Wednesday 21st September 2016 - From flea-pit to picture palace - Cinema Architecture in Britain - Andrew Davies

Opened in 1909, The Palace Cinema, or ‘Picture Palace’, was one of the first purpose built cinemas in the country. It was designed by Letchworth architects, Parker and Unwin and was the first building in the Garden City with an electricity supply.

It was deliberately located at the then remote top end of Eastcheap to inhibit fire damage should the highly inflammable nitrate film catch fire. As an added precaution, the town fire station was built next door not long afterwards in 1911.

The Palace was set up by a local early pioneer of the cinema, Arthur Melbourne-Cooper The building itself was initially quite a plain, almost domestic design. The frontage incorporated two small shops but, tardis-like, beyond that was a single level auditorium with seating for 750 people.

It was extensively refurbished in 1924, with the introduction of balcony seating and most notably, a brand new façade, in the form of a Hollywood-Roman style triumphal arch, designed by local architect and auctioneer, Edgar Simmons.

Nonetheless, it was still affectionately known to the locals as the ‘flea-pit’!

In its early years it was regularly used as a venue for popular lectures about natural history and other topics, presented by the curator of Letchworth Museum, William Percival Westell.

In 1930, The Palace brought the first talkies to Letchworth, with features like ‘Mammy’ starring Al Jolson, or a young Maurice Chevalier in ‘Innocents of Paris’.

(Photograph and text: National Education Network Gallery)

about our lecturer:

Andrew Davies was born in 1955, and read law at Oxford, but he only ever wanted to talk about history. He has been very fortunate in turning his passions into his job.
He lectures extensively for NADFAS, the National Trust, London and Essex University Extra-Mural Departments, the Open University and the British Museum, travelling all over the world.
He is the author of nine books, and he appears frequently on television and radio.
In addition, he runs his own companies called “All About London and “All About Britain, which specialise in walks, talks, outings and holidays. Recent tours have included New York, the west coast of Ireland, Glasgow and North Wales