What was the context into which Thompson introduced permanent cinema to Middlesbrough? The development of Middlesbrough as an industrial town began in 1830 with the completion of an extension of the world’s first railway, the Stockton to Darlington, to Middlesbrough.1 Coal from the South Durham pits would be transported by rail to Middlesbrough where it could be exported from the newly expanding docks. It was only a matter of time before associated industries grew up to use the coal locally and transport the goods made from the docks, and in the period 1880 to 1900 iron and steel production increased dramatically and fuelled the expansion and development of Middlesbrough as a heavy industrial town. So why did Thompson choose Middlesbrough? With a population at the time of around 100,000, it was almost twice as big as his home town of Hartlepool. While it was not as big as Sunderland (around 150,000 people), where he had seen George Black’s cinema, Middlesbrough had a large, and growing working class population. This social group was an obvious potential audience for showmen and theatrical entrepreneurs. Yet such entertainment had to be offered at the right price. Lady Bell investigated family life in Middlesbrough in 1900 and produced some average family budgets:
Family of Seven (including parents): Income = £1 6s = £1.30 2
|Sick Club & Insurance
|Coals, Light, Firewood
|Tea, Sugar etc.
|Rice, Peas, Barley
|Butter, Lard, Bacon
|Soap, Soda, Blue
|Boots and Clothing
|Balance to Credit
Money for entertainment was therefore very limited, so opening an entirely new venture in Middlesbrough in 1908 was a risky business. The hope, presumably, was to attract people away from the variety theatre as well as to create a new audience.
The theatrical rivals in the town at the time were the Royal Alhambra, the Theatre Royal (eventually to be bought by Thompson) and the Royal Albert Theatre, all opened between 1859 and 1866. There were also music halls including the Canterbury and the Oxford Palace of Varieties.3
In any consideration of Thompson’s career it is important to look at the cinemas he had in his base of Middlesbrough. His acquisition or construction of cinemas in Middlesbrough having started in 1908 with the Cleveland Hall, continued both in the town and its surroundings through to and beyond the sale of the bulk of his venues in 1928. Thompson was also involved in the purchase of three more rural venues just outside Middlesbrough, two with local managers.
Thompson’s commercial activity in 1910 shows just how quickly he had made a success of the Cleveland Hall. In February 1910 he bought the Hippodrome in Wilson Street, Middlesbrough. The Hippodrome had only been opened as a theatre in 1908 at a cost of £23,000 but had only lasted for eighteen months before being in serious financial difficulties. The cost of purchase as stated by Thompson4 was £13,000, around £800,000 in modern money. Given that he had started from nothing in 1908, it is remarkable that within two years he could buy the freehold of the Cleveland Hall and now buy the Hippodrome. Of course we do not know how much, if anything, he had to borrow but obviously if he needed to borrow he was regarded as a good risk. Compared with the cost of construction, he acquired the Hippodrome at a knockdown price. Since he wrote his diary entry on the day the Hippodrome reopened, the “cost” is most likely to include significant extra expenditure to comply with the new stringent safety requirements recently imposed under the Cinematograph Act 1908 which required, inter alia, sealed projection booths and extra exits because of the flammable and unstable nature of nitrate film stock. The Hippodrome had a seating capacity of 3,000, which was particularly high for the time. Indeed there were only one hundred and fifty cinemas in the country at the time with a capacity of over 2,000.5
An article in the North-Eastern Daily Gazette on the day of the Hippodrome’s opening describes its construction and fit out:
Externally it is a building of brick, faced with buff terracotta, handsomely carved. The entrance is sheltered by a porch of glass. One great advantage possessed by the hall lies in the fact that waiting rooms have been provided for gathering audiences for every part of the house … … … The whole hall has a light and cheerful appearance, and general admiration is expressed at the effective plastic decorations which have been done in the style of Louis XV., in gold, white, and cream, relieved with grey and blue. 6
It was the complete opposite of the Cleveland Hall with its benches and bare boards and while both were located in the centre of Middlesbrough, albeit near to different areas of housing, they were clearly designed to appeal to very different audiences. Further differentiation is shown from the fact that the musical accompaniment at the Cleveland Hall was provided by a pianist while the Hippodrome came with a full-time eighteen piece orchestra.
The low-cost no-frills formula obviously appealed to those who could afford nothing better, but because they were from the poorest parts of Middlesbrough society with associated bad housing and sanitary conditions it is, perhaps, no surprise that the Cleveland Hall became affectionately known as “the Bug and Flea”.
Thompson’s next project was the building of Middlesbrough’s first purpose-built cinema, the Pavilion Picture Palace. It was opened in July 1913. It followed Thompson’s plan to bring cinemas to the people, but long-term was not his biggest success among the local population, largely because it was pretty much a rectangular box, with a capacity of 900, built before the bravery and confidence in the industry allowed it to create extravagant and plush surroundings.
In terms of acquisitions or disposals in Middlesbrough, Thompson appears to have been content with his dominant market position for the next few years, or perhaps was simply accepting the grim economic situation of the time. However in 1924 he bought the Grand Opera House and installed his surviving son, Billy, as manager. It dated from the early 1900s and had been built at a cost of £38,000 (some £2.3m in modern money) indicating its size and lavish fit out. It was a large venue and even though it had a cinematographic licence in 1914, it provided a programme of mainly opera and theatre before its sale. That does not seem to have been enough for financial success.7
A factor in its failure may well have been the economic depression and so for the same reason it was brave of Thompson to take on another venue at that time, but he must have seen the price as a bargain and have known his local market so well that he knew what he was doing.
In view of the depression it is perhaps even more surprising that only a year later he went on to buy the Theatre Royal, also in difficulties, bringing the number of venues he owned in Middlesbrough up to five, out of a total of eleven cinemas in the town, some of which were very small or not permanent. He was truly the dominant exhibitor.
Although he sold all five of his Middlesbrough cinemas to Denman in 1928, he had already started the construction of a new venue in Middlesbrough before the sale had been completed. The Palladium was to be a new 780 seat cinema set in a parade of shops in a major new expansion of 700 homes to the south of Middlesbrough to be known as Grove Hill. Once again Thompson was taking cinema to the people and in this case he may even have got there before them. It was also the first of his cinemas to have on-site car parking, It is not known whether Thompson always wanted to keep this venue or whether Denman simply did not want to be involved in a construction project already started, given that they were probably taking on enough in acquiring so many cinemas in such a short time. The Palladium was only a short drive from Thompson’s home so maybe that played a part in its retention.
No look at Thompson’s different sites within Middlesbrough would be complete without a look at what the programmes offered to the public. Information on what was shown at his cinemas, or what else they were used for, is sketchy but some information is available from newspaper advertisements and reviews.The following week what must have been an amazing spectacle and novelty for the audience was “FOOTBALL FINAL FOR ASSOCIATION CUP Newcastle United v Wolves. At the Crystal Palace, 25th April 1908”.9
Apart from occasional early advertisements, it seems that Thompson relied solely on word of mouth or repeat business for the Cleveland Hall so we have no insight into what was shown there. Contemporary accounts confirm that the cinema was always busy and had a loyal clientele who could probably not afford to go to a more expensive location. For a venue such as the Cleveland Hall at that time one would have expected the programme to be continuous10, but the advertisement shows that two programmes a night were on offer at the start. This was very unusual as, at the time, films were never more than a few minutes long and profits were made by, say, showing the same one hour programme up to eight times a day and charging 2d to 3d for tickets.11 However as we have seen, in the early days Thompson just needed customers, so may have felt that a two show programme with fixed start times would be the most appealing to his target audience. We know that the Cleveland Hall was quickly a success and also that in January 1909 he was still offering two shows a night, so it looks as though it was more than an initial practice.12 Two shows a night became the norm in the industry as films became longer and it is once again clear that by 1922 Thompson was definitely operating on such as basis with matinees on Monday and Saturday at the Cleveland Hall.
We do not know if, in the early days, he showed the same films at more than one of his venues in Middlesbrough either at the same time or consecutively. As a good businessman he knew one of the advantages of having a number of venues was the ability to share films, to make the most of the rental paid. It may particularly have helped in the early days in Middlesbrough, when he just owned the Cleveland Hall and the Hippodrome. Although the prices at the Cleveland Hall were lower than at the Hippodrome, given the different facilities there would have been little likelihood of its customers being attracted by the lower prices at the “Bug and Flea”.
The Hippodrome, or “Hip” as it was popularly known, provided a more up-market show combining variety with films. However with its huge capacity it had to attract a wide audience and according to the reminiscences of one of Thompson’s employees, there were always queues to get in.13
Film, variety and theatre were not the only uses for cinema buildings. Thompson was an active Liberal so it is no surprise that he should offer the use of the big capacity Hippodrome to Lloyd George for a public meeting to be held on the weekend of 7th – 9th November 1913.14
We have already seen that the Pavilion Picture Palace was a basic venue. It is therefore revealing to note the similarity in films offered between it and the more up-market Hippodrome. The What Happened to Mary? series was being shown at the Hippodrome in September 191315 and only three months later a linked series, Who Will Marry Mary? was on show at the Pavilion Picture Palace.16 It is interesting to see what the accompanying programme was at each venue, in case this enables us to differentiate between the venues and their audiences. The Hippodrome offered “Edna Latonne, the popular dashing male impersonator” and “Harry Edson, with his droll musical dog comedian, ‘Doc.’”17 The Pavilion had “The 9 Quicks, in exquisite singing, harmony, and dancing”18 . Perhaps unsurprisingly these could probably both be described as music hall entertainment aimed at similar audiences.
The suspected link between what was shown at Thompson’s Middlesbrough cinemas is proved in January 1920 with the Hippodrome showing When Woman Wars, and Hell Morgan’s Girl on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and Fight for Millions and Arizona on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. At the Pavilion the programme was the same except that the films were shown in the opposite order.19 The films were being shown at two venues a night and Thompson was clearly maximising the use of films rented for the week. There is every likelihood that he also did this with his other venues.
Being the leading local exhibitor, it is not surprising that Thompson could secure the best or most popular films. 28th August 1916 saw the Hippodrome showing what was a most significant film in a number of ways. The Battle of the Somme (1916) is widely credited with starting a change in the class profile of cinema audiences. Up to two thirds of the population of the country are said to have seen the film and for many of the middle class it was the first time they had been to the cinema. Looking at the papers of the day it is easy to see why. For months every paper had daily news from the Somme. In Middlesbrough, Thompson advertised it enthusiastically:
• “An exact depiction of the greatest battle in the history of the world”
• “Absolutely the Greatest War Picture Ever Shown”20
While it did include re-enacted scenes, it was largely real soldiers and action that was shown, so people saw this as an opportunity to find out what their family members, loved ones and friends were experiencing. While there had been film of the Boer War, that had been almost exclusively re-enacted, but this claimed to be, and largely was, the real thing.
The local paper was both patriotic and effusive in its coverage of the film.
In the pictures of the British participation in the battle of the Somme, part one opens with the preparatory action, and very soon we were watching the scenes at Bray ….
The handling of the ammunition is shown in practically all its forms, and the vast supplies indicate how tremendous has been the response of the munitions workers to the appeals of our brave lads at the front.
Having experienced cinema, the middle class gradually made up an increasing proportion of audiences nationally and there is no reason why the same would not have happened in Middlesbrough. We know that the film was popular there because it was back again at the Hippodrome in the middle of October.21
Thompson’s bravery in taking on two big new venues in Middlesbrough, the Grand Opera House and the Theatre Royal, at the height of the depression has already been mentioned but he may have regarded them as being opportunities he could not refuse, and having twenty five cinemas already he must have had a good idea what venues would work in what locations and what programmes they should offer. Presumably also these venues appealed to people slightly further up the social ladder, now making up an increasing proportion of the audience, rather than to those most directly affected by the depression.
Shortly after its acquisition by Thompson, the Grand Opera House’s programme still consisted substantially of plays and light and classical opera but now included films.22 While there is little information on what films were shown there, advertisements for their theatrical shows reveal that the programme included serious plays and comedies but none of the “turns” popular at the other venues.
Being a pioneer, Thompson had no model of management to follow but he obviously learnt a lot very quickly. Initially at the Cleveland Hall he simply used a black bag as the “box office” and the show was delivered by a hand-cranked projector, sometimes operated by himself, with accompaniment from a piano.23 He later recalled the early difficulties:
I did not make any money out of the place for the first 13 weeks and I can remember how, after each performance, I used to go in front of the screen and ask those present if they enjoyed themselves – if so to send their friends along.24
The flammability of the nitrate stock used at the time meant that fires were not an uncommon event. Thompson’s own diary records in 1908 “Film fired at Cleveland Hall, Mbro’ Audience stampeded”.25 The local paper gave a fuller account and mentioned that the audience could make a rapid exit because of the wide staircase.26 This safety advantage of the hall was in many other ways a disadvantage, as there were thirty-nine steps to climb to enter the building. It was therefore at the bottom of the stairs that Thompson attracted his audience. Reminiscing in the local paper years later he recalled how “helpful” the fire had been.
It was a fire I had shortly after I had opened that marked the turning point in the success of my venture….Remarkably enough, from then onwards the hall became very popular…27
However there was a serious side to the ever-present risk of fire. A description of the purpose-built Pavilion in 1913 made it clear that safety was a serious issue:
Adequate arrangements have been made for dealing with fire, and there are eight exits.28
An interview with “Mrs D”, who had worked for Thompson, is useful in that it provides some information about how Thompson ran his circuit:
We got films from a distributor in Newcastle, that was full of distributors, and then we would book them out to all these little places with a variety act.29
Another essential management issue was the cost of entry. Charges will have reflected, inter alia, the programme on offer, the facilities of the venue, its location, its size and staff costs. The earliest date that we can compare the costs charged at Thompson’s Middlesbrough sites is 1926.30 The cheapest seats at the Cleveland Hall, the Hippodrome, the Pavilion Picture Palace, the Grand Opera House and the Theatre Royal were, respectively, 3d, 4d, 3d, 4d and 3d. If one considers the likely differences between the facilities and comfort of the venues, one might have expected a bigger price differentiation. Were the cheapest parts of the Theatre Royal really not worth more than the cheapest, probably standing space in the “Bug and Flea” (the Cleveland Hall)? A more marked, but not unexpected, difference was with the most expensive seats, where the rates were respectively, 6d, 1s 3d, 9d, 1s 8d and 1s 6d. There simply was not the variety of seats available at the Cleveland Hall and the Pavilion Picture Palace as there was at the other cinemas with their balconies and boxes. Presumably the theatrical kudos and more up-market programmes attaching to the Grand Opera House and the Theatre Royal explains the highest prices at those venues.