The Story of the Palace Cinema

The Palce Cinema still stands rather awkwardly on the Stratford Road in its original location. It ceased to function as a cinema over 50 years ago and it has had various uses since then.

In my young and teenage years it was regarded as a bit of a flea pit. The last renovation was in 1935 and the interior was certainly frayed at the edges. The Empire was regarded as the better cinema.

The great sensation of 1956 was the release of the film Rock Around the Clock, a sort of biopic about Bill Hayley and the Comets who had been projected to unlikely stardom by the release of the hit record. Looking back now, I think it was a ‘B’ movie to end all ‘B’ movies, hurriedly put together to cha in on the craze.  Bill Haley and his band had been on the road for year and were approaching their late 30s Two of them including Haley himself were balding and Haley had a few strands of his forelock arranged like a question mark on his forehead. The publicists dubbed it a “kiss curl.” At any rate it wasn’t a Bobby Charlton comb-over.

Even so, they brought a new energy to popular music,, quickly supplanting the mellifluous ballads that were typically crooned at the time. It was a  revolution to us and the Palace was packed with primed teenagers, all pumped up ready to jive in the aisles.

The manager, sensing trouble, came out to warn us that no misbehaviour would be tolerated. In those days that was enough to settle us down.

The filmmakers had hired some dancers to accompany the band in the film  and as jivers they were pretty good. Lots of throwing over the shoulder and hips and swinging under legs. At one moment a female dancer was supported overhead by her crotch and this became too much for one boy, who shouted out,

” ‘E’s got ‘er quim!”

This was greeted by laughter and stamping of feet and another visit from the manager, who stopped the film and put us on final warning.

The Picture Palace was the first of its kind in Wolverton and was erected in 1911. Astonishingly, the building of the Palace took only nine weeks from the laying of the foundation stone to its opening on December 11th 1911. Even in those simpler days this was some feat of organisation and this probably tells us something about the very remarkable man who gave us the Palace Cinema – George Barber.

George Barber was born in 1860 in Tunstall, one of the potteries towns in the worst of imaginable circumstance in Victorian times. He grew up in the Workhouse. The Workhouse was conceived with charitable intent but Victorin attitudes insisted that the charity be earned through work. So the inmates of the workhouse got food and shelter in return for menial and often back-breaking work together with the loss of status that being in the workhouse implied. Many, who out of desperation committed themselves to the workhouse, were single unmarried mothers who had no other support for themselves or their child.

George Barber was not quite in that predicament but at the age of five his father became too ill to work and without any other means of support the family had to commit themselves to the workhouse

For most people that would have meant a miserable life at the lower margins of society, but there was something in George Barber that drove him to rise above his circumstances. He taught himself to read and write and learned mathematics. He learned to play the accordion so that he could earn money in pubs  and as a boy about 12 or 13 went to work in the mines. Later he found work with a chemical manufacturer and advanced to become a chemical and gas engineer.

All of this was in his native town of Tunstall and it was here, in 1909, that he opened his first Picture Place. He was approaching 40 and this was certainly an adventurous phase in his career. This was the new age of cinema and George Barber was ready to take advantage. He had opened a picture house in Bletchley earlier in 1911 and this foray into North Bucks must have brought Wolverton to his attention.

The first showing on December 18th in Wolverton was a film called Zigomar. Not much is known about it except that it was a French production – not that that would have mattered in the silent era – and it was a 3 – reeler. That is the total playing time was about 35 minutes. With reel changes the actual time for the audience would have been about 1 hour. Moving picture were such a great novelty in 1911 that I don’t suppose anyone minded at all about some of the things that would bother us today.

George Barber stayed in Tunstall, eventually becoming Mayor of Stoke on Trent, but he sent down a manager, Mr Thomas Moss, to run his Wolverton Picture Palace.

In 1920 a steel girder was installed to span the building so that a larger balcony could be supported. In the same year Barber opened the Scala at Stony Stratford. Thomas Moss moved to Stony to manage the new facility while Jack his son was left to manage the Wolverton Palace.

In 1923 Barber initiated a publicity stunt whereby “messages” were dropped from a plane on June 21st. These messages are essentially numbered tickets and in the weeks following a number was flashed on the screen in the interval. Anyone with a matching number would be entitled to 10s.

The last serious renovations were undertaken in 1935., and although these were extensive – lush seats, new thick pile carpet, by the mid 1950s it was all looking a bit shabby.

George Barber died in 1946 and either around that time or before the theatres were sold.
In 1955 the Palace and the Scala were owned by F W Allwood Theatres who went out of business in July 1955. The cinemas were then acquired by a Mr EV Thomason. He struggled to make them financially viable and did not renew the entertainment licence which expired at the end of 1960. The Palce officially closed on January 23rd 1961 after screening a film called The Tattered Dress.

The property was subsequently acquired by a man called Eddie Green, who owned the California Ballroom in Dunstable. His plan was to convert the Palace into an entertainment and dance centre and he succeeded in getting a music and dancing licence on August 17th 1962. Later he was able to get the premises licensed for the sale of alcohol.

It proved a popular venue and several big names in the entertainment industry of the day made their way to Wolverton.

On weeknights when music and dancing was not allowed Bingo was the min entertainment and indeed, only three years later, in 1965, the South Midland Social and Bingo Club purchased the Palace. The magistrates were increasingly reluctant to grant occasional music and dance licences because of persistent unly behaviour outside the dance hall and eventually the palace settled into becoming a Bingo venue. Zetters acquired the site as a bingo Hall in 1970 until 1999.

I was u for sale for many years until it was acquired by the Pentecostal Church for Faith Ministries.

A some time during these years the awning at the front, which was a useful bus shelter as well as providing some decorative embellishment, was taken down. The building, now painted apple blue looks very stark.

The Story of the Empire Cinema

Those of us who grew up in Wolverton in the 1940s and 1950s  and attended the Saturday morning matinees for children at 6d (later 9d) a session probably believed the cinema had been there forever. In actuality its history was a short one, but nonetheless quite interesting.

The Empire Cinema in its heyday

The interesting development of this property owes everything to Fred Tilley, a Wolverton born entrepreneur. He was born in 1870 at 75 leadsman Street and his father William was working as a smith on engines in the railway works. When engine building and maintenance was finally moved to Crewe in 1877, it appears that William Tilley moved  as well and took his family to Crewe.
There Fred served is apprenticeship as a turner and moved back to Wolverton around 1891 once he had completed his apprenticeship.

Once back in Wolverton he must have set eyes on Jane Knight, a daughter of William Knight, once a coach painter, but now a businessman. William Knight hit upon the idea of tendering for surplus railway sleepers and selling them for firewood. In this straightforward way he became quite prosperous and could afford a large house at 2 Market Square.

Fred Tilley proposed to Jane but she turned him down so he decided to try his luck in the US, following a brother who had emigrated some years before. There he worked as a toolmaker in a Brooklyn shipyard. He probably would have made a success of life there and we would never have heard of him, but it does seem that he was determined to win Jane Knight, and on his return, with a bit of money behind him, he was able to impress her sufficiently to agree to marry him. They were married at St George’s on October 13th 1900.

Fred Tilley with his wife and family outside their house at 81 Victoria Street.

He was now working as a tool maker in Coventry but the couple were prevailed upon by William Knight to return to Wolverton so that the grandchildren could grow up there. Fred was co-opted into his father-in-law’s business as a firewood dealer. I should also mention that William Knight at the end of his life owned a number of properties in Wolverton, which on his death in 1908 was divided between his two son’s and his daughter, Jane.

In 1911, at the age of 40, Fred Tilley started to blossom in his own business ventures. He started up a wooden toy factory, known as The English Novelty Company, at the back of six cottages which he owned on Church Street.

This view of Church street, taken in 1902, shows the terraced houses that were eventually replaced by the Empire and the Post Office.

The war proved to be the making of Tilley. The wooden toy market had hitherto been dominated by the Germans, but imports were impossible after 1914, and demand for Tilley’s products increased. The company produced wooden engines, cars, armoured cars, forts, castles, doll’s bedsteads, train sets, bridges, tramcars and wooden play blocks. By 1917 the premises had expanded to 13,000 square feet and employed 100 people, mostly boys and young women.

There appears to have been some concern for health and safety and the building was tall and airy and was fitted with an extractor fan to take sawdust out of the building.

In March 1918 the Board of Trade sponsored a British Industries Fair where Tilley’s toys were exhibited to much acclaim.

This was the high point for the industry, for no sooner was peace declared the Germans resumed manufacture and their high quality and lower price (due to Germany’s ready access to raw materials) began to eat into the profitability of the English Novelty Company.

A view from the Vic corner, 1902

Never short of ideas, Fred Tilley converted the paint shop of his factory into a concert hall. It had a corrugated iron roof which must have been noisy during rainy days, but nonetheless the enterprise went forward, Wooden tip up seats were laid out in rows before the stage and on December 4th 1922 the New Empire Palace of Varieties opened with entertainment from the Star London Company. Judging from the names of the entertainers on this bill, these were not household names, but no doubt Wolverton people were grateful that these entertainments were on offer in the town.

The opening attraction for the newt theatre in 1922

Another variety production at the Empire: Sep 11th 1925

The premises were also used as a dance hall but the two functions were not really compatible and in May 1923, after a production of Ship Ahoy, the theatre was closed for renovations. The stage was enlarged and the seating capacity increased from 500 to 800. Fred Tilley himself was content to take a back seat in this enterprise and leased the premises to people in the entertainment industry.
In 1926 films were introduced, silent films of course, one and two reelers with a pianist thundering away his accompaniment.

In 1932 the County Council gave permission for the cinema to show “talkies” and on Monday November 21st 1932, the first sound and motion pictures were shown. The cinema was redecorated in red and gold and upholstered seats were provided in the balcony. There were still concerts. The Wolverton Light Orchestra, for example, gave a concert every Sunday evening, but the live acts were now local amateurs, rather than travelling professionals.

Interior view of the Empire

The cinema arm, the mainstay of the business, was now in the hands of Union Cinemas.

In 1936 Fred Tilley sold the lots next door to the Empire to the Post Office, who then built a new General Post Office. 30 years later, with the cinema industry in general decline, the Post Office purchased the property after the expiry of the lease in 1969.

The last show at the cinema was a double bill of british films, “Carry on Cleo” and Carry on Screaming”. The date was May 17th 1969. After that the cinema closed its doors.

The Post Office has also moved on and the former Empire is now a furniture store.

The buildings as they are today