A ragged swarm of adventurers

Here’s another gem uncovered from using Live Search. In fact it’s a text I know well, but I hadn’t realised it was available on the Internet Archive because there is nothing in the title Fifty Years of a Londoner’s Life (1916), by journalist Henry George Hibbert, to indicate its interest to the film historian. But Hibbert’s book contains a lively and observant chapter on the emergence of cinema in London, being especially vivid in describing the rush of showmen and speculators who jumped upon the cinema-building boom after 1910. He is also accurate in pointing out that a previous boom in roller skating rinks, which had collapsed, had left a number of empty venues looking for a new use, and many such were converted into cinemas. And thanks to the Internet Archive, which provides a plain text version, here is that chapter:


Its Introduction to London – A Protégé of the Music Hall – Millions Made, and Lost – Its Wondrous Future

Of all the children to whom the music hall has been foster mother, none was so rapid in its growth, so wayward, so fruitful in surprise as the cinematograph. And, after twenty years of remarkable achievement, it is still, in the belief of them that know it best, but on the threshold of its greatness. “The British public,” said one recorder of its early exhibition, “has a new toy, of which it is not likely to tire quickly”; just as an American writer of the first importance had been interested, but found the cinematograph “a curiosity of no particular importance.” A toy; a curiosity!

Moving pictures, it is still necessary to explain to the technically unlearned, do not move. This illusion was produced by the earliest scientific toy-makers. All the early photographers strenuously endeavoured to capture impressions of movement. Edison casually gave to the world a contrivance known as the kinetoscope, which he did not effectually protect. And from that many inventors toiled simultaneously to develop what we know as the cinematograph.

To the imagination of the Londoner, Robert W. Paul made the first and the most prolonged appeal. He was a craftsman of delicate and ingenious scientific instruments, and, having made a greater, or at any rate a more important contribution to the development of the cinematograph in England than any other, having taught many men of more heroic enterprise, or better luck, how to become millionaires, he retired from the field and returned contentedly to his first calling.

Paul illustrates the romance of invention with a homely picture. When, in the small hours of one morning, his experimental pictures were first endowed with life, in his Hatton Garden workshop, his men uttered a great shout of victory, the police were alarmed and broke in. As a sedative, an impromptu exhibition was administered to them. And so, in the winter of 1895, the cinematograph came to London. In a few weeks it was brought to the notice of Augustus Harris, and, frankly regarding it as an entertainment novelty of an ephemeral quality, he tried a cinema side-show at Olympia, where it competed with Richardson’s show and kindred delights.

Meanwhile Lumière, a Parisian photographer, had arrived at similar results, from a manipulation of the kinetoscope. Trewey, the juggler, and exponent of comic expression with the aid of a flexible felt hat, brought the Lumière apparatus to London, and was certainly ahead of Paul in impressing the cinematograph on the great mass of pleasure-seekers. The music hall agents and music hall managers were incredulous. Trewey resorted to the home of the scientific toy – the Polytechnic, and was looked upon as having achieved the finality of his mission. But he persisted. He arranged an afternoon season at the Empire, in the early days of March 1896. He soon insinuated the cinematograph to the evening programme here. And the reign of the moving picture began. I remember asking Trewey what he believed to be its possibilities in expeditiousness. He declared that if the progress of improvement were maintained a day would come when an occurrence might be reproduced on the screen within forty-eight hours. Whether or not my old friend lived to see his estimate corrected to minutes, I know not. Paul was in immediate succession. Toward the end of March, 1896, his so-called Animatograph was established at the Alhambra, where a tentative engagement, for weeks, was extended to one of years’ duration. Indeed, I do not believe that either of the two great Leicester Square houses has been without some form of animated photograph in all the meantime. Soon a finer apparatus than that either of Paul or of Lumière arrived at the Palace – known as the American Biograph, which for many months drew all London. Its pictures were larger, steadier, more actual. Before the end of 1896 there was not a music hall without its equipment of animated photography. Its scientific, industrial, commercial, and above all its tremendous art possibilities, were not yet conceived or perceived. Let me, as merely of the ministry of popular entertainment, emphasise this fact. The greatest, or at any rate the most appellant, scientific invention of our time, was nurtured in the English music hall, just as the electric light was first exploited as the advertisement of a theatre. A third Londoner completed the group of the pioneers of animated photography – a young American salesman of apparatus, Charles Urban, to whom the higher development of the new invention – its use for illustrating travel, the wonders of nature, and of scientific investigation – has always appealed, more than its use for frivolous amusement – on occasion, debased amusement. And two young Frenchmen, the Brothers Pathe, who began life as the exhibitors of a gramophone at Paris, quickly built up an immense business for the manufacture and sale of apparatus and films.

Imagination recoils from an attempt to suggest the magnitude of the cinematograph to-day. Estimate England’s inexplicably small share, then multiply it many times, and begin the endeavour to appreciate the fact that the cinematograph represents the third largest industry of America, where millionaires operate in its finance as they do in public loans, in railways, mines and steel; where great theatrical managers, dramatists and actors have silenced its menace by alliance, where they think nothing of an expenditure equalling ten thousand pounds on a production, and where they maintain upwards of six hundred picture theatres in a single city, Chicago.

Is English enterprise to follow in the wake of this huge enterprise? There are, at any rate, points of remarkable likeness in the evolution of the cinematograph here. First of all, the fact is to be noted that the pioneers of the industry, in both countries, nearly all retired – a few of them enriched, some of them disappointed and disaffected, some of them utterly broken. There never was a business of such strange mutations. It has been called by one of its most important adherents, Fred Martin – one of my boys, when he first of all aspired to journalism – who is mainly responsible for the manipulation of the exclusive picture and the introduction of the five-reel or “full performance” film here, in preference to a programme of many items, “The Topsy Turvy Industry.”

One of its wealthiest men to-day was a travelling showman. But the experience of the travelling showmen as a community was very different. To a man they abandoned their waxworks and their freaks and their marionettes for the cinematograph. I recall a St Giles’s Fair at Oxford that historic function still retained, but I think then lost, its boyish fascination for me – when, of fifty-one booths, forty-nine enclosed crude cinematograph shows, mostly exploiting vulgar comedy. The travelling showman came next to the music hall in popularising the cinematograph as an entertainment and in supporting it as a manufacturing industry. But he was hoist with his own petard. His success stimulated local enterprise, and when he revisited an old pitch he found a permanent picture theatre established.

Ruin spread among the travelling showmen and a new era in the history of the cinematograph began. Not the Klondyke attracted such a ragged swarm of adventurers. The collapse of the skating rink fever had left numerous sites and building shells free. Wild-cat speculators attracted millions of money from ignorant speculators, always fascinated by the business of pleasure. You could count picture palaces by the score in a brief ride across London. Again a debacle; and the official liquidator busy. But out of the wreck a new, resplendent picture palace – the ideal picture palace – is slowly rising. Its architects have expanded to one hundred thousand pounds in outlay on a structure.

For the short, amusing picture play there will always be a particular market. Elemental amusement will never lose its charm and importance – not till the love of toys is dead in small children and great. But cinematograph has left the nursery, and – still with uncertain eyes – is surveying the world. It has fascinated nearly every great actor, nearly every great author of our time, and liberally rewarded their adhesion to its cause. It is forming its own schools of financiers, and artists, and mechanicians, formerly drawn from everywhere and anywhere. The millionaires of the moving picture world include a clothing salesman, an itinerant conjurer and a music hall “lightning cartoonist.” The redoubtable Charlie Chaplin, now drawing his weekly emolument in thousands of dollars, was a “Lancashire clog dancer.” The greatest producer of the day, D.W. Griffith, who begins his cash account with a retaining fee of four hundred pounds a week, was but a few years ago a desperate actor. Mr Frederick A. Talbot, the historian of the cinema, estimated that four million people visit picture palaces daily in Great Britain. They pay fifteen million pounds out of their pockets annually into the box-offices of the cinema halls, and one person out of every three hundred and fifty one passes in the street depends upon the pictures for a livelihood. Of what individual investment may mean Mr R.G. Knowles is an example. He has outlaid twenty-five thousand pounds on the material of his travel lectures, and his wife, once Miss Winifred Johnson, abandoned the musical career she so adorned to become his secretary, editress, librarian.

Fifty Years of a Londoner’s Life is available in the usual range of formats from The Internet Archive, as has plenty more in the way of fascinating detail on the changing London social scene. Unlike some nostalgists of this era, he does not exclude the modernistic cinema, but sees it as part of the historical thread of the city.