Known always as Sam and Alf… the founding fathers of Shipman and King cinemas.
Alfred Shipman, who was a Russian immigrant, met Samuel King when they both played the violin in the Queen’s Light Orchestra. Samuel was employed as a teacher during the day, joining his full time musician colleague Alfred in the orchestra that accompanied evening performances of silent films. Both men realised the potential of film exhibition, forming a partnership soon after the 1914-1918 war came to its end, a partnership that would last until Alfred’s death in 1956. The East Sussex town of Hailsham near Eastbourne was chosen for their first cinema venture that was in a converted barn. The company, Shipman & King Cinemas Ltd was registered in 1920. Alfred’s brother Mick joined them as booking manager. Alfred became Samuel’s brother-in-law when he married Samuel’s sister, Sadie King. The King family were from Poland (then part of the Russian Empire). It is likely that their surname was originally Koenig was anglicised to help them assimiliate into British society. Similarly, Alf Shipman’s name was probably the anglicisation of Shikhvarg.
Sam (as he was always known) looked after the financial side of the business and the day to day running of the business, while Alfred was the entrepreneur. The architect chosen for their first purpose built cinema, the Pavilion Hailsham, was Henry Coussens. The auditorium was on one level, initially with a screen simply painted onto the wall without screen curtains (tabs). A.K. Burtenshaw JP performed the opening ceremony on Monday 28th November 1921 when the capacity audience watched Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid”.
By 1926 there were eight acquired silent cinemas and one purpose built within the S&K circuit, overseen by supervisor, A. E. Randle. The next new cinema built for Shipman and King followed at the beginning of 1930. A policy was adopted not to mimic the large circuits, but to usually acquire an existing cinema refurbish it and then to build another nearby. The preferred company’s locations were away from the densely populated inner cities, favouring middle class areas in the South of England.
Sam and Alf saw their business rapidly expand during the heady days of the 1930s. However, with prudent management they were careful not to over commit on site acquisitions and were known to operate strict budgets on both the building and fitting out of their cinemas. A wise move as Oscar Deutsch (Odeon) and John Maxwell (ABC) often lay in wait for independent operators who ran into financial trouble and would step in to snap up newly built cinemas. There are examples where the reverse happened when S&K would open a cinema that was intended to be an Odeon which may suggest a good working relationship with Oscar Deutsch. Through employing quality architects such as Robert Cromie, David Nye, Henry Coussens, Howis & Belcham, Lesley Kemp & Frederick Tasker, the partners were able to establish a portfolio of moderately sized quality cinemas that could equal cinema buildings that the three major circuits were opening in the city centres in both appearance and comfort. Balconies were included in most Shipman and King Cinemas, which were favoured by the clientele who unflinchingly would pay the premium ticket price. A car park and a restaurant were also most desirable.
When Alfred Shipman died in 1956, Samuel King’s son, Peter was appointed a director. During 1965 the Shipman and King circuit was purchased by the Grade Organisation which in turn was taken over by EMI. After years of bingo conversions and closures what was left of these cinemas came under the control of Cannon Cinemas.
Today, with just a few former S & K sites remaining it is encouraging to see that the first purpose built S & K cinema, the Pavilion, Hailsham has been rescued from a derelict condition and has now been beautifully restored.
2021 marks the Pavilion’s centenary. In tribute, Samuel King’s granddaughter, Jennifer King, fondly remembers her “gentle, intelligent and dignified grandfather”, recalling his achievements and the major contribution that he and Alfred Shipman made to UK cinema exhibition in its formative and heyday years.
Alfred Shipman ( 1890 ~ 1956)
Samuel King (1890 ~ 1973)
In 1919 two men walked into a bar. Their names were Sam (my grandfather) and Alf. Sounds like an old music hall joke? Far from it. The original Hailsham Pavilion owes its existence to Sam King and Alf Shipman who, although they didn’t know it yet when they met for that drink, became the founding fathers of the Shipman and King (S and K) cinemas –the Hailsham Pavilion being their first newly built cinema, erected in 1921.
Samuel and Alfred (known always as Sam and Alf) were both sons of Jewish immigrants who fled persecution in Poland and Russia, and who settled in London’s East End. Life was of course extremely arduous for Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth Century. My grandfather Sam was the son of a “bootmaker” who made shoe uppers from his home in the Mile End Road. Sam was born there in 1890 and attended Stepney Jewish School. Sam was a particularly bright child, winning scholarships that paid for his secondary education and then, in 1912, his teacher training at Goldsmith’s College. Sam’s schoolteacher apparently said he was convinced Sam would return to the school one day in a Rolls Royce. Little did he know that Sam indeed did become the owner of a Rolls Royce in years to come, but he was too modest to drive it back to Stepney.
To earn extra money while he was teaching, Sam played the violin in the orchestra pit in the evening. There he met Alf Shipman, a professional violinist. Both men were bored with their jobs and excited about the new invention of the cinema. Over a pint, they hatched a plan to rent the barn at the back of the Crown Hotel – known as the Corn Exchange – and Alf bought a small film projector to show silent movies. A sign was erected over the alleyway leading down the side of the hotel saying “Electric Picture Palace”. Their first film was Charlie Chaplin. It proved so popular that somehow – we presume from their proceeds – they were able to raise the money to buy a piece of land a few yards further up the High Street. It was here that they built the Hailsham Pavilion in 1920.
And this was only the beginning. Sam and Alf had by this time established Shipman and King Cinemas with headquarters in Charing Cross Road in London. They had a clear business strategy: their cinemas were almost all in the Home Counties in “genteel towns” such as Rye, Tenterden, Berkhamsted, Reigate and Esher. They would not compete with any existing cinemas so if there was another cinema in the same town, wherever possible, they would buy both (for example, in Tenterden, Reigate and Braintree).
They had Embassys, Pavilions, Regents, Hippodromes. Their byline was “A Shipman and King theatre may always be taken to imply perfect entertainment presented under ideal conditions”.
By 1936, they had acquired or built 21 cinemas, and over the next 30 years a further 23 cinemas were added to the Shipman and King circuit. Sam was the businessman and looked after the finances; Alf was the visionary and entrepreneur. Sam, was most probably the inspiration behind the commissioning of top cinemas architects such as David Nye and Henry Coussens, and interior designers Mollo and Egan. Beautiful Art Deco interiors were built in their cinemas. No detail was spared. Some had giant Wurlitzer organs that rose out of the orchestra pit; together with the best sound systems to be found at the time.
My grandfather was devoted to his business, travelling all around the Home Counties week after week. He was always immaculately dressed, large cigar in hand. My father Peter recalled how his parents, Sam and Bertha, left home with the words that they were off to see what he, as a small boy, translated as “Traychows”, which he later learned to be “Trade Shows”. When Alf Shipman died prematurely in 1956, my father joined my grandfather in the business as S and K’s Managing Director. The father-and-son partnership lasted for 10 years (and my father’s love of the movies for the rest of his life), with Alf Shipman’s two sons also on the Board of Directors, until Shipman and King was finally sold to the Grade Brothers in the 1960s.
It is tragic that almost all the original S and K cinemas fell into decline, or became bingo halls, supermarkets, offices or flats. Hailsham Pavilion was initially one of the casualties, but the fact that it was eventually resurrected in such a magnificent style is a truly remarkable achievement which my father was proud and delighted to witness, even though sadly my grandfather was no longer around to see it. Just three other S and K cinemas remain– the Rex at Berkamsted, the Regent Centre at Christchurch and the Everyman at Esher.
I am writing this on the 47th anniversary of my grandfather Sam’s death on the 3rd November 1973. I was 15 years old, and last saw him when he took me to lunch at the Savoy Hotel in London – a reflection of just how far he had come since his early years in the poorest part of London’s East End. I was a little in awe of my gentle, intelligent and dignified grandfather who, while enjoying his favourite roast beef lunch in the Grill Room, told me with his customary understatement, the story of how he started his first cinema in the back of a pub. I could see even then how proud he was and how much those days had meant to him.
I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone at HOPS who contributed to restoring the Pavilion, and I know my grandfather, and my father would be thrilled about the forthcoming Centenary celebrations. Let’s raise our glasses to Sam and Alf – a remarkable partnership!
©Published in the HOPS Newsletter January 2021
Click on the Shipman & King featured cinemas below~