The Empire Cinema – A Sandwich jewel

Town Councillor Colin Wiles has taken on the task of writing a history of The Empire Cinema.


CommunityAd Exclusive - The Empire Cinema – A Sandwich jewelThe first cinema in Sandwich was at the rear of what is now The New Inn, but the cinema on the present site appears to have been built in around 1913 as a single storey building. The land was previously owned by the East Kent Brewery and was a malt house. The adjacent Malt Shovel House (on the right in the black and white image above) reveals some of its brewing history.

At that time it was called the Sandwich Electric Empire Picture Theatre and featured a pianist called Dolly Morrison who accompanied the silent films. Marjorie Goodman bought the cinema in 1936 for £1,500 and decided to rebuild it. The New Empire Cinema, which still stands on the site, was designed by Alfred and Vincent Burr, who also designed parts of Australia House in London, Brixton Market and The Odeon in Canterbury, which became the Marlowe Theatre. The cinema was built by Messrs GH Denne of Deal using a steel frame with brick infill. It held 600 people. Marjorie’s husband Sydney became the manager and the opening ceremony took place on Saturday 26th June 1937 where Mr Goodman promised to provide “entertainment equal to anything in the country”. The opening film was “Trust the Navy” with Lupino Lane. In the 1950s the Empire was acquired by Southern Cinemas Ltd and was bought by Sandwich Borough Council in December 1962 for £5,000 with the Borough Surveyor taking on the role of manager.

Over the years a number of lessees have taken on the building. Films stopped in 1971 and bingo and snooker took over. In the early 80s the auditorium was divided into the two spaces we know today – a 140 seat cinema in the gallery and a lounge below with a maple dance floor, leaving a “secret room” behind the screen and above the lounge. This partition was, in my view, an act of vandalism that destroyed many original features but such destruction was a feature of the times. Who remembers the demolition of the wonderful Odeon cinema in Ramsgate?

Films returned in 1993 when the upstairs cinema was leased to Linton Culver who took on the entire building in 1995. Linton is still going strong showing films seven days a week with matinees on Wednesdays and at weekends and regular specialist films being shown in the lounge.

The cinema is owned by The Toll Bridge Fund which is under the control of Sandwich Town Council. It is a unique building and, as a town councillor, I would like to secure the future of the cinema so that it is still in use a hundred years from now. That will need investment to bring it up to date. A Facebook Friends of The Empire exists and I would urge you to join. Also, if anyone has any memories of the cinema from any period over the last ninety years I would love to hear from you! Write to me at [email protected].

My thanks to Linton Culver and Ian Carter-Chapman for their help in writing this article.


Town Councillor Colin Wiles

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