Chatham's first cinema, the "Cinema de Luxe", opened on January 22nd 1910 in a converted shop at the west end of the High Street, and during the 1920s, the High Street alone contained four cinemas. Since then, numerous cinemas have come and gone and now, like Gillingham and Rochester, the town has none.
The first competition to the High Street cinemas came in the form of "super-cinemas", the first of these being the "Palace Super Cinema" built at the top of Chatham Hill. It could be easily reached from Gillingham as well as Chatham (in fact the dividing line between the two towns runs down the middle of Chatham Hill), and stands just within Chatham's boundary. This was done because Chatham's Sunday Opening Rules were more liberal than Gillingham's, who up until the last war didn't allow cinemas to open until after Sunday services.
It was renamed "The Gaumont" in 1950, and eventually closed in 1961. My father remembers it being a bowling alley, then when I was a child it was used by B&Q as a DIY super-store before they moved to new premises. It is a branch of Camping International, and the building is now called "Clock Tower House".
As you can see from the photo, apart from some bricked-up windows and a number of radio aerials on the tower, the outside hasn't changed too much. Even the railings around the balcony are still exteriorthere. I haven't been inside for some years, but the Camping International web site states that many of the building's original features remain, which is more than can be said for most of the other cinemas in the area.
In September 2006 I received an e-mail from Daphne Guthrie in New Zealand, who wrote:
How well I remember this cinema. I enjoyed many films there but it looked much handsomer then. The fact that it was on the Chatham/Gillingham boundary I found most interesting. Upstairs above the main entrance there was a very nice cafe so that one could go from work and have "tea" before the show. During WW2 my father was in the National Fire Service and there was a Look out post in the Tower. I used to love browsing the show cases on the walls of the building where "stills" from the film showing or those coming were displayed.
I also received another e-mail asking me whether the building is haunted - I've not heard anything about this before, but if you have please drop me a line.
Chatham's next super cinema, The Ritz, was built in Union Street, on the site of the original workhouse, and was opened on March 22nd 1937. It could seat 2322 people, and was equipped with a WurliTzer 3/8 organ. In the 1980's, when the building was converted to a bingo hall, the organ was bought by Shropshire Theatre Organ Trust, and is now installed in the Buttermarket in Shrewsbury.
In September 1998, the building was destroyed by fire, and was replaced by Gala with a new purpose-built bingo hall, with seating for 900. This photograph shows the view eastwards along The Brook and Union Street from the bottom of Slickett's Hill. The new bingo hall is the large building with the blue front and yellow brick rear, to the right of the Tesco store.
Chatham's third and final super cinema was the IPP Regent, built in 1928 and opened on July 11th of that year. It was taken over in 1930 by the Associated British Cinema Company, who completely rebuilt it, and fitted it out with the latest cinema technology.
In 1970 it was renamed the ABC, and later became the Canon Cinema. It closed on January 3rd 2002. The last film shown was "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring", which had an audience of 69 people. Until 2004 it was awaiting demolition to make way for more of the retirement "apartments" which have become a feature of the east end of the High Street. Now (November 2004) the flats are almost finished.
This photograph shows the view along the High Street towards the east, with the cinema building in the centre. When the picture was taken (January 2004), the demolition was already under way, hence the hoardings and scaffolding.
The Regent was only a hundred yards or so away from The Ritz, on the opposite side of the road. The white-fronted building on the left of the picture above is the opposite end of the Tesco super store visible in the picture of the Ritz site.
Recently I received an e-mail from Gus Warner in Australia, who used to live in Chatham. He told me that when the Regent was first built, attempts were made to install an organ pit. These failed because the pit kept flooding. This was presumably because this part of the High Street follows the course of the Old Bourne, the river which used to run along the Brook. The Little Queen pub across the road from the cinema (now a Chinese Take-Away and Restaurant) used to have similar problems - the road was often obstructed by the Fire Brigade pumping out their cellars.
The style of the building certainly reflects the era in which it was built.
A close-up of the main frontage and entrance of the cinema, showing the tiled fa?ade, and the huge decorative window. I don't remember the window actually providing much light to the entrance hall, as the ceiling there was at a fairly normal height. I think it just served as decoration and provided light to the access stairs and corridors behind.
In the old photos I've seen, the original name of the cinema, the "REGENT", was shown in large letters above the tiled area around the window.
This tiled panel on the front of the building used to display its name "ABC".
In the 1970's, the cinema was converted from having a single auditorium to three, having 520, 320 and 160 seats respectively.
This view of the side of the cinema shows where queues would form even into the 1990's. The queue would reach from the entrance, up this hill (Upbury Way) and around the back of the cinema.
This view towards the west shows the size of the cinema in relation to the nearby houses and buildings. As you can see from the photo, the cinema is not the only unused or derelict building in the area. Many of the nearby shops are closed and decaying now.
The two boarded-up shops on the end of this row have also been demolished, and the old people's flats extend over the site of them.
All photographs copyright 2004 Jason Ross