Searching for Silent London: 10 highlights from the Britain on Film archive

Covent Garden Porters (1929)
Covent Garden Porters (1929)

Attention amateur historians and nostalgic souls. The BFI has launched its Britain on Film project on the BFIPlayer, comprising around 2,5000 pieces of archive footage. It’s an incredibly easy way to lose an entire afternoon, or more of your life. But fascinating too. Simply type in a location, a decade or a subject, and the BFIplayer will throw some digitised (and contextualised) film right back at you.

I learned a lot about the fashions on sale in the local Co-Op in my hometown in the 1930s, and the story of how my High School came to have a swimming pool in the 1950s (sadly it had long since been filled in before I started there). Moving to my hood in London, I was offered footage of former local MP Clement Attlee talking about William Morris and socialism in the town hall. Not a bad selection at all.

So what of “Silent London”? At this link, you can find all the footage labelled “London” from 1890-1930 in the Britain on Film archive. That comes to 232 films, ranging in length from a few seconds up, but still more than a mouthful, even for someone as greedy as me.

But I did have a poke around, and I do already have a few favourites. Here are ten to try:

Animated Polltics (1910) 

British politics as it has ever been, it seems: the candidates thrash out the issues and them as is in power (here home secretary Winston Churchill) swan about serenely in top hats.

Wounded at Kew (1915)

Heartening or haunting, depending on how fragile you are feeling: wounded soldiers from the Great War are entertained with tea and croquet in Kew.

The Lure of Drink (1915) 

Directed by A E Coleby, this is a product of the first Ealing Studios, and W5 locals will enjoy the location shooting. The Lure of Drink is a shockingly effective temperance drama, pulsing with unexpected violence. Watch out for the intertitle: “Under the guide of friendship, Kate awakens Ned’s dormant demon”.

Women’s March through London (1915)

Our feminist forebears are marching, not for the vote, but for the right to join the war effort: “Mobilize the brains and energy of women” runs the banner. Perversely, footage of (male, of course) soldiers trooping into Buckingham Palace has been spliced on the end. The chaps are watched by a rather bored-looking policeman.

Even the Babies Go on Strike (1921) 

Silent film star Violet Hopson is the judge at Willesden’s “Healthiest Baby Show”. That doesn’t stop the little blighters squawking though, does it?

‘In the Summer-time It’s Lovely’ (1923)

Ah, the great British weather, brave swimmers shiver at Chiswick Lido in “Arctic April”. Time for a nice cup of tea.

London After Dark (1926)

Snippets of London nightlife from Harry Parkinson, featuring Tod Slaughter on stage at the Elephant Theatre on the New Kent Road. After the show, there’s a visit to the “‘Ritz’ of the needy”, a nearby homeless shelter, and footage of local rough sleepers. Our night on the town finishes, naturally, with a high-stakes whist drive in Camberwell.

World’s Greatest Gasworks (1926)

In this Topical Budget, the King and Queen arrive in Beckton to open this giant gas plant – later to be used as a filming location for everything from Full Metal Jacket to For Your Eyes Only and an Oasis video, then subsequently demolished.

Cat and Dog Life, Alexandra Palace and Crystal Palace (1928)

Gratuitous fluff maybe, but that’s what the internet is for, right? Footage of animal shows at the two palaces, including such treats as kittens in a basket, and a tiny dog and a big, big dog nuzzling up together. I am a big fan of the dalmatians – they’ve got real personality.

Covent Garden Porters (1929)

Can you stroll along carrying 20 baskets stacked on your head? While smoking a pipe? Jim Sainsbury can., with a couple in his hands for luck. Stunning shots here – this may be the best of the lot

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