When you think of the history of film-making – pioneering techniques and a wealth of popular films – you probably think of the early Hollywood studios. The first film produced in Hollywood was in 1911 after several film makers moved there to escape complicated restrictions and patents on movie making in other parts of the US. From that point onwards, Hollywood attracted all those who were eager to make films and star in them and the rest is, as they say, history.
However, what you might not realise is that had it not been for the advent of World War I, things could have been very different. There was a small town in West Yorkshire that was making movies for some time before anyone in Hollywood made a film – Holmfirth.
(Above: Holmfirth in 2015)
Many people are surprised to learn that this small, picturesque Yorkshire town was potentially all set to be a rival to Hollywood in terms of film making expertise and volume of films produced at the turn of the 19th century.
James Bamforth was the name of the gentleman who started producing movies from as early as 1898. He had developed an interest in producing slide shows during the 1880s and consequently founded the company Bamforths and Co Ltd.
The slides used in these shows were called Magic Lantern Slides and they were used with an early form of a projector, accompanied by live music, as a form of entertainment. Such was James Bamforth’s expertise in this area that he was well-known as ‘The King Of The Lantern Slides’.
It seemed a natural progression for James Bamforth to move into film making. He was clearly inspired by what the French Lumiere Brothers had achieved just a few years earlier in 1894 – the world’s first motion film. In 1898 he set up a joint venture with another West Yorkshire company – Riley Brothers in Bradford who had been making films since 1896. The partnership lasted until 1900 and produced around 15 films, all of which drew on pioneering techniques. Indeed, some film historians suggest that James Bamforth was the first film maker to successfully edit a film for effect. This is illustrated in the film ‘A Kiss In The Tunnel’, dated 1898.
The joining of three lots of film – in this case, the train going into the tunnel, the scene inside of the carriage, and the train coming out of the tunnel – were ground-breaking in their day.
These films were of course silent but would have been accompanied by a pianist when shown in the theatre.
I find it amazing that this film footage still survives today. It gives us such a wonderful glimpse into the past and is amongst some of the earliest film footage remaining. Here is ‘Leapfrog’, another of the films produced by Bamforth’s partnership with the Riley Brothers in 1900.
I am unsure why Bamforth’s stopped producing films after 1900. From the early 1900s, James Bamforth decided instead to concentrate his efforts on producing postcards. The early to mid-1900s saw the UK gripped by postcard fever with thousands of picture postcards sent daily throughout the country. With around six post deliveries per day, postcards were the text messages of their day where you could reasonably post a card in the morning and expect a reply in the afternoon. Collecting postcards became an incredibly popular hobby and most homes would have a postcard album to display the most attractive cards they received. As a collector of postcards myself, I often find postcards with ‘Bamforths, Holmfirth’ printed on the reverse. Clearly Bamforths took a lion’s share of the postcard market and the cards printed in Homfirth were sent all over the world.
In 1913, Bamforths once again turned their attention to film making. Drawing on the expertise gained from previous films and other further advances made within the industry, Bamforths produced a large number of films – approximately fifty – throughout 1913-1915. This time a ‘production team’ was employed, and a director, Cecil Birch.
In the early days of film making, there was no such thing as film actors so Bamforths relied on local men and women who were happy to participate. Indeed, Bamforth’s films made stars out of some of the local men and women who agreed to act in their films. The local station master agreed for trains to depart and arrive to suit the filming requirements and even the local bank manager was happy for his bank to be used as the scene for robberies!
I love the idea that many of the local people appeared in these films. It must have been quite exciting to have something so new and ground-breaking going on right on your doorstep!
Sadly, production of films came to a halt in 1915 when Bamforths could no longer access many of the materials used to make film due to the financial and social effects of World War I.
The company continued to manufacture seaside postcards however until 1990. Nowadays, the part of the building with the ‘Bamforths & Co Ltd’ signage stands derelict. I have often passed this building and until recently I had no idea about the rich history of Bamforths film making. Our local towns and villages can hide such wonderful stories from the past that we might have no idea about… I have particularly enjoyed discovering more about Holmfirth – the Hollywood of England in 1900.
Thank you for reading x
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