Retro: Barnsley early cinemas hit by tragedy

Barnsley Olympia Skating Rink later cinema
Barnsley Olympia Skating Rink later cinema
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On Saturday, January 11, 1908 one of the worst tragedies in cinema history occurred at the Public Hall in Barnsley where 16 children died.

Nine of the dead were girls and all were aged between four and nine. At least 40 others were seriously injured.

The incident happened during a special matinee performance put on by the World’s Animated Picture Company. Children from a wide area came to see the show at reduced admission rates. Admission to the gallery was only a penny and when the doors opened at 2.30pm for the performance to begin at 3pm children swarmed up a stone staircase, separate to the main one in Eldon Street.

Very quickly the gallery was said to be full, with about 550 children, whilst there were many, many more waiting on the staircase eager to gain admission.

These children were told to make their way to the Eldon Street entrance where they could gain entry to the pit for the same reduced charge of a penny.

Thus, this seemingly harmless instruction caused the mad scurry which ended in tragedy.

The children died through suffocation or were trampled to death. Ten who were seriously injured were rushed to the town’s Beckett Hospital.

Barnsley folk probably saw their first moving pictures “at Berzac’s Colonial Circus which was encamped at Town in March,” according to Kate Taylor in her 2008 book Barnsley Cinemas.

The films they saw on a Bellascope may have included scenes of the Boer War.

Films were shown on a regular basis at the Hippodrome, Town End.

Opening as a variety theatre on March 2, 1903, films were also featured on the programme though this was short-lived. Closure came around 1906.

The Harvey Institute/Public Hall on Eldon Street was opened on January 25, 1878 and the first full programme of films was seen here during the Edwardian period.

In the following years, Barnsley’s cinema’s opened in purpose-built buildings or in converted theatres or other premises. Their opening details are listed here in chronological order.

All those opened after 1909 had to fall in line with Cinematograph Act introduced during that year. It was the first primary legislation in the UK to specifically regulate the film industry.

Dating from the 1830s, the Oddfellows Hall/Temperance Hall on Pitt Street began showing films in 1910. It was run by a company named Royal Canadian Motion Pictures.

The building eventually became known as the ‘Cosy’.

Known locally as the ‘Bugs Hut’, the Britannia Picture Palace, Britannia Street, Sheffield Road, opened on November 7, 1910, showing A Big Scoop, La Savelle, and The Short-Sighted Errand Boy. It seated about 450 and became The Star from around 1926.

Opening on December 19, 1910 in the converted Princess Hall, the Princess Palace seated 850. New Century Pictures Ltd took over in 1913 and by 1929 the cinema was controlled by the Denman Picture House Co (a subsidiary of Gaumont).

The Barnsley Electric Theatre was purpose-built as a cinema – Barnsley’s first – by London & General Electric Theatres. It commenced business on March 11, 1911 with an 18 feet wide proscenium.

The Pavilion was originally opened as the Olympia Skating Rink on August 20, 1909. It was converted to a cinema and showed films from December 1911.

A short-lived cinema named The Victoria existed in a former potato warehouse in the Market Place around 1911. It was licensed to fruit and vegetable merchant Harry Higgins and J H Littlewood.

The Globe Picture House, owned by the Globe Picture House (Barnsley) Ltd, opened its doors at the beginning of September 1914.

The first ‘talkie’, Kitty, was shown in November 1929. With a 25 feet wide proscenium, the Globe originally seated 1,000 on two levels but later was listed as having 872 seats.

The Empire Palace of Varieties, designed by North & Robins for the Barnsley Empire Palace Co, was built at a cost of £17,500 and the first screenings were on June 8, 1908.

Seating 2,500 in the stalls, circle and gallery, it also boasted 12 dressing rooms. The axe fell on live shows on February 7, 1920 and the premises reopened as the Empire Super Cinema on March 22, 1920.

The Alhambra, built as a theatre to the designs of architect P A Hinchcliff, was opened on October 1, 1915 by Countess Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse for the theatre’s owners the Alhambra Theatre (Barnsley) Ltd.

Initially, the building seated 2,362 in the stalls and three balconies. The Alhambra supported live theatre until June 6, 1925 when it was converted to a cinema.

By the late 1930s, several Barnsley cinemas had fallen by the wayside, including the Electric Theatre in 1938 and the Cosy in May 1928.

The 1930s was also a period when some of the most impressive cinema buildings were erected in the Art Deco style. Barnsley’s Ritz Cinema fell into this category.

Designed by Verity and Beverley, who were assisted by Union’s Cinemas’ architect Ernest F Tulley, the Ritz Cinema showed films from March 22, 1937. It had a white stone frontage with a stepped outline.

In subsequent years the following Barnsley cinemas closed: Alhambra, November 26, 1960; Britannia March 29, 1959; Globe Picture House, June 20, 1962; Princess Palace, September 29, 1956; Pavilion, September 26 1950; the Ritz (the ABC from 1961), March 16, 1974.

The Empire Palace was renamed the Gaumont Cinema on May 13, 1950 but was gutted by fire on January 2, 1954. It reopened in February 1956, was renamed the Odeon in 1962 and closed on September 17, 2005, only to reopen as the Parkway Cinema August 8, 2007.

Today, this is Barnsley’s only surviving link to its long, and on the one occasion tragic, cinema history.