The art deco style Lewisham ‘Gaumont Palace’ cinema opened in 1932, the year Gaumont also opened cinemas at Peckham, Streatham and Hammersmith. With 3,050 seats, this was among the UK’s largest cinemas. The building included full stage facilities for live shows, a Compton organ and a restaurant at ‘circle’ level. Near a key bus, tram and rail interchange, the site was ideal to attract large audiences, and met the contemporary ideal ‘fan’ shape for a cinema.
The architects were James Morrison, Keith P. Roberts, and William Edward Trent.
Site (blue outline) of Lewisham Odeon- at time of writing, now mainly a car park. (plotted on Google Maps, 2011 using historical maps) – note that street layout changed when roundabout was built.
Cinema in the 1920s and 1930s
Cinema going became more acceptable to the middle classes during the 1914-18 war, and with sound pictures from the late 20s, conditions were ideal for the suburban ‘super cinema’ era. New architectural styles arrived from Germany, considering day and night exterior appearances.
Gaumont British started the 1930s as the UK’s dominant cinema operator, but was overtaken during the decade by ABC, with the Odeon chain (begun in 1930) rapidly catching up, and the latter becoming almost a by-word for a particular variety of art deco architecture later in the 1930s.
An atmosphere of luxury was key to attract both working and middle class patrons, far removed from the ‘flea-pits’ as some of the more basic pre 1914 cinemas were known. Deep-carpeted foyers and large ‘crush halls’ meant no waiting outside. Cafe-lounges were in part aimed at the ‘housewives’ of the day, and facilities might include a “cosmetic room for the convenience of lady patrons”.
Uniformed attendants, usherettes, and a formally dressed manager, whose duties included “ascertaining the suitability of clients wishing to enter the cinema and using extreme politeness conveying to unrequired persons the reasons for their refusal of entry” were part of the experience. Gaumont provided umbrellas for doormen to escort patrons to their cars on rainy days.
The ‘traditional values’ standards adopted by the (USA) Hayes Office and British film censors ensured that the programme would be acceptable to a wide audience, despite sporadic concerns about the effects of films (or what might happen in darkened auditoriums) on public morals. Cinema chains encouraged childrens’ clubs, often emphasising virtues such as ‘safety first in public place and highways’.
The Post War Years
British cinema-going peaked in 1946, but declined rapidly from the mid 1950s, as more households could afford to buy or at least rent a ‘television set’, many apparently encouraged by the televised 1953 Coronation. Commercial television’s launch in 1955, and later developments of colour television and video recorders contributed to cinema’s decline, attendances reaching a low point in 1984 before a modest revival.
At a time of low car ownership, the decline in cinema-going also affected public transport operators, as before ‘travelcards’ each bus journey was paid for separately, and buses that were still required for the traditional ‘peak hours’ were not able to earn money in the evenings.
Lewisham – The Decline
The restaurant closed in 1957 and the space became in turn a dance studio, bingo club, night-club then a pool club. The cinema suffered fire damage in February 1962, re-opening as the Odeon in July, Gaumont and Odeon having become part of the Rank organisation in 1941.
The Lewisham Odeon escaped the 1970s trend of conversion to multiple screens, probably to allow live concerts – the Beatles two 1963 appearances generated what were locally reported as “siege conditions”, fans’ screaming being audible half a mile away. Similar conditions greeted the Bay City Rollers in 1974.
However, occasional live concerts could not compensate for diminishing film audiences. Planning permission for conversion for bingo was refused in 1979, and the cinema closed in February 1982, after ‘full house’ concerts by The Who on 8 and 9 February.
After closure, the building was finally demolished in 1991 for road widening. A fragment of the facade remained until 2010 when adjacent shops were demolished.
The Gaumont Palace at Wood Green in north London is probably the closest surviving similar Gaumont Palace of the same era, it survives as a church building.
A set on Flickr by ‘Dusashenka‘ includes some 1932 photos of the Lewisham Gaumont Palace, and photos shortly before and during demolition.
A set on Flickr by ‘Stagedoor‘ (Ian Grundy) includes photos taken shortly before demolition.
A set of on Flickr by ‘Trash World‘ shows the Wood Green Gaumont Palace.
Sources / References
Allen Eyles, Gaumont British Cinemas, (Cinema Theatre Association, Haywards Heath, 1996)
Audrey Field, Picture Palace – A Social History of the Cinema (Gentry Books, London, 1974)
Alan A Jackson, Semi Detached London (Wild Swan Publications Ltd, Oxford, 2nd edition 1991),
Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace – Cinema and Society in Britain, 1930 – 1939 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1984)
British Film Institute – (cinema attendance figures)
Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board – (TV ownership figures)
Brockley Jack Film Club (website now apparently defunct) – article “When Lewisham Had Cinemas” including recollections of John Scott, former trainee manager at Lewisham Odeon