Lost Edinburgh: Poole’s Synod Hall

The Synod Hall. Picture: Contributed
The Synod Hall. Picture: Contributed
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POOLE’S Synod Hall led the way by becoming the first cinema in Edinburgh to start showing ‘real talkies’ in the mid-1920s.

The Synod Hall on Castle Terrace operated as a cinema for much of the 20th century, but the building’s history stretches back much further. It all began in the 1870s with plans for a new theatre in Edinburgh’s West End.

West End Theatre

The grand auditorium was built ‘at enormous expense’ in 1875 to the design of architects J. Murray Bell and F.T. Pilkington, with Sir James Gowans (of Rockville House fame) responsible for its imposing exterior.

Castle Terrace’s new West End Theatre had been intended to be part of an ill-fated city centre entertainment complex including a Winter Garden. Unfortunately, the theatre’s foundations barely had time to settle before the property was bought and converted in 1877 by the United Presbyterian Church to become their new Synod Hall - all for a fraction of the original £65k paid to build the structure two years earlier.

Poole’s Synod Hall

Beginning in 1906 the Poole family, who would later become famous for running cinemas up and down the country, rented out the Synod Hall on Castle Terrace to show myrioramas (moving panoramas) depicting scenes of worldwide interest and elaborate illustrations of major events such as the Battle of Waterloo and, later, the loss of the Titanic.

Advertised as ‘an entertainment of unparalleled brilliance and refinement’, the popular myrioramas were an annual fixture each Christmas at the Synod Hall until 1928, when the Poole family turned the venue into a full-time cinema.

Talking pictures

In the mid-1920s with the old-fashioned myrioramas now on their way out, Poole’s turned their attention to the future. The Synod Hall showed its first talkies in 1926 and is credited as being the first venue in Edinburgh to do so. Poole’s talking pictures were an instant hit and by the end of the decade the company had decked out the ageing Synod Hall with the very latest audio equipment.

In the years which followed, Poole’s also ran the Roxy on Gorgie Road and the Cameo at Tollcross as the family-run business continued to thrive.

During the fifties and sixties, the Synod Hall began to specialise in showing gruesome horror flicks and became a popular refuge for school kids playing truant – much to the displeasure of Mr Jim Poole, the owner.

Despite a steady ability to turn a considerable profit, Poole’s Synod Hall was forced to lower its curtain for the final time in October 1965. It was demolished, along with the original offices for the School Board and Parish Council next door, to make room for a new national opera house which would never be built.

Saltire Court

The resulting ‘hole in the ground’ from the removal of Poole’s Synod Hall and adjoining buildings on Castle Terrace would endure for a longer length of time than the cinema had shown its famous myrioramas. Discussions intent on reviving the opera house project resurfaced in the mid eighties, but the embarrassing gap site was eventually filled in 1991 by Saltire Court – a mighty office block which incorporates the Traverse Theatre to its rear.

A plaque in the foyer of its side entrance on Cambridge Street commemorates the achievements of the Poole family and their pioneering Synod Hall all those years ago.

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