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  • Mike Brown

Changing fortunes of the Crofton Park Picture Palace

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

The Crofton Park Picture Palace in 1913. Sketch by Mike Brown.

As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, the new and exciting form of mass entertainment was film or 'moving pictures'.

Crofton Park was relatively late in getting its own cinema. The Crofton Park Picture Palace, which opened in July 1913 at 348 Brockley Road, was the eighteenth cinema to open in Lewisham. Designed by Henley Attwater, it had a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a central ticket booth. Music was provided by an Orchestrion (another new invention of the period, similar to a fairground organ). Crofton Park residents know the building today as the Rivoli ballroom.

At the time of its opening, the cinema seated 525 people but a contemporary report in The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly says that 1500 people attended the first two houses.

At that time, many people believed that the cinema was not ‘respectable ‘ and its audiences (especially the working class, young people, and women of all ages) were in moral danger. So the Brockley News of the day reported that, ‘A special effort is being made to cater for the residents in the vicinity of the hall and it will be found that in framing the programme, this end has been kept in view and that the merely sensational, with the vulgar or the questionable has been scrupulously avoided.’

Among the first films shown were two based on popular 19th century novels, ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and ‘Ivanhoe’, along with ‘Broncho Billy's Grit' and and the first cinema serial, ‘What Happened To Mary’.

Broncho Billy, played by Gilbert M. Anderson. Anderson was a film industry pioneer in the USA.

The Picture Palace did not do well; the year after it opened, its owner went bankrupt. New proprietors came and went in rapid succession. The licence changed hands nine times up until the autumn of 1918, and the cinema often closed for weeks as new owner came and went.

There were several possible reasons for its initial failure. One was that it faced stiff competition: a local rival, the Stanstead Picture Palace, (actually in Wastdale Road), was already thriving. It was bigger and better and trams which, since 1911, ran along the Brockley Road put it in easy reach. In the opposite direction, the Brockley Picture Theatre, which stood next to Brockley railway station, also opened in 1913.

At that time, there was a national campaign to change laws so that shops could open and entertainments and sports could take place on Sundays. Churches and Christian organisations such as the Lord's Day Observance Society opposed reform., and the law was mostly on their side. Sunday showings in cinemas were a key part of the national debate. Cinema owners encouraged public support by giving their Sunday profits to charity. Applications by the Crofton Park Picture Palace for Sunday performances were rejected each year by the London County Council, until 1919. This was in part because the original owners had given a written undertaking to St Hilda’s church that they would never open on the Sabbath. When the Picture Palace's Sunday licence was finally granted , in 1919, the LCC said that only one objection had been received, and that too late.

The cinema’s fortunes did not improve, however. In 1922, the LCC noted that, following its inspector's visit, ‘No satisfactory progress has been made with the defects reported -- the seating was in a dilapidated condition and the hall was not kept in a cleanly state – the licensee had only recently been fined for evading the entertainment tax and was considerably in arrears with payments to charity from Sunday entertainments.' The council decided, 'That the LCC would re-licence for three months only. They would only consider renewal if the licence was transferred to a new, responsible person, unconnected with the present management.’

Improvements were made and audiences increased -- the hall was extended in the 1920s, and ‘talking pictures’ arrived in 1929.

In 1929, the cinema was renamed the Rivoli and in the 1930s, it was remodelled to give it a more angular, art deco style. Elsewhere, bigger and better cinemas were becoming the norm as the Odeon and Granada chains created Modernist dream palaces.

Nevertheless, the Crofton Park Rivoli survived as the local ‘flea pit’, as smaller and more basic picture houses were often called. Spike Milligan, who lived locally when he was a child, was a regular visitor. In later life, he occasionally referred to it in his performances and writings.

The cinema ran a Saturday morning programme for children. At other times, if you were under the age of 14, you had to be accompanied by an adult. Leslie McCombie, who grew up in Crofton Park, remembers how children would wait around the entrance, asking adults to take them in.

In the 1950s, television replaced cinema as the most popular form of mass entertainment. The Rivoli Cinema continued until March 1957; its last programme was 'The Nat King Cole Story', starring the famous American singer, and ‘Reach For The Sky’, starring Kenneth More and Muriel Pavlow.

The Rivoli then closed for two years and, like many such cinemas, reopened as a dance hall. The refurbishment was exceptionally lavish, creating the extraordinary kitsch interior featuring yards of red velvet and the spectacular Chinese-style lanterns we know today. A sprung Canadian maple floor was laid, making it popular and famous with dancers around the world.

Since that time, and up to the present pandemic, the Rivoli has hosted community events, regular dance nights and occasional film shows. One of the joys of living in Crofton Park is spotting the Rivoli interior in various music videos, films, and television dramas.

The exterior today. The centre section shows traces of the swag design that was a feature of the original. The pediment at the top of the building has been removed and the curved sections at the sides have been altered -- possibly in the 1930s art deco style remodelling.

Find out more about the early days of cinemas in Lewisham in ‘Two Sixpennies, Please’, by Ken George, published by Lewisham Local History Society.

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