Page updated 10th October 2017
Also see History of the Cinema in Exeter
However, Exeter did once have a hall that could fulfill this function - Victoria Hall in Queen's Street. In December 1868, the Chamber of Commerce, were preparing to host a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, requiring a hall with seating for 2,000 people.
To this end, a company was formed and shares were issued for £5 each to raise the £7,000 cost of constructing a new hall. Designed by Mr C J Phipps of London and built by Mr Diment, the building consisted of the main hall 35 meters long by 20 metres wide. The front of the building, the Upper Hall consisting of a lecture hall with a capacity of 400, committee room and sale room, was built several years later. There was also a cellar that was used as a bonded store.
In 1880, an air-driven concert organ, built by Willis was installed in an organ gallery, at a cost of £2,000. Five years later the circular auditorium was converted for use by travelling circuses.
The building was capable of hosting a variety of events; in 1885, Wilson's Great World Circus commenced a six week engagement at the hall, complete with a 41ft diameter ring. Apart from public entertainment, the building was used for trade union meetings and as a drill hall for the 1st Devonshire Rifle Volunteers.
Magic lantern shows were popular in Victorian times and it is probable that the hall would have been used for such presentations. Poole's Myriorama and West's Animated Pictures, were travelling shows that consisted of backlit dioramas with scenes that moved between rollers.
The first moving film shown in Exeter was at the Victoria Hall in October 1896, when Mr John D Ablett showed his new moving pictures for three nights. It was only in the previous February that moving pictures were first shown in London by the Lumière brothers. The Exeter Evening Post wrote:
"Twelve scenes were shown, the most successful artistically being undoubtedly that of breaking of incoming waves.... The series which met with the heartiest reception, however, was that depicting the finish of this year’s Derby."
These films had been supplied by R W Paul and Birt Acres, two British pioneers of film - they were shown all over the country and proved to be a sensation.
Poole's Myriorama, by now showing moving film shows, included the Victoria Hall in their circuit, and would be booked for up to a month. The Boer War saw the interest in moving film increased when in December 1899 the Exeter Evening Post wrote:
“Splendid show of ANIMATED PHOTOGRAPHS descriptive of the life work in the Navy in the Briton v. Boer War”
This first film show was quickly followed In September 1898, by Hancock’s Electrical BIOGRAPH of ‘LIVING PICTURES’ when they visited Exeter with their own film show in a fairground trailer. They continued to visit Exeter with their film shows until around about 1908 when cinemas became more established.
The Boar War continued to be a perfect opportunity to show the public film of their soldiers in South Africa. In April 1900, the Victoria Hall had a show of fifty films.
Intense interest is, of course, just now centred in the Army and Navy, and, consequently, the entertainment which is to be given at the Victoria Hall nightly during the present week—particulars of which will be found in our advertising columns—will doubtless, be extremely popular. No fewer than fifty pictures are to be shown nightly by means of the cinematograph, and many of them will illustrate events which have recently taken place In South Africa.
There were two attempts in 1901 to show films with sound at the Victoria Hall, but the system proved to be unpopular, probably because the hall was too large for the sound equipment at the time and couldn't be heard by most of the audience.
The hall did not convert completely to film, and it continued to hold other events, including the Indian Exhibition of 1908 and skating in 1910. From 1910, West's Animated Pictures opened as the Victoria Hall Picture Palace.
On 6 October 1919 disaster struck when the Victoria Hall caught fire.
The fire was discovered by a night watchman at Queens Street Station (Central Station) and at 5:10am Superintendent Pett at the fire service took the call at the Fire Station (now the Old Fire House) in New North Road. When they arrived flames and sparks were leaping from the roof, illuminating the whole area. Units from St Thomas, Heavitree, Exwick, Whipton and Wonford, along with a railway unit were also summoned to help. The heat broke every window and seared the painted surfaces in the window sashes in the side of the Rougemont Hotel that faced the hall. The fire crews had to direct water jets at the eaves of the roof to prevent it catching fire. The Express & Echo reported the fire in detail in the first edition, the same day. They reported that the concert organ was also lost thus:
The grand organ, built about thirty years ago by Willis at a cost of about £2,000, and the organ gallery burst like tinder. When the conflagration was at its height, Supt. Pett and the members of the Brigade who were on the adjoining roofs were startled by hearing notes on the organ. As the sounds which seemed like a scale passage being run by a skilful player, fell upon their ears, they thought there must be somebody manipulating the keyboard. They quickly satisfied themselves that was not the case. Some wag on the roof suggested that the grand old instrument, on which Guilmant once played was giving out "The Last Chord". The explanation, of course, was the heat had forced a volume of air through the pipes, and set them speaking. Supt. Pett described the incident as one of the most amusing of his fire experience."
The cellars below the hall were used as a bonded store and a large quantity of wines and spirits had to be removed and placed in a safe place. The hall was also used as an early cinema in Exeter:
"A curious coincidence was that one of the cinema posters which was intact outside the hall this morning bore the words "Flames" in large letters, and contained a picture illustrating an episode in a cinema story of the rescue of the heroine from a burning building."
Damage was estimated at £6,000 of which, £2,000 was the value of the organ. The irony was that the architect of the Victoria Hall, Mr C J Phipps, was also responsible for designing the old Theatre Royal, that burnt down in 1887, with the loss of 186 lives – never did an architect's reputation get such a battering.
Discussions were held to rebuild the hall, when Mr Harold Rowe invited shareholders to the Mayors Parlour on the 18th November 1919. It was agreed to go ahead at a projected cost of £25,000, and by 1921 plans had been drawn up by Mr S Clough, a London architect. Soon after, a meeting was held in which it was agreed to abandon the project. The site was redeveloped for Harold Rowe's firm of Rowe Bros and Co., ironmongers, who would evolve into a builders merchants.
As a result of the decision, part of the Higher Market was converted into a temporary public hall which was used throughout the war years and up to 1970. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac appeared at the Higher Market Hall. Now, the hall is part of Exeter College.
Source: Kelly's and other directories, Express & Echo and Two Thousand Years in Exeter by W G Hoskins, the Bill Douglas Centre website. © 2005 David Cornforth - not to be used without permission
A card for Gospel Services at the Victoria Hall. It shows the main hall whcich was multi-purpose in design.
The Victoria Hall was replaced by Rowe Brothers, a builders merchants. The main hall was at the rear of Angels the building to the left of the College.
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