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100 years ago: Swinton cinema owner fined in underage fire hazard nightmare

A visit to the cinema today is plush experience with state of the art of equipment including luxury seats, wide screens and surround sound.

100 years ago it was completely different story with small cinemas sprouting up across the country.

These early cinemas were often a meeting hall or dance hall which had been converted into a makeshift cinema, with long benches to sit upon and very little attention paid to hygiene or personal safety.

At its height Salford could boast of having a staggering 22 cinemas: Irlam, still a small town at the time, had two, Eccles had 12 and Swinton had at least three.

At the time, film stocks were made on a nitrate. This was cheap and easy to produce but had the drawback of being highly flammable.

It was sensitive to changes in moisture, static electricity, friction, light and heat, making the projectionist extremely vulnerable to the hot lamp of a film projector in a small, cramped room.

And the projectionist would be much busier swapping over rolls of film in that era, as each would contain no more than around 20 minutes of video.

The worst tragedy on record in a cinema was the Glen Cinema disaster which was caused by a fire sparked by a smoking film canister in Paisley, Scotland on 31 December 1929.

The resulting panic and crush killed 69 children and injured 40; the final death toll was 71.

It wouldn’t be until 1948 that Eastman Kodak brought to the market a much safer version of the technology with cellulose acetate film.

This story from the pages of the Eccles and Patricroft Journal, September, 1916 predates the Glen Cinema disaster but was to serve as a warning of the dangers of not being prepared for an emergency.

George Fredrick Wilson, proprietor of the 150-seater Royal Picture Palace on Manchester Road, Swinton was summoned to appear at the Manchester County Court charged with offences under the Cinematograph Act.

Inspector Munroe told the court that he visited the cinema at 8pm on Friday 15 August 1916.

Along with his collegague Detective Constable Falder, he saw Mr Wilson in the auditorium and told him that he wanted to inspect the fire appliances in the operating room and the auditorium.

In the operating room, from where films were projected, they found a young boy named only as Cheadle.

He, rather suspiciously, gave his age as being “over 14”.

Subsequent questioning revealed that he was in fact only 13 years of age – it meant he was working illegally as the school leaving age, and first possible employment age then was 14.

‘Cheadle’ told the police that he was paid four shillings a week to operate the projector whenever Mr Wilson was downstairs.

An inspection of the projection room found no firefighting appliances at all.

Portable fire extinguishers were available in 1916 – usually heavy brass and copper tools – but were a far cry from today’s modern equipment.



More damningly police discovered a a rickety wooden stool that children would use to operate the heavy projecter and a “considerable number of highly flammable film-ends were lying about the floor”.

They asked Mr Wilson what he would do in the event of a fire.

He rather flippantly replied, “I would blow it out.”

This was not what the concerned officers were looking to hear.

The police then discovered another boy in one of the ante-rooms, Simon Atkinson, who was busy winding films onto a spool which were driven by electricity, which could run at up to 1,000 revolutions per minute.

The edges were sharp and there was nothing to protect the boy’s hands from from being cut by the fast-moving mechanism.

Simon was asked if he worked there regularly; he told the officers that he “only did it now and again,” but didn’t get paid, but was allowed to watch the films for free.

The police inspected the auditorium and again found no firefighting appliances, Mr wilson pointed out that it was like this when he took over in May.

Mr Wilson was issued with a warning to stop employing underage boys and to acquire adequate firefighting appliances before they returned a week later.

When the date rolled round for the officers’ second visit, they arrived on Manchester Road to find no safety equipment in the auditorium and in the projection room just a simple bucket of water and some loose sand to shovel onto a fire: hardly what was required if a blaze broke out.

Mr Wilson got his court-orders there and then: he was charged with three offences, one for not having adequate fire fighting appliances and two charges of employing underage boys in dangerous occupations.

The Magistrate fined him £5 for the first offence, whilst the other two summonses were withdrawn.

On a curious note the father of the Cheadle boy, Thomas Cheadle of Lansdale Street, Swinton was fined 5 shillings and 6 pence for allowing his son to be employed there!

I believe the cinema changed its mame to The Adelphi shortly after the First World War as this information suggests and was possibly demolished to make way for the New Adelphi Cinema.

The New Adelphi Picture House was opened on 15th December 1923 with a (then) state of the art 28ft wide proscenium.

Operated by Swinton Entertainments it was re-named Adelphi Cinema in 1929 and came equipped with a Western Electric sound system.

It was taken over by the Newcastle-based Essoldo chain in March 1947 and was re-named Essoldo in 1949.

The cinema finally closed its doors for good on 3 October 1970.

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SalfordOnline.com's Local History Editor and Senior Reporter.