Victorian London on Film

Motion pictures were screened in London for the first time in 1896 at the Regent Street Cinema near Oxford Circus. The first audience consisted of fifty-four people who paid a shilling each to watch the short films of the Lumière brothers projected on a hand-cranked Cinématographe.

British inventors were quick to develop competing technologies in order to enter the new market. Robert W. Paul had already created a camera based on the Edison Kinetoscope in 1895. He finished work on a projector in February of 1896—incidentally, on the very same day that the Lumière films were first shown in England. Paul exhibited his “Theatrograph” at the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square in March then toured music halls across the country.

In need of motion pictures to exhibit, Paul and other early filmmakers turned their camera lenses on London. As a result significant footage of the city survives from the year 1896. Almost all of it consists of candid street scenes. The finest, I think, is Paul’s film of Blackfriars Bridge, which depicts with excellent clarity and immersive perspective, the horse-drawn carriages, carts, and omnibuses, pedestrians, and bicyclists, crossing the bridge.

The Lumières themselves filmed London in 1896. Their footage of Hyde Park Corner was shown at a command performance for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on November 23 of that year (according to British Pathé, who revived the film in theaters in the early 1930s).

The Lumières also filmed three young women dancing to the accompaniment of an organ grinder in Drury Lane for passersby. This was apparently something of a common public entertainment—or nuisance, as the case may be—in the 1890s. Roland-François Lack at The Cine-Tourist blog discovered a newspaper article reporting the arrest of such a performer the same year the film was made.

From Reynold’s Newspaper, March 19, 1896:

One of the prettiest sights in London are the dancing girls of the street. Many of these dance in a way that would not disgrace some of the performances on the stage. So popular has this daily sight in London become that it has occurred to some unprogressive organ-men to engage rather superior dancers dressed in appropriate costume. These naturally have attracted larger crowds than usual, and, as a consequence, the unprogressive police, while tolerating the dancing of children, have decided that the superior class of street performance cannot be tolerated by Scotland Yard. As a consequence, a pretty girl named Lydia Davis was brought up at Bow-street Police Court yesterday, and charged with creating an obstruction in Adelaide-street, Strand. “She danced, and was nicely dressed,” one of the police inspectors informed the Court. But these entertainments were too popular to be tolerated by the police. Mr Lushington [the judge] looked grave, but in the gentlest tone of voice discharged the “terrible criminal,” telling her she ought not to be so entertaining as to attract a crowd.

Lack does not suggest that the woman in the Lumière film is Lydia Davis, but writes, “Lydia Davis and the performers in the Lumière film belong together as a type of London street life in the 1890s.”

Film screenings became part of the regular programming in music halls and dedicated cinemas beginning at the turn of the century. The Regent Street Cinema, more than 120 years later, is still a working movie theater.

Sources:

Lack, Roland-François. (September 13, 2016) “Victorian street dancing (and other sensations),” The Cine-Tourist. https://www.thecinetourist.net/choses-vues—things-seen/victorian-street-dancing

Mast, Gerald  Katwin, Bruce. (2011) A Short History of the Movies. Upper Saddle River [NJ]: Pearson Education.

Ward, Victoria. (May 26, 2015) “‘Birthplace of British cinema’ reopens 120 years after showing its first film,” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11585227/Birthplace-of-British-cinema-reopens-120-years-after-showing-its-first-film.html


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