The Strand Cinema Fire – Southend, 14 November 1926

The Strand had originally opened in 1909 as a skating rink and was converted to a cinema in 1911, opening as the Kinemacolour Theatre with seating capacity of 1,000.

The following text is taken from Roy Dilley’s ‘Southend’s Palaces of the Silver Screen’, published in 2011 by Phillimore & Co Ltd., ISBN 978-1-86077-680-9

On 11 September 1919 the cinema was renamed The Strand, and the ownership changed to Mr Frank Baker*. A magnificent pipe organ was installed at a cost of £4,000. The advertisements proudly proclaimed the Strand as being “The Home Of The Pipe Organ”. This instrument had been supplied by William Hill and Son of London. Solo organist was Florence De Jong (late of the Marble Arch Pavilion). The cinema also hosted a full orchestra (musical director Mr Harry De Jong, former conductor at Sexton’s West End Cinema). The Strand also held first exhibition rights of all the Famous Lasky pictures.

On Sunday, 14 November 1926 the Strand was completely destroyed by fire. The blaze was discovered at 5 a.m. and caused £35,000 damage. By 5:30 a.m. the building was a raging furnace, with flames leaping 40 ft high. The roof slates exploded like rockets, and pieces of blazing wood were carried by the high wind onto the roofs of houses in Southchurch Road. Some blazing debris struck a woman standing in a doorway in Warrior Square and burnt her badly. There was no hope of saving the cinema. All the fire brigade could do was try to save adjoining properties, which they were successful in doing. People in their night attire flocked from the surrounding streets to see the spectacle.

The only part of the cinema left standing was the box office and projection room, which were situated at the High Street end of the building. One projector was destroyed; the other was damaged, but was repairable. The film was undamaged, being stored in steel boxes. The roof had caved in and the organ melted. The only part of the organ left was the two pedals. £6,000 would not replace this instrument. 40 people including the orchestra were thrown out of work. The cause of the fire was unknown; a cigarette had been discounted as the fire had started near the roof**. In those days telephones were few, and the owner Mr Frank Baker lived at Leigh***, so friends rushed to his house, to tell him the cinema was destroyed. Mr Baker was then driven to Southend, in dressing gown and pyjamas, to behold the tragic sight.

“Billy”, the mottled cat who slept and lived on the premises, was missed after the fire, and everyone feared the worst, but, to the astonishment of all, the feline was seen prowling around the debris the next day****. 

. . .

A new picture house was built on the site, the general contractor being Arthur J. Arnold. The frontage of the building in Warrior Square was 90 feet wide, the entrance being in modern Renaissance style, with ‘Hathernware’ Faience tiling, to match the adjoining Strand Arcade. The auditorium was 131 ft long and 70 ft wide, with a sloping floor, which had a comfortable rake of seven feet. The proscenium width was 34 ft and the depth of the stage 16 ft. The seating capacity was 1,640, and the walls were finished in cream fibrous plaster, the curtains (by Messrs. Kimballs of Westcliff) and seats were in a restful shade of blue. Heating was achieved by a hot water installation with radiators, while the lighting effects were secured by electricity, with an auxiliary gas lighting plant in case of a breakdown.

The cinema opened on Saturday, 28th January 1928. A distinguished company gathered for the opening, which was performed by the mayor, Councillor A. Bockett.  The guests included many members of the town council, Mrs Eleanor Percy (chairman of directors of the Warrior Square Picture Theatre Ltd) and Mr Frank Baker (managing director). After Mr Harold Judd had sung ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and Mr D H Burles (architect), had briefly described the new building, the Mayor was invited formally to declare it open. 

. . .

A Western Electric sound system was installed for the ‘talkies’, which was changed in April 1934 for Western Electric Wide Range sound equipment.  On 7th March 1937 the cinema was sold by Mr Frank Baker to Messrs. Mistlin Theatres Ltd who were building up a new circuit. The directors of the company were David and Louis Mistlin, the latter becoming manager of the Strand.


*Frank was never the owner of the Strand; he was its manager, installed by his sister Eleanor Percy who had inherited a number of businesses on the death of her husband John Stewart Percy in June 1926.  He was also manager of the Mascot Cinema which itself burned down – but not until many years later, by which time both Frank and Eleanor had also died.

**An entirely uneducated guess might focus on the projector that was destroyed.  At the time the projector’s light source would almost certainly have been a carbon arc, and having witnessed first-hand carbon arc projectors being operated in the late 1960s/early 1970s I can testify that this was a dangerous business and that small fires in projection booths (and the attendant melting of the film) were still a relatively common occurrence.  Back in 1926, also, film stock could be highly flammable, especially if kept in a particularly dry atmosphere and not handled with great care.

***Frank must have moved to Leigh when John Percy died, and may actually have been in lodgings at the time of the fire, as his eldest three children were born sixty-odd miles away in Cambridge – one of them, Pauline, within three days of John Percy’s death.

****This not only explains the old photograph shown above, which has been in the family collection for nearly a century, but also dates it precisely.  (It may have been taken on the same day, and by the same person, as this one:  Billy’s ultimate fate is not recorded, although possibly he hung around long enough to supervise the rebuilding of the cinema and may even have been able to take up residence again in the new building – but sadly this will have to be left to the individual imagination!


The Baker Bunch – Part Two

We continue the saga of the children of William Augustus and Alice Esther Baker with their five youngest – all boys.

5. Stanley Baker (‘Stan’) 1888-1960

Alas, not the movie-star of the same name, who was forty years younger and Welsh. Stan was married to Grace Maud Philpot and they had one son, Philip Stanley Baker – June’s ‘Cousin Phil’ – who laid much of the groundwork of the family history detective work in this particular line. Alas, in later years, June became very confused, and actually spent a whole day with her Cousin Clive thinking he was Cousin Phil. Phil died in 2007, and it would be very interesting to know what had happened to his research material; enquiries I have made have yielded precisely nothing, unfortunately.

6. Reginald Baker (‘Reg’) 1890-1968

Reg was married to Jessica Munton, and their son was named John – and this is, I’m afraid, all the information I currently have about him except that, like all of his brothers but Frank, he both served in the First World War and worked his entire life for the GWR.

7. Frank Edward Baker 1892-1963

We’re on safer ground with Frank; he was June’s father. He married Edith Nellie Louise Mullinger (1895-1987) in 1919 and they had four children – William Edward Frank (‘Teddy’), June Edith, Pauline Mary, and Peter Neville Macord.* Frank was excluded both from working with the GWR and also from active military duty in the First World War as the result of a childhood accident which left him with only one eye. He did, however, go to France as an ambulance driver; the emotions of Alice as she waved away all seven sons, in turn, to the battlefields can only be imagined.

Frank had a glass eye, and is reputed to have entertained guests by taking it out and polishing it at the dinner table – but this story seems to have circulated about everyone who ever had a glass eye, and should probably be taken with a pinch of salt! He was variously in the licensed trade, a cinema manager, and the proprietor of a tobacconist and sweet shop – the business, and premises, of which he is trying to divest himself of in the course of the 1960 and 1961 letters on this site. He was also a Freemason, but this is an area of family history which is notoriously elusive and I have not attempted to research it yet; however I am aware that the masons refused to help Edith when, towards the end of her life, she needed a place in a residential care home.

8. Cyril Baker 1893 – 1960

Cyril married Beryl Smith, and they had four children – Patricia Kathleen, Iris, Anthony Cyril Raynham, and Clive Robert Ian. Again, as with some of the other ‘boys’, this is all the available information at the moment; clearly further research is indicated.

9. Hubert Dudley Baker (‘Bunny’) 1896-1917

Lacking any definitive information about how his nickname came to be, it isn’t difficult to imagine young Hubert being his mother’s darling and consolation after the death of her husband. Apart from this we know little, and it is only recently (i.e. February 2021) that a photograph of him has emerged on a ‘Member’s Tree’ in the Ancestry database, incorrectly labelled as being of Frank. Clearly a wrong attribution had become attached to it by someone who had never met Frank, or indeed anyone who knew him; close scrutiny, however, reveals a cap badge bearing the Prince of Wales’ feathers, and we know that Bunny was in the Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles.

The circumstances of Bunny’s death are still a mystery, although it should be possible to research. He died (appropriately for a railway worker) at Railway Dugouts, near Ypres, on 18 January 1917, and is commemorated on the Ealing Memorial Gates at Ealing Common, along with over 800 other local men.

So, these are the seven men and two women who made up ‘The Baker Bunch’. They undoubtedly knew hardship – Alice used to tell her sons always to carry a half-penny and a stone in their pocket, so that they could jangle them together and sound wealthy even though they weren’t – however they all seem to have won through in the end and made decent lives for themselves and their children, who by my reckoning numbered 26 in all, with goodness knows how many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren (Frank certainly has at least three!) and potentially great-great-great grandchildren before too long.

It really needs little more than this snapshot of one family to realise exactly how big a task Family History is, even when you already have a lot of the information you need. Family is indeed, as Dodie Smith memorably called it, a ‘Dear Octopus’ from whose tentacles one can never completely escape; that being said, however, it is not un-reasonable to document it to whatever extent is possible – if only so that future generations do not continue to confuse Phil with Clive, or Frank with Bunny!

[*Mullinger and Macord are both fascinating families with very long recorded histories; the Macords in particular were Huguenots who fled to England from religious persecution in France in the seventeenth century, and it would be reasonable to suggest that every single Macord in the various online genealogy databases is somehow related to ‘our’ Macords – it’s a particularly unusual surname. My distant relative Colin Gronow is currently working on a definitive ‘One-Name Study‘ of the Macords. The name came into the Baker line via Alice Esther’s mother Rachael Nickolls Macord.]

The Baker Bunch – Part One

The history of the Baker family (June’s ancestors) as I know it goes back to a certain ‘Symon Baker’ born in about 1620, of whom all we know is that he had a son called Daniel born about 1650. They seem to have originated in Gloucestershire and eventually gravitated to London, with certain excursions to Lancashire and Guernsey when one of the 19th century William Bakers was ordained in the Church of England and naturally had to go where he was sent.

His eldest son, therefore, William Augustus Baker, was born at Farnworth in Lancashire in 1854. William Augustus described himself in the 1881 census as a ‘tea dealer’ (which I suspect means he sold tea from a cart, rather than being a commodities broker on the Stock Exchange), but by 1891 he was calling himself an ‘accountant’. He died in 1897, aged only 43, leaving behind a widow and nine children. This is the ‘Bunch’ we’re going to be talking about today – and we have an almost unprecedented opportunity of seeing them all in one place, which probably last happened at some point before or during the First World War.

William and his wife Alice – she was born in Stepney of a father who was a Customs officer and a deaf mother – managed to squeeze out nine living children in fifteen years, despite taking a breather in 1884, 1887, 1889, 1891 and 1894/5. There is little evidence to suggest how Alice and her children supported themselves in the immediate aftermath of William’s death, although later evidence would seem to suggest that they took in lodgers – and no doubt some of the elder children were able to do part-time work, but there is a gap in the record here. William Augustus’s will, which was not proved until 35 years after his death, declared effects to the value of £250 – roughly £17,000 in 2021 money.

So here is our cast of characters: William Augustus and Alice seem to have evaded being photographed – unless they turn up in the background of a wedding group somewhere – but their children managed at least one turn each before the lens. Since there are so many of them, we’ll have to split them into two groups.

1. Alice Edith Macord Baker (‘Eda’) 1882-1962

Eda never married. By the 1891 census she was already living with her family in what would be her lifelong home, 17 Eccleston Road, West Ealing, London. Always referred to just as ‘17’, this property was not relinquished by the family until some time in the 1970s. In 1901 she was a ‘domestic nurse’ (i.e. nurserymaid or similar, probably untrained) to a family named Spencer in Rickmansworth; in 1911 she was living – presumably in a similar capacity – with her younger married sister, Nell, who had a six month old son. Eda then disappears from online records until the death of her mother in 1928, after which her surviving brothers joined forces to ensure that she would either inherit or otherwise acquire the lease of 17. The details are still elusive, but she was certainly in the business of letting rooms to lodgers – specifically, it seems, to single young men who worked for the GWR and later British Rail. This was how Alec came to be living there immediately after WWII, and how he met – and eventually married – her niece June.

2. William Ernest Baker (‘Will’) 1883-1963

The eldest of what I have called elsewhere ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’. Six of the brothers worked for the GWR in some capacity, and all six of these eventually went off to fight in the First World War. Will married Gertrude Chaloner and they had two sons, another William and a Ronald. I have not had a chance yet to research either the wartime careers or the GWR work histories of the ‘boys’, so details are somewhat lacking in many cases.

3. Robert Lionel Baker (‘Rob’) 1885-1971

Rob was married twice; the first time to Annie King, with whom he had four children – Joan, Olive, Delphine and Derek – and, after her death in 1929, to Rhoda Mary Balsdon. The last of the ‘boys’ to die, Rob lived in a house in Ealing with Rhoda and their hyperactive poodle, Pepe. He was house-bound for many years, and was therefore the first person I knew – and probably one of the first in the country – to own a (*gasp*!) colour television. He used to enjoy watching the racing on ITV in the afternoons, but whether or not he ever had a flutter I am unable to say.

4. Eleanor Baker (‘Nell’) 1886-1964

Nell’s life had interesting parallels with her mother’s. Alice married at 28 and was widowed at 43; she had nine children, the youngest being eight months old when his father died. This youngest son was also the first of the children to die, being killed in action in 1917 (see Part Two). Nell, in turn, married in 1909 at the age of 23 to John Stewart Percy and was widowed at 40. She gave birth to ten children – James, Mary, Maxwell, Barbara, Pamela, Montague, Anne, Jean, Colin and Timothy – the last of whom was born after her husband’s death, and unfortunately died as a baby.

If Nell was employed outside the home at any period between the 1901 census – when she is a ‘scholar’ at the age of 14 – and the date of her marriage, the record does not show. Her husband’s untimely death in 1926 left her a wealthy woman with a large family, and her younger brother Frank became her business manager; he ran cinemas, pubs, hotels, dance halls and at least one billiards club on her behalf for a period of more than thirty years before she began to divest herself of them.

She was clearly, from her photo, the glamorous one in the family!

The mystery of the missing brother

Teddy in approx. 1924 and 1944

Now we come to one of the sadder chapters of our family history, the story of June’s missing brother. That is to say, he wasn’t literally ‘missing’ – he didn’t go off hiking one day and never come back, or anything like that – but he was deliberately expelled from the family for conduct that has never been specified, and there was no remotest possibility of forgiveness or reconciliation for the rest of his life.

William Edward Frank Baker (Teddy) was born at 112 Tenison Road, Cambridge, on 26 March 1922, the first child of Frank – then a cinema manager – and Edith (nee Mullinger). There is a photo of him as a small child, certainly less than two years old, and then a gap in the record until he joins Lindisfarne College, Westcliff-on-Sea, in January 1934 at the age of 11.

I have a full set of school reports, which seem to suggest that he was ill during his first summer term and missed quite a lot of school, after which he struggled to catch up. His strengths were maths, ‘handwork’ (presumably carpentry) and, unexpectedly, French – although he clearly enjoyed larking about and was not particularly serious about his work. As far as his conduct goes, his headmaster – one Edward Daws – repeatedly refers to him as a pleasant and good-natured boy; not academic, perhaps, but practical and straightforward, and one who should do well in later life.

Of course, you have all worked out already what’s coming young Teddy’s way; he was born in 1922, and would therefore have been 17 at the start of the Second World War. In 1939 he was living with his parents at the Victoria Hotel in Wolverton (‘The New Queen Victoria’), and was described as an ‘Assistant Hotel Manager’. His father was the manager. Teddy’s parents, two sisters and his baby brother (June, Pauline and Peter) all lived there as well; so did his maternal grandfather William and his mother’s sister Nell – plus a barmaid, the barmaid’s child, and another couple who were probably lodgers. This is a household of ten people, and although the building is quite large it was operating as a hotel and may also have had letting bedrooms – which would have been more than enough to keep the family busy cooking, cleaning and otherwise catering for themselves and their guests.

Details of Teddy’s wartime career are not available at the moment; the MoD will not release them without the consent of the next of kin until 25 years after the individual’s death. He was in the RAF, he was not a pilot, and he served in the Far East; that’s all I know.

In 1943, Frank and Edith inserted a notice in one of the Southend newspapers (not yet identified):

BAKER: Of age on March 26th 1943, William Edward Frank (RAF) eldest son of Mr and Mrs Frank Baker, late of Strand Cinema and Mascot Cinema. Now of Tower Arms Hotel, Iver, Bucks. [2739A]

And then there is silence. We have Teddy’s own word (in a letter to Alec Atkins after Edith had died) that he ‘lost contact with his family in the 1950s’. June’s only comments about this ever were ‘he was a tyrant’ and ‘he broke his mother’s heart’. Alec went to considerable lengths to track him down via the secretary of the RAFA at Uxbridge in 1987, because Teddy had been left a small legacy in Edith’s will. Teddy decline to benefit, and asked that the money should be sent to the World Wildlife Fund instead. Alec was quite brusque, saying that he didn’t know why Teddy had remained apart from his family and he didn’t want to know, and there the correspondence ended.

In late 2003, June was contacted by an heir hunter in connection with Teddy’s own estate; Teddy had apparently died in early 2001 – about six months before Alec, as it happens – and there was a small sum of money to be distributed between his heirs. As Pauline had also died by then, and had no children, June and Peter shared the legacy between them; June was reluctant to accept the money, but recognised that it would enable her to help her grandson, Robin, so put most of it into an account for him.

And now there’s nobody left to explain how and why a family member was so effectively shut out that his death wasn’t known about until more than two years after the event. Nothing about Teddy’s school reports indicates a ‘tyrant’ in his youth; he was never in trouble with the police as far as I know, but until I can access his service record it’s impossible to know what may have happened to him during the war. My best guess at the moment is PTSD, which changed his behaviour, or possibly some involvement in the infamous RAF mutiny of 1946. Or, indeed, both.

Teddy never married, nor had children, and the rest of his life is a mystery. He may have worked for the RAF in a civilian capacity, as I received the garbled impression that he was a steward in the Mess at RAF Hendon, but unless I can make contact with someone who knew him towards the end of his life this is unlikely ever to be resolved.

I’ve applied for Teddy’s death certificate in case it sheds any more light on the subject, but at the time of posting this it still hasn’t arrived. I’ll update if there is anything of interest to report when it does get here.

Anyway, Teddy was a perfect example of the way the family as a whole tended to deal with problems – i.e. ignore them, and the people who create them, and simply make them go away. There was a similar case in the 1980s when they tried to magic away someone who did not fit their template for an ideal human being – but somehow or another, and to their eternal chagrin, I’m still here, and I’m the one who gets to tell the story.

I’m really sorry, Teddy, I wish I’d known you; I think we’d have had quite a lot in common!

Sunday 24th May, 1959

And here we go with the major part of the archive – ten years’ worth of letters, written sixty years ago!

So, when we last saw Alec he was nearly 21 and living in lodgings with a Mrs Stone in Hanwell. Fifteen years have passed since then, at some point during which he moved from Hanwell to Ealing to lodge with a Miss Eda Baker. (Mrs Stone may have ceased having lodgers when her husband came home after the war.) Miss Baker started life with seven brothers; one of them died in the Great War and one of them – Frank – had lost an eye in a childhood accident and was ineligible for military service. It also ruled him out of employment with the GWR, which was the course his five surviving brothers took.

Alec married Frank Baker’s elder daughter, June (Eda’s niece), in December 1954, and they bought a house in Ruislip and had two children. Now read on!


Sunday 24th May, 1959

Dear Don and Joan

Just a letter to thank you very much for Susan’s present duly received and appreciated. As you may know Dad and Mum came down for the week and they were present for her Birthday. We invited the two little girls from either side and of course Carol was there. She had a very good time as the weather was fine and they were all able to go out on the lawn. I am afraid that when bedtime came she was reluctant to go but as she was very tired the ructions did not last long. The following day ( Sunday ) we all went to Headstone Lane and she had a fine game with the girls there. I asked Sara if she would like to have Carol to live with them. She did not think much of the idea but said she would like to have Susan. On Tuesday we went to West Drayton to see the other Grandma and Grandad so have had quite a number of outings as a result of car and driver being available.* To-day I removed the whole of one side of shed and rebuilt to accommodate two windows. Had the assistance of next door neighbour this morning and this afternoon he took June and the girls out to a picnic tea in Kenton Park in his car. It was very hot work as sun shining strongly and the bitter wind of yesterday has gone. I hope Don’s Bronchitis is easier and that he is better condition than when we last met. We have asked Dad to contact Vicar of Clevedon with a view to getting Carol Baptised at Parish Church there when we are down there early in July. If Vicar agrees to do the job ( which is by no means certain apparently) we shall go down that week-end that he nominates. You were unable to come to Susan’s Christening because of the distance but if you can, we would like you both to come to Carol’s and stand as God-Parents. Well back to work to-morrow, got to do enough to keep the Governor’s pension going I suppose. Hope to hear from you through Clevedon that subject to date etc., being convenient, that we shall all see you in July.


*The car belonged to our very accommodating neighbour, Doug Gray, who seems to have chauffeured us around a considerable amount at this time.