There are a selection of articles that David Evans has spotted in the huge Gerald Reece collection that have really interested me and are very much worth a share – they are from a very much lost local history book by noted author and historian Ned Williams about local cinemas, and give the most complete history I’ve ever seen of the picture houses of the area – including Brownhills.
The following article (and ones to come) are all from a book I’ve never managed to obtain a copy of, and I last saw change hands for upwards of £30: ‘The Cinemas of Aldridge and Brownhills’ by Ned Williams, published in 1984. Gerald had kept copies of the articles and I feature the first here, about The Palace Cinema in Brownhills.
The Palace in Brownhills (I believe, but have a feeling I may be very wrong…) stood on the High Street just at the Church Road Junction, about where the Natwest Bank used to be, where Specsavers is now; it’s not to be confused with the Palace in Walsall Wood (‘The Blood Tub’), more of which later.
Corrections welcome and received with embarrassment.
The book was published by Uralia Press, of 28 Westland Road Wolverhampton with the ISBN of 0 946406 07 3 – do get a copy if you can. I pay tribute here to the immense cannon of work by Ned Williams, a truly remarkable author and researcher.
THE PALACE, BROWNHILLS
Like many other communities, the people of Brownhills first saw films in the travelling ‘bioscopes’ of the fairground. At least two showmen introduced the excitement of the new medium to local people in the area at the beginning of the twentieth century. One was a Mr. Twigden who erected a tent at the annual November ‘wake’ to present films. Some of the travelling showmen later settled down in the cinema business, and this will be clearly demonstrated in the history of Brownhills cinemas.
The first cinema to be provided for the people of Brownhills was the Palace. The man who was behind the Palace was Sidney Bray, later joined by his brother-in-law, Wally Davies. Later they took over the Regent so it is worth clearly establishing who they were.
Sidney Bray came from a business family established in Dudley. As the Cinematograph Act came into force in 1910 and premises in which films were to be shown had to be properly licensed for the purpose, it seems that Sidney Bray was already thinking that it would be an interesting business venture. He started showing films at the Drill Hall, Halesowen as from 30th January 1911, and, about the same time, showed films at the Temperance Hall, Langley. It may even have been Sidney’s marriage to Flossie Davies that introduced him to ‘showbusiness’. The Davies’ were Netherton brewers and Wally’s father was licensee of the Criterion Public House in the centre of Dudley in the early years of this century. Music Hall entertainment and probably early bioscope film shows took place at the Criterion. Wally Davies himself did not seem to place cinema-proprietorship high in his priorities. He was born in 1891, and in his teens seemed more interested in a technical career. He assisted Sidney Bray at Halesowen, and from 1913 onwards took responsibility for running the shows at Langley but his inventive mind was more concerned with designing and building aircraft. He left the area during the First World War to work in this sphere.
The mystery is: what made Sidney Bray turn his attention to Brownhills? Possibly practical and financial limitations determined Sidney Bray’s choice of sites, but it meant that his ‘circuit’ was remote and far-flung from his home in Dudley. (In 1915 he managed to establish himself in Dudley itself by taking over the Criterion, which, after the War, he rebuilt on a grand scale.)
Unlike Sidney Bray’s operations at Langley and Halesowen, it seems that in Brownhills he had to build a purpose-built cinema, rather than rent an existing hall or convert an existing building. The Palace was built to a pattern adopted by many other early cinemas. A timber frame was clad and roofed in corrugated iron and the interior walls were wood. It was slightly set back from the main road and its wooden facade, as seen in the 1924 photograph, had a certain sense of style’about it. There was no balcony but the seats at the back of the auditorium were on a raked floor separated from the cheaper seats by a step. Like other cinemas of the time, the Palace generated its own electricity from a gas engine behind the building. Sometimes films were accompanied by the sound of rain on the roof and the thump of the gas engine, as well as the orchestra.
The Palace opened on Monday 23rd December 1912, a fact recorded in the diary of a local resident. No other details of the opening seem to be recorded. In distant Walsall the local paper did not mention the event. Thus the precious details of the history of small local cinemas is now very difficult to reconstruct. Local people remember some of the films, the children’s matinees, and, above alt, the people associated with the cinema.
In those far off silent days the musical accompaniment to the film was provided at the Palace by the Jones Brothers: Len on the cello, Sam on the violin and Fred at the piano. Len Jones, the youngest of the three, died recently at the age of 83: the last survivor of the cinema’s trio. Len and Sam could also sing and were thus able to provide a singing act when the Palace began to include Variety in its programmes about two years after opening. Fred Jones married Miss Nancy Doricott who worked in the pay box. Harry Russell, whose name is associated at one time or another with each of the four cinemas described in this booklet, first encountered the cinema business at the Palace. As a boy he used to turn the pages of Fred’s piano music for 6d a week.
At one time the Palace was managed by Mr. and Mrs. Beckett. They had come to Brownhills as an act appearing at the Wakes. As Lightning Charley and Starlight Nell they performed an act with whips and lassos. For some reason they decided to crack cigarettes from volunteers’ mouths with the whip no more and settled in Brownhills to work at the Palace. They occasionally performed the act for the Variety shows, and, in fact, may have been responsible for bringing Variety to the Palace. Another retired travelling showman, a Mr. Norsden, left his booth of distorting mirrors to run the cinema but disappeared in mysterious circumstances – perhaps suggesting to Sidney Bray that the cinema needed stronger personal supervision at proprietorial level. In the great tradition of early cinemas the operators came in for a lot of catcalls and abuse when the film frequently broke. Two operators seem to be remembered from the early silent days : Jessie Shrigley and Joey Clegg.
In 1924 Wally Davies became Sidney Bray’s partner in owning and running the Palace. It was a time when Sidney Bray was very pre-occupied with his new Criterion in Dudley, and expansion in Halesowen. Whether these matters were the cause or not, the Palace at Brownhills seems to have been left very much to Wally Davies. It seems that Wally may even have brought his own parents into the day to day business of running the place. Such economies became even more important when the Regent opened in 1928.
In the rivalry that developed between the Palace and the Regent, the acquisition of sound was particularly important. The Palace adopted a fairly primitive sound system straight away, with each reel of film mechanically synchronised with a disc on the gramophone. This was replaced after a further brief period of silence, with Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone system that enabled the Palace to bring many of the well known early silent films to Brownhills. The Regent opted for the sound-on-film system and their rivalry took the form of a battle between the two systems. By the mid 30’s, when both cinemas used the sound-on-film system, the Palace had adopted the Melotone system. There was no room to add a horn room at the back of the Palace and speakers had to be mounted on the wall on either side of the screen, and an additional one above it. By 1932 the rivalry ceased to exist for another reason : Sidney Bray and Wally Davies became the joint owners of the Regent.
For a time Wally Davies and Sidney Bray ran both the Regent and the Palace. The day-to-day supervision of both places was in the hands of Jack Turner, who moved into a house by the Regent. Jack Turner had taken on this job after an accident in the colliery and originally only had the Palace to worry about. About 1936 he was joined by fourteen-year-old Tom Bridgen who had left school to become a full-time worker at the Palace and Regent, doing all kinds of jobs around the cinema, including trying to stoke a very inaccessible boiler at the back of the building. He assisted Joseph Clegg in the operating box and later assisted Charlie Turner at the Regent. Ironically he left the Regent when cinemas were temporarily closed at the outbreak of War, but after only nine days in a factory he realised his heart was in the cinema business. (His subsequent career took Tom Bridgen to the operating boxes at the Forum, Caldmore Green, to the Avion, Aldridge and finally to the Dale, Willenhall where he was made redundant when that cinema closed, along with the Avion, at the end of 1967.)
For a while during the 1930’s the Palace closed altogether during the summer months when there was only enough trade to fill the Regent. During the winters it opened for 3 days a week (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) which enabled three programmes a week to be presented in Brownhills: two at the Regent, one at the Palace. It also enabled the staff at the Palace to give its original rubber screen a fresh coat of whitewash each Saturday night, knowing it would be dry and ‘good-as-new’ by the next Thursday.
The final demise of the Palace is obscure. It enjoyed one reprise while the Regent was being rebuilt in 1938, when it opened for six days a week once more. No doubt it suffered summer closure again in 1939 and by the following winter the War was underway. One night a heavy fall of snow caused the roof to collapse and it seems that it was no longer worthwhile repairing the ‘Tin Tabernacle’ and thus it was closed completely. It has proved impossible, so far, to date the final show.
This remarkable material has have been very generously supplied by the great local historian Gerald Reece, and beautifully prepared for posting by the wonderful David Evans for blog readers to enjoy.
I thank Gerald and David for yet another remarkable article – you are a very wonderful and generous gentlemen.
Gerald Reece, like the author Ned Williams is of course a talented and superlative local historian, now resident in Devon, who wrote the seminal work ‘Brownhills – A walk into history’ upon which this blog stands.
If you have any thoughts or questions on the Palace or any other cinema in Brownhills, please do share them – comment here, find me on social media or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Thanks.