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by James Hoyle, archive co-ordinator for British Pathé

This post is Part I of IV.

For the years 1910 to 1933, see blog post “Establishing Itself”.

For the years 1933 to 1958, see blog post “A Golden Age”.

For the years 1958 to 2012, see blog post “Decline and Transformation”.

A quick search of the 90,000 films in the British Pathé archive reveals 139 clips which are currently dated as being from before 1910, the year in which the first newsreel from the newly-established UK arm of Compagnie Générale des Établissements Pathé Frères Phonographes & Cinématographes was released in cinemas. 1910 was thus the year that gave birth to what is now known as “British Pathé”. So what are these 139 additional clips?

The earliest footage in the British Pathé archive today is probably the Edison Manufacturing Company production New Blacksmith Shop (1895). The film, not to be confused with the earlier Blacksmith Scene (1893), was directed by William K. L. Dickson. It lasts for a mere thirty seconds, features no discernible plot or characters, and might not prove particularly interesting to modern viewers. Nevertheless, given its short running time, it is well worth a watch (it can be viewed here) as a typical example of early cinema. Film was still new, the first motion picture images having been captured by Louis Le Prince in 1888 in Leeds. Short, every-day subjects still had the power to thrill (such as in the famous Lumière film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station). But this was an era of great experimentation and innovation, as can be seen in Robert W Paul’s The Vanishing Lady.

It was in this context that Charles, Émile, Théophile and Jacques Pathé founded Société Pathé Frères in France in 1896 and began film production. It is difficult to be sure, but footage in the archive that appears to date from this year includes film of Hyde Park Corner and Brighton.

Another example of Victorian cinema comes from Robert W. Paul. This is the 1896 film “Blackfriars Bridge”, made the same year that the Pathe brothers set up their company.

These brief glimpses of Victorian life are as fascinating today as they were when they were shot – then because the technology involved was so new, and today because the footage is so old. The Victorian era was the first to be documented in moving images, yet still with a rarity that makes viewing them an awe-inspiring experience.

In 1897, Société Pathé Frères went public under the, rather lengthy, name Compagnie Générale des Établissements Pathé Frères Phonographes & Cinématographes (or CGPC). Doubt remains about some of the clips in the archive from the early CGPC era in terms of their locations and dates. Records were either not made at the time or have been lost. The material which can be identified with at least some confidence is often of great historical interest. There is the funeral of William Gladstone, footage of the Boer War, and the coronation procession of Edward VII. The archive also contains film of Queen Victoria at a garden party, her Diamond Jubilee, and her funeral. Material from the Edwardian period includes the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the 1908 London Olympics.

Queen Victoria in Dublin (click the still to view film)

CGPC continued filming for many years, distributing films and expanding its theatre empire across much of the Western World. It was not, in fact, until 1908 that the company invented the newsreel. The first was Pathé-Faits Divers in France, though it was renamed Pathé Journal in 1909. The following year, CGPC launched an American newsreel arm to produce Pathé News, as well as opening a newsreel production office on Wardour Street in London. The first UK newsreel was thus produced, under the Pathé Animated Gazette brand, in February 1910. The French, British, and American newsreel arms would often share footage, and it seems that this is how the pre-1910 material came to be in the hands of the UK newsreel staff. They often made use of it too, producing retrospectives which included flashbacks to 1896.

The American newsreel arm of CGPC was eventually sold in 1921 and was run by Pathé Exchange, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Brothers, and finally Studio Films, before disappearing as a brand in the 1950s. The British newsreel arm was sold too, in 1927. It passed through various hands before ending news production in 1970. The archive was preserved, however, and can be viewed in its entirety for free on the British Pathé website.

British Pathé is always keen for corrections and additional information about its footage and corporate history. Please email us or leave a comment beneath the relevant clip on the website.

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