Lost In My Lifetime



I spent far too much time in the building above, a sumptuous art deco palace which was the Odeon Woolwich. It used to face another similarly grand cinema with a square in the centre, and could have become the Leicester Square of South London. It was certainly the only reason for visiting Woolwich, and developers tore it down, replacing it with the kind of disfiguring retail blankness that blights cities and creates anti-social behaviour. It made me realise just how many places I hung out in in London that have since been destroyed.


This was the Astoria, a legendary theatre, music venue and nightclub on Charing Cross Road that was demolished to make way for the Crossrail project – it’s a wasteland at the moment. While the Astoria building itself was not that attractive, it had great bands and holds a special place in many Londoners’ hearts.


There was once a huge funfair in London at Battersea (the remnants of which can still be spotted), which was really rather a poor excuse for fun when compared to modern equivalents, but had a quaint atmosphere and charming pleasure gardens with dancing fountains. It was also famed for the nightmarish Rotor, which made us throw up, and appeared in films like Peter Walker’s ‘Frightmare’. My brother and I were taken there as a treat, and to the circus, which was based nearby.


Gamages, of course, was the last family-owned department store in Holborn that was disgracefully replaced by a glass box. We’d go every Christmas to see Santa. There seem to be no colour pictures of it in later years in existence. It would be unthinkable now that a building like this could be torn down and replaced with nothing of interest.


The Mappin & Webb building, where my mother bought her wedding ring, was notoriously demolished to make way for this embarrassment, a building from which half a dozen bankers have thrown themselves to their deaths, probably after sampling the food in the rooftop restaurant.


It seems impossible to imagine now just how hands-on the zoos once were. The chimps’ tea party at the London Zoo was a highlight for us, along with elephant rides and parades. This toy from an earlier era celebrated such entirely acceptable shows and suggests they were a part of zoo events for decades. While it’s wrong to anthropomorphise animals, they did always seem to me to be having fun.


It’s pointlessly nostalgic and impractical to mourn the buildings that have gone, but all too often the ones that have replaced specifically London designs are invariably outsized, and of the mass-produced standard shape you find anywhere from Canada to Japan. They chip away at London’s identity and remove the very thing people come to see. I imagine that within another lifetime there will be little left to identify London beyond a handful of protected monuments poking up between the glass panels of Anytown, Anywhere.

Lost London is, in fact, a tradition in itself now – there are so many books and maps on the subject that it has become an industry.

20 comments on “Lost In My Lifetime”

  1. DC says:

    In a three hundred years or so, someone will likely rebuild the Odeon Woolwich to show how people used to get their entertainment. The Mapping and Webb replacement is truly monstrous.

    Generally it is called progress. Without it, we’d all be fighting over the same cave. Besides, near where I live there is a park with play equipment, wild flowers, football and cricket pitches and a cafe. The park came about around 60 years ago after they closed the ghastly and highly polluting chemical factory that existed there for a century.

    That said, there are a two cinemas I used to go to regularly as a kid that have gone. Modern multiplexes, with all their technical wizardry, don’t hold the same appeal. There are still some olde worlde cinemas around and they are a joy to visit.

  2. Stewart says:

    Both of the Woolwich cinemas are still there, albeit now converted to churches.

  3. admin says:

    Oh great, let’s not see ‘Alien: Covenant’ and go to a happy-clap church instead!

  4. Vivienne says:

    The cinema I used to frequent – especially Saturday morning pictures – on the North Circular Road has for some time been a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall. So I won’t be going there again.

    Can’t say I have ever noticed that extravagant one when I have occasionally been to Woolwich, but will certainly have a look out next time. Those buildings can still be called ‘modern’ whilst the stuff being put up now doesn’t seem to have anything like that identity or impact. We seem to have gone past the Toytown look – which the Mappin & Webb building rather looks like, also wood cladding is going out of favour and it all seems to be lots of glass with glass panelled balconies. But will anyone in the future be able to identify the age?

  5. davem says:

    Like you Chris, I was a regular at the Woolwich Odeon when I was younger. Such a shame it went.

    Not only was there another cinema opposite, I think it was the Granada but it was a long time ago, but also the Woolwich ABC at the bottom of the hill on Wellington Street.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Woolwich resonates as military – naval dockyards? I imagine that has all gone, too. The turning of cinemas into churches seems to be an international phenomenon. After two or three tries to resuscitate the theatre I went to as a child it too has become a church. My father’s favourite was just torn down. We still have a theatre that was built as an “opera house”, though and I saw Hal Holbrook perform there as Mark Twain Tonight. How much more appropriate could you get? On the other hand we have a church that became the Vancouver Cultural Centre – the Culch – where I heard the Nylons sing complete with stockings hanging from the lights.

  7. Jan says:

    Helen the base at Woolwich was mainly a weapons making ordnance factory. Was absolutely massive site though. So big it really changed the town in a fundamental way. Think it was first formed in the 17C and was present in the town a real big way throughout the next three centuries contracting and expanding through each major conflict and the downtimes in between. There was even atomic weapons research there. Back in the early part of the 1970s a big chunk of the place belonging to the M.O.D was bought by the G.L.C. and turned into the Thamesmead estate. A place of deep joy and wonder. Like in I wonder why the hell they built this God awful place.

    Very interesting though the ordnance site – if you like that sort of thing places which were very hush hush have now been converted into homes.
    Down in S.E. London in a location I can’t quite get my teeny Weeny brain to recall. There’s a hospital with a strange X Ray and like an MRI radiology department built underground in a round Deep bunker like a Hobbit house type structure. Some people say that it dates from WW2 but I think it’s closer to the truth that it was built to serve the specialist needs of the ordnance factories nearby in the 1950s. The naval base at Greenwich ( Now Greenwich university) only survived in its setting because some Naval architecture buff persuaded his bosses they could recreate a naval nuclear submarine layout in there and train submarine Captains and navigators on the specialist technology within the magnificent building.

    I seem to have wandered well off topic here. Funny place Woolwich though took over from the Royal Arsenal just north E of City of London where famous football team based. I’ll shut up now.

  8. Susan Fox says:

    When I see ingeniously stylized old buildings which were routinely erected for even the most mundane purposes, and which have somehow survived in current cityscapes, I wonder what has happened to the imaginations of builders today that they can see only outsized glass and steel boxes as attractive places in which to attend to the business of living. Churches, theaters, department stores, even ordinary houses and the tenements that loomed over the meanest streets were once bursting with personality, as were the people described in literature from former times. Individuality seems to have become very difficult for folks to tolerate: in architecture, and indeed in ideas and opinions at every level of endeavor. It is a glaring symptom of modern mediocrity. I am suddenly reminded of the twelve valedictorians of a high school graduating class I recently encountered. How low can we set the bar? And I wish I had ever seen a chimpanzee tea party.

  9. Porl says:

    My two local cinemas in Leeds are Hyde Park Picture House and Cottage Road Cinema. Both a ten min walk from where I live. Give em a google. I really am blessed! Cottage Road screens vintage adverts (although annoyingly halfway through the film!)

  10. Jan says:

    A contribution that’s a bit more on topic! In the little northern town I come from – Irlam near Manchester – there used to be a little covered market in a building is which looked like a very high roofed village hall. It was in fact a cinema from the days of the silent films. Extraordinary that it survived into the 1970s probably wouldn’t have done anywhere else!!! It’s gone now so obviously not listed. Was just west of the Ship pub I can remember walking around there and grandad pointing out where the organist used to sit and you could actually see the attachments on the rear wall where the screen was fixed.

  11. Peter Tromans says:

    The Alabama Theatre in Houston (TX, USA) was another abandoned art deco cinema. When I lived there in the 1990s, it had become a very nice bookshop – what better alternative? The exterior and interior were largely preserved. The last time I saw it, it was a grocery store, which seems a little sad, but, at least the building is still there. In spite of Houston having no apparent town planning and very little historic architecture, or perhaps because of it, there are some very active preservation groups that have worked hard for the Alabama.

    In the UK, we have many buildings that presently sit higher in our priorities than art deco cinemas. We should widen our scope a little on the preservation front. It’s too easy not to recognise a little gem until it’s lost.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Jan. My fault for bringing up Woolwich, but there are names and places that have permanent connections and that is one.
    As well as our “opera house” we have the Orpheum Theatre which was magnificently renovated, including the painted ceiling and the massive chandelier. They offer tours, but it is still a working theatre, live performances mostly. I could wish the society part of society hadn’t persuaded the powers that be to put in the fancy modern foyer so they can parade about during intermissions. Still, everything else is there including some nice (and attributed) calligraphy. My favourite will always be the the organ recital on “Orpheus” the organ that rises from under the stage. Patrick Wedd, organist at the Anglican cathedral at the time, rode the organ up to the playing of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. He was wearing a pink tuxedo and top hat and sporting a cluster of pink rhododendron in his button hole. If you don’t think he got a standing O at that point you have no imagination. It was a daytime concert during the schools’ spring break and they knew there would be kids in the audience. It was a hoot and a half and the kids were all fascinated by the mighty Wurlitzer organ. The Kings Singers did a lovely concert there as well as everyone else on tour (except rock tours which go to big arenas. Don’t ask me about U2’s Joshua Tree reboot, which had people from all over the world and… but I said not to ask.)

  13. Brian Evans says:

    Mr F- I don’t think any child of our generation can say we spent too long in the pictures. I virtually lived there, and it still wasn’t enough.

    Last Sunday I went to various parts of London to up-date my photo collection of cinemas. I was alarmed as to how many are now churches. Annoyingly, the people running the church in the former Gaumont Palace in Wood Green were too mean spirited to allow me in to take pics of the wonderful art deco foyer. But then, that’s religion for you.

    One good thing though-at least these happy-clappy homophobes are at least looking after these buildings and are maintaining them to a very high standard.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    There are times when I really feel that there is a major aggression waiting out there to go after those who are religiously inclined. I would remind those who are quick to label all church members everywhere as homophobic whatevers that there are very few labels that fit everyone in a general category and I for one have moments when I lose the ability to remember that those who have been on the receiving end are sometimes unable to resist labeling others. Sorry, but I have bad days too.

  15. Jan says:

    I’m on nobody’s side here, but surely it’s a good thing that these buildings have survived in some form? In Rayners Lane the cinema there is home to the Bahais or some other religious persuasion maybe the one Omid Djalili belongs to I can’t remember which but does it matter? Surely people if we are supposed to be inclusive and respectful to all folk then what’s the objection to a church or a synagogue or a a mosque ?
    Whichever team is now occupying the Day here Lane cinema they spent loads restoring the place to some semblance of its former glory restored the cinema organ – maybe for the singing- and London Borough of Harrow actually thanked them for the works they carried out. Mind you I am talking about twelve or so years back now so a lot could have happened since. Up in Manchester a,few years back if a picture house got shut down it got turned into a Kwik save and really destroyed inside if these God lads can keep these buildings more or less intact that’s no bad thing surely?

  16. Jan says:

    That shouldn’t read Day here should read Rayners Lane how do u disable this moronic text thing?

  17. Jan says:

    Zoastrians that was the Rayners Lane Cinema religious people just popped up on telly. Serendipitous.
    Dunno if they are hymn singers or not.
    Do people in other religions sing hymns? I’ve never really thought about that. Does everybody have a bit of singing between the messages being relayed down from upstairs.

    My favourite hymn as a kid was that one about the sons of the mountains and jewels I think it was a Christmas hymn but not a Carol. Do other religions have the equivalent of Carols at their main festivals? Just a thought. I’ll go back to thinking about things I like about Las Vegas

  18. Helen Martin says:

    I don’t think Zoroastrians sing, as part of ritual, I mean. The CBC had a radio program a while back that was supposed to have music from various faith traditions but it was discontinued because they couldn’t find enough to balance the heavy Christian presence.

  19. Jan says:

    I ‘d never really thought much on other belief systems singing as part of their worship. I worked a fair bit in the East End and the call to prayer the Moslem thing is beautiful stirring sound it’s a weird thing when you first hear it but it does get to be part of your day. Where I live now at about 2045 and again a bit before 0800 they ring a bell, the curfew bell, they have rung this out continuously since the time of the Black Death would u believe to tell people to get home stop cavorting in the local ale and whore houses in order to minimise the spread of the disease.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve never heard the call to prayer in real life only in films, but I can imagine it would quickly become part of routine if you lived near a mosque. We have a gun that fires at 9 pm and there are conflicting stories as to how it started. I don’t think there is any movement pushing for its cancellation in spite of it not serving any particular purpose now. I think we just absorb regular sounds into our lives and would miss them if they ceased.

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