Blackburn also had its own early film pioneers - Mitchell and Kenyon. Sagar Mitchell was in business on Northgate as a photographic apparatus manufacturer. He also had an interest in cinematography. After the success of the first "movie" at the Lyceum, the manager of the theatre, Edward Hermann Page invited Mitchell to show pictures there. Shortly afterwards James Kenyon became Mitchell's business partner.
They constructed their first "Norden" cinematograph and started to show their own films, including one of Blackburn Market. ( A cinematograph was a device by which a series of photographs of moving objects taken in rapid succession could be projected on a screen in similarly rapid succession to give the impression of a moving picture). Cinematographs were popular attractions at fairgrounds where they were hauled by steam traction engines. Blackburn was considered a very good "date" for these travelling showmen. They would show moving pictures of local people such as operatives leaving the cotton mills.
They produced films of football matches and Royal visits, but are perhaps best known for their films of the Boer War. These were in fact fakes. Money was not available at that time to send cameramen to the scene of the action, so reconstructions were staged nearer home. In this case the Yellow Hills in Blackburn's Billinge Wood, were used as the backdrop.
Eventually the advent of the Americans in the "movie" business caused cinematography to be unprofitable for small firms and the Mitchell and Kenyon partnership was dissolved in the early 1920's. Some of Mitchell and Kenyon's films which had disappeared were later found, at the site of their former premises on Northgate.
In 1996 two months of celebrations where held in Blackburn to mark the Centenary of the cinema known as "Cinema 100". Events to mark this were also held nationally. Blackburn had of course played an important role in the early cinema and wanted to demonstrate this. Exhibitions, film shows and lectures were held. Mitchell and Kenyon films were shown again in public for the first time for many years to great acclaim.
James Kenyon was born on May 26th 1850 during the Whitsun holidays. Sir William Feilden of Feniscowles, former MP for Blackburn, had died a week earlier at the age of 79. The issue of the day was the Ten Hours Act, an attempt to reduce the working hours of cotton workers. The Bolton, Blackburn and Clitheroe Railway opened to Chatburn on June 22nd in that year. The first ever hippopotamus was delivered to Regent’s Park Zoo. An editorial in the Illustrated London News complained that the warm weather had made the stench from London’s open sewers intolerable.
Sagar Mitchell was born 16 years later on October 28th 1866. The October fair had just been in the town with its compliment of jugglers, tumblers, clowns and exhibitors of giants, dwarves, and human skeletons. The weather was fine. The National Steam Navigation Company was advertising weekly sailings from Liverpool to New York in the local press.
The 1881 census shows James Kenyon living at 12 Plymouth St and working as a cotton spinner. He had married Elizabeth Fell and when her uncle died, they inherited his King St cabinet making and furniture dealing business, which had been established in 1854. James was active in local politics as a young man, working for the Labour cause.
Sagar was the son of John Mitchell who was born in Haworth in 1827. He was christened by the Rev. Patrick Bronte, father of the Bronte sisters and growing up in the village must have known the famous writers. He married Miss Brown from Thornton-in-Craven and moved to Blackburn in the early 1860s acquiring the Alliance Temperance Hotel in Northgate. John also became involved in the furniture removing business, travelling the length and breadth of the country.
An article in the Blackburn Times on November 27th 1897 details a demonstration of the new ‘Norden’ cinematographic apparatus invented by Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. They showed a scene of Blackburn Market on a Saturday morning. The Norden equipment eliminated the jerkiness and noise which had plagued cinematograph equipment up to then.
By 1899 they were operating under the name Norden and releasing films with titles such as ‘The Tramps Surprise,’ ‘Kidnapping by Indians,’ and ‘The Tramps and the Artist.’ They continued to produce films of street scenes, processions, and sporting events and took up premises at 22 Clayton Street. Their biggest success came however from their recreation of scenes from the Boer War, which were filmed on the hills near Billinge. These received nationwide distribution.
They continued making films until 1913 when they filmed coronation celebrations in Chorley, Clitheroe and Great Harwood.
Mitchell and Kenyon’s films were shown at fairs and many fair operators commissioned films of local places and events. In February 1902 they filmed the funeral of Queen Victoria, Mitchell stationing himself at Hyde Park Corner by 4 o’ clock in the morning and Kenyon at Windsor. The film was shown throughout the country. In 1902 they filmed celebrations associated with the coronation. They continued making fiction films and in 1904 filmed ‘Black Diamonds,’ the story of a miner’s life, incorporating actual films of a coalmine with recreated events.
In 1905 they filmed the unveiling of Queen Victoria's statue on the Boulevard in Blackburn.
Mitchell was nothing if not an innovator, and precariously placed in an early aircraft, he filmed a view of the coastline between Southport and Liverpool.
Granville Road, Blackburn. James Kenyon ended his days here.
In 1915 Kenyon moved to Southport. He returned to Blackburn in the 1920s, where he resided in Granville Road, and died on February 6th 1925. His obituary describes him as a well-read, quiet and retiring man and retells the occurrence in November 1901 at Sunderland when he was filming a great storm from the shore-line and was almost overwhelmed by a great wave, unable to rescue his equipment and barely escaping with his life.
Mitchell continued with his photographic business until October 2nd 1952, when he died at his home Whitecroft at Hoghton. His obituary in the Northern Daily Telegraph for October 7th 1952 describes him as a pioneer of cinema photography and recounts how he was one of the first people in Blackburn to own a motorcar, a 1903 De Dion.
On the day Mitchell died the British tested an atomic bomb on the Monte Bello islands off North West Australia. In his 85 years Mitchell linked the nuclear age with the genteel age of the Brontes.
THE CINEMATOGRAPH AT BLACKBURN
A CURIOUS EXPERIENCE
[By Our Special Commissioner]
This article was taken from the Blackburn Times of Saturday 27th November 1897. The film mentioned was shown at 40 Northgate, Blackburn and was the first reported showing of a Mitchell and Kenyon film. Mitchell and Kenyon had got together in 1897 and formed a firm, which traded under the name of “Norden”. This was six years after Thomas Edison had made the first motion picture in 1891. Four years after that, in 1895, the Lumiere brothers had shown the first paying audience a film about workers leaving a factory in Lyons, France. The article below shows how far Mitchell and Kenyon had progressed in the film industry in such a short time, as they proudly showed off their newly invented “Norden Cinematograph”. Whether all the film shown was their own production I don’t know, as some of it was shot in different European countries. There is a nice touch at the end of the article where the film is shown going backwards, which seemed to amuse and amaze the writer of the article.
The other evening I had a somewhat singular experience. For two fully hours I was the solitary person in an upper room of the shop of Mr. Mitchell, optician, Northgate, while he and Mr. Kenyon demonstrated to me the capabilities of a new “Norden” cinematograph, which they have invented. During that time I saw more than half a hundred sets of views thrown on a small screen rigged up by the gentlemen named for the purpose of experimenting in cinematography and of trying the pictures, in which they do a very large business. The conditions were not of the best, because the longer the focus and the larger the screen, up to 20ft by 15ft, the better. The pictures on the larger screen are always clearer and the detail is always better. However, though the conditions were not absolutely perfect, I saw enough to satisfy me that Messrs. Mitchell and Kenyon have overcome some of the greatest objections to the cinematograph, which, up to lately,was nothing more than a scientific toy, which even now is regarded with awe, and as a thing of mystery, but which may be looked upon in the near future as of great educational value. The possibilities of the invention, as of the phonograph, with which it may be successfully allied some day, are infinite. I have seen the cinematograph in use in a great many places, in the provinces, in London and in Paris, but hitherto always with two unpleasant defects, which Messrs. Mitchell and Kenyon have succeeded in almost entirely remedying—the unpleasant, jerky motion of the pictures, and the noise of the machinery.
HOW IT IS DONE
As I have said, the cinematograph to the average person is a mystery, and it is because I imagine a description of it will be of interest to the readers of the “Blackburn Times,” that I am writing this article. The operation begins, of course, with the photography, and for this purpose thin narrow strips of flexible celluloid film are used, prepared, as I suppose ordinary plates are prepared for photography. These films vary in length from 70ft to 100ft, and the whole length will pass through the camera—which is of special design—in about a minute and a half. The shutter is moved either by hand or by some motor. The hand is preferred because the speed can be varied to meet the purpose of the operator. During this minute and a half 2,000 or more photographs of the scene will be taken on the film, each photograph about the size of a postage stamp sideway up. These photographs are developed and printed on other films by a process which is a trade secret and when completed the scene is ready for the lantern. The human eye is so constructed that if this film can be passed before it at a sufficient high rate of speed, the scene photographed papers as it would to a spectator—everything is moving. The lantern is the ordinary oxy-hydrogen limelight, or where it is obtainable, the electric light. To get the oxy-hydrogen light a small cylinder of oxygen is coupled up to an ordinary gas tube, and the flame out of an ordinary jet is turned upon a cork-shaped piece of lime. The results a brilliant light which is caught by a condenser—that is, a lens which catches the scattered rays of light, and focuses them to a point—and directed through a hole across which the film has to pass, and through another tube, in which are fixed more lenses, on to the screen, carrying with it, of course, when the film is going through the machine, the image photographed. Each picture has to stay for an infinitely small part of a second before the light and the flicker that is so unpleasant in an ordinary cinematograph is caused by the change from one picture to the other. The old machine, so to speak, held the picture before the hole for a moment and then pulled it sharply away by means of perforations in the slides of the film which fitted upon small teeth in a cylinder round which the film was wound. This cylinder and a thing like a trowel which moves in the front of the lens and cuts of the light of the lantern in the very brief period in which the change from one picture to another is made are turned, as in the original photograph, either by hand or motor but here, as in the other case, the hand is to be preferred for precisely the same reason as that already given. It will be seen from this description that the motion would be intermittent and jerky and that there would be more or less strain on the holes in the film. As a matter of fact, these holes were frequently torn out and the jerkiness led to great noise and to exceptional wear and tear of the machine. The means by which these difficulties have been overcome are Messrs. Mitchell and Kenyon’s invention. Mechanics at all events, will understand me when I say that they have put an eccentric cam upon the cylinder, and the motion, though continuous and very quiet is so arranged that each picture is on the screen six times as long as it takes to change the picture for another. When I mention that in the old machine it takes as long to change the picture as the picture is stationary on the screen, it will be evident that there is a great decrease in the flickering and a great increase in efficiency, not to mention the fact that the films last an infinitely longer time, and the machinery is subject to no strain.
AN AMUSING VIEW
This, then is how the thing is done. It only remains for me to say something about the views I saw, of which the firm have a very large stock, including every variety of scene and incident, most of them, by the way, of foreign make. They are now making their own. One such I saw—a scene on the Blackburn Market Ground on a Saturday morning. The pictures, I was told, were far from perfect, but to me they appeared to ail nothing and they were certainly interesting. Before long, however, we may anticipate plenty of local views. Why, for instance, it was suggested, should we not have a panorama of the Ribble Valley as it appears from the carriage of a rapidly travelling Midland train from Blackburn to Whalley? It could be done quite easily, though panoramas of that kind are quite a new feature of the cinematographic art. One such scene in the French Alps was shown me, and the effect was startling as we passed along the banks of a turbulent river, on the other side of which lofty mountains rose into the sky. One scene showed the Loie Fuller in the serpentine dance and the motion was perfect. The terrible Greek was shown wrestling with an antagonist by no means as bulky, but a good deal more agile: in another scene the waves were breaking finely over a rock bound coast; in a third some workmen were pulling down some property, and the fall of the side the side of a house and the dust created were very effective. The views, however, were too numerous for me to mention all. But I must not forget the scene in the Milan swimming bath. It was exceedingly good. The men were diving one after another from spring boards at a good height and one could almost hear the splash as they took the water. But Mr. Mitchell quietly fixed some instrument to the machine and proceeded to put the views through it in the contrary direction. The effect was exceedingly droll. The building was right end up and as were the people, but instead of the men appearing to dive from the high boards you would see the water in the bath suddenly gather itself together then out of it would spring a bather feet first and away he would sore through the air in that attitude to the board above, on which he would alight with his feet or his head according as in the first instance he had jumped off or gone in heels over head. With this little eccentricity of a most interesting machine and a capital entertainment I must conclude.
In the 1930s 3 local men, Cuthbert John Cayley (grandson of Sir William Coddington), Roland Whiteside and Eric Pollard started Pennine Films. They took over a disused cotton shuttle making factory on Tontine Street and converted it into a talking picture studio. They produced topical and scenic films of the northern landscape, which were always in demand by cinema chains who used the films to separate their main features. Their most ambitious project was "The Samlesbury Saga". This was a costume drama set at Samlesbury Hall, using local amateur actors. This was to be their last production. The Second World War put paid to any further films.
It was thought that "The Samlesbury Saga" film had been lost during the War, but miraculously it turned up amongst the rubble when the Tontine Street studio was demolished in the late 1960s.
Blackburn was also known for its film renting and distribution activities. Feature Films had a depot in Regent Street, HH Film Service in Higher Eanam and the North East Lancashire Film Renting Service in Mincing Lane. They obtained film prints which they bought from agents in London, Manchester and Birmingham at a cost of fourpence or sixpence per foot (less than 5 pence in today's terms).
Just as theatres and music halls were turned into cinemas, in Blackburn and elsewhere, the cinemas themselves disappeared in the 1950s and 1960s. Some being turned into bingo halls, some being demolished in the town centre re-development.
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