The survival of the Electric Palace, Harwich is an example of serendipity approaching the miraculous.
This tiny 308-seat picture house, opened on November 29th 1911, was one of hundreds built across Britain in response to the requirements of the Cinematograph Act (1910), which outlawed travelling picture shows and dangerous conversions of pre-existing premises in order to prevent fires and panic.
Designed by the 26-year-old Harold Ridley Hooper of Ipswich, it was commissioned by the East Anglian showman, Charles Thurston.
Built on a backstreet plot vacated by a recent fire, its most prosperous days were 1914-18, when Harwich was a teeming naval base surrounded by army camps.
Thereafter the Palace struggled against bigger and more modern rivals and an inter-war shift of population away from the docks into new housing in Dovercourt.
When it converted to sound films with The Singing Fool on March 10th 1930 the Palace gained a Western Electric system that was superior to those used at the Regent and the Empire cinemas in Dovercourt.
Though it never fully recovered from the damage caused by the 1953 East Coast Flood, it was the entertainment tax, particularly punitive for a small auditorium, that drove the Palace out of business.
It closed on the night of Saturday November 3rd 1956. Its lessee, Major Bostock, instructed the manager simply “to lock the door and leave it locked”.
And so it remained, vandalised and stripped of anything of value, colonised by stinking feral cats but still with the tickets in the paybox machine, until it was discovered in 1972 by Gordon Miller, a Kingston Polytechnic lecturer running a field-study programme in Harwich.
He enlisted the support of Mrs Winifred Cooper, chairman of the Harwich Society, and one of his former students, David Atwell, who was then in the midst of writing Cathedrals of the Movies (1980), the first serious textbook about cinema architecture in Britain.
The nascent Harwich Electric Palace Trust gained as its first patron Sir John Betjeman, which no doubt helped things along.
To the fury of Harwich Borough Council, who wanted the site for a car park, Gordon Miller’s campaign got the Palace listed, and with increasingly powerful support and favourable media attention the building was cleaned up, restored and reopened as a cinema on its seventieth anniversary, November 29th 1981.
It was one of the very first cinema-preservation projects in Britain, and it remains a delight to visit: http://www.electricpalace.com.
The Cinema Theatre Association’s magazine, Picture House No 37 (2012) reproduces Gordon Miller’s extensive survey and historical account of the Palace, written in 1972 to support the application for listing. It’s a bulky read, but fascinating and copiously illustrated: http://www.cinema-theatre.org.uk/pichouse.htm.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces: the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.