“Projector Fire – Young Operators Avert Panic”: ‘Projectionettes’ and Teenage Projectionists in Wartime

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http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/45482

Imagine walking down the street past this cinema, minding your own business, when suddenly a flaming reel of nitrate comes flying out of the upstairs window onto the pavement in front of you. This is exactly what could have happened in August 1943 at the Queen’s Picture House in Bolton, when a major incident was narrowly averted by the quick thinking of the young projectionists on duty. Here’s Kinematograph Weekly’s report of the incident (KW 19/08/1943):

Quick and courageous action by two youthful operators saved possible panic in a crowded kinema at Bolton on Tuesday, August 10th. The big film was just about to be screened at the final performance at the Queen’s when the reel flared up in the projector. The whole of the operating room was filled with smoke and flames, but the operators snapped down the fireproof shutters and confined the flames to the box. They hurled most of the blazing film into the street, and with the quick arrival of the National Fire Service, the fire in the box was extinguished. The operators, 19 year old George Garrod [Gerrard], Melville Street, Bolton, and 14 year old Raymond Crompton, Arnold Street, Bolton were badly burned about the face and hands. They were removed to Bolton Infirmary… what could have been a very nasty situation was saved by the resourcefulness of the operators, who faced up to it very bravely.

Another report from the Manchester Evening News (11/08/1943: 3) assures us that Crompton’s injuries were not serious, and that he was even able to make light of his close shave:

Sitting up swathed in bandages at his home in Arnold Street, Bolton today, 14 year old Raymond Crompton is convinced he has nine lives.

A few weeks ago he fell off a bus on to his head.

Not long after that a shot from an air-gun grazed his left eye.

Last night he was burned about the face, hand and arm while heroically fighting a fire in the projection box at a Bolton Cinema with 18 year old George Gerrard of Melville Street.

“Don’t worry” he told his mother when the ambulance brought him home. “This is nothing. I still have six lives left.”

It was because of these boys’ prompt action that a packed audience sat on in the cinema unaware of the flames which broke out in the projection box as George and Raymond, the two operators were about to screen Commandos Strike at Dawn.

This sort of incident wasn’t uncommon of course. As all film historians are aware, before the 1950s all film was made of highly inflammable nitrate stock and, as the comprehensive Navy instruction film This Film Is Dangerous! (1948) demonstrates, had to be handled with extreme care. Fires were frequent occurrences and it was the unacceptable loss of life in the early period that led in Britain to the 1909 Cinematograph Act and the start of cinema licencing.

Wartime ‘Manpower’ Problems

Less obvious, perhaps, is why the highly skilled and responsible job of projectionist at this cinema was left to a 14 year old and an 18 year old – to children in fact. A clue to the answer of course can be found in the date: by 1943 all available adult male projectionists had been called up to war service, and projectionist positions were increasingly difficult to fill with experienced staff. The manager of the Queen’s had in fact repeatedly advertised for projection staff throughout the previous two years, stipulating that ‘only competent men need apply’ in May 1941 (Liverpool Daily Post 25/5/41: 4) but later trying the less negative tack of offering ‘good wages for capable men’ in his adverts through June and July of 1942 (Manchester Evening News 23/6/42: 6).

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The confusion in the reports above as regards George Gerrard’s age (was he 18 or 19?) may not have simply been the result of sloppy copy-editing by the newspapers, since managers could be fined for allowing the ‘box’ to be left in the charge of anyone under 18. In November 1943 Louis Henry Bacon, the manager of the Palladium Beeston was fined £2 for just this crime. He’d had to pop out to post some letters, leaving his 17 year old ‘operator’ in sole charge of the projection room. (Kineweekly 18/11/43).

Projectionettes

It’s noticable how firmly the job advertisments for the Queen’s Cinema stipulate the need for ‘men’. Female projectionists, or ‘projectionettes’ as they were sometimes called, had been a feature of cinemas since the very earliest days, and as David Williams and Rebecca Harrison have respectively pointed out, their numbers increased massively during both the first and the second wars as they were drafted in to replace men.[1] As early as 12th March 1915 the London County Council received a letter from a Miss Emily Clements of Water Lane, Stratford East, arguing for the deployment of female projectionists. ‘May I suggest’, she wrote, ‘that a woman could act as a bioscope operator at a picture palace as well as a man…’ arguing that if this policy were adopted then it would free up numerous young men to go and fight. Clements was not merely speculating, as she assured the LCC, ‘I have been in an operating box and am convinced that with a little practice, I could do the work quite as satisfactorily as the average operator’. The letter survives in The National Archives, alongside the internal LCC memos and letters forwarding her idea to the Secretary of State which it generated.[2] They reveal a surprisingly sympathetic attitude in the corridors of power. The LCC noted that the 1909 act did not prohibit the employment of female operators, and that they could already be found in at least two cinemas in the area under its jurisdiction – the one at 94 Lambeth Walk [known as the British Bioscope and run by Agnes Emmeline Roche] , and at the Sydenham Rink Cinema, Silverdale, Sydenham. As they advised the Secretary of State on 10th May,

There does not appear to the Council any reason why women should not be able to acquire the requisite degree of knowledge and skill and in the circumstances the council is of opinion that no objection should be raised to the employment of competent cinematograph operators.

There remained two concerns however – firstly an anxiety about an ‘element of danger in use by women operators of such dress materials as cotton and flannelette’ which could act as a fire hazard in the projction box, expecially if they were in loose or flowing garments, and an objection bluntly stated in the hand written memo accompanying the LCC’s letter of recommendation as it circulated around Whitehall that ‘Women are more apt to lose their heads than men and cases have recurred when prompt action on the part of the operator has prevented serious consequences.’ The case of the Queen’s Bolton in 1943 reminds us that quick thinking and appropriate action were qualities all projectionists required, although there are no files in the archives worrying about the ability of teenage boys to ‘keep their heads.’

It’s interesting that despite the widespread use of female projectionists during the First World War, these exact anxieties recur when the question is raised again during the Second World War. In fact the two files reside together in the archive, as the civil servants of 1940 called up the previous papers to consult on the response of the previous generation. Again the question of whether women could ‘keep their heads’ was aired, and the Ministry of Labour went as far as to make laboratory tests of different fabrics and their relative flammability so that they could recommend appropriate dress for women to wear in the box. By 1943 though, such anxieties had been put aside, and women were well and truly in place at the projector.

Gaumont_Finchley

On 4th November Kineweekly carried a report about the North Finchley Gaumont, which had as many as four female projectionists in regular employment, and WR Fuller, the General Secretary of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association was openly advocating for more – as he told Kineweekly the training of female operators was a pressing need, and should be made a long term policy,

The duration of the war in Europe, the time it would take to shift everything out the the East and the conclusion in the Far East suggested that with the necessary Army of Occupation this country would probably have on military service at least 2½ million men for another four or five years. The desirability of training as many women as possible for projectionists was both a pressing and a long term need. (KW 5/8/43)

More Stuff on Projectionists

If you’re interested in issues around the projection box, I’d recommend the brilliant AHRC funded project on that theme hosted by Warwick University Film Studies Department. https://projectionproject.warwick.ac.uk/ There you’ll find loads of material on the changing lives of projectionists, including a number of interviews with veteran projectionists, and a special section on women in the box, which demonstrates that although many returned to more traditional roles, some women stayed on as projectionists throughout the post war period. You’ll also find a link to the special January 2018 number of the Journal of British Film and Television, which includes among other goodies, a thrillingly dweeby article about the schemes for training disabled ex-soldiers to be projectionists during the First World War.

Those interested in London silent cinemas will find it easy to lose a morning exploring Chris O’Rourke’s brilliant interactive map of London’s Silent Cinemas, and those gripped with cinemagoing in World War Two will enjoy Richard Farmer’s book, The Utility Dream Palace

[1] David Williams, ‘Ladies of the lamp: The employment of women in the British film trade during World War 1’ in Film History, Vol 9 (1997), pp. 116-127; Rebecca Harrison, ‘The coming of the projectionettes: women’s work and changing modes of spectatorship in British cinemas in the Second World War’ in Feminist Media Histories, Vol 2(2) (2016), pp. 47-70.

[2] Home Office Files 278232/15, The National Archives, Kew.

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