St George's Hall Cinema

Former cinema and ballroom in what is now recognised as York's finest Georgian mansion, Fairfax House

Location of plaque: Fairfax House, Castlegate

ON March 7, 1921, York's newest cinema opened with a screening of the silent film Three Men in a Boat, starring Lionelle Howard, Manning Haynes and Johnny Butt.

The St George's Hall Cinema had been opened in Fairfax House, the Georgian mansion on Castlegate which had been built in the early 1700s for a lawyer and which had later been turned into what is sometimes described as the 'finest Georgian town house in England' by Lord Fairfax.

By 1919, more than 140 years after Lord Fairfax's death in 1777, however, the building had fallen on hard times. It had passed through a number of hands and seen several changes of use before it was bought by St George's Hall Entertainments for conversion into a cinema.

The new cinema had oak-panelled walls, stalls and a circle - with the projection box located behind the stalls and under the circle. There was also a large ballroom and café on the first floor of Fairfax House.

Throughout the 1920s the cinema changed hands several times, and by 1929 belonged to the Gaumont British Theatres chain. In 1928 a new organ - a Jardin which had previously seen service in the Tivoli Theatre in London's Strand - was installed.

Many people had fond memories of the cinema: of the newsreels, the dancefloor, the stage shows that were sometimes held there instead of films - and of queueing to get seats. One former regular, a Mrs Willis, interviewed for an oral history project about the cinema, recalled: "If you went to the better seats you queued from Castlegate in the foyer, which was the way leading up to the dance hall, and then you would wind a crocodile and you went round and in like an 's' shape and then paid and went in."

Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Press in 1965 on the eve of the cinema's closure, manager Harry Cowlrick remembered a screening of the documentary film 'Birth of a Baby' in 1948. People were fainting all over the pace, he recalled. "Not the women, mark you, but young men. We used to prop them up at the back of the stalls while they were coming round."

The cinema was eventually closed by the Rank organisation in 1965. The final film shown there is thought to have been Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor in the starring role.

The building was bought by the city council, and was used by a dancing school for many years. It was restored to its full Georgian glory in the 1980s by York Civic Trust, with the help of several grants, and with the addition of Noel Terry's collection of elegant Georgian furniture was transformed into the Georgian museum that it is today.

Stephen Lewis