Here is George Henderson: The North East’s Film Pioneer

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Here is George Henderson. See how he stands triumphantly atop the Red Lion pub sign, which has been dashed to the ground and lies shattered beneath his feet? In its place he has erected the sign of an alternative recreational pleasure – sober, rational and aspirational – the Picture Theatre. His mortar board and academic gown confer on him the status of an educator, a bringer of enlightenment. He is the foremost cinema pioneer of the North East of England.

The cartoon appeared in the Bioscope on the 12th January 1911, as part of its ‘picture personalities’ series. By that time, Henderson’s firm had interests in many branches of the film business. He and his sons ran a number of picture theatres in the North East, but also through the ‘North of England Film Bureau’ they were the key agents and distributors of film across the ‘Four Northern Counties’ region. From their head offices in Newcastle they supplied not just films, but all manner of cinema equipment from posters to theatre seating, to projectors. Henderson’s also made films – although this appears to have been more of an occasional activity. There are a variety of surviving views which seem to have been shot by Henderson himself around 1898, and then a rich series of local topicals produced by others in the firm from 1909 until the start of the first world war. Hendersons’ film-making was not on the scale of the more famous North West firm Mitchell and Kenyon, but it nevertheless provides a similarly fascinating insight into the life of the North East in the early years of the C20th. Several of the films are held at the BFI Archives and are available on the BFI Player, and a further collection of material from Henderson’s forms part of the Associated Press Movietone collection.

Henderson was already pushing fifty by the time cinema was invented. He was born in 1848 in Kelloe, a mining village in County Durham. As a lad he worked in the colliery and then later as a check-weighman and miners’ secretary.[1] He was still working in the pit when he was married at the local Wesleyan Chapel in 1871 aged 23. It isn’t clear at what stage of his life he turned away from mining and became a travelling lecturer and magic lantern showman, but by the 1890s he was well established in this trade, supporting a wife and two or three sons who would soon enter into business with him. As the Bioscope’s sketch suggests, Henderson’s motives were not solely about entertaining his audiences. His magic lantern lectures were always based around a Temperance theme, and the strict adherence to sober Methodist principles is a strong undertow in many of the newspaper reports about him.[2] It was as part of such a show at the Temperance Hall in Stockton that he first presented moving pictures in 1896, only a few weeks after the Lumieres’ first demonstration of the cinema in England. He must have started making films shortly after this, if one can rely on the claim of a later article that he was ‘probably the first in the North, if not in the whole country, to make topical films.’[3] Another source suggests that among the films he made in this period were one ‘showing the operation of the first mechanical furnace charger at Stockton, the launch of the Mauretania in 1907 and Queen Victoria’s funeral procession.’ Several others are attributed to him from the early period and you’ll find a list of links to these at the end of this post.

After Thirty Years

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Here is George Henderson. He is demonstrating an early projector. See how there is no take-up spool? The film just dropped down loose into a basket in this early period, and it may be as part of a lecture on the associated health and safety risks that this demonstration film is being made. Henderson demonstrates the action of projecting – turning the handle with his right hand so that the film moves through the machine, and falls out of the mechanism to the floor. With his left hand he indicates the run-off film, touching it and then seeming to hoist it up and tear a section off – the actual action of this is hidden by a jump-cut. When the film resumes he has the length of nitrate clamped into a heavy pair of pliers, which he holds in his left hand. With his right hand he (somewhat alarmingly) strikes a match on the projector stand itself, and lights the strip of nitrate, holding it aloft to demonstrate how vigorously it burns. It is 1898. He is fifty years old. He seems as vigorous as the burning nitrate. His movements are decisive, assured. With his trim beard and his little round spectacles he shows the charisma that made him a successful lecturer. He is clearly enjoying demonstrating the projector – a product which presumably he is planning to sell to potential showmen in the North East with the help of this film. An account in the Bioscope from 1928 describes how it got made:

Some thirty years ago George Henderson called at a small office in Cecil Court, run by a youth named Bromhead, who had just taken up an agency for Cecil M. Hepworth of Walton-on-Thames. He wished to have himself filmed for the purposes of a lecture. A. C. Bromhead duly conducted him to Walton, where Hepworth took the necessary picture in his garden, subsequently developing it in his bathroom… A few months ago George Henderson, A. C. (now Colonel) Bromhead and C. M. Hepworth met again at Gaumont’s London studio, where their reunion was filmed on the suggestion of James Henderson for inclusion in a unique pictorial record of his father’s career.[4]

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Here is George Henderson after thirty years. See how his hair and beard now are white, the forth and fifth fingers of his hand fold back into the palm in a Dupuytren’s contracture? His eyebrows have the tufty fluffiness characteristic of old men. The charisma is still there though. He is eighty years old. This of course is the follow up film of 1928 mentioned in the Bioscope. He inspects the projector curiously, trying the handle with a certain disinterest before smiling and beckoning Bromhead into the frame to query a detail about the Maltese cross and its movement. Hepworth joins them, and all three men – titans of the early cinema in Britain – cluster round and inspect the projector, a ‘relic of earlier days’ as the Bioscope described it. With his dark hair, little moustache and round glasses, Hepworth is a familiar figure of course. He is known to every undergraduate who has ever studied early cinema for his classic Rescued by Rover (1905) and earlier works like How it Feels to Be Run Over (1900). His first films were actually made in 1898, the same year as the earlier shots of Henderson, but that film doesn’t appear in any of the standard British filmographies such as Gifford or the BFI Database. Perhaps that means I can claim to have rediscovered a ‘lost’ Cecil Hepworth film? The earliest surviving Hepworth film in fact, if it IS from 1898 as the Bioscope suggests. Go me. But as a private commission it wouldn’t have appeared in any catalogues or been sold to anyone else, so perhaps it doesn’t count.[5] The men cluster around the tiny, naked looking projector and discuss it animatedly. Eventually a camera reframing allows Bromhead to draw their attention to another projector – a large modern machine with a handsomely boxed in lamp house and spools top and bottom. He demonstrates the movement while Hepworth and Henderson look on admiringly.

Bromhead and Hepworth would have been in their early twenties when Henderson rocked up to Cecil Court in 1898 to commission a film from them. He was 50. Thirty years later they are around the age he was then. We tend to imagine the early film pioneers as a generation of young men. Hepworth, indeed was only 21 when cinema was invented in 1895, and R. W. Paul was 26. Those ages flatter the old fashioned narrative of a youthful medium heralding a new age of modernity. But other pioneers were well into their middle years –William Haggar, James Williamson and George Henderson were in their forties, and James Bamforth was over 50. Those men already had established careers, and for many of them cinema was simply a new development along an already established trajectory, or a brief diversification of their main business.

Here is George Henderson. He was one of the very first people to make and show films in the North East of England. He started showing films as a development of his temperance lectures and magic lantern shows. He established a business in exhibition, and diversified into film renting, equipment sales, and topical film production. He was a founder member of what later became the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association. When he died in 1928 – only a few months after After Thirty Years was made – he left a thriving business, as well as three sons and a grandson who were themselves well established in the film business of the North East. And the films. In later posts, I’ll talk about the films, but for now here’s a taster of some of the earliest ones.

[NB My thanks to Jenny Hammerton of the AP Movietone archive for alerting to their Henderson collection, and thus giving me something to do while cooped up at home. And also to Neil Brand who sat 2m away in the park last night and persuaded me over a bottle of wine to make the outrageous claims above. Thanks too to Bryony Dixon of the BFI who has suggested that the Hepworth film of Henderson demonstrating the flammability of nitrate could be a response to the Paris fire, and the impending safety regulations which were implemented in consequence]


NB Not all of these attributions are certain. They appear in the Henderson’s collection at AP Movietone, and some appear in other collections (noted). So they may have come into the collection because they were films he showed in the early period rather than films that he made (but where a more positive attribution can be made, that is noted). I’ve linked to Movietone’s youtube versions as the default, but often for those in the UK the better version is that available on the BFI Player which is linked where available.

Several more of Henderson’s later films are held in the BFI and are also available on BFI Player and I will discuss these in further posts.


Also in BFI catalogue. BFI Playerattributes this to Henderson but suggests it may be later than 1896 (people covering their faces from the camera is offered as evidence)


Later title: ‘Sunderland Old Bridge showing old Rocking Horse Trams. Taken in 1896’. [Bioscope obituary suggests Henderson was showing films in 1896 but didn’t found the company until 1897 so this may be one of his early buy-ins?] Not in BFI or NEFA.


Seems likely although no evidence it is Henderson’s other than a similar camera position to ‘Sunderland 1896’ on Bridge. Horses have black plumes. Not listed in BFI catalogue


Versions also online from NEFA, BFI and Huntleys. This is one of the longest. NEFA suggests George Henderson as the film-maker. NEFA catalogue quotes Geoff Mellor who suggests that Henderson had a particular interest in steam trams. “Mellor states that Henderson – a filmmaker and exhibitor not mentioned in other sources – took moving pictures of steam trams, and that this was one of the few documented films made outdoors from 1896 (his book is called Movie Makers and Picture Palaces)

However, the catalogue entry for the film at BFI says John Barnes 2002 suggests it’s a Mitchell & Kenyon film.


BFI Player description suggests possibility it could be by G Henderson, or that it could be just part of his early collection.


Also in BFI catalogue and on BFI Player. BFI Catalogue citesmention of the film in The Northern Echo 3 April 1930 corroborating identity of dignitaries.


A version of this exists on BFI Player but without the second shot showing the flying boats. There’s also a rather fine Gaumont film on the NEFA from 1912. Is this one from 1912?


Scenes at pavilion. Coming off the course and at the water jump. No titles. Not in NEFA


From the dogger bank incident in Hull. Not anywhere else. Worth looking up. October 24th 1904.


According to BFI Player ‘These unedited shots of the 1912 Gosforth Park races may have been filmed by George Henderson of Stockton, who seems to have been connected to the local landowner, the Marquis of Londonderry’

[1] ‘A Durham Veteran’ in Kinematograph Weekly, 11/10/1928:46.

[2] ‘Aged Miner’s Homes’ in Northern Daily Mail, 8/12/1913:5: ‘Film Pioneer’s Golden Wedding’ in the Bioscope, 7/7/1921:10.

[3] ‘Veteran Passes’ in Kinematograph Weekly, 25/10/1928:27.

[4] ‘Speaking Personally’ in the Bioscope 17/10/1928: 24.

[5] This is a provocation of course. The film doesn’t appear in any lists that I know of, but its date of 1898 is debatable. Henderson could have found Hepworth selling cameras from 22 Cecil Court until March in that year. The villa at Walton was also rented in that year, according to Simon Brown, although he doesn’t give an exact date. Of course there could have been a lapse of months between the meeting agreeing to make the film in Cecil Court and the actual filming in Walton. John Barnes places A. C. Bromhead in Cecil Court in 1898 too, although as an agent for Gaumont, rather than for Hepworth. Perhaps readers will be able to verify or explode the Biograph’s account. Simon Brown, Cecil Hepworth and the Rise of the British Film Industry, 1899-1911 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2016), p. 21-22; John Barnes, The Beginnings of Cinema in Britain, Volume 4 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996), p. 127.

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