how they met and married and my father was born there.

  24. Melissa Solomon permalink
    October 7, 2019

    Thank you so much for sharing this. Henry (Ben Hur) and Abigal are my great grandparents. I am so proud of who they were and what they did, but so sad I never got to meet them. I will be sure to tell my children all about them and what they did

  25. Judith Lakewood permalink
    August 8, 2020

    The Palaceum cinema was in Commercial Road, the Ben Hur Cinema, also known as the Palaceadium address was 137a White Horse Road. Photos of the cinema have been published on the Cinema Treasures website.

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