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Ben Hur In Stepney

October 9, 2019
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.

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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Paddy Kerr permalink
    October 9, 2019

    ‘After seventy seven rounds’ – can that really be right? Sounds like a physical impossibility.

    Would love more stories of the history of the Easr End – a rich mine indeed for the story telling talents of the Gentle Author. It would be good to hear how integration worked and how this benefitted the area as a whole. Failing that – an update on how your new cat is getting on? I still miss Mr Pussy. Best wishes to all GA fans. Paddy Kerr

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 9, 2019

    Lovely to see so much exuberant enjoyment on the East End streets!

    But as with films of Edwardian England which always makes one wonder how many survived the Great War, one wonders how many of the Stepney folk in this film lost their lives, families and homes in the Blitz…

  3. October 9, 2019

    Absolutely delightful. I loved it.

  4. Paul Loften permalink
    October 9, 2019

    The East End threw up some tough characters. Some on the right side of the law. The Jewish gangsters at the time, the most widely known was Jack Spot, is another untold story

  5. October 9, 2019

    Loved the film. Thank you!

  6. Libby Hall permalink
    October 9, 2019

    Wonderful! wonderful!! I know I will watch this again – more than once.
    Who could be downhearted looking at those exuberant smiling faces?
    Such a glorious connection to the past. Our past. My past. The East End’s past.
    Wonderful!

  7. Maddy Johnson permalink
    October 9, 2019

    An absolute delight to watch this; I echo the comments of Jill Wilson and wonder how many of those kids were evacuated; how many enlisted or called up, what was their fate; and of course the effect of the Blitz on all those happy people. But here you can see the community spirit that saw them through. Thank you for sharing this wonderful film.

  8. Anne Scott permalink
    October 9, 2019

    Thank you so much for posting this!

  9. Ros permalink
    October 10, 2019

    Fabulous piece of film and I love the connections with Doreen’s evocative painting and Rose Henriques’s transformation of the stances and sturdiness of parents and children into paint. I could watch the piece of film over and over, for the variety of places and people it shows and their unambiguous pleasure in celebrating and seeing themselves on screen. And yes, people look healthy, proud and well-dressed. I’d like to know where the street markets are and whether the streets still exist.

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