7 fascinating film clips of pre-1950s British life

By Guest, 14 July 2015 - 2:38pm

Last week the British Film Institute (BFI) released hundreds of short films on the web dating as far back as the 19th century.

Available through the brand new Britain on Film website, the incredible digital archive paints a vivid picture of life in towns and cities across the country, featuring newsreels and early home movies.

Here in the Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine office, we've spent some time trawling through the archive and picked out our favourite films made before 1950. See what we've chosen below...

1. White City fairground (1910)

An elderly couple from the countryside pay a visit to the fairground at White City, trying out a curious collection of rides, including moving staircases and the 'Wiggle Woggle'. Following its construction for the 1908 Olympic Games and Franco-British Exhibition the same year, a range of fairs and exhibitions were held at White City until 1937. It lies in the Shepherd’s Bush area of London, close to the home of the BBC.


2. Motoring over Ben Nevis (1911)

In a feat unlikely to be emulated today, a clip from 1911 shows a Ford Model T hurtling down Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain. 22-year-old Henry Alexander Jr, son of the first Ford dealer in Scotland, made the trip for a publicity stunt to prove the reliability of the vehicle. Alexander aimed to show that the “affordable” assembly line American vehicle could easily match the reliability of hand-crafted British models. It took five whole days to reach the 1,344-metre summit. Prior to that, the stunt saw six weeks of preparation, with workers laying down a timber path that reached the very top.


3. Covent Garden porters (1929)

In this footage from London’s West End, porters in Covent Garden Market Hall carry out a number of incredible balancing acts. In a part of the capital still well-known for street performances, Jim Sainsbury particularly stood out, walking around with several metres of baskets on his head.


4. Durham Miners' Gala (1930)

With a few notable exceptions due to war and strike action, the Durham Miners’ Gala has been held every year since 1871 – the most recent event taking place on Saturday 11 July. In this clip of the 1930 Gala, thousands march through the city holding giant banners and placards, and listen to speeches from leading trade unionists of the day.


5. Around Snowdonia (1937)

This black-and-white video takes in many of the landscapes, towns and villages of Snowdonia. Opening with the Welsh national anthem, the film travels up to Conwy Castle, Blaenau Ffestiniog and the Menai Bridge, which connects Anglesey to the mainland. Narrator Harry J Clifford states that “Seaside resorts have but little claim to natural beauty. Llandudno, however, is in this respect, is ‘a place apart’”. Of the great mountain itself, he says: “it is the opinion of many world travellers that the beautiful, rugged grandeur of Snowdon cannot be surpassed”.


6. Aberystwyth coastline (1938)

This compilation shows families enjoying themselves on Mid Wales coastline; playing mini golf, dancing on the beach, paddling along the seafront on lilos and sledging on sand dunes. It is perhaps the epitome of how, as BFI Head Curator Robin Baker claims, “what comes across [in the Britain On Film collection] is people are basically the same as they’ve always been”. Despite widespread technological advances since, the games and interactions between the smiling beachgoers remain strikingly similar.


7. Booming Birmingham (1947)

Narrated by popular newsreader EVH Emmett, this video showcases Birmingham in the immediate post-war period. It tours “the great industries for which Birmingham is famous”, such as electroplating and tyre-making, plus the iconic chocolate factory in Bournville (now home to Cadbury World). It is not known whether this somewhat eccentric video succeeded in increasing visitor numbers. Now, it seems hard to imagine a 17-minute promotional clip of this nature for any British city.

Words: Zaki Dogliani

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