‘The ABC was the best thing since sliced bread’: the lost cinemas of the ELL boroughs

Howard remembers trying to get into X-rated films when he was too young for was a good night out, while Riley remembers singing the national anthem as the credits rolled. Local people share their memories of some of London's lost cinemas

Images of ex and current ELL residents. From left: Riley Kirsch, Hyacinth Bailey, Howard Lament. Pics: Riley Kirsch, Hyacinth Bailey, Howard Lament

For many, a trip to the cinema is more than just a quick entertainment fix; it is a reminder of simpler times, where the smell of buttery popcorn provided temporary respite from everyday life. 

The first cinema in the UK, the Polytechnic in Upper Regent Street, opened its doors in 1896 and those that followed provided the ideal location for a first date, family outing or even a birthday celebration. 

But with the rise of streaming, cinemas have gone from a place of glory to a tired activity of yesteryear, with cinephiles preferring to watch new releases from their sofa than venture out. Screens that have survived have lost their spark and can be recognised by flickering lights in ghost town ticket halls and worn-out seats in half empty rooms.

As a result, many original cinemas have been replaced by restaurants and housing with only local residents’ memories keeping them alive. There are several lost cinemas that still cling to meaning in the Eastlondonlines boroughs – they are gone, but not forgotten. 

To find out where the lost cinemas of the ELL boroughs used to be located and what they are now, have a look at the interactive map below.


Howard at 76 and at 25. Pics: Howard Lament

Howard Lament was born in 1948 in Upper Clapton, where he lived for 21 years. To him, Hackney is unrecognisable; the independent cinemas showcasing avant garde films are far from his beloved but long-lost cinema, The Super, which is now the Asda in Amhurst Park. 

He described a childhood trip to the cinema as a “major outing”, recalling that if his parents ever took him to the posher picture house, The Regent, which is now a Big Sainsburys, it was an event to be remembered. 

“The nature of watching a film was completely different,” he says. “More often than not, we’d get to the cinema half an hour after the film started and lots of people did the same. The film would then end, and you’d stay there and watch the same programme from the beginning and leave at the point you came in.”

But film etiquette is not the only stark difference between past and present cinema-goers – Lament also recalls the cinema as being a place where mischief would materialise. 

“In my teenage years the biggest thing we would do would be to try and get into an X film, but quite often or not we’d get kicked out. So we’d wait outside the cinema exit and run in as people were leaving so we didn’t have to pay for a ticket.” 


Hyacinth Bailey at 17 and her now. Pics: Hyacinth Bailey

Hyacinth Bailey has lived in Lewisham her entire life and grew up in the 60s with a love for film. Her favourite cinema was the ABC, which opened in 1961. She was even a member of the Catford ABC Minors, a group of children who would attend the cinema to watch a film every Saturday morning.

“It was the best thing since sliced bread,” she says. “I was maybe five when I started going with my older sisters and it was the absolute highlight of my week. It was like a club – we would sing a song before the programme started. We did have a television, but we only had one channel, so it was just amazing.”

She has tried to carry on the Saturday morning cinema tradition with her grandson but recognises that it doesn’t hold the same weight for children anymore. She told Eastlondonlines: “Because of the amount of screentime children have now they are quite blasé about the cinema.”

When Bailey’s beloved ABC Cinema was put up for sale in 2002, Bailey was on the front lines of the protest. She said it saddened her that “for many years after the ABC closed, we were the only borough in London that did not have a cinema.” Luckily, she is now able to frequent the Catford Mews cinema instead.

Tower Hamlets 

Riley Kirsch at 22, 18, and 75. Pics: Riley Kirsch

Riley Kirsch, 75, was born in Whitechapel and lived there until he was 16. He fondly remembers going to the cinema at least once a week, particularly on a Friday after school. 

Nowadays, he rarely attends the cinema, but he misses the atmosphere provided by a new release. He said, “When you came out, there were always a couple of sellers, selling hot chestnuts and the racing page, showing the dog racing and football results of the night; it was a penny.”

But before the after-cinema chestnuts, there was a tradition that Kirsch now laughs about – singing the national anthem. “Very few people ran out at the end of the film,” he says. “When the credits would roll, they played God Save the Queen. I remember doing it all the way up to the sixties.”

While leaving the comfort of his home to see a film is no longer a weekly occurrence, he does remember categorising cinemas into “good” and “bad”. “The Ben Hur (which has since been demolished) was an actual fleapit, the worst cinema in East London, a dump on Whitehorse Road,” he says. “But the Rivoli Cinema was great; it was also a dance space, and that’s where my mum and dad met, but now it’s an Ibis hotel.”

Even though Kirsch no longer lives in Tower Hamlets, he said that he enjoys strolling through the borough with his wife every now and then to remember the relics of his childhood. 


Sadly, Eastlondonlines has been unable to reconnect with any readers in Croydon who have memories of any of the boroughs’ old cinemas. So please, if you have any stories you would like to share, contact: jseal001@gold.ac.uk

Find out more about films in ELL boroughs here

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