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Page Last Updated: 26/03/23
Did you know Fleet used to have a cinema? This is a record of a business that used to exist in Fleet Hampshire.
If you have any photos of this business or any additional information/dates etc, please do get in touch as we’d love to add them. If you have any memories or stories to share, please enter them in the comments below.
SHORT SUMMARY AND INTRO
Some of you may know that a cinema once existed in Fleet and some of you will never have heard about it. Fleet Cinema actually started life as a public town hall way back in 1891 and went through a number of transitions in its time. Over the years there have been various recollections of dates, photos and information about the building(s). These appear to have become a little jumbled up over time, as various books, stories and images conflict with each other.
Here, we do our best to research the timeline of Fleet cinema, from its very earliest beginnings to the surprising reason that it may have eventually closed for good. As always, if you spot a mistake or have anything to add then please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.
Ready?…get comfy, it’s a long read!
When the original building was created there was no such thing as official road numbers. The addresses in Fleet Road at that time were thought to be based off the original land plot numbers with Fleet Hall listed as 173 and 174 Fleet Road.
Over time the post office started to introduce building numbers and at one point the cinema address was known as 225 – 227 Fleet Road (with the sweet shop/cafe at number 229). Today official listings state that the old cinema site was 281 – 291 Fleet Road.
281 – 291 Fleet Road, Fleet, Hampshire. GU51 3BT
FLEET HALL/BIOGRAPH/BIOSCOPE (1891 – 1926)
In 1890 a group of local businessmen decided that a town hall was needed for Fleet, which was already showing signs of rapid expansion. They went on to raise £650 by selling £1 shares in the project, gaining enough funds to pay for the land, the building and even the furniture. Needing a new identity for the body that would operate the new hall, “Fleet Hall Company Ltd.” was registered in the same year and the dream of a new town hall soon became a reality.
Named “Fleet Hall” it was built by local company “(Herbert) Pool and Sons” for the purpose of hosting public meetings, charity events and entertainment. It opened its doors to the public in 1891 with a capacity of approx. 300, sited next to James Oakley‘s home Albany Lodge (today this would be where Livingstones and Phyllis Tuckwell shops are). At the opening ceremony the foundation stone was laid by Mrs. Maxwell Lefroy. Mr. Oakley, a prominent backer of the project and owner of Oakley Stores (now the Emporium), was named as the Chairman of Directors.
Below: A trade card showing the original Fleet Hall building.
The hall proved to be a hit for Fleet and despite being a basic building with hard wooden seats and minimal lighting, attracted a long list of bookings from lectures and local social groups to wedding receptions and musical concerts.
By 1894, the owners of Fleet Hall had agreed to let the Fleet Parish Council use the premises for their local meetings…but 1904 saw a big change in local infrastructure. Previously under the parish of Crondall, Fleet and Crookham separated in this year to have their own parish councils and Fleet and Crookham was declared an Urban District. When the council gained greater powers (thereafter known as Fleet Urban District Council), they pressured the group of businessmen into letting them purchase the hall. Eventually the shareholders agreed to a sale, quoting the price of £1,150. At this point negotiations were brought to a close “as it was considered by the ratepayers that the Council should not go in for such an expense so soon”. Shortly after this the council adopted Ruby Cottage on the corner of Albert Street and Upper Street as their new base.
Below: Fleet council rejects purchase of Fleet Hall.
THE FIRST FLEET CARNIVAL
In 1900 an important meeting was held at Fleet Hall to discuss the possibility of hosting a carnival in Fleet. The meeting was well attended and included James Oakley of Oakley Stores and Henry Watmore of the Oat Sheaf Public House. The meeting was deemed a success, leading to the the very first Fleet Carnival, the start of a tradition that continues today.
A CHANGE OF FORTUNE
By 1897 the hall was struggling to keep up with the demands of the growing town and there seemed to be a lack of interest from both shareholders and directors of the property to attend any of the meetings. A local newspaper stated “Although the hall was large enough for the fleet of 7 years ago, the up to date requirements of the fleet of today demand enlargements and improvements.
The directors of the hall decided to make several improvements, including heightening the stage and replacing the antiquated oil lighting on the stage with acetylene gas providing brilliantly lit surroundings and with two generators it claimed to provide a safer well lit hall (although the gas was highly flammable). An extension was also added to the back of the building to store chairs for events, when they weren’t in use. But the attempts to promote and improve the hall didn’t end there. In 1907 a “tableaux vivants” (a static scene containing actors) evening of entertainment was laid on under the royal patronage of Her Highness Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein. It proved to be a great success.
However, by 1911 an advert had appeared offering the sale of “The Fleet Bioscope” by auction, on the instructions of the liquidator and receiver, suggesting that things had gone downhill for the company. A newspaper article dated January 1912 reported that the Fleet Bioscope had been purchased for the price of £650 (the initial price it was built and fitted out for). It is believed that James Oakley, Chairman of Directors of Fleet Hall/Bioscope made the purchase.
Below: Fleet Hall article from February 1904 and sale listing from 1911.
James’ decision to retire meant that the property was soon up for sale at auction again and in July 1913 a firm of accountants from Andover, Messrs. Sheffield and Goddard, had snapped up the property, trading under a registered name of “Fleet Cinema Co. Ltd.”. Their plans for the building included enlargement of the hall, the putting in of an electric plant, redecorating and refurnishing it, turning it into an “up-to-date electric cinema”. It isn’t known how far they got though, as WW1 was to break out the following year.
Below: Sale article due to retirement and the new owners (1913).
The identity of Fleet Hall changed over the years, adapting to the local community and advancements in technology. By 1914 it was commonly referred to as the “Biograph” or sometimes “The Bioscope”, with its primary use now being to show the new range of silent movies that were being released. Permission was granted from the council to make improvements to the building, including the installation of fire doors.
Below: Fleet Hall/The Biograph/Fleet Cinema, shown on the right hand side in the 1920s.
Musicians pits were added and instruments were introduced to provide a soundtrack to the silent films, with jaunty piano music accompanying some of the great early stars of the silver screen such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. The birth of the silent film was soon to revive the popularity of the picture house and entice a whole new generation of people through its doors.
Batteries provided the electric power to run the projectors, which required a great deal of attention from the projectionist running it. The film reels would often break down, leaving the expectant audience whooping and booing in complete darkness, waiting eagerly for a quick repair.
Here you can see one of the original pianists of Fleet Cinema, Esther Cooper, known as Hetty, who used to play the soundtracks for the silent movies on the big screen. As an interesting side note, Esther’s brother owned Cooper Electrics who resided in Upper Street and rented space in Oakley’s Stores (many thanks to Angie Eversfield for the information and photograph of her aunt).
Below: Esther Cooper, a pianist at Fleet Cinema in the 1920s. Credit Angie Eversfield.
With the movie business proving to be a hit, the hall had shown both its popularity and its limitations. By 1923, the hall had yet another owner, with local council member and landlord/owner of the Oat Sheaf public house, Henry Watmore, listed as proprietor. It is believed that around this time the original building was either demolished and rebuilt, or extensively remodelled and by 1926 Watmore had officially listed the building as “Fleet Cinema”, although it has also been referred to as the Palladium. His ownership was only to last a short time though (possibly due to declining health) as by 1927 it was time for yet another change, heralding a new start for the once simple town hall.
KING GEORGE CINEMA (1927 – 1937)
In the early 1920s Mrs and Mrs Donada moved to “Cottingham” Guildford Road in Fleet Hampshire. The move was prompted by Charles Donada’s love of polo, as Fleet had a good ground at that time and was to prove a game changer for the town – and for the couple.
In 1927 Mr C. J. Donada, a wealthy businessman (pictured playing polo), bought the Fleet cinema. The name “County Cinemas Ltd” was registered and they went on to create what was to become the first minature talkie cinema in Europe and Britain’s first cinema chain. The building was renamed “King George’s Cinema” with the proprietors being listed as County Cinemas, becoming the first of 56 branches that Charles would set up.
Previously part of the Paramount films empire for almost twenty years, Donada was to resign from the company in 1932 to focus more attention on his new County Cinema chain.
Below: C. J. Donada, owner of the newly named King George Cinema in Fleet and the local directory entry.
NEW LOOK CINEMA
The image below is King George’s Cinema, pictured in 1932/33, showing the films “But the Flesh is Weak and “The Innocents of Chicago” – but is this the Fleet cinema that was bought and revamped by Charles Donada? The film posters tie up with the dates that the building would have existed in Fleet, there was indeed a tree in that same position (seen top left – now removed) and there is a building next to it (you can just about see this on the right side) that could also be Fleet. So the short answer to this one is we can’t be sure – there are definitely similarities to Fleet and the building is certainly one that would fit the type of building that was there…but without a wider shot of the area, or other photos to back it up we cannot say 100% either way. Let us know if you have any more information on this please!
THE YEAR THAT CHANGED CINEMA
From a business perspective the timing of the cinema purchase couldn’t have been better, as 1927 was to prove to be the year that changed cinema forever. The early beginnings of synchronised sound was soon to see an end to the silent film era, aiding the introduction of the sci-fi genre which was introduced to awe stricken audiences everywhere. The forming of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the same year was the icing on the cake, marking the arrival of a new age of entertainment.
The new business got off to a flying start but even the Fleet of 1928 had the occasional bout of antisocial behaviour with a theft reported on the cinema grounds in August of that year. George Victor Gregory, an 18 year old employee of the company, pleaded guilty to stealing a camera and a box of chocolates from the car of Miss. Ada Mary Pool, while it was parked in the cinema car park.
Mr. Gregory, who worked in the operating room, hid the stolen camera in a hole in the chimney. It later came to light that he had been promised a job by Miss Pool’s father if he was discharged from the cinema. He was bound over for two years.
TALKIES COME TO FLEET
In October 1929, “talkies” came to the town of Fleet in Hampshire, with a population at that time of 3689. The first talking film to be shown at the cinema was “The Singing Fool”, starring Al Jolson. A local Fleet resident at this time described how he glanced around the audience as the star sung “Sonny Boy” to his son on the big screen and saw all the women around him with their hankies in hand, blowing their noses.
Below: The first talking film shown at Fleet Cinema and Fleet film listings from 1930.
In 1930, Mr. L. Walshaw was the manager of the King George’s Cinema. Keen to promote their latest film, “Flight”, Walshaw teamed up with local hairdresser “June’s” to hold a competition guessing the number of people who had attended the cinema. Entry forms advertised the name of June’s hairdressers as well as the cinema’s programme for the week. The window of June’s business displayed a wooden aeroplane made by cinema staff and the first prize was a permanent semi-wave…hopefully the winner had a good headful of hair.
DONADA’S MICKEY MOUSE CHILDREN’S CLUB
Charles Donada’s wife, Freda Rose Donada was an integral part of the growth of the cinema. Very accomplished in her own right, she had a career that included a stage actress, pianist and opera singer. With her love of music, Freda soon formed a ladies choir in Fleet, staging many locally famous music recitals. She also founded the Mickey Mouse Club in the 1930s, starting the tradition of a Saturday morning kids clubs. This soon expanded and spread across the country, later being renamed the Odeon Mickey Mouse Club…and it all began in Fleet.
Below: The Mickey Mouse Club was started by Mrs. Freda Donada at the King George’s Cinema in Fleet Hampshire.
The shop next door to the cinema (previously a chartered accountants and then a chemist) was by now a confectioners and tobacconist called “Wendy’s”, an ideal accompaniment to the entertainment venue.
By 1936, C. J. Donada had extended his business and had added many more cinemas to his portfolio. Over time he upgraded and opened cinemas all over the south of the UK until he decided it was time to create a single united identity for all the buildings. This was the last year that Fleet would see the name “King George’s Cinema”.
Still reading? Then let’s continue…
COUNTY CINEMA (1937 – 1946)
In 1937 the cinema had yet another change of identity. It wasn’t fully demolished, as has been listed elsewhere, instead the original building was extended and partially rebuilt with plush fittings added and a much upgraded modern interior. The substantial refurbishment and rebuild took place over a period of 12 weeks under the management of the company’s architect, Mr. H. B. Baker of Fleet. Wendy’s Cafe, Confectioners and Tobacconists remained in the shop next to the main building as a separate identity during this time.
At the same time, the cinema chain decided to drop the “King George” identity from its chain, rebranding each one as a County Cinema instead. Although this streamlined the County brand, it also took away the name that identified the original early cinemas that helped form the County Cinema chain.
The new look modern cinema reopened on 20th November 1937. To mark the extensive improvements and upgrades to the building, the grand opening of the new look cinema featured popular music hall star Florence Desmond as well as a large number of wealthy and influential friends of Charles and Freda Donada, which included a big afterparty. The cinema had a capacity at that time of 774 seats and on opening night, every seat was filled.
Below: Newspaper clippings from 1936/37 document the refurbishment, name change and reopening ceremony of the new look cinema.
Below: The interior of the newly refurbished County Cinema in 1937 showing 5 films, including “Shall We Dance” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Also newspaper reviews of the opening night.
MANAGER ACCUSED OF THEFT
The fixtures and fittings may have been new but some of the staff from the original cinema were retained, including Mr. G. C. Comfort, who had previously managed the building under the previous “King George’s Cinema” name. However, Mr. Comfort was not to repay the loyalty the company showed him, as in 1938 he was charged with making false entries in the wages sheets and taking funds from the company. The chairman of the magistrates said that “the defendant had ruined a good character for petty thefts, but the Bench had decided to give him a chance to start again”. Mr. Comfort was bound over for two years and ordered to pay court and witness costs.
To keep up to date with the latest film technologies, County/Donada ensured that the projectionists were operating the latest modern equipment. These are images from 1941 showing the actual projectionist room of the Fleet cinema, with Western Electric Mirrophonic sound installed and Stelmar Arcs to prevent illumination.
Below: The projection room in Fleet cinema in 1941.
MERGE OF IDENTITIES
Back in 1935, talks had already begun about a merger between County Cinema and Odeon. The ultimate aim was to offer a permanent supply of high quality British films to the market which were proving to be very popular with audiences. By 1939 the move had been signed off but the cinema would still be known as County until 1946, when the Odeon signs finally and fully replaced its regal predecessor.
Below: County Cinema adverts slowly merge into Odeon.
Below: Merging of identities as both the County and Odeon names could be seen together during the transition of ownership. These images are from 1943 showing the movies: “The Saint in Palm Springs” and “Four Jacks and a Jill”.
ODEON (1946 – 1957)
By 1946 the transition to Odeon was finally complete and the old County signs had been removed. Adverts now showed the new name and the last chapter of the cinema began.
Below: The change of identity as the County sign is finally replaced with Odeon.
A VIEW FROM ABOVE
The flat topped roof of the building was the perfect place for tired projectionists and staff to take a quick break and watch the queues forming on the streets below, eager to see the latest film. It also gave a unique outlook onto the rest of Fleet Road, offering a bird’s eye view of the buildings. In the images below you can look up and down Fleet Road. In the first photo you can see a tall building with a decorative facade (now removed) and white awning – this is El Castello’s restaurant today. On the right hand side you can see a shop that although now sadly gone, will be a familiar sight to most of you – W. C. Bakers.
As with everything else, out went the County logo and in came the new Odeon graphics, advertising the latest and greatest films for the modern age.
STAFF – THE GOOD, THE BAD…AND THE DODGY
The cinema business was going from strength to strength but it appeared that the luck the business had with some of their staff was less impressive. In 1947 a former manager of the Odeon, Charles W. Potter, was found guilty by a jury of three charges of larceny, one of attempted larceny, seven charges of falsification of accounts and four of forged receipts. Mr. Potter, who conducted his own defence, denied all the charges and protested at the way he had been questioned. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison.
Just a couple of years later, the doorman of the cinema, William Spence decided that it was his turn to give himself a bonus, but the outcome wasn’t much better. After stealing two £5 notes from the pocket of the staff foreman, William ended up serving 3 months jail time.
In comparison, the next manager of the Odeon was to prove a loyal and popular figure. Mr. Charles Fricker, an ex-Sergeant-Major of the Marines took over as manager from around 1950 until the closure of the cinema in 1957. He was well known for playing a large role in local events and at Christmas time. He can be seen in the photo below, taken in 1946/47, which shows the team of fourteen staff that ran the cinema. As well as the manager, Mr. Fricker, there were projectionists, usherettes and maintenance men who also staffed the cafe next door, which by 1950 had finally been incorporated into the main business and was now officially listed as “Cinema Cafe”, with Mrs. McDonald as manager.
Below: The cinema staff pictured in 1946/47 with manager, Mr. Fricker, in the centre.
Mr. Fricker certainly seemed to keep himself busy and was regularly mentioned in newspaper articles where he could be found running children’s clubs (known as ‘Uncle Fricker’ to the boys and girls of the Odeon Mickey Mouse Club), entertaining the older folk of Fleet, running competitions and even looking after a dog named Sandy, who decided to pop into the cinema one day on a stroll about town…
Below: Mr. Fricker was no stranger to the local newspapers…
FLEET’S FAMOUS FILM STARS
In 1956 a film called “Touch and Go” was shown at the Odeon in Fleet and as one little girl looked up at the film poster she said excitedly “Look Mummy, you’re in that picture!“. As it turns out she was correct because her mother was June Thorburn, star of the film and local Fleet resident, whose parents lived in Courtmoor Avenue. Miss Thorburn had taken her two and a half year old daughter Heather to see the movie, after seeing it herself three times already.
Below: Fleet’s own film star June Thorburn takes a trip to the cinema with her daughter.
In January 1957, Fleet Cinema hosted three days of a film called “Sailor Beware”, which was part-written by Falkland L. Cary, a famous playwright and screenwriter from Fleet. The film was said to be an outstanding success on the entertainment world and had attracted large audiences through the country. Falkland was born in Ireland but decided to move to Fleet, remaining there until his death in 1989.
THE MESSY THIEF
The cinema had seen its fair share of petty crime in its time and it wasn’t about to reach the end of its existence without one more story to share.
This particular crime features a thief who escaped with £13 worth of sweets and cigarettes but not before spilling a tin of condensed milk all over the floor and trampling it all over papers and items he’d thrown on the floor. Hopefully his stolen loot didn’t get too soggy.
By now more and more people were starting to get televisions in their homes and the cinema business was feeling the pinch. Rumours had been circulating for some time that closure might be on the cards but it wasn’t until Tuesday 17th September in 1957 that the manager, Mr. C. Fricker, was able to break the news to his staff that the Odeon would be closing for good, bringing 50 years of cinema in Fleet to an end.
The last film shown was “Hell Drivers”, with a star studded cast including Stanley Baker, Patrick McGoohan, Sean Connery and Herbert Lom.
On Saturday 12th October 1957, Fleet cinema closed for the very last time.
Below: Newspaper clippings showing the closure of the Odeon cinema in Fleet.
Although it didn’t close at exactly the same time, the sweet shop that adjoined the Odeon cinema was only to hold out for another 6 months, closing on April 20th 1958.
The Rank organisation who owned the property made it known that the cinema and shop would be sold as a unit and not separately.
Below: After all the years together, the sweet shop closed shortly after the cinema.
CLOSURE AND DEMOLITION (1957 – 1961)
There were certainly those in town that were unhappy with the decision to close their local cinema and at a meeting of the Fleet Women’s Branch of the Conservative Association in February 1958, a discussion was had regarding re-opening the cinema. Unfortunately the Finance Committee stated that “there is no useful action which the Council could take to bring about the desire expressed.”
In 1960, just as the cinema was facing demolition, Mr. J. C. Hayward started up a Monday Cinema Club in the Church Hall to try and fill the void left by the Odeon. The club aimed for a membership of 200 people and already had 121 that had joined them for their opening night, proving that Fleet’s appetite for films hadn’t vanished along with their cinema.
By March 1960 the old cinema site had been sold. The sale followed the granting of planning permission for shops and maisonettes to be built on the site and by October the cinema building was almost fully demolished. This wasn’t to be the last twist in the tale of Fleet’s cinema though, as the demolition process raised a few questions of its own, leading some to question what the real reason was for getting rid of the building.
Below: A very sad looking Fleet cinema as it stands half demolished.
WAS THE CINEMA CLOSED AS IT WAS UNSAFE?
A newspaper article from 1960 showed a photo of workmen stripping the inside of the Fleet cinema as they prepared the site for the bulldozers to move in. However it wasn’t just old fixtures and fittings they found as it was discovered that not only were there cracks of a considerable size in the brickwork of the building but the foundations had also sunk.
The damage to the building was not only old but there were also signs that someone had tried to seal one of the larger cracks with cement, showing that they knew about the state of the crumbling building long before plans were made to tear it down. Was this the real reason the cinema was closed?
Below: Newspaper article dated August 1960.
MODERN DAY FLEET (1961 – Present Day)
In 1961 planning permission was granted for the erection of a supermarket, 5 shops and 8 maisonettes. The area was renamed “Queen’s Parade”.
Below you can see where the cinema in Fleet once stood:
1. This is the building that used to be on one side of the cinema, today it is Phyllis Tuckwell.
2. This is the building that was on the other side of the cinema complex, next to the cafe/confectioners. Today this is the Haart Estate Agents.
3. This has been various businesses over the years but it stil stands today as Oasis Florists.
The last photo with the pink line shows the area that once housed the cinema and sweet shop.
Below: Where Fleet Cinema once stood. Now and then.
ALL THAT REMAINS…
Today, the only indication that Fleet ever had a cinema is an electricity substation in the car park behind Queen’s Parade (where the cinema was stood). The sign on the fencing reads “Fleet Road Cinema S/S”. A tiny piece of nostalgia to remember it by.
Below: The Fleet Cinema substation sign that still exists today in the car park that was once used for cinema visitors.
HOPES FOR A NEW CINEMA
Fleet may have lost a cinema but it never really seemed to lose its desire to have one. In 1999 planning permission was finally granted to build one in an extended Hart Centre. However with other local towns enjoying large multi-screen complexes, the Fleet development was deemed unviable and the deal fell through. The first floor area was later turned into a gym and the town’s hopes of having it’s own cinema again were dashed.
Below: “Full Screen Ahead” Article from the Fleet Courier January 2000.
Well we’ve just about come to the end of the story of Fleet Cinema but there are always those few odds and ends that need addressing, so here are a couple of things we’d like to cover before we sign off…
While researching the history of Fleet cinema, it has become clear that they are very limited amounts of photos of the building over the years. This image is often shared online and on social media, with claims that it is Fleet Cinema in the 1930s. However, Fleet never had a building that close next to it (as you can see next to the cinema). The image on the right is a photo of a cinema in Sudbury in 1934 and if you compare the two buildings, I think you will see that they are identical (including the shop next to it). So this image is actually thought to be from Sudbury, not Fleet.
BUILDING WALL SIGNS
On the side of the building that housed the old cafe/confectioners you can see some letters painted on the wall that spell out “SWS”. These were actually a leftover from the Second World War and stands for “Static Water Supply”. The point of the letters were to let fire crews know where the nearest water supply was in the event they needed to extinguish fires quickly. The letters “EWS” were also a common sight too (Emergency Water Supply).
There is also an “Exit Only” sign on the wall, this shows where a cinema car park used to exist.
So there we have the history of Fleet cinema. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the read and if so, let us know!
Is there a building in Fleet you are curious about? What would you like to see next on our history pages?
All information and articles on our website which feature this business, or the address(es) it occupied are listed below:
Do you have thoughts, comments or memories to share? We’d love to hear from you…so please leave a comment!