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Dave Hucker's History Part 2: THE ELECTRIC & WW1

(By Dave Hucker.)

The Electric in the Kensington News and West London Times.

 

On August 14 1914 Britain declared war on Germany for not respecting the neutrality of Belgium.

As well as British involvement in WW1, thus begins what has been described as the worst anti-immigrant rioting ever in the UK.

Over the following months a series of anti-German incidents on Portobello Road became focused on the German owned Electric Theatre Cinema at 191 Portobello.

The August 7th 1914 Kensington News and West London Times featured a ‘German Saved from Infuriated Crowd’ report, about Felix Seaboth, a 47 year old German ‘provision dealer of Portobello Road’ who appeared at the West London Police Court charged with disorderly conduct.

PC Henson said he saw him surrounded by 300 people, shouting “one German is as good as 10 Englishmen”, and ‘he had a job to get him away from the crowd’.

The magistrate Mr Garrett said “They were very angry I suppose?” Henson replied “Yes Sir”.

Seaboth was ‘bound over for 12 months and fined £5’. In the 1914 London Directory there is a Max Seaboth, Occupation: Chandler at 124 Portobello Road, which was at the corner of the old Portobello Street, now occupied by the Portobello Court estate.

 

In ‘Germans at Olympia’ the Kensington News reported ‘Olympia, the spacious building in West Kensington, is a concentration camp.  Several hundred Germans are confined there in the custody of British soldiers. During the week the number of detentions has been considerably increased’. There were about 70,000 ‘aliens of enemy origin’ in the country and as the anti-German hysteria escalated, so did the Notting Dale and Kensal domestic crime reports and headlines.

 

‘The Aliens in West London’ column featured…

  • ‘German with Revolver’ on Harrow Road,

  • ‘A Fritz Lang’ (who is about the same age as, but not THE Fritz Lang),

  • ‘Hunt for Spies’,

  • 'Notting Hill Alien Tailor Charged’,

  • ‘Cromwell Road Austrian gets 3 months Hard Labour for not Registering’,

  • ‘Germans in Bayswater Shoe Shop’,

  • ‘Carrier Pigeons found, German Garage Proprietor Arrested’,

  • ‘Ammunition found at Notting Hill’.

 

The Electric Cinema or the Notting Hill Electric Theatre as it was then known, first appeared in an October 9th 1914 report, ‘Alleged German Picture Palace Damaged’.

Frank Vennell, a ‘public lecturer’ of Westmoreland Road, was summoned to appear at the West London Police Court for ‘willfully damaging two doors and shutters and a pane of glass at a picture palace in Portobello Road, Notting Hill’, the property of the London and Provincial Electric Theatres Limited Company, by ‘covering white enamel paint on the building with motor oil’ and threatening George Cocker, the manager of a Portobello Book shop.

 

The prosecutor, Mr Bennett, said Vennell had been ‘advising people in speeches, which he delivered in the street, to cease going to picture palaces that were German’.

German capital was invested in the Electric Theatre at 191 Portobello Road, which had opened 3 years before in 1911, but as Bennett stated since the start of the war none of the profits had gone to Germans, and closing it down would only penalise the English shareholders and employees.

 

Bennett suggested that, encouraged by Vennell’s street speeches, ‘crowds had made disturbances outside the theatre’, resulting in all the windows being smashed. The Electric manager Mr Lenton, who was Irish, said ‘he has himself been stoned in the streets by a hostile crowd’.  He didn’t think that 'all of the directors of the company were German, but of the 20,000 shares, Germans held 19,950.

The magistrate Mr Fordham: “Unless the whole of the enterprise was German it was entitled to claim protection”.

Bennett: “25% of the capital invested is British”.

 

The book shop manager Cocker said he saw Vennell ‘put up a bill or poster on the wall of the theatre and there were others there who were smearing black stuff on the paint’.

He told them to "be English”, whereupon Vennell 'called him a German spy and said he would throw him in a horse trough’.

Vennell denied having anything to do with the attack on the building, saying he was ‘just getting recruits for the army at a coffee stall, talking to some young men who seemed promising recruits, when he heard that the picture theater had been damaged.’ He went round there and ‘saw the damage, but never even went up to the building’.

He admitted ‘ he had spoken publicly against people going to picture theatres owned by Germans.

He knew that the employees at this theatre were English, but his view was that by working there they were acting as collectors of funds for the alien enemy.

 

The magistrate felt that the prosecutors case rested on the evidence of Cocker, ‘whom he did not regard as a reliable witness, though he acted quite properly in protesting against damage being done to private property’, and dismissed the summons against Vennell, with 2 guineas costs.

Bennett: “I hope you agree, sir, that what was done to the building was done very improperly.”

Fordham: “Oh certainly. It was perfectly improper. It is grossly improper to disfigure a building in this way, and if in future anyone brought up before me is proved to have committed damage at this building, I shall deal very severely with the offender. Whether the property is English or German, that is not the way to attack it.”

Crocker himself was charged with 'using insulting words and behavior in the street’, when he allegedly went up to Vennell as he was speaking and threatened to “pull him down.”

Mr Fordham dismissed the charge and told Cocker “to take no notice of what a vain man who got up on a chair or tub in the street and made speeches, might say about him.”

 

After the hearing, it was alleged, that posters went up on both sides of the Electric Cinema and in various places in the neighbourhood:

 

“Another warning. German agents in England are engaged in collecting Funds for the Enemy by running a number of electric cinema shows in this country. Known as the London and Provincial Electric Theatres Limited, owned and controlled by German capitalists, they were ordered to pay 2 guineas costs at the West London Police Court on Wednesday 7 1914, for having by fraud, brought wicked and vindictive charges against a patriot Englishman named Frank Vennell of 28 Westmorland Road Bayswater, accusing him of willful damage to their German collecting offices (advertised as the Electric Cinema, 191 Portobello Road), the magistrate, Mr Fordham, having occasion to sternly rebuke the prosecution for having obtained summonses from him by swearing fraudulent information. During the proceedings the council for these German agents openly admitted that more than 3 parts of the capital invested in these collecting shows is owned by German capitalists, now in Germany. Some of these capitalists are at this moment fighting with the Mad Kaiser’s army! What will the British public now think of these cunning, treacherous Germ-Huns, either as soldiers of picture-show owners? Britons beat down your enemies! Stand by your own people in this Hour of Peril.”

 

The October 9 Police Courts reports also included ‘The Reward of Cheek’, in which 2 servant girls, Marie Millar and Lousia Horne of Lonsdale Road, were charged with disorderly conduct on Portobello Road.

Sergeant Green said there was “a crowd outside a picture theatre where a man was rubbing out some red paint which had been smeared over the building in the night. The defendants were throwing banana skins, etc at persons and creating a disturbance.”

The News reported that ‘in Court they behaved in a very “cheeky” manner, lolling in the dock, sneering at the police sergeant as he gave evidence, etc.’

The magistrate fined them 40 shillings or one month hard labour each.

 

‘Attacks on a Kensington Picture Theatre’ featured Harold Wright, an electrical engineer of Kensington Park Road, charged with throwing stones at the Electric, ‘which had for some time been the object of hostility of residents of that locality…he expressed regret for his conduct and said he threw the stone on the spur of the moment.’ He was fined 40 shillings.

 

Another anti-German incident ‘Outside the Picture Palace’ later in the month featured Owen Star, a 64 year waiter of Bevington Road.

PC Townsend said he saw him ‘having an argument about the war. The people round him showed hostility to him and witness advised him to go away. He did go a few yards but returned and began calling the crowd “cowards”, so took him into custody.’

 

In ‘Attacks on a German Picture Palace’, William Chamberlaine, a Southam Street coster, was charged with using insulting words and assaulting Frank Vennell, ‘who has taken a prominent part in getting recruits for Kitchener’s Army at Notting Hill’.

Vennell was summoned last week ‘for doing damage to a Picture Palace in Portobello Road, which is alleged to belong to a German company, and outside which, many hostile demonstrations have taken place’.

Vennell said he was tearing down certain posters which had been plastered over his own, when the accused came up, abused him, and finished by striking him on the jaw and chest. He gave the man no provocation.

Chamberlain, who said that Vennell called him names, was sentenced to 14 days hard labour, and ordered to be bound over in £5 for 12 months.’

 

The November 20th Kensington News reported that the Electric’s Music Licence Renewal application had been turned down.

At the Clerkenwell Sessions House on the 12th inst, the Theatres and Music Halls committee of the London County Council sat for the purpose of hearing applications for music, dancing and stage plays.

With reference to the application of Mr Sidney Redfern for the renewal of music licences for the Electric Theatre, Kings Road Chelsea, the Court Cinema, Tottenham Court Road; and the Electric Theatre, Portobello Road, owned by the London and Provincial Company.

Mr Sidney Lamb, barrister, who appeared in support of the application, stated in answer to the chairman, that it was a fact that Germans were interested in the licences.

The company was formed in 1909 and was controlled by 7 directors, 3 of which were English born, 3 of German nationality, and one who at the moment had no nationality. But his naturalisation papers, as far as this country was concerned, were in Scotland Yard. He was, in every-day language, a “neutral’ (Laughter.)

The company controlled 10 theatres in England, and had expended £100,000 on their erection and equipment. The whole of the money had gone into English pockets. Of the shareholders 76 were resident in England, and 49 Abroad. The 76 held 7,400 shares of a capital value of £7,603 15s and the foreign shareholders held 92,600 shares to the total value of £39,896 5s.

Mr Redfern informed the committee that the foreign shareholders, who held deferred shares, had not received a penny in dividends, and it most unlikely that they would.

Out of 200 employees at the theatre not one was an alien enemy. 3 or 4 shareholders of continental nationality were French, but their holdings were very small.

The chairman: "Should I be right in saying that it is a German machine driven by German capital?"

Mr Redfern. "That’s right, sir."

Mr Sidney Lamb said that when the company was inaugurated the shares were offered to the British public, but they failed to take them up, and they were offered to continental subscribers.

He did not desire the committee to understand that German capital was being used to take British money to Germany. After retiring, the committee intimated that they would recommend that the application be not granted.

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