The Coop Hall

This is a transcript of an audio-recording made by my grandfather some time before I was born and uncovered by a cousin of mine decades later in a loft. Finding these recordings was the first time I heard his voice.

If you right click and save-as you can download ‘The Coop Hall’ for posterity. Pretty sure my Grandad would be buzzing if you did that.

On a particularly cold day last week I stood in the entrance hall of a huge block of offices awaiting a lift which seemed very reluctant to call, however temporarily, at the ground floor. Running down the angled corner of the hall ran two pipes, I strolled over touched them and found them hot. Hot enough to warm my two hands which closed around them. And as the heat surged through my palms and fingers, that single simple action turned back the clock for me, back to the days of my boyhood when to thaw out I would do exactly the same behind the entrance doors of the local co-operative hall.

The coop was a solid Victorian ediface of Accrington Brick with a huge lead-lined dome the shape of an inverted wineglass perched precariously on the edge of the roof. The entrance, where the hot pipes were located, was garlanded with fruit and flowers in terracotta and the stone steps with a polished handrail and little brass studs projecting every few feet lead to the hall itself.

Heavy swing doors with large brass handles opened into a spacious room with walls coloured a dull green, and woodwork painted dark brown and elaborately engrained in the fashion of the day. The only light the filtered through to allieviate the depressing interior came through stained glass windows decoratively uniformed with a sheaf of wheat, with a scroll inscribed “Labour and Wait”. And in those days they certainly laboured, and waited for God knows what.

It’s design may have been unimaginative, it’s decor dull but the old-hall provided a place - in fact the only place apart from the local school - for communal gatherings of the villagers of Little Hulton.

Bazars, boxing, bonnie baby competitions, political meetings, miners tanner meetings - so called because the union gave the colliers sixpence each as an inducement to attend which went up to a shilling if the meeting was not over at eight o’clock. The colliers, from whom I feel sure the American senate learned the art of fillibustering, invariably saw that the meetings terminated at two-minutes past eight.

Dances and keep-fit demonstrations testified to the floors construction. Many a wedding cake was cut and many a tear shed over boiled ham and current-cake as mourners fortified themselves on their dear and recently (about half an hour before) departed.

The Sweeny-Todds and Mariah Martins or the Frankie Fortisques players brought gasps of horror from the hall and on the following night, handkerchiefs would be wrung-out as the slef-same Mr Todd and Miss Martin ground out The Paphos of the Eastern Limb.

Long before the Repratory Company, in the days before the world had heard of sliced-bread, ball-point-pens and milk in bottles, when all the trams had cow-catchers as standard equipment and bacon-slicers belonged to a stage of mechanisation yet to come, the coop hall was a cinema. And it is in this capacity, that I remember it best.

Advanced publicity was a hand-written poster displayed on a board outside the offices. The prices of admission catered for rich and poor alike. The cheapest cost tuppence ha’penny, front-stalls you could call them, about six rows of wooden forms which stretched right across the room and on which perched the youth from the village. There was no half price, but the penny-rush on Saturday afternoon catered for those unable to pay the full price.

Behind these seats were a few rows of wooden chairs, occupancy of which cost four pence. Rising gradually on both sides of the hall were the five-pennys, forms again but covered in a dark brown leather, and in the centre, a smaller number of select tip-up red plush seats which, at eightpence, were occupied only by the local aristocracy and by virtue of their office, a liberal sprinkling of coop comittee members.

Without exception the tuppence-ha’pennies were filled with kids, all of whom wore clogs. Anyone shod otherwise would have been thought either socially superior or a bit of a fairy. I had a place next to the hot radiators - back to the pipes again - underneath the first wheatsheaf window.

Together with the gang I would sit there two rows behind the piano absorbed in the pictures and eating a carrot, as indeed most of us did. Apples at that time were too dear, but if anyone was fortunate enough to have one, he had hardly surreptitiously removed it from under his jersey before he was assailed with cries of “Corkers!” from the other kids who had spotted the owners move. The cry was in fact staking the first claim for the apple core before the eater threw it at some unsuspecting blue-nose in the eightpennies. It wasn’t for the honour of getting in some target practice that the claim was made, it was to glean from the core any edible bit of apple that may have still remained.

At seven o’clock the impatience of the audience was finally rewarded when the caretaker with a long pole turned down the two large gas-lamps at the front of the stage and the show began. The screen took on the look of a miniature rainstorm as the reel of film gathered momentum and then finally settled down to an animated picture, jerky, but by the standards of the day an acceptable presentation. Harry, a gifted pianist, was at his best when soldiers gallopped to the rescue of a beleagured garrison. In this, he was accompanied by an ever increasing clatter and roar of hundreds of childrens clogs stamping in unison on the wooden-floor. When the stockade had been breached and the indians routed, the roof re-echoed with the cheers of victory and relief, slowly dying away as the heroine, Arrowin Bosom, fluttered her eyelids as she lay dying in the arms of Wallace Reed.

At this stage the film would begin to slow down again, begin to rain and finally stop. Then followed the usual caption: “End of part one, part two will follow immediately”. Up went the caretakers pole, on came the gas-lights and Amy - the chocolate girl - daintily yet bravely walked the plank between the tuppence-ha’penny and the fourpenny seats with a tray of Cadburys ha’penny, penny and tupenny bars.

“Naa children, let yer elders ‘ave a bit a quietness!” would cry the caretaker, using a bit of gentle persuasion as he batted his cap on a youthful miscreant in the second row. A derrisive whistler at a safe distance from the caretaker was saved from retribution as part two started with the usual light shower. On went the caretakers cap, up went his pole, down went the lights and we were off again to see Wallace Reed finish his bit of snogging befroe the eyelashes fluttered to a full stop never to flutter again. And so it went on, lights on lights down as one part succeeded the other.

Throughout the picture season which was during the winter only, many a heroine, bound by a villain to a railway track, was rescued in the nick of time. Banditis tiptoed along the tops of trains, Tom Micks rode his horse down perpendicular cliffs and William S Hearts gun belched smoke. Charlie Chaplin skidded round corners and Fatty Arbuckle, with his enormous girth, squeezed through the widest of doors. Ben Turpin threw custard pies with un-erring aim, belying his crosseyed vision and many a daughter, carrying a shawl-wrapped baby was cast into the snow by an outraged finger-pointing father. Houdidni would escape from a cast-iron box at the bottom of the ocean and Elmo Lincoln the mighty terrified not only the audience but all the lions in the jungle as well.

The suspense built up by the weekly serial was always shattered, when, at some critical moment the film would suddenly be cut short and you were invited to “Visit this theatre next week for part seven of The Broken Coin”.

Eddie Polo, The White Shirted Cowboy and Heroine Cora were popular characters among the many serials discussed with unfeigning regularity in the playground at the local school. The Clutching Hand and The Purple Domino come readily to mind. The kids however were always brought back to stark reality of life, when, promptly at nine o’clock - inbetween probably part five and part six of the big film - a notice was flashed onto the screen which read: “Cinematograph Act of 1916: All children under the age of sixteen, unless accompanied by a parent of guardian must now leave this hall”. Scores of heads would turn from the tuppence-ha’pennies in the direction of the fourpennies and fivepennies searching for a would-be temporary guardian or sponser to adopt them until the show was over. The unadopted, and they were the large majority, then rose from their seats and left perhaps a few boos, a whilstle or a cat-call but that’s all. I wonder what would happen today.

I was a Saturday night regular although sometimes I was fortunate enough to manage another visit, and a free one at that. Next door to the cottage where I grew up, there lived a dear old lady, as I was about ten or eleven she could have appeared quite ancient - probably about fourty or fifty but no matter. She looked to all ‘world like one of the homemade cottage loaves she and her contemporaries used to bake, she was round and brown, silver hair and gold-rimmed glasses, behind which her blue eyes twinkled merrily. She was my adminssion ticket to the pictures.

Sitting on her left in the fivepennies, I worked my passage by reading, as quietly as possible, the film captions into her good left ear. This was not unusual, quiet murmerings in the hall came from readers such as me. At the time it was so prevelant as to be meaningless and now in retrospect I realise how large were the number of adults of that decade that could neither read nor write. As I reeled off the words she would shake her head sadly at some tear-jerking line, nod in emphatic agreement with the heroes avow to do the villian and laugh uproariously at some quotation which supported the comical situation being screened at the time.

This then was the old coop hall - resaurant, meeting place, theatre and cinema. Someone told me the other day that it is now a nightclub, well p’rhaps someday I may call. I wonder if there’s a table near my radiator behind the piano, there could be, but there will certainly be no-one eating carrots, or will there be the stamping of clogs. Nor will anyone aged sixteen be told that at nine o’clock they must all go home.

Indeed they will in all probability be just arriving.