A Cockney Coster and His Asinine Companion

Christina Hink, King’s College London

22 March 2019


Through the course of two series and more than twenty episodes, Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller invited viewers to cinematically travel through London’s famous and lesser known attractions in a travelogue series entitled Wonderful London. The short films first appeared in British cinemas in 1924 and eventually were exported throughout the British Empire. Each episode, about ten to twelve minutes in length, was shown before the comedies and main feature as part of a larger programme (except in Australia where they were spliced together as a ‘super-feature) and allowed audiences to explore the capital from the comfort of their local venue [i][ii]. Simple in form and comprised mostly of static long shots, the series offered superlative views of the teeming metropolis. Recently restored by the BFI National Archive, the twelve extant episodes afford modern viewers (and the historian) with unrivalled visual insight into London of the mid-1920s.

Scholarship coinciding with the BFI restoration suggests Wonderful London takes inspiration from a 1922 eponymous magazine series. While no evidence has been adduced suggesting otherwise, the relationship remains unsubstantiated. Comparing the two manifestations, however, the connection between the magazine series and the travelogue films is tenable.

Figure 1: Cover From Wonderful London volume 1, number 6

Wonderful London first materialised as a twenty-four issue fortnightly magazine in 1922. Edited by St. John Adcock, readers were treated to articles by contemporary authors and cultural critics, such as Stephen Graham and Alec Waugh, as well as stunning views of the city processed in Photogravure. Each issue generally contained five articles; the contents of which ranged from historical explorations to contemporary insights and travel advices to points of interest in the capital. Like today’s television cliché ‘to be continued’, the publishers included only half of each final article, with the remainder printed at the beginning of the subsequent issue.

In reading the six issues contained in George Walton’s collection at the V&A Archive, I was astounded by the chromatic covers, the exquisite photographs, and the ‘insider tips’. William Pett Ridge’s “From Mayfair to Whitechapel”, for example, takes readers on a walking tour of London. Beginning near Hyde Park Corner and ending in Barking, East London Ridge takes readers past notable stops, pausing to offer advice along the way. Lingering by Burlington Arcade behind Bond Street, Ridge offers my favourite advice: “Courage and a cheque book are required to enable you to patronise any establishment hereabouts.”[iii]

In “London Types”, humourist Barry Pain celebrates the characters distinctive to London – flower girls and kerb merchants, the costermonger, the butler, and the tailor, to name a few. “The internal combustion engine wiped out some interesting London types,” writes Pain, “We had the driver of the horse ‘bus, swift in repartee and able to do miracles.” [iv] Pain concludes his article by inviting readers to investigate the city for themselves: “There are indeed a thousand types that cannot be mentioned in the space of one brief article. Come to London and see them for yourself. It is not at all a bad place.” [v]

Figure 2: “London Types” by Barry Pain

The magazine offers inordinate insights into London of the 1920s, but it is the magazine’s cinematic incarnation that truly has the power to transport modern viewers to another time while revealing a variety of peoples and interest points, some extant and some lost. While each episode is unique and delightful in its own right, I would like to focus on one episode in which a Coster, a street vendor who pedals goods from a cart, takes us through London’s lesser-known periphery.

In London’s Outer Ring a cockney Coster, one of Barry Pain’s ‘London types’, attempts to goad an unconvinced donkey called Rudolph into a joy ride around the fringes of London. Of the roughly fifteen localities the Coster discusses with his asinine companion, nine are extant in some fashion or another today. The model cottage at Kennington Park, Brixton Windmill, St. Augustine’s Tower in Hackney, Hampstead Heath, the remnants of Richmond Palace, Strand on the Green, Hammersmith Bridge, and Old Kent Road remain intact and bare resemblance to their 1920s structures.

Figure 3: Coster and his asinine companion from London’s Outer Ring

Although Eltham Palace endures, it has undergone significant refurbishment since the 1930s. A royal residence “from the time King John signed the Magna… what-d’yer-call-it, up till King Charles lorst ‘is bloomin’ ‘ead”, as our Coster informs us via colloquial intertitle, the palace, according to English Heritage, in the 1920s was in a phase of decline.[vi] Given the picturesque long shots of the palace ground with individuals strolling through leafy overhangs down emptied earthen paths, it is difficult to imagine its deterioration in London’s Outer Ring. In 1933, millionaires Stephen and Virgin Courtauld contracted architects Seely & Paget to redevelop Eltham into a modern home. What remains today is “a unique marriage between a medieval and Tudor palace and a 1930s millionaire’s mansion.” [vii]

Two locales shown in Outer Ring are truly remarkable, as the structures have long been destroyed. The Crystal Palace was originally assembled in Hyde Park to accommodate the Great Exhibition of 1851, which saw an excess of twenty five thousand visitors on its first day alone. [viii] Six months later the Great Exhibition ended and had accepted more than six million people through the Crystal Palace. [ix] In 18XX, the Palace was relocated and reconstituted atop Penge Peak near Sydenham Hill as an amusement site for the masses, where it remained until a spectacular fire destroyed the structure in 1936 [x]. What remains today are remnants of the upper terrace – wide, stone steps leading up to a sizeable scarred lawn.

Figure 4: Crystal Palace c. 1924 from London’s Outer Ring

For the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908, “20 huge palaces and 120 exhibition buildings were built on a 140-acre site by a workforce of 120,000 men.” [xi] Eight times the size of The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, White City hosted the 1908 Olympic Games and continued to be used for exhibitions throughout the early twentieth century. During the First World War, the larger buildings were converted to manufacture aeroplanes and, later in the Second World War, to make parachutes. The stadium housed greyhound racing and sporting events until it was demolished in 1985. The complex is now occupied by White City Place, a “new and exciting business district.” [xii]

Figure 5: White City c. 1924 from London’s Outer Ring

While the historian may lament the loss of historic London landmarks, London’s Outer Ring, as well as the other Wonderful London, episodes provides unrivalled cinematic views into the past. Our Cockney guide, though, might be disappointed to learn the fate of his two favourite “boozers.” The Maypole in Chigwell, mentioned in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, is now a derelict property and permanently closed, while the Burlington Arms on Church Street in Chiswick is now a private residence (a swanky one, at that).


References

[i] Bryony Dixon, “Wonderful London,” In Wonderful London (DVD accompaniment) (London: BFI, 2011) 1.

[ii] “Wonderful London”, The Brisbane Courier, Jul 5, 1926: 17; ‘Wonderful London’, Warwick Daily News, July 13, 1926, 3

[iii] William Pett Ridge, “From Mayfair to Whitechapel”, Wonderful London 1, no. 6 (April 27, 1922): 262.

[iv] Barry Pain, “London Types,” Wonderful London 1, no. 2 (March 2, 1922): 51.

[v] Pain, “London Types,” 57.

[vi] “History of Eltham Palace and Gardens,” English Heritage, accessed Mar 1, 2019, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/history/

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Jeffrey A. Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1951: A Nation On Display (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press) 1.

[ix] Auerbach, Exhibition of 1951, 1.

[x] Auerbach, Exhibition of 1951, 200 and 211.

[xi] “History of the White City Site,” BBC, accessed March 2, 2019, http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2004/05_may/11/mv_history.pdf

[xii] Ibid.


Christina Hink is a PhD Candidate in Film Studies at King’s College London. She holds a BA in History from Texas A&M University and an MA in Museum Studies from UCL. She is currently researching silent British and American war films in relation to war and memory, with an emphasis on the representation of women and disabled veterans.


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