Guest post by Diane Maybank
Page 9 of The Citizen every Friday was where Hitchin movie fans could check out what was showing at their local cinemas. Throughout the Second World War patrons of The Hermitage, The Picturedrome and The Regal could count on one long loop of intrigue, romance and heroism, interrupted only by the need to change reels. Communal entertainment boomed during the war years; it was cheap, offered escapism in luxurious surroundings and there was little else to rival it. Britain’s Special Relationship with her American ally was sealed by reel upon reel of Hollywood magic making its way across the U-boat menaced Atlantic to towns like Hitchin.
The Hitchin experience was repeated up and down the land with an all-time high in ticket sales reaching 1.64 billion by 1946.
Hitchin cinema architecture is well documented and remembered; but what movie fans watched and what they made of it all doesn’t seem to have survived. North Herts Museum holds a large collection of The Citizen newspaper in its archives – Jan 5th 1940 to Dec 21st 1945 – to be precise, and I decided to investigate.
Hitchin supported 4 cinemas between 1911 and 1977; all enjoyed their golden years, all failed to sustain growth or adapt to changing times. With the coming of television in the 1950s Hitchin’s population was too small to sustain either The Hermitage or The Regal. The decline in cinema attendance after the war was rapid and nearly terminal, with box office receipts halving by the early 1950s.
A brief look at the buildings before we consider the films…..
The Blake Brothers of Bedford opened Hitchin’s first cinema in March 1911. The Picturedrome on Ickleford Road had one screen, a small orchestra pit and seating for 400 people. It developed quickly to feature boxing matches and live theatre alongside short films. With its grand arches, pillars and embellished bay window it sported features that would come to define cinema style in its 1930s heyday. Despite its popularity The Picturedrome was out competed by The Regal and closed in 1940.
The Playhouse opened next to the Corn Exchange in October 1913 with seating for 750 people. It was owned by Hitchin Amusement Company, made up of 100 local shareholders. In keeping with trends, the walls and ceiling were elaborately decorated. It was very popular but was eventually acquired by the owners of The Hermitage who closed it in 1937.
The Hermitage, which opened in February 1932, was an altogether more ambitious project, ready to showcase a new era in movie making. The Talkies had arrived, films now had more sophisticated ways of telling stories and the Hollywood star system was emerging. The work of builder John Ray and architect Edgar Simmons, The Hermitage was one of England’s best equipped cinemas. It embraced all the latest designs with its Moorish arches, feature windows and fancy brickwork diapering. Diaper patterns are created by making diamond and cross-stitch shapes using contrasting coloured or textured bricks. Above the brick façade were moulded cornices in imitation of Greek temples. These were decorated with dentils or small blocks used as a repeat motif along the edge. On each corner fronting onto Hermitage Road were tall, slender arches. The Hermitage could seat about 1,300 people in stalls and balcony. It had a single screen, a full size orchestra pit and 12 dressing rooms (for use during Christmas pantomimes and variety shows). The foyer space was large and welcoming, with three box offices. On the upper floor was a ‘lounge café’ offering ‘service, comfort, courtesy’. In the days before online booking, queuing was an art. Up to 750 customers could wait for a seat in a purpose built space lining each side of the stalls.
The Hermitage was well patronised and much loved, but fell to the enthusiasm for redevelopment in the 1960s. The value of its central location persuaded its owners to sell up. Hitchin’s post office occupied the site from 1962 until 2014 when it was replaced by retail units.
The Regal Cinema in Bancroft opened in November 1939 with seating for 1055 patrons. Its slick modernist outline was the brainchild of architect Frank Ernest Bromige. Its curved Crittall windows were its signature feature, synonymous with art deco. Crittall windows are characterized by expansive areas of glass offset by elegant horizontal metal frames. There was an impressive square tower to the right side of the frontage which cleverly beckoned towards the town centre. Inside there were stalls and a balcony, the walls were decorated with a wave themed mural; the ceiling was curved to give a feeling of airy space. The proscenium, which housed the screen, was painted blue and green. The eye was led to the screen, buoyed along on the stylized waves which were painted a glowing orange.
There was a spacious lounge area upstairs, generously provided with plush art deco sofas. At the back of the building was a large car-park; patrons could drive to the venue from beyond the town. If all seats were taken, they queued under a covered outside passage, long enough to hold the next full house.
The Regal lost out to The Hermitage after the war. It had no heating, which became more of an issue when there were fewer patrons. It lacked a tea room and restaurant and was a little less central to town. The Regal ended its days showing seedy adult films which brought it to the attention of the vicar of St Mary’s, who disapproved. It closed as a cinema in December 1977 with The Secrets of a Super Stud. When it failed as a music venue, efforts were made to save it as an excellent example of interwar architecture, but they came to nothing. The Regal was demolished in 1985. Flats and a GP surgery now occupy the site.
At all three venues, films were shown continuously between 2pm and 11pm. Prices ranged from 6d (2.5 pence) to 2/6d (12.5 pence).
In the 1940s Hitchin movie fans could drive to their venue of choice, enjoy refreshments, queue in comfort and immerse themselves in a fantasy domain. There was an atrocious war going on beyond these pleasure domes and a great film could be very sustaining in the moment. The whole experience could raise spirits and confirm national values, replacing doubt and anxiety. Now to explore how far these films were up to the task.
Looking through the archive, I was struck by the range and variety of films advertised. The offer was consistently diverting no matter what was happening abroad. There were thrillers, musicals, rom-coms, melodramas and family sagas alongside patriotic documentaries on the progress of the war. Hitchin audiences were among the first to see films that have become classics: The Wizard of Oz (Hermitage June 1940), Rebecca (Hermitage May 1941), Casablanca (Hermitage May 1943). There were plenty of historical films drawing parallels with the unfolding crisis: Lady Hamilton (Hermitage October 1941) being one of the most successful.
Hollywood had some resounding successes with its so called British films. These were set in a Hollywood version of Britain, showcasing the work of British actors, writers, producers and crew but bankrolled by American investors. Of these, Hitchin cinemas screened Jane Eyre (Hermitage June 1944), Mrs Miniver (Regal June 1943), Wuthering Heights (Hermitage January 1940) and National Velvet (Hermitage December 1945). Hitchin audiences most likely loved them, they were expensive to make with high production values. They won Oscars and critical acclaim. A sizeable group of renowned British actors moved to Hollywood during the war years and it must have been reassuring to see their success. Such films confirmed the Special Relationship; they were nostalgic, gently mocking of English eccentricities but celebratory of English history and power in the world. There was also a hard headed motive. As Europe and the Far East fell to the Nazis, American films were banned and industry assets seized. The abundance of British sixpences and shillings made up for the loss of those lucrative markets. It also meant that people in small towns like Hitchin were up to date with the latest cultural debates conducted in a shared language.
Within this mix two key genres emerge: Populism and Film Noir. Hitchin was being wooed with exceptional quality. The films in these groups are regarded by buffs and critics alike as classics of their kind, with brilliant directors and star casts. For Hitchin audiences they were laden with values and dilemmas – concerns that were deeply relevant to a nation at war and later transitioning to peacetime. Here are some examples.
The hero of the Populist classic, Meet John Doe (1941 dir. Frank Capra, Hermitage December 1943) is an American Everyman. He espouses self-help and fair play. In a fair and free society, like the one the allies are fighting for, he will always come out on top. As the story unfolds we see the forces of big business and Fascism defeated by a champion of the little people and his grassroots supporters. Among them is the heroine, a helper figure; protective and trustworthy, her loyalty will be rewarded by marriage to the hero in the final reel.
John Doe does not exist, he is a creation of the heroine, Ann (Barbara Stanwyck). She uses the power of the press to publish a series of open letters in his name. The letters make eloquent appeal for society to pay attention to the needs of disadvantaged people. When powerful forces in the press notice the hold Doe’s ideas have on the nation, they cynically hire a homeless man (Gary Cooper) to pose as ‘the real’ John Doe. He plays along at first, making a series of pro fascist radio broadcasts, but the plot unravels when he realises he is being used.
Doe’s message changes as he finds his citizen’s voice: love one another, defend your freedoms, stand up to the rich and powerful. The film is packed with heart stirring, patriotic speeches. The implicit warning to audiences is that you must be on our guard, don’t take things at face value, demand to know the source of powerful messages or the fate of Germany could be your fate too. There are heart stopping moments in the film when the crowd hovers uncertainly between belief and disbelief, unsure who is telling the truth.
In John Ford’s Young Mr Lincoln (1939 dir. John Ford, Picturedrome and Regal February 1940) audiences are offered another populist leader. This one is a historical figure, pivotal to the articulation of some of America’s most sacred ideas. As the title suggests, the film is about the making of a national leader, one who ensured the country survived the crisis of civil war. There is a deeply affecting mood of memory and loss throughout the film, one that would resonate with a wartime audience. Lincoln stands for the emergent American nation. He is neighbourly, with a simple but profound understanding of right and wrong. The film urges us to honour the dead by striving to fulfil the hopes they had for us. Lincoln, the store keeper and small town lawyer grows in stature because he holds to great values within a small setting, supported by the community. God’s laws show the way forward for families, for small towns everywhere and for nations struggling for survival.
In Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939 dir. Frank Capra Regal, June 1940) our hero is again, a decent, ordinary guy, surrounded by political crooks. This is a world where people are either agents of a corrupt political machine or condone it by remaining silent. It takes just one brave individual backed by a determined few to stop corruption in its tracks. Such a one is our hero, scout master Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) who finds himself elevated to the position of a Washington senator. He is at first ridiculed but finds strength in his small town values and belief in democracy. By his courage and the power of his rhetoric he prevails over corrupt schemes, but only in the film’s final moments. The message is clear: democracy is under threat from without, so must be first made good from within.
Despite their sombre themes and edge-of-the-seat redemptions, Populist films offered Hitchin audiences a sense of the warmth that community can bring and lots of incidental humour. Doe, Lincoln and Smith have something of the Old West about them, they are heirs to that pioneering community, facing up to perils and believing in their destiny. However problematic this is today, Americans believed their nation was built on such values and wanted their allies to agree.
Populist films were screened in the early years of the war. Film Noir appears in 1944 when there are anxieties about the new world that’s coming into focus. Crucially Noir turns its attention to women. In war time women took up new roles while men were away, they assumed responsibility for the family. Some experienced a sexual freedom that came with disruption of social norms. Some of the films screened in Hitchin were already exploring the question of how to manage such women. Now a new screen image was emerging: alluring, sexual, dangerous – a femme fatale. Noir films are dark – aesthetically and morally. They are darkly lit, with sharp chiaroscuro effects. The psychological power play between men and women is dark too. The dialogue must have gripped audiences; it is fast, combative and clever. Women and men are equally matched, gaining pleasure from sparring when the stakes are high. There is a pessimism and uncertainty here, feeding on a collective exhaustion after all the upbeat energy of Populism’s war effort. These films showcase individual desire rather than communal aspiration; the hero figures of Doe, Lincoln and Smith are replaced by women. Noir plots are convoluted, teasing, unresolved; was post war life going to be like this? Or was this all too Hollywood, too remote?
In Double Indemnity (1944 dir. Billy Wilder, Hermitage January 1945) Mrs Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyk) is deeply dissatisfied with her humdrum marriage. The material comforts of her garish California life style would have wowed Hitchin audiences, but affluent America is not safe. Amidst the supermarket shelves, stocked with plenty, Dietrichson plots the murder of her husband, trapping her lover and partner in crime, Walter Neff (Fred McMurray). Film noir is famous for its use of narrative voice over, a privilege that is always give to the male protagonist. Through the voice over Neff seeks to control the viewer’s understanding of Dietrichson, but her screen presence is so strong his narrative is ineffectual. Neff fails to get the indemnity money, due on her husband’s death and fails to secure Dietrichson for himself. The film ends in confession, cynicism and gun shots.
Hitchin audiences would have flocked to Laura (1944 dir. Otto Preminger, Hermitage March 1945) and Woman in the Window (1944 dir. Fritz Lang, Hermitage August 1945). These films are a warning against the emotional and societal chaos that can arise when men’s fantasies are given free reign outside the norms of courtship and family life.
Film Noir plots often take shape around the investigation of a beautiful, independent woman whose behaviour breaks the rules and needs to be reigned in or destroyed. In Laura Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a woman who combines personal glamour with a successful career as a New York advertising executive. McPherson’s search is futile; just when he thinks he’s on the point of a breakthrough, Laura turns up, very much alive after a weekend away. Despite this good outcome the mood continues gloomy because Laura’s effect on every man she meets damages their masculine pride. The world is skewed and the power of Laura’s mesmerising portrait sets off a chain of murders. Laura has no agency within the plot, she is only present courtesy of several male viewpoints which reveal each character’s anxiety and neurosis.
Woman in the Window suggests a portrait frame rather like the painting that wreaks havoc in Laura. The film serves as a warning that obsession with a woman based on the power of her image can lead to a destructive desire. Richard Wanley (Edward G Robinson) is not used to being without his wife, Alice (Joan Bennett) and children. He sees them off on holiday and, lacking the anchorage they provide, he conjures a sexual fantasy woman in a dream. The dream sequence lets him explore an alternative reality filled with sexual excitement and risk. His fantasy life takes him to the brink of suicide. At this crisis point he wakes up, cured of ever longing for such excitement again. Fantasies cannot be sustained and the price for transgression is too high.
Farewell My Lovely (1944 dir. Edward Dmytryk, Regal October 1945) was a landmark film for Hitchin audiences. They could not have known it, but they were among the first to encounter an archetype that would endure on our big and small screens for the next 75 years and counting. Farewell My Lovely starred Dick Powell as private detective Philip Marlowe. The tropes that make this character and that actors – Humphrey Bogart (1946), Robert Mitchum (1975), and Liam Neeson (2023) – have played with unassailable flair, are familiar to us today. We have come to expect every screen cop to be a law enforcer and a rule breaker, a ‘hard boiled’ loner with a messy private life, a giver and taker of impossible beatings, a super smart guy who is first round every corner in the maze that is the plot.
With films like these over the long war years, imagine how people of Hitchin town made their ways home to Walsworth, Benslow and Bearton in their hundreds with so much to talk over on the way.
This Sunday the England Women’s football team take on Spain in the World Cup Final over in Australia. Throughout the history of organised football in Britain, women have struggled for acceptance from certain sectors of society. Our football collection of 1000 objects was assembled between the 1950s and 1970s and once had only one object with a relation to women in football. A cartoon from 1877 titled ‘Football for Ladies’ mocking the very idea of women’s football. Despite such mockery the first high profile women’s match took place in 1895, drawing a crowd of over 10,000.
For a short time, during and after the First World War, women’s football overtook the men’s game in popularity. As male footballers and football fans from up and down the country were called to war, professional football ground to a screeching halt. Women who had taken up positions in factories and other places of work, in aid of the war effort, stepped in to fill the void on the pitch. Teams such as Dick Kerr Ladies emerged from Dick, Kerr & Co of Preston. This famous team of female wartime munitions workers played matches against other newly formed women’s teams to crowds of tens of thousands.
In one of British football’s most controversial moments the Football Association ended the flourishing women’s game with the stroke of a pen. On 5 December 1921, they declared that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. In a cruel move, which many believe was made to protect the financial interests of those involved in the men’s game, the FA banned any affiliated team from hosting a women’s match inside its stadium. This meant that teams who had been achieving roaring crowds of tens of thousands suddenly had nowhere to play but parks and fields. The ban stood for fifty years and still persists in the minds of some people who believe that football is ‘just’ ‘a man’s game’.
The recovery of womens football has gained momentum in the last two decades. Last year our museum collected some representitive shirts and trophies from the Hitchin Belles, a team formed in 1999 which has grown into one of the largest women and girl’s teams in the country. A perfect representitive of the growth of the women’s grassroots game on our very doorstep!
Despite the absolutley momumental fifty year set back “football for ladies” has risen from the ashes to a place where tens of thousands will cheer once again.
Dr Arthur Robert Waddell (1854-1924) and his Australian wife Helena (Dorothy) Henrietta (née White, 1873-1938) lived in a house on the Great North Road called Roseland at Hinxworth, north of Baldock, before moving to Cambridge about 1921. Inspired by Robert Clutterbuck’s (1772-1831) account of Roman discoveries in 1724 at Hinxworth (Clutterbuck was Lord of the Manor there), he set out to see if any more antiquities could be found. The earlier historian Nathaniel Salmon (1675-1742) had described the original finds as ‘some earthen vessels or large urns, full of burnt bones and ashes… a human skeleton… bodies… not above a foot under the surface… and with urns great or small near them, and pateras of fine red earth, some with the impression of the maker on the bottom’. As he was writing just four years after they were found, there is every reason to trust his description, which sound as if they included Bronze Age vessels (‘earthen vessels or large urns, full of burnt bones and ashes’) and Roman samian ware (‘pateras of fine red earth, some with the impression of the maker on the bottom’).
Dr Waddell settled on a disused gravel pit to the east of Newinn, the earlier name of his house Roseland, in the southwestern corner of the parish on the north side of the Cat Ditch. Although we do not have Waddell’s own account of the work he carried out, there is a paper by W Percival Westell (1874-1943) of Letchworth Museum that seems to be based on Waddell’s notes as the style – and some of the conjectures – are quite unlike anything else Westell wrote.
According to the publication, ‘The root of the word “Newinn” is of great antiquity… it is suggested that something sacred can be read into the name of the meadow’. This is patent nonsense (Newinn means exactly what it seems to mean at first sight) and, for all his faults, Westell was not given to such wild conjectures. Indeed, the entire paper is full of strange ideas that are quite foreign to his usually meticulous and down-to-earth accounts. We can probably assume that much of the paper – apart from the catalogue that forms over half of the text – was effectively Waddell’s work.
One of Dr Waddell’s misapprehensions was that the greater the depth, the older the material found. The publication includes a schematic section through the site, which shows ‘No Finds’ 6 inches (0.15 m) below the surface, but ‘3 Roman Cinerary Urns, Jugs, Vases, & Samian Ware’ at 1 foot (0.3 m). There was then a blank zone, followed by ‘Seven Cinerary Urns, Native British Ware, circa 50 AD’ at two feet (0.61 m), with ‘Fragments of Bronze, Iron, & Pottery’ below at two feet six inches (0.76 m). A ‘Bronze Age Food Vessel used as Cinerary Urn’ was recorded at 3 feet (0.91 m), with the skeletal remains at 3 feet 6 inches (1.07 m).
The sequence led Waddell to conclude that the skull that was ‘partly embedding itself in the gravel… [and] lay face downwards’ (unpublished photographs show that in reality, it lay on its left side, next to what was clearly a broken humerus), while he claimed that seven skeletons aligned with their heads to the south were ‘tens of thousands of years old’. He also thought that they ‘had not been buried until the bones were bare of flesh… [and] may have been killed sacrificially, and buried in a spot regarded as sacred’. This is again fanciful. All the indications are that most of the burials – the Bronze Age cremation burial apart – belonged to the Late Iron Age and early Roman periods. The probable cemetery comprised twelve cremation burials and eight inhumation burials in the area investigated.
Unfortunately, if Waddell had kept the pots together as assemblages from individual burials, his notes seem not to have included these details. Westell simply published a list of objects separated into groups according to date and form, assisted by W H Lane and Erik Shimon Applebaum (1911-2008). One of the eight samian vessels – a bi-lobed cup of form Dragendorff 27 – contained ‘ten bone counters having concentric rings’. Five of them are illustrated here. Bi-lobed cups date from the first century AD to the 150s (or possibly later in the Rhineland factories); this one was stamped with the potter’s name Sabinus. As more than ten potters with this name made samian vessels at one time or another, it is impossible to be more precise about the date of the cup, although Westell suggested AD 80-120.
Bone counters are relatively common finds on sites of Roman date. The earliest were made from glass, but bone types began to dominate during the second century. Their decoration varies from plain (but with an indentation from the lathe used to turn them), countersunk on the upper face, with concentric rings on the upper face or with a domed upper face. The plain types are the earliest (from before the Roman Conquest in AD 43 to the first half of the third century), while those with countersunk upper faces are probably second century and later. Grooved types occur throughout the Roman period, while convex upper surfaces are a late feature that continue into early medieval (‘Anglo-Saxon’) types. Some plain forms have traces of Roman numerals and letters.
These counters were probably pieces in a board game. We know of several Roman era board games, including XII scripta or Ludus duodecim scriptorum (‘(game of) twelve markings’) and ludus latrunculorum (’game of robbers’). The first was perhaps like backgammon and involved throwing a die to determine how the pieces moved; each player had fifteen pieces (the ‘markings’ were on the board, in three rows of twelve). The second was a game of strategy in which one player had to trap their opponent’s pieces between two of their own; the trapped piece would be removed, as in draughts.
Latrunculus referred to an individual piece in the ludus latrunculorum, and eventually came to refer to counters in any game. Unfortunately, none of the rules for any of these games has survived: although you can buy reproduction sets today, the rules have all be ‘reconstructed’ (‘made up’ would be a better term!) by scholars in the past century and a half.
There is no consensus about whether board games developed in pre-Roman Britain or if evidence for them before the conquest shows contact with the Classical world (which we know was extensive). Counters often turn up in graves, sometimes just one or two short of a full set, and occasionally there is evidence for a gaming board, often just in the form of hinges. The burial of a mature or older adult dating from about AD 65-80 found at Clothall Road, Baldock, in 1968 had an opened gaming board, interpreted at the time as a ‘folding tray’, but no latrunculi.
Games were not just for children, then. At Stanway, Colchester, a grave found in 1996 contained a gaming board with its glass pieces still almost in place. The game was played over a grid of perhaps twelve by eight squares, with twelve blue pieces lined up along one edge and twelve white along the other. One of the white pieces had moved forward one square, while two of the blue had also moved; one, opposite the moved white counter, had moved on space, while the other had moved two spaces. A thirteenth, smaller white counter lay near the centre of the board, while the thirteenth blue counter sat upside down a square in front of the second blue counter from the left. The grave also contained a set of iron and copper alloy medical instruments forming a basic surgical kit of Romano-British type. The man who owned the game was therefore likely a doctor about the time of the Roman conquest.
Why would a doctor have a game in his grave? There is a further group of objects that we need to take into account. Eight metal rods with cylindrical sections but flattened triangular heads lay next to the board, with three of them resting on it. The excavators thought that the rods – four copper alloy, four iron, so different colours, with two of each type shorter than the others – were part of a divination set. The rods would perhaps be used to ask the gods about the medical intervention: did they approve or not? We think that the prospective patient would grasp the rods and perhaps drop them, like the traditional Chinese I Ching, where the pattern made by fifty yarrow stalks would enable the operator to answer the questioner. Perhaps the patient would take some from the doctor, which may explain why some are shorter, a bit like the method of ‘drawing the short straw’.
Medicine in the ancient world was tied up with religion, as were all aspects of life, something we might today regard as superstition. Although evidence-based medicine had a long tradition, especially in the Greek world of the eastern Mediterranean, it was still under the purview of the gods. People would only many major decisions after consulting oracles. Perhaps the ‘game’ was less of a pastime than part of the doctor’s equipment for asking the gods about what sort of treatment to give their patients and what outcome they might expect.
We have less information about the person whose grave at Newinn contained the ten bone latrunculi. Thanks to what seem to have been fairly chaotic excavation techniques, we do not know if the burial contained a gaming board. It is possible that the ‘fragment of square belt ornament’ and ‘fragment of thin bronze plate’ (Westell though this last might have been part of a shield) could have been elements of one.
What seem to be simple parts of a board game may have had deeper meanings to their user. We will never know anything about the person buried at Newinn: were they a doctor, a priest or simply someone who enjoyed playing the ludus latrunculorum or something like it?
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews