The Beginning – 1908–1914
The first question that has to be asked is what makes a humble poorly paid Hartlepool shipping clerk, at the age of 44 and with a wife and six children2, decide to give up his job and become a film exhibitor? Although films had been displayed to wondering audiences since 1896 they were still an occasional occurrence. Many thought they were a passing phase, so it was not the sure-fire winner it might be considered in hindsight. J W Saunders suggests that he “decided to start his life again”3 and suggests what may have driven his decision and led to his success:
It seems to have been a determination to abandon the humdrum, and follow thereafter the dictates of his heart. As he prospered he was not sidetracked, like other businessmen, into civic or political ambitions.4 He was truly a monomaniac, every moment devoted to his passion for cinema. He was shrewd, successful, and well-rewarded.5
Family oral history has Thompson jointly setting up the first cinema in the North-East with George Black in South Shields. The recorded story of how Thompson came up with the idea of going into cinemas is that he was walking near the old John Street Methodist Chapel in Sunderland, opened as a cinema by the Black Brothers in 1907, when he saw children rushing to the hall with money in their hands. He asked a passer-by what was going on and the reply was: “Oh the children are going to the ‘flicks’ at Blacks’. It’s a bit of a novelty. The missus and I went the other night.”6 This apparently gave him the inspiration he needed. Perhaps being cautious, or simply lacking the money to buy it outright, he rented the Cleveland Hall on Newport Street, Middlesbrough, a building that had been built in the 1860s and that had subsequently been used as the Social and Liberal Club, in which guise it was eventually and occasionally used for film shows by travelling showmen. Thompson used his savings to buy second-hand projection equipment and set about attracting an audience.
While many people might have seen a film before, they did not have the habit of regular attendance that Thompson needed if he was to be successful. The facilities were basic. The floor was flat and not raked as in theatres or subsequent purpose-built cinemas and people stood or sat on wooden benches. Customers also had to climb a number of stone steps outside to get into the buildiing so there were plenty of obstacles to attendance and you had to be quite determined to get in. His film shows started in April 1908 and featured live acts between the films. Apparently one way of encouraging people to attend was to give tickets away. As one recipient was reported to have commented, “Mister it must be a bad show, if you’re having to do this!”.7
Things obviously went well as in 1910 he bought the Cleveland Hall and in the same year bought the Hippodrome in Wilson Street, Middlesbrough, only opened as a theatre in 1908. Although this purchase was perhaps opportunistic, given the insolvency of the Hippodrome, it may well show an early understanding by Thompson of the benefits of size and proximity in a film exhibition business, a concept he used to expand his business. While these must have been exciting years they were also tinged with personal tragedy. In 1911 his eldest son was killed in a motorbike accident. It is, perhaps, a sign that he had already made a big impact in the industry that The Bioscope provided a detailed obituary for the death of his son, while the death of someone who actually worked in the industry got only a very brief mention. 8
Between 1908 and 1915 Thompson acquired twenty two cinemas, a remarkable achievement on any terms, but all the more so when one realises he bought sixteen of them on his own and the rest jointly with other individuals.9 Two of those jointly purchased were in Thompson’s sole name within two years. At the time most new cinema projects were funded by private speculators, keen to get onto the bandwagon and make a quick profit in case cinema turned out to be just a passing fad.10
Looking at the spread of those cinemas across the region it is possible to work out the likely thinking behind Thompson’s choice of locations. With a few exceptions Thompson bought cinemas and made them into small local groups. These groupings were the Middlesbrough area (six cinemas); the Saltburn area (four cinemas); Hartlepool (three cinemas); the Durham area (two cinemas); and Leeds (three cinemas). These would provide practical management benefits in terms of the most effective use of films hired i.e. they could be shown at more than one location. When variety acts were involved, which was frequently, there was the possibility of the same act appearing at a number of Thompson’s venues on the same night. While this might be a more obvious set up within a large area of population, such as Leeds, Durham and Middlesbrough, it was a more inventive move in less populated areas.
The likely reasons for expansion in Middlesbrough are looked at elsewhere but it is interesting to look here at the Saltburn area, in more detail. Thompson’s Saltburn area cinemas were at Brotton, Saltburn itself, Carlin How and Loftus. The Picture House at Saltburn was a new venue opened by Thompson in 1914. At the time Saltburn had a population of 3,322 and the cinema a seating capacity of 500, with one other cinema in competition. From 1923 it offered a nightly continuous show until its disposal in 1930. Brotton was another small town (population 3,703) with two Thompson cinemas, both of which opened in 1914. These were, unsurprisingly, the only cinemas in Brotton. The Hippodrome started with a seating capacity of 700, reducing to 400 from 1919 until its sale in 1925. The Palace had a capacity of 450 and was sold in 1917.
The Empire Theatre in Loftus, acquired between 1910 and 1913, with a seating capacity of 1,000, ultimately reducing to 70011. The population was only 5,105 between 1913 and 1920. Information on programming is not available until 1918, when the cinema had one show a night with two changes of programme a week. Not surprisingly, there were no other cinemas there until 1938, apart from two in 1915-16. The Empire Theatre was one of only three cinemas acquired by Thompson in the 1910s and owned right through until his death. It is interesting to note that the prices were 3d to 9d. In 1915 Thompson added the Grand Electric Theatre at Carlin How. With a population stated to be between 2,000 and 4,322 the cinema had seating for 400-500. Once again it is unsurprising that there were no other cinemas in the town.
Looking at any of these four cinemas in the Saltburn area on their own, one would be forgiven for thinking that they were unlikely to be huge commercial successes because of the small populations and consequently the difficulty of filling seats. Yet looked at as a whole they were four cinemas relatively close to each other. Unlike today people did not, or could not, travel far to their entertainment. Thompson very soon realised that he could take entertainment to the people, not on a one-off basis but by running cinemas such as these four as a linked operation. We know that the Empire Theatre, Loftus and the Grand Electric Theatre, Carlin How offered two changes weekly from 1918 and possibly earlier, a practice that Thompson had used from early on in his career. Pricing information is only available for the Empire and the Grand Electric. The Empire charged from 3d to 9d in 1920 rising to 4d to 9d in 1920 before dropping the price of the cheapest seats slightly during the difficult economic years of the mid 1920s, while at the same time increasing the cost of the most expensive seats to 1s, perhaps reflecting the increasing popularity of the cinema with middle-class audiences. At the Grand Electric prices in 1918 were from 2d to 7d, rising the next year and remaining at 4d to 1s. A price of 4d for cheap seats equalled the national average so charging a higher price was obviously not the way to make these locations profitable 12.
Trying to assess how it was possible for venues like these to make money is very difficult. In the 1910s the average cost of a week’s programme was £30-£60. By the early 1920s with longer programmes the costs had risen to between £150 and £400 13. Assuming that the cost of renting the film was the major expense, even to cover the costs of such rental at the Grand Electric Theatre in Carlin How in the early 1920s would have required 100 per cent occupancy, with the whole audience paying the maximum price of 1s, at every show just to raise £120. Clearly this would have been impossible. Even at the bigger Empire Theatre in Loftus the maximum income could have been was £168. This shows the predicament nationally that the smaller venues, not in clusters, offering only one show a night, were in.
It is therefore possible to see how clever Thompson’s small location clusters were. While they might have had some chance of survival showing the old style shorter programmes, the audience will ultimately have demanded the longer feature films. Once the costs of rental are spread among four or five venues the economics start to make sense. Added to that were savings, at least until he sold it in 1917, from films being supplied by Thompson’s rental business or with discounts negotiated with renters derived from the total number of venues he held. Although each cinema would need a manager, the cost of acts who could perform in more than one venue each night could be shared. Where appropriate he could also provide actors from the established company at the Hippodrome, Middlesbrough. It also made Thompson’s own job of keeping control of his venues that little bit easier than if they had all been scattered across the region. Even so management of such clusters would no doubt have been time-consuming. That would, perhaps, explain why Denman did not purchase them in 1928.
Business expansion and developments – 1914-1927
During the First World War new cinema building was prohibited and so expansion opportunities were limited. Thompson had taken the opportunity to close a few of his smaller less successful venues. Generally there was a view that the queues which had been widespread outside cinemas in the later years of the war meant that there was a demand for more seats, rather than merely an example of people seeking an escape from the rigours of war.
Thompson had sold his rental interests in 1917 to concentrate on exhibition.
In 1920 Thompson set up a new company, North of England Cinemas Limited, to build the Picture House in Hartlepool, and transferred five of the cinemas previously held by him in his own name into the name of the company. These were the Cleveland Hall, Hippodrome and Pavilion Picture Palace, all in Middlesbrough; the Pavilion Picture Hall, Leeds; and the Hippodrome, Thornley. As previously seen it was the large cinemas in major population areas that were becoming most successful, so it is easy to see why these were chosen as they were the biggest of the cinemas he owned in his own right and were in good locations. Apart from the Pavilion, with a capacity of 900, all the others could hold more than 1,000. But what was the purpose of putting them into a company? It could have been to attracted outside investors or, alternatively, it would have enabled him to give a stake in the business to Stanley Gibson, his nephew, who was by now an integral part of the enterprise. Of course, it may be that he was simply trying to differentiate his premier sites from the more straightforward venues. While it is tempting to say that he was preparing the groundwork for an ultimate sale, this seems unlikely as there was no sign in the early 1920s that big national chains were on the way.
The Sale to Denman and Retirement – 1928
1927 had marked the height of Thompson’s career, at least in terms of the number of cinemas held, namely twenty-eight. 1928 was the year of big change for Thompson. At the start of the year he owned eighteen cinemas. By the end of the year the figure would be down to six, following the sale of the other venues to Denman Picture Houses Limited, a subsidiary of Gaumont.
Denman acquired the holdings of North of England Cinemas Limited, for £105,000 14 , around £4,300,000 in modern money. As a condition of such sales Thompson became a director of Denman. Why did he choose this time to sell out what were probably his best cinemas? As we have seen it was the larger cinemas that were becoming increasingly successful. In 1927 a company known as Gaumont-British Picture Corporation was set up as a combination of Gaumont, two rental companies and Biocolour cinemas 15 . It was the first organisation to combine production, rental and exhibition on a substantial basis. It quickly acquired twenty-one cinemas. The following year Gaumont also set up a further company, Denman Picture Houses Limited, to hold a further ninety-six cinemas. It is easy to see why Gaumont were attracted to Thompson’s circuit. Almost certainly it was they who approached him but there are a number of reasons that may have affected his decision to sell. By 1928 Thompson was sixty-six years old and so may have seen an offer as a sign that he could make a good profit and retire from the business. After the industry battles of the late 1920s between exhibitors, renters and producers, which led him to a very public resignation from the Council of the CEA, he may have become disillusioned by the changes in his beloved industry and have been happy to take a back seat. This seems an unlikely explanation. Even as the ink was drying on the Denman contract he was starting the building of a new venue in Middlesbrough, the Palladium. With sound starting to arrive he could have been concerned at the costs of upgrading his venues. Perhaps most likely he simply received an offer he could not refuse.
Family recollection has it that he wanted to retire to Surbiton, but the exact timing could have been dictated by the Denman offer. For a man of such energy and dedication to the cause of cinema exhibition complete retirement was not an option. He retained six of his cinemas. On the whole they were smaller venues and so may not have been acceptable to Denman but they were not sold to anyone else, as they might have been if he was wanting to wind up his involvement. Almost immediately he returned from retirement and started buying or building new venues in the name of his new company Thompson’s Enterprises Limited.
It is also interesting to speculate as to the intentions of Gaumont/Denman. We have already seen that they had set about the acquisition of one hundred or so cinemas at the start of 1928. They would have been most interested in bigger venues in larger centres of population. The cinemas of North of England Cinemas Limited must therefore have appealed. Whether they wanted all the venues is not known but it would have been a lot easier for Thompson to have insisted that it was an “all or nothing” package with the company or companies in place.