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  • Getting Out in 50s York by Paul Chrystal

    The 50s were at the wrong end of the golden years of the cinema in York.

    At the beginning of the 20th century film shows could be seen in the Opera House, the Festival Concert Rooms, the Exhibition Buildings, the Victoria Hall in Goodramgate, the New Street Wesleyan Chapel,  and in the Theatre Royal. The New Street chapel, after renouncing its use for worship in 1908, became first the Hippodrome, and then in 1920, the Tower Cinema, which was still going in 1959. You could also see films at the City Palace, Fishergate, a venue variety concerts from 1910; it was renamed the Rialto, but burnt to the ground in 1935 and replaced by the new Rialto on the same site. It was still going strong in 1959 with variety shows and concerts.

    York - Microsoft Word - Document1 The Scala in 1957, shortly before closure.

    The Electric Theatre, Fossgate was opened in 1911 as the first purpose-built cinema in York. Entrance was through a door beneath the screen. From 1951 it was known as the Scala; it closed in 1957 and became a furniture shop although the exterior is still beautifully preserved today. Locally it was known as the Flea Bin – and a visit meant a ‘laugh and scratch’. Admission on Saturday afternoon was 4d – or a clean jam jar - an early example of recycling.

    Three more picture houses were established between 1911 and 1921: the Picture House, Coney Street, was opened in 1915 and converted to shops in 1955;  The Grand in Clarence Street, opened as a cinema and ballroom in 1919 but converted to a roller skating rink and ballroom in 1958;  and the St. George's Hall, next to Fairfax House in Castlegate, was opened in 1921 and still going in 1959. Four more were opened in the 1930's: the Regent, Acomb, in 1934; the Odeon, Blossom Street; the Regal, Piccadilly, and the Clifton , in 1937.   The Regent closed in 1959  but the others survived the 50s. The Regent had the biggest screen in York and double seats on the back row for anyone not that interested in the main feature.

    York - Microsoft Word - Document1 The Regent in Acomb in 1959.

    The ten cinemas still showing in 1950s York were the Regal in Piccadilly; the Picture House in Coney Street; the Tower in New Street; the Electric Theatre in Fossgate; the Grand Picture House in Clarence Street; the Odeon in Blossom Street; the Rialto in Fishergate; St George’s Hall Cinema in Castlegate; the Regent in Acomb until 1959 and the Clifton in Clifton. A massive choice.

    Clubs were accessible to the well connected; as well as the usual Masons, Rotarians and Oddfellows there were branches of the Independent Order of Rachabites; the United Order of Druids; the Ancient Order of Foresters and the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. The Melrose Club for the Blind catered for the sight impaired.

    The 'York New Grand Opera House' was opened in 1902 and going strong in the 50s; it was built on the site of the corn exchange, King Street, by the owners of the Opera House, Harrogate offering 'varieties' - to avoid direct competition with the Theatre Royal.

    It was known then as the Opera House and Empire.   From 1945 to 1956 F.J. Butterworth owned the Grand Opera House and stars such as Vera Lynn, Laurel and Hardy and Morecome and Wise trod the boards.   The theatre was closed in 1956; in 1958 Shepherd of the Shambles bought it, and it became the SS Empire.   The stage, lower boxes and raked stall floor were removed and replaced by a large flat floor suitable for roller-skating, dancing, bingo and wrestling, reflecting dramatically changing tastes and requirements in entertainment in the 1950s.

    York - Microsoft Word - Document1 The programme for the 1957 production of The Desert Song at the Theatre Royal.

    Theatre Royal and Empire apart, culture thrived in 1950s York through a plethora of arts organisations. There were at least six musical societies and orchestras: York Musical Society; York Orchestral Society; York Symphony Orchestra; York & District Organists; British Musical Society of York and the Rowntree Choral & Operatic Society. There were nine bands including York City Brass Band; York Postal Military Band and Rowntrees Cocoa Works Band. Drama too was thriving with opera and dramatic societies in Acomb and in New Earswick; a community association drama group also in Acomb; the Settlement Community Players and the Rowntree Players at the fine Rowntree Theatre in Haxby Road.

    In a city with such a rich history and so fertile a heritage, it   should come as no surprise to find that in the 1950s there were numerous organisations working to promote and conserve that history and heritage for contemporaries and for generations to come. All did sterling work, then, as now. York Civic Trust Association, York Georgian Society, Yorkshire Philosophical Society; Yorkshire Geological Society; Yorkshire Architectural and York Archaeological Society; York Art Collectors’ Society; York Art Society and York Photographic Society, York Film Society and York Science Film Society all contributed to the rich fabric of the city’s magnificent culture.

    But it was not all high brow and earnest : more pragmatic, caring and rehabilitation organisations also existed then such as the Borstal Association, the Infantile Paralysis Association, and York Castle Discharged Prisoners Aid Society.

    In 1955 York City FC were killers of giants when they defeated mighty Spurs to go on to the semi finals of the FA Cup. Sadly they were beaten 2-0 by Newcastle United at a replay at Roker Park. Newcastle went on to win the trophy. York had beaten Scarborough, Dorchester Town (2-5), Blackpool, Bishop Auckland, Tottenham Hotspur (3-1) and Notts County on their way to elusive glory. Arthur Bottom was top York scorer with eight goals. Arsenal were the next giants to fall to York in the 1985 FA Cup semi final.

    Extracted from Paul Chrystal’s York in the 50s. © Paul Chrystal

    York - 9781445640594

    Paul Chrystal's York in the 1950s Ten Years that Changed a City is available for purchase now.

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