The history of cinemas in Burnley

Burnley town centre
Burnley town centre

A few days ago, a family friend called to see me and asked if I would be interested in having a copy of the Souvenir Programme for the opening of the Grand Super Cinema, Burnley.

I said I would accept the programme on behalf of the Briercliffe Society, and was particularly pleased to do so as I thought the document might resolve a few of the problems associated with this building.

Burnley town centre

Burnley town centre

I ought to add that I do not regard myself as being especially knowledgeable about the history of Burnley’s theatres and cinemas. Others are better qualified than I am on this subject and if they can throw any light on the origins of the Grand, I would be pleased to hear from them.

The problems I have identified about the Grand Super Cinema, the proper name, are about when it was built and how it was used in its early days but, before we look into these problems in detail, let me tell you what we do know about the Grand.

One of the best places to start is a Commercial Directory of Burnley. These volumes, published regularly until the 1960s, contain information about many of the town’s facilities and the 1937 Directory has the following about the Grand: “The Grand Super Cinema, St James’s Street, opened in 1922, is one of the most luxuriously furnished and is also one of the best equipped in the provinces. It has accommodation for about 950. Lancaster, Son and Parkinson, architects”.

This entry contains only minimal information about the Grand but it does tell us where it was, when the cinema opened and its size. Some interesting comments are made about the facilities for its patrons but notice an important word is used – opened – rather than built, and there lies one of the problems relating to the Grand which have concerned me for some time.

The 1937 Directory is more helpful about other places of entertainment in Burnley.

For the Empire, on the lower part of St James’s Street, we are told that though it was opened in 1894, as a theatre, that it was rebuilt and opened again in 1911. The reference to the Palace, also in St James’s Street, is definitive as it tells us the Palace was built in 1907.

The other building used as a cinema, and mentioned in the 1937 Directory, is the Savoy, in Manchester Road.

The compilers of the Directory do not trouble us with dates in their entry but we know this building, the first in Burnley to introduce “talkies”, as they were called, was completed in 1922.

The Grand was a cinema from 1922 to 1956 when the building closed. This latter year marks the beginning of the end for many of Burnley’s cinemas. Cinema-going reached a peak in the years immediately after the Second World War to the early 1950s. In 1953 the Coronation had the consequence of many people acquiring a “television set” so they could see the great event in the “comfort of their own homes”. The result was that, once TVs were purchased, attendance at cinemas began to plummet.

Burnley lost the Alhambra, which was in Trafalgar Street, in 1955 and the Savoy and Temperance Hall, along with the Grand, followed the following year. The Savoy was demolished to make way for a branch of Martin’s Bank in 1961 but I am not sure when the Grand itself was pulled down. It was, of course, a victim of Burnley’s much-criticised town centre redevelopment scheme but that scheme lasted for about 15 years from 1964 and the Palace-Grand block was constructed towards the end of the project.

What I can remember is Cooper’s Supermarket being constructed either on the site of the Grand, or close to it. This became Burnley’s first Tesco store and the last time I was at my solicitors, Smith Sutcliffe in Manchester Road, they had a superb photo of this early Tesco store on the wall in their reception area. Later the site was converted into a steak house run by J.W. Lees, the Manchester brewer. I can recall this as one of my cousins was the manager, though the restaurant was too expensive for me! Mind you, I was consoled by convincing myself I did not like steak. The site later became Burnley’s first MacDonald’s which it remains.

This article is not the place for a detailed history of Burnley’s cinemas but it might be interesting for you to know how local cinema building fits with what was happening nationally. It is generally thought the first public film projection in Britain took place at the old Regent Street Polytechnic, London, in 1896. It had been organised by the Lumiere brothers from Paris.

The showing was such a success that cities all over the country were quick to follow. Manchester’s first public film projection took place on December 3rd of the same year at the St James’s Theatre in Oxford Street and then, shortly after, there was another showing at the old YMCA building in St Peter’s Street.

It is thought Burnley’s introduction to the public showing of films took place in 1897 but it is known that, a year later, the old Empire theatre screened a production of the famous Corbett – Fitzsimmons heavy weight fight for the world championship. This was such a success that interest in the showing of films grew immensely and this was increased by the showing of films about British involvement in the Boer War in South Africa. A Bioscope of the Boer War, “Deeds that won the Empire” was shown in Burnley on December 22nd, 1900.

In the early days, films were shown as parts of travelling shows or in tents on show grounds. They competed for popularity with skating rinks and when the latter proved not to be as enduring their buildings were often converted into primitive cinemas. Buildings that had previously been theatres began to be used for the showing of films but there was a problem that was not resolved until the passing of the Cinematograph Act of 1909.

This Act became operative in 1910 but its importance lies in the fact it placed the responsibility for public safety in the hands of local authorities. By this time Burnley was a County Borough so it became responsible for making sure the buildings in which films were shown were safe for the public. The problem was the material, nitrate celluloid, out of which film was made. It was highly volatile, given to self-combustion which was not helped by the heat generated by lighting necessary in the projection process.

Another Act of 1907 extended limited liability to smaller companies increasing the willingness of local businessmen to invest in cinemas. In the years up to the First World War a number of cinemas were built. The first one in Manchester was the Grand which opened in December, 1906.

In Burnley the first regular cinemas were in converted buildings at the Empire Theatre, in the Church Institute in Manchester Road and at the Temperance Hall in Parker Lane. These were all used in 1909 for the screening of films. In fact, the Empire changed its name, briefly, to the Empire Animated Picture Hall in that year though it reverted to “Music Hall” within a few months.

It was not until 1912 that Burnley got its first purpose-built cinema, the Alhambra in Trafalgar Street. I should add this attribution has been disputed and more work should be done to indicate for sure whether it was or not. However, when the war started in 1914 cinema building came to a conclusion not only in Burnley but throughout the country. This lasted for the duration and it was not until 1920 that interest in cinema building developed again.

The Grand, Burnley, was one of this new wave of cinemas. The Souvenir Programme, which I have referred to in this article, contains a lot of information about the building. It was opened on Monday, September 18th, 1922, by then Mayor of Burnley Alderman Edwin Whitehead JP, of the firm of Whitehead and Leaver, cotton manufacturers of Rakehead and Fulledge Mills. Also present was the Mayoress, Mrs Whitehead, the Rt Rev. Dr Henn, Bishop of Burnley, members of the borough council and representatives from various public bodies.

The souvenir contains a splendid photo of the front elevation of the building but, more than that, there are several pictures of inside the structure showing the seating arrangements, the entrance and pay office, the Chinese Crush Hall and Tudor Hall. However, the text gives us some interesting information when it tells us Lancaster and Parkinson, of Nicholas Street, Burnley, the architects, “were entrusted with the alterations, planning and remodelling of the building”.

So the question is – was the Grand completely new in 1922? I do not think it was and, to answer this question, I am going back to a Commercial Directory for Burnley but, this time, to 1914. The entry for St James’s Street is as follows: 27 Tram Office; 25 Palace Theatre and Hippodrome; 23 Stanley Bros, tailors and Liverpool Victoria Insurance Offices; 21 W. Holt (Burnley) Ltd, billiard hall; 19 Willie Holt (Burnley) Ltd, sports outfitters; 9 William Seed, confectioner.

The Tram Office was well established, as was the Palace, so we would expect them to be there in 1914. Next door there was a tailor’s shop and the offices of the Liverpool Victoria and these were the site of the Grand. You can see the shop, and the premises formerly occupied by the Liverpool Victoria, left to right in the first of the postcard views which accompany this article. The structures in which we are interested are in the middle area of the picture; the Tram Office, with its famous clock; then the Palace, followed by the Grand. Note, though, that here there is no sign that the latter building was a cinema.

The card was posted in 1926 but the image, upon which it is based, could have been taken before 1922 when the Grand opened. In the Souvenir publication, which we know dates to 1922, the words “Grand Super Cinema” are prominent features of the photo and these can be seen in the second card. There is no date for this second card but, as the name of the cinema was in place, the photo upon which it is based must have been taken in 1922 or after.

We should now consider another Directory, this time for 1927-8. The sequence of buildings here is: 27 Tram Office which is followed (without numbers) by “Palace Theatre and Hippodrome” and “Grand Super Cinema” which is followed by 9 William Seed, confectioner.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that the Grand, though it might have opened in 1922, was not built in that year. The façade of the cinema, though altered, had been constructed, maybe 10 or more years before, when most of the building had been used as an insurance office.

It could be that you might think all of this has not been worth the effort but, for me, it has been and I would not have tried to resolve the problems relating to the Grand, a building which no longer exists, had not Alison brought the 1922 souvenir to me. If any of you have any comments on my reasoning, I would be pleased to hear from you.