Birt Acres, ‘pioneer of the cinematograph’, 1854-1918

Birt Acres was born on 23 July 1854 in Richmond, Virginia. He died on 27 December 1918, 100 years ago today, in Whitechapel, London. For reasons I cannot explain, he is buried in a cemetery in Walthamstow, further out of the city, and just a few minutes away from where I live.

Birt Acres's grave in Walthamstow, east London
Birt Acres’s grave in Walthamstow, east London

The other day I took a stroll to Queens Road Cemetery, London E17 to take a look at Birt Acres’s grave. It may be hard to make out the lettering in this pictures, but beneath the caption “Peace”, it reads:

In

loving memory of

Birt Acres

1854-1918

A pioneer of the cinematograph

Acres was a pioneer all right – a massively important figure in the history of early British cinema. In 1894, when he was working as a photographer in Barnet, RW Paul sought his expertise on a project of his: the development of a motion picture camera. According to Paul, he rejected Acres’ design suggestions, but they continued to collaborate and Acres patented the new device, so it’s likely his contribution was actually significant. Together, in 1895, they filmed the “first successful motion picture film made in Britain”, outside Acres’s house, Clovelly Cottage in Barnet.

Frames from Incident at Clovelly Cottage, 1895. Filmed at Clovelly Cottage, 19 Park Road, Chipping Barnet
Frames from Incident at Clovelly Cottage, 1895. Filmed at Clovelly Cottage, 19 Park Road, Chipping Barnet

As Ian Christie, Stephen Herbert and Peter Domankiewicz have recently unearthed, you may be more familiar with Paul and Acres’s early film success than you think. Their early-hours celebration after making the Clovelly Cottage film was somehow appropriated by the Willian Friese-Greene biography, and dramatised in The Magic Box (1951). Acres was the camera operator for several more Paul-Acres films, including this famous short, Rough Sea at Dover, all intended to be shown in Kinetoscopes:

Acres soon moved from cinematography into projection, even presenting a film screening at Marlborough House in 1896. The film he showed there was not without his controversy, however: he was showing a film of the Prince and Princess of Wales that he had apparently shot by making a hole in a wall to film through. Scandalously, the film showed the Prince scratching his head.

Acres and Paul had another serious disagreement after the filming of the launch of HMS Albion. Paul’s camera caught the tragic accident at the launch in which a gantry collapsed, drowning several spectators. Acres felt it was indecent of Paul to screen the film for a paying public, and indeed refused to show his own footage. Was this one of the first big ethical debates in cinema history? Apparently, the boat Paul was filming on had saved a number of people – perhaps he felt that changed matters.

As time went on, Acres became increasingly dissatisfied with the commercial and entertainment use of cinema, disliking the idea of films being shown in music halls, and preferring educational use such as lectures.

In 1897, Acres invented the Birtac, a camera-projector for the amateur market – which could have brought about a small revolution in cinematography. It was not a commercial success, however, and Acres returned to his photographic work. The Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema entry for Acres, written by Richard Brown, sums up the end of Acres’s film career this way:

Serious-minded and a perfectionist, Birt Acres was a clever and inventive man, and far more committed to the future of film than most of his contemporaries; but he was perhaps temperamentally unsuited to life as an entrepreneur. Although connected with the film business until his death, his later years were not successful financially, and he became bankrupt in both 1909 and 1911.

For Michael Brooke at Screenonline,

In Acres and Paul, there were the two sides of the coin offered by the invention of cinema: high-minded science versus hard-nosed commerce. While Acres hid behind science as an excuse for his business failures, Paul was able to reconcile the two disciplines and establish a leading position in moving pictures in Britain.

Acres has joined a long list of almost-forgotten figures in early cinema history: the inventors, operators, innovators and showmen who were figuring out the uses and limits of a new medium and often struggling to make a living out of the unknown. Undoubtedly Acres’s memory suffers by comparison to names with greater longevity and fame such as Paul. How many people remember the name Birt Acres now? Among those who don’t subscribe to this blog, that is.

Birt Acres, c 1900
Birt Acres

It’s a good time to look again at early film history though: this can’t be the only house where a modern kinetoscope was unwrapped on Christmas Day. And it’s heartening to know that despite the decline of his film career, Birt Acres retains his well-deserved title of “pioneer of the cinematograph”, carved into stone.

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One thought on “Birt Acres, ‘pioneer of the cinematograph’, 1854-1918”

  1. I remain a Paul-ist, following the scholarship of the Barnes brothers. Certainly, the recent book by Brown and Anthony has revealed much new info on the early years of the Kinetoscope in Britain, but has provided little hard data to change my opinion that Paul was the senior figure in the brief Paul-Acres partnership.

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