The Mitchell and Kenyon film company was a pioneer of early commercial movies based in Blackburn in Lancashire, England at the start of the 20th century. They were hitherto best known for minor contributions to early fictional narrative film and fake Boer War films, but the discovery in 1994 of a hoard of film negatives led to restoration of the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection, the largest collection of early non-fiction films in the world giving a new and fresh view of Edwardian England and an important resource for historians.
Following on from the first motion picture, made in 1891 by Thomas Edison's employee W.K. Dickson in the USA, the first showing to a paying audience was by Auguste and Louis Lumière of France, in Paris in 1895 and in London the following year, featuring La sortie des usines Lumière showing workers leaving their factory gates in Lyon. Others in France and Britain soon made films, some in "the factory-gate film" genre, and when Mitchell and Kenyon came together they found themselves ideally placed in the heart of the industrial North of England. People were excited at the opportunity of seeing themselves on film, and there were commercial opportunities for short films featuring as many local people as possible.
"We take them and make them."
Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon founded the firm of Mitchell and Kenyon in 1897. Under the trade name of Norden, the company was one of the largest film producers in the United Kingdom in the 1900s, with the slogans of "Local Films" and "We take them and make them", and premises at 21 King Street and 40 Northgate, Blackburn.
The first reported showing of a Mitchell and Kenyon film was a film of Blackburn Market, shown at the company's premises at 40 Northgate, in Blackburn, on 27 November 1897. The company produced films either on their own initiative or as commissioned by local businesses. In April 1899 the travelling showman George Green commissioned them to film workers leaving local factories, to be shown at the Easter fair, thus beginning the showing of their films by a network of showmen.
Three Norden fiction films released in September 1899, The Tramp's Surprise, The Tramps and the Artist, and Kidnapping by Indians brought them to national attention. In September 1901 they expanded from Mitchell's photographic shop into larger premises round the corner. Fiction production was not as extensive as their production of topicals, but by 1903 the company had an outdoor studio at its premises at 22 Clayton Street, Blackburn, which was used in addition to outside locations. The Cinema Museum in London currently preserves 65 Norden fiction films.
The showmen became self-publicising travelling cinematograph operators. Films taken during the day were shown on the same evening in fairground tents or local meeting halls and music halls with slogans like "see yourselves as others see you". Dramas took a while to catch on and the non-fiction actuality films were more popular. A typical 2 hour programme would show drama, comedy, live actors and then the main attraction, local "topicals", with a brass band and the showman's commentary during the silent films, plus occasional sound effects from guns and members of the audience paid to scream and faint to add to the excitement.
As well as workers streaming out of factory gates, Mitchell and Kenyon filmed street scenes, parades, marches, walking out on Sunday and the fairgrounds themselves. Charmingly, as the crowds pass by there are usually a few who come up and stare or wave at the camera, in a way that nowadays annoys news presenters. The street scenes are busy with pedestrians wandering across in front of the slow horse drawn carts and trams, some horse drawn as well as the new electric trams, and Mitchell and Kenyon added variety by filming from moving trams. Bicycles abound, and they also showed the novel rarity, a motor car. Warships and steamboats are shown, and at Liverpool docks emigrants are shown boarding ships such as the Cunarder RMS Saxonia bound for Boston, the films having been developed on the same day for relatives to see that night.
Workers now had one weeks holiday each year, and films were made in the thriving holiday resorts including Blackpool and Morecambe Bay. Leisure activities shown include boating on rivers, promenading in pleasure gardens and rolling Easter eggs.
The parades and processions include carnivals with participants blacking up and doing golliwog dance routines, and men dressed as Dutch men and women doing a clog dance. Others show religious processions, suffragette demonstrations and marches, and Temperance marches featuring their children's section, The Band of Hope. Military marches and parades were featured, as well as marches by the Boys' Brigade and Scouts.
News and re-enactments
The outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa in October 1899 brought new business opportunities to the company — it turned its attention to the production of war films. Troops were shown marching off to join the war or coming back from the front, past flag waving spectators. Crowds were shown greeting war heroes, one of whom was shown being interviewed by a showman: at the showings, a showman would do a voice over to the silent film.
Fictionalised scenes from the South African war and the Boxer Rebellion were filmed in the countryside around Blackburn. These are described as fakes, but the audiences may well have accepted them as dramatic re-enactments. Showings were enlivened by smoke bombs and guns being fired.
Mitchell and Kenyon's most innovative film was The Arrest of Goudie in 1901, which is arguably the world's first filmed crime reconstruction — the film incorporates the actual crime locations and depicts the arrest of Thomas Goudie, a Bank of Liverpool employee who embezzled £170,000 to pay off his gambling debts. The film was shown at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool only three days after Goudie's arrest.
The recent introduction of Saturday afternoons off work had made sporting events into popular mass entertainment. Mitchell and Kenyon filmed these events, taking care to get as many spectators in as possible as well as showing some of the action. They took the first known film of the newly-renamed Manchester United, at the match they played on 6 December 1902 against Burnley — the film was to have been shown that evening at the Burnley Mechanics' Institute, but the showing was cancelled as Burnley lost 2-0, and the film was never shown until its recent rediscovery. A football match filmed in September 1902 featured Fatty Foulkes, the original of Who Ate All the Pies?. They also filmed possibly the first football injury to be captured on film, when an Irish striker struck the goalpost in the Wales versus Ireland international match at Wrexham in 1906.
Rugby and cricket matches were also featured, and when A D Thomas, who styled himself "the picture king, the master mind of the world", heard of a cricketing scandal where the respected Lancashire bowler Arthur Mold was repeatedly given no ball by the umpire, he promptly commissioned a filmed re-enactment of Mold's bowling to prove that his tecnique was valid — the first action replay, which was a popular success.
Other films featured rowing events, horse trotting, athletics, cycle races and motor tricycle races.
As early as 1900 some fiction films included slapstick comedy with blundering policemen, in anticipation of the Keystone Kops and Charlie Chaplin more than a decade later. Diving Lucy of 1903 showed a lady's legs sticking up out of a pond in Blackburn's Queen's Park, and rescuers setting up a plank which a tubby policeman goes out on only to find it a hoax, at which the others let go and he falls in the water. It was an international success, in France and the US where it was billed as "the hit British comedy of the year".
To enliven some street scenes the showmen arranged for mock fights or hosing down a spectator, and slapstick was added to park scenes with male actors dressed as women falling off a donkey or in the water from a boat, revealing their petticoats under the long skirts of the time.
By 1910 the taste of audiences for seeing themselves was fading, and more structured films were coming into vogue. From around 1909 Mitchell and Kenyon seem to have restricted their activities to the Blackburn area. Their last surviving films are from the 1911—1913 period, although the company continued to be listed under both men's ownership until 1915 when James Kenyon retired to Southport and Sagar Mitchell turned back to portrait photography. The partnership was formally dissolved in 1922
Discovery and restoration of the Collection
In 1994 during demolition work in what had been Mercers shop in Northgate, Blackburn, two workmen were clearing out the basement when they found three metal drums like milk churns, and looked inside to see hundreds of small spools of film. On their way to the Lethbridges Scrap Metal Processors was Magic Moments Video which did cine to video transfers, and the workmen dragged in a churn and asked the proprietor Nigel Garth Gregory if the films were of any value.
Gregory had already met local businessman and historian Peter Worden, and knowing of his interest phoned up and offered to arrange for the drums to be delivered to him on the basis that the films go to the North West Films Archive for the Public Domain. After some negotiations over price this was done.
The Peter Worden Collection of Mitchell and Kenyon Films has now been preserved by staff at British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive, carefully storing the dangerously inflammable 35mm nitrate negatives. Painstaking film preservation techniques were used to produce remarkably clean and scratch free positives, adjusting the speed to smooth out the variations in these hand-cranked films. The results are fresh and natural, offering an unparalleled social record of early 20th Century British life.
The University of Sheffield's National Fairground Archive and the British Film Institute were awarded a three year research grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Board to research, identify and contextualise the 800 plus films. This has culminated in a collection of essays The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Britain on Film, edited by Vanessa Toulmin, Simon Popple and Patrick Russell and published by the bfi in October 2004 (ISBN 1844570460, paperback, ISBN 1844570479, hardback). Other releases will include a annotated filmography and a DVD of highlights from the Collection in 2005.
A prime-time three-part series The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon was shown on the BBC in January 2005 with enthusiastic commentary by historian Dan Cruickshank and interviews with descendants of people shown in the films, and is available on DVD from the BBC or the bfi.
- Mitchell & Kenyon archive (http://www.shef.ac.uk/nfa/mitchell_and_kenyon/index.php)
- Mitchell & Kenyon (http://www.bfi.org.uk/collections/mk/) at the British Film Institute
- Guardian Unlimited | Features | The Lost World (http://film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,4120,1384840,00.html)
- bfi Video: The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon (DVD) (http://www.bfi.org.uk/videocat/more/mitchellandkenyon/)
- Nigel Gregory on finding Mitchell and Kenyon films (http://homepage.ntlworld.com/nigelgregory/mitchell_and_kenyon_films.htm)
- The Latest Industry News (restoring the films) (http://www.4rfv.co.uk/industrynews.asp?ID=37044)