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again served as the model for practically every portable iron house, even to its dimensions, and the shutters which I originally made for this box became the standard article for this type of box.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 4

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897 © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from

We return, after something of a gap, to Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor, whose reminiscences, written in 1926 for the Kinematograph Weekly, are a rich source of information on early film business practice. Here Turner discusses exhibition in the late 1890s, with particular reference to the effects of the Bazar de la Charité fire:

The First Exhibitors

The earliest exhibitors were fairground showmen, magic lantern lecturers, and men who earned their living by giving private entertainments. The theatres and music-halls took to pictures as a nine-day wonder which would have its day and die.

I remember a time about the end of 1897 when there was not a single music-hall or theatre showing pictures in London. It was only a temporary lull, however, chiefly caused through the lack of subjects. With the advent of the Edisonagraph, Mutoscope, and the American Bioscope, the pictures became a permanent installation in the music-halls in London, but the early showmen and lantern lecturers were the men who were making the pictures popular all over the country.

These were the men who had sunk their little all in the Industry, and they kept pegging away, believing that it must eventually win out, and that the subjects would not be confined to 40 or 50 ft. lengths, but whole stories would be filmed.

The great bar to progress was the difficulty of getting new subjects except by buying them outright, and I think my partner and myself solved the problem for the world by instituting the renting system. Little did we think that that system would spread all over the wide world, and grow to the great business it is to-day.

In those first days we only did it spasmodically, because we had very few customers, but later on when the pictures had caught on, and village halls, churches, and chapels were taking up the pictures and giving regular weekly displays, our hire system grew rapidly. We would buy as many as ten and twelve prints of a film, which was entitled “Landing an Old Lady From a Small Boat.” Our first regular hirer was Ted Lacey, of Barnards M.H. Chatham. My first customer to buy films was Mr. Henderson, of Newcastle.

This is George Henderson, of Stockton, whose surviving film collection is held by British Movietone News and available to view from their website. There’s information on this important early film collection in an earlier post, Movietone and Henderson.

We then extended operations to the entertainment bureaus, such as:- Whiteley’s, Keith Prowse, Harrods, Gamage, Webster and Girling, H.L. Toms, Woods, of Cheapside, Ashton and Mitchell, Army and Navy Stores, the Church Mission Halls, Salvation Army, the Leysian Mission, City Road, and many more whose names at the moment I cannot remember, and after thirty years, we still do business with practically all the above-named firms.

The most disastrous fire that has ever occurred in our Trade took place on May 4, 1897. It is still remembered as the Paris fire. No fewer than 130 people lost their lives in the panic and stampede which occurred, and amongst those killed were the Duchess d’Alençon (sister of the Empress of Austria), Duke d’Aumale, Baron d’Sainte Didier, and General Munier (or Muiner). The Life Assurance losses were paid as to two-thirds American companies and the remaining one-third French – the total being twelve million francs, which, in that day, represented £480,000.

The kinematograph got the blame of this fire, but it actually occurred after the operator had finished giving his display of films, and was showing some slides. He was using an ether saturator, which was giving out, and he started to replenish same by pouring fresh ether in, and, of course, at once the fumes caught fire. The exhibition was being given in a large marquee. It was decorated with inflammable material, and soon the whole was one roaring mass of flame. The tent contained bazaar stalls, etc., and the bazaar was patronised by the principal nobility and well-known people of France – which explains the enormous sums paid by the life insurance companies.

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from

This was the notorious fire of 4 May 1897 at the Bazar de la Charité, Paris, at which a Joly film projector had been used. As Turner correctly recalls, the fire was not caused by the cinematograph but instead by a Molteni ether lamp, but the calamity was swiftly associated with motion pictures, and caused great damage to the reputation of the medium.

Insurance Difficulties

This had the effect of making the Insurance Companies look askance at the kinematograph; and the mere mention of the word sent a shudder through the official minds. The public memory, however, is very short, and the desire for amusement great, and as new subjects arrived on the scene, slowly but surely, we overcame these difficulties.

Within a month of this happening I had an engagement at the St. Martin’s Town Hall. On the afternoon, I presented byself with an apparatus at the hall, and the dismay on the face of the official when he saw it was a kinematograph, accompanied by cylinders of gas, can be well imagined.

He informed the authorities at once, and one official informed me that the display could not be given. After half-an-hour, I got their sanction – they only giving way because they had failed to give notice that they would not permit a kinematograph.

The following week a resolution was passed that no kinematograph should ever be allowed in the hall again, and I believe that this is so even up to the present time. I am the only person who has ever given a display in the Westminster Town Hall, St. Martin’s Lane.

(To be continued)

The memoirs so far have been taken from the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1926, pp. 53-54, and further installments will follow in due course. You can follow the earlier installments here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

The Wisconsin Bioscope

Urban Bioscope

Urban Bioscope Model D, from

The Wisconsin Bioscope is, as its own proud boast has it, “the leading silent film production company in the Midwestern United States, if not the world, today”. It is the brainchild of Dan Fuller, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison department of communication arts, who every year takes a group of students on a seminar, “Making the Early Silent Film”, with the result being a genuine silent film production.

The company takes its name from an Urban Bioscope Model D of 1907, with which their first two films, Plan B (1999) and Winner Takes All (2000) were filmed. Since then they have used a more accommodating Universal newsreel camera, circa 1923. The films are made in imitation of silent films of the 1907-1912 period, with loving attention paid to sets, performance, titles, developing, printing and music. The Wisconsin Bioscope website (recently revised), goes into fascinating detail about the technology employed, and the whole exercise is a delightful mixture of authentic investigation and tongue-in-cheek pastiche, as these introductory words from the website’s front page indicate:

All our productions are photographed with a hand-cranked motion picture camera on black & white 35 millimeter film, almost always at the rate of 16 frames per second. To crank faster is simply wasteful.

All our productions are developed, printed, toned, and edited by ourselves, following the motto:

If you want it done right, do it yourself.

Whenever possible, we film using daylight. Why pay for something that the sun freely provides?

We understand that other companies have experimented with motion pictures that, to some extent, duplicate color and sound.

This is a grave error.

If the public were to want color, it would visit a picture gallery or, better still, a botanical garden in the full bloom of spring!

If it were to want sound, it would attend the theatre or concert hall!

Although it may be temporarily seduced by kinemacolor, talking pictures, or even tele-vision, we know the great mass of the public has a deep desire for high-quality motion pictures produced and exhibited in the tried-and-true manner:

Pantomime accompanied by Live Music.

When false attractions grow tiresome, as they always do, the public will again demand the product pioneered by Mr. Edison and the frères Lumiére.

The Wisconsin Bioscope stands ready for that day!

Well, it’s hard to argue with any of that, but are the films any good? You bet they are – remarkably so. Technically excellent, but also wittily and sympathetically constructed. They’ve been good enough to feature regularly at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, where three new titles will be showing next week. The revised website now has QuickTime examples of several of them: A Expedição Brasileira de 1916 (2006), Cosmo’s Magical Melt-A-Ways (2006), Rent Party (2006), A Day’s Work (2006), The Rivals (2005), Daddy Don’t (2005), The Dancer (2004), The Starving Artist (2004), The Sick Child (2004), Cadtastrophe (2003), The Magic Tree (2003) and Winner Takes All (2000). All of them are worth a peek. Or else take a look on YouTube at A Visit with Grandmother (2005), with piano by David Drazin.

The website is rich in information, including production stills. All in all, a project done in absolutely the right spirit. and named after just the right piece of equipment, of course.

Screen heritage survey

Magic lantern slide from National Media Museum

Magic lantern slide from the National Media Museum,

A online survey was launched today, to uncover collections in the UK with moving image and screen-related artefacts. It is organised by a body called the Screen Heritage Network (of which the organisation I work for, the British Universities Film & Video Council, is a member). The survey is open to any UK collection with artefacts relating to the moving image and screen-related media which may be accessible to the public or researchers. There are ten categories of artefact being sought:

1. Film production equipment
2. Television and video equipment
3. Animation and special effects
4. Sound
5. Sets and costumes
6. Cinema and projection
7. Magic lanterns, slide projectors and viewers
8. Toys and games
9. Installations
10. Documentation

The information gathered will be used to create the first-ever online database of moving image and screen-related objects in UK collections.

Behind this activity lies a definition of ‘screen heritage’ which goes beyond moving picture to encompass the machinery that produces and exhibits them, the culture that supports them, and a notion of ‘screen’ that extends beyond cinema and television back to magic lanterns and forward to video games, consoles and the handheld technologies of today.

So the survey, in looking at artefacts, is concentrating on just a part of this vision of what ‘screen heritage’ comprises. It’s all most appropriate to the study of silent cinema, and where silent cinema fits in within the broader scheme of things. Do take a look at the project site, and if you know of a museum or other heritage organisation within the UK that ought to be taking part, and which we may have missed, let us know.

The Film Industry

British film studio

Unidentified British film studio, from The Film Industry

Just arrived in The Bioscope Library is The Film Industry (1921), by Davidson Boughey. This British publication is a relatively short but knowledgeable and helpful account of film production techonology and techniques, from a British perspective. It was much used by Rachael Low in her classic work, The History of the British Film 1918-1929. Boughey covers the history of film production (with an emphasis on British legislation), the manufacture and use of cinematograph film, the cinematograph camera, developing film, printing, tinting and toning, titling, the set-up of a motion-picture studio (particularly useful for the picture of British conditions, which were somewhat behind Hollywood), the production of films (again very informative on British practice), fiction films, travel, topical and scientific films, distribution, publicity, projection and exhibition. Boughey also provides useful figures on cinema attendance, the numbers employed by the cinema industry, and investment in film. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (3.5MB), PDF (11MB) and TXT (179KB) formats.

Prakash Travelling Cinema

Part one

Prakash Travelling Cinema is a delightful short film, posted on YouTube by the filmmaker, Megha B. Lakhani. She made the 14-minute film while at the National Institute of Design, India, and it has gone on to win festival awards.

The film documents two friends who maintain a travelling bioscope show on the streets of Ahmedabad. The ramshackle outfit, which they take around on a hand-cart, comprises a genuine c.1910 Pathé projector, adapted for sound, with peep-holes all around the mobile ‘cinema’ itself (which they call their ‘lorry’), through which children watch snippets plucked from popular Bollywood titles. One of the amazing sights of the film is either of the two men hand-cranking their sound projector at exhausting speed.

Part two

Although they are not showing silent films, the whole enterprise is imbued with the spirit of the original travelling bioscope operators of India, and of course the technology hails from the silent period. The word ‘bioscope’ still persists in places in India for cinema, as it does in South Africa. However, the film wants to do more than show a quaint operation, and it is very much about friendship, conviction, Indian society, and the persistence of a human way of doing things in the face of modern media technologies.

There are an estimated 2,000 mobile cinema shows in India today, and the travelling bioscope has been made the subject of other recent films. There is Andrej Fidyk’s 1998 documentary film Battu’s Bioscope, on a modern travelling show in rural India; Vrinda Kapoor and Nitesh Bhatia’s short film Baarah Mann Ki Dhoban (2007), on modern bioscope workers whch also touches on the history of India film exhibition; and Tim Sternberg’s film Salim Baba (2007), again about a modern travelling bioscope show, this time with an adapted 1897 Bioscope. Plus there’s Tabish Khair’s acclaimed novel Filming, published this year, which moves from a travelling bioscope show in 1929 to the Bombay cinema of the 1940s as a means to examine the rise of modern India. Clearly there’s a metaphor in the air.

Prakash Travelling Cinema was made in 2006, and there’s a full set of credits here. The film is in Hindi, with English subtitles, and on YouTube, owing to its length, it comes in two parts.

Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers

The latest set of motion picture-related documents to be added to the Internet Archive by the Prelinger Library is the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. The SMPE (later the SMPTE i.e. Television was added to the name) was founded in 1916, and continues to this day as the “leading technical society for the motion imaging industry”. The Society’s journal, known know as SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal, also goes back to 1916, and the Prelinger team have so far digitised the annual volumes 1930-1954, plus a volumes of synopses of papers published 1916-1930. They will carry on up to 1962 (also they won’t be digitising the pre-1930 volumes as they don’t have a complete set).

There are numerous classic papers relating to the silent cinema period, and not just those published before 1930. The various volumes come with indexes to aid searching, but here are some noteworthy papers:

  • Merritt Crawford, ‘Pioneer Experiment of Eugene Lauste in Recording Sound’, October 1931, Volume 17
  • Oscar B. Depue, ‘My First Fifty Years in Motion Pictures’, December 1947, Volume 49
  • W.K. Laurie Dickson, ‘A Brief History of the Kinetograph, the Kinetoscope and the Kineto-phonograph’, December 1933, Volume 21
  • Carl Gregory, ‘Early History of Motion Picture Cameras for Film Wider than 35-mm’, January 1930, Volume 14
  • Louis Lumière, ‘The Lumière cinematograph’, December 1936, Volume 27
  • Robert W. Paul, ‘Kinematographic Experiences’, November 1936, Volume 27
  • E. Kilburn Scott, ‘Career of L.A.A. LePrince’, July 1931, Volume 17

As usual, the individual volumes can be downloaded in DjVu, PDF and TXT formats.

Friendly shadows


The Teleshadow, from

Shadow puppets were an ancient precursor of our motion pictures on a screen, The Chinese word for cinema, ‘Dianying’, translates as ‘Electric Shadows’, and the word ‘shadows’ is common as a metaphor for film.

So there is something rather pleasing and appropriate about the BBC News Online report on the Teleshadow, a Japanese invention which sends video images of your friends to you in shadow form, so you can keep up with what they are doing in a ‘non-intrusive’ way. The idea is based both on the paper walls that once characterised Japanese interiors, and the lamp with rotating shadows which can be found in Western stores.

There is a projector at the base of the lamp which takes in a feed from a projector, which is trained on the person with whom you wish to stay in visual contact. It is also stressed that the Teleshadow preserves privacy by keeping details of whatever the subject may be doing on the indistinct side.

Hard to say if might catch on, but it is a charming creation, and a step back from the world of social networking through video to the graceful creations of a pre-cinema age.

No sale for Chaplin

The much-trailed auction at Christies of a Bell & Howell 2709 camera used by Charlie Chaplin resulted in no sale. The price had been put at £70,000-£90,000. The camera was one of four 2709 models used at the Chaplin studios. It was purchased in 1918 and used by Chaplin throughout the 1920s.

Despite the no sale, The Bioscope had one of its reporters on the spot, who returned with some fine pictures. Here’s a close view of the camera mechanism:

Chaplin camera

And here’s a marvellous Chaplin’s-point-of-view shot of the eyepiece:

Chaplin camera

As already reported, the camera sale of which the Chaplin camera was a part is rumoured to have been Christie’s last, the collector’s market not being what it once was. Which is sad, if it means that their glamour is fading. Not that I can usually tell one box from another – I can just about manage to spot a Bell & Howell, given the ‘Mickey Mouse ears’ look of the twin magazines, but thereafter I tend to get a bit stumped. So, don’t ask me which is which among this selection of boxes, which is one for the cognoscenti:


And, finally, something I can recognise, even without its box, though only because the name is somewhat prominently displayed – an Urban Bioscope, such as graces the header of this blog:

Urban Bioscope

With many thanks to Christian Hayes for the photographs.

Motion picture cameras

Chaplin's camera

You may remember the news a while ago about Charlie Chaplin’s camera coming up for auction. This will be at Christie’s in London on 25 July, which is part of a large sale of vintage motion picture camera equipment. Some enjoy this sort of stuff more than others, but the online catalogue is displaying some remakable rarities, including an Urban Bioscope from 1903 (estimate £300-500), a Kinemacolor camera (£1,000-1,500), and a 60mm Demeny-Gaumont camera (£10,000-15,000), while the Chaplin Bell & Howell will set you back £70,000-90,000. There are viewings from 21 July up to the day of the auction.

Rumour has it this will be the last Christie’s camera sale. There don’t seem to be the collectors around for cameras and projectors like these as there used to be, and Christie’s (so I am told) will be using space and resources for other, presumably more profitable things. What’ll happen to the market for vintage cinema technology, I don’t know, but Christie’s scholarly and reliable descriptions of some often extremely rare objects are going to be lost – if the rumours are true.