East End Memories



St Thomas's Square Plaque
(Click on the plaque to read it)
St Thomas's Square

The Empress cinema was on Mare Street in Hackney. Mare Street is a continuation of Cambridge Heath Road at its junction with Well Street. Prior to the building of the Empress, the site had been originally occupied by a Presbyterian House of Worship, St. Thomas’ Square Chapel. In 1911, the building was sold to 20th Century Cinemas and converted into a cinema. In 1933, it was remodelled and had 1,650 seats along with a Christie organ. In 1955, it became part of Sol Seckman’s Essoldo Chain and apparently its name was changed to reflect this. I cannot recall anyone that I knew ever calling it anything but the Empress since this name is indelibly imprinted into my memory and cannot be changed.

My memory of the finer points of the cinema is somewhat vague and often confused and as a result is not particularly trustworthy. For some reason, I seem to remember the cinema as being set back from the road a little. However, from pictures of the building, I see that it sat directly on the main road. It is funny how one’s memory plays tricks, isn’t it? Obviously I was never overly impressed with the Empress since its exterior left little lasting impression on me. I do recall the cinema as being of a beige colour with long vertical windows. I think that I considered it plain. I expect that I would, since I liked buildings like the Hackney Empire and had a preference for the more ornate at that time. The name, Empress in large pink neon letters appeared across the whole width of the building close to the roof. I don’t remember seeing the name, Essoldo, being similarly illuminated once the name changed. I regret now not having paid more attention to the building, as I now see that the exterior of the building did have a certain simple charm.

There were a number of doors leading to a small foyer. Directly opposite was a centrally placed box office that projected out from the far wall. After buying a ticket, one walked up two or three steps to enter the auditorium through sets of doors on either side of the box office. On the wall next to the right-hand entrance was a board giving the times of the start of the films and of the contents of the programme. I believe that there was also a place for photographic stills of the film to be shown the following week. I don’t recall any potted palms or other modes of decoration to give the place a more inviting look.

I do remember quite liking the staff that I came in contact with at the Empress. By staff, I mean the usherettes. These ladies took your ticket and flashed their torches to indicate the way into the auditorium and occasionally doubled-up and sold ice cream and cold drinks during the intermission. I recall them as being young and friendly in that they gave you a smile, so unlike so many in other cinemas.

My memories of the auditorium are few. I believe that the size was similar to the Essoldo Bethnal Green, but I think that it was slightly wider. The new CinemaScope screen differed from that of the Essoldo, which was set in front of the proscenium and looked as if it was bordered by old blankets, in that it seemed more professionally made and installed. I believe that there were side curtains that were drawn and opened several times during a performance. I cannot recall the condition of the auditorium and have no memory of the house lighting. The decoration of the walls and ceiling obviously left no impression. What I do remember was the unfortunate and appalling condition of the seats. Any fleece once associated with them had obviously long since vanished leaving only a cold and split leatherette covering, which was not conductive to comfort.

Sadly, the Empress, in spite of once showing spectacular films, left no lasting or affectionate memories. I regret my seemingly cold feelings, since every film that I saw there was enjoyed and one, with what seemed to be the strangest story-line, became instrumental, at least in part, in sowing the seed of a life-long devotion, which I will discuss a little later.

I later learned that the Empress or Essoldo closed as a cinema on 18th November, 1967. I was living in Norwich at that time and was heavily involved in the synthesis of a series of carbohydrate cyclic thionocarbonates and investigating how they responded to polarised light under a variety of conditions! Naturally I was far too involved with this fascinating subject to notice this event. The last film to be shown was How I won the War with Michael Crawford and John Lennon in the cast. The other film was The Music Box Kid.


The Empress had long since stopped being part of that elite group of cinemas that presented CinemaScope films made by 20th Century Fox. Films were now being photographed using Panavision lenses and the novelty of widescreen had passed. As a result, the cinema returned to offering films previously seen elsewhere. Declining trade caused the cinema to close and become a Bingo Hall, which it remained until 1992. Despite efforts to retain the building either as an Evangelical Church or as a community centre, it was demolished following sale to Cordwainers College who have subsequently built student Halls of Residence on the site, which opened in 1996.

Occasionally, whenever I visit London, I take the 254 bus, which replaced, at least in part, the old 653 Trolleybus route, and go to Hackney.  Whenever I do, I find myself sitting on the right-hand side of the bus and watching for where the Empress once stood.  Although I can never think of the cinema as being a special favourite of mine, I do have good memories of it and do regret not having paid more attention to its detail when I had the chance.

I would like to thank Mr. Brian Hall and Mr. Kevin Wheelan for their kindness in allowing many of their pictures to be reproduced here.

Continue to Part Four - The Journey to Hackney

Back to Part Two - May I have a Penny, Please?

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins