Ursula Bloom, cinema pianist

The future novelist made music for silent films at the White Palace cinema

Ursula Bloom
White Palace Cinema - the facade & foyer faced Leyton Road, now replaced by a parade of shops

The White Palace cinema opened in the summer of 1913.  Ursula Bloom was employed as pianist.  In one of her memoirs, Youth at the Gate, published in 1959 she wrote:

“The hours were fatiguing.  In pre-war days nobody had any compunction in overworking an employee.  The continuous programme began at half past five, ending at ten thirty.  On matinee days it started at two-thirty.  My hands felt like flat-irons at times, and the only possible refreshment had to be snatched from the piano top whilst still playing with the other hand.

“I worked in that sour-smelling but loveable little cinema where the cottage piano was concealed from the stalls by ill-filling plush curtains and stood so close to the screen that frequently I went dizzy from the proximity of the exaggerated picture.  There was no possibility of escape, for only the National Anthem at half past ten could set me free.”

Her wages were thirty shillings a week (£1.50).  She had to wait an hour for the last train back (11.55pm) to St Albans, where she lived with her mother – the separated wife of James Harvey Bloom, Rector of Whitchurch, Warwickshire – in discreet poverty near The Cricketers.  Each week she hired music from a shop in Holywell Hill, St Albans.

In another of her five memoirs, Life is no Fairy Tale, she describes how she learned the techniques of ‘audience control’ to cope with rowdy Harpenden youths: “it was the duty of the pianist to prevent, as far as she could, any disturbance [from the bevy of boisterous young men, who came to be threepence worth of nuisance] and not to let the threepennies ‘run away with themselves’.  Whenever the tune was familiar, they started whistling gaily, and what a noise they could make when they got worked up!  The thing was almost to encourage them and let them whistle away, and in the middle, suddenly change the tune to something else, rather loudly.  This had the most shattering effect!  I was never the sort of girl who would sit down calmly, and not take action: I encouraged them, and then left them whistling the wrong tune and looking silly.”

As war approached and broke out in August 1914, Ursula was asked to play the national anthems of all the Allies (though she could not find the music for Servia (Serbia).  As one by one the front of staff joined up, Ursula’s job became more and more stressful and she resigned when she and her mother decided to move away from St Albans to Walton on the Naze in 1915.

Ursula Bloom ( 1892-1984) started writing at the age of 5, and published over 500 books in her lifetime, an achievement that once won her recognition in the Guinness Book of Records. As a young woman she worked as a journalist on Fleet Street.  She wrote many of her novels under pseudonyms – Sheila Burns, Mary Essex, Rachel Harvey, Deborah Mann, Lozania Prole and Sara Sloane.  Her work was predominantly romantic.  273 of her books are still available.

Extracts from two of her memoirs – Youth at the Gate (1959) and Life is no Fairy Tale (1976) are available in our Archives.

Comments about this page

  • Thank you for this piece about Ursula Bloom. I discovered her short stories in issues of the (London) Evening News, which I perused at the British Library. I have read several of her novels and autobiographical books, and continue to discover her excellent writings. She was very prolific, so there is much to enjoy. Her best writing is mesmerizing and filled with such verve and insight into human character that one is disappointed to find that most of her work out-of-print today.

    By Richard Simms (03/12/2010)
  • Extract from Miss Marjorie Gilchrist’s memories of Harpenden before 1914 (History Society competition entry, 1979)

    “The first Cinema in Harpenden – what a thrill it was to watch a silent film, and to listen to the Pianist improvising marvellous music to fit the picture. For example, loud and rapid to match up with galloping horses! – or a gentle melody to fit in with a quiet pastoral scene. Charlie Chaplin gave the pianist endless scope!

    By Rosemary Ross (16/11/2010)

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