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'What the Butler saw'

Schoolboys looking at the naughty photos 1901

The Mutoscope

The young chaps in the photograph, enjoying a ‘What the Butler saw’ show on the West Pier in 1901 were using a Mutoscope. This was an early motion picture device patented by Herman Casler in 1894. It worked on the same principle as a ‘flip book’ which contained individual images that appeared to move when you ‘flipped’ the pages. The Mutoscope had individual image frames of silver based photographic prints attached to a circular core – a bit like a huge Rolodex. A typical reel held approximately 850 images and was viewed through a single lens; the machine was hand cranked by the person viewing.

A popular end of the pier amusement

Even in the early 1970s people wanted to see ‘What the Butler saw’

Mutoscopes were a popular feature of amusement arcades and pleasure piers in the UK until the introduction of decimal coinage in 1971, made the mechanisms difficult to convert, and many were subsequently destroyed. The typical arcade installation included multiple machines offering a mixture of fare. Both in the early days and during the revival, that mixture usually included ‘girlie’ reels which ran the gamut from risqué to outright soft-core pornography. It was, however, common for these reels to have suggestive titles that implied more than the reel actually delivered.

Do you remember them?

Do you remember enjoying the ‘What the Butler saw’ type of machines on the West Pier, or even the Palace Pier. What did you see? Did you think they were naughty? Let us know by posting a comment below.

Comments about this page

  • Yes I remember using them with my mates, probably around 1967/8. I always felt “short changed” however taking into account they were only 1d, probably my expectations were too high! I never remember seeing anything anywhere near to being pornographic, risqué yes. However, compared to the games and scantily clad girls shown on the computer games on the Palace Pier now, they were very tame and a small fraction of the price!

    By Peter Groves (03/04/2012)
  • I recall a follow-on from this old pier technology in the 60s. At a stall, there were a series of white hardboard walls in which small holes had been drilled vertically and horizontally. The holes had miniature viewers inserted in them, and you were (for a small fee) allowed to look through them at transparencies, which were fairly novel in those days. It is of course of no surprise that the photos were of naked pin-ups on the lines of Playboy and Mayfair! Not that I read those, of course.

    By Stefan Bremner-Morris (05/04/2012)
  • I can remember these machines from the 1960s. It took great courage to actually look into one, if you were a young teenager.

    ‘Move on, please, nothing to see here’ might have been the theme. A lot of 1920s ladies seeming to be surprised by the camera. Quite why they were surprised, goodness only knows. A waste of a couple of pence! But a medal for having had the courage to look into one.

    By Philip Burnard (29/05/2019)
  • My Grandma used to live in Hove. So all my summer holidays in the late 1970s were spent in Brighton. I remember the West Pier vaguely. A theatre at the end and an arcade where you exchanged your metric money for some old coins. I remember What the Butler Saw and the Laughing Policeman. There’s an arcade down on the beach between the two piers that has a lot of the old amusements. Very basic but still enjoyable – which I guess is the measure of a game. Still love going down there as do my kids.

    By Richard Germain (30/06/2022)
  • It is nice to see how many people remember the West Pier as I knew it as a child. I always found it more interesting than Palace Pier although it was shorter. However, in view of the pennies lost in the slot machines, it is quite good that we did not live any nearer, there would have been no pocket money left for anything else. My father worked there a couple of times. He was a signwriter and hung on the side of the pier, painting on the warning sign “ beware of falling debris” which was for swimmers and small boats. That must have been quite scary for him as a non-swimmer.

    By Kenneth Ingle (01/07/2022)
  • Hi Richard, your visits must have been before the late 70s; the pier-head closed in 1972, where the theatre was located, and the main body of the West Pier and the Concert Hall in 1975. I was a tour guide on the pier from 1997-2002 and always find it ironic that the 1972 closed portion as being too dangerous is the only bit left standing!

    By Dr Geoffrey Mead (01/07/2022)
  • “What the Butler Saw” and a collection of other machines of the period belonged to the National Museum of Penny Slot Machines. This organisation created a Penny Arcade at the landward side of the Palace Pier Theatre building, on the first floor. The second photograph shows the machines during this period, lined up beside the large windows which gave a spectacular view over the pier towards the shore (many years earlier this section of the building housed a café/restaurant).
    A late 1970s/early ‘80s photograph from the James Gray Collection (Volume 4, Image 106) shows an advertising display for the Penny Arcade in front of this building — the Theatre had closed a number of years beforehand.
    Postcards were given out, publicising the museum : “England’s One-and-Only Vintage 1895-1945 Penny Arcade on the Palace Pier, Brighton. An Edwardian Palace of Amusement. Play the One Armed Bandits of 1920s Chicago. To Bemuse You, What the Butler Saw. Strength Testers. Fortune Tellers. Over 100 Vintage Exhibits, Seaside Fun from the Good Old Days. Games for Children & the Young at Heart. A Spiritulist’s [sic] Room, the First Pintables [Pinball]. 1d. Old Pennies for You to Play on the Machines + Open Every Day”.
    When the Theatre pavilion was demolished in 1986 the collection was re-housed underneath a few of the Kings Road arches, just west of the Palace Pier. Only a few years later this museum sadly closed : I don’t know why, for it seemed very popular.

    By Sam Flowers (04/07/2022)
  • Since yesterday’s comment, I’m delighted to have discovered have a page dedicated to the National Museum of Penny Slot Machines. Included is a scan of the Brighton Borough Council permit for use of the Palace Pier accommodation and a link to a recent page of showing some wonderful exterior and interior photos of the Penny Arcade in July, 1983 (which dates the James Gray copy of one of them).

    By Sam Flowers (04/07/2022)

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