Leeds Heritage Theatres – where every seat tells a story. Find out more about how you can name a seat at one of our venues.

A logbook from Hyde Park Picture House reading 'A beautiful day. Brilliant sunshine all day.' Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service

When the lights stayed on at The Picture House

Looking back at the history of Hyde Park Picture House, it has been woven into the fabric of Leeds’ most affecting memories. None, perhaps, more affecting than the moments that war almost brought our community to its knees. So we’re taking a look at The Picture House’s history of perseverance and hope during times of war.

Written by Aaron Cawood

The eve of war

In 1914, Hyde Park Picture House opened its doors. Having been the Brudenell Road Social and Recreation Club since 1908, the whole space was uprooted and redesigned from the ground floor up, blazing a space for a new cinema that could keep up with modern standards – especially in light of the 1909 Cinematographic Act, which brought with it a series of further fire precautions and, thus, the birth of picture houses.

We arrive at the part of the story that would, for a while, be crucial to the ways Hyde Park Picture House became a literal cornerstone for a community in crisis. Informed by logbooks from the time, this is the story of a cinema born into a war.

A black and white image of Hyde Park Corner, 1915.

Hyde Park Corner, 1915. Credit: Leodis

Page from the Picture House’s historic log-books, showing the cinema’s first day of takings on 2nd November 1914.

Page from the Picture House’s historic log-books, showing the cinema’s first day of takings on 2nd November 1914. Credit West Yorkshire Archive Service

The programme and attendance of The Picture House’s early days reflected the times. Black and white patriotic films were the order of the day, in an attempt to continue a national effort to raise morale.

At the time, spoof and comedy movies like Lt. Pimple and the Stolen Submarine (which told the imagined story of a lieutenant riffing on the naval tensions between Britain and Germany) and Sea Dreams (in which cartoonist Lancelot Speed used his art to make fun of German naval officers) brought audiences across the country to seats for short and silent relief from the ongoing war. Along the timeline of cinema, this was a form of media still in its inception, and suddenly artists and audiences alike saw war informing the stories being told, and how we were to tell them.

And it didn’t end with comedy. Among The Picture House’s earliest showings were screenings of An Englishman’s Home, which told the story of home invasion by enemy agents, in an attempt to boost recruitment.

When Hyde Park Picture House opened in 1914, it wore warnings such as ‘soldiers and children barred – influenza epidemic’ – like the films being shown, there was no way for the cinema to escape the world outside its doors.

Business as usual

After a period of calm, WWII began to loom on the horizon. And with it, the community saw The Picture House be used for more than just war movies.

In March 1939, just six months before the war would begin, Hyde Park Picture House was home to an armed forces recruitment talk. Beneath the clouds of an incoming storm, visitors were urged to join the army and prepare to fight before conscription would become mandatory.

When WWII began, Hyde Park Picture House closed for only twelve days, after some backtracking on a previous mandate from the government.

Because of the ongoing documentation of life at The Picture House before its eventual (and thankfully, temporary) closure in 1958, we have a startlingly clear and frank insight into how operations went throughout WWII. Though air raids and safety precautions throughout the city were commonplace, it would take more than that to stop Hyde Park Picture House from bringing stories and escapism to the streets of Leeds.

Through the logbooks, we see flashes of war on briefly interrupting day-to-day life. Noted unremarkably alongside the weather, we see details of the sirens and gunfire that could not bring The Picture House to close its doors.

Logbooks reading 'Gunfire and Sirens at 8.15' and 'Siren at 10.35'

Logbooks from Hyde Park Picture House, 1940-41. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service

Logbooks reading 'Siren 7.25, clear 7.40' and 'A beautiful day. Brilliant sunshine all day.'

Logbooks from Hyde Park Picture House, 1940-41. Credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service

13 August 1940 – Siren at 10.35

12 December 1940 – Gunfire and sirens at 8.15 showing Bill of Divorcement

22 March 1941 – Siren 7.25, clear 7.40

3 April 1941 – Siren 9.30

7 April 1941 – Siren 9.45

The war became an unfortunate and unavoidable fact of life for patrons and staff at The Picture House. But their overwhelming sense of perseverance and optimism is perhaps no better reflected than in an entry from 31 May 1914, reading simply:

‘A beautiful day. Brilliant sunshine all day.’

Beautiful days would remain on the horizon, leading up until 8 May 1945, when VE Day was marked in those same logbooks, alongside the weather; business, as always, as usual.

Find out more about the history of Hyde Park Picture House.