The people of Dundee liked going to the pictures. According to Jack Searle’s book “The Big Picture: Cinemas of Dundee” at one point there was a cinema for every 6400 people in the city. Compare this to 1 per 8200 in Glasgow. Some readers might remember the Green’s Playhouse (now the bingo on the Nethergate), the Kinnaird Hall on Bank Street, or the Empire Theatre on Rosebank Street. The Empire closed in 1957 after a fire. And it seems fires in cinemas was quite a common thing. If you think about it this makes sense.
Cinemas contained a lot of machinery, lights, curtains, plush fittings and lots of space for fire to spread. Like theatres before them, cinemas were prone to fire and therefore quite dangerous. Before the smoking ban, cigarettes were often the cause of these fires in theatres and cinemas. But in the early days of cinematographs the danger was from the projection equipment and the high flammable films.
Its thought that the first movie picture show in Dundee took place in 1896 at the People’s Palace in the Nethergate. It was a film of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee procession. This was the start of something big. Films were shown in existing theatres, moveable trailers and shop units known as “penny gaffs”. Before long purpose built cinemas sprang up all over town. We’re not sure what the first one was, but this may have been the Wellington Cinema in Wellington Street in 1906. This new technology was wowing the public and there was a high demand for moving picture shows. It was also drawing the attention of the authorities.
In 1906 there was no Central Government control on cinemas. They were so new that they hadn’t got round to it. But Dundee was ahead of the game. In 1906 the Firemaster made a report to the police committee. So worried was he about the danger of this new craze that he urged the council put restrictions on any theatre that showed cinematograph films. He asked that all equipment was placed in a fire proof box and that a member of the fire brigade be present during each show (this was already compulsory for stage shows). What caused the Firemaster to bring up these concerns is unknown. There were no reported fires caused by cinema equipment in Dundee. Perhaps the impetus came from further afield. There were certainly hundreds of reports fires in cinemas in America.
The first theatre that was made to obey this new order by the council was HM Theatre on 11th July 1906. They were told to use a fireproof box for cinematographic apparatus before they would get a new theatre licence.
Unfortunately the number of fires in cinemas is not recorded before 1909. In that year the Firemaster recorded in his annual report that there was 1 fire in a theatre caused by cinematograph. There were 3 in 1911. None were recorded in 1914 and 1915. His reports also gives us an idea of home many film showings there may have been. As part of his recommendations in 1906, a fireman had to be present at cinemas during performances, just as they were at theatres. In 1905 the department put in a total of 946 of these shifts. By 1908 this had more than doubled to 2009. This amazingly reached a peak of 6246 in 1912. The sheer amount must have been down to all of the new cinemas being built in the city. The Fire Department even had to employee two more staff to deal with increased demand.
The rest of the country caught up in 1909 with the passing of the Cinematograph Act. This made it a legal requirement to get a license before you could show films in any public place in the country. Unfortunately there is no register of these early licences, but the names of the first cinemas registered appear in the Council minute books.