12 January 2024

Sam King and Alf Shipman:
two East End violinists who
founded a cinema chain

The Rex Cinema in Berkhamsted … a reminder of the cinema chain built by Alfred Shipman and Samuel King (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During a recent visit to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, the joyful restoration of the Rex Cinema reminded me of two successful 20th century cinema magnates, Alfred Shipman (1890-1956) and Samuel King (1890-1973), who founded the Shipman & King cinema chain that had more than 40 cinemas at its peak.

In recent weeks I have written about Oscar Deutsch (1893-1941), who founded the Odeon cinema chain – urban lore claimed the name Odeon was an acronym for ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.’ Deutsch was also a Jewish philanthropist, an active supporter of many charities, and was President of the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, Singers Hill Synagogue from 1932 to 1940.

The story of Shipman and King and the success of their cinema chain is a similar story, but in this caseit is the story of the sons of Polish immigrants who grew up in the Jewish East End of London.

The Shipman & King cinema chain was founded by Shipman and King in the immediate aftermath of World War I and family stories say they began the chain in the back of a pub.

Sam King was a teacher and an accomplished violinist who played in the orchestra pits in London cinemas. Alf Shipman was an entrepreneur who was buying up cinemas that were struggling financially in the aftermath of World War I.

King’s Jewish family fled pogroms in Poland, when it was part of the Russian Empire, and their original surname may have been Koenig – the Latin forms of the name, Rex, was later used as the name of many of his cinemas. He was born Samuel Simon King in Mile End, the son of Lewis King, a cobbler, and Kate (Goldberger). He grew up in the East End, attended Stepney Jewish School, and trained as a teacher at Goldsmith’s College. Shipman was a Russian-born Polish immigrant, and later he married Sam’s sister, Sadie King.

When King and Shipman met at the end of World War I, they were both playing the violin in the Queen’s Light Orchestra at evening showings of silent films. Sam was a teacher during the day, while Alf was a full-time musician.

The friends met for a drink in 1919 in the Crown Hotel, Hailsham, near Eastbourne on the south coast. When they spotted the barn in the back, they rented a projector converted the barn and started putting on screenings in their first cinema venture.

Business grew quickly, and they registered Shipman & King Cinemas Ltd in 1920. Sam gave up teaching to manage the financial side of the business and the day-to-day running of the business, while Alf was the entrepreneur, and Alf’s brother Mick was the booking manager. The partnership would last until Alf Shipman died in 1956.

Henry Coussens was the architect for their first purpose-built cinema, the Pavilion Hailsham. It opened on Monday 28 November 1921, with a capacity audience watching Charlie Chaplin in The Kid. By 1926, there were eight acquired silent cinemas and one purpose built within the S&K circuit, overseen by AE Randle. The next new cinema built for Shipman and King followed in 1930. A policy was adopted not to mimic the large circuits, but to acquire an existing cinema, refurbish it and then to build another nearby. The company preferred locations away from the densely populated inner cities, favouring middle class areas in the south of England.

Sam and Alf saw their business rapidly expand in the 1930s. However, with prudent management they avoided over commit acquiring sites and operated strict budgets on both the building and fitting out their cinemas. At the same time, Oscar Deutsch (Odeon) and John Maxwell (ABC) often waited for independent operators to ran into financial trouble and then stepped in to snap up newly-built cinemas. There are examples where the reverse happened when S&K would open a cinema that was intended to be an Odeon which may suggest a good working relationship with Oscar Deutsch.

Part of the success of Otto Deutsch was his choice of architects to design his Odeon cinemas, including Harry Weedon (1887-1970), who also refurbished Singers Hill Synagogue. In a similar vein, Shipman and King employed architects such as Robert Cromie (1887-1971), David Evelyn Nye (1906-1986), Henry Coussens, Howis & Belcham, Leslie H Kemp and Frederick E Tasker.

These architects helped Shipman and King build up a portfolio of moderately-sized quality cinemas that could equal city centre cinemas in the three major circuits in both appearance and comfort. The Shipman & King cinemas had lavish art deco interiors, most had balconies, many had car parks, and some also had restaurants.

Nye designed the Rex cinema in Berkhamsted in the art deco style in 1936. The Rex was built on the site of Egerton House, an Elizabethan mansion once known for its literary association with JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan, and the Llewelyn Davies family. Egerton House was demolished in 1937 and the Rex opened in 1938.

When Alf Shipman died in 1956, Sam King’s son, Peter became a director. Sam King’s son Peter King went on to work with Paramount and EMI before founding Screen International in 1975. He died in 2018. Meanehile, the Shipman and King circuit was bought in 1965 by the Grade Organisation, which in turn was taken over by EMI. After years of bingo conversions and closures what was left of these cinemas came under the control of Cannon Cinemas.

Today, just a few former S & K sites remain. The first purpose-built S & K cinema, the Pavilion in Hailsham, has been rescued from a derelict condition and has been beautifully restored. It marked its centenary in 2021. The Everyman in Esher is now a multiplex. The Rex in Berkhamsted closed after 50 years in 1988 and became derelict. The building was listed Grade II by English Heritage. Following a campaign to save the Rex, the cinema re-opened in 2004. Today, it is an independent cinema, screening films 362 days a year.

The life and legacy of Sam King is told in Cinema King, a book by his granddaughter Jenny King. She recounts King’s life and fondly remembers her grandfather as ‘gentle, intelligent and dignified’.

Shabbat Shalom


Jennifer King said...

Thank you for writing the story of my grandfather Sam King and his business partner Alf Shipman. It is a truly remarkable story.

My memoir about by grandfather is in fact called Cinema King and is published by Stephen Morris and available on www.thegreatbritishbookshop.co.uk

All the profits go to support Shipman and King's very first new cinema: the Hailsham Pavilion, through the charity the Hailsham Old Pavilion Society (HOPS) that keeps the cinema alive.

Patrick Comerford said...

Thank you Jennifer King for your response and for your correction. That was a 'typo' on my part, so my apologies. I have corrected the mistake. They sound like two wonderful men, and you must be very proud of your grandfather. Thank you, Patrick

Jennifer King said...

Thank you so much! Yes I am very proud! Thanks again for choosing to write about them.