The People, Places, Events, Customs and More from the Victorian Era. Please Scroll Down to Explore Links to Other Sites of Historical Interest:

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

'The Victorianist' on Tumblr: Or: Victorian Street Photography and a Place to Find it:

Many writers are blessed with such natural gifts of imagination that scenes and characters tumble from their minds and land upon their pages with ease.
Others can evoke a scene entirely from their own memories with great detail. When writing of a period in history, many writers are experts on the period in which their characters live, and as long as they can also imagine up a decent story, they have at their disposal the knowledge of their favourite period in their heads, meaning little research is required.

Then there is me.

Evoking a time or place is difficult when you have never been there, and that is where 'material' comes in handy. When writing of a Victorian character living in a slum, for example, it is quite possible that the living conditions of that character would have been far worse than I, or you – stuck in our materially wealthy world of benefits and health and safety – could ever imagine.

For the last couple of years I have been writing fiction set in the nineteenth century as a hobby, and the struggle at first was creating a realistic sense of place and setting. After a short time, I decided the best course of action was research; to see as many photographs as I could of Victorian streets, courts, alleys, roads, gardens and rookeries so I could familiarize myself with the world of my characters, whilst at the same time, learning about the Victorian town and city.

I trawled internet search engines and saved what I found, and was able to write with the confidence that my descriptions of streets were more accurate than they used to be.

Then, last month, I had an idea. Rather than keep all these photographs hidden on memory sticks, folders and emails, I should put them all in one place, with a brief description of where and when the picture was taken. Why not do this online? I thought. That way, others can look at, enjoy, maybe even learn from, the photographs, too.

So, I set up a Tumblr micro-blog.

No essays, no eminent Victorians, no nineteenth century events, no people, no Victorian organizations or movements, just photographs of Victorian cities, towns, villages, streets, courts, alleys, thoroughfares, parks and gardens.

If you like, you can have a look, please follow me, and by all means leave comments.
You can find my Tumblr site here or by clicking on the link just beneath my Twitter button.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

“Picks, Spades, Fire-Irons, Musical Instruments, Cabmens' Whips, Umbrellas — Yes, Even a Tiny Pair of Child's Shoes — Everything.” Or: The Victorian Pawnbroking Trade.

There was a lot of poverty in the nineteenth century, and people in the working classes could easily fall into a desperate cycle involving one of the most curious, and yet popular establishments of the Victorian city. For a struggling man or woman with a partner and / or children to keep, there was always one option open if some fast and relatively easy money was required to tide you over until payday – as long as you didn’t mind losing a possession for a short while – and in these cases, relief came by way of the pawnbroker.

Pawnbroker’s shops could be found in most poor districts of London and other major cities. The idea was that the person or family in want of cash would take one of their possessions to the pawnbrokers, and the pawnbroker himself would assess the article – whether it be a ring, a brooch, a watch, or, more likely in the cases of the poor, a pair of boots or a shawl – and give the owner a small amount of money for it, along with a ticket (a kind of receipt). When the owner had been paid – or found some money by another means – he could return to the pawnbroker with his ticket and buy his item back.

If the owner of the item did not return to ‘buy back’ his item, it became the legal property of the pawnbroker, depending on the item’s value. By law, an item pawned for fifty pence or less and not bought back in the time allowed would belong to the pawnbroker.
An item worth more than fifty pence which was not bought back in time would be sold to the public by the pawnbroker.
The pawnbrokers did a great trade, and made their money not only by selling the items back to their owners or the public, but they also charged a halfpenny for the pawn ticket, and could also charge interest, starting at a halfpenny per month on every 2s lent.

This means that if a man took an item into a pawnbroker and was given 2s for it, he would actually pay 2s and halfpence. (halfpence being the price of the ticket)
If he did not return for his item for twelve months, he then owed the pawnbroker a further sixpence (half a penny per month interest) and so would be paying 2s 6d, or half a crown.

I wont go into Victorian currency and money – it’s too confusing, but to give some idea of the amount of interest, sixpence was roughly enough money to feed a family of between four and six people. The pawnbroker worked in a similar way to today’s bank loans, what with the interest and such.

 The Pawnbrokers were governed by certain restrictions set out by law to stop them ripping people off or taking advantage of people. These restrictions included:

-          A Pawnbroker must not take in pawn any article from a person under the age of twelve, or intoxicated.

-          Must not take in pawn any linen or apparel or unfinished goods or materials entrusted to wash, make up, etc.

-          A new pawnbroker must produce a magistrate's certificate before he can receive a licence.

-          The permit cannot be refused if the applicant gives sufficient evidence that he is a person of good character.

-          The word "pawnbroker" must always be inscribed in large letters over the door of the shop.

I’ve found two articles – one from the year before the start of Victoria’s reign, and one from the year after, which give more details about the pawnbrokers, and how little they seem to have changed over the entire Victorian period.

The first is from Charles Dickens’ ‘Sketches by Boz’ from 1836:

The Pawnbrokers Shop
Of the numerous receptacles for misery and distress with which the streets of London unhappily abound, there are, perhaps, none which present such striking scenes as the pawnbrokers’ shops. The very nature and description of these places occasions their being but little known, except to the unfortunate beings whose profligacy or misfortune drives them to seek the temporary relief they offer. The subject may appear, at first sight, to be anything but an inviting one, but we venture on it nevertheless, in the hope that, as far as the limits of our present paper are concerned, it will present nothing to disgust even the most fastidious reader.

There are some pawnbrokers’ shops of a very superior description. There are grades in pawning as in everything else, and distinctions must be observed even in poverty. The aristocratic Spanish cloak and the plebeian calico shirt, the silver fork and the flat iron, the muslin cravat and the Belcher neckerchief, would but ill assort together; so, the better sort of pawnbroker calls himself a silver-smith, and decorates his shop with handsome trinkets and expensive jewellery, while the more humble money-lender boldly advertises his calling, and invites observation. It is with pawnbrokers’ shops of the latter class, that we have to do. We have selected one for our purpose, and will endeavour to describe it.

The pawnbroker’s shop is situated near Drury-Lane, at the corner of a court, which affords a side entrance for the accommodation of such customers as may be desirous of avoiding the observation of the passers-by, or the chance of recognition in the public street. It is a low, dirty-looking, dusty shop, the door of which stands always doubtfully, a little way open: half inviting, half repelling the hesitating visitor, who, if he be as yet uninitiated, examines one of the old garnet brooches in the window for a minute or two with affected eagerness, as if he contemplated making a purchase; and then looking cautiously round to ascertain that no one watches him, hastily slinks in: the door closing of itself after him, to just its former width.
The shop front and the window-frames bear evident marks of having been once painted; but, what the colour was originally, or at what date it was probably laid on, are at this remote period questions which may be asked, but cannot be answered. Tradition states that the transparency in the front door, which displays at night three red balls on a blue ground, once bore also, inscribed in graceful waves, the words ‘Money advanced on plate, jewels, wearing apparel, and every description of property,’ but a few illegible hieroglyphics are all that now remain to attest the fact.

The plate and jewels would seem to have disappeared, together with the announcement, for the articles of stock, which are displayed in some profusion in the window, do not include any very valuable luxuries of either kind. A few old china cups; some modern vases, adorned with paltry paintings of three Spanish cavaliers playing three Spanish guitars; or a party of boors carousing: each boor with one leg painfully elevated in the air, by way of expressing his perfect freedom and gaiety; several sets of chessmen, two or three flutes, a few fiddles, a round-eyed portrait staring in astonishment from a very dark ground; some gaudily-bound prayer-books and testaments, two rows of silver watches quite as clumsy and almost as large as Ferguson’s first; numerous old-fashioned table and tea spoons, displayed, fan-like, in half-dozens; strings of coral with great broad gilt snaps; cards of rings and brooches, fastened and labelled separately, like the insects in the British Museum; cheap silver penholders and snuff-boxes, with a masonic star, complete the jewellery department; while five or six beds in smeary clouded ticks, strings of blankets and sheets, silk and cotton handkerchiefs, and wearing apparel of every description, form the more useful, though even less ornamental, part, of the articles exposed for sale.

An extensive collection of planes, chisels, saws, and other carpenters’ tools, which have been pledged, and never redeemed, form the foreground of the picture; while the large frames full of ticketed bundles, which are dimly seen through the dirty casement up-stairs—the squalid neighbourhood—the adjoining houses, straggling, shrunken, and rotten, with one or two filthy, unwholesome-looking heads thrust out of every window, and old red pans and stunted plants exposed on the tottering parapets, to the manifest hazard of the heads of the passers-by—the noisy men loitering under the archway at the corner of the court, or about the gin-shop next door—and their wives patiently standing on the curb-stone, with large baskets of cheap vegetables slung round them for sale, are its immediate auxiliaries.

If the outside of the pawnbroker’s shop be calculated to attract the attention, or excite the interest, of the speculative pedestrian, its interior cannot fail to produce the same effect in an increased degree. The front door, which we have before noticed, opens into the common shop, which is the resort of all those customers whose habitual acquaintance with such scenes renders them indifferent to the observation of their companions in poverty. The side door opens into a small passage from which some half-dozen doors (which may be secured on the inside by bolts) open into a corresponding number of little dens, or closets, which face the counter. Here, the more timid or respectable portion of the crowd shroud themselves from the notice of the remainder, and patiently wait until the gentleman behind the counter, with the curly black hair, diamond ring, and double silver watch-guard, shall feel disposed to favour them with his notice—a consummation which depends considerably on the temper of the aforesaid gentleman for the time being.

At the present moment, this elegantly-attired individual is in the act of entering the duplicate he has just made out, in a thick book: a process from which he is diverted occasionally, by a conversation he is carrying on with another young man similarly employed at a little distance from him, whose allusions to ‘that last bottle of soda-water last night,’ and ‘how regularly round my hat he felt himself when the young ’ooman gave ’em in charge,’ would appear to refer to the consequences of some stolen joviality of the preceding evening. The customers generally, however, seem unable to participate in the amusement derivable from this source, for an old sallow-looking woman, who has been leaning with both arms on the counter with a small bundle before her, for half an hour previously, suddenly interrupts the conversation by addressing the jewelled shopman—

 ‘Now, Mr. Henry, do make haste, there’s a good soul, for my two grandchildren’s locked up at home, and I’m afeer’d of the fire.’ The shopman slightly raises his head, with an air of deep abstraction, and resumes his entry with as much deliberation as if he were engraving.
‘You’re in a hurry, Mrs. Tatham, this ev’nin’, an’t you?’ is the only notice he deigns to take, after the lapse of five minutes or so.
‘Yes, I am indeed, Mr. Henry; now, do serve me next, there’s a good creetur. I wouldn’t worry you, only it’s all along o’ them botherin’ children.’
‘What have you got here?’ inquires the shopman, unpinning the bundle—‘old concern, I suppose—pair o’ stays and a petticut. You must look up somethin’ else, old ’ooman; I can’t lend you anything more upon them; they’re completely worn out by this time, if it’s only by putting in, and taking out again, three times a week.’
‘Oh! you’re a rum un, you are,’ replies the old woman, laughing extremely, as in duty bound; ‘I wish I’d got the gift of the gab like you; see if I’d be up the spout so often then! No, no; it an’t the petticut; it’s a child’s frock and a beautiful silk ankecher, as belongs to my husband. He gave four shillin’ for it, the werry same blessed day as he broke his arm.’—
‘What do you want upon these?’ inquires Mr. Henry, slightly glancing at the articles, which in all probability are old acquaintances. ‘What do you want upon these?’—
‘Lend you ninepence.’—
‘Oh, make it a shillin’; there’s a dear—do now?’—
‘Not another farden.’—
‘Well, I suppose I must take it.’ The duplicate is made out, one ticket pinned on the parcel, the other given to the old woman; the parcel is flung carelessly down into a corner, and some other customer prefers his claim to be served without further delay.

The choice falls on an unshaven, dirty, sottish-looking fellow, whose tarnished paper-cap, stuck negligently over one eye, communicates an additionally repulsive expression to his very uninviting countenance. He was enjoying a little relaxation from his sedentary pursuits a quarter of an hour ago, in kicking his wife up the court. He has come to redeem some tools:- probably to complete a job with, on account of which he has already received some money, if his inflamed countenance and drunken staggers may be taken as evidence of the fact. Having waited some little time, he makes his presence known by venting his ill-humour on a ragged urchin, who, being unable to bring his face on a level with the counter by any other process, has employed himself in climbing up, and then hooking himself on with his elbows—an uneasy perch, from which he has fallen at intervals, generally alighting on the toes of the person in his immediate vicinity. In the present case, the unfortunate little wretch has received a cuff which sends him reeling to this door; and the donor of the blow is immediately the object of general indignation.

‘What do you strike the boy for, you brute?’ exclaims a slipshod woman, with two flat irons in a little basket. ‘Do you think he’s your wife, you willin?’
‘Go and hang yourself!’ replies the gentleman addressed, with a drunken look of savage stupidity, aiming at the same time a blow at the woman which fortunately misses its object. ‘Go and hang yourself; and wait till I come and cut you down.’—
‘Cut you down,’ rejoins the woman, ‘I wish I had the cutting of you up, you wagabond! (loud.) Oh! you precious wagabond! (rather louder.) Where’s your wife, you willin? (louder still; women of this class are always sympathetic, and work themselves into a tremendous passion on the shortest notice.) Your poor dear wife as you uses worser nor a dog—strike a woman—you a man! (very shrill;) I wish I had you—I’d murder you, I would, if I died for it!’—
‘Now be civil,’ retorts the man fiercely.
‘Be civil, you wiper!’ ejaculates the woman contemptuously. ‘An’t it shocking?’ she continues, turning round, and appealing to an old woman who is peeping out of one of the little closets we have before described, and who has not the slightest objection to join in the attack, possessing, as she does, the comfortable conviction that she is bolted in. ‘Ain’t it shocking, ma’am? (Dreadful! says the old woman in a parenthesis, not exactly knowing what the question refers to.) He’s got a wife, ma’am, as takes in mangling, and is as ’dustrious and hard-working a young ’ooman as can be, (very fast) as lives in the back parlour of our ’ous, which my husband and me lives in the front one (with great rapidity)—and we hears him a beaten’ on her sometimes when he comes home drunk, the whole night through, and not only a beaten’ her, but beaten’ his own child too, to make her more miserable—ugh, you beast! and she, poor creater, won’t swear the peace agin him, nor do nothin’, because she likes the wretch arter all—worse luck!’ Here, as the woman has completely run herself out of breath, the pawnbroker himself, who has just appeared behind the counter in a gray dressing-gown, embraces the favourable opportunity of putting in a word:-

‘Now I won’t have none of this sort of thing on my premises!’ he interposes with an air of authority. ‘Mrs. Mackin, keep yourself to yourself, or you don’t get fourpence for a flat iron here; and Jinkins, you leave your ticket here till you’re sober, and send your wife for them two planes, for I won’t have you in my shop at no price; so make yourself scarce, before I make you scarcer.’

This eloquent address produces anything but the effect desired; the women rail in concert; the man hits about him in all directions, and is in the act of establishing an indisputable claim to gratuitous lodgings for the night, when the entrance of his wife, a wretched, worn-out woman, apparently in the last stage of consumption, whose face bears evident marks of recent ill-usage, and whose strength seems hardly equal to the burden—light enough, God knows!—of the thin, sickly child she carries in her arms, turns his cowardly rage in a safer direction.
‘Come home, dear,’ cries the miserable creature, in an imploring tone; ‘do come home, there’s a good fellow, and go to bed.’—
‘Go home yourself,’ rejoins the furious ruffian.
‘Do come home quietly,’ repeats the wife, bursting into tears.
‘Go home yourself,’ retorts the husband again, enforcing his argument by a blow which sends the poor creature flying out of the shop. Her ‘natural protector’ follows her up the court, alternately venting his rage in accelerating her progress, and in knocking the little scanty blue bonnet of the unfortunate child over its still more scanty and faded-looking face.

In the last box, which is situated in the darkest and most obscure corner of the shop, considerably removed from either of the gas-lights, are a young delicate girl of about twenty, and an elderly female, evidently her mother from the resemblance between them, who stand at some distance back, as if to avoid the observation even of the shopman. It is not their first visit to a pawnbroker’s shop, for they answer without a moment’s hesitation the usual questions, put in a rather respectful manner, and in a much lower tone than usual, of ‘What name shall I say?—Your own property, of course?—Where do you live?—Housekeeper or lodger?’ They bargain, too, for a higher loan than the shopman is at first inclined to offer, which a perfect stranger would be little disposed to do; and the elder female urges her daughter on, in scarcely audible whispers, to exert her utmost powers of persuasion to obtain an advance of the sum, and expatiate on the value of the articles they have brought to raise a present supply upon. They are a small gold chain and a ‘Forget me not’ ring: the girl’s property, for they are both too small for the mother; given her in better times; prized, perhaps, once, for the giver’s sake, but parted with now without a struggle; for want has hardened the mother, and her example has hardened the girl, and the prospect of receiving money, coupled with a recollection of the misery they have both endured from the want of it—the coldness of old friends—the stern refusal of some, and the still more galling compassion of others—appears to have obliterated the consciousness of self-humiliation, which the idea of their present situation would once have aroused.

In the next box, is a young female, whose attire, miserably poor, but extremely gaudy, wretchedly cold, but extravagantly fine, too plainly bespeaks her station. The rich satin gown with its faded trimmings, the worn-out thin shoes, and pink silk stockings, the summer bonnet in winter, and the sunken face, where a daub of rouge only serves as an index to the ravages of squandered health never to be regained, and lost happiness never to be restored, and where the practised smile is a wretched mockery of the misery of the heart, cannot be mistaken. There is something in the glimpse she has just caught of her young neighbour, and in the sight of the little trinkets she has offered in pawn, that seems to have awakened in this woman’s mind some slumbering recollection, and to have changed, for an instant, her whole demeanour. Her first hasty impulse was to bend forward as if to scan more minutely the appearance of her half-concealed companions; her next, on seeing them involuntarily shrink from her, to retreat to the back of the box, cover her face with her hands, and burst into tears.

There are strange chords in the human heart, which will lie dormant through years of depravity and wickedness, but which will vibrate at last to some slight circumstance apparently trivial in itself, but connected by some undefined and indistinct association, with past days that can never be recalled, and with bitter recollections from which the most degraded creature in existence cannot escape.
There has been another spectator, in the person of a woman in the common shop; the lowest of the low; dirty, unbonneted, flaunting, and slovenly. Her curiosity was at first attracted by the little she could see of the group; then her attention. The half-intoxicated leer changed to an expression of something like interest, and a feeling similar to that we have described, appeared for a moment, and only a moment, to extend itself even to her bosom.

Who shall say how soon these women may change places? The last has but two more stages—the hospital and the grave. How many females situated as her two companions are, and as she may have been once, have terminated the same wretched course, in the same wretched manner! One is already tracing her footsteps with frightful rapidity. How soon may the other follow her example! How many have done the same!
            - Charles Dickens, Sketches By Boz, 1836

The second example, from 1902, is from George R. Sims’ ‘Living London’ Volume 2. The second of a three volume set of many aspects of London life, published between 1901 and 1903. The articles are written by many different people and edited by Sims.

The following article, entitled ‘Pawnbroking London’ is written by C.A Cuthbert Keeson, who, from what I can see, only published one book of his own; ‘History and Records of Queen Victoria's Rifles 1792-1922’

Back to pawnbroking:

‘Pawnbroking London’
 LONG before the inhabitants of London were blessed with a County Council the at one time universal practice of attracting customers to a shop by means of a sign had fallen into almost complete disuse; but even in this twentieth century no enterprising pawnbroker would think of opening a shop without there hung over it, conspicuous from every point of view, "The Three Brass Balls," " The Swinging Dumplings," "The Sign of the Two to One."

It is the fashion in the trade to speak of these emblems as the insignia of the
old Lombard Merchants, and the arms of the Medici. What, however, do those three bright globes mean to thousands of people who walk the streets of London?
Some perhaps may pass them unnoticed, but to the poor — the working man who finds it difficult to properly apportion his weekly wage, the clerk out of a berth, the racing man who has had a spell of bad luck, to the small shopkeeper and the costermonger in want of ready money to replenish their stock, to the actor and actress not "in the bill"—they mean a great deal.
They mean food for the wife and children when cupboard and pocket are empty — a little money to keep things going till next payday; they mean to thousands shelter, warmth, and something to eat; and although many may consider the pawnbroker's shop an encouragement to improvidence and unthriftiness, every philanthropist who would abolish it admits that he would have to substitute some municipal or charitable pawnshop in its place.

It has been asserted that "to one in every two persons in London the pawnbroker has been in some period of his or her life a stern and unavoidable reality." This estimate may appear to be somewhat exaggerated, but investigations into the amount of business done in the pawnshops of London show that the statement is not very wide of the mark. Within a radius of ten miles from the Royal Exchange are 692 pawnbrokers shops. From figures obtained from a trustworthy source it appears that the average number of pledges taken in per month at each shop is 5000, making an aggregate for all the shops of 3,460,000, or 41,520,000 pledges per year, or rather more than six to each head of the population. In these figures pledges of more than £10 in amount are not taken into account, and a very large proportion of the London pawnbrokers do a big business of this kind.

Inquiries made at some seventeen shops in different parts of the Metropolis show that out of a million and a-quarter pledges extending over a period of twelve months 66,700 only were for amounts above ten shillings. In the trade these are known as "Auctions," having, if left unredeemed at the end of twelve months and seven days, to be disposed of at public auction. All pledges for sums under ten shillings at a like period become the absolute property of the pawnbroker.
In the seventeen shops referred to the average amount lent upon each pledge worked out at four shillings — 250,000 in all. Taking the total number of pledges made annually in London upon the same basis, viz. 41,520,000 at four shillings each, it will be seen that the pawnbrokers supply the "hard-ups" of London annually with the very large sum of £8,304,000.

There are few things in the ordinary way of life more calculated to unnerve a man than a first visit to the pawnshop. Hence most pawnbrokers, to put their customers as much at ease as possible, have their shops divided into separate compartments known as "the boxes," with the entrance up a side street, or rendered as inconspicuous as the character of the house will permit. For the better class customers the modern pawnbroker provides a comfortable "private office."

The nervous pledger, dreading he knows not what, surveys for some minutes the
contents of the window, and only after much hesitation and many false starts finds himself within the shop of that mysterious "Uncle" of whom his companions have talked so glibly. What his business was is known only to that "Uncle" and himself, and as he walks triumphantly down the street, relieved in mind and circumstance, he asks himself why he made all that fuss about so simple a matter. Yet it takes a good many visits before he feels quite at his ease.
The interview usually lasts less than a couple of minutes, and as a memorandum of it the obliging pawnbroker hands his customer a neat little square-shaped envelope containing a piece of paste board bearing upon its face a description of the article deposited and on the back an abridged version of the Pawnbrokers' Act.

Very differently does it pawner of stolen property, broker in what way his
aroused. He will tell you that he does not know.
"There is generally something," he says, "about the pawner's manner or in his replies to questions that sets the pawnbroker on his guard." He cannot define precisely what that "something" is, but he plies the would-be pledger with more pertinent queries, sets a junior hand to run over the "Police List," looks again at the article offered and at the offerer. Experience may not have made him infallible, but his daily dealings have made him wary. If the man is a "wrong 'un" the long delay makes him fidgety, and then "Uncle," confirmed in his suspicions, secretly sends for the man in blue.
Sometimes a thief will stay and try to brave the matter out, at others he makes a dash for liberty, frequently only to run into the arms of an officer waiting at the shop door.
If the article be not in the "Police List," or if the pawnbroker be not satisfied in his own mind that the goods have been dishonestly come by, he may decline the goods and let the man depart, for it is a dangerous thing to be too hasty in delivering anyone into custody.

Pawnbrokers know that if they take in a stolen article they will have to restore it to the owner, lose the money lent upon it, and attend the courts. That knowledge makes them cautious. Many magistrates and public officials contend that a considerable portion of the property stolen in the Metropolis finds its way into the hands of the pawnbrokers.
Every day reports appear in the papers in which stolen goods have been pawned, and there are a still larger number of cases which are not reported. Unquestionably quantities of stolen articles find their way to the pawnbroker, and it is generally a good thing for their owners when they do, for by means of that "automatic detective," the pawn-ticket, they are generally traced and restored.
A pawnbroker has to keep a pledge by him for twelve months and give a ticket, which many thieves seem to have a peculiar fondness for preserving. Stolen articles, however, form but an infinitesimal item in the forty one millions of pledges made yearly.
Statistics prepared for the House of Commons show that they fall far short of one per month for each of the 692 pawnbrokers in London.

To redeem a watch or an article of jewellery is an easy matter, and for even the nervous man it has usually no terrors. There are times, however, when the act of redemption is not so easy. Come with me to a busy working neighbourhood like Walworth, where pawnbrokers' shops abound and thousands of homes are dependent upon them. It is Saturday night, and the shop and stall keepers are doing a roaring trade. We turn down a side street, where the lamps do not burn so brightly, and meet a continuous procession of women hurrying away with bundles of all sorts and sizes. Some carry but one, others, assisted by children, have as many as half-a-dozen. They all come from that little door by the side of a pawnbroker's.
Standing in the background of the shop, we are confronted by a row of faces peering over the counter, the shop is one that, possibly for the convenience of so large a throng, dispenses with the boxes, and the customers all mingle together. It is a strangely animated scene, with nearly all the characters played by women. It is a rarity to see a man among them, though children are too many for our liking. Girls and even boys are there, all ready with their money, for they may redeem pledges, though the law forbids the pawnbroker to receive a pledge from anyone under the age of sixteen.

The women are mostly bare-armed, and look as though they had just come from the wash-tub. They betray no sense of shame if they feel it. They talk and gossip while waiting for their bundles, and are wonderfully polite to the perspiring assistants behind the counter. Though everybody is in a hurry there is little noise or unseemly jostling. An assistant seizes a battered tin bowl, and the front rank of pledgers toss their tickets therein. He then rapidly sorts them out, and gives .some to a boy, who darts away to the far end of the counter. The remainder he places in a canvas bag which we have noticed dangling at the end of a string at the back of the shop; he shakes the rope, and immediately the bag is whisked out of sight up the well of the lift used for conveying pledges from the shop to the warehouse above. In a minute it begins to rain bundles until the floor is thickly strewn with them.

In a conspicuous spot on the wall is a notice that no furniture or heavy goods will be delivered after 4 p.m. From that time the rapid delivery of bundles has been
proceeding; and so it goes on, hour after hour, Saturday after Saturday, year after year; every pledge produced systematically; no disputes, no haggling about change; unexamined bundles exchanged for money; money swept into a huge till; the whole accompanied with a running fire of bundles from the unseen regions above, hurled down what the pawnbroker calls the "well," but what is more familiarly known as the "spout" — that Spout up which so many things have mysteriously disappeared.

The year round there is an average of 2,000 bundles delivered each Saturday night from this shop, and if we chance that way on the following Monday and Tuesday we shall meet that same procession of women, though this time trooping towards that little side door. Occasionally a man comes on the same errand, shamefacedly trying to conceal his bundle beneath his coat. It is undoubtedly a sad scene for the moralist, but these people know no other way of living, have no place where their Sunday clothes will be safe, have no one but the pawnbroker to apply to when they feel the pinch of hunger. He is their banker and their safe-deposit, and although they know they pay dearly for it in the long run, they are thankful that they have him to turn to in their need.

They might easily be worse off, might have no other resource but to sell their sticks and clothes, or, what is as bad, take them to a "Dolly" or "Leaving" shop, so named after the "Black Doll," the conventional sign of the small brokers and rag shops, where articles that a pawnbroker will not receive may be "left" for a short term at high interest. Thanks to the provisions of the Pawnbrokers' Act, the police, so far as London is concerned, have stamped these latter pests out of existence.

The nature of a pawnbroker's business can, perhaps, be best estimated by a visit to his warehouse and an inspection of the heterogeneous collection of pledged articles. This differs, however, with the character of the shop. There are the chief pawnbrokers of London, who lend only on plate, jewellery, and property of the highest description. By the courtesy of Mr. Henry Arthur Attenborough, we were permitted to inspect the well-known premises of Messrs. George Attenborough and Son, at the junction of Chancery Lane with Fleet Street. As in most pawnbrokers', there are the boxes for the general pledger, and in addition there are two or three small offices for the reception of persons who wish to transact their business private.

All sorts and descriptions of men, and women too, come to Messrs. Attenborough. They have lent £7,000 upon a diamond necklet, a present from a royal personage to a celebrated member of the demi-monde, the said necklet being redeemed and deposited again time after time. The coronet of an Austrian nobleman remained in their custody for several years with a loan of £15,000 upon it. A savant pawned the fore-arm and hand of a mummy wearing a fine turquoise scarabaeus ring on one of the fingers. Upon the day of our visit we saw that an advance of 6d. had been made on a ring, and we were shown an application for a loan of £40,000 upon jewellery.
The seamy side of the picture is presented by the warehouse of the pawnbroker, whose chief business consists of pledges of "soft" goods. The whole house from basement to roof is built up in skeleton frames or "stacks" in which the pledges, each carefully done up in a wrapper, are neatly packed, the tickets to the front. On the first floor the weekly pledges are usually stored, that they may be ready at hand for Saturday night. There is one room devoted to the storage of furniture; in another are rows and rows of pictures, looking-glasses and overmantels. There are shelves for china and glass, ornaments and clocks; tools of every kind, sufficient to start many workshops. In odd corners we come across odd sights — sea boots and the huge boots of a sewerman; a bundle of sweeps' brooms, apparently not very long retired from active employment, picks, spades, fire-irons, musical instruments, cabmens' whips, umbrellas — yes, even a tiny pair of child's shoes — everything.

Of the thousands of pledges stored in a pawnbroker's warehouse the majority are redeemed, but there are many, variously estimated at from 20 to 33 per cent, of the whole, which remain unredeemed at the expiration of the twelve months and seven days' grace. These are known in the trade as "forfeits," and are disposed of in diverse ways. Forfeited pledges, upon which sums of less than 10s. have been advanced, become, as already stated, the pawnbroker's property. Some are placed in the sale stock; occasionally the whole bulk of two or three months' forfeits are sold to a dealer at a discount of 15 or 20 per cent off the price marked upon the tickets, the pawnbroker being anxious to get rid of them at almost any price. The remainder are sent to public auction.

Of the auctioneers who make a speciality of this business the rooms of Messrs. Debenham, Storr and Sons, King Street, Covent Garden, are, perhaps, best known to the public. On the first floor a sale of "fashionable jewellery," silver plate, watches, plated ware, etc., is proceeding. Suspended upon hooks at the far end of the room near the auctioneer's rostrum are watches too numerous to count. You may buy a bundle of them for little more than a sovereign. An irregular horseshoe of glass-topped cases, in which the more important lots are stored, form the boundary of an inner ring, into which the privileged and well-known buyers are alone allowed to enter; wooden desks or tables form the outer boundary for the smaller dealers and that peculiar class of people who haunt the auction-rooms — people who display an interest in every lot, yet have never been known to buy.

Simultaneously a miscellaneous sale of "sporting goods" is taking place on the
ground floor. People of quite a different type attend this sale: men of sporting
tendencies and horsey appearance take the place of the Jews, who form a large proportion of the buyers at the jewellery sales. Here are sportsmen's knives and bicycles, guns by the score, walking sticks, shooting boots, billiard cues and fishing rods, boxes of cigars, and bottles of champagne or burgundy; all things which no true sportsman should be without.

Incredible as it may seem to the uninitiated, there are thousands of persons in London alone who are making a comfortable living out of "Uncle" by buying or manufacturing and pledging goods. There are regular manufactories where clothing can be purchased at a price which the unwary pawnbroker will advance upon, and several pledges in the course of a day will bring a handsome profit.
Plate and jewellery are manufactured for the same purpose. Now it is a gold charm for the watch chain; again it is a silver cigarette box, the weight of which has been considerably increased by the insertion of a piece of base metal between the cedar wood lining and the silver exterior. Everything that the pawnbroker will lend money upon — that is to say everything that has any market value whatever — is manufactured for the sole purpose of deceiving him, while sometimes even the natural beauties of goods are artificially enhanced by the aid of scientific knowledge.

To please his clients, to be careful without giving offence, to prevent fraud, and to detain the guilty while trying to make a little for himself, is no light task. If "Uncle" does not give satisfaction all round it is scarcely to be wondered at. He does his best under difficult and often disagreeable circumstances, and those who are too prone to blame him for a mistake are generally quite ignorant of the nature and extent of his business.
-          C.A Cuthbert Keeson, 1902

Pawn shops are still around now, but not in anything near the same density as in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Looking upon them and their customers as an outsider it can be easy to see them as somehow taking advantage of the poor who used them, especially when you read that a little pair of child’s shoes had been pawned, and can picture in your mind the little tot running about the streets barefoot so that the family could have a meal, or pay the rent – whatever the money was for.

But, if you try and see it from the point of view of the poor, it would be interesting to know how many lives were saved by the pawnbrokers. How many empty stomachs were filled by money given out by him for an old shawl or a broom? How many roofs were kept over little heads after he paid poor mothers for their petticoats?

Besides, if faced with the choice of either selling an item we owned for a little money or turning up at the gates of a workhouse, how many of us today would throw ourselves upon the mercy of the parish and spend our days separate from our loved ones and eating gruel in between working tirelessly for no reward? 

Thursday, 13 October 2011

"...And the Quiet, Unfrequented Glen Turned into a Lovely Garden.” Or: Saltburn-by-the-Sea: Victorian Seaside Town:

Recently I traveled to a little town not too far from Middlesborough in order to attend a birthday party.  My father was born in nearby Saltburn-by-the-Sea, and I’m sure I was taken there as a child by my Grandparents, who live in the little town I visited, but I can’t remember all that much other than a museum dedicated to smuggling (which Saltburn saw a lot of in the 1700’s).
I know that as a child my Grandmother also took me to Whitby, where Bram Stoker wrote ‘Dracula’ in 1897, and to York, the ancient town transformed by the railways in 1839. I was, at the age of twelve, also taken to Beamish open air museum – where the Victorian and Edwardian era’s prevail, and you can visit shops, farms and businesses preserved as they would have been in days gone by.

Was the seed of Victoriana planted in my young self during these visits? Who knows?

My most recent visit required a stay in a hotel, and in the foyer was a large display of brochures and pamphlets for various local attractions. The Sea-Life Centre, York Museum, Beamish, of course, but the one that most caught my eye was the brochure for Saltburn-by-the-Sea. I wondered what was there, in the seaside town where my father was born, so I picked it up and put it in my bag to read later.

Back at home the following day the brochure dropped out of my bag, and I thumbed through it. I discovered that the town of Saltburn-by-the-Sea was an almost entirely Victorian creation.

With that in mind, and also the fact that I have a link to the seaside town, I decided to write about it here, but, where to start?

I spoke with Laine of which is a terrific website, crammed with photographs old and new, Victorian and Edwardian newspaper articles and a whole host of Saltburn related information, and I was allowed to use the website’s article on Victorian Saltburn, which saved me an awful lot of research and time.

The history of Saltburn is not that dissimilar to some other British coastal towns that grew up in the Victorian era. The belief that sea air was good for the constitution and would benefit those with ailments, lead to many Victorians taking their holidays on the coast. The world, of course, was much smaller then. A trip to, say, Spain, would take forever compared to the travel technology at our disposal today, and so places like Blackpool, Brighton, Eastbourne, Margate and – a favourite of Dickens – Broadstairs, capitalized. Entertainments were thrown up; parks, hotels, restaurants, bathing machines and piers and much more were all built to accommodate the seasonal influx of city-dwellers looking to ‘take the air’ by the sea.

The Founding of Saltburn-by-the-Sea
Before 1860 only ‘old’ Saltburn existed. Where Saltburn by the Sea was eventually to be developed, farms grew oats, beans, turnips, clover or lay fallow. The discovery and exploitation of iron ore in the mid 1800’s was to make the most dramatic change in the fortunes of the Saltburn area.

In the industrial history of the 19th century the Pease family held a foremost position. For several generations in succession the name of Pease retained great pre-eminence in the industrial world of the North. Great commercial ability combined with a strong gift of foresight and an indomitable enterprise characterised both Edward Pease and his immediate descendants.

The family held several firms. These included the firm of Joseph Pease & Partners, coal-owners. J. W. Pease & Co. dealt in ironstone and limestone, the banking business was carried on under the style of J & J. W. Pease, and the extensive woollen mills were carried on under the name of Henry Pease & Co. The head-quarters of all these firms was to be found in Northgate, Darlington, some thirty miles away.

The Pease family’s two most important undertakings were the coal mines in South Durham, and the ironstone mines in Cleveland. In the development of the Cleveland ironstone industry they took a leading part, and the first royalty taken in their name was dated in March 1852, from which time they stood at the forefront of Cleveland mine owners.

Henry Pease, the youngest son of Edward Pease, began his apprenticeship in a family tanning establishment in Darlington. In 1881, at the time of his death, there were still three woollen mills in Darlington belonging to the firm of Henry Pease & Co. In an article published in the 'London Society' in November 1881, Henry was described as having been;
 'a man of such energy of character' that he was 'not likely to escape being caught by the railway fever which raged around him' and 'no sooner had he attained his majority than he ... entered heart and soul into the work of railway promotion.'

Henry Pease's name came to be connected with nearly all the lines of importance that were projected in the North of England, some of which were originated by him. From 1830-35 he was mentioned in the minute books of the S & D Railway as a troubleshooter, resolving technical difficulties. For over forty years he was unremitting in his attendance in the board room of one Railway Company or another, his latter years being engaged principally on behalf of the North Eastern Railway Company. It is, therefore, possible to state that perhaps no man of his time had a longer or more distinguished career as a railway director.
Henry Pease

Henry was associated with his brother, Joseph, in the founding of the Middlesbrough & Guisborough line, and was the lines first chairman. He also played an active role in the establishment of a line between Darlington and Barnard Castle and subsequently the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway. After the establishment of the latter, several amalgamations were effected - at the suggestion of Henry Pease. The South Durham and Lancashire was amalgamated with the Stockton & Darlington, which, together with its tributary lines, was itself absorbed into the North Eastern system.

His wider influence was felt in a number of directions. As well as being a board member of Pease & Partners in their many enterprises, eventually becoming a senior partner of the firm, he also became an MP for South Durham between 1859 and 1865, and took an active part in the Sunday Closing Bill. He owned the building firm that erected the Darlington Iron Co. and owned the brickworks that provided the white firebricks used extensively on the first buildings erected in Saltburn by the Sea. He was chairman of the Stockton & Middlesbrough Water Company and the Weardale & Shildon Water Co. He also became the first Mayor of Darlington.

Henry Pease, like his father, was also a member of the Quaker Society of Friends and of the Peace Society. As a Quaker, he traveled to Russia in an attempt to stem the outbreak of war with England in 1853. As a member of the Peace Society, he visited the French Emperor, Napoleon III, in 1867. Henry also visited America for three months in 1856.

Mary Pease, writing in retrospect of her husband’s life, says that in 1859 Henry Pease was staying with his brother at Marske when one evening he returned late for dinner. He explained that he had walked to Saltburn, and that seated on the hillside he had seen, in a sort of prophetic vision, on the edge of the cliff before him, “a town arise and the quiet unfrequented glen turned into a lovely garden.”
The decision on developing Saltburn met with opposition from the S & D board - Mr George Morley of Guisborough stating that he thought it was 'a very bad speculation.' for having lived in the area he thought it 'a nasty bleak cold place, and the sand is horrid'. Opposition was also encountered from others who felt that Lord Zetland should promote the development of Redcar and Marske rather than Saltburn.

The Hoist

Whatever objections were raised, plans went ahead and, having secured the support of the railway company, Henry Pease formed the Saltburn Improvement Company in 1859. As Lord Zetland owned the land on the cliff top, the SIC approached him in 1860 offering to buy 10 acres of Penn Pasture, which formed part of Rifts Farm, whose farmhouse stood where the west side of Hilda Place is now. It was to be the first of 11 lots the company would buy over the next 16 years, totaling nearly 135 acres.

Whilst the offer of £120 per acre was being considered, Henry Pease and Thomas McNay visited Scarborough, ostensibly to inspect the towns sewage disposal system. During this visit Henry's attention was engaged by the pleasure grounds which were being developed there, and thus began his own personal passion for the development of similar grounds at Saltburn.
George Dickinson of Darlington was employed to lay out a plan of the town. The buildings had to have uniform roof lines, slate roofs, frontages of white firebricks (from the Pease’s own brickworks) and no fences.

Within twenty years the main form of the town had been created, including the Station Complex by 1862, Valley Gardens by 1861/62, Zetland Hotel by 1863 (reputed to be one of the world’s first purpose built railway hotels to have its own private platform), Wesleyan Chapel built by 1863, the Pier by 1869, and the Cliff Hoist was finished by 1870.

With the death of Henry Pease in 1881 the town’s driving force was lost and soon after, the Saltburn Improvement Company was disbanded.
Over the years no substantial new features were added to the resort and it became encapsulated in time as one of the finest early Victorian seaside towns surviving almost completely in its original form.

Many thanks to Laine of – whom you can find on Twitter @Saltburnbysea – for letting me use the above article.

The Victorians certainly appeared to love the seaside, but, as ever, it is dangerous to generalize all Victorians as having a liking for the salty sea air and the sand in their boots. There were – and still are – two types of trip to the seaside; the day-trip, which is the kind I have mostly been on, and the ‘proper’ seaside holiday, which involves staying in a hotel on the coast for a week or two.

In his 1883 compendium of articles, ‘Odd People in Odd Places’, the great James Greenwood offers a distinction between the two:

“There are tens of thousands of their more fortunate fellow-creatures who have enjoyed the high privilege of visiting the domain of Neptune - of perambulating the shingly beach, and taking a header from a bathing-machine - of going fairly out to sea, probably in a shilling yacht, and braving the perils of sea-sickness - and all within the space of a dozen hours, four of which were consumed in the journey to and from London. They have, however, never enjoyed a longer holiday than eight hours by the seaside. They may be, and probably are, immensely gratified and delighted, but there is a mingling of sadness with their satisfaction.
It is, of course, very enjoyable, and a privilege to be grateful for, this single day at Margate or Brighton, but it is, at the same time, tremendously hard work, just as hard, indeed, as regards the preparation for the start, the early rising, the hurry-skurry of reaching the railway station, &c. as though the visit was to be of a fortnight's duration.

And if the eight hours' excursionist is of this opinion, with the day's delights before him, and while he is fresh and strong to bear fatigue, and his wife is in high spirits, and the children ready to clap their hands for joy, what must he think when the station bell reminds him that he has now reached the termination of his tether, and his holiday is at an end? His "eight hours" have expired, and the railway authorities, stern sticklers for the terms of contract, will start the return train within twenty minutes, and all those who are not there in time will be left behind.

It is at this point when the one day excursionist, who, as well as his wife, has an olive-branch or two with him, finds his fortitude suddenly collapse. With the youngest but one (his good lady, of course, carries the baby) bestriding his shoulder, he puts his best foot foremost from the beach to the town so as to be in good time at the station. He is hot and fagged, and his temper is not improved by the knowledge that the cherub to whom he is giving a "flying angel" is smearing his Sunday hat with the seaweed with which its little fists are full.
It is at such a time that the reflection comes home to him with fullest force - if he was possessed of means like other folk! He sees the enviable beings all about him. While he is pushing and elbowing with the crowd of his fellow-excursionists, with his back to the sea, the favourites of fortune, with perhaps a fair fortnight still before them, are sauntering beachward - not in a perspiration as he is, and with his face aglow and his neckerchief disarranged, but unruffled and tranquil, heeding that confounded bell no more than though it hung round the neck of a sheep on the adjoining downs, or was being swung by the town crier - with nothing on earth, or sea either for that matter, but pass the time in delightful idleness until dusk or bed-time, and then to retire to snowy sheets, and with the fragrant breath of the ocean sweetening the air of the bed-room, to be up again next morning bright and early, for a jolly ramble across the cliffs, or to take a pull in a little boat, and so get up a tremendous appetite for a breakfast, the staple of which is fish that, in a manner of speaking, has made but a single leap from the fishing-net into the fryingpan.

It is, I say, not very much to be wondered at should the individual, the space of whose seaside happiness is actually measured by mere hours, feel a pang of envy at the better luck of his fellow - mortals, and that he should silently register a vow that, if ever his time does come, he will make up for all his previous holiday shortcomings.”

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.