The London Project

Next up for Catalogue Month (our survey of online catalogues and databases, selected for inscription in the Bioscope Library) is The London Project. I did write about this in the very early days of the Bioscope, in a very cursory manner, and it is high time that we returned to it. It’s a work I know quite a bit about, since I produced half of it, and it’s something of which I’m quite proud, even if the database has become a little compromised since the time when it was published in 2005, because it has not been possible to update it since. Databases should never be allowed to stand still. It is contrary to their nature.

The London Project database documents the film venues and film businesses to be found in London during the period 1896-1914 – around 1,000 venues and 1,000 businesses all told. It was the major output of a year-long project (2004-05) sponsored by the AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies, hosted by Birkbeck, University of London, and managed by Professor Ian Christie. The two researchers were Simon Brown (working on film businesses) and myself (working on cinemas and audiences). As well as the database we produced several essays, conference presentations and a touring exhibition (‘Moving Pictures Come to London’). But the star of the show was the database.

Interior view of Hale’s Tours (a film show set inside a mock train carriage) on London’s Oxford Street, which first opened May 1906

The London Project documents film businesses in London 1896-1914 and film venues (a more inclusive term than cinemas) from the date of the first identifiable cinema in London (The Daily Bioscope, opened May 1906), again to the start of the First World War. The information is taken from a wide range of sources, including film and stage year books, film trade papers, street and business directories, the records of the London County Council, local newspapers, published and unpublished memoirs, police reports and company records. The database allows searching by name of venue or business, address, London borough (as they were pre-1914), by business type (e.g. production, distribution, production, exhibition, venue), and by person (including notes relating to people).

A typical film business record will give you name, address (and any secondary addresses), category and tp of business, original share capital, trading information, the names of directors, and sources. Names and sources are hyperlinked to other records, making the pursuit of such links a fascinating business as you discover that, say, Cecil Hepworth was not only the managing director of the Hepworth Manfacturing Company, but a director of Film Agency (Russia) Ltd. You find all sorts of unexpected additional business interests and alliances in these lists of directors, especially as we chosen to interpret the film business quite broadly and to include equipment manufacturers, cinema uniform suppliers, electrical engineers, vending machine suppliers, musical instrument suppliers, and so on, reflecting the larger picture of what the cinema business really was (as indicated by the lists of such companies provided by the film trade year books of the period).

Film venues covers every sort of entertainment place in London which showed film on a regular basis betwen 1906 and 1914. That means cinemas, of course, but also theatres, music halls, town halls, sports arenas, converted shops, public baths and amusement parlours. The records are not as extensive as those for businesses (more’s the pity) but they do give you name, address, audience capacity, notes, related businesses and people, and sources of information. So it is possible to trace every cinema managed by Montagu Pyke or by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd, or to pursue every film show surveyed by the Metropolitan Police in 1909 at a time of social alarm at these new dens of vice which allowed the young of either sex to mix unchaperoned in the dark.

The Bioscopic Team Rooms, aka The Circle in the Square, the first true cinema in Leicester Square, opened June 1909

One feature we were particularly pleased with is the map of London boroughs, which allows you to search for businesses and venues in say Chelsea, Wandsworth, Lambeth or Poplar. It was an important part of the project that we were able to connect cinema history to social history and in particular to the many other histories of London. Geographical data is a good way of helping to achieve this, though we had neither the time nor the resources to take this further and use GIS data or mapping software.

Indeed there is much about the database that could do with an update, as new information has come in and there are plenty of corrections that need to be made. And if only we could have added pictures. But the project money ended in 2005 and it has not been possible to add to the database since. It is hosted by Birkbeck, and I hope that the university continues to do so and to maintain the URLs as they are – each individual business and venue has a unique web address with its ID number included in the URL, essential for citation and future reference.

If you want to pursue the project’s work further and look at what we wrote, four of our essays are freely available online (at present):

The London Project website itself has background information on the project and on the London of the 1896-1914 period. The database is a freely-available resource, and even if the website is not being updated there is still an email address on the site to which you can send fresh information. It’s being collected, somewhere, and maybe one day a fresher, more extensive London Project database will emerge, one that might even go beyond 1914 or beyond the confines of London. We can but hope.

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