The Bioscope decides

Thank you everyone for your thoughts on the direction of the Bioscope. I put the question whether it would be a good idea to expand its range beyond silent films. The balance of opinion seems to be not to do so. Of course, these are opinions from those who come to this site for its information on silent films, so there may be a slight bias there, but on careful reflection I agree with you. This is a blog about silent films, and it is best to keep it at that. Change would only be for change’s sake (which is seldom wise), and it would damage what has been built up quite carefully over four years. So we’ll stick to the brief of reporting on the world of early and silent cinema.

That said, I will start to make some excursions beyond the silent comfort zone from time to time, particularly when considering contexts and research resources. One must always bear in mind the phrase that C.L.R. James used for cricket in Beyond a Boundary, but which applies to so much else: what do they know of silent films who only silent films know? We must seek out the bigger picture, or delve behind the screen, or turn our backs on the screen sometimes and look in the other direction. Otherwise how can we say with any confidence that we know where we are?

The Bioscope wonders

Dear readers,

I have a question for you. Whither the Bioscope?

Let me explain. This blog is coming to its fourth birthday, and it is doing quite well. It gets around 6-700 visitors per day and just passed the 600,000 visitor figure overall. According to the web monitoring site Alexa it is number 1,166,704 in the ranking list of world websites. It would be good to break the 1 million barrier, and what Alexa has to say about the site’s demographic suggests things are narrower that they might be (“Based on internet averages, is visited more frequently by users who are in the age range 45-54, have no children, are graduate school educated and browse this site from home”), but on the whole it’s not bad for a site devoted to silent film – and often to corners of silent film that don’t always hold obvious interest for the dedicated few who like silent films.

However, I’ve been wondering whether it’s time for a change. I don’t just know about silent films, but though I’ve set up several other web resources, none has worked quite as well as the Bioscope, and managing six (as I currently do, plus several ancillary sites) is impractical. I would rather focus on fewer resources, and do the work better.

But as I’ve thought about change, I’ve been wary of spoiling a modestly successful model. It’s always good policy to keep to a clear theme, and straying beyond silent films could weaken the site’s impact and let down the existing audience that the site gets. On the other hand, I find myself again and again highlighting web resources of value to research (a speciality of this site) and artificially limiting what I say about them to silent films. It should be possible to widen the site’s frame of reference while keeping to its principle of encouraging discovery.

I’m not proposing a blog that’s about my personal interests. That would be tedious. So I wouldn’t go on about politics or what film I saw last night (The King’s Speech – not bad, I guess). It would be about art, culture, social history and research, and I’m fairly sure 80% of it would remain about silent films, because that’s what I know and there’s a lot to said about them that doesn’t get said elsewhere. It would be mostly about film, because it’s a great medium. But it would reach beyond to film and its contexts, and that’s something that was in my mind when I first imagined what this site might be, only it turned into something else. It something to do with the original definition of ‘bioscope’ as “a view of life or survey of life“, as a motion picture camera might observe it.

If I were to do this, I would have to reorganise the site somewhat so that the silent film resources it has built up (Library, Festivals, Videos etc) remain available. In particular I would need to maintain the links down the right-hand column which I know get used as a reference source in themselves. I might have to stay my hand simply to avoid damaging what exists and is useful.

I’m torn. I feel the need to move on and avoid repeating myself (which I’ve started to do in places). At the same time I know the importance of a clear message and the danger of spoiling what works, reasonably well.

So I would welcome your advice. What do you think? I know it’s my blog and if I want to change tack and make it a site about tree-frogs then I’m completely at liberty to do so. But the site was created to be useful, and I want to continue to be useful. Your advice, please.

Respectfully yours


(The image at the head of this post comes from the title page of Granville Penn’s The Bioscope, or Dial of Life, published in 1812)

Cricket on camera

Highlights from the Topical Budget newsreel of England beating Australia in the Fifth Test at Lords in 1926, thereby winning back the Ashes

Here in England the skies are grey, and when it’s not raining it’s sleeting and a cold wind blows. And yet there is a spring in our steps and sunshine in our hearts. We have beaten the Australians. For anyone outside the few countries that take cricket seriously, the news that England has won the Ashes – the name given to the periodic series of Test matches played between England and Australia – cannot mean anything much. But here in England it is glorious news, all the more so because the victory was in Australia (where four years ago Australia won 5-0), because it is so rare (the last time we won there was 25 years ago), and because it was done with such ruthless professionalism, which are not words always associated with English cricket. Damn it all, we played like Australians.

So how can the Bioscope – whose scribe is somewhat partial to the game – commemorate this great event? Well, how else but with a survey of cricket and silent film? There’s a rich history there, and some fine films to discover online, if you know where to look.

Cricket is not a game that lends itself easily to the motion picture camera, particularly for the era of silent film. Games can last up to five days, the action takes places at a distance in the middle of a large field, there are long stretches where nothing dynamic happens. For cameramen shooting with expensive film stock, and with limited lenses, cricket in the early years of film presented a huge challenge. It is no surprise to find that the earliest cricket films focus on individuals and illustrations of play specially set up for the cameras. In the 1910s and especially the 1920s greater efforts were made to capture periods of play, with remarkable success given the circumstances.

Arguably the first British film was a cricket film, since a test film made by pioneers Birt Acres and Robert Paul in February/March 1895 showed their colleague Henry Short dressed in cricket whites outside Acres’ London home (the film, of which a few frames survive, is variously known as Incident at Clovelly Cottage or Cricketer Jumping Over Garden Gate). However, the first true cricket films were made in 1897, and there is something particularly hallowed about those films from the 1890s which capture the end of the great Victorian sporting era. The first films were a set made by Australian photographer Henry Walter Barnett in December 1897 at the time of the England v Australia Test match in Sydney. Using a Lumière Cinématographe, Barnett filmed scenes of the England and Australia teams coming off the field of play and the English player (albeit Indian) Prince Ranjitsinhji shown practising in the nets. It shows the great stylist of his age going through a series of typically aggressive strokes, filmed from a position to the batsman’s right and of course far closer to the batsman than could have been possible were Barnett filming actual play. When the film was exhibited in Britain it was accompanied by sound effects of ball hitting bat, and when the film is shown today (it is the only one of the set to survive) the sound effect is faithfully reproduced.

W.G. Grace practising at Hastings in 1901, from BFI National Archive

The great figure of Victorian cricket was W.G. Grace, and he was a popular subject for filmmakers who looked to capture his celebrity as much as his play. Three films survive: and three films survive. Dr Grace’s Jubilee Procession, filmed by the Prestwich Manufacturing Company on 18 July 1898 on the occasion of the Gentlemen v Players match celebrating Grace’s 50th birthday at Lords shows a parade of cricketing legends passing by the camera: Grace himself, Arthur Shrewsbury, Andrew Stoddart, William Gunn, Arthur Lilley, Samuel Woods, Robert Abel, Edward Wynard, F.S. Jackson, J.T. Hearne, Gregor MacGregor, John A. Dixon, William Storer, William Lockwood, A.C. MacLaren, William Brockwell, Charles Townsend, Schofield Haigh, Alec Hearne, John Mason, Wilfred Rhodes, Charles Kortright and John Tunnicliffe – it’s practically the entire Victorian age of cricket captured in one fifty-foot film (the film can be found on the British Movietone site, albeit printed the wrong way round, though you need register beforehand). Film also exists of Grace in June 1899 walking past the camera, accompanied by Ranjitsinhji, at Trent Bridge on the occasion of the first Test v Australia. There is just the one film of Grace in action, filmed by Williamson in 1901, again in the company of Ranjitsinhji (clearly a popular subject for filmmakers) practising batting in the nets at Hastings in September 1901.

Other films exist of this period of the Australian team in England walking past the 70mm camera of the Biograph company, somewhere in England in 1899 (those on display are Joe Darling, Victor Trumper, Ernie Jones, Hugh Trumble, James Kelly, Frank Iredale and Frank Laver), and second Biograph film, Ranjitsinhji and C.B. Fry at the Wickets, made in 1901, which shows the two greats batting on the field of play in a sequence which clearly had to be set up, as the camera is postioned close to the action. But we must shed a tear for the films of this period whose descriptions we have but which are now considered lost. Just imagine, oh cricket lovers, what would be if we could see this set of Biograph films from the legendary 1902 Test match between England and Australia, as described in a theatre programme:

England versus Australia at the Oval:

(a) Return to the Pavilion after close of Australia’s 2nd innings
(b) Australians going to field for England’s 2nd innings
(c) Jessop batting
(d) Hirst plays Trumble
(e) Rhodes drives Trumble

Now there’s a holy grail for the cricket film archivist.

Joe Darling (batsman) and James Kelly (wicketkeeper) from 1905 film of the Australian team. Note the regulation fearsome moustaches. From

It is at this point in cricket film history, however, that the available archive starts to lessen. As films started to get a little longer, ironically it became more of a challenge to film cricket, because short portrait shots were no longer enough, while films of five minutes or more struggled to capture anything of the game, or – presumably – to find an audience keen to seen such films. Combined with the usual losses to history of films from this period anyway, and there are sadly few film records of cricket 1900-1910. The most substantial is to be found in a renowned 1931 early sound film called That’s Cricket!, made by Australasian films, which has a section showing the 1905 Australians, showing Joe Darling, Sydney Gregory, Frank Laver, Warwick Armstrong, Tibby Cotter, James Kelly, Albert Hopkins, Clem Hill, Alfred Noble, Reginald Duff, Charlie McLeod and others, posing for the cameras and at practice. The 1905 film (some seven minutes of it) can also be found on the British Movietone site (again, you need to register first with the site to use it, but it is free). A much shorter version is also on the British Pathé newsreel site. Who originally produced I have not been able to find out.

Mitchell & Kenyon’s Arthur Mold Bowling to A.N. Hornby (1901)

However, in the 1900s there were attempts to provide local coverage of cricket matches; that is, films which would appeal to the audience of a particular town or county instead of aiming for a national audience. The Yorkshire filmmaker Jasper Redfern made a number of such films (he probably made the film of W.G. Grace at Trent Bridge but otherwise none of his cricket films are known to survive). Mitchell & Kenyon, now well-known for their actuality records of Edwardian life chiefly in northern England, regularly filmed cricket matches, though as with their football films the emphasis was on the crowds and the occasion as much as the play. An exception is the intriguing film illustrated above, showing Lancashire bowler A.H. Mold attempting to demonstrate that his controversial bowling action was legitimate (it looks OK to me), a very early example of a film being set up as evidence in a dispute. The batsman is A.N. Hornby.

The film record is not that much better for the 1910s, partly because the intervention of the First World War meant a lot less top class cricket and consequently far fewer cricket films. The newsreels were still finding their feet as a form, and they did not really take up the challenge of filming cricket at this period. A number of films from the teens exist at the BFI National Archive, while some interesting examples are held British Pathé, available to view on their site (do note that Pathé’s dating of these films is very approximate):

Sometimes films can be found which are no longer films. I’ve previously posted on film strips to be found in a cricket instructional book, A.C. MacLaren’s The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action. Though published in 1925, the films of Hobbs it uses were made in 1914 by Cherry Kearton Ltd. It’s not the same film as appears on the British Pathé site, noted above. I’ve re-animated the clips, albeit crudely, and have placed two sequences on YouTube, adding a small something to the meagre archive of cricket films in the 1910s.

Re-animated plates 2, 8 and 10 from The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action, showing Hobbs in 1914

Plates 3, 6 and 9 from The Perfect Batsman

It is when we get to the 1920s that the cricket film record starts to become very rich indeed. The British newsreels started to cover the game avidly, sometimes county games but especially Test matches. The films were not long – generally two or three minutes at most, and thus had huge challenges trying to document a day or more’s sport in such a tiny space. And yet they did, with a good amount of skill, luck and sleight of hand.

The Topical Budget newsreel film at the top of this post from 1926, when England regained the Ashes from Australia after fourteen years (and humiliation five years earlier in 1921), is a good example. It shows the procession of Australian wickets at the Oval ground on the final day’s play, neatly cutting between action on the pitch and the scoreboard. Sometimes the camera encompasses both the bowler and the batsman in the single shot, so that we know we are witnessing a complete action. More often, however, we see the bowler, then there is a cut to the batsman playing the shot. Most of the time the ball the batsman plays is not the bowl that we saw bowled to him in the previous shot. The art of editing to make us believe what the filmmaker wants us to believe extends beyond the fiction film. With up to ten wickets scheduled to fall in an innings that lasts several hours, it was an impossible for a cameraman with a few hundred feet of film at his disposal to capture every one. The film shows on a number of occasions a ball bowled, then a batsman walking away disconsonantly, without showing us how he got out. Remarkably on a couple of occasions we do see the actual fall of a wicket – a triumph for the quick-witted cameraman.

The newsreels dramatise cricket as much as they document it. The films are composed as battles; the assault by the one side with the ball, the response by the other wielding the bat. The Oval Test film expresses in its construction the pressure exerted by the England team’s bowling and the crumbling of the Australian resistance, cultminating in the joyous invasion of the crowd (no such scenes allowed these days) at the film’s climax. It is a triumphal film about a sporting triumph.

There are hundreds of British newsreels of cricket available to view online, on the British Pathé and ITN Source sites. For Pathé, click on the Advanced Search option, type ‘cricket’ into the Description box, then select 1920s from the Decades option lower down the screen. There are some 200 films available. For ITN Source, click on Advanced Search, type ‘cricket’ into the search box, tick the box marked New Classics, then select 1920s as the decade – there are 58 results. For anyone who knows their cricket history (and it was a golden period for cricket – Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Rhodes, Gregory, Grimmett, Woodfull, Woolley, Hendren, Bardsley, hammond, then in 1930 the arrival of the phenomenon that was Don Bradman), there are such riches to be found.

A blatant recreation of Hobbs hitting the runs by which he achieved his 126th century, from The Life of Jack Hobbs, from

And it’s not all newsreels. There are training films, interviews (silent ones), and longer films. British Pathé has one of the most notable longer cricket films of the period, The Life of Jack Hobbs (1925), a biographical documentary of England’s greatest batsman of the period (or arguably any other period). The film shows Hobbs relaxing at home, demonstrating shots, playing in games, and securing his famous 126th century, thereby beating a record set by W.G. Grace. The film is available in four reels – one, two and three plus offcuts. It doggedly follows Hobbs round the country while he kept on not quite scoring the 100 runs the nation was willing him to score, before he did so at Taunton. The film captures the moment, but also gets Hobbs to recreate the shot in close-up with the camera hanging right over him mid-pitch.

This illustrates the degree to which cricketers were willing to co-operate with the cameras to show themselves to their best advantage. Hobbs had signed an exclusive deal with United International Corporation, producers of the film, and in his autobiography he has some interesting things to say about working with film companies as the price of fame.

The largest collection of cricket films from the silent era is that held by the BFI National Archive, which holds the Topical Budget newsreel, something of a cricket specialist, plus amateur films, documentaries, local topicals, animation films and advertisements. The BFI also holds one or two fiction films with a cricket film. The 1925 feature film A Daughter of Love features a cricketing hero (played by John Stuart) whose marriage at the end of the film sees the happy couple process between two lines of cricketers with their bats raised to form a row of arches. Just a few of the BFI’s cricket films are available online, alas, a couple of them included here.

The other major source of cricket films from this period is Australia, of course. There are twenty-five silent era cricket films given on the catalogue of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and clips from a number of these can be seen on the excellent australian screen site. Here are some examples:

Just last month the NFSA unveiled a new digital master of the earliest known surviving film of test cricket action in Australia, filmed in December 1910 by Pathé’s Animated Gazette at the Sydney Cricket Ground when they were playing South Africa. Tantalisingly brief, it does at least show good camera positioning at an angle to the pitch to impart the right amount of dynamism.

South Africa v Australia, 9 December 1910. The film is described in loving detail on the NFSA blog

For a number of years I used to programme cricket films at the National Film Theatre in London. Others more expert than I would present the films on the stage, talking through the films and identifying every player, while noted cricketers from not quite such bygone ages sat in the audience and everyone sighed nostalgically for an era when giants seemed to walk the pitches of England, when times were nobler, the game was better played, and everyone shown in monochrome was so much greater than those wretched souls who toiled so desperately for England in the real world. I’ve never cared so much for a nostalgia which always places the past above the present, and believe firmly that the present generation of players would very probably humble the greats of yesteryear were they ever able somehow to have the two compete on the pitch.

But very fleeting nature of the early cricket film records enhances the greatness somehow. The sturdiness of a Hobbs off-drive, the beguiling spin of Clarrie Grimmett, the stylish nonchalance of Ranjitsinhji, the imperious confidence of W.G. Grace – so little of them survives on film, yet what is there, played over and over again, encapsulates the legend. We see just enough to have the tale told. Film is a romantic medium, and actuality film can sometimes be the most romantic of all.

For your diaries

Audience at the Pordenone silent film festival

In case you hadn’t noticed, 2011 is upon us, and in case you are wondering how you are going to fill it with worthwhile cultural activities, here’s what the year ahead holds for us in the way of silent film festivals, conferences and such like. Information on these is (or will be in due course) given in greater detail in the Bioscope’s Conferences and Festivals sections, while a summary listing of all events coming up is maintained in the Calendar section.

Things kick off in January with Slapstick, the annual festival of slapstick film celebrated in Bristol, UK. This year’s event takes place 27th-30th and features the usual mix of silent comedy greats (Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon) alongside live comedians of today (Neil Innes, Graeme Garden, Barry Cryer) – plus Kevin Brownlow and Shaun the Sheep (sadly not at the same time). The StummFilmMusikTage Erlangen is a festival of silent film music held in Erlangen, Germany. The 2011 festival dates haven’t been announced as yet, but they always seem to leave it to the last minute.

February sees the San Francisco Silent film Festival’s Annual Winter Event on the 12th. The Kansas Silent Film Festival is held annually in Topeka, Kansas. This year’s festival takes place 25th-27th and has as its special guest Harold Lloyd authority Annette D’Agostino Lloyd. Films to be featured include Speedy, Chang and Wings. The august-sounding First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema will be held at Berkeley, University of California, 24th-26th on the theme Cinema Across Media: The 1920s.

It’s all happening in March. We have the annual Cinefest, at Syracuse, New York, scheduled for 17th-20th, programme to be announced. The enterprising Killruddery Silent Film Festival takes place 10th-13th in Bray, Ireland, though the website is still showing the 2010 programme. A new silent film festival makes its appearance this month. The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, billed as Scotland’s first, will held in Bo’ness, 18-20 March. More news on this nearer the time. Over 24th-27th there’s the small Festival du film muet held at the Café-Théâtre Barnabé, Servion, Switzerland. Starting in March (30th) and ending in April (7th) is the Toronto Silent Film Festival, now in its second year, with Maciste all’Inferno (126), Faust (1926), It (1927) and more on the bill. For the specialist, The Construction of News in Early Cinema is a seminar (conference really) being organised by the Museu del Cinema and the University of Girona, Spain, 31st March-1st April. Expect a report from the Bioscope on this, as I’m a guest speaker.

April sees the British Silent Film Festival, which returns to the Barbican in London 7th-10th with the theme Going to the Movies – Music, Sound and the British Silent Film. It takes place in conjunction with the Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain conference taking place 7th-8th at the Institute of Musical Research and the Barbican. Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinema History is a conference with a strong silent cinema element taking place 13th-15th at the University of Sunderland, UK.

In May there’s the classic film convention Cinevent, held as always in Columbus, Ohio. 2010’s convention takes place 27th-30th, which promises such titles as The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1918), Dick Turpin (1925) and The Sky Pilot (1921).

In June we have the festival of silent cinema held annually at Hautes-Pyrénées, France, the Festival d’Anères, usually held in May but now shifting to June 8th-12th. No programme details as yet. In Bologna, Italy there is Il Cinema Ritrovato, the outstanding festival of restored films (always with a strong silent element). No dates or details of the programme have not been released as yet. The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival will be held at Fremont, California in June, but again no dates yet.

July sees The Second Birth of Cinema: A Centenary Conference, to be held over 1st-2nd at Newcastle University, UK. André Gaudreault, Philippe Marion, Joe Kember and the ubiquitous Ian Christie are promised as keynote speakers. San Francisco hosts the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, this year over 14th-17th. Expect programme information in May. Slapsticon is the annual festival of silent and early sound film comedy, held in Arlington, Virginia, which this year is 14th-17th. Or there should be the International Silent Film Festival, a festival of classic silent films held each July in Manila – no dates or programme available as yet. One of the impressively-programmed silent film festivals of last year was StummfilmLiveFestival, held by the Babylon Kino, Berlin. This year’s festival runs 16th-31st and promises to be just as eye-catching with a complete retrospective of Charlie Chaplin’s films.

Then there’s August, which gives us New York’s Capitolfest, its annual summer classic and silent movie festival, taking place 13th-14th. Janet Gaynor is the featured star. Aosta in the Italian Alps hosts Strade del Cinema, a silent film festival with a strong emphasis on musical acompaniment (no exact dates or programme released as yet – they invariably leave things until the last minute). In São Paulo, Brazil there’s the always very good Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso, a silent film festival now in its fifth year (no exact dates or programme details as yet). It’s a busy month and Bonn in Germany will have its Bonner Sommerkino, a festival of silent film which is yearly growing in importance, this year taking place 11th-21st.

September kicks off with Cinecon, the annual classic film festival held in Hollywood, which runs 1st-5th, followed closely by Finland’s Forssa Silent Film Festival, also known as Mykkäelokuvafestivaalit, which takes place 2nd-3rd. The charming Opitiki Silent Film Festival will be held this month in Opitiki, New Zealand. Over 22nd-25th there’s the silent and early sound film festival Cinesation in Massillon, Ohio, USA, while over the 23rd-24th we have the Annual Buster Keaton Celebration, the Buster Keaton-themed festival held in Iola, Kansas. Silents of a different, modern kind feature in the Toronto Urban Film Festival, a public film festival of one-minute silent films held in Toronto, Canada. No dates as yet.

October is of course Pordenone month. The Giornate del Cinema Muto, or Pordenone Silent Film Festival, takes place in Pordenone, northern Italy, and in 2010 runs 1st-8th. So far we’re promised The Wind with live orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. The queues are probably forming already. Also in October, but no dates or programme announced as yet, should be Australia's Silent Film Festival, held in Sydney.

I don’t have much information on them, having not covered them before now, but November should see the Bielefelder Film+MusikFest in Germany and December is the time for Poland’s Festival of Silent Films, held in Krakow and organised by Kino Pod Baranami. Both seem to be well-established annual festivals.

If you know of other festivals or conferences I should be including, please me know through the comments. I’ll be adding new events (or updated information) to the Conferences and Festivals sections in any case, and will publicise individual events nearer to their start times in any case. Of course, silents turn up as special screenings in other kinds of festival, such as the London Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival, but I’ve kept this listing to those events largely dedicated to silent films themselves. Such festivals and conferences are a labour of love and a huge challenge to put on, logistically and financially, particularly in these difficult times – do support them if you can.

Baby face

Harry Langdon’s name is always there when you get asked to name the top-ranking American comedians of the silent era, though he tends to be the name that you come up with last. He was a talented comedian, especially when working with sympathetic directorial and writing talents who could help bring out the best from his baby-face looks and unworldly demeanour that nevertheless had him triumphing over adversity every time. He is an acquired taste, but an oddly captivating presence once you let his films do their work.

There’s now an excellent website devoted to him, with the fine web address of www.feetof (derived from the title of one of his Mack Sennett shorts), created by Tim Greer. Simply and clearly laid out, it comprises a filmography (1923-1945); an articles section with biography, short pieces by musician Ben Model, film historian Brent Walker and others, plus contemporary reviews; an extras section with portraits, bibliography, DVDs (unfortunately without links, which would have been helpful), news and more; a links page; and a contact page with information on the author.

The design is engaging, the enthusiasm infectious, and it’s made me determined to check out his films again to remind me of his particular comic gift. Job done.

The siege of Sidney Street

Home Secretary Winston Churchill (in top hat) watching the Siege of Sidney Street, part of the Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, ‘Battle of London’, from British Pathé. Bioscope regulars will be delighted to note the stray dog in the bottom left-hand corner

On the night of 16 December 1910 a group of Latvian revolutionaries attempted to rob a jeweller’s shop at 119 Houdsditch in the City of London. Their aim was to obtain funds to support revolutionary activity in Russia (and to support themselves), but their efforts to break in were overheard and nine policemen were called to the scene. The Latvians were armed; the policemen were not, and in the ensuing confrontation three of the police were shot dead and two injured.

The public was horrified by what swiftly became known as the Houndsditch Murders, which followed on from the ‘Tottenham Outrage’ of the previous year when two Latvians had shot dead a constable and a child following an interrupted robbery. One of the Houndsditch gang, George Gardstein, had died of his injuries, having been shot accidentally by a confederate, but a huge manhunt built up to track down all of the gang, a number of whom were arrested before two (neither of whom it is now thought were present at the Houndsditch burglary) were tracked down to 100 Sidney Street, Stepney in London’s East End.

Sidney Street, from the Andrew Pictures coverage. No. 100 is on the far right-hand side of the street, below the number 3 of the ITN Source ID number

The Siege of Sidney Street (or the Battle of Stepney) that was to follow took place 100 years ago on 3 January 1911. It has gained lasting fame for unprecedented scenes that brought armed police and troops onto the streets of London to conduct a siege with desperate revolutionaries, all of which took place before the startled (and undoubtedly thrilled) eyes of the public and the press. Among those recording the events as they happened were five film companies, and it is their story that forms the reason for this centenary post.

The besieged Latvians were Fritz Svaars and William Sokoloff, known as Joseph. They had taken refuge at 100 Sidney Street only for their position to be given away by an informer late in the evening of New Year’s Day. Detectives were sent under cover of darkness to watch over the building while they tried to determine the two men’s movements by contact with a lodger and the informant. Keen not to have the men slip out their grasp, but knowing they would be armed, the police felt they had to act. In the early hours of Tuesday 3 January, armed police were positioned in houses and shops surrounding the block in which contained 100 Sidney Street. By 3.00am there were 200 policemen in place. It was realised that storming the building by its staircase would be foolhardy as the two men would have the advantage by firing down on the police officers, so the adjacent buildings were cleared of other people and the police waited for daylight.

Soldier firing from a shop door, part of the Pathé coverage, from British Pathe

As dawn broke, people started to gather around the police cordon, trying to find out what was happening. The police threw stones at the second-floor window where they believed the two men were hiding. Nothing happened. Then someone threw a brick and smashed a window pane. From the floor below shots fired out and a policeman was hit. A hail of bullets followed as they tried to move the wounded man. The two men were well-armed (they were better munitioned than the police, certainly) and well-positioned. An order was sent to bring in troops from the Tower of London. Scots Guards were sent, on the authority of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, who thought upon hearing the news that it would be not interesting if he were to go along and see things for himself.

By this time the press had got wind of the story, and reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen were arriving on the scene. Five film companies were present: Pathé, Gaumont, Andrews Pictures, Co-operative and the Warwick Trading Company. Pathé (Pathé’s Animated Gazette), Gaumont (Gaumont Graphic) and Warwick (Warwick Bioscope Chronicle) had each recently established a newsreels and were companies with well-established newsfilm credentials. Co-operative specialised in Shakespeare productions, so it is something or a surprise to see them involved, while Andrews Pictures was a small-scale film renter and exhibitor. Presumably any firm who got wind of what was happening and had a camera operator at the ready made the most of the opportunity. Three of the five films taken that day survive: those of Pathé, Gaumont and Andrews.

Frame stills from the lost Sidney Street siege films made by Co-operative (left, showing the arrival of a fire engine) and Warwick (showing crowds in the area after the siege), from an article on the siege films in The Bioscope 5 January 1911, p. 9

The troops assumed positions around the building and began firing (it was by now around 11.00am). The barrage of fire from both sides was relentless and was to continue for around two hours. The crowds around the perimeter were now considerable, and policemen had a difficult time holding them back, as the newsreel films make clear. The films showed the heaving crowds, the troops getting into position, policemen armed with rifles, and gunfire coming from the buildings either side of Sidney Street.

Gaumont’s coverage shows police gunfire from the buildings opposite 100 Sidney Street, from ITN Source

The Home Secretary had not been able to get the better of his curiosity. He arrived by car at midday and positioned himself at the corner of Sidney Street and Lindley Street, peering round to see what was happening. It was an extraordinarily foolhardy action, one which would soon lead to much criticism (and regret on Churchill’s part) but at the time the idea went round that he was directing operations. Pathé’s cameraman gained a huge scoop by obtaining close shots of Churchill (though the story that film was taken of a bullet going through his top hat is quite false). It seems that no other newsreel filmed him – Gaumont certainly did not, as they were positioned on the other side of the street, while Andrews resorted to deceit, declaring that its footage of men looking down at the siege included a rear view shot of Churchill (Churchill did not take up any rooftop position).

Then 100 Sidney Street caught fire. The gunfire ceased momentarily as wisps and plumes of smoke started to pour out of the building, which is vividly shown in the film record. Flames could seen from the windows, then the shooting started up again – not just from the soldiers because, extraordinarily, the men inside were still returning fire. Joseph may have been shot dead at this time (the fire started around 1.00pm), while Fritz Svaars died in the flames when the roof caved in and part of the first floor collapsed. Soldiers fired further volleys, then ceased. No one had escaped from the building and it was clear no one could have survived such an inferno. Fire engines arrived and poured water on the charred remains. As firemen entered the building, part of a wall collapsed and one of them died of his injuries – the third and final death caused by the siege of Sidney Street.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, showing 100 Sidney Street on fire, from British Pathe

The bodies of Fritz Svaars and Joseph were discovered inside, the second only as late as 8.00pm, by which time the newsreel films had been processed, printed and were on show in some London cinemas, scooping much of the press. In the manner of newsreels at this time, the films let the pictures do the talking. Intertitles on the extant films are matter-of-fact and offer little in the way of explanation, though they do employ loaded terms such as ‘assassins’, ‘murderers’ ‘aliens’ and ‘outrage’. The sensational nature of the films was all that was needed. Detailed description and background speculation was for the newspapers; the newsreels had simply to show audiences what the event looked like, to present the moving pictures of what everyone was talking about. The audience themselves would supply the rest.

These were the Houndsditch Murderers, or at least their associates, and most of the public would not have been greatly interested in their affiliations and what drove them to such desperate actions. Their war was not with the British authorities per se, but rather with Tsarist Russia. They (and there were a dozen or so associated with Houndsditch and Sidney Street) were refugees in Britain, which they used as a base for fund-raising and plotting revolution back in Russia. They had strong ideological motivation, and would have been contemptuous of the British police and army as tools of the oppressors. For the popular press they were all anarchists, but most had Social Revolutionary or Marxist affiliations, and had fought in terrible encounters with Tsarist forces, some of them undergoing savage beatings and torture. They believed they would receive similar brutality from the British police should they be caught, which helps explain some of their actions (Fritz Svaars in particular feared that he would break under torture after beatings he had received in Riga a year before). They used robbery to raise funds to support themselves and associates at home, and in some cases for gun-running or the production of propagandist literature.

Most were Jewish, and were part of the wave of refugees driven out of Russia by the pogroms of the late 1800s and the savage reprisals that followed the failed 1905 revolution. Britain had a reputation as a haven for such refugees, though most ended up in the sweatshops of the East End, desperately poor and roundly despised by the rest of society as ‘aliens’. British film contributed to this climate of hostility. Hepworth produced The Aliens’ Invasion (1905), in which English workmen were shown being thrown out of work because of Jewish immigrants accepting low wages; the Precision Film Company produced Anarchy in England (1909), which recreated the Tottenham Outrage; while Clarendon made The Invaders (1909) in which armed foreign spies occupy a British house disguised as Jewish tailors. However, most often films portrayed anarchists as figures of fun, as in Walturdaw’s The Anarchist and his Dog (1908) – he throws his bomb, but the dog retrieves it. The siege of Sidney Street itself was not dramatised at the time, but the basic details contribute to the climactic scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and a close recreation was attempted in Hammer’s The Siege of Sidney Street (1960).

The causes that drove the revolutionaries of 1911 have faded into history, even if terrorism on British shores inspired by overseas conflict and a different set of beliefs has not. But the films remain, and the press reports, and the photographs, and the many picture postcards that were produced, as tragedy was turned into commerce. The films not only show extraordinarily exciting things happening on the streets of London, but they show us an area of London never before visited by the motion picture camera. The wretched, run-down area of Stepney of 1911 would not have attracted cameras in the normal course of events, but humble Sidney Street, its environs and inhabitants gain some sort of fleeting immortality each time we run the films again, before disappearing back into history as the cameras once more turn to focus elsewhere.

Map of the Sidney Street area showing the besieged building (marked with red dot) and main camera positions of Andrews (A), Gaumont (G) and Pathé (P). Map from

Three of the five newsreels made of the Sidney Street siege exist at the BFI National Archive, with further copies of these at British Pathé and ITN Source. Each runs for two to three minutes in length. Happily versions of all three can be found online:

  • The Battle of London (Pathé)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive and British Pathé. There are two films on the British Pathé site – one is a dupe of the BFI film, the other is not Pathé’s film at all – it is Andrews’ (see below). The Pathé film, shot mostly from the north end of Sidney Street, shows police and troops taking positions (some shots look like they were staged afterwards), Churchill viewing the scene, the building catching fire (front and rear views), the fire brigade, and crowds in the streets afterwards. The intertitles read: “Battle of London. Houndsditch Assassins at bay, Besieged by soldiers and Armed Police” … “Troops firing at the murderers in Sydney [sic] Street” … “Mr. Winston Churchill, Home Secretary, watching the battle with the chiefs of Police and Detectives” … “The Besieged House catches Fire” … “Removing the bodies of the murdered and injured firemen”
  • The Great East End Anarchist Battle (Gaumont)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive and ITN Source. The version on the ITN Source begins with the Gaumont film then at 2.43 turns into the Andrews film (see below). The film shows crowds and police to the south end of Sidney Street, police pushing back the crowds, views of either side of Sidney Street with smoke from gunfire, police holding back crowds with difficulty, view of the building on fire from rooftop of building opposite. The Gaumont intertitles on the ITN copy read: [No main title] … “The police pushing back the crowd at the commencement of the firing” … “The fire – and after”.
  • Houndsditch Murderers (Andrews Pictures)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive, British Pathé and ITN Source. The BFI has two versions, one with English and one with German titles, Anarchistenschlat in London. The version online at ITN follows immediately after the Gaumont film; the version online at British Pathé is listed separately (though not as an Andrews film). The film shows views of Sidney Street from the south end with gunfire and police holding back crowds, rooftop view of the building on fire, further gunfire and police holding back crowds, rear view of men on rooftop (intertitles falsely state that Churchill is one of them), rooftop view of building catching fire and arrival of firemen who aim hoses at the building, a number of firemen scale a ladder. [Note: the ITN version is complete and in the correct order; the British Pathe copy is jumbled and incomplete] The intertitles on the ITN copy read: “Houndsditch Murderers. The Great Aliens Outrage at Mile End Shewing the Actual Scenes” … “Police and Soldiers Firing From Alleyways and Windows” … “Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill Directing Operations” [the German version in the BFI does not have this title] … “The Besieged House In Flames” … “Back View and Detectives Firing On Besieged Building” … “Arrival of Fire Brigades From All Parts of London And Entering House”

The BFI reportedly also has a Pathé’s Animated Gazette newsreel item on the December 1910 funeral of the policemen whose deaths led to the Sidney Street siege, Funeral in London of the Policemen Murdered by Burglars in Houndsditch (1910). (It is not listed on the current catalogue but is given in its 1965 Silent News Films catalogue, cat. no. N.323) [Update: The film exists – see comments]

For further information on the Sidney Street siege, there is one essential source. Donald Rumbelow’s The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (1973, revised 1988) is the classic account, outstanding in the dramatic detail and in its understanding of both police procedure and the revolutionaries’ motivations.

The Metropolitan Police Service has a short history of the siege from its point of view on its website. For an anarchist viewpoint, try, an interactive documentary on the siege currently in development (do check out the video trailer which claims that the mysterious ‘Peter the Painter’ – one of the ‘anarchist’ gang – is an ancestor of David Beckham).

The Museum of London Docklands currently has a small exhibition showing artefacts from the siege, examples of which can be view here. The exhibition runs until April 2011. The Independent has another image gallery, using exhibition artefacts and pictures from Donald Rumbelow’s collection.