Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Dewsbury once had five cinemas to choose from

Last week I wrote about Alexander Oates, of Savile Town, who was the chief projectionist at the Pioneer’s cinema on Northgate, Dewsbury, during the early 1920s and onwards.

By Jane Chippindale
Thursday, 31st March 2022, 9:30 am

Margaret Watson writes: This week I write about another cinema projectionist, Norman Howgate, who worked with him but who later went to work at the Rex Cinema just across the road.

Norman lived next door to my family when we lived on Woodbine Street on The Flatts, and I always thought he had the best job in the world seeing all those wonderful films – free.

This was in the days when people of my generation went to the pictures three or four times a week and, if they happened to live in Dewsbury, they had five cinemas from which to choose.

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FILM REEL: Projectionist Norman Howgate busy at work in one of Dewsbury’s cinemas where he worked for 40 years, watching thousands of films in the process.

Norman worked both afternoons and evening, and over the years must have seen thousands of films.

The photograph above I believe is a piece of cinema history, and I’m indebted to his grandson, Mick Hobson, who sent it to me a number of years ago.

Although Norman is no longer with us, I do still have a copy of an interview he gave to the Reporter over 60 years ago.

In it he reveals that in the early days cinemas were only allowed to open two hours a day, 7.30pm to 9.30pm, and, of course, in those days they weren’t allowed to open on Sundays.

At first, Norman had worked as a part-time projectionist in the evenings at Andrews Cinema, of which I wrote last week, and which later became the Pioneers.

But during the day he worked at Wormald and Walker’s mill in Thornhill Lees as a flock drier and packer.

Later, he moved to a new cinema just across the road from the Pioneers known as the Majestic, which eventually became the Rex cinema.

This new cinema was in fact a converted church – Trinity Chapel – better known to local people as Mark Oldroyd’s church because of the mill owner’s strong connection with it.

It was a congregational church and had been built at the bottom of Halifax Road in 1870 next door to Mark Oldroyd’s mill.

So sudden was the changeover from church to cinema that during the first few weeks as a cinema, the audience had to sit in the pews because there were no chairs!

In 1949, however, the cinema was taken over by John Tidswell, of Leeds, who completely renovated it at a cost of £20,000.

During his 40 years as a projectionist, Norman saw thousands of films and also the dramatic change in the equipment used to project them.

In the early days of cinematography, film was hand-fed and driven by a sewing machine belt which frequently broke, which meant the film had to be wound through by hand until the repair was made and the belt refitted.

Norman had to struggle with numerous breakdowns and had to repair film breakages at top speed in a comparatively small room.

He used to say that by the time the films arrived in Dewsbury they were in a bad condition, hence the many breakdowns.

Stoppages eventually became very rare and Norman’s work became less stressful as the equipment improved, but he still had the pressures of holding a very responsible position.

He was chief operator at the Rex for many years and worked there six days a week from 1.30pm until the film finished around 10pm.

But, being the conscientious man he was, Norman would go to the cinema early in the morning to check the complicated equipment was in order.

Sometimes when the nearby beck flooded, he would be seen down in the cellar, ankle deep in water, to maintain things.

It isn’t known exactly when the Majestic changed its name to the Rex but it was probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

Norman’s grandson, Mick, told me in my interview some years ago, that after the cinema closed, it became a bingo hall.

Still, his dad continued working for the company which had taken it over and could be seen standing on the door seeing to the takings.

Mick could also remember going with his mum to the Rex Bingo and sitting in the balcony looking down at those taking part puffing cigarettes and marking off their bingo tickers.

Norman did eventually retire but soon went back because he loved it so much and he continued working there until he passed away in 1970 aged 74.

Mick also recalled how his grandad had smoked all his life and enjoyed a pint at the two pubs he used to frequent - the Nelson in Thornhill Lees and the Belle Vue on Staincliffe Road.

The Rex Cinema was one of five Dewsbury cinemas all situated in the town centre only a few yards from each other.

At the height of their popularity, Dewsbury’s cinemas were always well filled and they are still remembered with great affection by those who regularly frequented them, including myself.

Sadly, over the years they all eventually closed down and were demolished because they had fallen out of favour with regular cinemagoers that were now staying at home to watch the telly.

Over the years the various cinemas in the town changed their name but it was the one called The Picture House which changed more than any other.

It became the Regal, and later the Essoldo, and later still The Classic, and I cannot remember its last name but I’m sure some reader will let me know.

The other week, I wrote about the demolition of the Woolpack Inn, Dewsbury Moor, and mentioned that three years ago it had been given planning permission for a care home.

I understand that a building has now been built at the far end of the site, but what it is I do not know.

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Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Dewsbury’s Pioneer cinema