It has been argued that Central Hall on Colne Lane was not just the UK’s but the world’s first purpose built cinema. Quite a claim for such an inauspicious looking building. That it opened before the other UK contenders for the title is not in doubt. The counter argument surrounds the question of whether it was purpose built. Was it deliberately intended as a cinema, or just a hall in which film shows could be put on as part of a wider range of activities.
“The first building in the world specially designed as a cinema was opened in Colne, Lancashire, in 1907”. So say, Christopher Harvie and Colin Matthew of Central Hall in their Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press). It is a claim that is repeated in other places too as is the lesser one that give the hall the UK-only first place; just perform a few google searches and see. It was even recognised in the Guinness Book of Records.
The case against Colne’s claim is put by John Burrows in ‘The First Purpose Built Cinema: The Case Against Colne’ (Picture House, issue 30). His detailed argument is, unfortunately, quite convincing. He explains that the claims for Central Hall are based on what Josuhua Duckworth, the hall’s owner, said in Kinematogaph and Lantern Weekly (a British film industry trade paper) in July 1908:
The experience [in the film business], together with the good fortune to possess a site for a suitable hall in the centre of a population of some 30 to 40000 led to my present undertaking. I built what is known as the Central Hall at a cost of over £2000. It is suitably furnished, installed with electric light, and heated with hot water….The apparatus for projecting is Gaumont’s Professional Chrono driven by electric motor, and this has now run every now for 2 years.
It is this last sentence upon which the Hall’s claims rest. If true, it takes it’s opening as a cinema back to mid 1906, one which predates other contenders. The problem is that there is no evidence to back up Duckworth’s statement – there is none to confirm when the Hall actually opened for instance – and the evidence that does exist suggests that, whilst it may have opened as early as 1905, it was more of a multi-purpose building. The building’s design certainly doesn’t have the appearance of a cinema – the five windows along each side for instance – and the plans submitted to the local council in 1905 for approval refer to it as a “public room”. These do not show a projection room, screen or seating but do specify an orchestra enclosure.
Financial accounts seem to show that it was not in constant use in the first couple of years either – perhaps being used as storage space for Duckworth’s neighbouring print works – with little evidence of what use it was being put to (and certainly no evidence of film shows).
All that said, there might be evidence out there that does confirm what Joshua Duckworth said in 1908. We need to know precisely when the hall opened, when the first film show was and how often films were shown. Even in the absence of this information no one could deny that Joshua was a cinema pioneer and that Central Hall, if not the first purpose-built cinema, certainly has an important place in the early history of UK cinema.
Inside the hall today
Sources: Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction, Christopher Harvie and Colin Matthew; ‘The First Purpose Built Cinema: The Case Against Colne’ in Picture House 30 – Jon Burrows, 2005; Building control plans (Lancashire Archives reference MBCO 27/1581); business and personal accounts of Joshua Duckworth (Lancashire Archives reference DDX 752/8/3)