Debate has filled the pages of the Plymouth Evening Herald in recent weeks about the future of Union Street. A community musical about the road – and a public meeting which accompanied the show – saw residents call for new ideas and a fresh focus to revamp the area, famed for its nightlife and entertainment venues. Here, Crispin Gill, an Evening Herald sub-editor from 1937-1938 – and assistant editor of the Western Morning News for 25 years until 1971 – shares his memories of Union Street. The article was first published in the Evening Herald.
Union Street was only two minutes walk from the back door of the Western Morning News office, where I started work as an apprentice reporter in 1934. So it is not hard to imagine where we youngsters went when we came off evening duty at 9pm, 10pm, or even later.
One night, upstairs in the restaurant, just this side of the railway bridge (where the car park bridge goes across to the Pavilion now), I went to the washroom. There I saw a sailor annoyed by a civilian.
They all wore uniform ashore in those days. The matelot put his hands into man’s armpits, lifted him off the ground, sat him in the washhand basin, pressed him down with one hand on top of his head, and with the other hand turned the taps on. Then he went out, never a word said.
Another night, in a room off the Paramount Ballroom, I watched a man push the falsies into position under his dress, take off his wig, scratch his head, put the wig back on and say to his mate alongside him, also in drag, “Is my wig on straight, duckie?”
Even so, in the Gaiety Cinema, where gas jets formed the emergency lighting when the film was running, it was not unknown for a sailor to stand up and turn off the gas above his head so that he could cuddle his girlfriend in greater darkness.
Just around the corner at the Plymouth end, in Courtney Street, was Bern’s, Plymouth’s first all-night coffee shop. Late one night an aged and timeworn old dear came in. Would anyone give her three-halfpence, her tram fare home to Devonport? She had not had a customer all evening.
Marco Berni ran the Plymouth shop; his two brothers ran a similar place in Exeter. Marco was a handsome little man in a very swarthy Italian fashion. His brothers were the go-ahead businessmen who built up the Berni empire, Marco was too intent on charming the ladies.
The Palace Theatre was a great centre. The last piece that the orchestra always played before the curtain went up was ‘All the nice girls love a sailor’.
Jack Fitchett, the manager in the ’30’s. was always to be found in the circle bar during the second half of the second house.
I would join Jack when I finished work. We could hear the orchestra faintly through the closed doors at the back of the circle, and Jack would say, as they struck up for another act: “This is a good turn, Crispin” and I would go into the back of the circle to watch it.
Jack Fitchett was an interesting character in himself. He had been on the boards as a young man, and appeared with Charlie Chaplin in The Mumming Birds. Jack has also been a professional footballer.
When he retired, he took over the licence of the Royal Sovereign further along Union Street.
He was followed as manager at the Palace by Ronnie Green, who had been manager of the Cinedrome, the cinema in Ebrington Street. The facade is still there, for a long time the entrance to Millet’s store.
As television took over, so the music hall faded and died.
The battles of the Armada are still being fought in the great mosaics over the remaining facade of the Palace Theatre, which is now a bingo hall. And still from the outside, one of the great monuments of Union Street.
On the other side of the road, near Stonehouse, was the Grand. In the 1920’s it was celebrated for its pantomimes. Year after year Randolph Sutton played the Dame, and he was so camp that he would make any of his modern rivals look positively butch.
The Grand ended up as a cinema. One night my wife and I went with John Foot to see some film that we has missed earlier. We were in the front row of the circle, and there was the gallery above us. A bald-headed man sitting in front put his hand on his head a couple of times and each time examined his palm as he brought it down.
Finally he turned and looked up at the gallery above us. “Stop spitting up there”, he shouted. All was at peace for a few minutes. Then he put his hand on his head again, got out of his seat and disappeared. There was a thump and a bang over our heads a minute later, then the man came back to his seat and all was at peace.
One pub which was good was the Posada – designed like a Spanish wine lodge. In my memory I may be confusing it with Nicholsons in George Street, but I think it had a long bar on each side, one selling beer and the other spirits.
Travelling up and down Union Street on the top of a tram, I counted the pubs. I made it 32, and then the two theatres had their bars as well. Chris Robinson in a directory count recently had a different figure, but we may have been using different years.
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