History@Portsmouth

University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Going to the cinema? The changing uses of Portsmouth’s cinema buildings

In this blog, the second in a series of posts looking at sites of historical interest in Portsmouth, Dr Rob James, Senior Lecturer in History, discusses the changing uses of the city’s cinema buildings. Rob specialises in researching society’s leisure activities and teaches a number of units on film and the cinema, including, as part of the Problems and Perspectives unit, ‘History at the Movies’ in the first year, ‘The Way to the Stars: Film and cinema-going in Britain, c. 1900-c. 2000’ option in the second year, and a Special Subject on ‘Cinema-going in Wartime Britain, 1939-1945’ in the third year.

Going to the cinema was an important leisure pastime in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century. Millions of the country’s citizens flocked to the cinema on a weekly basis, leading one prominent historian to refer to the activity as the ‘social habit of the age’. [1]

In order to respond to the growing number of people going to the cinema, thousands of new venues were built across the country. On top of this, many existing buildings were converted into cinema halls. Here in Portsmouth, for example, a tobacco factory located in Queens Street, Portsea was modified, opening as the Queens Cinema in 1914 with enough space to accommodate over 500 patrons. [2] What was once a site of labour, became a site for relaxation.

Queens Cinema, Portsea

 

By the start of the Second World War there were 29 cinemas located across the town. Many of these were plush ‘picture palaces’, constructed as part of the boom period of cinema building in the 1920s and 30s, such as the Odeon and Regent (later Gaumont) cinemas in London Road, North End, the Plaza (later Gaumont) at Bradford Junction, Fratton, the Tivoli, in Copnor Road, Copnor, and the Palace in Commercial Street (now Guildhall Walk).

Many of these buildings have long been lost. Not, as may be assumed, to enemy bombing during the war (only one cinema – the Princes Theatre in Lake Road – was completely demolished in the Blitz), but to the bulldozer after the Council began its post-war reconstruction programme. [3]

Bomb damage to the Princes Theatre, Lake Road

 

A good number of buildings survived the bulldozers, though. The Odeon in North End still stands, as does the Plaza/Gaumont in Fratton, and the Palace in Guildhall Walk. They are no longer cinemas, however, but serve other purposes. The Odeon is now a Sainsbury’s Local store, the Plaza/Gaumont was turned into a Bingo hall in the 1990s, and then became a mosque, while the Palace is now a nightclub – the Astoria – and a popular haunt for our students!

Odeon cinema, North End

The former Odeon cinema, now a Sainsbury’s Local supermarket

Plaza/Gaumont cinema, Bradford Junction

The former Plaza/Gaumont cinema, now Portsmouth Tami Mosque

The Palace cinema, Commercial Street (now Guildhall Walk)

The former Palace cinema, now the Astoria nightclub

 

The changing uses of buildings is a fascinating history to uncover. As society’s leisure activities alter as the years go by, certain pastimes fall out of favour while others replace them, so the purposes of the buildings in which these activities took place changes too.

Some buildings become redundant and are lost to the cityscape forever. But many remain; they just serve a different purpose. So the next time you are in the Astoria strutting your stuff, think about the generations of people before you who have whiled away their leisure hours in that space in the past. Think, too, about what may become of that venue in the future. Will other generations use the space for different purposes?

 

Notes

[1] Cited in Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain 1930-1939, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 11.

[2] Robert James, ‘Cinema-going in a Port Town, 1914-1951: Film Booking patterns at the Queens Cinema, Portsmouth’, Urban History, 40.2, 2013, pp. 315-335, p. 317.

[3] http://michaelcooper.org.uk/C/othervenues.htm

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