The Brain Behind the Big Screens

Historian Mick Collins exalts a little-known hero of Portsmouth cinema architecture and post-war reconstruction.

Six years ago I was forced to take early retirement from a job that I really enjoyed. It was quite a blow and, for a time, I was rather depressed. Realising that I would probably have great difficulty at my age finding another employment, I started to worry about what I could do to fill in my time and keep myself occupied, as I had never been out of work before.

I had a few hobbies and had written several collectors’ books but nothing came instantly to mind, until one evening whilst I was browsing the internet and the proverbial light bulb in my brain lit up. I was looking at a number of cinema buildings on the photographic website Flickr when I started to think back to my youth when I used to frequent the cinema. I used to be fascinated by the design of the edifices I sat in.

My local cinema was the Art Deco Savoy in Fareham. I spent many happy hours there until, sadly, it was demolished in the early 1960s. It had been my cinema of choice from my early childhood; Mum used to take my sister and I there on special occasions. Then, for me, came the Saturday morning pictures with all my friends and later, when I started work in my mid-teens, I was able to go as often as I pleased, or was able to afford.

I very much enjoyed the whole experience of sitting through the changing multi-coloured lighting, the soft music and the films in a quite lavish auditorium, abundant with gold decorative plasterwork. The Savoy was like a magnet to me; I thought it was a spectacular-looking building, with its white facade and prominent situation in the centre of the town. However, the 1950s was a very bad time for cinemas, as television had started to take over. The ‘flicks’ could not compete, resulting in many closures.

I really missed going to the Savoy after it shut down and started to look into its history, with a view to finding out if its architect had designed any other cinemas similar locally, where perhaps I might find the same enjoyment. I discovered, through information I found with the help of staff in Portsmouth’s Central Library, that the architect was a local man, a Mr RA Thomas of Cosham and he had, in fact, been the architect of several other cinemas in the area. This was the 1960s and I had not long been able to drive but, in due course, I visited some of the other cinemas and found many similarities to the Fareham venue. I did not keep up my cinema-going, though, as I was somewhat distracted by work, family and other matters.

As I browsed Flickr some more, another idea came to me: I would trace and write the history of the cinemas designed by this Mr RA Thomas. In the early stages, I assumed that the project would not amount to a great deal. Then, I had an extremely good piece of luck; I learnt that Robin Thomas had a son, also named Robin, who was still alive and based in Portsmouth. We met up on several occasions. Although in his nineties, Robin Junior gave me a huge amount of information and many photos, which spurred me on to broaden my project and to aim to make it into a publication about the architect, as well as aspects of his work.

Robin A Thomas was born into a fairly large family in Portsmouth. He was educated in a Southsea school, studied architecture and later became Portsmouth’s Borough Building Surveyor. He served as a corporal in World War I, got married afterwards and then set up his own architect’s practice in Cosham. From that practice, located first in Havant Road then in Northern Road, he and his team designed cinemas and various other structures in and around Portsmouth and beyond.

He became known as ‘the well-known cinema architect, Mr RA Thomas’. He designed the Carlton, Cosham, Savoy, Fareham, Empire, Havant, Plazas, Romsey and Dorchester, Regal, Parkstone and the Ritz, Burnham-on-Sea and was the architect for the redesigned Apollo, Southsea, Forum, Stamshaw, Regal, Eastleigh and Palace, Alton.

The cinemas were a small part of his work; he was also the brain behind blocks of flats, shops, offices, factories, private houses, public houses, churches, garage premises and whole housing estates, to name but a few. He was also a pillar of the Portsmouth community and a member of several organisations and clubs, including Portsmouth Camera Club. A brilliant photographer and artist, Thomas made beautiful etchings that are still feted to this day. He appeared to do so many ‘extra-curricular’ activities that I wondered how he found the time for his professional duties as an architect.

In the 1950s, Thomas moved his practice from Northern Road, Cosham to Buckingham House in Old Portsmouth and went into partnership with his son Robin Junior and a Walter Hall. Thomas and his new partners were very much involved in the rebuilding of Portsmouth after World War II, providing homes for those displaced by bombing. The large blocks of flats at the Commercial Road end of Lake Road are an RA Thomas design.

Thomas died in 1956 but the practice continued until Robin Junior retired in 1988.

There are a number of other buildings in Portsmouth that I believe were Thomas’ brainchildren but I have not been able to prove their origin, as no records seem to exist. However, I have had tremendous help in the research for my book from the Thomas family, particularly RA Thomas’s granddaughter, Penny; the Portsmouth History Centre; Portsmouth City Museum; Dorset Heritage Centre; and newspapers including The News (Portsmouth), Southern Daily Echo and Dorset Daily Echo. I met some lovely people at the three cinema buildings that have survived and was given, at all three, unlimited access to photograph and to chat; a most enjoyable experience!

The whole project took me a long time to complete (five years) because both Robin Junior and myself wanted absolute accuracy and some aspects did take a long time to confirm. The end result of my journey, The Cinemas of R.A. Thomas, was published at the end of 2015.

Image by Kotivalo (Own work) under Creative Commons license SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Stephen Webb

    R A Thomas architects designed Cosham Congregational Church in 1959, so this would have been his son. Unfortunately this was demolished in 2005/6.