29 October 2016

Empire Cinema, Haddington Street, Hove

Judy Middleton 2002 (revised 2016)

 copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
In 1915 children eagerly wait outside the Empire for their special matinee. (Brighton, Hove & South Sussex Graphic)


In February 1910 Hove Council received an application from Mr H.A. Finn for a licence under the Cinematograph Act (1909) in regard to Haddington Hall, Haddington Street, Hove. The Borough Surveyor was instructed to report on the suitability or otherwise of the hall for this purpose.

The Borough Surveyor produced his report in March 1910. It stated that the room was 53 feet 6 inches in length, 25 feet in width and 12 feet in height. The floor level was 9 feet 9 inches above street level and access was by a staircase at the south end.

The proposed cinematograph enclosure was very constricted and match-boarding was proposed for the construction. The licence was refused.

In June 1910 Hove Council received a second request for a cinematograph licence for the same hall. But this time it was from Bostel brothers on behalf of Harry Scriven to convert the hall into an ‘electric theatre’.

Harry Scriven was granted the licence, which was to run from 8 December 1910. The pit could accommodate 350 people. Thus the erstwhile Haddington Hall became the first cinema at Hove especially adapted for the purpose.

The Cinema Opens

The cinema opened its doors on 8 December 1910. The proprietor obviously did not favour a short and snappy title because the full name of the establishment was The First Hove Empire Picture Theatre. The place proved to be such a hit with the public that in 1912 a new balcony was installed to accommodate 70 extra patrons.

 copyright © B. Mitchener
These are pages from the theatre’s official programme produced in February/March 1913

The new cinema was not in a prime location and indeed it could be said that it was in an obscure side street. Indeed this point was made by Cayley Calvert in the newspaper of which he was editor and founder Brighton, Hove and South Sussex Graphic (19 August 1915) that stated:

‘I don’t suppose everybody knows exactly where Haddington Street is. But Hove does, or at any rate, those living at all in the vicinity of the Empire cinema, which is situated there. They all know it very well to be a rather small turning out of Blatchington Road, just round the corner from George Street, Hove’s principal market thoroughfare … It is a family theatre, a place of local meeting and regular resort. You can judge the truth of this from the fact that when the audience are arriving Mr Flint, the manager, welcomes them by name, all as if they were his own private friends paying him a call at his own house, and when they are leaving he turns from you to say “good-night Mr Brown” or “Good-night Mrs Smith” as the case may be.’
copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
The exterior of the Empire was photographed in 1915, 
(Brighton, Hove & South Sussex Graphic)
The cheapest seats were the first four rows of the pit and they were nothing more than wooden benches but further back there were more expensive tip-up seats with arm-rests covered in a velvet-like material.

In early cinema days the pit was often nicknamed the ‘flea pit’. But the Empire’s owner did their best to keep the place hygienic and sprayed the interior with Perolin, a perfumed disinfectant. By 1915 a different product was in use with the unattractive name of Dongor ‘a perfumed spray to give lightness and brightness to the atmosphere’. The floors of the hall were washed daily with disinfectant; by 1913 right at the end of the programme it was announced proudly ‘Since going to Press, we have purchased a Vacuum Cleaner with which it is our intention to keep the Theatre even more pure and clean than formerly.’
It might seem strange that a disinfectant spray was necessary when there was a ventilation system in operation by 1913 whereby a large electric extractor fan drew out stale air while outside air was drawn in on the west side. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that to the clientele a weekly bath was something of a luxury.

The management was not bashful about extolling the virtues of their establishment. For example the following appeared in 1913 inside their printed programme:

‘This Theatre is one of the most comfortable and cosy Theatres known, while its electrical equipment and installation is the finest, south of London… The auditorium is heated during the winter months by means of steam radiators of the highest efficiency.’

Postcards of all the popular stars, male and female, could be purchased from the cinema at all times.

Technical Details
copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
1915 poster from the Brighton Graphic
It is interesting to note that the screen upon which the pictures were projected was set at a slight angle in order to give the correct focus.

Early films were highly flammable and it was important that the projector was sited in a fireproof operating room, which was fitted with all the latest improvements. Two Butcher’s Silent Empire machines were located there, one for ordinary use and the other as a stand-by in case of breakdown.

The arc light in these machines was capable of a 6,000 candlepower output in each case. No less than 5,000 feet of film passed through the machine at each performance.

Consideration was also given to the stage on which there was a live performance during the interval. There was a set of foot-lights and large sidelights that had a combined candlepower of 350. For special effects there was a large limelight of 3,000 candlepower.

The exterior was illuminated by six arc lights with a combined candlepower of 3,500.

The Great War

In August 1915 a special matinee was put on for the entertainment of wounded soldiers from the several local military hospitals. They were conveyed to the Empire in cars belonging to Mr Torrance, Mr Rogers and Mrs Smith.

Mr D.H. Torrance was a dental surgeon but he took the time to drive some of the soldiers himself. It is interesting to note that amongst Mr Torrance’s clients were German prisoners of war located at Brooker Hall, Hove (now Hove Museum). Mr Torrance’s son Albert remembered the Germans being marched up to his father’s practice to have their teeth attended to. They wore grey uniforms to which were attached circles of different colours. This was done so that in the event of an escape, British soldiers would have a target to aim at. But the circles were strategically placed to ensure the shot would not be mortal.

 copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
D.H. Torrance, dental surgeon, drives wounded soldiers to the Empire. (Brighton, Hove & South Sussex Graphic)

Walter R. Flint, the manager, waited to greet the soldiers as they arrived at the Empire. Mr Flint was quite a character, having been a Brighton journalist. But he had also written stage dramas as well as producing them.

  copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Walter Flint, manager, greets the wounded soldiers. (Brighton, Hove, & South Sussex Graphic)

Mrs Towner gave each soldier a gift of chocolate, tobacco and cigarettes. At the time it was customary to shower wounded soldiers with tobacco products because it was thought smoking calmed the nerves. Indeed, there were several wealthy ladies who specialised in meeting hospital trains at Brighton Station in order to present injured soldiers with cigarettes, even if they were laid out on stretchers.

   copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
More wounded soldiers arrive by car. A soldier on crutches looks forward to his cinema outing.
(Brighton, Hove & South Sussex Graphic)

The Scrivens
copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
1916 poster from the Brighton Graphic

Harry Scriven owned the cinema and it was something of a family affair because his son Eddie Scriven was the projectionist.

The Scrivens prided themselves in showing national events on the day they happened if at all possible. This was a sensational development for the time. For instance, when the memorial service for Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, in February 1913 with King George V in attendance, Hove audiences were able to see film of the event that same evening.

The Scrivens also ran an innovative ‘catch-up’ service. They kept a stock of principal events that could be shown ‘to any party of visitors who should desire to see such past events, upon reasonable notice being given to the management.’

The Scrivens liked to keep abreast of local events too. A large open-top car could often be spotted driving around driven by Walter Flint, the manager, while Eddie Scriven stood to operate the large camera on board. These films would then be despatched to Butcher’s Film Services in London and returned three days later to be screened at the cinema.
   copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
1916 poster from the Brighton Graphic

The Scrivens were interested in the latest technology and the cinema was used for an experimental sound system. James Williamson, the famous Hove film pioneer, had devised a system called the Vidaphone, which was an attempt to synchronise phonograph recordings with the action on the screen. It was not always successful by any means.

By 1915 the Empire could boast that ‘all the projections on the screen are now made by Kamm’s British-made Bioscope machines, and the pictures are rock-steady.’

Harry Scriven died in 1926 and his widow Mrs Elizabeth Scriven of 109 Hartington Road, Brighton, wrote to Hove Council asking for the cinema licence to be transferred to her name. The Chief Constable considered that she was a fit and proper person to hold such a licence and so it was duly transferred.

In October 1928 the cinema was granted a seven-day licence that meant that at last films could be shown on a Sunday.

However, the cinema was sold in 1930 and renamed the New Empire the following year. But it closed for good in 1933.

Eddie Scriven died aged 91 in April 1995 at his home in Holland Road, Hove.


Ernie Mason was born in 1910 and clearly remembered his youthful visits to this cinema. He wrote that during a performance the atmosphere became hot and smelly. During the interval an employee of the cinema came around spraying a lavender-scented mist. The children liked the smell and used to shout ‘Over here, Mister’ to ensure they too received a squirt.

Ernie Mason remembered the days of the silent films when a lady pianist played all the way through the performance, the music being appropriate to the action on the screen.

During the interval the red, plush curtain was highlighted and a ‘variety artiste’ entertained the audience while Walter Flint played the piano.

On certain nights free gifts were handed out; there might be faux pearl necklaces, briar pipes, shaving sticks or manicure sets. 

John Friend of Brighton wrote a letter to the Evening Argus (2 March 2000). He stated that one of his earliest memories of the cinema was of a twin-winged warplane outside the entrance. Apparently, it was placed there to advertise the current film. During the war his school-friend lived in the balcony that had been converted into a flat.

  copyright ©  D. Sharp
Haddington Street in 2016, the Cinema and terraced houses were demolished in the years since the First World War, replaced by a Co-op Supermarket, primary school and car-park


Brighton, Hove and South Sussex Graphic (19 August 1915)
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade 
Hove Council Minutes
Empire Programme from February/March 1913

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp