The Modern Mystery Merchant Sells Up?

After two epic round the world tours as a magician in the late 19th century, the American-born Carl Hertz styled himself ‘the Modern Mystery Merchant’ in his autobiography. And just to read the 1896-1898 itinerary – from Southern Africa, through Australia, New Zealand, then to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), India, China, Japan, the Fiji Islands and Hawaii – is enough to inspire awe.

But even more impressive was Hertz bringing ‘animated photography’ to all of these countries, having managed to take one of Robert Paul’s early projectors on his travels, along with a batch of films, which he somehow supplemented along the way. His show would feature what he billed as the ‘Cinematographe’ – no doubt reckoning this was the name most widely known. And amid all the other illusions he offered, it seems to have attracted most attention. The report of its first night in Melbourne in 1896 recounted in local papers is still wonderfully vivid (see my full account at as well as in Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema).

And what about the early model Paul Theatrograph he used, and the films he’d shown? Given that Hertz had to learn how to project while on the first leg of his journey, it’s hard to imagine that the projector and prints, a mixture of early Paul and Edison subjects, were in usable condition by the end of his gruelling three-year tour. But perhaps they were?

Early film historian Deac Rossell, author of an impressive recent Chronology of the Birth of Cinema 1833-1896, recently spotted a brief London advertisement, which he suspects may be Hertz selling off his kit after returning to England, and kindly shared with me. Underpinning the early film business was a flourishing trade in ‘used’ prints, which made their way through its many layers until they were unprojectable.

Hertz seems to have had no continuing interest in film after his 1890s tour, devoting himself to debunking mediumship and spiritualism like many other magicians of the era. He would no doubt have approved of Paul’s Is Spiritualism a Fraud?, subtitled The Medium Exposed (1906 ). And selling off his now outdate machine and combustible film collection would have made good business sense for this shrewd ‘modern mystery merchant’. When he died in 1924, the New York Times reported his estate of $200,000 as a ‘record performer’s fortune’.

The Unipivot Thread

Photographed here alongside two of Robert Paul’s electrical instruments is a window-catch from the house he built shortly after leaving the film business, but close to what was still his instrument making factory off Sydney Road, North London. The catch was very kindly given to me as a memento by the current owners of number 49, Maggie and John Dodd, who first welcomed me inside many years ago to see the house that Robert built.

Catching sight of the windows, I immediately connected this distinctive design with Robert’s most prized invention – the unipivot galvanometer, which he patented in 1903 and won gold medals at worlds’ fairs in St Louis in 1904 and Brussels in 1911. The same principle would be applied to a wide range of instruments manufactured by the Paul Instrument Company, before and after its merger with the Cambridge Instrument Company in 1919. And here it was reproduced in the house he helped design.

What’s so special about it? According to the University of Queensland Physics Museum, ‘the coil is circular and cleverly pivoted on a single spike (the unipivot) at its centre of gravity, with the result that the device is not disturbed by accelerations and could be used to make measurements in moving vehicles. The design was further refined by an automatic lock that protected the delicate mechanism from damage when not in use.’ And from one of Queensland’s useful online photos (above), we can see how this works inside the brass casing.

The unipivot principle certainly made a great deal of money for Paul – probably more than the fifteen years of his film business. ‘Unipivot’ became his telegraphic address; and he must have left instructions with Ellen for putting an image of it on his gravestone in Putney Vale Cemetery. Did she add the cryptic phrase ‘true till death’ on her own initiative? Or did they discuss how Paul had proposed to her with it in 1897, as recounted by a family friend?

We might speculate that ‘unipivot’ had some metaphorical significance for Robert and Ellen, connoting steadiness throughout their marriage, despite the loss of their three children in early infancy. But Paul was not a man given to half measures, as registering the unipivot patent coincided with the peak of innovation in his film production. He’s easier to understand as an engineer, trained to solve problems and seek improvement in any process, whether realising the potential of film, which he had proclaimed in 1898, or producing more versatile and sensitive instruments for the new electrical world.

The elegance and economy of the unipivot principle – still admired by instrument historians – must have seemed a better symbol than anything from his career in film, with the technology of cinema constantly changing across his lifetime. He had left cinema while the going was good, before the upsets of patent wars and price-cutting which put most of his British contemporaries out of business. And he seems to have retained an affection for it, helping to found the Cinema Veterans organisation in 1924 after the death of William Friese-Greene, and patiently answering queries by film historians throughout the 20s and 30s. But in the end, he chose to be remembered as an engineer.

‘A living gazetteer of the British Empire’

Frame from a tinted fragment of Robert Paul’s coverage of the Diamond Jubilee (BFI Archive)

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in June 1897 was the first royal occasion to be comprehensively filmed, and thus seen on screens around the world by an audience many times greater than the three million who came to London for the occasion. As many as forty cameras from twenty companies were trained on the 50,000 strong procession, which travelled from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s, where a brief service was held at the bottom of the steps for the Queen’s benefit, then on to the Mansion House, briefly into South London via Borough Road, on to Parliament Square, and back to the Palace.

Fortunately for all concerned – including the cameramen, in what was barely a year since moving pictures were first made and shown publicly – the sun shone bright, creating what all agreed was a magnificent spectacle. The Daily Mail journalist G. W. Steevens hailed it as a ‘living gazetteer of the British Empire’, vindicating the Foreign Secretary Joseph Chamberlain’s decision to parade the diversity of the Empire, with an array of exotically dressed contingents. ‘You begin to understand’, Steevens mused, ‘not only that we possess all these remote outlandish places… but that their people are working, not simply under us, but with us’.

The Jubilee procession cost £300,000 (over £30M in today’s money), and generated large revenues from
programmes and souvenirs, as well as giving pickpockets and scanners a field-day.

For another observer, the painter Edward Burne-Jones, ‘it was all surprisingly successful… but once in a lifetime’s enough for a Jubilee’. Which is closer to how we might feel after the latest instalment, lacking its central figure, and with an excess of the latest in flying-saucer hats on display

Robert Paul seems to have fully anticipated the commercial opportunity the Jubilee offered, even mentioning it in a prospectus for the flotation of his company earlier that year. He seems to have had three cameras in action, with two at vantage points shrewdly purchased in advance, while ‘I myself operated a camera perched on a narrow ledge in the Church yard’. Yet, like much of the jubilee coverage, only fragments survive and identifying what they show is incredibly difficult. When we were editing the BFI DVD of Paul’s Collected Films, I appealed to Luke McKernan, who knows more about the surviving Jubilee films than anyone, for help in identification (see his Bioscope article still online: But I’m still not sure we got them right!

Map of the procession route, annotated by Luke McKernan

Of all the surviving footage, from Paul, Lumiere, Gaumont and Prestwich, only one fragment shows the colour tinting that was already in common use. I managed to photograph this at the BFI’s Berkhamsted Archive while inspecting it with curator Bryony Dixon. But even as we looked, the emulsion began to peel, and the strip had to return to its preservation container. Yet it’s a reminder that many of the Jubilee’s far-flung audiences would have seen it in simulated colour, rather than the much-duped black and white we have today. And the Jubilee may have prompted technical innovation, to capitalise on the occasion. A photograph of Paul at this time also appears to show him using an electrically-driven camera, although there is no printed confirmation of this.

Paul photographed at the time of the Jubilee, apparently with an electric camera

Paul soon noted a drop in business after the stimulus of the Jubilee coverage, which was widely toured as a special programme and sold throughout the Empire. This seems to have prompted his decision in the following year to buy land in New Southgate on London’s outskirts, to films ‘more ambitious subjects’ (see previous post). He couldn’t have guessed that the outbreak of a new colonial war in South Africa at the end of 1899 would create new demands and opportunities for ‘animated photography’.

Before the Animatograph Works

Several photographs from the late 1880s now held by the Hornsey Historical Society provide intriguing views of the New Southgate area a decade before Robert and Ellen bought their field in 1898. The Barralet collection consists of some sixty photographs taken by Percy Barralet between 1886 and 1889, and no-one could have been closer to the scene of the future Animatograph Works. Percy lived on the Colney Hatch Lane end of Sydney Road that was already built in the 1870s, and he qualified as an electrician in the same new field as Robert about eight years earlier. There are other intriguing parallels (to be explored in a future contribution to an HHS Archive book), but what’s of immediate interest here are two of Percy’s photographs.

One is a composite panorama showing Colney Hatch Asylum and an unbuilt area known as the ‘Freehold’, adjoining what would become the full extent of Sydney Road as we know it today. In the one photograph we have of Paul’s Animatograph Works, four trees appear behind the studio roof as seen from Sydney Road. And in Percy’s photograph, at least fifteen years earlier, the same four can be seen from the opposite direction. Another of Percy’s photographs shows the likely studio site more closely.

Percy’s panorama seems to show the open field that the Paul would have seen when he bought four acres ‘to secure space for taking subjects on a more ambitious scale’ sometime in early 1898. What drew the Pauls to this area may never be known, although a 2008 article about Barralet by John Hinshelwood in the Hornsey Historical Society’s Bulletin describes the ‘Freehold’ as ‘not being considered a very desirable area’, so perhaps it was cheap? By the time Paul had built his studio, and Muswell Hill was taking shape – as we see in a number of his films – it had certainly become more desirable.

Another of Percy’s photographs shows picturesque ‘old cottages’ on Colney Hatch Lane. These seem to have been known as Vine Cottages, and one of them at least was the setting for what may have been Paul’s last film, The Burning Home, in 1909. In fact, making this ‘fire rescue’ drama apparently led to a real fire, which may have involved local controversy and perhaps compensation.

I have suggested in my book on Paul that it may have been this incident, weighed against the film’s commercial performance, which finally persuaded Paul it was time to exit a business that had become ‘too speculative’ – as he described it thirty years later. Happily, I was able to discover a fragment of the film in the Huntley Archive, allowing us to identify the cottage as one of those that Percy Barralet photographed in 1888. Percy lived on Sydney Road until 1923, and could well have seen The Burning Home, or heard about its scandalous production. He must have passed the studio often, and could even have worked for Paul’s electrical instrument business. Plenty of room for speculation here, as we ponder the social world around Paul’s Animatograph Works.

With thanks to Hornsey Historical Society and to the Huntley Film Archives for use of the above images and facilitating my ongoing research.