Cinema Comes to Wiltshire

on Friday, 17 December 2021. Posted in Architecture, Archives, Wiltshire Places

A grand building façade with boarded windows and a large sign above second story reading 'Palace' with bright blue sky behind.
The façade of the former Picture Palace, Chippenham as it looks today

Cinema as an art form has its origins in the late Nineteenth Century, when a range of techniques were developed to give paying audiences the impression of moving images beamed onto a screen. Most techniques deployed a machine through which a sequence of connected photos were driven. These amusements were usually presented by travelling exhibitors, who toured society gatherings, music halls or fairgrounds. By the 1900s photographs had made way for cellulose nitrate film which though effective in purveying motion, were also highly flammable. Following several fires the government was prompted to regulate this fledgeling industry

The resulting Cinematograph Act of 1909 gave local councils the power to grant annual licenses for the exhibition of films, provided safety precautions were in place. Breaches of these safeguards could result in a fine of £20 – a considerable sum to any proprietor. Demand for moving pictures was huge and following the Act various entrepreneurs invested their money in creating permanent cinema buildings. Though by no means complete, here are a few fine examples of early picture houses in Wiltshire.

A partially coloured plan showing building elevation for 'Queen's Hall' 'cinematograph theatre' with three archived doorways in the centre of the building.
Designs for frontage of the Queens Hall Cinematograph Theatre, Salisbury, 1910 (ref G23/760/22)

In 1910 two rival companies established cinemas in Salisbury, both located on Endless Street. On 24th August 1910 planning permission was submitted to build a new Electric Theatre situated at the north-east corner of Endless Street and Bedwin Street. The request was made by the Grampino Syndicate, based in London’s Crystal Palace, and was approved by the City of New Sarum on 1st September. Designs for the venue, to be known as the Queens Hall Cinematograph Theatre, show an impressive classical frontage, with three sets of welcoming doors. This was a single-screen venue, with seventeen rows of seats on the ground floor, plus a further six rows on an upstairs balcony. The upstairs foyer also had a small sweet shop, demonstrating that even at this early date refreshments were seen as an integral part of the movie-going experience.

Further down Endless Street, another businessman had designs on a corner plot where the road meets Chipper Lane. Albany Ward had been demonstrating moving pictures on the travelling circuit since 1896. Born Hannam Edward Bonner in London in 1879, Ward is thought to be the first moving picture exhibitor to reach Devon, Cornwall and part of Wales, and often provided his own sound effects to accompany the film. He was known to have exhibited his Imperial Electric Pictures at the County Hall in 1908, and in the winter of 1910 he obtained a lease of the Hall and gave it the grand name of the Palace Theatre. At this time Albany Ward’s business was operating from an address in Weymouth, but by 1921 he was running his expanding empire from London’s Piccadilly.

Sketch of building frontage with canopy of 'picture house' drawn in blue.
Designs for canopy over cinema entrance, Fisherton Street Salisbury submitted by Albany Ward, 1916 (ref G23/760/147)

Albany Ward had many interests in Wiltshire, and indeed by 1915 he was looking at opening another picture house in Salisbury. On 17th November of that year Ward submitted plans to alter and extend a property on Fisherton Street adjoining Chapel Place to create a new cinema. This new enterprise appeared a grand affair. Plans show an impressive twenty-three rows of seating on the ground floor and nine on the balcony, with a total seating capacity of around 550. In addition to a poster room and film store, Ward’s plans also included an orchestra area and a dressing room for theatre staff and musicians. As well as providing live musical accompaniment to his films, Ward’s plans allowed for the stage to be added into a music and variety acts. It is also worth noting that the film operator’s room is behind the proscenium, meaning films were projected onto the back of the screen rather than beamed onto the front, as would become the norm.

In 1912 Ward was also establishing himself in Warminster. He had plans for the town’s Athenaeum Institute, which had been established to cultivate literacy and education in the town. He sought permission from the club’s owners, the Warminster Urban District Council to lease their public hall, known as the Bleeck Memorial Hall, to create a new Electric Picture Palace. Again, this would be designed to accommodate both cinema and theatrical performances. A ballot of ratepayers took place on 14th May 1912 and Ward succeeded by a majority of 448 – 602 in favour to 154 against. Duly a lease was drawn dated 6th August 1912 conveying use of the property to Ward for an annual rent of £110. Ward’s plans provided seating for 450, either in the lower stalls or an upper circle level. The terms of the agreement stated that the Council reserved the right to use the hall for local purposes or political meetings for not exceeding 26 days in any given year. The Council also included a clause whereby two of the town’s firemen or police officers in uniform had the right of admission free at all entertainments.

Interior view of cinema with balcony looking over rows of seating with pillar-framed image on far wall.
Proposed design for Albany Ward’s cinema in Trowbridge, 1913/4 (ref 1451/26)

Albany Ward was also responsible for the first permanent cinema in Trowbridge, which arrived in 1910. Ward’s original Picture Palace and Skating Rink was located in the former Hill’s Hall in Silver Street. In 1913 plans were approved for Ward to build a new cinema with seating for 525 including an upstairs balcony. Again, Ward’s plans included room for an orchestra in front of the stage and dressing rooms for musicians. Plans and designs in the History Centre archive include various ornate decorative details such as ceiling roses and wooden panelling to the two-storey walls, as well as this evocative drawing of how Ward envisaged the view from the balcony.

Two trees in front of arched entrance to Picture Hall with symmetrical 'chimney' either end of the roof.
Photograph used in a souvenir brochure celebrating the first anniversary of the Melksham Picture Hall, 1913 (ref 2146C/1/17)

Melksham’s first regular cinema shows date from 1912. The Melksham Picture Hall was the brainchild of Bryant Walters (of whom sadly little is known) and was located in a prominent position on the High Street, near the junction with Bank Street and Lowbourne. It was opened to great fanfare by Heward Bell, High Sheriff for Wiltshire on 7th November 1912, and was again made with provision for stage and variety acts. The premises provided accommodation for 550 persons in plush tip-up seats, some costing as little as 3d. The film was operated from a booth made of concrete as opposed to wood and was isolated from the rest of the building, both measures as a precaution to the risk of fire. The comfort of patrons was obviously of great importance. In the winter the hall could deploy a collection of radiators, while a series of fans and ventilation points could be utilised in summer. The hall celebrated its first anniversary with a specially produced souvenir booklet, which as well as looking back on its first successful year, also looked ahead, revealing they can offer “…at least one long exclusive picture every fortnight” in addition to variety acts already booked several months in advance.

Over time many of these pioneering cinemas were repeatedly modernised to accommodate developments in sound technology or to improve audience facilities. Sadly since the 1960s many have been subsequently demolished. These include the old Melksham Picture Hall, which was closed in 1964 and later knocked down to make way for the Avon Place Shopping Centre. However, other buildings remain visible such as the former Picture Palace in Chippenham, just along Cocklebury Road from the History Centre. Another of Albany Ward’s creations, the building originally housed a roller-skating rink but in 1913 Ward successfully applied to have the western end of the building turned into a cinema. Its facade remains in place, a small marker of Ward’s once dominant and innovative empire.

David Plant, Archivist


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