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William Haggar's fleapit cinema

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:31 UK time, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Time was every community in Wales had its own "fleapit" cinema, showing two features a week - and a special show on Sundays. They were the social centres of the town, people dressing in their best clothes and queuing round the block to get a seat.

Cinemas had their origins in the travelling picture shows, the Bioscopes, which were part of the fairs that visited towns across the country in the late nineteenth century. People like Harry Scard, Mitchell and Kenyon and, in particular, William Haggar not only showed films, they also made them.

Beginning with short features such as A Ride On The Mumbles Railway and a film about the Boer War - actually shot in the Rhymney Valley - Haggar saw a niche in the market and was soon producing early classics such as The Life And Death Of Charles Peace and The Maid Of Cefn Ydfa. The Charles Peace film about the notorious Victorian burglar and murderer was shot in Pembroke Dock and is the oldest extant British story film.

By the end of World War One most Bioscopes had found themselves permanent homes, the Haggar family creating cinemas in places such as Lanelli, Pontardulais, and, in particular, Pembroke. William Haggar retired to Aberdare but the cinemas continued to be owned and run by his sons. The Pembroke cinema was established by William Haggar Jnr, being taken over, in due course, by his son Len. It was always a family concern.

Phil Carradice with members of the Haggar family outside the former Haggar's Cinema in Pembroke

"We were always being brought in to sell tickets or ice cream," says Sarah Haggar, granddaughter of Len, "it was just something you did. Years later I became an actress and I think my love of the stage and acting came from my involvement with Haggar's Cinema when I was young."

Selling ice cream in the cinema was not a job for the faint hearted as Len's daughter Dinah recalls:

"One evening I was told to sell ice cream and the picture that night was a desert one, Lawrence Of Arabia or something like that. I didn't really know what to do so I just went up to people and said 'Do you want an ice cream?' Of course, on the screen there were miles of sand and nothing but blazing heat. I think we broke the record on ice cream sales that night."

Haggar's Cinema closed in 1982, the last privately owned cinema in Wales and the building - once Pembroke's Assembly Rooms - now operates as a nightclub. William Haggar, always conscious of providing entertainment for the people, would probably have been pleased.

"I'm proud that my family were amongst the pioneers of British cinema," says Susan Haggar, great granddaughter of William Haggar. "And also to think that they provided so much entertainment for so long to the people of Pembroke."

The story of William Haggar and the cinema in Pembroke is told on The Past Master, first broadcast on BBC Radio Wales, 28 February 2010.


  • Comment number 1.

    Haggar's flea pit was my old local cinema, growing up near Pembroke.

    I can remember being dragged there to watch 'Greece' along with a bunch of screaming 9 yr old girls, for my sisters birthday :(

    And begging my dad to take me to see 'Clash of the Titans!' in 1981 just before it closed down.

    Shame it was turned into a nightclub. The area has been crying out for a decent cinema ever since...

  • Comment number 2.

    Fascinating stuff Phil, being from "the Dock" our cinema was The Grand. My memories of Haggar's relate to the early sixties - playing on stage there with my band The Creators - especially opening for the Swansea group The Eyes of Blue. I'm sure a lot of folks remember the steep staircase at Haggar's!

  • Comment number 3.

    There were many enterprising cimema proprietors in those early days. Not far from Haggar's Pembroke auditorium was Haverfordwest's Palace Cinema, opened by the Swansea impresario Sidney White in 1913, after a furious local debate about the morality of such entertainments. One of White's nicer touches was to screen the national football results during the Saturday night programme so that local fans could see them from the "cosy chairs" of the Palace, rather than have to walk down to the railway station on the Sunday morning to read them in the Sunday papers.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks for that comment, Robert. I wonder how many cinemas there were in Pembrokeshire? I know there was the Grand in Pembroke Dock and Haggar's. How many in Haverfordwest? Tenby had two that I know of and I think Milford had one. Does anybody know of any others?

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    By the 1950s, when I started cinema-going, there were two cinemas in Haverfordwest, the Palace having continued under various guises and having been known for a while as Daddy White's, and the County Theatre, which was also a theatre (and which presented a perfomance by Paul Robeson in 1938). Within six miles there were the three in Milford, the Astoria, the Empire ... and what was the third one? Another Palace, I think. Neyland, between the other two towns, had its Plaza.

  • Comment number 7.

    Haggar’s cinema in Pembroke was a much longer walk home than the ‘Grand’ in Pembroke Dock but we still used to go on occasion. If you went to the cinema on ‘Dance Nights’ the film would be accompanied by sound effects - people tramping on the dance floor above. The occasional anxious eye would be cast ceiling-wards and a wonderful picture conjured in the mind of the dance floor giving way and bodies cascading down with limbs flailing in perfect time to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ or some such song of the day.
    Ah! Those stairs to the Dance Hall. Fell down those once but some kind souls grabbed me before I got anywhere near the bottom and no serious damage was done except to my pride. Very steep they were and their steepness increased in direct proportion to the amount of time spent in the Tudor Bar beforehand.

  • Comment number 8.

    A report from the Merthyr Express dated 3 January 1914

    Great Fire at Pontlottyn: Mr. Will Haggar’s Theatre Destroyed At 6 p.m. last Friday, a disastrous fire broke out at Mr. Will Haggar’s Theatre at Pontlottyn. The fire broke out in the engine room beneath the canteen and operator’s room. The Theatre was burned to the ground in 15 to 20 minutes, fanned by a great wing. Councillor Ben Hughes phoned for the Bargoed fire brigade, in addition to the local brigade. The Hall was used by Mr. Haggar as a picture palace and variety hall, and was capable of holding 800 to 1,000 people. It was a wooden structure. He had purchased the building just two years ago. The ‘turn’ for the week was Dockstader, illusionist and conjurer, and all his equipment, worth £200-£250, was lost in the blaze. Mr. Haggar was away at Tredegar where he has another theatre.

  • Comment number 9.

    Great Fire at Pontlottyn 1914. I believe my grandfather W.G.E Harcourt was manager & pianist at Haggar's Cinema at the time of the fire. Can anyone confirm this?

  • Comment number 10.

    I looked up the fire at Pontlottyn in Peter Yorke's biography of William Haggar and although he mentions the disaster he doesn't give much detail. He doesn't mention WGE Harcourt. Perhaps the local papers of the time will be more informative?

  • Comment number 11.

    Am I imagining it or did I hear/read somewhere that Haggar's was a "back to front" cinema? In other words you came in past the screen, then turned around to sit down. If that was true, I wonder why they did it like that?

  • Comment number 12.

    I read with interest the article on Haggar's cinema in Pembroke. Born and brought up in Pembroke I spent many hours queueing up outside on Main Street to get in. Noreen who asked the question about a 'back to front' cinema was correct - you walked past the screen and turned round to sit down. I think there was a row at the back with double seats for courting couples. The stairs were indeed steep and difficult to come down after the Saturday night dance. I seem to remember to price of a ticket was 1s.9d to get in. Happy days, happy memories.


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