The forgotten story of Yorkshire’s part in the birth of cinema

His name has been all but erased from history, yet Robert Paul was once a big name in the movies. A pioneer considered by some to be the inventor of cinema in Britain, he may also have inadvertently created one of its least endearing offshoots.

National Science and Media Museum official Katie Canning with Robert Paul's Theatrograph projector from the 1890's. Picture by Simon Hulme
National Science and Media Museum official Katie Canning with Robert Paul's Theatrograph projector from the 1890's. Picture by Simon Hulme

Knocking off unlicensed copies of kinetoscope machines produced by Thomas Edison himself, Paul was perhaps the first video pirate.

His fallout with Edison, as the Victorian era drew to a close, set the template for a century of “creative disputes” that followed.

Paul was out of the business before the First World War, but his contribution to early filmmaking, and his influence on audiences in Yorkshire, is being pieced together for a new exhibition in the county.

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    Robert Paul

    “When Edison discovered that Paul was making replicas of his equipment, he was not very pleased about it,” said Toni Booth, curator of film at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

    “He cut off the supply of films to Paul and anyone else using his replicas. When Paul asked him if they could do business together, Edison didn’t want to know.”

    Ms Booth is behind the four-month exhibition, The Forgotten Showman – How Robert Paul Invented British Cinema, at the museum from November 22. She points out that her subject, a Londoner, was not breaking the law in copying kinetoscopes, since the litigious Edison had uncharacteristically neglected to take out a patent in Britain.

    “It was a very strange affair,” she said. “People literally came knocking at Paul’s door asking him to make them copies of the machines. He was pirating the hardware but not the software.”

    National Science and media Museum collections assistant Kendra Bean with a poster for the Animatograph c 1897. Picture by Simon Hulme

    Denied content from Edison, Paul went to off make films of his own. He shot the Epson Derby and the university boat race, but his pièce de résistance was the parade that attended Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 – and it was there that a chapter in Bradford’s own early film history was being written.

    Alongside him in the pen that held the licensed photographers was Richard Appleton, owner of a family film and magic lantern business on Manningham Lane, Appletons of Bradford. As soon as the parade was over, Appleton got on a train home and developed his footage en route, ready to be projected on to a bedsheet strung between two lampposts for the entertainment of enthusiastic crowds in the city centre. It was the first time anyone who wasn’t there, had seen it.

    “It’s easy to forget that this was a new and exciting time,” said Ms Booth. “People look back at historical moments and see old men with long white beards. But at that point, they were just young men, trying to get into a new industry.”

    Paul’s lost legacy is partly of his own making, she said. When he withdrew from filmmaking, to concentrate on his engineering business, he destroyed most of his negatives.

    “He was one of the great innovators and he was in there at the very beginning, so it’s a good question why we don’t know his name in the way that people in France know of the Lumière Brothers. It doesn’t help that many of his films no longer exist.”