The Early History of Wem Cinema by Shelagh Richardson & Sue Robinson [Wem Civic Society]

Information about early cinemas tends to be sparse. The first screening is reckoned to be that held at the Polytechnic in Upper Regent Street, London in 1896. The programme was made up of short films from the French Lumière brothers. Travelling fairs hired local halls for special shows, and music halls included films in their programmes. When businessmen realised that this was no ‘flash in the pan’, buildings began to be converted into cinemas. The conversion was fairly crude, often with just a whitewashed wall and boarded up windows. Government concern about public safety (the nitrate film used is highly inflammable) led to new regulations following the Cinematograph Act of 1909. This encouraged the spread of purpose-built cinemas.

Records show that in the early 1900s, the Cheshire Animated Picture Co. presented occasional screenings in Wem Town Hall. The nightly Picture Palace in the White Horse Assembly Rooms followed with shows from 7.00pm to 10.30pm; children’s matinees took place on Saturday afternoons and admission was 3d or 6d. Activity moved back to the Town Hall with the Picture Drome by 1913 with screenings from Thursdays to Saturdays. Prices had risen, now being 3d to 1/-, with children’s matinees at 2d and 3d.

There was a rapid expansion of theatres and companies in this period. The 1914 edition of the Kinematograph Year Book (KYB) shows:

* Shrewsbury with the Central Hall at Castle Gates, seating 650, run by Glynn Hill & Co; the Picture House, seating 700, run by Cinema Theatres Midlands Ltd., and the Theatre Royal & Hippodrome, run by W. Yates Gregory;

* Ellesmere, the Goulding Cinema Co. operated in Trimpley Hall;

* Llandrindod Wells, a 500-seater in the King Theatre ran by GM Hand.

The firm, Wrexham Hippodrome Ltd. was also established for cinema operations.

Bert Williams, is mentioned in the Wellington Journal [16/1/1916, p9] as formerly a popular proprietor of the cinema pictures at Whitchurch, Wem and Market Drayton.

As a new and popular entertainment for the masses, Cinema soon came under the scrutiny of the National Council of Public Morals. Fears were expressed but it was judged a lesser evil than the public house. Soon feature length films replaced the shorts. Then small regional circuits started to develop. In 1931, the KYB shows Wem Cinema still in the Town Hall being run by Cambrian & Border Cinemas Ltd. of Wrexham. The Much Wenlock cinema was in the Memorial Hall with a nightly screening on Friday & Saturday from September to April operated by Walter Woof of Waljalen Cinema. By 1933 Wem Cinema was still operating, Much Wenlock was closed but there were two cinemas in Whitchurch, the Grand and the Palladium, operated by TE Markham, of Ye Olde Wych Theatre (Nantwich). By 1936, Wem was being run by Cosy Cinemas (Dawley) Ltd. with prices from 3d to 1/3. [400 seats; proscenium 18’ wide and dance hall.] In 1935

Much Wenlock’s cinema was again operating in the Memorial Hall with seating for 250, offering two performances nightly across four days. It used Gyrotone, an early sound system. The proprietor was Edward Taylor, a local radio and electrical dealer, who was born in Stratford on Avon, the son of wooden patternmaker from Leicester. A regional chain grew from this cinema during the late 1930s/early 1940s, its HQ moving from Much Wenlock to Builth Wells. It included Wem Cinema. Other cinemas are shown on the map. The inclusion of the Savoy Cinema in Egham is unexplained. Few of these cinemas survived. Much Wenlock closed in 1961. Farndon Cinema was built in 1922 by Thomas Roycroft. Edward Taylor leased the building in 1941, it seated around 100 people. Admission was from 8d to 1/2; children from 4d to 1/-. It ceased operating in 1956. Newent cinema began operating in the 1920s. By the early 1930s it was equipped with the little known SOS sound system. It was known as the Plaza Cinema when part of the Taylor chain of cinemas. It was still operating in the summer of 1971. The building is now a printer’s. The Grand Pavilion in Llandrindod Wells operated as a cinema from the 1920s to the 1950s. In March 2016, the Grand Pavilion Events, a community interest company, reopened the building as a venue for public hire and entertainments. The image shows that main hall still has the appearance of a cinema (minus the seating) and we were told that the stage was well suited to Welsh male voice choirs.

Wem Cinema’s history is chequered but happier. During the Taylor period, a number of local people worked for the cinema including Frederick Lodwick, the manager, who also worked for Shrewsbury & Wem Breweries. [His grandson Glenn Lodwick remembers going in on Sunday mornings to see the new films. On Tuesday mornings, on his way to school, he would collect posters from Denis Healey in the White Lion.] Mary Lodwick, Frederick’s sister, was the cashier and worked for the solicitors, Lee, Bygott & Eccleston as well. Kenneth and Sylvia Ratcliff were also on the payroll, Kenneth, who with his bother Vin kept a butcher’s shop on the High Street was the projectionist, and his sister was an usherette with Hilda Dromgool. Ticket prices in 1938 ranged from 3d to 1/3. On the 25th & 26th January 1938 (Mon/Tues), two films were showing, ‘The Captain’s Kid’ and ‘Satan meets a Lady’, the latter being a remake of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ with Bette Davis taking the Mary Astor role. The total takings for those two days

were £11/8/9. The playlist from 1941-42, shows that films being shown were fairly recent releases: ‘House of the Seven Gables’ with Vincent Price, George Sanders (1940); ‘49th Parallel’ with Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Glynis Johns (1941); ‘For Ever England’ with John Mills, Betty Balfour (1935). The latter is an adaption of a CS Forester novel of British naval officer singlehandedly defeating a German cruiser during WWI, with John Mills in his first starring role. It was probably chosen for the aptness of its theme in wartime. As expected, cartoons such as ‘Little Tough Mice’ (1939) featured. There were other sources of income for the cinema. During 1945, Persil paid £1/5/- for a 3-day screenings and Rinso paid the same for a film entitled ‘Bluebeard had 8 wives’.

Wem Cinema, along with many other market town cinemas, was not a purpose-built construction but a leased operation. Despite that they were successful enterprises and formed a major part of the entertainment provided for the people of the area. The coming decades were to bring major challenges as will be seen in the next article.