Happy birthday, Mr Paul!

This seems to be Robert and Ellen clowning with the slack-wire music hall star Harry Lamore in Fun on the Clothesline in 1897, recently discovered in the BFI Archive collection. Possibly an early Muswell Hill back-garden production? Viewable free on BFI Player from next week.














Robert Paul was born on 3 October 1869, in a street off Holloway Road just north of Highbury. It was known as Albion Road then, before becoming the modern Furlong Road. The family moved around London during his youth, living in Stratford and Stamford Hill at various times. By the 1890s, when he started his business at 44 Hatton Garden, he was living in High Holborn, and it was here that he brought Ellen Daws when they married on 3 August 1897. They moved to Muswell Hill in the following year, living at a number of addresses near Sydney Road, where they built the studio and laboratory in 1898, which Ellen played a major part in running.

How would the Pauls have celebrated a birthday? Thanks to a memoir by a family friend, we know that they were keen theatregoers and regulars at the Café Royal near Piccadilly Circus, known at the turn of the century as ‘the haunt of Bohemian London’. Recalling the lively atmosphere of its domino room, Max Beerbohm drew a deep breath and thought to himself, ‘This indeed is life!’.

In 1906, Paul entertained ‘his numerous staff’ at their ‘country retreat’, with cricket, fishing and boating, finishing with an al fresco concert in the twilight before the drive back to ‘dreary London’. But don’t be deceived by that gloomy portrait of Paul so often reproduced! Irene Codd was sure many of the old gang would ‘smile when they look back and remember the little shed with the glass roof, and Mrs Paul with her sewing machine’. If you know the films, you’ll realise that much fun was had both on and off-screen at Sydney Road.

Paul’s 150th anniversary is being marked by a special show at BFI Southbank on the afternoon of Sunday 27 October, which will include many of the newly-discovered and restored films, introduced by Bryony Dixon and Ian Christie, with accompaniment by John Sweeney. Come and help celebrate Paul’s birthday!

Back in the City


The Robert Paul exhibition opens its second run at London Metropolitan Archives on Monday 2 Sept. Hours are 9.30 – 16.45, Monday – Thursday, and Wednesday evenings until 7.30. Open Saturdays 14/9 and 12/10. Come and see how moving pictures first reached London in Kinetoscope viewers. Discover the inventive man behind Britain’s film industry in Animatograph! Robert Paul: an early life in Film. Look out for special events during the exhibition, and pick up a free copy of the graphic novel Time Traveller.

After the exhibition’s very successful opening at Bruce Castle Museum in modern Haringey, where Paul would build Britain’s first film studio, London Metropolitan Archives takes us closer to his starting point – running a small scientific instrument business in Hatton Garden in the early 1890s. Hatton Garden wasn’t yet ‘diamond street’. It housed the Italian immigrant community, which included a number of street musicians, and many businesses, ranging from the games manufacturer Jaques (Staunton chess pieces, ping pong, Ludo etc) to Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine-gun and powered flight pioneer. Amid these, young Robert launched his instrument business in 1891, aged just 22, very much against his father’s advice.

After getting into moving pictures through a commission from two visiting Greek-Americans, which catapulted him into the forefront of developments that would bring full-scale film shows to London’s music halls in early 1896, Paul needed space to build the equipment that was in demand on all sides. Soon, he was forced to rent extra space in nearby Great Saffron Hill – immortalised (if that’s the word) as the ‘emporium of petty larceny’ and the site of Fagin’s squat in Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838).

Cruickshank’s classic illustration of  the squalid apartment of the ‘pleasant old gentleman, and his hopeful pupils’

In 1895, Paul tried out a small display of his Kinetoscopes at 39a Leather Lane, which was no more salubrious, before committing to a major up-market exhibition at Olympia, which would lead to realising that projection made more sent than rows of expensive viewers. And after the launch of his Theatrograph in February 1896, kings’ emissaries, magicians and future filmmakers such as Georges Méliès would converged on the modest premises at 44 Hatton Garden, sometimes camping out on the stairs to stay in line for the Theatrograph projectors.

No photographs have been found of what 44 Hatton Garden looked like in 1896 (the current corner block is mid-20th century, built after a major fire destroyed many buildings around the junction with Cross Street in 1914). But Tallis’s street view drawing records what it must have been like. Since the plaque on no. 44, put up during the 1996 ‘centenary of cinema’ celebrations, is too small to read, time for a new, bigger one!


Paul’s other lives: helping science education and medicine


By the 1930s, Robert Paul had been away from film for over twenty years – although people were increasingly keen to ask him about the pioneer days. He was helping to manage the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, but he was still very much a hands-on inventor, as he had been since the 1890s. In the basement of his large house in Addison Road, he maintained a fully-equipped workshop, where he was often helped by apprentices from the Muswell Hill factory (which the studio had now become).

A project that engaged him in 1931 was the exhibition held at the Albert Hall to mark the centenary of Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction, the basis of all modern electrical science. As one of the first generation of electrical engineers, Paul revered Faraday, and took responsibility for creating a practical part of the exhibition. He built replicas of historic electrical instruments and organised demonstrators to show what they measured and how they worked.


In 1933, he became involved in a highly contemporary issue: the need for low-cost portable equipment to help those unable to breathe naturally. His friend, the Nobel winning physicist William Bragg appealed to Paul to help create a device that could be used over long periods. The Bragg-Paul Pulsator (at top) consisted of a waistcoat-like belt that was rhythmically filled with air from electrically driven bellows (although it could also be water-powered).

Over fifty of these were in use in hospitals around Britain and Ireland during the polio and diphtheria epidemics of the late 1930s, helping to save many lives, according to grateful physicians. Below is one is use at the Cork Street Fever Hospital in Dublin. Compared with the Both Respirator and the Iron Lung, the Pulsator was easily transported and did not impede nursing care. Some were still in use in the 1950s.

70. Bragg-Paul Pulsator, Cork Street Fever Hospital, 1935

Thanks to the Wellcome Collection, the Paul exhibition at London Metropolitan Archives includes an extract from a 1938 film that demonstrated the Pulsator in action. One of Paul’s Unipivot Galvanometers is also featured in the exhibition, along with the souvenir catalogue of the Faraday Centenary exhibition.

From 2 September at LMA,  Northampton Rd, Farringdon, London EC1R 0HB https://twitter.com/LdnMetArchives/status/1164047012192575493


Ghostbusting with the Pauls


How rife was spiritualism at the turn of the 19th century? There was certainly no shortage of the great and good (plus quite a few rogues) happy to declare ‘belief’ in communication with the spirit world. One of the leading believers, featured in the Wellcome Collection’s current Smoke and Mirrors exhibition about magic and psychology, was Arthur Conan Doyle. Like the GP he once was, Conan Doyle declares reassuringly in a late filmed interview that it’s no matter of mere ‘belief’, but evidence he’s gathered from countless séances. Somewhat disconcerting from the creator of the forensic Sherlock Holmes.

Several of Robert Paul’s early customers were magicians who’d built their acts around ‘exposing’ fake mediums, notably the Egyptian Hall impresario Nevil Maskelyne. And Paul’s studio produced several sceptical films based the spiritualism vogue, two of which happily survive, with one included in the Wellcome show (above). Their early Upside Down, subtitled The Human Flies (1899) remains one of the most perfect two-shot trick films, and possibly the earliest screen appearance by Paul’s new hiring, the conjuror Walter Booth.


In this satirical take on ‘table turning’, a ‘professor of spiritualism’ (Booth) first makes his umbrella stand up and then has his hat ‘fly onto the ceiling’. The party of four are invited to stand, before they too fly up, and start dancing on the ceiling (a trick recapitulated by Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding).

By 1906, the tone has changed, and it’s Is Spiritualism a Fraud?, subtitled The Medium Exposed,  that appears in Smoke and Mirrors as evidence of contemporary scepticism. Here, we see the mechanics of setting up a fake séance in some detail, with an accomplice hidden in a chest and a spectacular ‘spiritualistic’ display, before the light is turned on by a suspicious member of the group to reveal the deception. Then the fake medium is bundled into his own coffin-like chest by indignant clients, and paraded on a cart through the streets of Muswell Hill, appropriately in the style of a modern-day witch.

By this date, George and Weedon Grossmith had extended their hugely successful Diary of a Nobody, first serialised in Punch in the 1890s and steadily republished through the Edwardian era (and set in Holloway, north London, where Paul was born). Séances were evidently as fashionable in middle-class social life as Tupperware parties would later be. Their anxious anti-hero, Charles Pooter, is sceptical, but intrigued by his wife’s and her friends’ fascination, and by Chapter 22 he too is taking part.


The moment I turned out the gas, and almost before I could get my hands on the table, it rocked violently and tilted, and began moving quickly across the room. Gowing shouted out: “Way, oh! steady, lad, steady!” I told Gowing if he could not behave himself I should light the gas, and put an end to the séance. To tell the truth, I thought Gowing was playing tricks, and I hinted as much; but Mrs. James said she had often seen the table go right off the ground. The spirit Lina came again, and said, “WARN” three or four times, and declined to explain. Mrs. James said “Lina” was stubborn sometimes. She often behaved like that, and the best thing to do was to send her away.

We have no idea if the Pauls ever witnessed a suburban séance. But they must certainly have been aware of what was going on around them, and had probably read Diary of a Nobody, one of the period’s most popular books. Having fun with filmic ghosts was part of the studio’s stock in trade, in films like The Haunted Curiosity Shop and The Magic Sword, but taking mediums as seriously as Conan Doyle and the Society for Psychical Research seems to have been a step too far for this worldly-wise couple and their colleagues.

Here be monsters


To Crystal Palace Park in south London this morning, with grandchildren, to see the historic dinosaur sculptures. Could this amazing spectacle be the missing link in Robert Paul’s and H. G. Wells’ tantalising ‘time machine’ concept?

Consider the evidence. Paul read Wells’ Time Machine novella in serial form in the Autumn of 1895, as it was taking the world by storm. He contacted Wells and invited him to visit Hatton Garden, to discuss the idea of ‘a novel form of exhibition’, that would give audiences ‘the sensation of voyaging upon a machine through time’, to visit scenes in the past or future – according to the outline patent application he lodged on 24 October.

Unsurprisingly, the plan went no further. Its cost would have been prohibitive, and these were two young men with no theatrical experience, on the cusp of great success, pioneering what would later be known as ‘science fiction’, and launching what soon became cinema. But the sheer audacity of the idea continued to intrigue, even after the movies had developed into a kind of ‘time machine’ for their mass audiences. Frequently referenced in early cinema history, it was still vividly remembered by Wells and Paul near the end of their lives.

In 1941, Wells wrote expansively in the science journal Nature that the pair could have become ‘ground landlords of the entire film industry’. Paul swiftly responded in a letter, saying he soon realised there was no need for the cumbersome apparatus proposed by the patent, since audiences were sufficiently fascinated by ‘animated photography’ on screen.

But his letter also revealed more about what actually passed between them. Wells ‘gave his general approval… and proceeded to talk of subjects suitable for the primeval scenes’. Paul recalled that he ‘recommended some books on extinct monsters’ before leaving. We might wonder what could the books might have been? Thanks to the echo of its title, one must surely have been the Revd N. N. Hutchinson’s Extinct monsters; a popular account of some of the larger forms of ancient animal life, published just two years earlier.


Hutchinson’s overview took on board much of the excitement that followed Richard Owen’s 1842 announcement of a new animal group, the Dinosauria, or ‘fearfully great lizards’. And equally important for the start of dinosaur-mania was Owen’s involvement in creating the Dinosaur Court at Crystal Palace, soon after the 1851 Great Exhibition moved to this new home. The great sculptures by Benjamin Hawkins, designed under Owen’s direction, soon became a major attraction – and we know that young Bertie Wells, living nearby in Bromley, visited them as a child. Indeed, he would later have the autobiographical hero of Kipps discuss his future with Ann ‘in the presence of the green and gold Labyrinthodon that looms so splendidly above the lake’ in the Dinosaur Court.


The Crystal Palace dinos have since been through ruin, revision and quite recent restoration. They’re once again a wonderful outing for youngsters, and surely also the visible manifestation of what Wells and Paul must have discussed and imagined that day back in October 1895. A full century before Jurassic Park.

Peering into the past

20190707_221713Last Sunday’s ‘Meet the curator’ show at Bruce Castle Museum was unexpectedly rewarding. A stream of visitors got a chance to peer through Stereoscopes – most for the first time – and into our replica Kinetoscope. Praxinoscopes and Phenakistiscopes where whirled (there were jokes in the 19c about everything being a ‘scope’ or ‘graph’), which worked well for young visitors. But the real surprise was how popular my little Polyorama Polyoptique proved (visible at bottom of the photo). This is my single most valuable historic artefact (one sold recently for $4500, though mine was cheaper!), dating from c. 1830, and is fragile and tricky to operate. But with help, both young and old managed to view the magical transitions from daylight to night that replicated the Diorama effect in portable form. I wish I could have recorded people’s admiring comments as they viewed, making the whole event really worthwhile. Talk about ‘practical media archaeology’ – this was optical magic with cardboard, tissue and daylight, minus any powerpoint!

The exhibition continues at Bruce Castle until 28 July, after which it moves to London Metropolitan Archives, opening on 2 September. But still to come at Bruce Castle are a screening of North London ‘local films’ (including Paul’s) on 19 July and a Reminiscence Cafe about local cinema memories on 23 July.

Family fun with Paul and Acres


Our first Family Workshop at Bruce Castle Museum yesterday. Kids and parents were busy making Thaumatropes and Praxinoscope discs before I brought a trial batch of DIY flipbooks (modelled on Henry Short’s Filoscope: see previous post), using 50 frames from Paul and Acres’ first great hit of 1895, Rough Sea at Dover. It turns out to be quite challenging, tearing out all the cards, then lining them up to sandwich in a bulldog clip. But when it works, the sea rolls in afresh – just as New York newspapers reported, after Edison used this film that Paul had sent him for his first Broadway show in 1896.

We’ve got another Victorian optical entertainments workshop session at Bruce Castle coming up on Sunday 7 July, for which I’ll do some new flipbooks, and bring  some of my  collection of stereoscopes and other devices. A calendar of other events during the run of the exhibition:

5 & 7 June: I’ll be at Bruce Castle both afternoons, showing guests the exhibition, and happy to meet other visitors

13 June  Panel at NECS Conference in Gdansk, Poland: ‘What if we could see early films in their original colour?’ I’ll be showing the experimental tinting of Paul’s Come Along Do as part of my presentation in a panel on Colour. https://necs.org/conference/cfp-2019/cfp-conference/

7 July     Workshop: Victorian optical entertainments: a chance to try them out! 1.30 pm

19 July   Screening: Looking at local films, from Paul onwards. 2 pm

23 July   Reminiscence Cafe at the Castle: Memories of ‘going to the pictures’, and how do we relate to local films? 2 pm

28 July  ‘Robert who?’ Presentation as part of Bristol’s amazing CineRedis festival. 1.30pm https://www.watershed.co.uk/whatson/9736/robert-who-rediscovering-britains-forgotten-film-pioneer/

That’s also the day the exhibition closes in Tottenham – before re-opening in a new format with extras at London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell on 2 September