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!