Recently, a Victorianist, knowing of my interest in films and the 1890s, asked me in all innocence if I knew of any Victorian cinemas that survived. It is a question neatly indicative of the notions that exist about the reception and the social place of film, and of the anomalous position that film apparently holds for Victorian studies. There were no Victorian cinemas, in part because the films themselves were not of a length or of a complexity suitable for such a dedicated venue, but equally because they had yet to acquire their full share of social space. The misunderstanding therefore introduces the theme of this essay, which is how a motion picture industry arose in late nineteenth-century London, before there was any certain understanding of what that industry comprised. What was 'film' before it became 'cinema', and how can we look upon it as an 1890s phenomenon? And how, specifically, did such meanings arise out of the key territory that was London at the end of the Victorian era?1
Screen-based entertainments, such as the magic lantern, and motion picture toys which simulated motion, such as the Phenakistiscope, Thaumatrope and Zoetrope, were common features of mid- to late Victorian life. What led to the phenomenon eventually labelled as 'cinema' was the combination of the technologies of photography and the recreation of motion, resulting in an invention that produced a highly convincing means of depicting naturalistic action. Specifically, it was the availability of celluloid film that could be cut into strips for the purpose, which proved the ideal carrier for sequential photographic motion picture images. This then led to the machinery required to exhibit these celluloid strips, able to project the sequential images with an intermittency necessary for the illusion of motion. Our motion pictures, then as now, do not move. We see sequential series of still images projected at such a rate that they fuse in the brain, which then reconstitutes them in motion. The cinematograph has been described by the filmmaker Hollis Frampton, and subsequently by Ian Christie, as the 'last machine', the final mechanised product of the Victorian age before the age of systems that overtook it.2 We are still living with that machine. Digital technologies threaten to consign it finally to history, but for the time being we still go to the cinema to see motion pictures created by a strip of plastic having a strong light shone through it and run through a mechanism based on the stop-start principle of the sewing machine.3 In this technological sense alone, our cinema is still a Victorian cinema.
Motion picture films arrived in London at a quite specific time and place. The time was 17 October 1894; the place was no. 70 Oxford Street. The machine was the Kinetoscope, a peep-show viewer encased within a four-foot high wooden cabinet, with a single eyepiece with magnifying lens, where for twopence you could peer at a miniscule image depicting a minute's worth of film on a 46-foot loop. Ten such machines were on view. The producer was the Edison company of America, whose European agents Maguire & Baucus were behind this inaugural exhibition. The subjects included Blacksmith Shop, Cock Fight, Annabelle Serpentine Dance, The Bar Room, Carmencita, Wrestling Match and Barber Shop.4
Other such Kinetoscope parlours soon appeared around London; at least five were in business by November 1894.5 Such parlours were hasty shop conversions on short leases, designed to generate a quick return from a machine that was not expected to detain the interest of the metropolitan public for long. There was a clear parallel with the Phonograph, another Edison machine licensed out to subsidiary companies for short-term exploitation with quick returns, which was presented to its public in parlours and offered penny-in-the-slot private pleasures to the passing trade.
Over the next year, Kinetoscopes were exhibited all over London, and were the sole means by which motion pictures could be seen by the public. …