Henderson’s North of England Film Bureau

Recalling the early days of cinema in Newcastle, Kinematograph Weekly noted that in 1906 there was only one film renter in the city, and that was George Henderson.[1] As I discussed in an earlier post, Henderson was already almost 50 when he entered the film business, showing animated pictures as part of his temperance lantern lectures as early as 1896. Soon afterwards he began making his own topical ‘views’ to incorporate into his shows, and to sell to other peripatetic showmen. ‘It was not unusual for exhibitors to wait in queues for him to complete and deliver copies of his topical films, which were bought outright,’ Kineweekly tells us, and so ‘Henderson’s North East Film Bureau’ was born.

Henderson was not only a renter and sometime film-maker though. He took over a warehouse in the Groat Market which he and his son Jack soon converted into the ‘Royal Electric Theatre’, cutting out part of the ceiling of the ground floor to create a double height auditorium with a balcony, and installing a raked floor. It was reputedly one of only two cinemas in the city before 1909, the other being the Olympia in Northumberland Road run by Miss Maggie Appleby. As the Kineweekly remembers:

these two pioneers thought that there was barely room in Newcastle for two picture shows, and by a mutual compact they agreed that Mr Henderson should not bill his entertainment east of Grainger Street, whilst Miss Appleby, on her part, undertook not to bill her entertainment to the west of that line of demarcation.[1]

The arrangement couldn’t have lasted long, for the Olympia burned down in 1909 and Miss Appleby moved to the Star Picture House in Prudhoe Street. When the Olympia was rebuilt and reopened shortly afterwards it was under the management Linden Travers, another ex-showman lecturer and patriarch of a dynasty closely associated with cinema in the North East. The number of cinemas in the city was multiplying rapidly.

Henderson’s North of England Film Bureau was announced as a new venture in The Stage thus in 1907:

Showmen and hirers of films in the North of England will be glad to know of the North of England Film Bureau, 12 Pudding Chare, Newcastle on Tyne. This firm has agencies for the leading London manufacturers… This company buys, sells films, and lets them out on hire – in fact serves as a very useful medium between manufacturer and buyer.[3]

The announcement is striking for the way it effectively describes to the readers of The Stage what a film exchange is – ‘a very useful medium between manufacturer and buyer.’ It’s a reminder of just how new such an agency was in this period of transition. Previously showmen had been peripatetic (as Henderson himself had been). They bought their films outright from the manufacturers, and travelled around exhibiting them in venues hired for only a couple of nights at a time, relying on the same programme of attractions to appeal to each new audience in a new location. Now the managers of permanent cinemas (such as the Royal Electric Theatre) could no longer afford to buy films outright and show them repeatedly until they fell apart. Instead they needed a steady supply of new product to show to their loyally returning regular audiences. It made more sense to hire the films for a week or a few days at a time, and then hand them back to the agency in exchange for some fresh ones – preferably films new enough not to have been shown already by rivals.  It was precisely this demand for films to hire and exchange, on open or exclusive terms, that Henderson’s new bureau was poised to serve.

Irving House, premises of Henderson’s North of England Film Bureau in 1912
Irving House (left) and Bolbec Hall (right)

The business certainly thrived and grew. By 1912 it had outgrown the premises at Pudding Chare and moved to imposing offices at Irving House on Westgate Road (between the Literary and Philosophical Society and what until recently was the ‘Sleepez Hotel’).[4] George Henderson was still involved in the trade, attending the inaugural dinner of the Northern Division of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association for instance, and commenting in the trade press on issues of national importance to the industry such as the dispute with Pathe, but increasingly he took a back seat in the day to day running of the business, which was managed by his two sons James and Albert. The firm boasted itself as ‘the best service in the North’, and listed the output of Edison films and the Buffalo Bill series among the exclusives that it could supply, as well as ‘all British masterpieces’ such as The Old Curiosity Shop, The World the Flesh and the Devil, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. In May 1914 further expansion was announced with the opening of a branch office in Middlesborough (on Station Street).[5] From 1909 the company’s activities also included the production of local topicals, some speculative, and some made on commission. Mr Percy Longhorn joined the firm to oversee the production of such films, which appeared regularly until the outbreak of war.[6]

Two extensive Bioscope articles from May and July 1915 give a detailed picture of the range of the firm’s activities and offer a sense of what a regional film distribution office must have been like at this time. The articles were occasioned by a further expansion to the premises on Westgate Road, taking advantage of new offices which had been built next door in Bolbec Hall. The North of England film Bureau were able to knock through between the two buildings and thus have an expanded suite of offices. Visiting Irving House in May, the Bioscope correspondent commented that ‘The place was a veritable bee-hive of industry, and under the able direction of Mr Bert Henderson a considerable body of clerks had apparently quite sufficient on hand to engage their full attention.’ He looked forward to the opening of the expanded premises, when

In addition to securing more room for clerical work, and for the convenience of customers, in the shape of a waiting room, and so on, the extensions will provide a large show room for the exhibition of every requisite in the cinematograph line, from the longest exclusive films obtainable, to a lantern slide, with all the appurtenances thereto.[7]

The Bioscope correspondent returned a few months later, once the improvements had been completed, and found that:

The showroom is replete with machines in working order, amongst the specialities being the ‘Indomitable’ machine and the ‘Powers Cameragraph No. 6’. Visitors to the premises… have the opportunity of seeing both these machines in alternate use in the projecting room.

On the right of the large showroom is Mr Henderson’s private office, and a few steps bring one to the exhibition theatre. This is fitted up with cosy arm chairs and tables and nicely carpeted, and – what is not often met with in a private theatre – a piano. Next to the theatre is the poster department, the ramifications of which are such that it looks more like a miniature newspaper office, and keeps the two assistants very busily employed. Such is a brief description of the new premises, but exhibitors in the North are recommended to pay a visit of inspection on their own account. Trade shows, it may be mentioned, are given every day, and all are welcomed.[8]  

Henderson’s Showroom (from The Bioscope ‘The House of Henderson’ 8th July 1915

The firm did indeed service all the needs of the cinematograph trade, from the lowly magic lantern slide to the trade’s recent development: the ‘exclusive’ film. ‘Exclusives’ were prestigious films, which were rented out to exhibitors on special ‘exclusive’ terms, which ensured that nearby rival cinemas would not have access to them. This cutting edge development was something Henderson’s intended to specialise in, and the expansion of their premises was partly to accommodate the increased trade they anticipated from it. The old offices in Irving House would still deal in the old fashioned way on the ‘open market’ under the direction of Jack Henderson, but the new suite of rooms in Bolbec Hall under the direction of Bert Henderson, would be devoted to ‘exclusives’. ‘We intend to make a speciality of it’ Bert told the Bioscope, ‘There will be exhibitions every week, and we will notify all the managers as to the days on which we are showing.’[9]

Henderson’s Screening Room (from The Bioscope ‘The House of Henderson’ 8th July 1915) Notice the poster for Jane Shore on the right

Jane Shore illustrates well both the success of the ‘exclusive’ system, and its mechanics. An epic production by the standards of the period, the film was directed by Bert Haldane and F. Martin Thornton, and produced by William Barker. It was distributed from London by Walturdaw Ltd, but Henderson’s North of England Film Bureau had bought from them the rights to distribute it across the four counties of Northern England. Bert Henderson reported that ‘the film has had a remarkably brisk demand, and the satisfactory results which have attended its exhibition at the Queen’s Hall, Newcastle for the whole of the past week should do much to still further increase that demand.’ Henderson’s had only two copies of the film available. The first, claimed Bert, was ‘booked up continuously for about twenty towns until August 9th’, and the second was almost completely booked up, with only a few available dates remaining.[10] With only two copies of the film circulating across the entire North of England, it’s easy to see how the firm was able to control the films’ availability and ensure that there was no chance that it might play in more than one cinema at a time in any particular town. After August 9th the bureau’s exclusive rights to the film presumably would lapse, and thereafter it could be acquired on the open market by any showman, either from Henderson’s or from another distributor, or direct from Walturdaw. By that time, of course the film would have less drawing power, having already been on release for three months.

As well as supplying equipment and films, it seems likely that Henderson’s offered some training in the technicalities of film shows at Bolbec Hall too. As the First World War got under way, they boasted of training up lady projectionists to replace those who had enlisted for the front. Two women remained at Bolbec Hall as the house projectionists for trade shows, but they also appear to have sent out other qualified projectionists to cinemas in the town. An item in the Bioscope in November 1915 for instance notes that one such woman, a Miss Walker working at the Olympic, had the honour of being the first such figure in Newcastle.[11]

The War meant other changes too. Shifts in personnel occurred as staff members joined the colours or moved to other firms. Percy Longhorn had evidently left early in the war to go to Thanhouser, and when he enlisted in May 1917 the firm lost a second manager, George Besford, who went to Thanhouser to replace him.[12]  Late in 1918 the Bioscope reported on a novelty calendar being distributed by Henderson’s North of England Film Bureau:

A large picture of the Kaiser’s head adorns the front with a red, white and blue cord encircling the neck and forming a loop to hang the calendar up. In bold type the legend, ‘Hang the Kaiser Yourself’, and doubtless everyone will oblige with becoming alacrity. The inside is provided with a page for each month of 1919, with appropriate space for bookings and other notes, and the back is a calendar for 1920. It is intended for free distribution in the four northern counties, and exhibitors should make early application for a copy.[13]

Such marketing techniques imply increased competition, and indeed Henderson’s was no longer in the happy position of being the only distributors in town.[14] Thanouser, Pathe, Paramount and many other firms soon understood the importance of regional offices, and the competition for films was much fiercer. When they first moved into the exclusive market with Jane Shore in 1915 the exclusives the company were booming had mainly been British productions – Martin, Burlingham, Walturdaw were the names to conjour with. As British production began to fall behind American ones, perhaps Henderson’s offerings lost their lustre a little. Bert remained tireless in looking for new innovations in terms of equipment and he remained a central figure in the local Kinema Renter’s Society, but by 1923 the firm had removed from its luxurious home in Irving and Bolbec Houses, back to more modest attic premises in Bath Lane. The Bioscope made a virtue of this necessity, suggesting that Bert:

is still to be found in his office eighty-two steps up from the ground level in Bath Lane…  he has been studying astronomy, for he is handling such stars as….

…but the stars cited were perhaps less of a draw than the series of football films which the ‘old established renting house’ had recently gained a reputation for handling.

When old George Henderson died in 1928, the firm he founded was still operating, distributing comedies and short films as well as the occasional feature, although it was certainly no longer in its heyday, and after 1930 it would drop out of the record altogether. Nevertheless, he could boast three sons and a grandson all still working within the trade, as well as any number of other former employees who were situated in key roles throughout the country.

You can watch Jane Shore for free at the BFI player.

[1] Kinematograph Weekly 24/6/1926, p. iv.

[2] Kinematograph Weekly 14/1/1926, p. iv.

[3] The Stage 19/9/1907, p. 11.

[4] The Bioscope 29/8/1912: 62.

[5] The Bioscope 28/5/1914: 77.

[6] The Bioscope 17/6/1909: 21.

[7] The Bioscope 20/5/1915: 43.

[8] The Bioscope 8/7/1915: 208.

[9] The Bioscope 20/5/1915: 43.


[11] The Bioscope 25/11/1915: 103.

[12] The Bioscope 31/5/1917: 30.

[13] The Bioscope 14/11/1918: 104.

[14] Kinematograph Weekly suggests that by 1926 there were 27 renting houses in the city. 24/6/1926: 92

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