Halfway along George Street in Hove there is an unassuming café called Georgie’s. Maybe you’ve been in there or wandered past as you visit the shops. But did you know that this café features in what could be described as Hove’s, possibly the world’s, first action movie?
At the turn of the twentieth century, local film maker James Williamson released ‘Fire!’ (1901), a simple but exciting story of the fire brigade rushing to rescue people from a burning house. However, the film itself was not simple. It is the earliest example of cutting from shot to shot to move the narrative of a film along, something which we take for granted today. Georgie’s café was originally the site of Hove fire station and you can still see the crest if you look up at the top of the façade. In ‘Fire!’ we see Hove’s horse-drawn fire engines being rapidly prepared outside the fire station and sent off to the burning house.
Today, 8 November, marks the anniversary of James Williamson’s birth. Williamson was actually born in Pathhead, near Kirkaldy, Fife in 1855. He spent his early years in Edinburgh before moving to London in 1868 and there becoming an apprentice to a pharmacist. He started his own pharmacy at Eastry in Kent, later relocating to Hove in 1886. Williamson was a keen amateur photographer and this, coupled with the photographic services his business offered, led to connections with other local men who also went on to become significant in the early history of film: George Albert Smith, Esme Collings, William Friese-Greene and Alfred Darling.
He began making films in 1897 and continued to produce them until 1909. In 1910 he sold his Hove studio and moved to London, transferring his business interests to the manufacture of film apparatus and equipment, as well as film processing. Williamson died of a heart attack at his home in Richmond, London on 18 August 1933.
In the early twentieth century, film was still in its infancy and Williamson was one of those whose experimentation led to techniques which are now considered standard in filmmaking. His ‘Attack on a China Mission’ (1900) uses shots from multiple angles to convey a sense of drama. Williamson is also credited with inventing the chase sequence which consisted of more than one shot, and I can’t help but think of the opening sequence in Boulting’s ‘Brighton Rock’ filmed all those years later on our local streets.
You can find out more about Williamson’s use of film techniques in Experimental Motion: the art of film innovation, the new display in Brighton Museum’s Spotlight Gallery which tells the story of experimental film-making in Brighton & Hove, from 1896 to the present day. Unknown to many, both Brighton and Hove have played a rich and important part in international film history. Early film-making pioneers including George Albert Smith and James Williamson, who became known as the Brighton School and worked here at the turn of the 20th century, while Modern and contemporary filmmakers and moving image artists – like Jeff Keen, Ben Wheatley and Ben Rivers – have cemented the city’s status as a hotbed of experimental film.
You can also visit the Film Galleries at Hove Museum. These galleries display some of the Williamson items from the Barnes Brothers Collection relating to the early film pioneers, as well as showing the films. The Barnes Collection forms a large part of the Media & Film collection.
The Royal Pavilion & Museums’ historic film and media collection reflects the seminal role that Brighton & Hove played in the birth of film-making in the 1890s and early 1900s. We were recently awarded funding from the John Ellerman Foundation Regional Museums & Galleries Fund to explore this further. Working with a wide range of partners including the University of Brighton, the Film Pioneers project will greatly improve the understanding and use of the collection, and reflect its connection to the important role film plays in the city today.