IN the days when there was a shop on every corner and a pub in every street, every community had its own cinema. There were so common, they were barely chronicled.

Following the article on coalfield cinemas (Memories 411), Brian Carter, of the Evenwood, Ramshaw & District History Society, has kindly sent in what is known of the Empire Cinema in Evenwood.

Despite its grand name, it was a corrugated iron building with a balcony and a wooden floor that was good for drumming one’s feet on when the film snapped, as it often did.

It opened in 1913 as a makeshift musichall, but as the cinema craze took off, it converted to showing films – silent at first, but gradually adapting to all the technological changes until it was able to show National Velvet, a 1944 film about a horse, in glorious technicolour. The villagers complained that the grass was too green and the sky too blue, and they probably drummed their feet on the floor.

But in the days before television, they loved their Empire. People would sit in the same seat every week, when Walter Bowman drew back the curtains to reveal the screen at the start of the film, he would get a round of applause, and there would be a community atmosphere – when the Indians came over the hill, everyone would be up and hollering.

The Empire stopped showing films in the early 1960s, and brothers Jim and Ralph Etherington converted it in to the pioneering Jira Club. It was one of the first discotheques in the area but, more importantly, every Friday night was Beat night, when local Beat groups like The Sapphires, The Styx, The Tricity Clan and Leil and the Solitaires, all performed.

Perhaps the biggest of the Jira’s bands were The Gringos, who really were Witton Park’s answer to The Beatles.

The Jira brothers’ biggest night, though, was probably July 31, 1964, when they put on a “three-hour Beat ball” on the Scout Field at Shildon with ever pop pickers’ favourites, The Searchers, topping the bill. Thousands of people saw them, although most of them climbed over the fence without paying.

We think the Jira Club faded out in the 1970s, and the corrugated shed lasted into the 1980s. Now the Lyons Court care home is on its site and Evenwood’s silver screen days are no more.

THE Evenwood Empire is on the list of “picture houses” that Richard Wardrobe remembers visiting in his youth in the 1950s in the area.

The others are:

The Kino, Butterknowle

It was on the site of the Black Diamond Pit, which was halfway up Diamond Bank (which is also known as The Slack). The pit opened in the 1840s when the Haggerleases branchline came creeping around the side of Cockfield Fell.

The Kino was next to the pit engine house, which still stands, and was in a miners’ hall. We think much of the Kino is now a corrugated-roofed warehouse.

The Crown, Cockfield

It was built in 1908 as a Temperance Hall. For some reason, this concept failed to catch on in Cockfield, and in 1912, Thomas Finlay bought the hall and converted it into a variety theatre and cinema.

The first films, on a hand-cranked projector, were silent, and a young female pianist was employed to play along. She ended up marrying Mr Finlay, and ruled the place with a rod of iron – stories of the old cinemas often concern rowdy behaviour and sneaking in a fire exit without paying, but Mrs Finlay had none of that and would ban offenders.

The Crown was later run by Keith McDermid, who also managed the Kino.

The last film was shown on November 10, 1962. The venue was expected to become The Crown Tombola and Social Club, for bingo-players, but instead opened in 1964 as The Crown Garage, which is how it makes a living today.

The Grand, West Auckland

About which we know very little. “It was replaced by an old people’s home which itself has recently been demolished and is being replaced by housing,” says Richard.

If you can tell us anymore about any of these cinemas, or can point us to a coalfield cinema we have overlooked, please email

JAMES MADGIN writes to pull us up on the Palace Cinema in Durham City. To recap, the Palace opened in a former carpet factory dyehouse in Walkergate in 1909. It was originally a variety theatre but soon converted to films, later becoming the Royal cinema – although it there wasn’t a lot regal about it as it may have been infested with fleas.

It closed in the late 1950s, and the only picture we have of it suggests it was a great three storey building.

“It was very much smaller,” says James. “I knew it well, and from the inside it was obvious that it was a former theatre. I recall slender pillars at each side of the stage, which, of course then housed the screen. Next to them, on either side and high up, were the ‘royal boxes’ for the richer theatre clients.”