Our Patch 4
The Duke of Yorks.
The ‘Duke of York’s cinema is situated at Preston Circus, Brighton. It is the oldest cinema still in continuous service in Britain, a wonderful record. In 2012 the cinema was voted the best cinema in the UK.
The ‘Duke of York’s cinema was built and completed in 1910. It opened on the 22nd September 1910 and was one of Brighton’s first ‘picture houses. It cost £3,000 by the actress-manager Violet Melnotte-Wyatt and her husband, the comic actor, Frank Wyatt.
The Duke of York’s cinema was built on the site of the Amber Brewery. The walls of which still form the rear part of the auditorium. The architects were Clayton and Black. The building largely remains unaltered, it even retains one of its boxes in the balcony area. The original colour scheme was red and cream.
It was always a quality cinema and built for the more discerning patron; its marketing tag-line for many years was ‘Bring her to the Dukes, it is fit for a duchess.’ The name came from a West End Theatre, which its first proprietor was Mrs. Melnotte-Wyatt was also associated with. Being slightly out of the town centre, The Duke catered for its local audience and this has always been its saving grace. While other cinemas in Brighton came and went the good old Dukes has remained in continuous operation.
The cinema has operated as an Arts cinema since 1981 and has passed through several owners and has also hosted a number of illegal punk-rock concerts. The cinema was in a shabby state when it was purchased in 1994 by Picturehouse Cinemas but they have invested in the building and spent many thousands of pounds but have managed to bring it back to its former glory now.
It houses just one screen and has a total of some 278 seats which include a luxury balcony. When it was first built it seated 800 people but a number of modifications over many years having been made to the inside of the original building so as to create a café/bar upstairs, a concession space downstairs, which all allows for much greater comfort.
Now here, in 2015 it is wonderful that the Duke of York’s cinema is still going and at times attracting large crowds, considering that the names of some of the best cinemas in Brighton and Hove are now gone, the history of the City gone forever.
Violet Melnotte was born on (2nd May 1855 – 17th September 1935) and she was 80 years old at her death. She was a stage performer, as well as being an actress-manager and theatre owner during the late 19th century and early 20th century. She was the wife of Gilbert and Sullivan performer Frank Wyatt, whom she met when they both appeared in the hit operetta ‘Erminie.’
Melnotte performed in comic opera and a number of pantomimes in London and the provinces before she ventured into theatre management in 1885.After this, she continued to perform while she managed several West End theatres. She and her husband built the Duke of York’s theatre in 1892. She owned this theatre for four decades. In 1910 she built the Duke of York’s Picture House in Brighton, a real ‘state-of-the-art’ facility.
Violet was born in Birmingham on the 2nd May 1855 as Emma Solomon, the daughter of Henry Solomon (born 1831) a general dealer and later a traveller in jewellery, and his wife Ellen Solomon nee Coley, In 1872 she married Thomas Hopkins in Birmingham and they had a daughter, Ellen ‘Nellie’ who was born in 1876. Emma was then 21 years of age.
Melnotte made her professional debut in a pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Hull in the mid 1870’s. She made her London debut in October in 1876 as Fezz in ‘Bluebeard’ at the Folly theatre. In early 1877 Melnotte appeared as a tittlebat-fisher in Richard Doyle Carte’s operetta Happy Hampstead at the Royal Theatre.
She appeared in many operettas after that for many years while still managing a number of theatres and bringing up her daughter.
In 1886 she married her second husband, the comic operetta actor, Frank Wyatt. However,
Her and her husband Frank built several theatres in London including the Duke of York’s theatre in London and she managed the Toole’s theatre and the Royalty theatre, both in London.
The Duke of York’s theatre opened on the 10th September 1892 as the Trafalgar Square Theatre with the show, ’Wedding Eve,’ and Violet retained the ownership of this theatre until her death in 1935. The name of the theatre was changed in 1894 to the Duke of York’s in honour of King George V.
Frank Wyatt sadly died on the 5th October 1926and she was once again, on her own and rather sad. During her last years she became interested in Archibald Patrick Moore, he was the general manager at the Duke of York’s theatre. At his time he was 31 years of age, while Violet was 79 years old. However, age aside they became engaged to be married. There was such a public uproar over the differences of the ages and so she strongly considered adopting him instead. The idea all the time was so that Archibald would inherit the theatre on her death. At the time all her children had pre-deceased her and there was nobody left who she wanted for her theatre. Eventually neither the marriage or adoption took place. There is no information as to what happened to the ownership of the theatre.
Frank Wyatt was born Francis Nevill Gunning in Greenwich, London. He was the son of Thomas Wyatt Gunning (1813-1884) who was a barrister and Lucy Latour nee Jenkins (1819-1858 7th November 1852 and died on the 5th October 1926. He was christened on 29th December 1852 at St. Alfege church in Greenwich. During his marriage to Violet Melnotte, they had a son, Nevill Francis Gunning Wyatt (1890-1933.) and a daughter Rita Dagmar Wyatt, who was born in 1891. (I can’t find any further information on him.)
He died in St. Peter’s Nursing Home in Streatham, London in 1926 aged 73. In his will he left £6,406 6s and 3d to his son Nevill.
The Duke of York’s Theatre.
A report in The Brighton Herald dated 27th January 1912 reports on the re-opening of this wonderful Theatre.
It states,’ the Re-opening under new management of the artistic Duke of York’s Picture Theatre, Preston Circus, has this week been warmly welcomed. The decoration of the interior of this beautiful has been changed from the original predominant nattier blue to a rather dark red.
An exceptionally interesting and well varied selection of film is being shown. It includes ‘The mate of the John M,’ and Lieutenant Grey,’ both of these dramas are produced with all the power and attention to detail characteristic of American films.
Another rather striking picture is the historical drama woven around the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots. The scenes being re-enacted in the grounds of Holyrood Palace.
As a contrast, there is a wonderful film called ‘Road Hogs in Toyland,’ in which the characters are sustained by mechanical toys and dolls, which are ingenious manipulation appear in the picture as if endowed with life. There are other films of great interest.
Corporal Ernest Edward Thomas.
A Commissionaire at the Duke of York’s’ Cinema.
Ernest Thomas was born on the 16th December 1884 at the Tower of London. He was one of six children born to Private Henry Thomas of the 44th Essex Regiment and Elizabeth Thomas, nee Wright. Fourteen years after his birth his father transferred to the Durham Light Infantry, at the end of 1898. He was posted to India and he took the family with him. This was possibly at the same time that Ernest enlisted into the same regiment as a young drummer boy. He was then 14 years of age. This was quite often that boys joined the army as young drummer boys. His father remained in that part of the world and served in both Burma and India. Ernest returned to England and was stationed at Aldershot, sometime in 1903. In 1905 he retired from his chosen unit aged 21 years, but continued to serve the ‘Colours.’ Ernest was quite a well-built soldier and very strong. He stood 6 feet 3 inches and made an imposing figure. He wouldn’t take any ‘truck’ from anyone during his military service.
He later served with The 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards and when the First World War started he was promoted to the rank of Corporal, He was despatched with the British Expeditionary Force in an effort to assist Belgium against the Germans. At this time there were 120 members in his Unit.
About 6.30am on the 22nd August 1914, whilst on the Mons-Charlous Road, Ernest’s unit encountered a German cavalry patrol and laid an ambush for them, however, the Germans were not going to be easily fooled. They became very wary and were about to flee. The British captain ordered a sabre charge on this German unit. It was then that Corporal Ernest Thomas took carful aim with his rifle at a German Cavalry Officer on his horse. His aim was true and the Officer fell from his horse and lay prostrate on the ground, not moving a muscle. This was the first shot fired in anger during the First World War by the BEF. This short skirmish only lasted a few seconds and the only British casualty was one of the horses which was shot and killed.
A plaque commemorating of the first British shot of the First World War by the BEF was unveiled in 1939 at Casteau. Ironically, this plaque is only about 400 metres from a similar plaque which commemorates the last shot of the War. Later on during the War Corporal Thomas was awarded the Military Medal. On the 5th November 1915, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. He was also mentioned in despatches. This was as a result of storming through an enemy trench. Unbeknown to him then, all the German soldiers, although still being in the trench were all dead. While looking at their smart uniforms he noticed their army boots and was very impressed. They were much better than the boots the English soldiers wore. The quality was simply superb. He took all the boots off of the dead soldiers and tied them all together. He then dragged them back to his trench for his comrades to see.
He was eventually discharged from the army while he was stationed at Preston Barracks, Brighton in 1923. He was then aged 39 years and served in the Army for 25 years.
By this time sergeant Thomas had married and had a family too. After the war he settled down in Brighton with his family. They lived together in a flat above a greengrocer’s shop at No. 19, Southdown Avenue. They lived at this address until about 1937. They then moved to another accommodation close by at number 68 Stanley Road, close to Preston Circus. Ernest disliked this name and preferred to be called Edward, as he thought Ernest was very old fashioned. He had a very upright and military stance and with his waxed army style moustache looked very military as he walked about Brighton He was a very familiar figure around Brighton and Hove.
He got a job at the Duke of York’s cinema as the commissionaire at Preston Circus, a mere ‘stone’s throw’ away from where he lived.
In February 1939, Edward was on duty at the Duke of York’s when he was suddenly taken ill. He was taken to hospital but subsequently died of pneumonia. He was 55 years of age. He was given a funeral at St. Martin’s Church in Lewes road, Brighton with full military honours. For some unknown reason he was buried in an unmarked grave in a Brighton Cemetery.