1 November 2023

A Nice Day Out

Hidden away off Renfrew Road, in Lambeth, London The Cinema Museum is a little gem, a veritable treasure trove of cinema memorabilia. M and I enjoyed a day trip with the U3a, travelling with a local coach company. We were dropped off with plenty of time to visit the museum, then have a coffee and cake before picking us up a few hours later.

The museum is housed in this Victorian Gothic building which has an interesting history. The original Lambeth Workhouse opened in 1726 in Princes Road (later, Black Prince Road), Vauxhall. From 1871 to 1873 a new building was constructed in Renfrew Road, above. It was built for 820 people at a cost of £64,000! The grade II listed building was eventually turned into a hospital. It is still owned by South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust who rent the workhouse's former master's house and chapel to the museum.

The most famous resident of the workhouse was Charlie Chaplin. His father was absent and his mother struggled financially. Aged just 8, along with his in mother and his 15 year old brother Stanley, he was housed there for three weeks before being transferred to the Central London District School at Hanwell in rural Ealing. The school was a version of the workhouse, intended solely for destitute children. When he was 14, his mother was committed to a mental asylum.

It was a tragic tale that had a deep impact on the young Charlie, probably leading to his subsequent work in Hollywood and affinity to the poor in his characters, such as the Little Tramp.

Upstairs is more memorabilia and a working cinema for the use of film buffs, and groups like ourselves. It looks and feels like a bit like someone's lounge, with sofas, table and chairs, lamps and loads of bookcases. It was quite nice.

You can just see the outline of a prototype sculpture of Chaplin in the middle of the room. The artist and museum volunteer, Anna Odrich hopes to create a monumental version of ‘The Tramp’ for a public space in the Elephant and Castle.

We took our seats and settled down with complimentary tea/coffee and biscuits to hear about the history of the museum. It was founded in 1984 by Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries who shared a passion for cinema. In the 70s lots of high street cinemas were being demolished. The pair would give the demolition people some beer money and they would let them in to rescue everything they could from seats to signage. The collection grew to such proportions that they had to find storage for it, and make it publicly available.

Balustrade from the now destroyed Elephant & Castle Theatre, later ABC cinema

In 1986, the museum became a charity and after finding temporary premises in the Old Fire Station in Renfrew Road and then in Raleigh Hall in Brixton, moved into its current home. Initially, the museum was situated in the administration block but a few years ago they were able to expand into the whole of the building and have gradually raised their profile through guided tours and events.

The museum is unique, no other museum in Britain is devoted to the experience of going to the cinema. It used to be a very important part of people’s social lives with lots of people going once a week, possibly twice. I remember Saturday morning cinema.

For the first half of the 20th century, Elephant and Castle was a Mecca for entertainment. There used to be seven cinemas including the Trocadero which had 3,000 seats and was one of the biggest in Europe.
With no public funding, keeping the museum going is a huge challenge. “It’s very much a labour of love” says Martin, adding that they are always on the look out for more volunteers.
As well as locals a steady stream of visitors from all around the globe regularly book the museum’s 45 minute guided tours.

Over the years, an impressive list of industry names have taken part in events and offered their support, ranging from comedian Paul Merton, film critic Mark Kermode and Monty Python’s Terry Jones through to actors Rory Kinnear, Simon Callow and movie legend Sylvia Syms.

The museum also undertakes a programme of wellbeing activities, often working with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as embarking on projects with media students at the nearby London College of Communication.

I'm sure Chaplin's memories of his time in the workhouse were bleak, but one would imagine that he’d be rather pleased that the building now houses a remarkable museum that pays homage to the very industry that made him world famous.

∼ Be safe and well ∼

Polly x


  1. What a terrific use of the old workhouse, as you said. It would be a fun and interesting place to visit alright!

  2. I've never been much interested in films, though I love the style of those old posters and could happily spend an hour or two there.

    1. I love films. I recognised most of the actors and acresses!

  3. I'm saving this post in my London file for next year. I never had heard of this -- and it sound right up my alley. Thanks for all the wonderful photos and info -- I hope they can survive till spring! And beyond!

    1. It's well worth a visit Jeanie, and the Elephant & Castle area has lots of history.

  4. What a perfect location for the museum and it looks fascinating.

  5. Although we just returned from a UK trip with a few days in London, there wasn't nearly enough time to visit places of interest and this would definitely be on my list for a re-visit. Thanks, Polly, for a very detailed post along with lots of interesting information and photos. I was never a Chaplin fan although we did see a statue of him on our travels in Ireland.

    1. I wasn't either Beatrice, although I think he was in a scene where the entire side of a building fell down around him, he was in the doorway. I thought it was quite funny.


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