Whoever chose the motto "Out Darkness Cometh Light" for Wolverhampton was obviously anticipating the town's cinema history. The first beam of light from a cinematographic projector cast its moving shadows across a screen in Wolverhampton just over one hundred years ago and folks have been struggling to maintain that shaft of light ever since.

"Moving pictures" were first demonstrated to the public as a technological break through early in 1896, in London. Inventors had been struggling to perform this illusion for some time and therefore sudden success did not grab the headlines as might be expected. It had some interest as a novelty, as had previous optical illusions, but no one quite saw its potential as a prime entertainment medium.

The cinematograph was presented - generally for entertainment purposes - at various locations throughout Britain as 1896 progressed. One hundred years later when the centenary of cinema was being celebrated it became a matter of pride to stake one's claim to one of these early shows. In the Midlands, Birmingham had seen its first films by the summer of 1896 but the towns of the Black Country appear to have waited until later. By the end of 1896 the faint and flickering images of early cinematography had found a niche as a between-the-acts item in variety shows -and it was in this form that the first cine film was seen in Wolverhampton.

The Exchange. From the Wolverhampton Journal.

It took place on Christmas Eve 1896 in a show being presented at the Exchange Hall adjacent to the Indoor Market. The building has long since vanished but it had been a popular entertainment venue since the days in the 1850s when Charles Dickens had come to Wolverhampton to present public readings of his work in that hall. The Express & Star made no other comment other than stating that a cinematograph show had been included in the evening's entertainment. Wolverhampton's initiation into film-going wasn't even newsworthy!

Tracing the early history of film-showing is thus very difficult, as it is virtually undocumented by contemporary sources. During the years between 1897 and 1909 films were seen by Wulfrunians in two different settings, both of which received little attention from the press. Firstly, films continued to be seen in a theatrical environment as brief interludes between other acts. This was true at Wolverhampton's Empire in Queens Square, at the Prince of Wales in Bilston Street and, from 1909 onwards, at the Pavilion in Tower Street. Films were also presented for brief seasons at places like the Agricultural Hall at Snow Hill, and the Drill Hall in Stafford Street.

The other setting in which Wulfrunians encountered pioneering film shows was on the fairground, where the travelling cinematographic show was called the "bioscope". Pat Collins presented his spectacular bioscope show, "Wonderland", at the fair held on the Market Patch, at the foot of the steps to St. Peters Church, at Whitsun 1908.

This murky period of cinema history came to an end on 1st January 1910 when the Cinematograph Act became law. 

The Agricultural Hall. Courtesy of Eardley Lewis.

From now on films generally had to be presented in permanent premises which could be inspected and licensed for the purpose once safety regulations had been met.

The Electric Theatre. Courtesy of Eardley Lewis.

In some towns the first local cinematograph licence was issued on 1st January 1910 and the town's first cinema immediately opened its doors. In Wolverhampton several venues were being prepared by the end of 1909 but it was the 24th January 1910 before the first was able to open its doors to the public and lay claim to being Wolverhampton's first cinema. The claimant was the Electric Theatre in Queens Square - premises that were later used by Green & Hollins menswear shop, now a bank.

Immediately behind the Electric came the Olympia in Thornley Street, which opened its doors on 14th March; it remained a cinema for fifty years. The period from 1910 to the advent of the First World War saw the cinema business expand very rapidly. National trends were replicated in Wolverhampton. One trend was the development of "combines" or "circuits"; another trend was the emergence of local cinema entrepreneurs.

The circuit approach to the provision of new cinemas was best illustrated in Wolverhampton by the arrival of the Queen's Cinema in Queen Square on 30th September 1914. It was built by Associated Provincial Picture Houses and set out to cultivate an educated middle class audience attracted by classy tea rooms and wholesome entertainment.

An example of the rise of the local cinema magnate is the story of Thomas Jackson. Born in 1869 he had already built up an enormously successful bakery and confectionery business in Whitmore Reans by the turn of the century. His restless capitalist spirit was always looking for something new in which to invest his money and energy. In 1910 he was much attracted to the new cinema business. By the end of 1912 he had opened the Coliseum on the Dudley Road at Blakenhall, the Alhambra in Bilston and his flagship, the Strand, built on the site of his bakehouse in Whitmore Reans. Within a year or two he had six local cinemas under his control. The war interrupted his progress but when the war was over Jackson had ambitious plans for most of his cinemas - yet by 1922 his cinema business was bankrupt.

The Queens Cinema. Courtesy of David Clare.

The Coliseum. Courtesy of David Clare.

The years between the wars witnessed varying fortunes in the cinema business and it was only the arrival of the talkies that seemed to give the business a confident future. The first "talkie" in Wolverhampton was "The Singing Fool", presented at the Agricultural Hall on 12th August 1929. Record attendances led the cinema to retain the film for a second week.

With a new sense of security the cinema business now blossomed and the golden age of building super-cinemas quickly got underway - the Agricultural Hall leading the way by being demolished to be replaced by the Gaumont in 1932. The Odeon in Skinner Street opened in 1937 and the Savoy (ABC) opened in Bilston Street at the end of the same year. When the Second World War began Wolverhampton was very well served with cinemas, both in the town centre and out in the suburbs. Cinema attendances grew and grew, reaching a peak in 1946.

The post-war history of cinemas in a town like Wolverhampton is quite complex but the end result is fairly clear. A long decline began in the 1950s which has only been reversed by the comparatively recent emergence of the "multiplex". Film presentation has never really vanished in Wolverhampton, even when most people believed it had somehow faded away like the fade-out on the end of a film.

When the ABC closed on 17th October 1991 town-centre film-presentation was preserved at the Light House in Fryer Street, but the venture has been poorly supported by Wulfrunians and the Light House itself ceased showing films on a full time basis in 1998, although currently films are again on show. The situation is complicated and still likely to change.

The Gaumont, Snow Hill.

Three multiplex cinemas now operate in the Black Country and Wulfrunians now jump in a car to go to the pictures. Hoyt's, the Australian cinema chain, even proposed to run a cinema on the Low Level station site; but nothing came of it. Yet more multiplex cinemas are planned. It is still a case of "Watch This Screen - the Cinema ain't dead yet!"