Topic

Lerwick

Lerwick seems defined by remoteness. The major town of the Shetland Islands with a population in 1911 of 4,664, situated 210 miles north of Aberdeen, its mainland point of contact, and only 230 miles from Bergen in Norway, Lerwick is as much a part of the North Atlantic as it is of the British Isles. Once a centre for the Hanseatic League, its continuing trade with Baltic seaports and with the Dutch fishing trade in the early twentieth century give it a European perspective - so much so that a cinematograph entertainment company, the Northern Bioscope Company, from Kristiania (Oslo), included Lerwick in its tour in 1906. A centre of the pelagic fishing industry, Lerwick’s population in the early years of the twentieth century increased sharply at the height of the season, with itinerant workers, including a large number of women, who followed the fishing fleet. Remote, but cosmopolitan, the island culture of Shetland is interesting precisely because it does not fit many of the stereotypes of remoteness or insularity.

The first recorded exhibition of moving pictures in the Lerwick Town Hall was on 11 and 12 May, 1897 (seven months before the first recorded screening in Bo’ness), an ‘Exhibition of the Marvellous Animated Photographs’ by the ubiquitous Robert Calder. For most of the 1900s, Calder and his Concert Party visited in April and July, and other touring companies included the Ormonde Family, the Brescian Family, J.F. Calverto (‘the Man with the Mysterious Fingers’), and De Dandy Darkey Coons. Most cinematograph and concert parties were located in the Town Hall, with occasional visits to the Rechabite Hall. Attempts were made in 1911 by Kriss’s Electric Theatre, situated in the Market Green, and, in 1912, by Bell & Routledge leasing the Town Hall, to set up a more regular programme of nightly screenings, but they were strictly seasonal. There are reports of cancelled programmes because touring companies had not made allowances for the very long summer daylight hours, or because bad weather had prevented fuel being brought in for the generator on the ‘North boat’ - weekly in winter, twice a week in summer. Lerwick did not have a power station until 1953.

In 1913, plans were announced for a purpose-built cinema on Harbour Street, in the centre of Lerwick. The initiative was promoted by the North Star Cinema Company (Ltd), which had its registered offices in Aberdeen, where the managing director, James Jeffrey, was an accountant. However, the capital of £3000 was substantially raised from Lerwick merchants: Gilbert Anderson, T.J. Anderson and R.D. Ganson are named. The new building, the North Star Cinema, opened on 24 September, 1913. There were 500 cushioned seats downstairs, and ‘200 tip-up chairs, upholstered in plush’ in the gallery. ‘The light for the pictures’ says The Shetland News, ‘ is supplied from a powerful dynamo, directly coupled to an 8 h.p. Kelvin petrol engine.’

From the beginning, most of the programming at the North Star was ‘pictures-only’. Touring concert parties still visited Lerwick, but they performed in the Town Hall. Occasionally in the 1920s, for maybe one or two weeks in the year there would be ‘turns’ in the North Star, often local performers or touring solo artistes rather than variety acts or concert parties. During the fishing season, there were occasional competitions, with a prize of £2, for best singer, best story-teller or best instrumentalist, open to fishermen and fish workers only. For most weeks of the year, the North Star offered its patrons an exclusively film programme, booked through an agent, which looked much like the programmes in Glasgow or Aberdeen.

The North Star was the most northerly cinema in Britain. It continued to operate as a cinema till 1972, when it became a nightclub, and the building was finally demolished in 2011. A letterbook from 1915 survives at the Shetland Museum and Archives, and a summary of its contents can be seen here.