28th September, 1993
When I have given talks on our history to schools in the area I have begun by asking the children if they can tell me a town where they could go skating (both roller skating and ice), swimming, racing (both dog and horse racing), dancing, go to the theatre or cinema, watch boxing, athletics, bowling, football, or cricket, see world famous people, or go for a flight in a plane. This was only a small amount of the entertainment on offer to the people of this place. Now where do you think it could be?
Well. I've had quite a variety of answers to that question, which have ranged far and wide, most of them being large towns and cities, or even capitals of the world; New York, Paris, London, Birmingham and Blackpool seem to be the favourites, but when I tell them it was their own town of Mexborough at the time their grandparents were small they look astonished.
Athletics, bowling, football, cricket, and tennis could be watched at The Athletic Grounds at the bottom of Adwick Road. Whereas roller skating was done at "The Brickyard", the site of the old Mexborough Brickworks, once owned by the Simpson Family on Lower Dolcliffe Road. But Ice Skating was done at the "Olympic" a beautiful purpose built building constructed by Mr. James Guest just off Cliffe Street.
In the hot summer months, and especially in the summer holidays, the children busied themselves in many ways, and one of the things which occupied them was swimming. As Bull Green Boat Yard was not so busy in the summer, their dry docks would be flooded, making an adequate swimming pool where children could swim in comparative safety, other than that it was swimming in the River Don or Canal (Yuk!).
Pony and horse racing was always done in "Pit Week". This was the time when the pits of our area closed for the annual weeks' holiday and both miner and pit pony took a break from the drudgery of work A large crowd could be guaranteed to congregate on the field where the Fire Station now stands, to cheer on ponies and horses being raced from many pits in this area. It was also to this field that Sir Allen Cobham came every year with his Flying Circus.
Dog racing was also popular, whippets being brought to "The Dog Daisy Racetrack, Swallow's Bottoms" from all over our area and one by the name of "Shellout" became quite famous.
For the people who favoured dancing there was Burton's on the high Street whose Ballroom was above the shop. Then there was the "Empress Ballroom" where many a budding romance was started. Even when I was in my early teens you could go to the "Saturday Hop". At one time too there was "The Brickyard", generally used for roller skating, but to the latter end of its life the skating dropped off in popularity and dancing took over.
Then there was Woofinden's Billiard Hall under The Oxford picture hall which once stood close to the present day fish market. There was also Hardy's where you could play billiards. This being above "The Montagu Arcade".
However, it was mainly the theatre and the cinemas that brought people to Mexborough. The theatre of course being The Hippodrome, where many people appeared who were later to become household names, some becoming known all over the world. Stars like Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields, George Formby, Miss Florrie Ford (of down by the Old Bull and Bush fame) and Tommy Handley. In 1902 the world famous American, Buffalo Bill came with his Wild West Show, accompanied by four hundred horses and two hundred people, transported here by train. In 1939 after a public outcry this beautiful old theatre was demolished, because of a road widening scheme, which in the end was not taken up because of the Second World War and it is now a car park. A sad end to what must have been a beautiful building.
I believe that Mexborough could have had moving pictures as early as the 1880s, as I have been told (possibly by Brian Hillerby when he came to give us a talk about The Hippodrome) that they were first shown by a moving theatre family in a portable wooden theatre on the site of an old quarry opposite The Montagu Arms Hotel. This must be the Livesey family who built the Hippodrome, as they wintered here in the 1880s putting on plays etc.
However, the honour of being the first proper cinema in Mexborough must go to "The Picture Hall' better know as "The Cosy Cinema" which was situated on Garden Street, close to the rear of the Bull's Head public house and we have in our archives an advertisement dated 1909 taken from the Mexborough and Swinton Times, which tells us that the proprietor and manager was Mr. W. H. Melton. Admission was 2d (Ip), 4d (2p) and 6d (2.I/2p) and on this particular week they were
showing The Burden Bearer" - a drama, ''Betty Becomes a Maid" - a comedy, and The Gambler's End" - a cowboy drama. Unfortunately no date as yet has been found for the opening of this cinema.
In that same year of 1909 a small advertisement appeared in The Mexborough and Swinton Times. It read "The West Riding Electric Theatres Ltd., has registered as a private company, with a capital of £500 in 21 shares. The first directors are Mr. G. H. Dyson and Mr. Spencer, both of Mexborough". On Mon. 21st Oct. 1912 a new cinema was opened in Mexborough. I am told, by Mr. S. Smith of Sheffield who is an expert on the cinemas of our area, that it was financed by this firm. It was part owned by Councillor J. J. Woofinden (who was later to own no less than five cinemas in our town) and was built to take the place of "The Cosy Cinema" on Garden Street, which closed on its opening. It was the Oxford and the manager and proprietor was again Mr. W. H. Melton of the Cosy Cinema.
By 1929 Mexborough had at least seven places where different films could be seen.
The Royal was the most easterly of these cinemas. situated towards the end of Bank Street, built on the site of Waddington's Ballroom and part of the old Police Station. Opened on Mon. 28th February 1911. it was constructed by G. H. Smith and Sons of Mexborough.
The Public Hall (now the Civic Hall) situated under the old library. on Bank StFeet, was opened on 26th May 1906 by Councillor W. Turner and we have on record that in 1911 a film called "The Sepoy's Wife" was being shown there.
The Majestic again on Bank Street was the last cinema ever to be built in Mexborough and was owned by J. J. Woofinden. It was opened on Mon. 7th January 1929 by Mr. Tom Williams M.P. for the Don Valley. That first week no less than four films could be see. "The Woman on Trial". "Oh Doctor", Two Arabian Nights" and "The Thirteenth Hour", Admission being 4d (2p), 6d (2.I/2p) and 1/- (5p). It was closed in July of 1983 and is now The Corner Pocket Snooker Club. Many of us will still remember it for courting on the back rows, where there were double seats, or The Saturday Club; to give it its correct name, Mexborough Star Junior Club. I for one remember those Saturday mornings sitting watching Roy Rodgers and Trigger or Rin Tin Tin, The Wonder Dog with dozens of other children of my age.
The Prince of Wales Theatre, Montagu Square was opened on Mon. 18th December 1893 as just a theatre, but by 1908 it was beginning to show moving pictures and there was to be seen "The Ediscope and Barnum's Electric Picture and Variety Co." and a new bioscope lantern was installed in 1911. On 14th October 1912 (this info' again coming from Mr. S. Smith) its name was changed to The Hippodrome (this date was previously thought to be 1915) and on 17th February 1913 there appeared an advertisement, again in The Mexborough and Swinton Times, which states "Showing this week at The Hippodrome (Late the Prince of Wales Theatre)" next followed a number of variety acts and last but not least came animated pictures. Admission being 2d (Ip), 4d (2p), 6d (2.1/2p) and 1/- (5p).
The Oxford. Oxford Road, Market Place comes next in order, which was built over a large natural cavity and after the opening in 1912 plans were made to convert the area below the main hall into a billiard hall large enough for six tables. It was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the bypass.
There is also another cinema which Ron Curry in his book 'Lets Go to the Pictures" mentions, but it's whereabouts are obscure. He states ''In May 1911 a new company The Palace Mexborough Ltd., announced plans to take over the Olympia in Station Road.
On 19th June 1911 The Empire opened its doors for the first time showing three films. The Empire, like the Hippodrome showed amateur productions as well as professional and I can remember as a child being taken to see Mexborough Musical Comedy Society's production of Oklahoma.
Our area didn't just show films either. it may surprise you. as it did me. to learn that we had a budding Hollywood practically on our doorstep. As I told you in my last newsletter in June, we had an amount of cinema memorabilia donated to the society, all connected with the history of the cinema in Mexborough. While I was sorting this out I found an advertisement for The Royal dated 3rd December 1928 telling of a film called "The Toilers". described as Mexborough's own film which has been produced by Mr. C. Hamner of Goldthorpe. This has been truly described as the true history of coal and is more than a film. it is something that has not previously been attempted in this or any other country. For the occasion vocal items will be supplied by Mr. Tom Beech". This was the first I had heard of Mr. Hammer and even though he lived so closely to us no one seemed to know anything of him or his films, so as Goldthorpe now comes in the Barnsley area, it was to these ends that I went through to Barnsley Archives and to my delight was shown the film he made following "The Toilers" This being "Black Diamonds" made in 1931 in the pits of our area and covers the mines rescue, a little of the Cadeby Pit Disaster and entertainment in the pit villages of our area. For anyone interested in both social and local history I can well recommend it, as it depicts a life which will be no longer with us in the near future.
As I came to leave, thanking the archivists for their help, I was informed that this film could be hired by our Society and as soon as I got home began to make arrangements for this at our exhibition at Conisbrough Castle this month and was lucky enough to be able to arrange, not just one showing of the film but two, which were shown on Sunday 12th September 1993 For those who were unlucky enough to miss it, I have both a write up of the film and the story of Mr. Hammer and his films, from his birth in Chirk, North Wales, to his death in a road accident on his way to Tadcaster in 1951. But I feel that if enough of you wish to see it, further arrangements could be made with Barnsley Archives for a further showing.
While doing research for this newsletter I have used:-
"Let's Go to the Pictures" by Ron Curry.
Information from Mr. S. Smith of Sheffield.
Cuttings from The Mexborough and Swinton Times.
Items donated to the Society in June by Sheila Pilling which covered the history of the cinema in Mexborough.
All of these can be loaned from your archives on request. Your Archivist,
J. R. Ashby.