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Thursday, 6 October 2011

"Voyages to the Moon, Haunted Shops and Human Flies" Or: R.W Paul and the Victorian Film Industry:

Something that has always fascinated me about the Victorian era – and one of the many reasons why it is my favourite period of history – is that during mid nineteenth century we made our first tentative steps into so many areas of technology that we take for granted today. The telephone and the camera, for instance, were huge technological leaps when they first came about, but today, most people have an amalgamation of the two sitting in their pocket.

Forgetting the telephone, the camera is probably the technical breakthrough I thank the Victorians for the most, as it gives prying eyes like mine a wonderful opportunity to actually see Victorian people. We can see what they wore, the houses they lived in, the streets they walked down, and the people they worked with, and we can compare the Victorian world to our own. Queen Victoria was our first monarch to be photographed, which means, unlike predecessors such as Elizabeth I and Henry VIII (who had flattering portraits painted of themselves) we can actually see what she looked like in the flesh.

However, whilst Victorian photography is a joy, and something I could look at for hours, the good old Victorians also developed their photography theories and, towards the end of the century, started making films. These films, of course, were usually quite basic, and looking back now it’s easy to laugh at the hackneyed effects or the simplistic nature of them, but it must be remembered, these were the very first films to be made, and taken in that context, some are actually very impressive, none more so, in my opinion, than ‘The Haunted Curiosity Shop’ by Victorian film-making pioneer Robert W. Paul.

The Haunted Curiosity Shop’ was made in 1901 so it’s right on the verge of being Victorian. In the film, the owner of a shop is visited by all manner of ghastly apparitions, such as a floating skull and a ghostly woman separated from her bottom half.

A Still Image From 'The Haunted Curiosity Shop'

Robert Paul began his working life as a scientific instrument maker, working for Elliot Brothers in The Strand, London. Instrument makers were usually mathematical or scientific, and made things such as barometers and microscopes etc. At Elliot Brothers, Robert would learn basic technical skills that would be put into good use in his later life as a developer of filming equipment. He later set up Robert W. Paul Instrument Company in Hatton Garden, London, deciding he was capable enough to go it alone in the industry.
R.W Paul

His first introduction into the industry that would make him famous came when, in 1894 he was asked by two Greek businessmen to build copies of the Edison Kinetoscope. Presumably they wanted a cheaper version of Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Edison’s original, which was handsome, if cumbersome contraption that used levers and cogs to pull a strip of film containing images – each slightly different to the last – to give the illusion of movement.

Robert initially refused this illegal business, but then discovered that, for some reason – probably by sheer mistake – Edison had not patented his Kinetoscope in Britain, and copying it, therefore, would be perfectly legal.

Muybridge's 'Child Bringing Bouquet to a Woman. Scroll up and down, you can see the movement.

Inspired, Robert went out and purchased one of Edison’s contraptions, and immediately set about dismantling it to see how it worked, before building his own version. This went well, and he managed to build a few, and even sold one to Georges Méliès, the famous French film-maker and former stage magician who pioneered many early forms of special effects in films, and whose most famous film, ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’, released in 1902, contains that famous and much parodied scene of the man in the moon being hit in the eye with a space rocket.

Robert encountered a problem after he had sold a few Kinetoscopes to customers: the film that the machines used was only to be supplied to people who held a license for the official Edison machines, and therefore anybody who had purchased a machine from Robert could not obtain any films to show in them. This rendered Robert’s machine’s virtually useless – a little bit like buying a DVD player before DVD’s were invented.

Robert decided that the only course of action he could take was to produce his own films that could be watched on his machines, and in order to do that, he needed a camera on which to produce them.

Birt Acres
Birt Acres was a photography expert, and had made some preliminary designs for a moving-picture camera. In 1895, Robert and Birt began working together, and within a month they had produced a camera, and used it to make the film ‘Incident at Clovelly Cottage' – believed to be the first film ever to be made in Britain – which simply depicts Birt’s assistant, Henry Short, outside Birt’s home, Cleverly Cottage, in Barnet, London.

The camera, known as the Paul-Acres camera, was the first camera made in England. It used 35mm film which was compatible with the Kinetoscopes copies that Robert had made, and there was only one, final task left; he needed to make some films for his customers to watch…

At this short interlude, I have included a couple of Robert’s films to give an idea of what they were like. There’s more on Youtube, but I’ve chosen my favourites:

His first few films were relatively simple affairs, such as this, from 1896:

'Hyde Park Bicycling Scene' (1896)
The title is fairly self-explanatory. Anything that depicts every day Victorian life I find absolutely invaluable – this really is the closest thing there is to actually being there.

Robert began to work with the illusionist W.R Paul, and together they produced all manner of special effects in their films, such as these:

'An Extraordinary Cab Accident' (1903). 
I think the special effect is great on this, and I’ve seen it used in plenty of modern films and soap operas. There is another ‘disaster movie’ a bit like this one called ‘The Train Crash

'The Haunted Curiosity Shop' (1901). 
This is probably my favourite. The still picture I showed earlier really cannot do the film justice. I’d have loved to have watched this in 1901 when it was released. It’s difficult to grasp what the feeling would have been like if you’d never seen anything like this before. I love the menacing music, too.

'Upside Down, or the Human Flies' (1899) 
Another with very clever effects to give the illusion of people walking on the ceiling. You’ve probably seen this effect in modern films too, done in exactly the same way.

It’s incredible to think that the films above are between 108 and 115 years old, and still survive today. Of course, many of them don’t, such as ‘A Soldier’s Courtship’ produced in 1896, which is generally regarded as the first British narrative film ever made – that is, a film that was not factual, such as the Hyde Park bicycling scene above, or a documentary. Robert did make lots of factual films, and films of everyday life and some of his notable works in this vein include his 1896 film of the Epsom Derby, a film of Blackfriars Bridge, one of Brighton Beach, and, in my opinion, his best factual work, the filming of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897:

Back to the story…

Not long after Robert and Birt had manufactured their camera and begun to make films with it, a difference of opinion led to them breaking off their partnership; Birt had decided to patent the camera in his own name; a move that angered Robert, since they had developed it together.

For the rest of their film careers, Robert Paul and Birt Acres were in competition with each other. They both made improvements to their cameras, films and techniques. Robert improved his camera, and also developed ‘The Theatrograph’ – a projector – that he demonstrated at Finsbury Technical College to great acclaim in 1896.
The Theatrograph

The Theatrograph was a great success, becoming the most popular projecting machine in Europe for a short time, and Robert was hired by businessmen all over London, looking to make a profit from his invention. He gave shows at all manner of venues, from theatres to music halls, showing his films. At Olympia in March of 1896 he became the first Englishman in the country to project motion pictures onto a screen for which people paid a fee of admission. Later that year, he was given a two-week booking at the Alhambra in Leicester Square in which to play films to paying audiences. This was such a success, that he remained there for two years.

Designing and building all of his equipment had cost Robert around a thousand pounds, but by the start of 1897, he had made a profit of twelve thousand pounds from his popular ventures.

The following year he began to spend some of these profits, building a film studio in Muswell Hill, North London, to cope with the huge demand for films for his Theatrograph. Muswell Hill was Britain’s first ever film studio. In the year it was built, over eighty short films were produced at the studio. With his colleagues Ernest Moy and Percy Bastie, Robert also started to manufacture supplies for the ever-growing film trade, and built their first camera in 1900. Muswell Hill was at the peak of its powers at the start of the twentieth century, producing its finest special effects and best films between 1900 and 1905.

In 1910, after contributing so much to the industry, Robert had grown tired of films, and closed Muswell Hill, destroying many of the negatives for his films in the process. He returned to his engineering career at the age of forty-one, but remained in it only for a further ten years, leaving in 1920.

Robert Paul died in 1943, aged seventy-four. Despite not having a long career in the film industry – only eleven years – his influence both on the screen and equipment used in the industry were truly great.

Sixty-two of Robert’s films can be purchased on the BFI website here, so you can turn all the lights off in the living room, dress up in a corset or bowler hat and pretend you’re at the Alhambra in 1896.


  1. Great clips. Like you, I treasure the early shots of everyday life. What I notice about the Hyde Park cycling clip is, firstly the number of women cycling, and secondly the way they can cycle in those skirts. I wonder how many got entangled in them - I wouldn't like to try it myself, even with a ladies' bike. What I notice about the extraordinary cab accident is how very new the houses look - the type of little Victorian suburban house which we are accustomed to see with a hundred years' worth of soot and general wear and tear on them.

    How sorry i am that they didn't have movies in the 1850s and 1860s. I've read that women moved notably slower then than they did even later in the Victorian era, because of crinolines.

    Actually it would have been amazing to see Georgian social mannerisms, as some of these were most strange, from all accounts.

    Ah, well, have to wait for the Time Machine, I guess.

    I liked the music. I wish it was possible to get more records of Victorian parlour music.

  2. I think that one of the greatest regrets of the last 130 or so years - or rather - one of my (and surely many other people's) regrets of that period, is that this kind of technology came too late for some of the greats of the age.

    Can you imagine if a recording of Dickens reading was found?

    That would be priceless.

    As for the women on the bicycles, they certainly seem to have it down to a tee - but then, after shuffling around in a crinoline, I expect anything seemed easy in dresses that did not contain wood.

  3. Hello!
    Great post! Thank you very much! Very interesting as usual! The films are marvelous too!
    This was a period of great interest for the motion pictures of course, and on both sides of the Channel.
    Just after 1894 the French Charles Pathé (pioneer motion-picture, creator of the present French movies distributor Pathé) is already operating with success (making money indeed…) imitations of the Edison’s phonograph and kinetoscopes in France. He is buying the imitations in London: would be interesting to find out who the supplier was? Greek businessmen? Why not?
    In fact, he is reselling the machines in France with substantial margins! Then he meets and starts working with a man called Henri Joly, photography expert, the equivalent of Mr. Birt Acres for Robert Paul; but soon they will separate as Mr. Pathé is suspecting Joly to work for competitors.
    It seems that on a short period (3 years max from 1894 to 1897) there was a kind of a race for developing all those different sorts of equipments or machines such as the “kinetographe”, “cinematographe” or “theatrograph” and quickly get them and the processes patented , no?!… It is interesting to see the relationship and exchanges across the channel between Méliès and Robert Paul. Also interesting is to compare the two developing businesses and researches in technology/techniques, the relationships between Pathé and Joly on one side and between Robert Paul and Birt Acres at the same time on the other side, and in Paris and London , also all the consequences!…
    In fact it looks like on the French side, after having created a new kind of projector, Joly and his new associate Mr. Normandin become the actors of a sadly reel terrifying “horror show” in May 1897 in Le Bazar de la charité in Paris: more than 129 people perished in the fire after the ether and oxygen bottles or cans that were used for running the projection apparatus exploded, as the vapors might have caught fire. The whole building burnt entirely within less than 15 minutes. Mostly women and children from the high society died, and the attitude of the “males” could be discussed as you can read in this article:
    The event was a disaster for the film makers in France: Méliès and Pathé. High society, upper, lower middle class won’t be attracted by the cinema anymore which was thought too dangerous… For reassuring and attracting the public again, special places then were built for that new art becoming. I wonder if the drama had the same consequences, or even if it was reported in UK?
    Thank you very much again for all those documents and the excellent post! Super!
    Bonne Soirée!

  4. François, merci for the excellent comment! I'll certainly look into the tragedy of Le Bazar and will probably write something about it.

    The 'film race' was a little bit like another battle for technological supremacy that occurred over sixty years later - the so called 'space race' between USA and Russia, with each competing to be the first in space, or the first on the moon.

    The strange thing is, though, that our countries united to produce what is widely recognized as the first film ever made, when the Frenchman Louis Le Prince, or, to give him his wonderful full-name; Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, filmed 'Roundhay Garden Scene' in Leeds, England, only a short film, just over two seconds, but superb nontheless!

    Thanks again mon amis!

  5. Thank you for the compliment!
    I did not know about Mr. Le Prince who apparently, because of his father, was very much nearby Daguerre?!
    It appears that the competition (the “fight” we might say…) started in the 30-40s with the photography, and its process, between Daguerre and William Talbot first. Daguerre registered the patent for UK when it was free in France. This disturbed so much Mr. Talbot, too much indeed! It looks like Mr. Daguerre had some help from, humm… I would say… Some “top-top” people (excuse my French!) or people with much power in France; even being a very cleaver man, he was with no doubt, I don’t see how he had alone that “funny” idea to register such patent in Britain!?
    Also, how he managed to meet his first associate Nicéphore Niépce (author of the first known permanent photograph) and their relationship are still subject to controversy or discussion. Sadly, four years only after they started working together, Niépce died. No mention was made by Daguerre of Niépce in his last works as the “daguerreotype” was developed, and commercialized. Note that he gave his own name alone to that final process with no trace of Niépce work (dumped)… Strange.
    But coming back to Mr. Le Prince, I learnt he mysteriously disappeared in a train?…
    I copied the information bellow from this very interesting web site:
    “ ….Not only was his body never seen again, nor were his many papers he carried, as well as his luggage….
    After his disappearance, the Le Prince family led by his wife and son went to court against Edison in what became known as Equity 6928. The famous Patent Wars ensued and by 1908 Thomas Edison will be named sole inventor of motion pictures, in the U.S, at least. However, in 1902, two years after Le Prince’s son Adolphe had testified in the suit, he was found shot dead on Fire Island, New York. Le Prince’s apparatus was eventually built by Herman Casler and was used in taking pictures. A photograph of a drowning victim who resembled Le Prince was found in Paris police archives in 2003. The picture was from an investigation undertaken in 1890……..”
    All this is really Scary?! No?!............

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