One of the most fascinating late Medieval buildings in Salisbury is the house of John Halle, a wealthy local wool merchant. Built in the 1470s and now in use as an Odeon cinema, this building is a truly unique blend of old and new. Visitors can take behind the scenes tours to explore this huge building and learn more about its Medieval origins, its heyday hosting stars of the 20th century and its current incumbency as modern multi-screen cinema.
Salisbury is well known as a Medieval market town, its origins starting with the construction of both Cathedral and town in 1220 when it moved from Old Sarum. By the 1450s the town had a population of 7,000 and half of the population was engaged in the wool trade.
Resident John Halle was a wool merchant and a prominent and wealthy character in the area. In 1446 he was a member of the local council, by 1448 he had become Alderman and by 1449 he was Constable of New Street Ward. In 1451 he was elected Mayor of Salisbury, an honour repeated a further three times. He was first elected Member of Parliament for Salisbury in 1453, an appointment which was also repeated a further three times. He built his house around 1470, although he died in 1479 and it was completed by his son, William Halle, some years later.
He was clearly an irascible character. In 1465 when he was Mayor, he fell into a land dispute with the Bishop of Salisbury, Richard de Beauchamp and another local merchant, William Swayne. The land was in St Thomas’s churchyard, where William Swayne wished to build a new chapel attached to the church. John Halle took forcible possession of the land and was swiftly prosecuted by the Bishop and summoned to appear before the King (Edward IV) and his Privy Council. John was apparently so truculent and difficult that the King had him committed to the Tower of London, for ‘shewing himself of a right cedicious, hasty, willful and full unwitty disposicon’.
What is now called The Lady Chapel in St. Thomas’s church has an inscription asking observers to pray for the soul of William Swayne and his wife, as well as being decorated with his Swayne’s merchant's mark, so it is safe to assume that John lost his battle for the land in the end and William was able to build his chapel.
The Corporation of Salisbury was instructed to appoint a new Mayor, which they refused to do, and John was in fact appointed Mayor for the fourth time while he was still in the Tower. This is probably due more to the locals dislike of the Bishop than their affection for John, they just wanted someone who would stand up to the unpopular Bishop.
John was released and returned to Salisbury. By 1470 he had responded to a call from the Earl of Warwick to raise an army of 40 men to help depose King Edward IV, apparently his spell in the Tower hadn’t endeared the King to John, but when Warwick was defeated and killed in battle, he swiftly returned his allegiance to the King, which was probably a sensible thing to do. Nothing more is known about John until his death in 1479.
His son, William Halle, inherited his rebellious streak and took part in Buckingham’s Rebellion in 1483, an unsuccessful uprising against Richard III.
What we do have left from him is the banqueting hall of his house, an incredible, two storey stone structure. Now the foyer of the cinema, a mock Tudor front designed by Pugin was added to the building in 1881, so you need to enter the building to see the original, Grade I listed, Medieval hall.
With dark oak beams across the vaulted ceiling, a stone flagged floor, stained glass windows and a huge stone Medieval fireplace, this is not your usual cinema foyer. Huge wrought iron chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and shields and spears decorate the walls. A minstrel's gallery overlooks the area, reachable only by a wooden ladder, so sadly out of bounds for the general public.
The large stone fireplace is entirely authentic, although not in its original location, as there is no chimney flume behind it. The stained glass windows are a mixture of original and replacement, and bear John Halle’s Merchant Mark as well as an image of the man himself. A huge, thick original wooden door is in the East wall, and leads out to a small courtyard area, where you can see the exterior wall of the hall, and how it has been built upon over the centuries.
The rest of the tour leads out of the Medieval hall and into the rest of the cinema, itself a Grade II listed building.
The Gaumont Palace Theatre opened here in September 1931, showing ‘Chance of a Night Time’. The main auditorium had been built earlier that year, with seating for 1125 in the stalls and 500 in the circle. It was resplendent in full mock Tudor style, designed by William Edward Trent, who had been asked to make it different to any other Gaumont Theatre.
The beams are made of fibre glass and painted a deep brown and the walls were made to look like ashler stonework, the same as Salisbury Cathedral. Over 40 tapestries with images of medieval hunting scenes were designed by interior designer Frank Barnes and hung on the walls, and more wrought iron chandeliers were hung from the ceilings. A mock Tudor restaurant with wood panelling, oak tables and chairs and inglenook fireplaces served meals to guests, back in the days when a trip to the cinema meant more than just a bucket of popcorn.
The cinema was renamed ‘The Gaumont’ in 1936, and then the Odeon in 1964. It was host to stars such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly and The Bee Gees amongst others.
It was converted to have three screens in 1972, putting smaller screens in the stalls under the circle of Screen 1. The cinema was threatened with closure in 1986, but a huge local campaign managed to save it and there was a grand refurbishment, with everything restored to its former glory using the original paints and plasterwork. A fourth screen was added in 1993 in what had been the restaurant, and a fifth in 1995.
The cinema now is a veritable rabbit warren, with often quite a walk round wonky corridors to reach the screens. What you learn from a behind the scenes tour however, is how much of the building you don’t normally get to see when just coming to watch a film. The place is a tardis.
The original entrance to the cinema is now no longer in use, a large passageway with a tiny wooden box office in the wall, where some poor soul would have to sit in cramped conditions to sell tickets. There are dark underground passageways with paint peeling off the walls with small, windowless rooms leading off. Once the dressing rooms to the stars, they are now home only to a few brooms, unwanted junk and probably plenty of insects.
L: This was the original box office for guests, in the Catherine Street entrance which is no longer in use at all. The box is a tiny space and must have been very cramped for the staff working in there.
R: Narrow and dark passageways which once led onto the dressing rooms of the stars.
We got to look behind the curtains of some of the screens, and saw the concrete, steel, ladders and huge air conditioning piping that tunnels around behind the glossy veneer of the public areas. Upstairs there are workshops and old offices, all mostly unused and filled with cobwebs and apparently, a ghost called Jeffrey; one of three who lives in the building.
The projection room of Screen One was really interesting with a huge old-fashioned reel projector – so big that it can’t be removed from the building. The modern system of digital projectors with all its flashing lights was a lot more hi-tech but far less intriguing.
L: This deserted corridor was once the main entrance for the hoi polloi.
R: Top tier ticket holders used to enter through the fire doors on the left, which led past the grand external wall of the Medieval hall.
The tour was fascinating and one I highly recommend, not just to learn about the Medieval hall but to learn about the early days of cinema from their glory days to the manufactured and slightly soulless experience they are now. Even if you don’t manage to take a tour, watch a film there and enjoy the unique experience of watching a great film surrounded by Medieval history.
VISITING THE SALISBURY ODEON
Behind the Scenes Tours take place every Monday and Tuesday between 10am – 12pm
Contact Naomi on firstname.lastname@example.org to book a place on a tour.
There is no charge but they do appreciate a donation to MIND, their chosen charity.
Alternatively, watch a film there! You won’t see behind the scenes but you will still get to see the Pugin entrance, the Medieval foyer, the mock Tudor decorations in the screening rooms and you may get to exit through the original entrance and past the wooden box office.