Trace your ancestors on film like Gareth Malone

By Jon Bauckham, 20 September 2015 - 7:14pm

Your forebears didn’t have to be famous to appear on film like Gareth Malone’s actor ancestor. Laura Berry explains how to access some of the best archive footage for researching everyone from performers to paupers

Gareth Malone grandfather film WDYTYA

Gareth Malone found footage of great great grandfather performing slapstick comedy

Watching moving imagery of an ancestor can be a powerful experience. Gareth Malone was overwhelmed to see his great great grandfather perform in a silent film over a century ago. “You get the essence of the man,” as Gareth’s mother put it, in a way that isn’t possible from any other medium, not even a photograph.

Silent films produced from the 1890s speak volumes about an ancestor’s character, but from the 1920s we have the advantage of hearing their voices too. Newsreels capturing significant local and international affairs were regularly played to audiences in theatres until the television finally became an affordable household accessory in the mid 20th century.

Even if your ancestor wasn’t a celebrity in their own right, they could have been interviewed for a news story or appeared in a television documentary. Archive footage of community events provides a unique perspective on life in your ancestor’s hometown, and there’s always the glimmer of hope you’ll spot a familiar face in the crowd.

British Film Institute Burnley children 1905

A clip of children on a day out in Burnley is just one of hundreds of films available to view for free via the BFI's Britain on Film website

National archives

Gareth Malone’s ancestor Edmund Payne, a celebrated stage actor, recorded A Gaiety Duet with his partner George Grossmith Junior in 1909. A copy of this early performance in front of camera was found in the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive. The BFI collections can be searched at this link and are described in enough detail so that searches for names as well as film titles can yield results.

The 70,000 items in the British Library Moving Image Collections include silent films, extensive interviews with Holocaust survivors, thousands of television programmes and much more. Search them here.

The Scottish Screen Archive, part of the National Library of Scotland collections, contains amateur and professional films about the lives of ordinary Scots. Search by keyword at ssa.nls.uk, where there is also information about how to purchase copies. Material can be viewed by appointment in Hillington near Glasgow.

The catalogue of the National Library of Wales contains details of some titles in the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales. A small selection of films has been put online at archif.com but most of the collection needs to be viewed in Aberystwyth.

National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive

The National Library of Scotland's website provides access to a wealth of historical material 

Regional archives

Film Archives UK (FAUK) represents all those bodies committed to preserving the nation’s film heritage. Its members include London’s Screen Archives, the Media Archive for Central England, North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University, Screen Archive South East in Brighton covering Kent, Surrey and Sussex, the South West Film and Television Archive, the Wessex Film and Sound Archive for Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, Yorkshire Film Archive, the North East Film Archive for County Durham, Northumberland, Tees Valley and Tyne and Wear and Lincolnshire Film Archive.

The consortium is committed to digitising and making regional collections of films available to the public. The oldest of these regional organisations, the East Anglian Film Archive (EAFA), was established in 1976 and has put over 200 hours of historic footage online, searchable by keyword here. Moving images of Norfolk agricultural workers can be found online, and the EAFA is also home to the archives of Anglia Television and the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers.

BFI Player has a large collection of high-quality films from regional archives that can be watched for free and found using the map at player.bfi.org.uk/britain-on-film/map. A four-minute film recorded in Burnley in 1905 shows the faces of hundreds of poverty-stricken children parading past the camera on a special day of celebration. The British Universities Film & Video Council also has a finding aid for sourcing footage held across the UK at bufvc.ac.uk/archives. Known as the Researcher’s Guide Online to Screen Heritage, it acts as a directory of film and video archives.

British Pathe website

All 85,000 British Pathe films produced between 1896 and 1976 can be viewed online

Newsreels

News footage may feature interviews with a particular ancestor, but more often is best used to find community events captured on camera, so searching for place names can reap rewards.

Charles Pathé founded the first newsreel company in Britain in the 1890s. All 85,000 British Pathé films produced between 1896 and 1976 can now be watched online at britishpathe.com. Rare footage of the Boer War and action from the front line during both world wars is there alongside Victorian and Edwardian street scenes, footage of farmers in Oban, fishermen in Grimsby and unemployed dockers in Barry.

The Imperial War Museum Film Archive is another useful source of footage from global conflicts, and also stores amateur films and wartime documentaries. Many videos can be viewed online and downloaded via the catalogue here.

Search and view online newsreels from the 1890s up to the present day at ITN Source, including Gaumont British’s archive spanning the 1920s–1950s, historic films from Reuters and ITN’s Roving Reports encapsulating the post-war era and the Swinging Sixties.

Search digital British newsreel archive Movietone, where clips can be watched for free, including interwar football matches, Victorian performances, political speeches and royal visits. Early recordings with sound include interviews with criminals, while one Mrs Broad tells of how she was wrongfully carried away for detention in a lunatic asylum.

Huntley Archives (copyright Roger Davies)

The home of the Huntley Archives in Ewyas Harold, Herefordshire (Photo by Roger Davies, under a Creative Commons licence)

Commercial collections

A number of commercial providers collate historic footage primarily for broadcast licensing, though anyone can search their extensive collections online.

The Huntley family’s privately collected archive of over 80,000 titles is gradually being put online at Huntley Archives. One of the more gruesome yet educational of the early silent films shows doctors amputating a man’s leg and nurses attending to the patient in the 1890s. Commercial databases like these are best accessed by searching for general terms like ‘doctor’ and a particular decade, rather than names, and are useful for adding context to our ancestors’ lives.

Historic Films Archive is strong on entertainment footage spanning from 1895 to 2010. Although the company does not provide films for home use, its extensive library can be searched at historicfilms.com and some clips can be watched free online.

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