Lost Histories – The English Hollywood

On the 10th June 1896 (just four months after the first ever commercial screening of a film in Britain) local entrepreneur and film pioneer Edward George Turner gave the first film show in Walthamstow at the Victoria Hall, now the site of the defunct EMD cinema.

Within a year Turner had gone into partnership with J.D. Turner and they began to hire out films, thereby becoming the first ever film renters in the UK. Turner also began to make his own short films shot in and around Walthamstow. Although no longer a rural idyll, Walthamstow at the beginning of the last century was still relatively untouched by industry, being predominantly residential, but with the bonus is being on the doorstep of Epping Forest. Film makers of the period favoured shooting outside as electric lighting was cumbersome and expensive and studio space at a premium. But because the air in London was so bad with fog and smog a constant problem, as well as problems with crowds and onlookers, they had to look for locations outside of the city but near enough for the actors , who were mainly from the theatre, to be able to return to town to give evening performances.

Walthamstow, with it’s semi- rural atmosphere, and the fact that the tram line which ran from the city along the Lea Bridge Road terminated at Whipps Cross, became an ideal location. So within a few short years of the first film showing Walthamstow became a treasured destination. This situation mirrored the industry in Hollywood where each morning film makers and their actors would take the first tram from Los Angeles out to its terminus at the orange groves in the village of Hollywood. It would be nice to think that like their American counterparts, bemused passengers would sit opposite young men and women with pancake white faces, red eye shadow and painted blue lips as they trundled along towards their morning’s work. The film crews and their accompanying actors and musicians soon became a familiar site in the streets and surrounding areas (especially Wood Street and Whipps Cross) where they would simply “set up” their cameras and begin to film their scenes, and indeed many local people were finding employment as extras. But each night the professional film people returned to London and furthermore the film companies themselves remained steadfastly rooted to their city bases. However this too would change.

Whether it was exhausted film makers who first decided to rent cottages or houses in the Wood Street area, saving themselves the long and tedious journey from the city each morning, or a more enterprising and visionary person we may never know but certainly within the first decade of the new century people from the industry were settling in the area. The other great change was audience expectations – the paying public were becoming bored with the simple 10 minute films. They wanted more spectacle and more sophistication. Film shows had originally been in circus tents, music halls and various temporary sites, but this too was about to change. In 1907 the Victoria Theatre in Walthamstow became a dedicated cinema, and in 1910 the first purpose-built cinema in Walthamstow, The Prince’s Pavilion in the High Street, was opened. Meanwhile production continued apace in and around Wood Street and Whipps Cross, and it was at this location that cinematic history was about to be made. Early in 1910 the Gobbett brothers, who had formed The Precision Film Company in 1908 had a film studio built at 280 Wood Street, at the junction with Lea Bridge Road. This studio, The Precision Film Studio was the first purpose built film studio in Britain. The two-story building overlooked Epping Forest which came right up to the East of Wood Street in those days. The building was 100 feet by 40 feet and comprised of workshop/offices on the ground floor and a glass-roofed studio that took up the whole of the first floor.

Little is known about the output of The Precision Film Company although a noteworthy version of East Lynne was made by them in 1910 and another film of interest made in the same year was called Anarchy in England. The latter film gained some notoriety and much publicity because of its subject matter – it told the story of “The Tottenham Outrage” in which Anarchist robbers hijacked a tram in the Lea Bridge Road and were finally cornered, and although in reality they committed suicide, in Precision’s version they were both shot and killed by the police. The Gobbett brother’s gamble soon enticed other film makers to create studios in the area, and so innovative was the studio’s design that other studios soon copied it, most notably Cunard Studios further down the road at 245 Wood Street (the site now occupied by Rumble in the Jungle). No known image of The Precision Studio is known to exist but there are several of the Cunard studio when it was under the ownership of Broadwest Films, so we can image what the originator looked like. Unfortunately the Precision Company did not fair well and by 1915 they had closed the studio. The studio itself became a tool factory in 1919.

The next company to open a studio in Walthamstow were the already established British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, who by 1914 were one of the top six film companies in Britain. In the summer of 1913 they made what is considered the first ever British epic The Battle of Waterloo on Whipps Cross and by October of that year they moved into what was a former roller skating rink at 317-319 Hoe Street (now the former post office telephone exchange building). In 1916 B&C as they were known went on to make the celebrated Battle of the Somme which with an audience of 20 million in just 6 weeks still remains the most successful British film ever made. Another notable company was (as previously mentioned) The Cunard Film Company Limited who moved into their purpose-built Wood Street studio in October 1914 (just down the road from the Precision studio). However like Precision they soon folded and The Broadwest Film Company took over the studio in January 1916.

Broadwest became one of the top studios in the country famous for their literary adaptations and notable future Hollywood stars such as Ronald Coleman and Anna Neagle got their start in film there. The last studio to gain prominence during these early days of British cinema was I.B. Davidson who used a converted horse tram shed at 588 Lea Bridge Road (the remaining parts of which were recently demolished to make way for new housing development). Davidson’s studio seemed to specialize in spy stories (“Anarchists” running amok) and boxing films. Two of their original stars were the legendary “Bombadier” Billy Wells and Victor McLaglen. McLaglen went onto Hollywood stardom with John Ford (he won the Best Actor Oscar in 1935 for The Informer). And now, apart from a wall that demarked the Broadwest Studio boundary in Wood Street and part of I.B. Davidson’s tram shed nothing else remains. A footnote: Although he was a local boy and certainly visited cinemas in Walthamstow as a child Alfred Hitchcock never worked in any of the Walthamstow studios.