Why Does London Have Amusement Arcades?


In King’s Cross, opposite the railway station, there once stood a big dipper, and this wooden roller coaster was surrounded with funfair booths. Today there is still an amusement arcade on the opposite corner at the end of Euston Road. In Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus there are still amusement arcades filled with fruit machines and a company called Namco franchises other such sites – I found myself wondering, is there a reason why?

To piece that together you have to go back to the start of the nineteenth century, when London was awash with music halls, supper entertainments and various attractions designed to lure in customers looking for brief novelties. There were all kinds of illusions available – ghosts, storms, magic displays, acrobatics, vanishing acts, monsters and waxworks offered sensation in halls and early ‘pop-ups’. From panopticons and dioramas to rotundas and magic lantern shows, the public had a desire to see the entire world miniaturised in the city.

When photography appeared in 1839, the game changed in an interesting way; there were two ways of viewing the new photography – in a shared public space which all the family could visit, and in semi-privacy, looking through a viewer. The latter quickly became used to show saucy sequences featuring unclothed models being spied upon by naughty boys.

When the Kinetoscope arrived, showing moving strips of film (not terribly long, around 30 seconds before the loop began again) its American inventors quickly saw a clever way to build a business. They would sell the physical devices and force the new owners to lease their films, creating the production/distribution/exhibition system that remained in use until today.

They hadn’t counted on a pair of Greek entrepreneurs who started building their own copied devices and installing them around London. But they couldn’t make the films, and were reliant on defiantly American subject matter in the leased loops. However, England had something the USA did not have; pageantry. So scenes of parades and royal ceremonies, sporting events and street scenes were shot and shown in specially kitted-out buildings where other amusements were added to keep public interest from waning.

Shooting galleries and Mutoscopes – those ‘What the Butler Saw’ machines – appeared along with phonograph sounds and games of chance at these sites. Peep shows sat beside the first-ever war footage (taken in the Transvaal) in these ‘Biographs’ – the name remained a popular choice for cinemas until the 1970s.

Another form of entertainment for the time-poor urbanite became popular – the one-hour cinema, which showed newsreels and shorts that repeated on the hour, and were used largely by commuters waiting for trains, although they later became sleazy. These little cinemas were still going in the late 1980s; one can be seen in the film ‘An American Werewolf in London’.

As the city was a place one came to for sensation and entertainment, the arcades survived, thanks to the 1950s addition of music and pinball tables, when they became gathering spots for the cashless young. They also attracted pickpockets and rent-boys (although rarely female prostitutes, it seems – this was a male domain) throughout their lives, and continued to do so until the 21st century.

The idea of the sensation display in town continues – there have been fairground-style rides in Shaftesbury Avenue for years, and ‘experiences’ like M&M World or the current Body Worlds show at the London Pavilion continue the tradition.

But the original arcades still exist too. Do they make use of a gambling loophole that allows cash prizes? They look very different now but cater to the thing that never changes in London; the human desire to be amused.

6 comments on “Why Does London Have Amusement Arcades?”

  1. Anne Billson says:

    Interesting! I have fond memories of those dioramas of graveyards or libraries, where you inserted a coin and ghosts would pop out. Though I don’t think I ever went into an arcade when I was little (certainly not in London; they never seemed very girl-friendly) – it was always funfairs or on piers.

    By the way, the Dutch word for the cinema is “de bioscoop” (pronounced bee-o-scope) which I found a bit of getting used to after French (le cinéma). In Danish and Swedish it’s “biograf”.

  2. There was one such ‘one-hour cinema’ in the centre of Manchester, adjacent to Oxford Road railway station. It was called The Tatler and ran a repeating programme of newsreels and cartoons. By the ’50s it had become so run-down and scruffy that it was known locally as “the laugh ‘n scratch”.

    It later became Cornerhouse arts centre; I believe the University owns it now.

  3. Roger says:

    I’m told that one reason the gambling arcades still exist is that they’re very handy for money-laundering.

  4. Peter Tromans says:

    Bioscoop (and bioscope) is an interesting – word. The first time I heard a Dutchman say something about going to the bioscoop, I thought that he meant a biopsy, which etymologically is sort of the same.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    I was just about to say exactly what Roger said. Most arcades in the 50’s and 60’s were owned and run by criminal gangs – the Krays included. This was famously parodied in the Monty Python ‘Piranha Brothers’ sketch.

  6. Toby N says:

    Haha, I work at Las Vegas Arcade, the one you have pictured. Many gamers were forgotten as consoles entered the arena. But we’re always packed out as there are many experiences you can’t get at home.

    By arcade, I’m talking about video game arcades and not gambling, which you can do anywhere. I’m talking about video games that

    We import many Japanese games and have a lively community. Many players lost weight playing dancegames or made friends they wouldn’t meet at college or work. I truely belive were the last coin op arcade in the country that has a player base and offers and experience you cns get in Asia or Latin America (where arcades are still going strong).

    Pay us a visit sometime or check the Facebook link!

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