Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Exploring the archives: the early history of film and cinema in Sheffield

Students in the School of English at the University of Sheffield are provided with the opportunity of taking a work placement as part of their degree programme.  This year we’ve been lucky enough to have two students working with us at Sheffield City Archives and Local Studies Library.  Amy Guest has been researching the history of film and cinema in Sheffield using the wealth of fascinating sources stored deep in the basement of the Central Library.  Her work links in with similar research being conducted at the University of Sheffield, giving us a clear picture of the breadth of material the city has as a whole.  In this blog, Amy gives a brief overview of film and cinema history in Sheffield and showcases a few of the early photographs and advertisements that have survived…

Sheffield Picture Palace, Union Street, 1915
(Picture Sheffield: y05044)
The history of cinemas in Sheffield is an interesting one, dating to the advent of cinematic work in the late nineteenth century.  Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library has a range of material, secondary and primary, on the history of Sheffield Cinema with a source guide providing aid to those interested in researching this topic.  This blog provides a short overview of the early history of cinema in the city using these sources.

Cinematographer, Jasper Redfern, opened Central Hall Norfolk Street on 10th July 1905, which hosted films and animated pictures along with variety acts. 
The first purpose-built cinema in Sheffield was the Picture Palace in Union Street created in 1910. This followed a trend of purpose built cinemas being built in the 1910s onwards because of the Cinematograph Act passed in 1909, regulating standards for condition of premises and in the interest of public health and safety.  As early film was made from cellulose-nitrate it was highly flammable and so this Act included the regulation of fire precautions such as the provision of separate, fire resisting projection boxes and fire-fighting equipment.  This made small travelling shows and the haphazard use of buildings untenable.
'What's on in Sheffield', 1915 (Picture
Sheffield: y05044)

The Picture Palace was built by Benton and Robertson, Architects with a 1,000-seat capacity, opening on 1st August 1910.  It remained open until 1964 but was later demolished like so many other buildings of this era.  Thankfully, a comprehensive photographic record of these by-gone buildings can be found on Picture Sheffield (www.picturesheffield.com).

Many more ‘picture palaces’ were built from the 1910s onwards such as: the Electra Palace opened 1911; Wincobank Picture Palace opened 1914; and Lansdowne Picture Palace opened 1914. To satisfy public hunger for film entertainment, according to the late Clifford Shaw, a total of thirty cinemas had been built or were in the process prior to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

Electra Palace interior showing seating and balcony
(Picture Sheffield: s08055)
The architecture of the first purpose-built cinemas shared their aesthetic with theatres and opera houses as can be seen from the interior images of the Picture Palace and Electra with their balconies and interior design similar (right). This is probably because cinema was in its infancy and so building with such styles set cinemas in the same category as familiar entertainment venues, before they developed their distinct character and style with the evolution of cinema across the twentieth century.
Electra Palace advert, 1914
(Picture Sheffield: y05049)
Electra Palace interior; opened 1911 (Picture
Sheffield: s02694)
Union Street Picture Palace; opened 1910
(Picture Sheffield: s08069)
Prior to the building of purpose-built cinemas, cinematograph showings in the 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century, were largely performed in already existing theatres, auditoriums, music halls, such as the Sheffield Empire and Albert Hall. As such, cinema was not consider a separate entertainment entity or art in its own right at first, instead being set in a variety of amusements and entertainments. Thus early cinematographers were usual variety showmen with a selection of entertainment acts, rather than purely working on moving pictures. Pictured (below) is an advertisement for 'cinematograph entertainment' provided by ‘Prof de. Lyle’ aka George A. Fox, a showman, conjuror and resident at Ecclesall Road.
(Picture Sheffield: v01305)

As Cinema, in its early years, was not yet a fully-fledged art form, most early films were shorts with live orchestral accompaniment and depicted everyday subjects, rather than the more ambitious projects undertaken in cinema from the 1910s onwards.
Fitzalan Square, c.1900 - the Wonderland booth can
be seen to the right beside the Bell Hotel
(Picture Sheffield: s16021)

Travelling shows at fairgrounds, markets and holiday resorts were a mainstay of cinematic showings in the 1890s. More permanent fairground structures in Sheffield were created such as Wonderland, Fitzalan Square which showed short films in a primitive fashion. It was demolished in 1910 and replaced by the purpose built Electra Palace (pictured).
Frank Mottershaw (Picture Sheffield: y02357)

In June 1896, the first cinematic display was shown by the Lumière brothers touring company, who had been experimenting with photography since the 1880s; they were part of the variety bill at the Empire Palace. They mostly showed street scenes of everyday life. Evidently a success, it returned again in September of the same year.
Mottershaw family (Picture Sheffield

Sheffield had a prominent role in early cinema through the Mottershaw family who founded the Sheffield Photo Company in the 1890s and were significant in the development in early British cinema.  On Queen Victoria’s visit to Sheffield in 1897 to open the Town Hall, the Mottershaws photographed the event and purchased a film of the occasion along with other shorts which they showed in touring presentations.  They made their own film for the first time in 1900 with Dolly Grey - a garden party of a local family - and subsequently began film production from then onwards.

One of their main contributions was pioneering chase sequences in a number of films: A Daring Daylight Robbery, 1903; Robbery of the Mail Coach, 1903 and the 1905 picture The Life of Charles Pearce which used on location footage in Sheffield for a sense of realism by using the actual haunts of its titular figure. These films were exported around Britain and abroad in America, although there was a significant issue with piracy of films at the time, likely due to the newness of the medium and therefore difficultly in enforcing copyrights. Despite these difficulties, the Mottershaw Sheffield Photo Company  was appointed official photographer by Edward VII in 1905.
From SUFC programme, 24 Feb 1900 (Picture Sheffield: y03515)

Finally, to satisfy those interested in Sheffield football club history, here are some stills of The English Cup Sheffield United v. Sheffield Wednesday match at Owlerton, Monday 19th February 1900 by the cinematographer Jasper Redfern (left).

Amy Guest, University of Sheffield


Early moving footage online:

Experience Sheffield's oldest working picture house first hand: http://www.abbeydalepicturehouse.com/