Lee Picture Palace and James Watt, the Catford Builder

I have mentioned the Lee Picture Palace several times in passing, including the later usage of the site and the demolition of the large early 18th century house behind it, Lee Place. However, a comment on the latter post made me think about a specific piece on it.

The Lee Picture Palace opened on 26th April 1910 on the corner of Lee High Road and Bankwell Road, which had been built a few years earlier. Its owner and operator was James Watt, of whom much more later. Initially he didn’t have a Cinematograph licence to operate and was fined, getting the licence a month later.

It had a capacity of 552 and there were both stalls and a small circle.

There is some confusion as to the architect, the London Film Project, implies it was Norfolk & Prior who were also locally responsible for the Park Cinema on Hither Green Lane (Carpet Corner as of February 2015 but with plans to turn into flats) the Electric Picture Palace on Sangley Road and what finally became the ABC in Catford.

Source – London Film Review

However, Cinema Treasures, suggests that it was the renowned cinema and theatre architect E. A. (Edward Albert) Stone. Stone was responsible for a large number of major projects including the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, which after it finished as a cinema became my favourite medium-sized music venue, but was sadly demolished as part of the Cross Rail development; what is now called the O2 Academy Brixton; what became the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park and the Prince Edward Theatre in the West End.

It could be that both were involved though, as it would have been quite early in Stone’s illustrious career and the same combination was certainly used at what became the ABC in Catford.

Little is known about the films shown at the cinema – although pre-opening publicity suggested “Motoring Pictures”– a silent incarnation of Top Gear perhaps? Although, this might be a typesetting error and be the more mundane “moving pictures”.

In 1911 it may have shown British films like A Touch of Nature and A Burglar for One Night, and it would have almost certainly shown some British Pathé News reels such as for the coronation of George V.

While only educated guesses are possible about the films that played to the audiences at the cinema, there would not have been any Sunday showings – Watt was a devout Baptist would not let his cinemas open on a Sunday.

It is known that various sound systems were tried at the cinema including Vivaphone which attempted to synchronise sound and picture.

It was re-named Central Hall Picture Palace on 10th January 1916, a brand used by James Watt across several cinemas. It was requisitioned by the Ministry of Munitions on 5th May 1917 and was converted into a munitions factory. It never re-opened as a cinema, and after World War I ended in 1918, it was converted into retail use.

Later it became a car salesroom, Wittalls – there is a ghost sign for this on the opposite side of Bankwell Road which was covered in an earlier post. It became a caravan salesroom in 1981, which continued until at least 1987, then Penfold’s opened it as a Vauxhall showroom.

Soon after Penfold’s departure (creative commons Ken Roe)

The building was demolished in 2008, and a medical centre with flats above was built on the site – the Zinc Building.

In its latter years at least there was a snooker club above the showroom, amongst its regulars, before it closed down in the early 2000s, was Ian Woodley, who was the first winner of a £1m game show prize on British TV on Chris Evans’ TFI Friday.

While that is as much as seems to be available, on line at least, about the cinema, its owner, James Watt, has perhaps an even more interesting story. Watt was born in Tullynestle, Aberdeenshire, around 1857 but his family moved to Stromness in the Orkneys when he was 3 or 4. James left Orkney and went to London in 1876, he initially joined a firm of builders in the East End, before becoming a foreman to a builder working in Catford and then setting up his own company in the same area.

Initially, he built houses in Brookdale Road, Scrooby Street, Barmeston Road, and Aitkin Road, but then became principal developer of the Forster family’s Sangley Farm estate from 1902. Watt was also one of the main contactors employed by Cameron Corbett, who had bought the North End Farm in 1895 following the opening of Hither Green Station (covered here a few months ago). In total, it has been estimated that his firm may have built up to 5,000 homes around Catford.

Watt lived in the area he was developing – the 1911 census had him at 4 Bromley Road, a substantial 10 room house where he lived with his wife Emily, from Brighton, and three children – the eldest, also James (22) was a ‘builder’s clerk’.

Not only was Watt a builder but he was a pioneer of popular entertainment in the area – Lee Picture Palace was one of many cinemas he owned. He opened his first cinema in 1909 – the Electric in Catford (now retirement flats on Sangley Road), but went onto own around 25 cinemas and ice rinks over the years – mainly in south London, but extending as far as Tottenham, Belvedere and Wandsworth.

Despite its current lack of a mainstream cinema, Lewisham has had dozens in the past – there is an excellent blog on them which maps them and has information on most of them.


11 thoughts on “Lee Picture Palace and James Watt, the Catford Builder

  1. Steve

    Really interesting read – and I think I may end up spending quite a lot of time on the London Film Project site, may inspire a post or two of my own – thanks!

      1. Steve

        I’ve found myself working my way through the Kinematograph Year Books that all seem free to download, a great way to lose a few hours I suspect!

  2. WalkToRio

    I’ve always wanted to enter an abandoned movie theater. There’s one in Seville – As I was writing that I wanted to look for an article on google and it turns out that they removed the sign on January 14th-
    The place was called Sala X, the building was designed by the same architect who designed Plaza de Espana. I wonder what they are gonna build there now, such a shame. Place was a but rundown, closed for the longest time, long before I moved here. But still was well known among local, used a meeting point. everybody knew where Sala X was.
    Here you can see pics of the building and an article, but it’s in Spanish.

  3. Anthony McKay

    E. A .Stone was a partner in “Norfolk and Prior”, Stone didn’t officially break his ties with the firm until June 1938.

    1. runner500 Post author

      Thanks – that’s really interesting. I was planning to update the post at some stage as I have subsequently found a few bits of ‘new’ information on it. Thanks for visiting.

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