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Archaeology InSites

The Hippodrome Cinema, Bo'Ness, Falkirk

Birth of a New Technology

Imagine a world with no social media, internet, television, cinema or even radio. Take away all our mass media and life wound be very different. Cinema was the first of these new technologies to sweep the world, ushering in the dawn of modern mass culture. The water cooler moment had been born, before the invention of the water cooler!

If we think about cinema in Scotland then Bo’ness may not be one of the first places to come to mind. However, it was an early hotbed of activity. The Early Cinemas in Scotland Research Project identified one cinema venue in nearby Linlithgow, one in Queensferry, two in Grangemouth and seven in Bo’ness - the same number as found in the far larger town of Dunfermline; and well ahead of Stirling, which had four.

The first film show in Bo’ness took place in the Drill Hall on 27th December 1897. It was later joined by the Town Hall as a venue, following the latter’s opening in 1904. Neither were dedicated cinemas, as they hosted a range of activities and entertainments.

In 1909, the Edinburgh cineaste, Louis Dickson, took over the Drill Hall, partly as a place to show his own films of local events. He renamed it the Picture Palace. The following year, a hall in the town centre was converted into the Electric Theatre, with a capacity of 400 people. The gauntlet had been thrown down to Dickson who responded by taking things to a new level: a purpose built cinema. Thus was born the Hippodrome, taking its name from the greatest stadium in Constantinople, home to horse and chariot racing.

The chosen architect was Matthew Steele. Born in Bo’ness but trained in Glasgow, Steele had returned to Bo’ness in 1905, setting up in independent practice. He was immediately successful, with a busy order book right through to the start of the First World War. His work included houses, shops, offices and the like; and masonic lodge was the closest that he had come to an entertainment venue, so a cinema was a new challenge. Drawings were submitted in 1911 and the building opened on 11 March 1912 with a capacity of over 700.

Decline, Fall, and Rebirth

Over the years the cinema was adapted a number of times. The roof was raised in 1926, while toilets and a fire escape were added in the ‘30s. In 1947, now part of the Caledonian Associated Cinemas chain, it was refurbished and the orchestra pit (a hangover from silent days) was removed. From here the trajectory was downwards. In the 1970s it was converted to use as a bingo hall and by the early ‘80s it had closed.

The building came into the care of the Bo’ness Heritage Trust in 1991 and ideas were sought for its future. The Trust proposed conversion into a museum of communication and cinema. The Scottish Railway Preservation Trust saw it as a possible site for a railway museum. In 1995 planning permission was sought to change it into a youth and arts centre. No progress had been made when the Bo’ness Heritage Trust wound up in 1997, with the building being transferred to the youth charity: ‘Without Fears Trust’, assisted by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust.

Over the next few years a series of feasibility studies were carried out, and funding applications were put together: attempts were made to find a balance of sports and leisure, maybe involving a fitness centre, a children’s play area and a café, that would lead to a sustainable future for the building. It was a long and painful process and all the while the Hippodrome continued to deteriorate. Calls started to be made amongst local people to demolish it and start afresh with the site.

The breakthrough came in 2004: Falkirk Council took over day-to-day responsibility for the building and listed it as one of five priority sites for restoration within the Bo’ness Townscape Heritage initiative. In the same year, it was listed at Category-A by Historic Scotland.

Thanks to the support of the Local Authority, and the continued work of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, and after many ideas had been tried and discarded, the Hippodrome reopened as a cinema with a screening of Mamma Mia on 9 April 2009.

Under the continued stewardship of the Local Authority, the Hippodrome continues to thrive. It is the cinema of choice for many people, not just in Bo’ness but in neighbouring towns such as Linlithgow and Queensferry. Every year it goes back to its roots, celebrating its status as Scotland’s oldest surviving purpose built cinema, with a festival of silent film.

To return to Matthew Steele: he continued to work in Bo’ness until his death at the age of 59 in 1937. The first decade of the current century saw a flowering of interest in him and his architecture. Many of his buildings were listed, or had their category raised, and a biography was published by the Royal Incorporation of Architects. What to put on the cover? The Hippodrome, of course.
Alex Adamson, Deputy Head of Survey and Recording (Data Management)
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