The distribution of picture halls in Leeds, 1910 to 1939

The Cinematograph Act, 1909, placed the regulation of the exhibition of motion pictures in the hands of local authorities. In Leeds (as in many other British cities), the Watch Committee of the City Council was responsible for licensing and regulating places of exhibition in the city. The proceedings of this committee and the Council in general provide a great deal of information on the development of exhibition in the city, including data on the location of theatres, the licensees. Here, data from the council proceedings is used to map the development of motion picture exhibition in Leeds from 1910 to 1939 (see Preedy 2005 for an overview). By looking at the income from the issuing of cinematograph licenses we can follow how the size of the exhibition market in the city changed over time, and this information is presented in Figure 1. The development of motion picture exhibition after the introduction of the Cinematograph Act, 1909, in Leeds can be divided into three phases: a period of rapid growth from 1910 to 1913; a first wave of expansion from 1913 to the early 1920s; and a stable period from 1921 to the beginning of World War Two. Changes in the distribution of picture halls are examined by looking at four years – 1914, 1922, 1931, 1939 (see Table 1) – that are (roughly) evenly spread across the three decades covered.


Figure 1 Revenue from licenses issued under Cinematograph Act, 1909 (Source: Leeds City Council Accounts)

The first phase in the development of motion picture exhibition in Leeds after 1909 is primarily comprised of the licensing of existing premises. The first picture hall to be licensed was the Coliseum on Cookridge Street. It is interesting to note that an early decision of the Watch Committee was to license premises that had been exhibiting moving pictures prior to the passage of the 1909 Act without requiring them to meet the safety measures specified, particularly the need to isolate the projector from the auditorium. For the most part these premises were the larger theatres in the city (including the Empire, the Hippodrome, City Varieties, and the Queen’s), and so were already subject to licenses for music and dancing. Also among this group were public halls (e.g. Salem Central Hall, Albert Hall).

Although some purpose built theatres were opened prior to 1913, the majority of the licensed premises are converted premises. The Cottage Road Cinema, Headingly, opened in 1912 (and is arguably the oldest continually operating theatre in the world) at the site of a former stable (and later garage) built in 1835. The Palace Cinema at Eyres Avenue, Armley, was opened as a cinema following the decline of the skating rink in the same premises – although the rink did not entirely disappear, and the site appears to have been dual use for a number of years. Early demands of the Watch Committee focus on the safety aspects of the new entertainment, with routine demands for fire extinguishers, panic bolts, improvements to ventilation and lighting, and the clearing of all aisles – all subject to the inspection of the Chief Constable and the City Engineer. Occasionally, licenses were granted on the submission of plans; and the whole business of licensing theatres appears to have taken up a significant amount of the committee’s time: on 22 October 1912, the minutes of the Committee show that nine resolutions were passed, all of which related to the exhibition of motion pictures.

Early cinema proprietors were also converts: the Cottage was operated by Owen Brooks and George R. Smith, the former being a photographer; and Allan Nield, another photographer, ran the Malvern Picture House in Beeston and the Hill Crest in Harehills at one time or another. In fact, Brooks and Nield appear to have lived close to one another in the Beeston/Dewsbury Road area, along with other proprietors such as the confectioner Frederick S. Brier. Another cluster of proprietors develops on the other side of the city in Roundhay (once home to inventor of the cinema, Louis Le Prince), including the lithographic printer Charles Lightowler who opens a theatre in Hunslet near his print works; Arthur Cunningham, a household furnisher; and Harry Bagges Hylton, a builder. Other trades of proprietors include a rag merchant, a ladies’ tailor, Pattern makers, a city councilor and the secretary to the City Council, and a number of estate agents. Typically, then, in this early phase the proprietor of a Leeds cinema was a local businessman with the funds to spend on exhibiting motion pictures. The large theatres in the city centre were already part of existing entertainment chains or already had in place a management structure that could be easily adapted, and the licensees of these shows are more often managers than proprietors.

The boom in picture halls in Leeds takes off in 1913, with a surge in the number of new builds and this is reflected in the increase in license fees collected by the council. That a second increase follows in 1921 suggests that the First World War interrupted the growth of the exhibition market in the city. The distribution of picture halls in Leeds in January 1914 is presented in Figure 2. The high number of licensed premises in the city centre is unsurprising; but it should be noted that this number includes premises used for alternative entertainments (i.e. theatres, public halls, church halls, etc.) and these ‘other use premises’ account for approximately half of the picture halls in this part of the city. The number of licensed premises in the city centre in which the exhibition of motion pictures is the primary purpose of the building is then no greater than in other parts of Leeds. Attending the cinema in the city can be associated with other leisure activities that are not present in the single-use theatres in areas outside the civic centre. It is outside the city centre that purpose-built cinemas are to be found, while in the centre premises are adapted and converted, but these picture halls are distributed unevenly across the city. Hunslet and Holbeck are both densely populated areas comprised primarily of back-to-back housing and industrial premises, but the former has a substantially greater number of theatres. Over time, the distribution becomes more even (see Figures 3-5) and by 1922, Holbeck has gone from three cinemas to six while Hunslet has gone from nine to six.

Clues as to why the distribution of picture halls in the city adopted this pattern shortly after the introduction of the Cinematograph Act in 1909 can be found in the trade directories for Leeds. What this comparison reveals is that the distribution of picture halls is – to a significant extent – a matter of convenience for the proprietors. For example, the Imperial Picture House at 79 Kirkstall Road opened by William Ogden and William Fielding in 1913 is located next door to the workshop (at 77 Kirkstall Road) of William Ogden, tinplate manufacturer. Kelley’s 1911 directory for Leeds lists 10 Alpha Street, Hunslet, as the premises of Harry Rodger, estate agent; while the council minutes reveal that the conversion of this property for the purpose of exhibiting motion pictures under license to Rodger was approved (subject to modifications) on 10 February 1911. Joseph Battersby, a marine store dealer at Place’s Road in Cross Green in 1911 is listed as the licensee of the East End Picture Hall at the same location in 1914. Clifford Lax, owner of a building company and estate agent based on Harehills Lane, opened the Harehills Picture House at the corner of Roundhay Road and Harehills Lane. Lax built a number of cinemas in Leeds, and appears to have entered the picture trade after building theatres for others.

What is also notable comparing the distributions of 1914 to 1939 is the overall consistency in the distribution: the exhibition market in Leeds is remarkably stable, and it is only towards the end of World War Two that closures become common. Even then, most areas of the city continue to have at least one theatre until well into the 1960s. The transition to sound had no impact on the distribution of theatres in the city. The years surrounding the introduction of sound show much less variation in license income (Figure 1), but this appears to be a short-lived phenomenon. The majority of the theatres open in 1922 are open in 1931. The costs of converting to sound may have been high – as many historians of the cinema have noted (see, for example, Jancovich et al. 2003 and Hanson 2008) – but this does appear to have perturbed exhibitors in Leeds: comparing the list of licensed theatres from 1927 and 1931 we see that one site has disappeared from the list while two have been added. In fact, of the fifty seven picture halls in Leeds licensed in 1914, 33 are still operating in 1939. In the latter phase, there is also the spread of motion picture exhibition into areas of the city away from the main metropolitan core (such as Meanwood, Middleton, and Moortown), accompanied by an expansion of the city boundaries that can be seen to contribute to the increase in council revenue from licensing.

Most the cinemas in the city in 1914 are individually controlled, and many cinemas remain independent until well after World War Two. Overtime, the presence of theatre chains becomes more marked. Some are national circuits (Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, Gaumont British), with several smaller, local chains. By 1911, Charles P. Metcalfe and Thomas Thompson own two cinemas – though they soon break up their partnership. Goldstone Cinemas Ltd operate a number of picture houses in the South and East of the city, opening the Victoria in Burmantofts in 1912 (replaced by the Star in 1938), the Wellington Picture House in 1920, and the Regal in Hunslet after 1927. John Robert Sharp runs two picture halls under the name Atlas in Sheepscar and Kirkstall, although he finds himself frustrated by the demands of the Watch Committee in refusing his applications changes to his auditorium (although the precise nature of the requested changes are not made clear). Often, when the decision of the Committee is not to the applicant’s satisfaction, a solicitor is brought in to argue a case, but this appears to have been a largely unsuccessful strategy.

More prosperous areas (e.g. Roundhay) have no theatres, although this should not lead us to assume that there are no middle class patrons. It appears likely that working class audiences attended the cinemas in their area of Leeds, while middle class audiences attended the larger theatres in the city. Parts of modern day Leeds that do not appear here (e.g. Horsforth, Otley, etc) were also well served with cinemas, but did not come under the control of Leeds City Council until much later.

Table 1 Premises licensed by Leeds City Council (Annual licenses) under the Cinematograph Act 1909


Figures 2 to 5 chart the change in distribution of licensed picture halls in Leeds from 1914 to 1939. In each case, data was taken from the annual renewal of licenses list published by the Watch Committee of Leeds City Council in January of each year.


Figure 2 Distribution of premises licensed by Leeds City Council, 7 January 1914


Figure 3 Distribution of premises licensed by Leeds City Council, 4 January 1922


Figure 4 Distribution of premises licensed by Leeds City Council, 7 January 1931


Figure 5 Distribution of premises licensed by Leeds City Council, 4 January 1939

KEY: ARM – Armley; BEE – Beeston; BRA – Bramley; BUR – Burmantofts; BUY – Burley; CHA – Chapel Allerton (including Chapeltown); CRG – Cross Gates; CRN – Cross Green; HAR – Harehills; HEA – Headingly; HOL – Holbeck; HUN – Hunslet; KIR – Kirkstall; LEE – Leeds; MEA – Meanwood; MID – Middleton; MOO – Moortown; SHE – Sheepscar; STA – Stanningley; WOO – Woodhouse; WOR – Wortley.


Hanson, S. (2008) From Silent Screen to Multi-screen: A History of Cinema Exhibition in Britain since 1896. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Jancovich, M., Faire, L., and Stubbings, S. (2003) The Place of the Audience: Cultural Geographies of Film Consumption. London: BFI.

Preedy, R.E. (2005) Leeds Cinemas. Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd.

About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on April 2, 2009, in British Cinema, Film History, Film Industry, Film Studies, Motion Picture Exhibition, Silent cinema and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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