The story of Rowlands Gill’s Two Cinemas
If we want to go to the cinema today we have to travel to the Metro Centre or Newcastle, but thirty years ago we could have stayed in the village because Rowlands Gill had its very own cinema. This was not at all unusual because many villages had a cinema. In our area there were cinemas at High Spen, Chopwell, Winlaton and Blaydon. Instead of choosing which television channel or which video to watch we chose which cinema to go to.
Rowlands Gill’s first cinema was built at the beginning of 1910 by Mr William Smith who lived in Wingrove at Rowlands Gill. It was built where the Vale of Derwent Social Club now stands. We call this Burnopfield Road today but in those days it was called Station Road and it was centre of the village. The building was made of wood and corrugated iron sheets, it measured 64 feet (19.5 metres) long and 60 feet (18.3 metres) wide. The walls were 9 feet (2.7 metres) high and it had two sloping roofs. Inside it was really just one large room but in one corner there was a small office with a sliding window.
It was not used as a cinema at first, it was just a roller-skating rink. Roller skating was a very popular sport at the time and the local children used it whenever they could. In those days roller skates needed a lot of grease to make the wheels turn properly and some of this would always get onto the floor making it slippy and very dirty. If anyone fell down, and most of the children fell down every time they went, they would go home covered in thick black grease from head to foot. Naturally their mothers and fathers soon got tired of this and many children were told not to go back there.
In 1912 the owners – by then it was owned by a firm called Biddle and Co – decided that the roller-skating rink was not making enough money. The people of Rowlands Gill wanted a cinema, after all Burnopfield already had two, so Biddle and Co decided to use half of their building as a cinema and leave the other half as a skating rink. They built an inside wall down the middle of the building and soon the cinema was in use. It was known as “The Pavillion”
The films were all silent at that time and every cinema had a piano which was played while the film was being shown. The pianist chose the music carefully, it would have to be slow, sad music for sad parts of a film and fast, exciting music when cowboys were chasing indians. An old lady, Mrs Eva Lumley, who lived in Cowen Terrace until her death in 1986, remembered playing the piano in this cinema when she was only 12 or 13 years old.
Between films there was always an interval when a live act would perform on the stage in front of the screen. It might be a ventriloquist, a comedian or a singer. On Thursday May 29th 1913 it was a dancing group called “The Four Eldons” and one of the dancers, Gilbert Askham: from Leeds, was involved in an awful accident. After the show Gilbert, who was 17 years, old went for a walk with a local girl called Florence Ashall aged 18 years. They went into the goods yard beside the railway station and they were hit by a coal truck. Both Florence and Gilbert were killed.
Soon after the cinema opened the roller-skating rink was turned into a dance hall, but by 1916 the whole place was closed. Some people say it burnt down and some think it was forced to close because it was so badly built and it became too dangerous to use. Perhaps it closed because in 1916 people had more important things to do than dance or go to the cinema, Britain was fighting a horrible war against Germany – World War One.
At about the same time as the first cinema opened Rowlands Gill actually had a theatre for a short time. A travelling theatre company arrived in the village and put up a large tent on the field between “The White House” and Curry and Wake’s garage, right beside the main road. Of course the garage was not there then and the field was a bit bigger than it is today because the road has been moved since then. The theatre company stayed for a few months and put on many plays such as “Maria and the Red Barn”. The local people called this theatre “The Gaff”.
Rowlands Gill’s second cinema, “The Picture House”, was built during 1919 by a local building firm called Bowers and Woodman. You can still see the roof and part of the frontage, it is the middle part of the William Low Supermarket. This cinema was much larger than the first and could seat more than 400 people. It had a downstairs with 15 rows of benches. The front five rows were called the “pits” and the rest were the “stalls” Behind the stalls there was an upstairs part called the “balcony”. The pits were the cheapest seats and had a separate entrance on Stirling Lane. For the other seats you came in the main entrance and either went up a short staircase to the balcony or along a passage to the stalls.
There was a shop on each side of the cinema entrance – they were actually underneath the balcony seating areas – and four shops were built along the side of the cinema facing St Barnabas Church. Three years later a garage was built on the other side of the cinema.
In front of the screen there was an orchestra pit, just like an ordinary theatre has today, because the films were still silent ones and they still needed a piano to play while the films were being shown. The first films with sound were shown about 1930.
There were a few other changes over the years. They stopped using the separate entrance to the pits. After that there was just the stalls and the balcony, and everybody came in the main door. In the 1950s a new screen was fitted which could be used for cinemascope films as well as ordinary ones. Cinemascope screens had a different shape, they were much wider, and the screen shape was changed by turning a handle behind the screen. Another change in the 1950s was the start of Sunday opening. Until then the law did not allow cinemas to open on Sundays.
A show usually consisted of a short film, a cartoon and the “big picture”, and there were nearly always four different shows each week. One for Sunday, one for Monday and Tuesday, one for Wednesday and Thursday and one for Friday and Saturday. There was only one “house” each night – that means one showing of each film – except on Saturdays when there were two houses. If they had a really good film like “The Ten Commandments”, they would show it all week. Then there was the children’s matinee every Saturday morning. This consisted of a comedy – perhaps “The Three Stooges” – a few cartoons and a serial – something like “Flash Gordon” or “Tarzan” perhaps. The serial always ended with a “cliff-hanger” where the hero was about to get shot or fall from an aeroplane, and you had to wait until the next weekend to find out how he escaped certain death.
There were posters around the main entrance to let you know which films were on that week, a large poster above the entrance and smaller ones on either side. These posters were hand painted and were pasted onto boards fixed to the wall. There were also “stills” – photographs of scenes from the films – on both sides of the doors and on the doors themselves.
The shop on the left of the main entrance was a barber’s shop and it was run by Sid Davidson. Mr Davidson also ran the choir and Sunday School at Strathmore Road Methodist Church. The shop on the other side was Fred Humphrey’s sweet shop. Mr Humphrey was also the manager of the cinema until 1959. The cinema owner was Sid Dawson who lived in Newcastle. Other regular members of the cinema staff were Olive Stapleton, Seeley Grigg, Billy and Bobby Hanratty, Bob Brown and his wife, and Alan Doyle.
The queue for the cinema went along in front of the sweet shop and sometimes, especially on Saturday nights, right around the corner and along Stirling Lane. When you went into the cinema you had to buy a ticket at a little window beside the stairs. Then you went to the balcony or the stalls and someone would tear your ticket in half and you sat down. While you waited for the show to start you listened to records; they only had a few records and they always seemed to be playing “Yellow Rose of Texas” or “Pretty Little Black Eyed Susie”. When it was time to start the show, the main lights would dim and go out leaving just small lights on the walls and gas lights above the doors. Then the big red curtain would open and the first film would start. During the show someone came around selling ice cream.
When BBC television arrived in the area in 1953 a lot of people stopped going to the cinema and things got even worse when Tyne Tees Television started in 1959. The cinema was not making enough profit, so in 1960 Mr Dawson decided to have Bingo instead of films on two nights each week. This helped a little but not enough, and the cinema closed for good on Friday November 30th 1962. It was supposed to close a day later, but some vandals caused a lot of damage on the Friday night and the owner decided not to open again. The last film shown was “I was a Teenage Werewolf”.
The cinema was bought by Laws Stores. They already owned three of the four shops facing the church. The cinema and the shops were made into a supermarket. In the early 1980s Laws Stores also bought the garage beside the cinema building and made an even larger supermarket, the one we can see today. This was later taken over by William Low and ultimately by Tesco.
(Originally written for schoolchildren aged ~11 yrs, hence the language used in places. Copies were given to local schools in 1991. BP)