In the dock

Cinematograph theatre in Lordship Lane, London, in 1913, from

Let us celebrate the Bioscope’s imminent passing of the significant milestone of its 100,000th visitor (hurrah) by looking at a major new research resource for British historical studies in general which offers some minor but intriguing opportunities for the early film historian.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online is just that – a fully searchable edition of digitised texts from London’s central criminal court, with details of 197,745 criminal trials. These are trial reports originally published for general consumption. Previously this remarkable resource (a collaboration between the Open University, and the Universities of Hertfordshire and Sheffield, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Big Lottery Fund) covered the years 1674-1834. Now the collection has been augmented by texts of trials going up to April 1913 (when the printed Proceedings ceased publication). This makes it an obvious boon for historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with a wealth of social detail alongside the intrinsic interest of the trials themselves. It is also a source of huge interest to family historians, who are exploring with nervous/eager anticipation to see if any of their forbears ended up in the dock (I’ve found one such forbear, but happily he was merely a witness to a crime). It is easy and helpful to use, and utterly engrossing to read.

So, given that the records go up to 1913, what is there for the film historian? Well, not a huge amount, but enough to merit further exploration by somebody. There are both cases which involve motion pictures, and cases where the accused or witnesses attended film shows which are recorded as part of the evidence.

For example, consider the case of Manuel Goldberg, alleged user of counterfeit coinage, from 8 January 1907. We get this evidence from one of the witnesses:

LOUISE VALLERS, wife of Henry Vallers, 129, Whitechapel Road, E. We keep a Bioscope Exhibition. I was there on the evening of December 22 last, between five and six, when prisoner came in on see the exhibition. The charge for admission was one penny. He tendered a half-crown. The people pay at the door as they enter. This is the coin marked by myself. I took it and gave him two separate shillings and fivepence change. He said to me, “Are there no tickets?” I said, “No,” and he went to the door again and beckoned to another man to come in. The other man came up, and he also gave me a half-crown for his admission, for which I gave him two and fivepence change. This is the one. I looked at them, being two half-crowns looked suspicious. I tested both of them with acid, and found they were bad. The second-man kept by the doorway, but the prisoner walked right to the end of the shop and sat down and waited for the exhibition. When the second man noticed that I saw the coins were no good, he took to his heels and ran away. I then closed my shop door and sent for a constable. I went up to prisoner, and said, “This half-crown ie no good to me,” and detained him till the other people in the shop had left. I gave him the coin back again. He simply said, “Not” and gave me a two shilling piece and ten halfpennies for his half-crown. A constable came in and I gave him in charge.

This is incidental evidence of a very early cinema in London, from which we learn its location, ownership, the price of admission, the ticketing policy, and the fact that, interestingly, the owner refers to the business as a shop (many early cinemas in London were simple shop conversions). He was found not guilty, by the way.

Next, this simple case report from 20 April 1909:

THOMPSON, William (31, operator), pleaded guilty of stealing two spools and four cinematograph films, the goods of Herbert Crow; also to stealing two spools and six cinematograph films, the goods of Horace Liver and another; also to stealing three cinematograph films, the goods of Frederick Weisker and another.

He confessed to a conviction for felony in 1906 in the name of Albert Storer. Several other convictions were proved, dating back to 1891. It being stated that another charge against him was pending, he also pleaded guilty to that in order that the Court might deal with all matters against him up to date.

Sentence, Two years’ hard labour on each indictment, to run concurrently.

And so on. It is necessary to use a variety of search terms to find relevant material. I’ve found evidence (as it were) using Bioscope, Cinematograph, Cinema, Biograph, Film (though look out for errors in the optical character recognition – a lot of ‘films’ should actually be ‘firms’) and Picture Palace. With the latter you get many glimpses of the regular habit of cinema-going at this time. Use the term Living Pictures, and you find the trial of the renowned anachist group behind the ‘Houndsditch Murders’ and the Siege of Sidney Street, as in this testimony from Luba Millstein :

When I got back to No. 59 Dubof was there; I cannot remember what time he left. Later that night Trassjonsky and I went to see some living pictures. On returning she and I were staying in the back room; Fritz and Trassjonsky lived there together. About midnight I heard two people coming upstairs. On my going to the front room door and knocking Fritz told me I must not come in. A little later the men left and I went with Trassjonsky into the front room and there saw the body of Gardstein lying on the bed. I heard a conversation between Fritz and Trossjonsky. Fritz told her that Morountzeff was wounded…

The only name from the British film industry that I’ve come across is J. Brooke Wilkinson, the future head of the British Board of Film Censors, who in December 1911 was a witness in a case of forgery.

As someone who is researching cinema-going in London at this period, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online is an absolute treasure trove to me. But there are other aspects there well worth pursuing, particularly relating to bankruptcy and fraud. Or maybe you’ll just what to find out if those rumours about great-grandfather’s criminal past are really true or not…