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1897: School's First Term

George Albert Smith

 In 1896, two British men based around Brighton developed an interest in films that would result in them coming to prominence at the forefront of the so-called 'Brighton School' the following year, and enjoying an enduring reputation as British movie pioneers.

George Albert Smith was born in London on the 4th January 1864, but moved to Hove as a child following the death of his father.   Smith’s mother ran a boarding house on the Grand Parade.   At the age of 17, Smith began performing as a stage hypnotist with his partner, Douglas Blackburn.   The show consisted of a blindfolded Smith locating items hidden in the theatre by Blackburn, and of reading the minds of members of the audience to identify objects selected by them.   Smith was so impressive that representatives of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), believed he was genuine (Blackburn would later confess that the act was a hoax).   Smith eventually became private secretary to Edmund Gurney, the Society’s honorary secretary in 1883, a post he was to hold until 1888.   During his tenure, Smith co-wrote Experiments in Thought Transference for the Society’s journal.

In 1892, Smith took a lease on St. Ann’s Well Garden, six acres of land between Furze Road and Somerhill Road in Hove, from the Goldsmid family.   The gardens featured such attractions as a fortune-teller, a monkey house, a cave-dwelling hermit, lawn tennis, magic lantern exhibitions (during which Smith would give animated lectures on astronomy), and a cucumber house.   A local newspaper described the Gardens as “This delightful retreat… presided over by the genial Mr. G. Albert Smith… in the hot weather the refreshing foliage of the wooded retreat is simply perfect, while one can enjoy a cup of Pekoe in the shade.”

In March 1896, Smith saw the Lumiere programme at Leicester Square in London, and either late that year or early in 1897, acquired his first camera and started making films.   He also converted the pump house in the grounds of St. Ann’s Well into a processing laboratory.   Smith took to his new interest with enthusiasm, and made a total of 31 films in 1897.   One of his first movies was of the actress Ellen Terry at her country cottage in Winchelsea.   He also filmed Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession on the 22nd June 1897.   In common with his French counterpart, Georges Melies, Smith displayed a flair for the fantastic: at least three of the films made in ’97, The Corsican Brothers, The Haunted Castle, and Photographing a Ghost, used double-exposure, a groundbreaking technique for which Smith obtained a patent.   Another example of Smith’s trick effects is seen in The X-Ray Fiend (AKA: The X-Rays), in which a kissing couple are transformed into animated skeletons by a strange professor toting an X-ray machine.

The second British filmmaker to come to the fore in 1897 was James Williamson, a chemist born in Kirkaldy, Fife in 1855, who was raised in Edinburgh, and moved to London in 1868.  In 1877, Williamson bought his own chemist’s shop in Eastry, Kent, which he ran until 1886 when he and his family moved to Hove.   Here, Williamson ran another pharmaceutical business, selling photographic materials and ‘developing, printing, enlarging, mounting, retouching, &c., &c.' Williamson was a keen amateur photographer and was a member of the Hove Camera Club, as was Smith, with whom he became close friends.

In 1896, Williamson acquired an X-ray machine, and then later bought a camera.   He told a local reporter: “I purchased a machine… and I spent a lot of time and trouble in adapting it both for taking and projecting on a screen.”   Williamson gave local shows at which he screened films made by Smith (to whom Williamson supplied chemicals) as well as a few creations of his own, which were mostly simple actualities. [ADD]


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Gt. Britain: 1897



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