Redeveloping the Mill Road Playhouse Cinema

A prominent building in Petersfield, it had its heart ripped out to make way for Cambridge’s first (and short-lived) supermarket in the 1960s.

I still think this was one of the greatest town buildings in Cambridge and it was a scandal that the facade got demolished. And for what?

Above The Playhouse on Mill Road, from the Cambridgeshire Collection via Mill Road History Society
…and the same site in 2015 from the Mill Road History Society.
The story of the Mill Road Playhouse

It has been written up in detail by the Mill Road History Society here, or more precisely by Ian Bent and Kieran Perkins. It’s worth reading to get a feel of what was happening in and around Mill Road at the turn of the 19th/20th Centuries. I’ll refrain from repeating what they’ve said, suffice to say that it’s easy to forget just how quickly new technologies came on stream and then were quickly made obsolete only a matter of decades later – resulting in some rapid changes in civic and municipal infrastructure, as well as social and cultural habits. Strange to think that for a few decades in the 20th Century people would go to the cinema to watch ‘the news’, with video footage of events happening all over the world.

The planning profession’s assessment

The heritage assessment by Cotswold Archaeology is also an interesting read here. Because this is a building of local interest and in a Conservation Area, developers have to commission assessments like this. Details of Mill Road’s Conservation Area can be found here.

The heritage assessment is in support of a new planning application (See here) which unfortunately will not restore the old facade. A shame, but inevitable in an era of maximum profit, minimum cost construction.

Above – from the proposals by the Bampton Property Group.

Local cinema opens just before war breaks out, and bans children in 1918 due to the Influenza Epidemic

Sods law really. Spending all of that money and then being forced to bar a captive audience of people most likely to take to this new technology.

From the British Newspaper Archive, Cambridge Daily News 25 Oct 1918:
“Notice – Owing to the Influenza Epidemic, Children will Not be Admitted until further notice, and No Matinee will be held on Saturday Afternoons.

Many places of entertainment had to turn away children because that particular strain of the flu was particularly prevalent in the young and healthy – and killed more people than those killed in the First World War. I wrote about how Cambridge was affected by that pandemic in this blogpost. That article was uploaded just as the UK went into its first lockdown in the present Corona Virus Pandemic – a reminder that collectively we had been through such a pandemic and collectively we will get through this one too.

“So what closed the Playhouse?”

A new tax.

Above – from Cambridge Daily News 23 Nov 1956 – the impact of the Cinemas Entertainment Duty payable to the Exchequer (central government) became too much for both the Tivoli on Chesterton Road as well as the Playhouse.

Below – the Tivoli in Chesterton in the Cambridge Chronicle, from the Cambridgeshire Collection, 25 March 1925.

Such was the impact of the duty that questions were asked in Parliament about the revenue raised and the number of cinemas closed – one exchange between MPs and ministers estimating the number at over 200. Whether that was the full story is not quite clear – recall that the Coronation led to a surge in the purchase of new television sets. Furthermore, slum clearances in Cambridge’s central districts meant that a number of neighbourhoods that would otherwise have had residents going to the Playhouse were moved out to new housing estates on the edge of town, making it more difficult to get to and from the venue.

A building with its heart ripped out.
Above – the old Playhouse half-demolished – photo from the Museum of Cambridge’s Archive.

Not many people know this, but it was one of the photographs that got me interested in local history for the first time. I wanted to know how it was that such a magnificent building could have been turned into such an ugly shell of a place without inciting some sort of backlash. It was an historical thread that I started pulling on…and am still pulling on it to be fair, as more and more people, events, institutions, and buildings emerge from the dust of history.


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