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Leisurely Pursuits

by Amy Roberts

Sports Day Priory Park 1890 - 1900

Written by Amy Roberts, Collections Officer at The Novium Museum

With its proximity to the sea and South Downs, Chichester has been a centre of outdoor leisure and sport for centuries. Many parks, gardens and other green spaces including Priory Park have been established since the Victorian period to allow for a number of different leisurely pursuits.

It was not until the Victorian period (1837-1901) that considerable increased interest in leisurely pursuits led to the establishment of various sporting clubs and organisations as well as public gardens in the city. By the 1890s Chichester had more than 20 sporting clubs including football and cycling. Meanwhile, public gardens were created for more relaxed activities including the Jubilee Gardens, which opened in 1887 to mark Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

Priory Park was often the chosen playing field for a number of sports up until the middle of the 20th century. Records in 1850 mention that cricket, bowling and archery were played in the park.

The city's cycling and rifle clubs were also based in Priory Park around this time. Football was active in Priory Park in the latter half of the 19th century; while a 'three course' cycling track and croquet lawn were also present. Additionally, lawn tennis courts were constructed for one week each year for a special tennis tournament.

Parks in and around Chichester were also used for other leisure and sporting activities including Sports Days in the late 19th century. Jubilee and Coronation celebrations which included dance performances, picnics, track events and Donkey Derby's were held throughout the mid-20th century.

Chichester's first theatre was founded at Southgate and was built in the early 1790s. There were typically plays on two or three nights a week during the season. Admission charges in the 1790s were 3s, 2s and 1s.

Chichester's first purpose built Cinema, the Olympia Electric still stands behind the fire station. Twice gutted by fire and next door to the city's ice rink the Olympia opened in 1911, closing its doors in 1922 after a second fire broke through the roof and gutted the auditorium.

Another of Chichester's historic cinemas was The Gaumont. This cinema opened in 1937 and had the largest auditorium holding 1278 people. In 1961 it was converted to Chichester's first swimming baths.

In 1921 the Chichester Picturedrome Ltd. was opened in South Street. In 1930 it was renamed 'The Plaza'. Such was the popularity of films that it had to be rebuilt in 1936 in order to accommodate a rapidly growing audience. The publicity brochure issued to mark its re-opening claimed that The Plaza had all the facilities of a modern cinema. The Plaza was taken over and renamed 'The Odeon' in the 1940s. It closed in 1962 and was later converted into a supermarket.

Finally the Corn Exchange, built in 1832 as a market place for local farmers, was first used as a theatre in 1883. It was regularly used by the Chichester Minstrels, but the audience had to bring their own seats or sit on corn bins! Many Chichester residents will remember the Corn Exchange as The Grenada, 'the service-with-a-smile-theatre.' The last film ever to be shown at the Corn Exchange was Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Backin August 1980.