On the evening of 18th March 2021 it will be the 80th years since cinema goers had an amazing escape at the National Picture Theatre on Beverley Road. Very soon Trustees of the National Civilian WW2 Memorial Trust should hear whether further funding will enable the next stage of the site’s restoration project to progress.
The audience were enjoying Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator’ when the air-raid siren sounded. Audience members moved to the back of the auditorium, under the gallery and into the foyer. A quick glance outside showed that bombs were raining down close by and people decided they were safer inside.
A short time later, at 9.50pm, a 1,000 kg bomb exploded close to the back of the cinema, resulting in the destruction of the screen and the auditorium.
Amazingly, the robust construction of the gallery and foyer protected everyone and no one was killed or injured. The foreman had a narrow escape. He had been to the back to bank up the boiler, and had just returned to the stalls when the back wall and the screen were blown in.
Poignant photographs taken the next morning by the Council’s Engineers, now preserved in the History Centre, show the extent of damage to the surrounding area.
The owner of the National ensured the name continued by taking out a lease on the Rialto on the opposite side of the road, next door to Stepney Station. People still remember visiting the National in that location. Subsequently, the bombed site was hidden behind an advert hording and largely forgotten.
In 1999 the National Civilian World War 2 Memorial Trust was established to preserve the ruins, provide a heritage site and education facility and create a venue for activities and a peace garden. English Heritage recognised the special character of the site and it was listed as being of historic interest. Fewer than 20 World War 2 bombed buildings survive in England in their ruined state. Most are preserved churches or military buildings; the National is special for being an ‘everyday’ civilian building. Cinemas were important during the war as sources of illustrated news as well as entertainment.
Today the site is owned by the Council and forms part of its strategy to refurbish key buildings and sites in Beverley Road and encourage local activities and businesses. Thanks to lottery players, funds have been made available to stabilise the remains of the National and develop exciting plans for the next stage of the project.
Very soon we should all hear whether further funding will enable the next stage of the project to progress.
[Hilary Byers – Trustee, National Civilian WW2 Memorial Trust]