Robert Paul was a Londoner. Born in Highbury, he attended the City of London School, newly based on the Embankment, and established his instrument-making business in Hatton Garden in the early 1890s – before film swept him into a new parallel career. And London inevitably provided his first subjects, not only because he had grown up with them all around him, but also because there was a ready market for London sights, around >Britain and further afield. At least twenty of the first fifty film that Paul made in 1895-6 would have been recognisable as London-based.
Most are currently lost (like 90% of Paul’s catalogue of around 800 titles), which leaves a major gap in what could have been a unique record of late Victorian London. What if we had a goods train entering Highgate Tunnel, or a shoeblack at work on a city street, or a view of the Nelson Dry Dock at Rotherhithe, all from the end of ’95 and start of ’96? Or two films of the celebrated Alhambra Music Hall dancers, one of whom was Paul’s wife-to-be, Ellen?
Fortunately, one of the 1896 London scenes has survived, and in excellent condition. Traffic on Blackfriars Bridge dates from June, and an early advertisement noted its ‘beautiful detail’. It is indeed one of the most evocative of all early London views, shot diagonally from the south bank, with the neo-gothic roof of Paul’s old school just visible on the northern embankment (today this is J. P. Morgan’s London headquarters, rumoured to house a bullion cache). The traffic on the bridge is entirely horse-drawn, hansoms and omnibuses, while the passers-by are a fascinating cross-section of Londoners, from the toffs who smile confidently towards the camera to the elderly man who gives it a lingering look, and the boy who never looks up from reading his newspaper.
Visiting the London Transport Museum last weekend, I kept expecting to find Blackfriars Bridge on show, for its vivid transport record. No such luck. But surrounded by the museum’s wonderful imagery of the 19th and 20th century city, I was reminded of one of Paul’s sidelines, showing just how engaged he was with his milieu. In 1901 he published a free ‘folding card’ entitled What to photograph in London, which detailed six ingenious itineraries that would take the ‘visitor in a hurry’ around all the major sights of the city, with advice on how best to photograph them. In fact, users would have needed not to be in too much of a hurry, as each of these routes was reckoned to take a day, ‘according to the zeal of the amateur’.
The full contents of Paul’s photographic guide, illustrated with some fine vintage postcards and the film, are available on Roland-Francois Lack’s superb Cine-Tourist site: https://www.thecinetourist.net/robert-paul-in-london-tour-guide-and-film-maker.html