When Muswell Hill became 'Hollywood on the Hill'

Walter Robert Booth in a film by Muswell Hill cinema pioneer Robert Paul

Walter Robert Booth in a film by Muswell Hill cinema pioneer Robert Paul - Credit: Supplied

The decade when early cinema pioneers Robert and Ellen Paul ran Britain's first purpose-built film studios in Muswell Hill is explored in a new exhibition.

The Lost World of Paul's Animatograph Works runs at Hornsey Library's Original Gallery throughout February, curated by film scholar Professor Ian Christie, who has done much to recover their forgotten history.

He estimates that at the height of production in the early 1900s, the Pauls employed up to 50 people at their Sydney Road base, with filming often spilling out onto local streets, the grounds of Alexandra Palace, or Muswell Hill Golf Course where they staged battlefield reenactments.

Robert W Paul filim pioneer who lived in Sydney Road, Muswell Hill

Robert W Paul filim pioneer who lived in Sydney Road, Muswell Hill - Credit: Archant

An engineer and instrument maker, Paul was in at the birth of British cinema, making a version of Edison's Kinetograph, co-inventing a 35mm film camera, and demonstrating the Theatograph, "Britain's first film projector", at Finsbury Technical College on Feb 20, 1896 – the same day the Lumiere Brothers first showed their films in London.

He started producing films, and wanting "to take subjects on a more ambitious scale", bought a four acre plot on Sydney Road where he built the Animatograph Works studio, including a stage with sliding doors, glass roof and a trolley on rails for the camera.

"There's still so much we don't know about how this operated but I think we can be sure that Ellen was very much involved in managing it, which makes her one of the 'women in silent film' who needs to be brought out of the shadows and given her credit," says Christie.

One of the few surviving shots from Robert Paul's film Come Along Do!

One of the few surviving shots from Robert Paul's film Come Along Do! - Credit: Courtesy of Ian Christie

Between 1898 and 1909 "Hollywood on the Hill" created around 800 films of wide-ranging genres, many technically and dramatically groundbreaking with optical effects, close ups and cuts. Sadly most are lost, but former dancer, Ellen can be seen acting in 1898 film Come Along Do! that partially survives.

Most Read

Christie says it's likely she appeared in others, but the only authenticated photo is of her accompanying Paul to the launch of the battleship HMS Albion in 1898 on the Thames. Paul was filming from a boat when a gangway collapsed and many onlookers drowned.

Ellen Paul in a shot from husband Robert Paul's film of the launch of The HMS Albion on the Thames on June 21, 1898.

Ellen Paul in a shot from husband Robert Paul's film of the launch of The HMS Albion on the Thames in 1898. - Credit: Courtesy of Ian Christie

The exhibition includes a video compilation of new archival discoveries including Kruger's Dream of Empire, "a remarkable propaganda piece from the Boer War which has been hiding in the Imperial War Museum", and The Dancer's Dream, a 1905 fantasy ballet which has survived with colours intact.

Also included is a giant blow up panel that Paul presented to the Science Museum in 1913 with frames from his early films.

Boer War drama Kruger's Dream of Empire (1900)

Boer War drama Kruger's Dream of Empire (1900) - Credit: Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

As rival productions became bigger and more costly, Paul found production "too speculative". Despite some commercial success, The Burning Home, (1909) which pictured Vince Cottages on Colney Hatch Lane on fire, "seems to have been the film that decided Paul on abandoning production".

But by then his projector, used in music halls up and down the country, had helped to popularise cinema and his studios had trained a new generation of film makers.

Ian Christie’s book, Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema is published by Chicago University Press.