Monthly Archives: February 2012

Cambridge – a brief Cinema History

The recent BAFTAs made me think about cinema history in Cambridge and the number of local cinemas that have vanished in recent years.

In 1896 the first moving film was shown in London. But it was not until 1913 that Cambridge got its first purpose built cinema, the Playhouse.

The Playhouse, Mill Road – now Salvation Army Shop

But Cambridge residents were not unaccustomed to the new technology.  By 1910 several halls in Cambridge had Cinematography licenses.

In an age before television the popularity of cinema was enormous.

The picture houses brought the rest of the world to its audiences. Pathe newsreels of local and national events, film serials such as Dr Fu Manchu in the 1920s, Flash Gordon and Batman and Robin in the 40s and 50s attracted all ages to the excitement of the moving screen.

Local Cambridge undergraduates also sought out the cinemas.   In February 1912 a local newspaper reported that undergraduates had misbehaved, causing seats to be broken. As a result Mr. Hawkins published a notice in the Cambridge Daily News stating that, in compliance with the wishes of the majority of the patrons, the Empire was in future to be open to Townspeople Only.

The Kinema, Mill Road

By the mid 1930s people were in search of a better cinema going experience. Opened in 1937, The Regal was the largest cinema in town seating 1,869 and with a modern café over the entrance. The Victoria could seat 1,500.  They were modern and efficient whereas Halliwell, the famous film writer and critic, described the Playhouse as being ‘knobby, antique little place out in the suburbs, with gas radiators which always smelled dangerous without giving off much in the way of heat.’

The Victoria Cinema, Market Square – now Marks and Spencer

The Mill Road cinemas declined in popularity with people out of town and those wanting a clean, modern experience. Yet they remained well loved and used by those in the immediate area.

The Kinema particularly is still remembered with much fondness. Despite the fact that it was often referred to a ‘the Fleapit’.  It was a kind of mecca for all the poorer children who went there on a Saturday to escape into a fantasy world of cinema heroes.

A post about Cambridge Cinemas now and then coming up.


Frozen Cam

It may be frosty outside but Britain has largely escaped the savage winter weather that affects much of Europe at present.

Yet some British winters have gone down in the annals.  Of those, in Cambridgeshire 1895 and 1963 stand out.

Reporting the icy conditions in 1963, The Cambridge News recalled the ‘freeze-up of 1895’, ‘which lasted for six weeks, beginning in January.  A tremendous blizzard with snowdrifts hedge high was followed by a sudden but short thaw and then six weeks of severe frost.  There was skating on the Cam from Midsummer Common to Ely and skating on the roads.

Living on the edge of the Fens, where winter skating has a long tradition, many local people had their own skates – either proper boots or just blades that fixed to their shoes.  So on the few occasions when the Cam has frozen over sufficiently to allow safe skating, everyone took advantage.

Skating on the Cam near St John’s College 1963

It is hard to imagine that on the same ground where Jack Hobbs played cricket, ice skaters would pirouette in 1963.

Skating on Parker’s Piece 1963

The 1963 freeze-up didn’t please many.  Angry letters to the Cambridge News complained about people not clearing the pavements in front of their shops and houses.

‘Disgusted Ratepayer of Cambridge’ complained in a letter to the paper, ‘When I came to Cambridge in 1926, it was an offence if your frontage wasn’t cleared by 10 o’clock.’  He went on to say, ‘I was managing a shop on Mill Road at the time, and I had not got round to clearing the frontage by 9.50m.  A policeman came into the shop, looked at his watch, and politely reminded me that the pavement was to be cleared by 10am.’

The Cambridge News of January 1963 reported ‘ Children and Shoppers’ having to walk into the City as the weather ‘stopped buses and transport throughout Cambridge’ and ‘Many Building Workers’ being laid off.  William Sindal Ltd, builders, had apparently already been forced to lay off 70 men due to the conditions ‘with more to join that number if the current conditions prevail’.

That same year the WRVS came to the rescue of ‘Villagers Stranded in the City’ one weekend, most of whom had come into the City to go to dance halls and the Cinema.  They took 50 blankets to the Police Station where a canteen had brewed tea for those marooned.

Being temporarily stranded in the City Centre last Saturday night I did wonder what would happen to those people who were struggling to get back to the villages.  Taxis were in short supply and the night buses suddenly became most popular option.

Camaraderie quickly springs up amongst people trapped in such a situation.  Like the baker who survived the icy waters when the Titanic sank, strong spirits helped warm the soul and other parts.