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The people's cinemas: the picture houses of the Co-operative movement

by Alan Burton
issue number: : 

IN FEBRUARY 1914, the Co-operative News carried an article titled "The Cinema: Should it be used for Co-operative purposes?". The anonymous author perceived in the cinema a means of "attracting the masses — young and old — in a way that would enable them to obtain knowledge, and at the same time, be vastly entertained" .1 In that writer's view, the cinema was valuable to the co-operative movement in three inter-related ways: it could be used to seduce audiences to become members of the Co-op, an important consideration to a voluntary organisation; it was a means of educating members about their business and about the benefits of co-operation; and it was unrivalled as the entertainment choice of the masses. Those three attributes were further emphasised later in the article, and a note of warning was introduced, when it was stated that the purpose of the cinema for the movement would be "that of entertainment, education and social contact. If we do not make use of it, it will remain in the hands of other people to detract from our own forms of entertainment."2 The combative tone was reflective of the co-operative movement's oppositional stance within the British economy and its preparedness to confront the commercial, political and cultural values of capitalism.

To fulfil the first aim, that of "attracting the masses" to the ideals of co-operation, the movement exhibited publicity slides and films in commercial cinemas. For instance 169 cinema slides were issued to co-operative societies for the Ninth National Co-operative Propaganda Campaign in 1936.3 The Co-operative Wholesale Society, acting on behalf of the movement, was particularly active with respect to cinema publicity, initiating an annual cinema publicity campaign in 1928 which continued for several years. Professionally produced 35mm publicity films were commissioned and distributed to over one thousand cinemas each season. The films were cleverly organised to promote specific co-operative products, such as its celebrated tea (The Cup That Cheers, 1930), whilst simultaneously advancing the benefits of being a co-operative society member.4

Much evidence survives confirming the movement's faith in the value of the cinema for co-operative education. From the last quarter of the 19th Century the co-operative movement had embraced the Magic Lantern and lecturer as an integral part of its educational and cultural activities. As early as 1898, moving picture technology was employed to enhance the movement's pedagogical mission.5

The third motive for an engagement with the cinema — it’s entertainment value — was not ignored. Co-operative societies were diverse businesses, and by the first quarter of this century were noted for their commercial success in retailing, funeral provision, manufacturing and other services. The movement sought to be the "universal provider" to its members (in a number of celebrated instances the Co-op was forced into the manufacture of certain products, notably the Defiant Radio and lamp bulbs, when it found itself confronted and thwarted by powerful cartels), but even so the Co-op as an exhibitor of films does not immediately figure in the popular image of the local society, and it is perhaps surprising for some to discover that commercial cinemas were successfully operated by a number of co-operative societies. The anonymous writer had advocated in 1914 that "we should provide our own amusements, our own forms of social enjoyments. And our amusements and social enjoyments should be as pure as should be the food and the clothes we supply for our material needs" 6

The allusion to both the leisure and material needs of the co-operative community would be reiterated throughout the following decades. Particularly vocal in that respect was noted co-operative writer and propagandist W. Henry Brown. Fearing the capitalists' domination of the commercial cinema industry and their extraction of "profits in the leisure hours of the workers" , he advocated in 1936 that the movement "could do much to influence the taste and form the habits of the people if we organise the theatres, the cinemas, and amusements of our members. They come to the stores for their daily fare; why not supply their evening pleasures?"7 This crude conflation of cultural enlight-enment and commercial opportunity led to the establishment of co-operative cinemas which, in the view of W. Henry Brown, would "save the souls and minds, as well as the shillings and pence of their members" .8

The local Co-op hall had proved a convenient site for early film exhibition. Importantly, these were not restricted to the illustrated lectures of the Co-operative Wholesale Society but also regularly hired to local showmen. D. Johnson in his The Cinemas of South Tyneside (1992) recalls an item from the Jarrow Express of 22 April 1898 which noted the appearance of Mr. Woodhouse's Longbow Entertainment at the Co-op Hall, Jarrow, for a three day engagement. Likewise, Henry Hibbert held a display at the Co-op Hall, Bingley, on 22nd February 1900.9 The Weisker Brothers, who by 1914 operated a circuit of twenty-two halls in the North, had begun with shows in the St. Helens' Co-op Hall in 1907.10 In 1909, A.O. Andrews from Batley utilised the nearby Industrial Hall of the Dewsbury Pioneers Co-operative Society for his exhibition of "Andrews Pictures".11 Similarly, before the Great War the Co-op Hall at Crewe became a regular venue for Arthur Hand and Son, and was known locally as "Hand's Kino".12

The public safety provisions of the 1909 Cinematograph Act ensured that film exhibition became a less haphazard affair and the Act was an important stimulus in the move to erect permanent purpose built cinemas. Consequent upon the Act, several co-operative societies licensed their premises for cinema exhibition. Frank Manders' research in the North East has revealed the following local societies seeking such provision: Bumopfield Co-op (1912); Seaham (1912); West Stanley (1912); Tantobie (1911); Birtley (1912); and Chopwell (1914). Furthermore, the 1914 edition of the Kine Year Book lists the following in its directory of Kinemas: Co-operative Hall Cinema, Fleetwood; Co-operative Hall, Crewe; Co-operative Picture Hall, Bailey; Co-operative Hall, Leigh; Co-operative Hall, Ashton-in-Makerfield; Co-operative Hall, Bacup; Co-operative Hall, Bradford and Co-operative Hall, St. Helens, amongst others.

Further south the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society secured a cinema license for its new Co-op Hall at Tooting in 192513 The Education Secretary of the RACS, Alderman Joseph Reeves, was particularly active in promoting the use of film for educational and propaganda purposes by the labour movement. In 1938 he would help establish the Workers' Film Association, becoming its first Secretary, and during the war years acted as a special advisor on films to the Ministry of Information.14 Of course, those Co-op Halls that remained unlicensed continued to exhibit films of an educational nature, projecting with the sub-standard, 16mm, format printed on safety stock that remained outside the provision of the 1909 Act. Recent research has revealed the extensive nature of the Co-op's film activities, both in terms of production and exhibition, arguably making it the most important user of film outside of the formal industry. No doubt further local research would reveal the widespread nature of society premises licensed for film exhibition, confirming the Co-op, like the Miners' Institutes, as an important exhibitor of films in Britain between the wars.

Within that impressive framework of film production, distribution and semi-permanent exhibition, there developed a more formalised, regular approach to screening films to society members and the local community. Several societies sought to extend their business portfolios and began to operate commercial cinemas. For the purposes of this survey, I define a co-operative cinema as a permanent auditorium which exhibited films on a commercial and regular basis. To distinguish it from Co-op Halls, which exhibited films in a more casual manner, film exhibition must have constituted the premises' primary activity, as against alternative uses such as members' meetings, educational and cultural classes etc. Access to the film show must not have been restricted to society members, although that constituent group were often accorded privileges.

In the Spring of 1945 the Co-operative News asked its readers, "What was the first Co-operative cinema?" Mr. R. Barlow, Secretary of Brandon and Byshottles Society (Co. Durham) responded that his society began operating a cinema, the Central Palace at Meadowfield, in 1915. He quoted from a programme published in 1916 containing an appeal "for support from the members, stating that the Central Palace would be run under the direction of the Management for entertainment and pictures for the members"15 The Palace, originally built for the society as a variety hall, was a success as a cinema and progressed through a variety of names becoming The Central Hall in 1924 (seating 800) and The Co-operative Kinema in 1938 (seating 608). It closed on 16 July 1961.

Nearby Birtley and Sherbum Hill societies also operated a cinema, the latter leasing their picture hall to Mr W Turnbull who also ran the local Unity Cinema. The Co-op Cinema Birtley opened in 1916 and was part of the society's central premises. The principal cinema in the town, it was wired for sound in August 1930 which happily led to new attendance records. Birtley District Co-operative Society appear to have culminated their cinema business in 1945.

In September 1922, the Dewsbury Pioneers Industrial Society established their Pioneer Cinema. Located within the society's central premises, which dated from 1872, the hall first opened to the public in 1881.16 In the early years of the century, the hall was leased by the society for the exhibition of motion pictures. As already stated, Andrews Pictures were early exhibitors there. Eventually, the society decided to take over the running of the cinema for themselves. Dewsbury Co-op proudly boasted that the decoration, following the improvement and reconstruction of 1922, had been carried out by the society's painting department with CWS materials throughout. Later a café became a popular addition. During the silent period, films were accompanied by orchestral selections and occasionally supplemented with stage "turns". At the end of the financial year for 1925, the Society claimed a profit from its cinema of £1,972. This was a good return since its admission prices of fourpence, sixpence, ninepence and one shilling were less then those charged at other cinemas in the district.17

The Pioneer was wired for sound by Western Electric in January 1931. The Co-operative News was impressed by the hall's acoustic properties, commenting that "there is not the hollow echo associated with so many cinemas that have adopted the new form of entertainment" 18 CinemaScope was installed at the Pioneer in February 1954, and thus, according to The Dewsbury Reporter, became "the first cinema in Yorkshire, outside Leeds we understand, to be fitted with this device" .19 For many years, the Pioneer Cinema made a substantial contribution to the society's profits. However, faced with the gradual downturn in the exhibition business in the 1950s, the society was compelled to lease its cinema to the Essoldo circuit in September 1960. The old Pioneer saw out its days as the Tatler Cinema operated by the Tigon Group and specialising in adult films.20

The Pioneer was managed for nearly thirty years by a man of exceptional energy and ability. Horace Masterman was a popular character and would himself occasionally provide live entertainment with a display of conjuring before the programme proper. For several years, Masterman was elected Chairman of the Leeds and District Branch of the Society of Cinema Managers. His particular talent seemed to lie in his enterprising approach to publicity. In 1936 he won the national prize offered by Radio Pictures for the best exploitation in this country of The Little Minister. In his publicity scheme, Mr Masterman demonstrated the advantages belonging to a co-operative cinema manager. His approach included special shop window displays, the production of 60,000 milk bottle disks which carried his special shopping week slogan —"Little Minister Shopping Week — let the Co-op Minister to your needs", and appeals to patrons through the microphone, circulars, handbills, posters and the press. In addition, a special arrangement was made to forward to Katharine Hepburn, the star of the film, a selection of letters from Dewsbury filmgoers.21 Two years later, Masterman won the award of merit offered by Columbia Pictures for the best scheme of publicity for the film Lost Horizon. Columbia described his effort, which unfortunately is left unrecorded, as "smashing super-publicity and one of the most comprehensive campaigns ever seen".22

Horace Mastennan's publicity campaigns continued to reap dividends and reach the headlines. His success lay in the utilisation of the trading facilities offered by the co-operative society. He lost no time in getting the fullest publicity for his cinema when one of his staff, Miss Doris Smith, became Miss Yorkshire (1936)23 During the run of Fire Over England (1937) he obtained two of the original costumes worn by Flora Robson and these were displayed in the main window of the central premises along with large boards announcing the times of the show?24 This scheme was extended to include all thirty-five branch store windows offering a display for Korda's The Drum in 1939. The film played to packed audiences each evening.25 Remarkably, for the engagement of Warner Bros. Green Pastures (1937), "Mr. Masterman arranged with Reverend Alwyn J. Ellis, Pastor of the Salem Methodist Church, Dewsbury, to give a sermon on the film on the Sunday morning before its run at the cinema."26

In February 1949, Horace Masterman, by then a councillor, inaugurated the first Junior Film Club in the co-operative movement. One thousand young members, charged sixpence, enjoyed a two hour show. The club was not run on a profit-making basis but for the "benefit of the youngsters". The society did not lose the opportunity of screening films showing the advantages of the movement. Twenty-five lucky children from the first show were given a trip to Leeds to meet "Dick Barton", and see his new film.27 Horace Masterman remained with the society, as its Catering Manager, when the Pioneer was leased to Essoldo.28

Nearby Horbury Society was also successfully engaged in cinema exhibition for many years. A small society, hemmed in its rural area by five other societies, it attempted to give a thoroughly comprehensive service, embracing the leisure needs, as well as the material needs, of its members. It was no doubt prompted in this endeavour by the fact that no other cinema was operating in the district and according to the Co-operative News "the committee [was] desirous of providing an essential service for the town".29 The Horbury Co-op Hall was let for the exhibition of silent films from 1915 when it was known as the Horbury Electric Picture Hall, with the society taking it over in 1927 and running it as a service department. It did so well that the decision was made to erect a cinema for which the local architect Mr. Sugars was engaged. Original plans were adapted following the advent of sound, the British Acoustic system being installed."31

It was claimed that Horbury was the first society in the country to erect a building to be used exclusively as a cinema. In 1934 the Co-operative Cinema seated 520 and achieved an average weekly attendance of 2500 out of a membership of 2700 and a local community of 8000. The programme was changed three times a week with admission prices at fourpence, sixpence and ninepence with threepence extra for reserved seats. The community spirit of the society was evident when tax relief afforded by the 1936 budget was generously passed onto patrons in the form of reduced ticket prices. In addition, pensioners of the society were invited to enjoy two free evening shows a week in their own cinema as guests of their fellow members." Its most illustrious patron appears to have been Don Bradman, who, according to the Co-operative News, "spent a happy evening in the Co-op cinema on the day before he knocked up 334 runs in the famous Test Match played at Leeds in 1930".32

As the only provider of cinema entertainment in the district, the society perceived the benefit its cinema accorded in terms of co-operative publicity and propaganda. During each winter, monthly lecture concerts were arranged for members in the cinema. In October 1936, the lecturer was Mr D. Davies of the CWS Publicity Department, who showed films in support of that year's publicity campaign for the CWS preserve works at Middleton, Reading, Stockport and Acton. In keeping with the practice of these campaigns, organised by the CWS Film Service, product samples and a souvenir booklet were distributed at the show to encourage future purchases of CWS products at local society stores." In the Winter of 1935, W.H. Brown lectured in the Horbury cinema. Enthused by the experience he subsequently expended much energy promoting the benefit to a society of operating a co-operative cinema.34 In January 1939, all members were invited to a special free afternoon show which included a lecture on co-operative principles. The management were proud to announce that "the pleasure of the pictures is thus reflected in the dividend. And that for the past year was half a crown" 33 The commercial cinema trade were antagonistic towards the Co-op's venture into film exhibition and dividend on ticket purchases was amongst their chief concerns. Horbury Society was able to retain direct control of their cinema longer then any other society, the Co-operative Cinema closing its doors to the public in 1967.

Horace Masterman of the Dewsbury Pioneers' Society acted as film advisor to the Horbury Society and booked its films. A service he also provided for the Scunthorpe Society. That society had opened its Jubilee Hall in 1925, and film shows were probably given in conjunction with CWS lectures.36 In April 1927 a specially furbished cinema — the Jubilee Cinema de Luxe — was incorporated into the Hall. A small orchestra provided musical support to the programme and occasionally special artistes were engaged in this capacity. The week commencing 28 October 1929 saw the engagement of "Gaston — The World's Premier Xylophonist" 37 The following month, week commencing 11 November 1929, saw the initial appearance of the "Jubilee Follies — 12 clever local ladies in songs and dances". The Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star assured its readers that it found the Follies "a bright group of young local girls singing and dancing with all the sang-froid of experienced professionals" and "Jubilee patrons are to be assured of a feast for the eye as well as the ear" .38

The Jubilee faced considerable local competition. The local exhibitor Arthur Watson claimed in 1934 that "no town in England in proportion to population has so many cinemas as Scunthorpe". At that time Scunthorpe boasted six cinemas and further occasional exhibition at the local variety theatre, the Palace, for a local population of approximately 40,000.39 Despite that, the Jubilee, with 557 seats a comparatively small cinema, entertained 107,000 patrons in the first half year declared in 1934.40

The Jubilee's special supporting attractions were obviously designed to give it an edge amongst its competitors. Along with other local cinemas, special morning shows, commencing at 10.30am, were given for the benefit of shift workers at the local Steel Works. Furthermore, following the grand re-opening of 2 June 1930 reported in the Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star, the Jubilee boasted "superb talking pictures, the best in Lincolnshire" and an "elaborate atmospheric decorative scheme which will, to say the least, provide a delightful feast to the eye". Scunthorpe Society opted for the Western Electric Sound System — "The Voice of Action". It opened with Victor McLaglen in the "All-Talking and Singing Production" of King of the Khyber Rifles". Interestingly it secured an exclusive contract for the presentation in the district of Mickey Mouse, "the greatest talkie novelty of the day". In an attempt to appeal to the `high-brows' the programme also offered the "Extra Special! MARTINELLI the World Famous Tenor in Gems from Pagliacci!" In the opinion of the Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star "there may be people in the town and district who are not enamoured of sound pictures, but this wonderful short film alone is likely to break through all prejudices" 41

The Jubilee endeavoured to remain ahead of its competitors in terms of sound fidelity. In May 1937 the improved Western Electric Sound System "Mirrophonic" was installed. It was claimed that "Mirrophonic sound makes scene acting more intimate, less volume is needed, and music comes through with more purity of tone" 42  By that time the Jubilee also boasted a café, further improving facilities for patrons. The strength of local competition appears to have led the Jubilee to constantly seek to upgrade its service. Further improve-ments were announced in September 1950, when £3000 was spent on alterations to the café and cinema, with the first appearance in North Lincolnshire of cathode ray lighting:43 Despite its innovation and energies the Jubilee was the first cinema in Scunthorpe to cease business. The final show was the Techni-colour feature The Seekers, starring Jack Hawkins and Glynis Johns, screened on Saturday 26 November 1955.44

Generally, co-operative cinemas were more in evidence in the North of England, with particular concentrations in the North East and the West Riding/Lancashire area." The cinema of the Billington and Whalley Society, near Blackburn, was known locally as the 'Co-op Cinema' and seated 500. Although successful during the silent period, the box-office apparently declined after the advent of sound. However, it was recognised, by The Producer, that "the cinema provide[d] a splendid opportunity for advertising Co-operation". As well as exhibiting CWS films, slides were screened announcing changes in prices at the store, meetings of the society and other local matters. During winter months, free afternoons for adults were arranged, whereby a film programme lasting an hour was supplemented by a 15 minutes talk on the society by the Secretary/Manager." The Cinema closed in 1958.

The experience of the Clitheroe Equitable Society was apparently even more difficult than its neighbour. As at Scunthorpe, its King Lane Cinema faced considerable local competition during the 1930s from two other cinemas in the town, each having a seating capacity in excess of 800, for a population of around 12,000. It was no doubt hindered by a serious blaze at the site in December 1931 which caused £4000 pounds worth of damage and closed the cinema for over a month. The trade journal of the CWS, The Producer, in September 1934 admonished the 2400 members of the Clitheroe Society, believing that "the members might well do a little more to support their own enterprise as they have the most attractive hall and cinema which gives as much comfort as any in the town. Certainly the Clitheroe co-operators have shown enterprise, and the committee deserve the support of their people in maintaining it on a successful financial basis" .47 The criticism appears to have had its desired effect, the Picture Hall of Clitheroe Society remaining open until 1961.

Fylde Society operated a small cinema seating 475 at Kirkham. Formerly the Co-operative Hall it was convened into a cinema during the silent period, and unimaginatively renamed the Co-operative Picture Hall. The Society spent £3000 on alterations and apparatus to convert it to sound." A post-war visitor to the cinema was Leslie Haliwell who briefly describes a visit in his cinema-going memoirs A Seat In All Parts. It closed in 1962.

The Mossley Society had a cinema, the Royal Pavilion at Brookbottom, which for several years during the silent period it ran as a departmental venture. However, the society, unable to meet the cost of re-equipping for sound, leased it to a company which operated three other cinemas and which intended to convert it to sound." Thereafter, it was treated by the Society simply as an income bearing asset, the educational and cultural benefits of a co-operative cinema remaining unrecognised.

The single addition to the list of co-operative cinemas after the Second World War, was the Poynton-with-Worth Society's purchase, for £35,000, of The Brookfield in 1947. The only cinema in this Cheshire village, it seated 920 and incorporated a cafe seating 100 and a ballroom. The policy of the society was to

treat the children of members to free cinema shows at their Brookfield Cinema.50° As far as I am able to determine the Brookfield underwent a change of ownership in 1954, passing out of the movement.

In the Spring of 1930 the Ramsbottom Society, near Bury, was refused a cinema license for its Co-op hall despite already possessing a theatre license and offering proposals for extensive alterations to conform to the regulations.51

The cinemas of Dewsbury and Horbury in the West Riding have already been examined. Nearby Middlestown Co-operative Industrial Society opened a cinema in July 1930, named the Savoy, and capable of seating 350. Equipped for sound, the cinema, designed by Mr S.P. Fairhurst, was conceived as a combined trading unit. A surviving image printed in the Co-operative News, shows a cinema sandwiched between the society's new greengrocery store and its new butchering department. A small hall, suitable for social gatherings and meetings, was also incorporated into the building. The first show opened on 7 July, and audiences were entertained by musical selections played by a panotrope before the screenings. For the whole of that first week members and their families were invited to attend shows free of charge.52 The cinema closed at the end of the 1950s.

On 3rd October 1949 the Alhambra was brought at a cost of £10,500 by the Meltham and Meltham Mills Society. A small town lying five miles south of Huddersfield and with a population of 5000, the society acquired the only cinema in the district. The society proudly boasted that "the Alhambra will now be a people's cinema" and "the profits from it will go towards our dividend" .53 The cinema ceased to add to the society's profits a decade later and closed in 1958.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the Long Buckby Self-Assistance Industrial Society in Northamptonshire operated the most southerly located co-operative cinema during the sound period. Once again, the lack of such a facility in the district led the society into cinema exhibition as it sought to provide a service to its members. As usual, the society's practice of offering a dividend on ticket purchases attracted unfavourable comments from the trade and the conventional industry sarcastically pointed out that the cinema was located above a grocery store. Whilst operated by the society it continued to be known as the Co-operative Hall, and continued until 1946. From 1948 it was known as the Cinema, run by Lexa Films, and projecting on 16mm 54

On Wednesday 26 July 1938, Blackpool Co-operative Society inaugurated "a new and revolutionary Co-operative service .... with the opening of a News Theatre on the fourth floor of the Society's central emporium" 55 The Co-operative Press were widely enthusiastic about the prospects of Blackpool's Jubilee News Theatre with the same edition of the Co-operative News declaring it the "latest challenge to capitalist monopoly" 56 The language of ideological warfare adopted by the movement, appears warranted in view of the response to Blackpool Society's initiative by the commercial trade. The attack was led by the North Western branch of the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association who declared the Co-op "a brave and insidious menace to the exhibiting industry" and added that "as exhibitors we ought to protest against our product, films, being used as a sort of makeweight or inducement to the sale of, say, groceries". In fact, the CEA's fear was not the lowering of the status of their product, but rather the Co-op's advantage in being able to attract customers to its shows, with the offer of free seats in the News Theatre for those making purchases in the store in excess of five shillings."

The Jubilee News Theatre had a seating capacity of 900 and was approached from the store by two express lifts. A continuous programme was offered from 2.00pm to 10.30pm, with admission at sixpence — without dividend cheque. First release rights were secured by the Jubilee Theatre for Paramount News, with important films received by air. Technical adviser in the fitting up of the theatre, had been none other than the movement's recognised cinema expert, Horace Masterman of Dewsbury." Despite the hopes of the Co-operative Press, the News Theatre idea was not adopted by other societies. In fact, Blackpool Society appears to have been unsuccessful in its endeavour and its newsreel venture ceased before the war. Converted to theatrical use, it came into the spotlight again in the late 1940s when the BBC began to broadcast shows from the Jubilee featuring artistes engaged at Blackpool for the summer season. Broadcasts included Charlie Chester's "Stand Easy", Jewel and Warriss' "Up The Pole" and Henry Hall and his Dance Orchestra with "Blackpool Nights".59

Reference has aheady been made to the unease felt by the cinema trade to the incursion into its business by the co-operative movement. Primarily, local cinema proprietors irked at the practice of co-operative cinemas paying dividend on admission, in the manner that dividend was traditionally paid on general purchases with a society. The Kine Weekly, reported, in reference to the Long Buckby Society, that "During the last six months villagers paid over £1,500 in admission to the kinema, and as the Society has fixed a dividend at ls. 8d. in the £ more than £120 will be coming back to patrons in `divi'".60 The Co-operative News gleefully reported the nervous comment of an Oldham exhibitor who declared "Heaven forbid the time will come when the Lancashire Millhand will go to the local cinema and ask for 'two ninepennies and a dividend check’”.60 The trade undoubtedly feared the competitiveness of Co-operative cinemas who offered this inducement. Councillor W. Woolstencroft, director and manager of the South and Fast Lancashire Branch of the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Associ-ation, writing in the Kine Weekly, fully appreciated the threat to the capitalist tenets of the business, and his own privileged position, when he declared that "Profits from private businesses go to the investor shareholders. Those from Co-ops go to the customer" 62

The trade were also unhappy by what they deemed the "free show menace".

The Daily Film Renter reported that "sponsored programmes were very much on the increase, in many instances to the detriment of the legitimate exhibitor". Various sponsoring bodies were identified, however; the article highlighted one organisation for particular censure, insisting that "A feature of the new spread is the prominent part that film shows are playing in the campaign by the Co-operative Movement who are presenting programmes of entertainment pictures in various parts of the country" 63 Further alarm was evident at the end of the war, with what became referred to as the '16mm Menace'. Members of the Manchester and Salford C.E.A. Branch Committee expressed apprehension about the release of 16mm equipment through disposal boards after the war. Reporting on the issue, Today's Cinema stressed that "Particular mention was made of the likelihood of Co-operative Societies acquiring these sets for the numerous public halls which they controlled."64 The situation was debated at the annual meeting of the CEA and the general mood was indicated by a report in the Kine Weekly, which pointed "to the threat of further competition onherent (sic) in the existence of masses of 16mm projector equipment and films." Delegates at the conference, fearing the widespread availability of entertainment films on the sub-standard format, not surprisingly called for a system of licences regulated by the CEA.65

However, one further issue appears to have caused more consternation, and received greater press comment, than any other. That, put quite simply, was the further proliferation of co-operatively owned cinemas. At times, there was a genuine fear on behalf of the trade, that the movement was planning to establish a cinema circuit. Comments emanating from the movement apparently substanti-ating that aim, were nervously reported in the trade papers. A headline in the Daily Film Renter warned that the "London Co-op Wants 'Big Cine Circuit”. The concern followed a speech by the noted left-wing theorist G.D.H. Cole at a meeting organised by the London Co-operative Society Education Committee. Cole had stipulated that "It is no use the Co-operative Movement splashing in the kinema trade unless they make a big splash, for it means competition with great existing kinema chains and monopolies. We must have control of a great chain of kinemas or producing agencies so that we have a chance of showing a particular kind of film".66 The great wave of socialist euphoria that swept Britain towards the end of the war, with enthusiastic calls for widespread nationali-sation, no doubt further added to the unease of the industry. By 5 April, 1945, the Kine Weekly was declaring a "Co-op Circuit Menace", and feared "the possibility that the Co-operative Movement would invade the kinema exhibitor's field". Less than a month later the trade's unease had reached paranoid levels. "CO-OPS COULD BE BIGGEST CIRCUIT' was a headline in The Cinema, 2 May, 1945. It quoted Mr J Mather of the South and East Lancashire Branch of the C.E.A., whose view of the movement was that "If it embarked upon cinema enterprise it could be build (sic) up bigger circuits than G-B, Odeon and A.B.C..... With the wealth they had they could buy up the present major circuits." 67

For the more sober-minded exhibitor, the serious threat lay with the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and its dispensation towards developing a cinema chain. Councillor Woolstencroft realised that, and warned that "As Kinema owners don't let us underestimate the menace". He pointed to the financial trading strength of the C.W.S., which at that time had disposable assets of £22m and further reserves of £29m. He ominously noted the movement's establishment of the People's Entertainment Society which, within twelve months of its founding in 1942, had purchased two theatres.68 The concerns of the conventional industry reached a ludicrous height in the summer of 1946, with the establishment of the National Film Association by the broad labour movement. This alliance of Labour Party, T.U.C. and co-operative movement, was reported to be considering the purchase of a Scottish cinema circuit and even more improbably, the Kine Weekly stated that "Reports from Scotland indicate that plans are well advanced for putting up film studios" .69 Not surpris-ingly nothing materialised, and when it transpired that the majority Labour Government was not about to appropriate the cinemas for the workers, panic subsided.

This survey of the film exhibition activities of the co-operative movement emphasises once again the possibility of 'alternative' practices within the cinema industry. The `oppositional' nature of the movement's film-making was most apparent in the sponsoring of such films as Advance Democracy (1938), during the `People's Front' period of the late 1930s, and in the activities of the Workers' Film Association (1938-1946) and the National Film Association (1946-1953). Those latter two organisations were primarily concerned with the non-theatrical distribution of films to labour groups. The emphasis accorded to 16 mm film distribution in this manner has been recognised by historians commenting on film and the Left in Britain. However it is necessary to stress that commercial exhibition was not ignored and indeed a modest element of success can be conceded. Co-operative cinemas did not ruthlessly equate entertainment with profit. Societies establishing cinemas primarily sought to provide a service to their members, and in addition, this investment reflected the movement's appreciation of its community responsibility. It is clear that the industry saw the development as a threat to their position and sought ways of emasculating the activity. No great chain of co-operative cinemas serving the people were ever built. However a number of communities, such as Horbury, Dewsbury and Blackburn, were able to enjoy an evening's entertainment in their own cinema and to the benefit of their own society.

After a break of quarter of a century a cinema owned by the co-operative movement is once again open to the public, albeit on a casual basis. The Stanford Hall Theatre, part of the Co-operative College in Leicestershire, was

built in 1937 for Sir Julien Cahn. The 352 seat theatre was designed by Ceril Aubrey Masey FRIBA, with internal decor by Beatrice MacDermott. The auditorium's two manual, six-range, rise and drop Wurlitzer, formerly belonged to the Madeleine Theatre, Paris. The projection equipment has recently been restored by the Projected Picture Trust, and nostalgic film events are planned for the future.

This article was first published in Picture House magazine.


1 Co-operative News, 28 February 1914, pp. 268-269.

2 ibid. p. 268.

3 Co-operative Union, Annual Congress Report, 1936, p. 100.

4 The Producer, December 1927, p.32; The Labour Magazine, January 1928.

5 The Wheatsheaf, December 1898, p. 94; The Commercial Film, March 1936, p. 6; The Producer, April 1960, pp. 33-34. For a more detailed examination of the co-operative movement's use of film for commercial, propaganda, training and cultural purposes see: Burton, A (1994) The People's Cinema: Film and the Co-operative Movement (London).

6 Co-operative News, 28 February 1914, p. 268.

7 The Co-operative Official, 1936, p. 139.

8 ibid.

9 Mellor, G J (1971) Picture Pioneers (Newcastle) p. 22.

10 ibid. p. 48.

11 ibid. p. 29.

12 ibid. p. 41

13 Co-operative News, 28 November 1925, p. 6.

14 The People's Cinema, op. cit chapter 3.

15 Co-operative News, 3 March 1945, p. 7.

16 The Dewsbury Reporter, 7 April 1989, p.10.

17 Co-operative News, 12 December 1925, p. 1

18 Co-operative News, 10 January 1931, p. 3.

19 Dewsbury Reporter, 30 January 1954, p. 1.

20 Dewsbury Reporter, 3 September 1960, p. 1; Dewsbury Reporter, 24 March 1972, p. 1.

21 The Producer, March 1936, p. 82; Co-operative News, 7 March 1936, p. 6.

22 Co-operative News, 5 February 1938, p. 1.

23 Co-operative News, 18 July 1936, p. 6.

24 Co-operative News, 6 November 1937, p. 6.

25 Co-operative News, 18 February 1939, p. 11.

26 Co-operative News, 11 September 1937, p. 6.

27 The Producer, April 1949, p. 26.

28 The Dewsbury Reporter, 3 September 1960, p. 1.

29 Co-operative News, 3 February 1945, p. 1.

30 Co-operative News, 13 December 1930, p. 11.

31 The Producer, October 1934, p. 284; The Co-operative Official, 1936, p. 140.

32 Co-operative News, 7 March 1942, p. 6.

33 Co-operative News, 31 October 1936, p. 6.

34 Co-operative News, 21 December 1935, p. 11; The Co-operative Official, 1936, pp. 139-140.

35 Co-operative News, 4 February 1939, p. 9.

36 Co-operative News, 24 October 1925. p. 9.

37 Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star, 26 October 1929, p. 1.

38 Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star, 9 November 1929, p. 1 and p. 6.

39 Armstrong, E (ed) An Industrial Island: A History of Scunthorpe, p. 193.

40 The Producer, September 1934, p. 255; The Co-operative Productive Review, November 1934, p. 83.

41 Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star, 31 May 1930, p. 1 and p. 7; Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star, 11 April 1931, p. 1.

42 Scunthorpe and Frodingham Star, 15 May 1937, p. 6.

43 Co-operative News, 30 September 1950, p. 6.

44 Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, 24 November 1955.

45 For a consideration of the movement in the North West of England see: Southern, J (1993) 'Co-operation in the North West of England, 1919-39' in this volume.

46 The Producer, September 1934, pp. 254-255.

47 ibid. p. 255; Co-operative News, 5 December 1931, p. 6.

48 The Producer, October 1934, p. 284.

49 Co-operative News, 22 August 1931, p. 7; The Producer, September 1934, p. 255.

50 Co-operative News, 6 December 1947, p. 1; Co-operative News, 8 January 1949, p. 1.

51 Co-operative News, 12 April 1930, p. 3.

52 Co-operative News, 12 July 1930, p. 4.

53 Co-operative News, 10 December 1949. n. 6.

54 Co-operative News, 31 August 1935, p. 11; Today's Cinema, 12 October 1945, p. 3.

55 Co-operative News, 30 July 1938, p. 3.

56 ibid. p. 1.

57 Co-operative News, 3 September 1938, p. 1 and p. 10.

58 Co-operative News, 30 July 1938, p. 3.

59 Co-operative News, 12 June 1948, p. 7; Co-operative News, 25 March 1950, p. 6.

60 Kine Weekly, 18 October 1945, p. 18.

61 Co-operative News, 16 June 1945, p. 8.

62 Kine Weekly, 24 May 1945, p. 5.

63 Daily Film Renter, 29 December 1936, p. 1.

64 Today's Cinema, 24 April 1945, p. 3.

65 Kine Weekly, 5 April 1945, p. 5.

66 Daily Film Renter, 21 February 1945, p. 3.

67 The Cinema, 2 May 1945, p. 31.

68 Kine Weekly, 24 May 1945, p. 5.

69 Kine Weekly, 22 August 1946, p. 1.

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