Martin Tapsell mourns the loss of cinemas that were at the heart of the community throughout Kent
Cinemas are like railway stations – once you lose them, they are gone for good. Some metamorphose into supermarkets, housing, or snooker halls. Others simply vanish.
The reasons for their closure varied – entertainment tax, television, vandalism, a chance to try bingo, a developer’s offer that was too good to refuse, retirement, or just lack of capital to upgrade a fading fleapit – sometimes known as a bug hutch – which had seen better days. Support can be fickle and anyone can sign a petition to save our cinema, but seats need to be filled and confectionery sold. So, here is just a selection of cinemas that have closed their doors in Kent over the past 50 years…
Until the book Mansion of Mirth came out in 2007, little was published about the Alhambra Music Hall and later Rex cinema at Sandgate which ran as a picture-house between 1921 and 1951. However, we now know that during the Second World War the barbed wire defences blocked off the Rex’s fire exit and forced it to shut. In Folkestone library’s photographs, it looks quite salubrious but it was taxed out of profitability and, after a couple of failed attempts to redevelop the building, it was finally swept away about 1970. The Tower flats mark the site today.
The Queens/Ace in Queenborough also shut early – in 1954, before bingo was legalised. A plain and unpretentious hall rebuilt in 1918 after a fire, 500 seats must have been hard to fill when Sheerness still had four cinemas. It has none now! A private house now stands on the site, built to the right of the Rose pub. The proprietor, Charles Crathorn, also managed the Ace in Walmer (now Cyclelife Deal Autocase) which had already shut as a cinema in 1949.
The Negresco survives as a hotel in France (and has done since 1913), but not as a cinema in Edenbridge. This former Oddfellows hall was refronted to look like a cinema but the proscenium was only 16ft wide. Centrally sited, it has been adapted as a Lipton supermarket and latterly as Chevertons Antiques. The town, though it retains two stations, has had no cinema since 1959.
The Wardona cinemas were named after Harry Ward, who aimed to establish a chain of 20 ‘mini supers’ but stopped well short of this target.
You can find the plain-looking original (1938) Wardona, which cost £8,000 and seated 650, in Snodland. It had replaced the earlier cinema (now the Roman Catholic church), and closed as the Savoy in 1963. After trying bingo, it seemed snooker is what most residents wanted because the club has now been going for more than 20 years. After Snodland, Ward replaced the Jubilee cinema in Swanscombe, which was a poorly ventilated, corrugated iron affair. This new Wardona had a neon sign on the fin (a vertical projection from a building upon which signage facing both ways is often placed) and ferns in the foyer. (Ferns became a cinema foyer staple before the war.) The cinema lasted between 1939 and 1958 and later gave way to sheltered housing, which retains the name of Wardona Court.
Harry next acquired the Astoria in Northfleet in 1940, a replacement for the older cinema next door, which remained in use as a dance hall. Both have since disappeared, the cinema closing in 1957. It was not an ideal site, near a chalk pit, although the second cinema was built side on to the road. A petrol station felt more comfortable there and, until 2002, residents could find a cinema in Gravesend.
The next Wardona had first been the attractive Invicta cinema in Strood High Street, with a glass canopy and cupolas on the roof. This was bombed during the war, so from 1946 to 1958, more than 16,000 Strood residents had a plainer, 538-seat, cinema on their side of the Medway, but had to wait another 38 years until a multiplex was built in 1996 further up the river.
The 1960s were a difficult time for both railways and cinemas. Richard Beeching produced his report on The Reshaping of British Railways in 1963, and bingo was legalised in the 1960 Gaming Act, offering another form of exciting entertainment.
While it was played in Catholic church halls and on ships long before then, the first club opened on 3 January 1961. An indicator of its popularity is in the statistic that Mecca, one of the main operators, sold 50,000 books at the beginning, but by June 1961, this had risen to 500,000.
Aylesham was a new community for miners and a cinema was finally built when the village exceeded 500 houses. From 1935 to 1964, films were shown every day except Wednesdays, then inevitably lost out to bingo. Grace Road has since lost this building, and, interestingly, the working men’s club has outlasted the Greyhound pub.
The Ritz, amidst shops in Birchington, had four other names between 1910 and 1961, but after trying bingo and cabaret now has a more spiritual use as a church.
The Rex at Borough Green ran long enough to be powered by gas, petrol and electricity. A directory of cinemas saw double and wrongly listed two cinemas in this small town, but 300 seats were enough for 2,000 people. When these and other items wore out, the last owner broke all records by closing the cinema just before the doors were due to open in March 1964. D&M Neckwear found their way inside but cottages now stand at 25 Wrotham Road.
At Cliffe on the Hoo Peninsula, a former government building provided cinema for locals and anchored mariners alike. Best used when the weather was neither bitter or sweltering, the Globe served from 1921 until about 1965, but five terraced houses now occupy the site, so the ‘tuppenny rush’ (the children’s cinema session on Saturday mornings) is but a distant memory.
Romney Marsh is a similar sort of area. No town there is much larger than its neighbour, although all had cinemas. Lydd had the oddest adaptation – an old tithe barn – but the last show was in the Regal in the High Street. A photograph of it as The Lydd Cinema shows a whitewashed building resembling a village hall with a sloping canopy like a domestic porch. Closed by 1964, Kent Fire and Rescue Service is on the site now.
The ever-expanding village of Rainham retained a cinema until 1966. The Royal was built as a Salvation Army hall, but was kept up to scratch with Cinemascope and new seating in its last years, so was no fleapit. However, Mrs D Gass sold up and retired, and films gave way to Vye & Sons, the Kentish grocers and then the furniture shop, Lukehurst. Only the roof reminds customers today of its past.
I thought the architects did a good job with the Corona in Swanley, although they were not as well known as the circuit architects. Entertainment at the start included Eldred Skinner playing a Compton Theatrone organ, but perhaps 900 seats was too generous – Bromley was not far away for three more cinemas and although Swanley doubled its population, the cinema cordoned off most of those seats and children’s shows were their best hope by the 1960s. Bingo eventually took over entirely, as it did elsewhere, but a civic hall marks the site today.
The last two towns to lose their cinemas in the Sixtiess were not quite large enough to sustain them.
Tenterden had a lovely Embassy run by Shipman and King, who specialised in country town locations. Here, it seems, a café was the extra attraction rather than an organ, but with 900 seats on two floors, declining takings gave Vye & Sons another retail opportunity. Although gutted for groceries, the superior brick exterior remains as an M&Co store.
Not so at the Elizabethan-style cinema on Hosey Hill, Westerham, which looked like a half-timbered brewery, and owed its existence to one. Originally called the Swan after the White Swan Brewery (also gone), and later the Tudor, there were even two small balconies, but fire regulations seemed to have put these out of bounds. The Tudor might have lasted longer had not it received the attention of an arsonist in 1964 during a period of closure. Like the rail link, cut by a new road, Westerham is unlikely to have another cinema, but there is a delightful Screen, just across the Surrey border in Oxted.
The later closures have had a mixed fate. Dartford lost its Granada in 1975, but it was not built by that company and was originally known as the State. This Granada lacked the lavish interiors that the famed Russian designer, Theodore Komisarjevsky, provided in Dover and Maidstone, but it gained the Granada-style castellated chandeliers.
The cinema’s Compton organ found its way to Dingles Fairground Museum in Devon, but 7,000 bingo players replaced dwindling film audiences, who must now look to Bluewater for their celluloid entertainment.
Gillingham’s last cinema went in November, 1980, when the Croneen family shut their Plaza in Duncan Road. It was distinguished by the wrought iron panelling, electric tubular heating under the seats, and the polished wooden doors with their bevelled glass. The canopy was supported by four recycled tram posts. After use as a television studio, supermarket Aldi came onto the scene in 2000.
A supermarket was also the destination for Cranbrook’s family-run Regal, shut after Brian and Violet Horsley had run it as a pure cinema for two decades until 1984. Films used to arrive by train but both amenities are gone now, and cars park on the actual Regal site opposite the new Co-op store.
Nothing remains of the Ritz in Hythe, one of Union Cinemas’ last projects before ABC took them over. The 858 seats gradually emptied until bingo took over in 1966. Films made a return to the balcony only, but too few appealed to residents and the cinema shut as the Classic in 1984. Flats now overlook Prospect Road.
The site selected for the Majestic/Gaumont/Odeon in Rochester eventually proved the wrong decision. The cinema looked massive outside but was more intimate inside, with space for 50 in the café, which later became the Victor Silvester dance studios. Twenty years before closure, the organ was removed and was last heard of in Haarlem, the Netherlands. The 1981 cull of Odeons also closed the one in Canterbury, but Rochester never had a new use and made way for 55 flats.
Sheppey is bereft of cinemas but has film shows in the Blue Town Heritage Centre. In the summer of 2012, I watched the Ritz in Sheerness being bulldozed to make way for flats. By then, it was poorly regarded by planners who said it skulked down a side street. But it was smaller than the huge Rio, so held on until the video age tempted patrons away. After closure in 1985, when the rotting floors had made watching films there unsafe, a pool and snooker room restored the fortunes of the stalls area. A nightclub later took up residence but had vacated before the wreckers arrived.
Another casualty of the 1980s was the Ritz in Tonbridge, which had a rather plain exterior but, in 1937, its 1,250 seats and café were an improvement on all that had gone before. Last run by ABC, it was only just breaking even and shut in 1978. Bejam freezer store occupied just the stalls area, and a new company tried opening a Carlton cinema in the old café, but only a few responded and the disappointed operators closed the doors in September, 1981. A Waitrose is on part of the site today.
Lastly, the Badminton, later the Raymar, run by Ray and Mary Halkes, was a 1951 late arrival to a hall in Norman Road, West Malling. It had 240 seats and kept up to date with Cinemascope. Some preferred it to larger cinemas in Maidstone etc, but there is no building to see now. The last show was in 1987.
What do you remember about your local cinema? What films did you see there? What was the atmosphere like? Share your memories with other Bygone Kent readers on firstname.lastname@example.org
Kent Cinemas Revisited by Martin Tapsell is published by Tivoli Publishing, priced £7.95
The Mansion of Mirth – Sandgate as Seen Through the Eyes of the Alhambra Music Hall and Rex Cinema, by Martin Easdown, Eamonn Rooney and Linda Sage, priced £5.99