(NB. Mr Peirce’s name is spelt like that, with the “e” first. He was very proud of it !)
The late Mr Alf Newman told me about “The old cinema. They used to hold it in the Public Hall. They called it the cinema. There was a Mr Clarke, a blacksmith from Hatfield Peverel, were the last people to run that. I expect you’ve heard about the Public Hall pictures. He used to run it on a Saturday. afternoon matinee and an evening show. The old Public Hall would be full up. Someone would be playing the piano to the films. Us youngsters used to sit in the front. Used to have a Mr Chapman, used to try and keep us in order. Gave him an early death I think. He used to come down and ‘Keep quiet you boys and girls, keep quiet’. Used to cheer and shout if the film got exciting. Still they were happy days.”
Mr Newman was born in 1908. The film shows which he was speaking about, were running by 1916, and continued until the 1920s. They aren’t as well known as the Whitehall cinema which opened in 1928. But they are of special interest at the moment, when the Witham Public Hall Trust is planning to start showing films again.
Before Mr Clarke took over, the cinema had actually been started by William Pinkham, who owned the glove factory (where the Templemeads flats now stand in Chipping Hill). The cinema was discussed in 1916 at the appeal for his son Bert against joining the forces. Conscription had just been introduced. The military gentlemen in charge had heard about the cinema, and the fact that Bert spent all his spare time looking after it. They implied that if he had enough spare time for such frivolous pursuits, he couldn’t be as essential to the business as his father claimed. There were several appeals, but Bert did have to join up in the end.
Mains electricity didn’t reach Witham until the 1930s, so the Public Hall had to make its own arrangements for power and lighting. Mr Fred Gaymer told me that his brother “worked for Glover’s garage, when tractors were first coming about, and he used to be up at the Public Hall with a tractor, driving a dynamo, to supply the electricity for the lights and for the projectors as well.”
And Mr Walter Peirce remembered “a little old petrol engine round the back that used to make the electricity, perhaps the belt would come off the engine or something like that, or the engine conk out, we used to bang and stamp our feet and wait for the films, used to come on again”. When the film broke it had the same effect. They’d “get half way through and the film would break, and everybody’d holler and stamp their feet”.
Mr Peirce also said that “The projector room was built outside, over where the ornamental stonework was. The doorway is still there what used to come into the projector room, then you put the film over the top of the gallery.” Perhaps it’s not surprising the film broke sometimes ! This room wasn’t installed until 1919. It’s shown on the photo.
Mr Peirce added that they were “black and white and silent films, of course. Charlie Chaplin and The Kids and things like that and Buffalo Bill”. He also described how he raised the entrance money. “Well, I used to go to the matinee, Saturday afternoon, three ha’pence. There was a lot of horses about then, see. Well, my father had this allotment and he said he’d give me a ha’penny for a barrow-load of horse manure. We used to go along the road with a shovel and brush and a home-made cart, and fill it up. So Father used to say ‘How many loads you took today, boy?’ ‘Oh, three of them’. ‘Three?’ ‘Yes, three’. That was three ha’pence. I could go to the pictures then, couldn’t I?”
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in January 2013