Between page and film

The Manxman

Anny Ondra in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Manxman (1929), based on the Hall Caine novel, from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

The Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London is hosting a one day event with the imposing title of Cross-media cooperation between the publishing, theatrical and film industries: an interdisciplinary colloquium. The event takes place Saturday 12 April, and is an output of an AHRC-funded project on cross-media cooperation in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s.

The project is looking at the origins of the syndication or marketing of an author’s rights across several media, so common today, which it locates in the 1920s and 1930s. The aim of the colloquium is to draw together research from different disciplines to examine the extent of cross-media cooperation between media professionals, agents, and authors and ask how the past has shaped practices of the present day.

And here’s the programme, which has plenty on the cross-relationship in Britain between popular literature and film in the silent era:

Panel 1
Prof Alexis Weedon (University of Bedfordshire)
Some observations on cross-media co-operation in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s
Dr Vincent L. Barnett (University of Bedfordshire)
Elinor Glyn. The Novelist As Hollywood Star
Dr Mary Hammond (University of Southampton)
Hitchcock and Hall Caine: the Victorian Bestseller on the Silent Screen

Panel 2
Dr Amy Sargeant (Reader in Film, University of Warwick)
Frederick Britten Austin: Boy’s Own Stories, Girls’ Romances and Interwar Politics
Nathalie Morris (University of East Anglia)
Eminent British Authors and the Stoll Film Company
Dr Caroline Copeland (Napier University)
Katherine Cecil Thurston’s Chilcote

Panel 3
Dr Simon Frost (Institute of literature, media and cultural studies, University of Southern Denmark)
A Toga Tale of Ingomar the Barbarian: in print, in drawing rooms, at fairgrounds and in Hollywood
Dr Lawrence Napper (University of Greenwich and at King’s College, London)
‘Not over-exercising our intellectual powers in the choice of subjects’: The Gainsborough scenario department, 1929-31

Panel 4
Dr Simone Murray (recorded presentation from Monash Australia)
What Are You Working On?: the shifting role of the author in an era of cross-media adaptation
Prof Juliet Gardiner
Talk: Contemporary adaptation of Atonement

No indication on the colloquium web page as to when it starts or ends, or whether those panels overlap, but it does tell you that it is priced at £30 standard; £20 members/concessions, that the venue is Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E, and that spaces are limited so early booking is advisable.

Registration forms are on the site, and more information can be got from Jon Millington, Events Officer, Institute of English Studies, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU; tel +44 (0) 207 664 4859; Email jon.millington [at]

From 1896 to 1926 – part 9

Edward Turner

Edward G. Turner, from

This is the ninth and final part of the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner, pioneer British film distributor with the firm of Walturdaw. The series of articles was originally published in the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June, 24 June, 1 July and 15 July 1926, under the title ‘From 1896 to 1926: Recollections of Thirty Years of Kinematography’. Other film veterans supplied pieces to the journal at this time – Will Day, Jack Smith, James Williamson, Frank Mottershaw, E.T. Heron, Will Onda, Monte (Monty) Williams – which makes June/July 1926 in the Kinematograph Weekly an area well worth investigating by film historians. Here Turner recalls business during the First World War, through to the 1920s and the demise of the Walturdaw film renting business.

Then the fatal year of 1914 arrived. In February of this year, Walker came to me and said, “Turner, our ten years with the Walturdaw Company expire in Auust, and I have the opportunity of taking over all of the products of the Famous Players organisation; putting them on the English market on a renting basis, part cash and sharing.

“Will you join me when our time expires, or, if not, will you get my release from the Company, as this is too great an opportunity to let pass?”

As he still had six months to serve, I promised to do my best, and at a board meeting held a fortnight later, I secured his release, and the Walturdaw Company gave him a farwell dinner at the Monico on March 17, and so our eighteen years of partnership closed. J.D. Walker founded the Famous Players organisation in this country.

A Good Team

My old friend and I had shared hardships and success together; we had had many ups and downs and many pleasures. We had seen the kinema Industry grow from nothing to an important Industry. We were well matched for a business partnership: he had imagination, inspiration, and his head was always full of schemes; in fact, he was nearly a genius in this respect, but like all people of this type, he had not the patience or the determination to carry out his schemes; in other words, to come down to the hum-drum process of bringing his imagination to concrete facts.

I am not brilliant in imagination, neither am I a genius, but I have the faculty of dogged determination and perseverance, and the knack of geting down to things and working them out to their logical conclusions. This is very essential to bring brilliant schemes to a practical end.

I believe we both made a mistake in parting: we had got to know each other so well, he to scheme and I to carry out, that we were both somewhat lost when we parted, and I believe that had we not done so, his name to-day would be a household word, as it was in the years of which I am speaking, and both our fortunes would have been on a higher plane.

The War

In August, 1914, the Great War started. We had many thousands of pounds worth of German film just issued, or about to be issued. In two months its value was the price of scrap for melting down to make dope for our aeroplanes. This was a first big knock.

The following three years were ones of anxiety in every respect for everybody, but we all did our best to keep the flag flying. We had 95 per cent. of our our staff in the Army – all volunteers, and we had to keep the business going to provide a place for them when they came back, if they ever did. Out of our entire male staff there were only two other man and myself left, we either being over age of permanently turned down as physically unfit.

The year 1918 found me in communication with J.D. Williams, who just then had founded the First National Pictures in America, with English rights in view, and I secured these for my company in face of great opposition.

Daddy Long Legs

Daddy Long Legs (1919)

The F.N. Contract

Mr. Williams had gathered under his banner practically all the great artistes of America, including Mary Pickford, and I secured three of her productions: “Heart o’ the Hills,” “The Ragamuffin,” and “Daddy Long Legs.” For these I paid a record figure, but all the world knows what a huge success “Daddy Long Legs” was, and then we began to get films quicker than we could put them out, which is nearly as bad as not getting enough, because they could not be worked out to their capacity.

In the year 1920, a great slump took place in the English poound in America. We were having weekly consignments over, and as we were paying dollars against the depreciated pound, our losses in this respect amounted to over £30,000. Then the company with whom we had fixed up our programme for 1923 and 1924 began to fail in delivering to time, and eventually stopped altogether. This was the third great block, becuase it left us with a big organisation and nothing to put out to the exhibitors, and finally, the Walturdaw Company had to close down, going into voluntary liquidation.

But the Walturdaw Cinema Supply Company, of which to-day I am a director, sprang up from its ashes like the Phoenix of old, and we are carrying on the traditions of the old company – carrying all its personnel, and I am sure the good will of the thousands of old clients.

Such is the review which has passed before my mind during the time I have been jotting down this article and it practically gives the life story of the kinema trade.

Turner’s optimism was not ill-founded. The Walturdaw Cinema Supply Company continued as a successful provider of cinema equipment for decades. Turner himself became a senior figure within the film industry. He became chairman of the Kinematograph Renter’s Society and the Kinematograph Manufacturer’s Association, and president of the Cinema Veterans Society. He died in 1962.

The previous parts of Turner’s memoir are available here:

Part 1: The first film shows
Part 2: Popular film titles of the 1890s
Part 3: Pitching the product to the working classes, and developing film renting
Part 4: Exhibition in the 1890s and the effect of the Bazar de la charité fire
Part 5: The London County Council’s fire regulations and the cinematograph business
Part 6: The hiring business and establishing the Walturdaw name
Part 7: Developing fireproof equipment
Part 8: Flicker Alley and the rise of the exclusive film.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 8

Let us return once more to the memoirs of Edward G. Turner, British pioneer film distributor, who in 1926 wrote a series of articles for the Kinematograph Weekly on his thirty years in the film business. Turner here describes how the ealy British film business in the late 1900s started to gather in one area of London, soon to be affectionately named ‘Flicker Alley’:

“Flicker Alley”
We had splendid premises at Dane Street, but as the industry grew, it was necessary to have a common centre, where customers from the provinces could make their purchases easily and not have to travel all over London to visit the different firms, and so the trade began to drift west, and Cecil Court, where Gaumont’s had so long been established, became the centre of the trade – so much so that the court lost its proper name and became known as “Flicker Alley”.

We reluctantly decided to go West, and did establish ourselves at 40, Gerrard Street. I always think it was a mistake for the Trade to setle upon the most expensive quarter in London for their offices, showrooms and stores, as our trade demands plenty of space, and the West is very expensive; that is why nearly all of us, even to-day, are cramped for room.

By this time the old showman had given up travelling and had opened permanent kinemas; others had followed, and everywhere the picture Industry was booming, and kinemas were springing up like mushrooms all over the country. This was good for houses like ours, which dealt not only in films and machines, but in all other requisities for the kinema. Those were good days indeed – and profitables ones.

Simon Brown has written an excellent essay on the history of Flicker Alley, which identifies all of the film businesses based there, for the latest issue of Film Studies (issue 10, Spring 2007). This specially-themed issue on cities just so happens to have an essay by me on children’s cinema-going in London before the First World War as well, so all the more reason for the dedicated to seek it out. Cecil Court is now London’s home for second-hand and antiquarian booksellers.

The Exclusive

About this period saw the introduction of the exclusive. Which firm introduced this system I am afraid will never been known definitely. They say great minds think alike, and it is a debatable point as to which was actually the firm, Jury’s, Andrew’s, or ourselves, but all exhibitors will remember our first one, namely: “Fools of Society”, as it brought golden records to their pay-boxes. The idea caught on with the Trade, and so a new era was started in film renting.

About this time we represented nearly all the German film producers, two of the stars being Henny Porten and the great Asta Nielsen, and the time came when we had to leave 40, Gerrard Street for larger and more commodious premises at 46.

This, I think, was in the year 1913, just at the time when the Famous players Producing Company began to put their films on the English market, and we purchased from them the first long Mary Pickford films ever made: “A Good Little Devil” (6,000 ft.), “In the Bishop’s Carriage” (6,000 ft.), and “Caprice” (5,000-6,000 ft.). We originated the phrase “The World’s Sweetheart” for this great little artist.

A bold and most unlikely claim!

About that time also we put the Clarendon Film Co’s big film, “The Great Fire of London”, and Barker’s big creations, “East Lynne” and “Jane Shore”, the latter being one of the most ambitious that any English producer had ever made.

What visions of full houses these names must conjure up to those exhibitors who played them!

(To be continued.)

The ‘exclusive’ film system was a break away from a uniform pricing policy for any kind of film (so much per foot) to the marketing of higher quality films on an exclusive basis, usually determined by territory or time period. The most notorious example was Will Barker’s marketing of his Henry VIII (1911), which he made available to exhibitors for a short period only (six weeks) at high prices, then publicly burned all the prints. No one else pursued such a drastic policy, but the introduction of exclusive hire for quality films caught on quickly, as was an important development for the British film trade, cementing the renting sector of the business, and impressing on everyone for the first time the idea of film as (occasionally) art.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 7

We return to the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner of the Walturdaw company, pioneer film distributors. Turner is now talking about their business situation in the 1900s, when they turned to production as well as distribution. As is usual with Turner, what gives him equal pleasure is the mechanical side of the business, here devices for preventing fire, and getting the better of the London County Council.

Prior to our moving to Dane Street, the three partners had not definite duties. We all put our hands to whatever was required of us during the day, and acted as operators at night. We were buyers and sellers of everything in the kinematograph Industry, new or secondhand.

There was one member, however, whose inclinations were photographically inclined, and so we took lease of Wembley Park and erected there something novel in the way of outdoor studios – a revolving platform, which allowed us to put up three sets of scenery at a time, when the wind allowed it, and each could be brought to the camera as required. Further, it was so constructed that we could always get the best of the light and sunshine.

[Ernest] Howard took charge of this department – his lieutenants being J.B. McDowell and E. Bloomfield – these latter were our cameramen.

Albert Bloomfield left Walturdaw in 1908, forming the British & Colonial Kinematograph Company, J.B. McDowell soon joining him. McDowell would go on to achieve lasting fame as a cameraman in the First World War, filming much of the documentary feature The Battle of the Somme (1916). Interestingly, one of the companies he worked for before Walturdaw was the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which had a revolving open-air studio (on the Thames embankment) much as Turner describes, dating around 1899.

[J.D.] Walker took over the Film Hire Department, [G.H.J.] Dawson the Entertainment Department, and myself the Sales and Accessory Department. The business thus became sectionalised, each man devoting himself exclusively to his own side of the business, whereas in the past we had been cosmopolitan in this respect. Things grew apace, and we were doing business with all parts of the world.

A Fireproof Spool

One day at Dane Street, the late Mr. Holmes, of Essex Road, who was the chief kinematograph mechanic to Levy Jones, of Horton Square, called to see me, and found me experimenting with a tin box. Instantly he said to me, ‘I see what you are after, I am working on the same thing; suppose we join forces?’

While we were discussing the point, my eye fell on a kinematograph camera film box (in those days the boxes were outside the camera). At once we had solved the problem. Why not make a copy of the camera film box in metal, fit it to the top of the kinema machine, make a similar box for the bottom spool-arm and so get fire-proof spool boxes?

The first pair were made of mahogany, and Mr. Holmes used them pretty regularly. They answered their purpose perfectly. We then had them made in metal and thus came about one of the greatest improvements in the kinema world.

A Lost Fortune

I took the model to Mr. Wrench and asked his advice as to taking out a patent, as I had done previously with the fireproof gate. I shall remember his words as long as I live:

He told me he had taken out over 100 patents on his lanterns, and never made any money out of any of them; other makers copied, and rarely was he able to stop them, except at great expense. Further, non-flam film was bound to be perfected in a month or two (it was always to be a month or two as it is to-day), and when non-flam film did come out, that would solve all our difficulties with the L.C.C., insurance companies and other authorities.

Alas! I took his advice and lost a fortune. The owner of those patents would be rolling in untold wealth to-day, as spool-boxes are compulsory all over the world.

Films, of course, were of cellulose nitrate, and were highly inflammable. ‘Non-flam’, or safety films (cellulose acetate) were often talked about, but in general they lacked the robustness of nitrate. Some safety systems were available around 1908, but cellulose acetate really only found use for narrow gauge systems designed for non-theatrical and amateur use, of which Edison’s 22mm Home Kinetoscope system, introduced in 1912, was the first.

The L.C.C. Butts In

No more was heard of fireproof spool-boxes until the demonstration which was given at the London Hippodrome, on December 17, 1908, when no fewer than ten firms exhibited, before the representatives of the London County Council and insurance bodies, their machines, showing how they had tackled the question of making the machines safe.

Incidentally, I claim to have had a good deal to do with this demonstration. It came about in this way. Passing the Hippodrome about a fortnight previously, I found that a demonstration of fire extinguishing apparatus for kinematographs was being given inside the Hippodrome. I walked in to see what was moving, and discovered that the apparatus was similar to an ordinary water cistern, such as are used in w.c.’s, fitted on four rods and suspended over the machine; this was the ingenious arrangement that the trade had been called together to see.

The apparatus was so arranged that if a piece of film caught fire it released a spring and the water supposed to come down and put the fire out. I, with a number of other exhibitors, saw this absurd apparatus, and laughed it to scorn, but certain members of the County Council were strongly in favour of foisting this wretched thing upon the trade.

The Test that Failed

Mr. Brandon (one of the oldest exhibitors) and myself, stepped into the ring and challenged the efficacy of this absurd invention, and I, as spokesman, asked that a fair test might be given, first to the apparatus which the various makers were selling, and secondly, that the County Council would call us together to demonstrate. The test was to be under the same conditions that we would have if we were actually showing, and this challenge was accepted.

Frank Allen kindly granted us the use of his ring, and on December 7 the demonstration was given, and proved the death knell of the water cistern, for when the film was set fire to by means of the rays from the arc lamp, the wretched invention failed, the water instead of coming down all over the spool and putting the fire out, simply fell over the bottom spool and damaged the film – and let the rest flare away.

All the other machines were tested very severely by the judges, and each came out triumphant. Some of the tests were really severe, inasmuch as they fired the film on the top sprocket, the bottom sprocket, and in the gate, and yet in no instance did the fire enter into the spool cases.

Stay turned for the next episode, when Turner tells us about ‘Flicker Alley’ and discusses the rise of the exclusive.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 6

Back we go to Edward G. Turner‘s reminiscences, ‘From 1896 to 1926’. Here Turner describes how their exhibition distibution business grew in the early 1900s, and the formation of the company name Walturdaw.

When we moved to High Holborn, a schoolmaster by the name of G.H.J. Dawson, who used to hire films from us, purchased a third interest in our business, and henceforth we were known as Walker, Turner, and Dawson.

It was while we were at this address that one afternoon a Mr. R.W. Watson called to see me; he showed me a paper called the Optical Lantern Journal, just then acquired by E.T. Heron, of Tottenham Street, and told me that he had spent a weary day trying to get our competitors interested in advertising in same. He had been unsuccessful, but one or two had told him that if he succeeded in geting an advertisement from us, they would follow. So, as a bait, he offered us a whole page for £2.

I used his argument against himself, and finally agreed to take a page each month at 30s. a time (what a difference from the pirce to-day!). So we were the first firm to advertise in your paper, and for twenty-three years or so our advert. has never been missing.

The Optical Magic Lantern and Photographic Enlarger, formed around 1890, became The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal in 1904 , then The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly in 1907. It became simply The Kinematograph Weekly in 1919, the journal which published Turner’s articles, and continued until 1971. The title is now owned by Screen International.

By this time we employed about twenty men, who operated our machines at private parties and other engagements obtained from the bureaus above mentioned, and we, at times, had as many as forty shows going in one night. One one occasion, Walker, Dawson, and myself were engaged in giving three separate displays at the same time to one vast audience at Midsommer Common, Cambridge, for Mr. Haywood of that town.

This is the only instance I know in which three kinematographs have been going at the same time to the same crowd. I wonder if any of the old brigade can beat this?

In two years we had outgrown our offices at 77-78, High Holborn, and removed to 3, Dane Street, taking a seven years’ lease on a new, large building. Here we were joined by Ernest Howard, and as the name of Walker, Turner, Dawson, and Howard was cumbersome, we coined the word “Walturdaw“, taking the first three letters of the names of the first three members of the company. Up to August, 1904, we worked in partnership, but in this month, we formed into a limited liability company, each of the partners agreeing to serve the new company for ten years.

Hiring Developments

Our Hire Dept. had grown to very large proportions – our usual method being that each Monday morning our customers would call and take 1,000 or more feet of film, made up of various lengths and pay in cash, 50s, per 1,000 ft. for same. They did not know what they were getting and there was no picking or choosing – the only stipulation being that the films had not been shown before at the theatre, for which the operator was hiring his films. Those were fine times; cash over the counter, no bad debts, and always plenty of money in the bank.

I find that hard to believe. Were customers really content to buy films unseen and unidentified, obtaining purely on the strength of the fact that they hadn’t been shown at their theatre before? It’s no wonder that other businesses revolted, though it was not the exhibitors (they would not become dominant until the rise of cinemas, a few years ahead), but the manufacturers, who did not want to see any middle man eating into their profits.

Finally, our film hire had reached such proprtions that we became a menace (at least so the manufacturers of films thought) to their side of the business, and at a meeting convened by the K.M.A. [Kinematograph Manufacturers Association] , a decision was arrived at wherein the manufacturers decided that the action of renting films by the firm of Walker, Turner and Dawson was inimical to the interests of the manufacturers and therefore none of the products of such manufacturers would, in future, be supplied to us.

I am not sure as to whether this actually went on the books of the Association, but it was certainly brought into effect, and for a long time they refused to supply us, but the Industry was becoming world-wide, and we were able to get films from all parts of the world, and, in addition, were able to buy the English manufacturers’ products through other people, and eventually the ban was removed.

This is not the first time in history that men who have thought years in advance of their trade have been looked upon an enemies, instead of benefactors. Events have proved how right we were then.

Teaching the World

About this time Chas. Pathé and his Directors came over from Paris to study our system; they spent about a week with us, and a little later they came into the film renting business. After their conversion they ceased to sell us films, but we still put their subjects out, purchasing them through another source.

Before Pathé visited us, however, Miles Bros., of New York, came over and studied the subject pretty carefully; they went back to the States, and started, I believe, the first renting concern in America.

Directors from a concern in Germany also came, and after studying the system, came to the conclusion that they would go back and do likewise.

(To be continued.)

As can be seen, the early film business was a little on the anarchic side, as the emerging elements of the industry – production, distribution, exhibition – each struggled to establish a commercial identity, and control over the other sectors of the business. As Rachael Low explains it, in The History of British Film 1896-1906:

The impulse towards film hire came from the exhibiting side, and it was exhibitors [like Walturdaw] who became renters. They had no power to stop the free sale of films by the producers, in fact their own stocks were built up in the open market. Thus it came about that identical films were both for sale and for hire at the same time. The conception of exclusive entered the industry as exclusive selling rather than exclusive renting rights.

Turner was fighting against the control of the market held by the manufacturers (while at the same time holding absolute power over his exhibitor customers). As it is, in 1905 Walturdaw made the decision to become producers themselves – something to be described in the next installment.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 5

Cinematograph show under the new L.C.C. rules

Cartoon parodying the alarm over the L.C.C.’s first regulations for film exhibition, from The Showman, 8 March 1901 (signed as being originally from The Photographic Dealer, 1898)

Back to the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor. We’re still in the 1890s (we will move out of them eventually), and Turner and his partner J.D. Walker have their first encounter with the London County Council (L.C.C.), which had responsibility for the inner London area, including its public entertainments. The L.C.C. had become alarmed by the threat of fire presented by cinematograph exhibitions.

On November 8, 1897 I had an engagement at the Old Balham Baths, which I believe to-day is a permanent kinema. We had a notification from the L.C.C. that we could not show unless the apparatus and operator were enclosed in a fireproof enclosure.

This notification was delivered to us 48 hours befiore the show. So I worked all day and night in making a box out of corrugated iron. The dimensions were 4 ft. wide, 6 ft. long and 6 ft. high. The sizes were determined by the iron sheets.

This was the first operating-box ever made, and was used at Balham. This box again served as the model for practically every portable iron house, even to its dimensions, and the shutters which I originally made for this box became the standard article for this type of box.

Enter the L.C.C.

In those days the London County Council had no officers for dealing with kinematographic affairs. Somewhere about November they appointed a Mr. Vincent, who, I believe, was the head of the Chemistry Department in Villiers Street, Strand, as the officer responsbile for looking after these affairs. This gentleman inspected our box at Balham on the afternoon of the display, and told us that he would pass the box, subject to same being painted with asbestos paint inside and out.

Why this precaution I have never been able to understand, but the effects on Mr. Walker and myself were disastrous, as we had to work in this confined space, and before the end of the performance we had answered the riddle “Can a leopard change its spots?” We went in in black suits, and came out piebald, with most of the paint adhering to our clothes.

It was at Great Eastern Street that the first operating-box was made, and later improved by the addition of adjustable shutters.

The original box was fitted with a dead-man lever, i.e., the shutters had no means of being held up while the picture was being projected, except by a wire over a pulley, which was attached to a piece of wood about 15 in. long. One end of the wood rested on the floor, and the other, to which the wire was attached, would be about 6 in. off the floor.

The operator placed his foot upon the wood, which by its weight lay flat upon the floor, and the wire would automatically raise the shutter of the operating-box. If he took his foot off the lever, or fainted, or as soon as the pressure was removed from the lever down came the shutter. Later, we did away with the lever.

Soon we moved our offices to the second floor of Wrench’s premises at 50, Gray’s Inn Road, and after nine to twelve months we shifted our quarters to Nos. 77 and 78, High Holborn.

The Safety Shutter

When we had our office at 50, Gray’s Inn Road, we conceived the idea of automatic shutters to fall down between the light and the film. In those days we tested every machine that Wrench made, and, naturally, we took the idea to him, and in his workshop on the top floor, I believe, his mechanic worked out our idea and fitted the shutter, the opening and closing of same being worked by governor balls.

Wrench is Alfred Wrench. The long-established optical firm of J. Wrench & Sons became leading suppliers of cinematographic equipment at this time, and their offices at 50 Gray’s Inn Road housed a number of early film companies, including Will Barker’s Autoscope company, and later the Topical Film Company, as well as the eventual Wrench Film Company.

We then thought of covering in the space between the lensholder and the front of the film gate, working on the known law that combustion cannot take place without air, so that if the film fired in the gate, it went out, because there was not sufficient air left to support combustion, and thus was evolved the first fireproof gate, and we gave it to the world for nothing.

At this time we were doing business with Pat Collins (now an M.P.), Biddell Bros., the late George Green (of Glasgow), Haggar (of Wales), Dick Dooner, Jacob Studd and his sister, Hastings and Whyman, Ralph Pringle, Edison Thomas, Boscoe, all showmen; and, among lecturers, T.M. Paul, A.E. Pickard, A.H. Vidler, Waller Jeffs, Professor Wood, T.R. Woods, Baker (of Liverpool), and Lenton (of the Sherwood Film Agency), who bought his first outfit from me.

We, of course, had a number of competitors:- Joyce, of Oxford; McKenzie, of Edinburgh; Walker, of Edinburgh or Glasgow; Nobby Walker, of Bermondsey; F. Gent, of London; Jury, of Peckham (now Sir William); Brandon Medland; Matt Raymond and his lieutenant Rockett; Fowler and Ward, Ruffles Bioscope; Weisker, of Liverpool; Carter, of Leeds; Lens Bros., of Lancashire; Henderson, of Newcastle, and Gibbons (now Sir Walter). This list by no means exhausts the number.

Early Operators

Some of the operators I can remember who worked for us at this time are as follows:- Chas. Harper, C.H. Coles, W.M. Morgan, “Baby” Morgan, E.T. Williams, Jack Herbert, E. Mason (of Charrington’s, Mile End), J. Gardiner and his brother, George Palmer, W.W. Whitlock (now of gramophone fame), J. Nethercote (a school teacher), A. Malcolm, W. Walker, F. Hull, H. Luner, Joe Saw, Harry Last, F. Haward, Will Turner, T. Bosi (now of Herne Bay).

What an amazing list of names of those involved in the film business in the late 1890s. The showmen’s names are mostly familiar, being prominent fairground figures such as Ralph Pringle, Dick Dooner and William Haggar (soon to be a notable film producer). Edison Thomas is the notorious A.D. Thomas, a larger-than-life figure much associated with Mitchell and Kenyon. Waller Jeffs became a leading exhibitor in the Midlands, Matt Raymond, previously having worked for the Lumières, went on to become a prominent cinema owner (his assistant was Houghton Rockett), the Scottish Walker is William Walker, William Jury went on to become cinema’s first knight, while Walter Gibbons (also knighted) established the London Palladium. But many of those names are unknowns, and offer tantalising new avenues for research.

More from E.G. Turner in a few days’ time.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 3

High Divers at Milan

Les Bains de Diane à Milan (1896)

We return to Edward G. Turner’s 1926 reminiscences of the early days of the film business in Britain. We are still in the 1890s, and changes in the business are already necessary. Turner and colleagues discover that they have pitched their product too highly…

The Crash

We soon found out, however, that we were altogether too scientific in our entertainment. The average person could not promounce the word “kinematograph,” and, if they could, it conveyed nothing to them in the way of entertainment. They all thought it was something educational, and in those days, as to-day, the public would not pay to be educated when they wanted to be amused, and so, after three months’ touring, we returned to London sadder but wiser men, and in the process of gaining wisdom, we lost our entire capital.

On the last day of the old year 1896, three unhappy men met to discuss ways and means for carrying on or closing down – the three men being J.D. Walker, J. Mackie and E.G. Turner. Mackie was demonstrator or operator, Walker was lecturer, and myself manager and treasurer – the latter office being a mere sinecure, as there were no funds to treasure, and I had to draw upon private means to pay our way.

As the bells announced the birth of a New Year (1897), we closed the books of the North American Animated Picture Company [and] reorganised our finances by my agreeing to provide £100 (which I hoped to borrow and which I succeeded in doing). Walker agreed to take half-share, and pay for his share as and when the business permitted, and Mackie withdrew as it looked an almost hopeless proposition.

Playing to the Gallery

Our policy was now altered: instead of spending a large amount of money in circularising all the best people in the towns and villages, by means of very good stationery, excellent printing and sending and sealing our letters with a penny stamp so as to attract the attention of the recipient, we went for the working classes. The results of our fresh policy was that, when the performance began, we had two or three people only in the stalls, our chief patronage came from the cheaper seats. So we decided to stop playing to the stalls, and in future to play to the gallery. From this date we were known as Walker and Turner.

On January 1, 1897, we visited the Central Working Men’s Club and Institute in Clerkenwell Road – had an interview with the entertainment secretary, who gave us an engagement for the following Saturday night, provided we gave a show of one hour’s duration for the magnificent sum of 30s.

As we had to find two cylinders of gas, and get our apparatus to and from the hall, also take two men to do the job, one will understand that it was not a profitable transaction, but the secretary personally promised us that he would send round a letter to secretaries of all the clubs in London, invite them to be present, and if our show was all we claimed it to be, there were prospects of good bookings to be obtained.

The secretary carried out his promise, and on Saturday night, when we arrived to do our show, the hall was packed to suffocation. The pictures projected were most enthusiatically received, and after the show was over we had the satisfaction of booking up dates amounting to over £200.

As we executed these dates, which were all close, others rolled in upon us from all parts of the country, principally from working men’s clubs, and that was the first step towards success; in three months our business had grown to such an extent that we had two machines operating.

Turner now moves on to some of the strategies of exhibition in the 1890s, interestingly revealing that gaps in the programme and the common practice of running films backwards were employed to spin out meagre, expensive films. He then describes the innovation in film business practice that he was central in introducing – renting, or film distribution.

A Shilling a Foot

In those days we were paying 1s. per foot for our films, the average length being 500 feet. It will, therefore, be understood that the cost of running an hour’s programme was very expensive.

It is true that to eke out our meagre supply of films we used to take a minute or two between the change, and further, we had what was known as a reversing prism, and, after we had shown a film through, e.g., “The High Divers at Milan” (which was a very effective subject for the purpose), we would then rewind the film, put it through the machine backwards, and, by means of the prism, instead of the man diving into the water from the high diving boards, there would be a splash of water, out of which the man, feet foremost, would come and go back on to the diving board – in fact, the whole subject being reversed. This used to create not only great amusement but wonder as to how it was done, and used to help us very considerably in making our programme last out the necessary time. And if they applauded, well, on went the film a second time.

The Beginning of Renting

The price of films quickly dropped from 1s. to 8d. per foot, and then became standard at 6d. a foot; this allowed us to increase our store, but it soon became evident that to have to provide new films every time we took a repeat engagement was too expensive. So we conceived the idea, first of all, of an interchange of films with other exhibitors, who experienced the same difficulties in regard to new supplies. From this we eventually evolved the renting of films to other people, because we found that we had by far a larger stock than any of the other men. By buying films regularly we could use them ourselves and hire them to the other people, and so in such small beginning was evolved the great renting system as known to-day.

The First Woman Operator

At the end of 1897 we had three machines working. Walker operated one, myself the second, and the third was handled by Mrs. J.D. Walker, though a man went with her to fit up and do the donkey work. Mrs. Walker handled the mixed gas jet and operated, and she can claim without fear of contradiction to be the first woman operator in the world. She is still in business as managing director of the Empire cinema, Watford.

Was the redoubtable Mrs Walker the ‘first women operator in the world’? The evidence of the 1901 census, as reported in a recent post, shows that there were certainly other women operators around at the same time. More investigation is needed. ‘The High Divers of Milan’ is Les Bains de Diane à Milan (1896), Lumière catalogue no. 277, and is illustrated above. Reversing prisms, which were fitted onto the lens, were available from equipment suppliers at the time. They were used when film could not simply be reversed by cranking in the opposite direction i.e. the film had to be re-threaded in reverse, with the prism necessary to turn the image the correct way round. Is that a correct explanation, you experts out there?

From 1896 to 1926 – part 1

E.G. Turner

Edward G. Turner, from

It’s time for a new series. Edward G. Turner was a film exhibitor and distributor from the earliest years of British film, whose company Walturdaw continued for decades thereafter. In 1926 he wrote a series of articles for the Kinematograph Weekly (great rival to The Bioscope) on his memories of the industry. ‘From 1896 to 1926: Recollections of Thirty Years of Kinematography’ (originally published 17 & 24 June, 1 & 15 July 1926) is marvellous source of information on the first years of the British film business, particularly renting (distribution) where Walturdaw were undoubted pioneers. It’s an anecdotal stuff, occasionally homely stuff, but with revealing gems along the way. Anyway, let’s start…

The founders of the Walturdaw Co. Ltd., of whom the successors are the Walturdaw Cinema Supply Co. Ltd., were E.G. Turner and J.D. Walker, and the month of August in the year 1896 saw the beginning of their activities in the kinema industry when they purchased their first machine from John Wrench and Sons, of 50, Gray’s Inn Road.

At this time there were only two other makers of machines in the world’s market: R.W. Paul, of Hatton Garden, and Lumière, of Paris.

Within a short period, Beard, of old Kent Road, Haydon and Urry, of Islington, Hughes, of Kingsland Road, Levy Jones. of Hoxton, Reay, of Bradford, Thomassin, Ottway in St. John Street, Islington. Later the Edisonagraph, Mutoscope American Biograph and Pathé came into existence.

The First Posters
At this period our office was at my private address at 111, Great Eastern Street, E.C., and we started out under the grand title of The North American Animated Picture Company. Our entertainment consisted of animated pictures, and Edison’s phonograph.

Our first poster invited the public to view “The World’s Wonder – THE CINEMATOGRAPH, by which the Public would see Trains in Actual Motion coming to rest at Platforms and Passengers Alighting – Trees Gracefully bending in the Wind – Waves breaking on the Sea-shore, and the Fattest and Thinnest Wrestlers in the World would go through their Performance in Animated Photography – Also Edison’s marvellous invention, the giant Phonograph”. We invited the public to come, and not only hear this instrument, but have their voices recorded and reproduced before the audience.

For our first display we hired the hall adjoining the Constitutional Club, Guildford, from Monday, November 16, 1896, our takings that night being £8 1s 1d. the intervening days up to Friday, November 20, were used in posting our bills and distributing handbills from door to door at Godalming, ready for the show to be given there on that night.

The display was duly given, our receipts being £7 4s 6d. The show went well and we were told that if we stayed and gave another show on the following night, Saturday, we would do well. We returned to our diggings, and there I found a telegram awaiting me, telling me of the arrival that night of a new addition to my family – a bonny girl – born at 8.30, whilst I was actually showing our films in the Public Hall, Godalming.

I believe the name of Godalming means “The Gift of God,” and so this child of mine makes it impossible for me to forget my entry into the kinema world; and she can truly be described as a child of the kinema. All her life since leaving school has been spent in the industry, and she, with her husband, now are in charge of a very sucessful little kinema in the country.

So we thought our luck was in, and we decided to stay anoter night to celebrate the event – but how to let the public know? Mr. Walker, always a man of brains, and being handy with paper and scissors, cut out in white letters the necessary announcement, and I next morning made a frame 3 ft. wide and 12 ft. long, with handles at each end, covered it with turkey red, pasted on the white letters, and there was our advert. ready. I got two lads to carry it about the streets, telling them to go anywhere where people were to be found.

A 2 o’clock, while standing outside the hall, we heard strains of a band playing the “Dead March in Saul” – it was a military funeral; it passed by us – first the band, then the body, the mourners walking behind – and directly behind them as part of the procession were out two lads and out advertisement!

Nothing could be done without creating a scene, so we let them pass on. Later, in very cross tones, I asked them why they had done such a thing, and their reply was “you told us to go where people would see your notice, and everyone in Godalming has seen it now”.

Anyway, we took £7 that night!

Beard is Robert Royou Beard; Reay is Cecil Wray. For a rough equivalent of present day prices, multiply the figures Turner gives by 100. The baby girl’s name was Ethel. Next up, the films that they showed.

The Theatre of Science

The Theatre of Science – hard to imagine a general guide to the cinema having such a title nowadays. But Robert Grau’s The Theatre of Science: A Volume of Progress and Achievement in the Motion Picture Industry was published in 1914, when cinema was seen as a home of knowledge as much as place of entertainment (at least among commentators), a product of science and a technical achievement par excellence.

Grau’s book, published in a limited edition of 3,000, has become a standard reference source for the early cinema period. It provides an extraordinary amount of detail on the history and development of motion pictures in America to 1914 – their technological, economic, social and artistic changes, and the key events and personalities involved. Grau (a theatrical agent) was witness to much of the history he describes, and if his understanding of the development of the pictures towards the ideal of the theatre, he was a keen observer who provides hugely useful factual information on histories such as the rise of the nickelodeons and the emergence of a film trade press which scarcely exist elsewhere. He champions the names of pioneers of the industry who would otherwise be forgotten, the run-of-the-mill performers as well as the stars, and the book is rich in portrait photographs. It has much information on the leading and not so leading film companies of the period, and is at all points particularly interested in the business of making pictures. It is thrilled with how motion pictures were made, sold and exhibited, and for that enthusiasm alone it is strongly recommended.

It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (21MB), PDF (66MB), b/w PDF (23MB) and TXT (711KB) formats, and it’s been added to the Bioscope Library.

Licensing Charlie

There’s a new Charlie Chaplin site that’s just appeared, Simply Chaplin. It’s been set up by the Carlini Group, whose business is usually managing music artists. It does all the usual stuff in giving you the potted history, then ample opportunity to buy DVDs, books, music etc. Video clips and a forum are promised, but the news page is simply items from other sites which have been harvested automatically. You can send an electronic Simply Chaplin postcard, should you so wish. It also has a singularly naff cartoon image of Chaplin on its front page. It’s not the only such site out there with license to sell official Chaplin merchandise – see, for example, – quite apart from the official site, Presumably the little fellow is still reaching corners of the global market that other silent stars can’t touch.