THE PALACE CINEMA, KNOTTINGLEY
by Dr. Terry Spencer B.A. (hons) Ph D.
Revised and re-written, June 1999, from the original
version of June 1991
Dedicated to the memory of my dear wife, Barbara Spencer (1935 –1999)
A report in the local press dated 4th October 1912 stated;
"A site has been acquired in Aire Street, Knottingley, on which it
is intended to erect a permanent picture hall. The entertainment’s to be
given will be well conducted and are to be of high class order to secure
the patronage of all classes. The contracts for the work are about to be
let and the building will be commenced at once and carried on with all
The new cinema, one of the earliest purpose-built picture houses in
the country, was situated on an oblique strip of land some 560 square
yards in extent, adjacent to Ship Lane at the junction with lower Aire
Street. The hall was designed to seat 600 people: 500 in the area and
100 in the balcony. The building had sloping floors to facilitate
unobstructed viewing and also had permanently fixed tip-up seats. To
ensure maximum safety the building was designed with separate entrances
and exits. The design featured a promenade with a refreshment buffet and
the screen area incorporated a stage platform with adjoining dressing
rooms to enable ‘live’ shows to be given. Indeed, such shows were a
regular feature at the Palace during the early years with talent
contests and other entertainment’s taking place between the films, the
cinema pianist accompanying the performers.
Constructed of red brick with sandstone facings, the cinema presented
an imposing facade. A central entrance and reception area was flanked by
sturdy rectangular turrets, slightly offset for visual effect, creating
an impression of bulky strength and drawing the eye towards the entrance
and the interior of the building. The roof was of blue slate and the
front of the cinema had a narrow forecourt which was encompassed by iron
railings about five feet in height, with gates which slid open to either
side of the centralised entrance. It is of interest to note that
although the façade of the cinema stood square-on to Aire Street, the
lie of the land on which the building was constructed dictated that the
auditorium lay at an angle to the frontage, a fact which was largely
obscured by the skillfully designed facade.
The cinema was built at the behest of a company registered under the
title of Knottingley Picture Palace Ltd., on land belonging to one
Benjamin Braim, a local joiner who resided at the opposite side of Aire
Street at a point near the junction with Cow Lane. The company, with
Fred Calverley and George Braim as directors and John E. Lunn as
Secretary, took out a 99-year lease on the land and property from the
1st April 1913 at an annual rent of £17. The cinema was the designated
office of the company and the residential manager was Mr. H.B. Edwardes
(sic) with a Mr. Tinkler as the general manager. The first licensed
cinematographic performance at the Palace was undertaken in the name of
Mr. Fred Calverley on the 25th February 1913.
Reporting a full house for the first performance, the Pontefract &
Castleford Express stated; "The Management are to be complimented
upon their choice pictures for the opening week."
In his opening speech, Mr. Tinkler assured the public that, "..none
but the best educational and entertaining pictures were to be shown."
How true the statement was, may perhaps be judged from the titles of
the films featured during the following week. Performances on Monday,
Tuesday and Wednesday consisted of ‘Builders of the Empire’ (not
as one may conject, a glorification of Imperialism, but a Western drama)
and ‘Grandfather’, described without intentional irony as a "pathetic
picture". ‘Love, Luck and Gasoline’, a romantic love story,
together with several short comedy films ensured value for money
entertainment. The second half of the week was no less entertaining with
‘The Reformation of Broncho Billy’ and ‘Lost Years’ being
supplemented by "some good comics". Unfortunately, we are denied
analysis of further programmes for apart from that single instance the
Palace does not appear to have undertaken any press advertising during
the first dozen years of its existence. No doubt the novelty value of
the new form of public entertainment was a reason why it was considered
unnecessary to advertise too widely especially given the close nature of
the local community at that period, plus the fact that most businesses
valued and relied upon personal recommendation. In addition, as Dr.
Taylor has noted, picture houses were mushrooming in neighbouring
localities at that time as local businessmen sought outlets for their
surplus capital, with film theatres and skating rinks being front
runners. The year 1912 seems to have been a particularly fecund year
with no less than four cinemas opening in Castleford alone in the
inaugural year of the Palace. "Peoples Popular Prices" of 2d., 4d., and
6d., were charged for the once nightly shows which commenced at 7.45,
Monday to Friday. On Saturdays there were two evening performances, at
6.45 and 8.45, plus a matinee at 2.30pm.
The opening of the Palace was not however, the first occasion on which
films had been shown at Knottingley, nor yet even shown on a regular
basis. Before that time itinerant showmen using portable projection
apparatus had shown silent films to local audiences at the annual
‘Feast’ or at other venues within the town.
The filmed records of the Diamond Jubilee in 1897 followed thereafter
by the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901, had, despite poor technical
quality, aroused immense interest in the new medium and indicated the
potential of cinematography as a serious vehicle for public information
and entertainment. Thus, by the middle of the first decade of the
twentieth century companies were being established to produce and
distribute films on a commercial basis. Apart from Knottingley Town
Hall, which provided a regular venue for film shows up to 1925, similar
entertainment was provided by James Holgate, licensee of the Wagon &
Horses Inn, Aire Street, until 1912. Another venue for regular weekly
performances was the Congregational Schoolroom where every Saturday
evening the ‘Happy Hours Picture Hall’ promised; "Excellent and up to
date cinematograph pictures [with] illustrated songs."
The price of admission was 2d. for children if accompanied by parents.
The promise was evidently fulfilled for the local paper reported that;
"There was a good attendance in the Congregational Schoolroom on
Saturday evening and an excellent cinematograph entertainment. The
pictures shown were ‘A Trip to Bombay’ and ‘Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night’
The chemical composition of the film stock was however, highly
volatile, rendering its use a potential safety hazard. In addition to
the fire risk were dangers of overcrowding, temporary and makeshift
seating and insufficient egress. Children were frequently admitted to
shows unaccompanied, their admittance often procured by presenting an
empty jam jar in lieu of money. The reality of the danger had been
brought home on the 11th January 1908 when sixteen children had been
crushed to death as the result of a fire, which had occurred during a
film show in the public hall at Barnsley. To ensure public safety the
Cinematograph Act of 1909 decreed that all buildings in which public
film shows were given were henceforth to be subject to annual licensing
by the local authority. As a result, many previously used venues were
denied a license and by 1913 further tightening up of the Act resulted
in a spate of purpose-built cinemas such as the Palace, being
The grim years of the Great War and its bleak economic aftermath
ensured the success of the cinema as a form of cheap, popular, if
somewhat unsophisticated entertainment. It would appear that a ready
audience existed at Knottingley for apart from the dissemination of
programme information in the form of handbills and posters distributed
throughout the town and its near neighbourhood, as noted above, no
attempt was made to attract a wider audience via press advertising
Details concerning the tenancy of the cinema during the early years of
its existence are sparse but it is recorded that by 1914 the licensee
was Mr. J Harris. Harris was the head of a very talented family of
musicians who made a living as itinerant entertainers, appearing
regularly in summer shows at Bridlington in the years prior to the Great
War. The family residence was at Hill Top, Knottingley, but the Palace
served as a business address, featuring on all their publicity material
which suggest that the cinema served as a booking agency.
It would appear that Harris regarded cinematography as an alternative
source of income for in addition to his tenure at the Palace he held a
licence to provide picture shows at the Town Hall until 1920. Despite
the ever-growing popularity of cinema as a form of entertainment Harris
decided to divest himself of his cinema interests shortly after the end
of the war. The cinema had provided a regular source of supplementary
income, particularly at the onset of the war when there may have been
doubt about the viability of live entertainment but the exigencies of
war had made unforeseen demands on Harris and his family. Harris’s
daughter, Millie, now a sprightly 96 year old resident of New South
Wales, Australia, has revealed how at the age of eleven she was called
upon at short notice to improvise musical accompaniments for the silent
films following the enlistment of the cinema’s regular pianist.
Shortly after the conclusion of the war, Harris, aware of the
resurgent demand for all forms of entertainment as the antithesis of the
years of conflict with their grim aftermath, divested himself of his
cinema interests. He quit Knottingley and took the family act ‘on the
road’, appearing throughout Britain and Europe before eventually
embarking for more distant parts of the Empire.
In 1920 the R.T.A Company obtained the tenancy of the Palace, together
with the licence for the Town Hall where pictures continued to be shown
The R.T.A. Company had its origins in or about 1917 when John Arthur
Rowley, a rag merchant of Victoria Works, Batley, met Walter Townend, a
fellow rag merchant based at Ossett. The two men were looking for means
to invest surplus capital and decided to form the Victoria Picture
Company, which ran the Star and Empress cinemas at Castleford. The pair
then met Elliot Aspinall of Castleford and in 1920 formed R.T.A (the
company name being formed from the initial letters of the surname of
each partner) to build and run the Picture House, Castleford.
There are indications that suggest a period of economic reorganisation
followed. In December 1921, the R.T.A. holding in the Grand Cinema,
Normanton, was sold to Albert and Donald Wood and on the 6th February
1922, R.T.A sold its interest in the Palace, Knottingley. The new
leaseholder was Albert Wilcock of Wakefield Road, Pontefract, who paid
£4,600 for the residual rights of the 99-year lease of 1913.
Wilcock appears to have been a transient figure, for by the following
month the Palace lease was held in the joint names of Percy Woodcock and
J.M. Scott, Pontefract businessmen.
Woodcock, a joiner of Park Lane and James Mountain Scott, a wholesale
potato and game merchant, obtained the leasehold on the Palace on the
20th March 1922 for the sum of £6,000. The substantial financial gain
allied to the rapid resale of the Palace lease suggest that Wilcock’s
interest in the cinema was purely speculative although he is designated
as a "picture house proprietor" in legal documents.
Three years later Woodcock’s half share was acquired by J. & G. Howdle
of Knottingley. An indenture dated 2nd February 1925, reveals that
George Howdle became Scott’s partner when a half share was assigned to
him by Percy Woodcock and his wife, Edith. Howdle’s half share cost him
£2,000 of which £600 was borrowed from his sister-in-law, Jean (nee
Arnold) who had some years previously been the organist at the
Congregational Chapel, Knottingley, and had provided the accompaniment
for films shown in the chapel rooms.
The partnership with Scott continued until November 1927, when it was
formally dissolved, Howdle paying Scott £3,000 for his share. To enable
the transaction to be undertaken Howdle borrowed £2,000 from the Midland
Bank, mortgaging the cinema and also surrendering a life policy with a
value of £500 as security for the loan. In addition, Howdle borrowed a
further £1,000 from his sister-in-law to whom he granted a second
Howdle’s interest in cinematography appears to have been kindled
during the previous decade when he was the manager of both Knottingley
Town Hall and the Palace Cinema at the time film shows were shown by Mr.
Harris and his successors although he was also involved in the film
shows at the Congregational Chapel and it is known that he was also
interested in photography.
In November 1925, the local paper reported;
"Knottingley’s only film resort, established long ago, is now under
the capable management of Mr. Geo. Howdle, enhancing its reputation for
bright, varied and enjoyable entertainment. Residents have no need to go
further afield to see first class films, as witness the programme
arranged for this coming week."
The programme in question consisted of ‘Rin-Tin-Tin’, the wonder dog
in ‘The Lighthouse by the Sea’. The main feature was supported by
one of a series of films entitled ‘The Music Masters’, the one
shown portraying the life of Felix Mendelssohn. The programme was shown
from Monday to Wednesday at 7.15 each evening and also a matinee on
Monday at 2.30. The latter half of the week featured an entirely changed
programme. ‘His Hour’, based on an Eleanor Glynn novel, was the
main film. The supporting programme was ‘The Surprise Fight’,
again one of a series of films, this one featuring Benny Leonard, a
popular boxer of the period. Evening shows commenced at 7.15 except for
Saturdays when there were two houses, the first at 6.15, followed by the
final performance of the week at 8.45. At that time it was the usual for
reels of film shown at the Palace to be exchanged with those shown at
the Hippodrome, Featherstone. Billy Spires (who later became the Palace
projectionist and afterwards a successful tradesman in Knottingley) had
the unenviable job of cycling in all weathers between the two cinemas to
effect the exchange of the film stock. The possible delays incumbent
upon the errand helps to explain the necessity for ‘live’ entertainment
between the films as well as illustrating the more leisurely pace of
life in general at that time.
With the advent of the Howdle proprietorship however, a significant
change occurred. The Palace now began to advertise its future programme
on a regular basis in the local press alongside those of other cinemas
in the district. The use of vividly coloured posters within the town
continued, including their display on the premises of local shopkeepers
who received complimentary tickets for such assistance.
The extent to which newspaper advertising reflected the enterprise of
the Howdle’s or the need to become more competitive in order to ensure
economic viability is conjectural. It must be remembered however, that
the period following the end of the Great War saw the establishment and
expansion of local bus services. A regularised system of public
transport meant a wider potential audience as people from the more rural
and isolated communities around Knottingley were able to avail
themselves of such services to visit the cinema.
With the introduction of advertising for the cinema, strategically
placed billboards at Hill Top, Weeland Road and Low Green, ensured that
travellers using the main road through Knottingley could not fail to be
aware of the Palace programmes regardless of the direction of the
The change of management and the wider catchment area afforded the
Palace a new lease of life. The development was further assisted by
promotional ’stunts’ designed to increase public awareness of the
cinema. Thus, when ‘Dick Turpin’s Ride’ was shown at the Palace, a local
man, George Lightowler, dressed up as a highwayman and travelled the
surrounding area on horseback to publicise the film. A former resident
of the town, who was a small boy at that time, remembers queues three to
four deep stretching as far as the Flatts when the Howdle’s owned the
In 1927 however, the cinema industry became subjected to a rapid and
dramatic technological change with the successful launch of ‘The Jazz
Singer’, a part ‘talkie’ featuring the great American entertainer, Al
Jolson. Almost overnight silent films became passe as "all talking-all
singing" sound-tracked films caused cinemas throughout the land to be
wired for sound projection. Late in 1929, the Picture House, Castleford,
announced "the Talkies are coming" as the owner invested £4,000 to
install a Powers Cinephone system to enable the public to see and hear
Jolson in ‘The Singing Fool’. A little earlier the Majestic,
"Castleford’s first sound cinema", had broken new ground by installing
the rival Vitaphone system. The public were reported to be"…‘sound
wise’. Radio has turned the ears of the masses to a keen appreciation of
the tone quality in speech, music and song and sound effects."
The effect of the technical revolution may be seen by reference to
other local cinemas. The issue of the local paper which featured
publicity for talking pictures also reported the purchase of the Grand
cinema, Airedale, following the recent demise of the owner, William
Jackson of Hartley Park, Pontefract. It was stated that the sale by
auction elicited ‘little competition’ with only £1,975 being realised,
the cinema being purchased by Mr. E.C. Briggs of Horsforth, Leeds.
Despite a ‘facelift’ which included changing the name of the cinema to
the ‘Empire’ closure took place in Spring 1930. The Crescent cinema,
Pontefract, attempted to gain a breathing space by providing "the
finest orchestra in the district" to accompany the action of the
silent films and also provided "musical interludes on the grand
organ" but the management had already seen the pattern of the future
and announced in a letter to the ‘Express’ that they "cannot keep
silent any longer and are going to talk."
The letter disclosed that the sound apparatus was being installed and
that from 30th December 1930, the Western Electric sound system would be
utilised to show ‘Broadway’, followed in subsequent weeks by fifteen
listed talking films.
Meanwhile, the Palace, offering a form of entertainment which had
begun to pall, attempted to compete with its technologically enhanced
neighbours. At a time of increasing economic depression, the Palace was
able to survive by charging less for admission than the prices charged
by ‘sound’ cinemas. Nevertheless, there are indications that the Palace
was losing the battle. The programme advertised for the week commencing
17th February 1930, featured the film ‘Virgin Lips’ starring John Boles,
an actor who had recently attained fame as the star of the sound film
‘The Desert Song’. The Palace advertisement somewhat ingeniously
featured the name of Boles and ‘The Desert Song’ so prominently that the
public could quite easily have been misled into the belief that the
‘talkies’ had arrived at Knottingley unannounced.
In July 1930 however, the local paper announced;
"Knottingley to Have Its Own Talkies’
"Ever anxious to provide entertainment of the latest and best type, Mr.
G. Howdle, the proprietor of the Palace, has installed sound machines
and ‘talkie fans’ need not now go further afield for them."
The first talkie show at the Palace was ‘The Broadway Melody’, which
was shown from Monday to Wednesday, 7th – 9th July and was followed in
the second half of the week by ‘Mickey Mouse’ and the ‘Donovan Affair’.
The new era was marked by a change in the times and number of
performances as well as an increase in the price of admission. Since
1925, the cinema had featured a matinee on Monday at 2.30, and the
evening performances had been advanced by half an hour to 7.15, a sign
perhaps of the shortening of working hours and the introduction of the
continuous shift system adopted by the local glassworks. Now, however,
the performances were pushed back to 7.30 and a further matinee
introduced each Thursday at 2.30. The matinees on Saturday and Monday
continued as before, as did the double performance on Saturday evenings
at 6.30 and 8.45. Seats in the balcony now cost a shilling with area
seats at 9d. and 6d. Admission to the pit (known to generations of
locals as ‘the chicken run’) was 4d. Booking for any performance was
introduced at an additional cost of 3d. per seat. Half price admission
for children was abolished on Mondays unless children were accompanied
by an adult. The latter restriction resulted in keen and enterprising
children waiting near the entrance of the cinema and requesting passing
customers to ‘take them in’ (i.e. to allow themselves to be accompanied
to the pay booth and, having first obtained the price of admission from
the prospective young viewer, gain entry for both as the putative parent
The sound system installed at the Palace cost £350, paid for by
instalments for which Howdle found it necessary to overdraw on his bank
to the tune of £200. The apparatus consisted of a pre-recorded
soundtrack on a disc. A deft touch was necessary in order to achieve
perfect synchronisation with the actual film footage. Failure to achieve
the requisite degree of accuracy resulted in a mirth provoking situation
guaranteed to transmute pathos to bathos in an instant. It was for this
reason that the Majestic cinema at Castleford which had prided itself on
being "Castleford’s first sound cinema", when faced with competition
from the Picture House with its technologically superior Powers
Cinophone system, had quickly refitted.
Howdle’s occupancy of the Palace was one of financial stringency
throughout. The funds required to meet the cost of installing the sound
system at the Palace stretched the financial resources of the
proprietors to their ultimate extent so that when the Howdle’s were
faced with competition from the more advanced Western Electric system
installed at the Crescent, Pontefract, shortly afterwards, they could
not afford the necessary luxury of updating their own recently installed
but inferior sound system. Furthermore, as distributors hired out their
films on the basis of the profitability of each individual cinema, the
Palace was at a considerable disadvantage and was restricted to showing
films which had already been screened at Pontefract and Castleford and
frequently viewed by a significant element of the potential Palace
In June 1931, the bank called in its debt, forcing the Howdle’s into
voluntary liquidation and as the mortgage agreement conferred power of
sale the bank placed the cinema on the market.
At the bankruptcy hearing at Wakefield it was stated that Howdle, aged
54, had gross liabilities of £4,855-16-11 for which he blamed the
general depression of trade and competition from the surrounding towns.
In 1929 his total receipts had been £2,612 with a profit of £423. The
following year receipts were £2,338 and profit was £451.
In December 1931, a new era commenced at the Palace when the cinema
was sold to A & D.H Wood, the licence being transferred to the latter in
It is interesting to note that the Woods purchased the Palace for the
sum of £3,317-10-8, only a little over half the sum which had been paid
when the property had been sold by Albert Wilcock a decade earlier. The
reduced price probably reflects the desire of the vendor, Barclays Bank
Ltd., to sell the property as quickly as possible at a time of universal
With the ‘talkies’, the Woods’, aware of the scale of the
technological transformation and its consequences for the silent screen,
had sold the Grand cinema at Normanton and following a prudent waiting
period to enable events to confirm their opinion, then purchased the
Palace. Under the proprietorship of the Woods’ the Palace experienced
its ‘Golden Age’.
One of the earliest actions undertaken by the new owners was the
refurbishment of the cinema, including the replacement of the
inefficient sound system. Thus, at a stroke, the economic viability of
the Palace was enhanced. The change occurred at a time when other
changes were taking place both within the film industry and society at
large. During the 1930s the studio system was developing in Britain in
the wake of similar events in America. Mass advertising resulted in the
expansion of the movie industry to embrace supplementary aspects of
production such as magazines, competitions, promotional features and
sales service. The combined effect made regular cinema attendance a sine
qua non of social life. The momentum continued throughout the late 30s
and 40s as the public sought escapism from the anxieties of war and the
grim austerity of the post-war period. The boom in cinema attendance
also prompted the purchase of the Featherstone Hippodrome by the Woods’.
More significantly for Knottingley, however, was their contingency plan
to build a second cinema within the town. As independent proprietors the
Woods’ felt vulnerable to the strength of the competition engendered by
the large cinema chains which were then established. The Woods’ were
increasingly aware that the Palace was not situated on any bus route, a
fact which was deemed likely to persuade potential patrons from outlying
areas of the town, such as the Broomhill and England Lane estates, or
adjacent rural districts, to travel to Pontefract cinemas by means of
public transport. Even more alarming was the possibility that a business
rival could develop a second cinema on a more viable site within
Knottingley. The Woods therefore decided to look round for a more
favourable site on which to construct the towns second cinema.
The site chosen was a plot situated at the junction of Weeland Road
and Spawd Bone Lane. The plans for the proposed cinema were designed by
the Pontefract based architects Pennington, Hustler & Taylor. The new
cinema was to contain a total of 866 seats comprising 186 front stalls,
448 rear stalls and 232 in the balcony. The interior of the cinema
featured dual gangways, separating blocks of seats to the right and left
of the auditorium from the main centrally situated block, exactly
replicating the lay-out of the Palace. Unlike the Palace, however,
access to the balcony was by a centrally located staircase situated in
the lobby area, lying beyond the foyer. The seats of the balcony were
designed in a triple block arrangement, thus ensuring greater safety
than at the Palace where access to all balcony seats was by a single
entrance to each row from a centrally placed aisle. The triple block
arrangement was therefore less of an irritant to the public by
minimising the number of customers who were required to rise from their
seats to facilitate access to empty seats within any section. As at the
Palace, the projection room was situated at the rear of the balcony,
above the foyer, whilst the screen area featured a stage platform.
All in all, the similarities with the Palace are striking and bear
testimony to the advanced design of that cinema when erected more than
thirty years earlier. A significant sign of the times, however, was the
provision of a car park for the proposed new cinema. Initially this
feature was to occupy space at the front of the cinema, off Weeland
Road, however, following the recommendation of the W.R.C.C. Planning
Office, it was decided to relocate the car park at the rear of the
cinema in order to obviate the possible obstruction of traffic on the
main highway through the town.
The external appearance of the new cinema was less imposing than that
of the Palace, mirroring the increase in the cost of labour and
materials over three decades as well as current shortages arising from
the result of the Second World War. Nevertheless, the new cinema more
obviously reflected the purpose it was designed to serve, with dual
entrances and a central display area and shops to each side of the
entrances. Basically rectangular, the cinema was designed with a
centrally ridged, sloping roof of blue slate, the proposed body of the
building being constructed of red brick.
Conceived shortly before the outbreak of the war, the project was
however abandoned despite obtaining official approval and involving an
advanced stage of planning. Construction of the new cinema was never
really desired by the Woods’, being merely a precautionary tactic
adopted to forestall possible moves by rival business concerns. The
Woods’ laid their plans but secretly hoped that the need to implement
such plans would never arise.
The delay occasioned by the outbreak of World War Two, followed by the
shortage of materials in the immediate post-war period, alleviated the
danger to the Palace from any rival concern and by the time austerity
was giving way to plenty, social conditions were already sufficiently
changed to indicate a pattern of declining cinema attendance, thus
making any rival project unlikely for economic reasons. The project was
therefore abandoned without a single piece of ground ever being
Meanwhile, by the early 1950s, new attractions, particularly
television, were beginning to erode Palace audiences. Many cinemas,
especially those in private ownership, required updating in order to
attract the public by offering maximum comfort and service. Donald Wood
had always felt it to be important to maintain a high standard of
decoration and cleanliness within the cinema and to this end frequently
spent more on customer comfort than his business associates considered
Following the relaxation of wartime restrictions there are several
indications of improvements at the Palace. In May 1953, the cinema
closed for complete redecoration and refurbishment. The announcement of
the grand re-opening in the local press revealed a more flexible
programme schedule with new films being shown every two days instead of
In July 1953, the children’s matinee was switched from 2.10 on
Saturday afternoon to 10.15 on Saturday morning. The measure may have
been introduced to combat the growing coverage of Saturday afternoon
sport on television or merely in the hope of providing something for the
children to do in order to leave mother free to undertake the weekend
shopping or cleaning at a more convenient time than Saturday afternoon
provided. Again, it may have been the holiday season which prompted the
change by providing an opportunity to test the market by means of a
brief experimental period of Saturday morning performances. Whatever the
reason, despite emphasis in the local press concerning the changed time
of performance, by the following month the matinee had reverted to an
In December 1953, Mr. Donald Wood, in failing health, sold the Palace
to the Star Cinemas, (London) Ltd., who shortly before had purchased
other local cinemas including the Crescent and the Alexander at
Pontefract in addition to the New Star at Castleford, which the Star
Company had controlled since 1931.
The Express report stated that the change was effective from Monday
14th December but there appears to have been a brief period of
transition for the issue of the paper dated 18th December 1953, carried
two advertisements for the Palace. The topmost advert contained details
of a triple bill for the following week whilst an advert placed
immediately below and featuring the Star Company logo, advertised the
programme to mark the ‘Star’ opening on Monday 28th December. The latter
date ties in with the deed of conveyance, which is dated 30th December
1953. The transaction included an assurance by the vendors that the
Weeland Road site, which was to be sold separately, would not be used
for the purpose originally intended – the construction of a new cinema.
A plan of the Palace site attached to the deed of conveyance also
reveals that the land lying immediately to the rear of the cinema was
also owned by the Woods’ and may well have been purchased by them with a
view to expanding the size of the Palace should circumstances have
required such development.
To mark the opening programme under the auspices of the Star Company
the film ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ had been specially obtained. The
public were advised to;
"COME EARLY AND REMEMBER THE BIG PRICE REDUCTIONS FOR CHILDREN."
Seats in the circle and back stalls were one shilling and those in the
front stalls were only one penny. Potential patrons were also advised to
make a note of seven other films which were scheduled for showing in the
near future, all in technicolor, the one sphere in which the cinema
could still outshine television.
The change of ownership was also marked by a change in programme
times. Monday and Saturday retained separate ‘houses’ but henceforth
Tuesday to Friday was to be a continuous performance, commencing at 5.45
each evening. At the same time it was announced that a ‘Knottingley
Young Citizens’ Matinee Club’ was to be established with effect from the
2nd January 1954, with two performances at 10.15 and 2.15 on Saturdays.
The children’s matinees had always been a popular feature at the Palace.
During the Howdle ownership the children attending the matinee were each
given a comic. The children in the stalls received a penny number such
as ‘Chips’ or ‘Funny Wonder’, whilst those in the balcony were given a
‘tuppeny coloured’ either ‘Tiger Tim’, ‘Rainbow’, or ‘Bubbles’. At a
later date, Donald Wood provided special matinee performances for
refugee children resident in the camp situated at Pontefract Road,
adjacent to the junction with Sowgate Lane.
The opening of the new club was performed by Councillor A. Cardwell,
J.P, Chairman of Knottingley Urban District Council. The opening
ceremony, which took place immediately before the inaugural performance,
was also attended by other civic dignitaries. The new management seem to
have attracted the general support of the public for a preface to the
Palace advertisement in the subsequent issue of the local paper stated
"Owing to the overwhelming response to our opening programme, we must
apologise to patrons who may have been inconvenienced DO COME AGAIN – A
LITTLE EARLIER IF POSSIBLE. We are sure you will enjoy our service."
From the first, the Star management envisaged a break with tradition
by proposing to open the cinema on Sundays. There are only two known
instances of Sunday opening in the previous history of the Palace. The
first was on Boxing Day 1926, when Knottingley Discharged Soldiers &
Sailors Club, by courtesy of J & G Howdle, entertained 104 of the
townships children to a free cinema performance. The second occasion was
one attended by the present writer, circa 1943 (the nature of which he
was then too young to appreciate and is now too old to remember) when
the Palace was opened for a public meeting concerning some aspects of
the ‘War-Drive’, and drew a capacity audience.
On the 9th December 1954, the Star Cinema Co. Ltd., wrote to
Knottingley Urban District Council requesting that the Council take all
necessary action to permit Sunday cinema opening. At a General Meeting
of the K.U.D.C. on the 3rd February 1954, a decision was taken to
convene a public meeting in Knottingley Town Hall to allow consideration
of the subject. It was simultaneously resolved to despatch a letter to
the Home Office requesting parliamentary approval for Sunday opening
under the terms of the Sunday Entertainment’s Act, 1932. At a subsequent
meeting of the K.U.D.C. held on the 3rd March 1954, the Town Clerk, Mr.
S.B. Hill, presented the result of the vote taken at the public meeting.
The number of votes in favour of Sunday opening was 37, with 28 votes
against the proposal. However, a petition bearing 112 signatures had
subsequently been presented and it was therefore resolved that the whole
township be polled to obtain a clearer view of public opinion concerning
the issue. The poll utilised the full range of local government
apparatus, a fact illustrated by the notice inserted in the middle of
the Palace programme advertisement in the local paper which read;
Polling takes place Saturday March 24th, 8.00am to 8.00pm.
Register your vote in FAVOUR (sic) at your local polling station.
Remember, your vote is vital."
The poll naturally imposed a financial burden upon the local community
and to mitigate the effect upon the rates the Star Cinema Co., Ltd.,
offered the sum of £25 to the local council, which was gratefully
The outcome of the poll was 758 for and 280 against Sunday opening, a
majority of 478. Following the poll the documentation was sent to the
Home Office in accordance with standard procedure.
Thus by popular demand, the Palace commenced Sunday performances. The
first Sunday showing took place on the 16th May 1954, with two ‘houses’,
at 5.30 and 7.45. The film shown was ‘Blood and Sand’, starring Tyrone
Power and Rita Heyworth. Also, by public demand, the times of screening
had been changed shortly before, so that from the 5th April, the
performances Monday to Friday inclusive, became continuous, commencing
at 5.30 each evening. Saturday retained separate showings at 6.30 and
Public enchantment was however, brief. The extension of the television
service following the establishment of the commercial system in the
mid-1950s coincided with an increase in private car ownership as the
result of the dissemination of public affluence arising from the
post-war boom. Such developments freed the public from the constraints
of the previously observed and generally accepted pattern of leisure
activity and thereby enabled the pursuit of newer forms of pastimes and
entertainment. As a result, cinema attendance rapidly declined. By March
1959, the children’s matinee had reverted to a single afternoon
performance. In a last vain attempt to catch public favour the Palace
resorted to ‘screen spectaculars’, shown for a whole week at a time. The
experiment failed, however, and on Saturday 3rd December 1960, the last
show was given at the Palace. The final performance consisted of the
film ‘Savage Innocents’, starring Anthony Quinn. The Pontefract and
Castleford Express reported;
"TOWN’S ONLY CINEMA CLOSING".
Tomorrow (Saturday) Knottingley’s only cinema, the 50-year old Palace,
is closing down. It is a far cry from the days when ‘animated pictures’
were first shown at ‘a penny per head’, to the time when Mrs D. Pearce,
a widow, became manager of the Palace, a year ago for Star Cinema’s Ltd.
Neither Mrs Pearce nor anyone else would have ventured the opinion that
for forty years the Palace would stand empty and increasingly desolate
in appearance as vandalism and the weather took an increasing toll on
Towards the end of the 1970s, the Palace was acquired by Mr. J.W
Walker of Lofthouse, the owner of several local cinemas. Brief hopes of
a new lease of life were aroused in 1980 when Mr. Walker received
planning permission to convert the Palace into a bingo and social club.
The plan was abandoned, however, when it was found that the building was
too small to serve the proposed purpose.
The following year the owner commissioned a feasibility study to
consider the use of the building as a social centre involving a ‘new
style’ picture house in which club members wined and dined whilst being
entertained by video films. The venture was abandoned when the study
revealed that the population shift away from Aire Street during the
previous decade meant that potential members would require parking
facilities. The occupants of the adjacent old and disabled people’s
accommodation objected to the prospect of casual parking with its
attendant noise whilst a further constraint was again doubt as to
whether the building was sufficiently large for the proposed purpose.
Consequently, the scheme was abandoned. Permission was undertaken to
develop the site however, and in 1987 the Palace was offered for sale by
auction. Three years later the property was again placed on the market.
The selling agents were Saxtons of Sheffield, acting on behalf of London
based vendors, Intuition Properties who had purchased the old cinema in
1987. The sale of the property was expected to realise about £50,000 but
at the auction held in Cutler Hall, Sheffield, on Tuesday 24th April
1990, the highest bids were some £10,000 less than the reserve price and
the property was withdrawn from sale.
In the last decade several attempts have been made to effect a private
sale with ‘For Sale’ signs affixed to the derelict fabric of the cinema
at periodic intervals but at the time of writing the building remains
desolate and unsold.
Yet, notwithstanding its derelict state the Palace was recently
utilised when early in 1977, the internationally renowned poet and
classicist, Tony Harrison, chose the site as the venue for his cinematic
project, ‘Promethius’ produced under the aegis of the television
company, Channel 4.
In the film, myth and epic poetry are harnessed to contemporary
political developments. The film features a veteran miner, who,
following the destruction of the mining industry, seeks reflective
quietude within the derelict confines of the old cinema, which was the
hub of the local community in the days of his youth. Thus, art mirrored
life and brought the history of the Palace full circle. All that remains
is uncertainty concerning the ultimate fate of the building which, if as
it seems most probable, involves eventual demolition, will close another
chapter in the social history of Knottingley.
©1999 Dr. Terry Spencer.
[Since the above article was compiled, the Palace cinema has been
converted into two dwellings though only the facade of the original
building has been retained.]
Mrs Mille Ottignon
In the Spring of 1997, I was approached by Mr. Ted Boyle of Ackworth
who was seeking information concerning the history of the Palace cinema,
Knottingley. Mr. Boyle had recently returned from holiday in Australia
where, by pure coincidence, he had met a former resident of Knottingley,
a nonogenarian named Mrs Millie Ottignon.
Mrs Ottignon had recalled that her father had held the lease on the
Palace cinema during the second decade of the twentieth century and Mr.
Boyle was subsequently searching for material about the cinema to send
to her. Millie’s father was none other than Mr. J. Harris, head of the
family of entertainers based at the Palace between 1914 and 1919.
Through contact with Millie I learned that following the surrender of
the lease on the Palace, Mr. Harris and family embarked upon a
theatrical tour of British and European towns and cities, performing
their stage act which consisted of playing various musical instruments
and singing. The act was a quite incredible one. It began with a fanfare
played on five post horns which was guaranteed to command instant
attention. Items on the cello, harp, violins, concertina’s and four-part
harmonic vocalisation followed, before the act concluded with
arrangements for brass instruments, featuring Millie on the trumpet.
The act was seen by Sir Ben Fuller, an Australian impresario, who
offered the Harris family a two-year contract to tour his theatres in
Australia. En route, the family broke their journey in order to
undertake a tour of South African theatres.
Eventually, Mr. Harris decided to retire and settled on a site by the
Wonanora River near Sydney where he spent the remainder of his days
fishing. Indeed, the site became so clearly identified with Harris that
it became known as ‘The Old Mans Bend’, which name it apparently retains
to this day.
Following the retirement of Mr. Harris, Millie and her sister formed a
double act billed simply as ‘Mildred and Connie Harris’. The couple
toured India with their act, which also utilised Millie’s flair for
comedy by including comic routines to supplement the musical items.
It was whilst performing in a hotel in India that Millie met her
future husband who was a member of the audience one evening. The couple
were eventually married in England but returned to Calcutta where Millie
joined the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra.
The outbreak of the Second World War prevented Millie returning to
England for the birth of their two sons but when the children were of a
suitable age to travel, the family decided to go to Australia where Mr.
Ottignon was contracted to the Osborne Steel Company.
In Australia, the Sydney Band Leader, Bob Gibson, persuaded Millie to
join his nationally famous show band. Meanwhile, Millie also undertook
engagements for the Australian Broadcasting Company, playing the harp
and when the late entertainer Liberace, toured Australia in the 1960s,
he engaged Millie as harpist to accompany his piano arrangements.
Upon the retirement of Mr. Ottignon, the couple settled in Queensland
where the versatile Millie embarked on a new and fairly profitable
career as an artist. Millie specialised in English cottage scenes, which
proved to be very popular with homesick emigres from the ‘Old Country’.
It was whilst visiting their son Robert, who had settled with his
family in New Zealand, that Millie’s husband died in 1990.
Millie’s other son, John, owned a property in Buladelah, New South
Wales, close to the residential home at Hawks Nest, where Millie now
resides. It was there that she met Ted Boyle. Notwithstanding the
frailties of age, including near blindness, Millie plays the piano every
day and is never happier than when organising a concert for residents