In the 1911 census the town of Bo’ness, or Borrowstounness, on the south bank of the Forth estuary, had a population of 10,862. Its main industries were coal and ironworks, and at the beginning of the twentieth century it was an important port for Baltic and North European trade — mainly for the import of the timber that was necessary for coal mine props. As an industrial service town, it mainly served the Glasgow heavy industries with coal, iron and imported industrial goods.

The first recorded screening of the Cinematograph was on 27 December, 1897. This screening, in the Drill Hall (the headquarters of the 10th Cyclist Batallion of the Royal Scots) was sponsored by the Bo’ness Parish Church. Subsequent screenings in the 1900s were sponsored by the Foundry Boys Society, a church-based organisation for young apprentices, by the Sunday Schools, and by Temperance Societies.

The New Town Hall was opened in 1904, and became a venue for touring variety companies and for cinematograph exhibitions. Touring companies, such as Walker & Company’s Royal Cinematograph, 'Prince' Bendon's bioscope, Dr Ormonde’s Family and Sunflower Company, and Calder’s Great Cinematograph and Popular Concert Company, visited the Town Hall and the Drill Hall throughout the 1900s.

In September 1909, Louis Dickson took up residence in the Drill Hall and renamed it the Picture Palace, and in 1910 Councillor John Jeffrey opened a new hall, the Electric Theatre, with a seating capacity of 400, adjoining the Clydesdale Hotel.

Bo'ness cinema timeline

As well as showing pictures, Dickson was also making pictures and his local topicals featuring the annual Bo’ness Children’s Festival are preserved in the Scottish Screen Archive. By 1912, his lease of the Drill Hall was becoming untenable (it was frequently commandeered by the Royal Scots for training), and he announced that he would build his own theatre. The Hippodrome, opened in March 1912, was designed by the local architect, Matthew Steele, had a planned seating capacity of 800 but an actual capacity of around 1,000, and it was built with a stage to accommodate live variety shows.

Not to be outdone, John Jeffrey announced that he would build a new theatre, the Coliseum, extending the tiny Electric Theatre to give a capacity of 1,000; but his announcement came in January 1914 and it is likely that his plans fell victim to the outbreak of war seven months later. In fact, the Electric Theatre ceased to operate after 1915.

Louis Dickson opened a second cinema, the Pavilion, in 1919, which was planned to operate as a pictures-only cinema, but it closed after three years. In 1920, the Picture House opened in a former church, in a conversion designed again by Matthew Steele, and it continued to operate as the Star Cinema till the 1960s. The Hippodrome also continued to operate as a cinema till the mid-1970s, when, like many small town cinemas, it was converted into a bingo hall. Following reports by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, the cinema was refurbished and re-opened as a full-time local cinema, managed by Falkirk Community Trust, in 2009. Appropriately, the Hippodrome now hosts an annual Silent Film Festival.

The vitality of the cinema culture in Bo’ness is evident from the fact that at certain points there were three or four venues competing for a relatively small population. For much of the period, cinema and variety were inextricably linked, sometimes against the intentions of the proprietors: both the Hippodrome and the Picture House found themselves continuing to accommodate live acts till the end of the period, even when they declared their intentions to adopt a pictures-only programme. And cinema played a key role in the civic culture of the town, welcomed by the Provost as evidence that the town was up-to-date, and established as part of the town’s heritage by the architecture of Matt Steele.