On this oral history interview you can hear memories of Sydney Hall & The Shield Club, two place he managed in the 70s and 80s. He also mentions The Regal in Portland. Talks about how Bingo used to be hugely popular, with Sydney Hall in Weymouth and The Regal on Portland both being bingo halls.
It was 1972 (approx) when I got involved with the Sydney Hall. I worked for a company called Leisure for the People Ltd., which was owned by a guy called Jerry Cameron. It was a big company which had bingo clubs in the London and Chatham areas. Later they had clubs in Basildon and Harlow. Then the company bought The Regal in Portland.
I moved down here to run an antiques business with a friend. We were both also involved in the bingo clubs. I also wanted to start a cut price shop. Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding about the business premises I came out of that. I was out of work for 2/3 weeks. A friend who managed the Regal was moving to manage a club in Dover, and he asked me whether I wanted to run the Regal, which I did. That was about 1971. It was a full-time Bingo Club.
In about 1978, the owner of the company, Jerry, died. The capital gains tax, which had been rolling over, became due. Jerry’s wife decided to liquidate the company. The company owned the Regal, the Sydney hall and the big cinema in the middle of town (originally the old market hall) in this part of the world, but there were all the other clubs in London, Chatham, Harlow etc. There wasn’t the large amount of cash available to pay that bill….this was a big business which was all in Jerry’s name. With time, the liquidation could have been gradual. But that was the end of the business. The Regal was the last to go: it became a night club and then later it burnt down. While I was still managing it we experimented with running a Saturday morning cinema, showing 16mm films but it wasn’t successful. I also remember a customer who had been involved with the actual building of the Regal in the 1920’s. He did the carpentry work and could remember all the details of the building work. A fascinating character. Eventually, the Regal was pulled down and it is now a block of flats.
The Sydney Hall is interesting because people think that Sydney Rose’s son was killed in the 1st world war, but he wasn’t. I believe he died of a disease. His father then gave the Sydney Hall for the use of the Church Lads Brigade, a place where they could do their drill. The trustees who looked after the hall for the youth of this town and were supposed to look after it, were the Church, and they eventually sold it.
The Sydney Hall was sold to the football club, who already owned the small Sydney Hall.
Then developers came in to build a new supermarket (this wasn’t Asda initially), but then Asda did buy it from them. The deal was that the football club didn’t actually own the football ground….that was owned by the council and leased to the club for a peppercorn rent. It should have stayed like that, but once the football club had this huge asset, it became easy to borrow money for a new stadium.
But prior to that happening and while the Sydney hall was still standing, my original involvement with it was that I was the general manager of the Regal, the Sydney Hall and the Gaumont which was the big cinema in the middle of town. This later became to New Invicta. Bingo was enormously popular. The Regal and the Sydney hall were solely bingo halls. When Rank decided to dispose of the Gaumont, there was a choice that either we bought it or they would go over to full time bingo. This would have killed the Sydney hall and the Regal, as Rank was a very big company. They would have taken over most of the business. They were already running bingo on a Sunday. We couldn’t run bingo on a Sunday at Sydney Hall as it was owned by the church, so we were closed on Sunday.
So when we first took it over….the New Invicta/Gaumont….it was potentially for bingo, but we then decided to continue with it as a cinema but still running the Sunday bingo. We were only there for about one year when Jerry died, and as I’ve said previously, everything was sold.
We were only tenants at Sydney Hall although we wanted to buy it. We got as far as signing a contract with the Church but we were gazumped at the last minute.
The big bingo clubs that Jerry had in Harlow and Basildon were lovely and very popular. He would build them up and then sell on to Mecca.
The New Invicta/Gaumont/Odeon reverted to Top Rank when Jerry died and they turned it over to Bingo. (The Regal carried on for a while until it closed).
At the Sydney Hall in about 1975/77 we would have about 1,000 people coming in for Bingo. It was 50p for an evenings entertainment.
Thursday evening was big money night when we would have a flyer single ticket prize of several hundred pound. It was the busiest night until we started the Monday 50p night. We would get 800/900 people in. We had fruit machines, bingo games, a card table game, big prize raffle, cafeteria and buffet, which all made extra money and all the machines were legal.
What killed bingo in this country were the TV and computer games, when you can play when you like and at home. The only bingo club in town now is Gala Bingo in Crescent St.
When I was running Bingo Clubs it was quite difficult to get to play. You had to be a member of the club, so you had to apply and then wait 24 hours. You had to be over 18 years old. I had to pass a strict vetting process by the Gaming Board. I had interviews with the head of the Gaming Board. They didn’t want American intervention or gangster elements involved. It was a serious thing.
One of the first things the football club did when they bought the Sydney Hall was to try to up our rent. We were paying about £800 and they wanted £11,500 so we went to arbitration. We ended up paying considerably less than that. They had based their demand on the catchment area of Margate which was about 8 million people.
Cinema was very popular at that time. There were two main cinema streams. We had the Rank release and the Classic had the ABC release. The Classic had about 400/500 seats. We had, at the Odeon, approx 1000 seats. The Odeon was a good old fashioned cinema. The year we had it the main release for ABC was ‘Jaws’. It did unbelievable business. The Classic had queues around the block for 3 weeks, and then it came back for another 3 weeks. In competition with that we had, at the Odeon, a re-release of ‘Sound of Music’. We did our best but we didn’t have any decent films that summer.
In the meantime, there was a feeling of uncertainty. My manager at the Sydney Hall, a lovely man called Ray (I was general manager) and I used to go for a drink after work to the Shield Club. We had to go to a club because pubs, at that time, closed about 10.30 or 11 p.m. The Shield Club was a drinking type club. The owner also had the Porthole Restaurant and the Salad Bowl. We got friendly with him, and he asked us if we were interested in buying the club. He told us he was going bankrupt. He had sold the restaurants already but those buyers didn’t want the Shield. Ray and I saw the potential, and it fitted in well with the Sydney Hall hours. We had it in 1976/1977 and we ran it for about 4 years or so. We had a lot of trouble with complaints about noise and people objecting to the licence. We had a disco and sometimes live music, but it was mainly a drinking club. If the music had been too loud, the drinkers wouldn’t have stayed. Eventually we got our licence knocked back to 1am. Meanwhile, Jerdi’s, Cats Whiskers, The Wheel, Cellarvino and Baxters all closed at 2am.
At the end of that period we were having a dispute with the landlord, and we moved out.