Wednesday, February 22, 2012

History Corner: Nights Out in South East London 1939

Last week on Deptford Market I found a crumpled copy of the South London Advertiser dated April 21st 1939. War was in the air, and indeed the paper reported that 'When Ellen Hamilton Williams (72), a widow, of Lawrie Park Road, Sydenham, heard over the wireless that the Italian troops has occupied Albania she was upset. Later she took an overdose of medinal and died'.

But still, people needed to enjoy themselves and the paper's adverts give a fascinating snapshot of South East London social life in that period.

The Cinema

Going to the cinema seems to have been the popular option. One of the biggest in the area was the New Cross Kinema (now the Venue nightclub) which had a cafe restaurant and a Palais de Danse as well as showing films. Like most cinemas it has a Saturday morning 'Kiddies Club'.

The East Dulwich Odeon was next to where Goose Green Primary School now stands on Grove Vale.

The Gaumont Palace in Lewisham was on Loampit Vale had live performances as well as films - with Billy Cotton and his Band playing at this time - they were one of the biggest dance bands of the period.

Peckham cinemas included the Odeon (on the High Street near to the current Job Centre) and the Tower cinema on Rye Lane (part of the latter building is still there).

Camberwell Odeon was on Denmark Hill near the Coldharbour Lane junction. It later became Dickie Dirts jean store in the 1980s and then was squatted for a while before demolition in 1993.

Forest Hill cinemas included the Astoria on Wastdale Road and the Capitol - the latter now the Weatherspoons pub on London Road.

The paper reported that a new organist was starting at the Capitol - Rudy Lewis, apparently far famed after stints at Lewisham Gaumont, Luton, Dagenham and Grimsby (where he said he was mobbed by autograph hunting girls). He wrote his own songs: 'The number - the words are his own -which he has been playing much to the delight of the Capitol audiences this week is "Doing the Gas Mask Walk"'. Born Rubin Lipshitz, he seems to have ended up in Washington DC where he died in 1990. I suspect he was also responsible for Rudy Lewis and The Sputniks who released a single in 1960 (not to be confused with a different Rudy Lewis who was in The Drifters).

The Rink cinema in Sydenham was on Silverdale. It was originally opened as a roller skating rink, then converted to a cinema. It closed at the start of the war and never re-opened, though the building survived until the 1990s.

Going to the dogs

There was greyhound racing in New Cross three nights a week. The stadium was near to the present Millwall football ground, off Ilderton Road (see photo here). 

There was also greyhound racing at Crayford and Charlton.


The New Cross Empire was a theatre and music hall. In April 1939 The Court Players were performing Lot's Wife, 'A saucy comedy about charming people'. The paper reported 'Now that the Players have settled down at New Cross they are growing increasingly popular with the patrons and many people go week by week mainly to see their favourite performers'. It interviewed 'Leslie Handford, who is making a great success in light comedy parts at the New Cross Empire' following stints in the army and with the circus as a clown. He went on to have minor parts in 1950s TV and cinema

Eating Out

The Amersham Hotel (now the Amersham Arms) was advertising 'four course luncheon' in its restaurant and a 'first class snack bar... for those in a hurry... something tasty always ready'

In Forest Hill, The Swiss Cottage was advertising 'The Luxury and Comfort of the West End in the Suburbs'.


Politics everywhere was dominated by the question of war and peace. A meeting was held at Lewisham Town Hall called by the 'Congress of Peace and Friendship with the USSR'. The speakers included Hewlett Johnson, the famous 'Red Dean' of Canterbury Cathedral and Arthur Skeffington, later a Labour MP for Lewisham. Johnson has been accused of apologetics for Stalinism as he loyally followed the twists and turns of Soviet foreign policy in this period, though ultimately his call for Britain to ally with Russia against Germany was to become government policy in the Second World War.

Anyone know more about R.W. Usher, the organising secretary who lived at 257 Sydenham Rd?

[source for all the above: South London Advertiser, 21 April 1939]


Deptford Pudding said...

I have a diary kept by a single man just after the war. He went to the cinema nearly every evening.

Unknown said...

I'm looking for a photo of the Goldsmiths Community Centre which opened in Catford on 17 May 1939. It was the largest purpose built community centre in London. I have some newspaper clippings about it, including one from the Daily Telegraph, but no photos of the exterior. The Excalibur prefab estate was built on the open space adjoining it, after the war ended. Any ideas much appreciated. Thank you.

martin said...

Surprised to see no mention of Catford Stadium (behind Catford Rly Stn) where Greyhound Racing was popular before and after the 2nd WWar, nor of the rather unsalubrious delights of the Camberwell Palace Vaudeville Theatre in Denmark Hill!