Britain on film: the best websites to watch old footage
The best websites for watching old film footage from Yorkshire film archive street scenes to Pathe news reels and BBC archives
We are so used to only seeing still photographs of people from the past there there is something magical about watching them moving, laughing and going about their daily lives. As the BBC celebrates its 100th birthday and puts more of its archive online, we have scoured the web to find other examples of film archives that have uploaded old footage to their websites. Although Britain on Film is the name used for the British Film Institute (BFI) project, we are looking here at a range of websites that will show you old film footage of Britain. You may not find family members in online film collections, but you will find clips that will give you a fascinating window into the past.
The best websites to view Britain on film
1. Britain on Film
This British Film Institute project invites you to explore some of the highlights from regional archives across the UK via a pinned map. You will find themed collections as well, including ‘World War II’, ‘Rural life’, ‘Rail transport’ and ‘Industries, trades and crafts’. You can also see some of the restored highlights from the Victorian film project at player.bfi.org.uk/free/collection/victorian-film. The 2020 anthology The Brilliant Biograph is amazing, featuring footage mostly captured in Europe between 1897 and 1902. The films were shot with unique large-format 68mm cameras, leaving behind extraordinarily high-resolution images.
2. Yorkshire film archive
The Yorkshire film archive and North East film archive have combined together in this fantastic website. Whether you are watching a Victorian street scene showing busy Leeds in 1898 or the effects of WW1 bombing in Scarborough you will always find some cheeky schoolboys who manage to get in front of the camera. From amateur wedding films to clips about local brass bands and garden societies, this website covers all walks of life in the area. Try typing in a town or village or perhaps an industry or hobby and see what you find.
3. BBC archive
Explore 100 years of the BBC on this fascinating website. You can browse through themed compilations such as 'farming' or 'hobbies' or watch some relaxing 'interludes' with gentle clips of people sewing, fish swimming or a paper mill in action. There are also some 'best of' programmes to watch as well as a searchable listing of past broadcasts. If you have appeared in a past BBC programme, you can apply for a copy of the footage.
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4. Wessex film archive
Archival highlights from across the world exist in curated YouTube playlists and channels. A search for ‘San Francisco 1906’ will lead you to jaw-dropping upscaled footage from a streetcar and ‘Wuppertal 1902’ will find stabilised colourised footage from Germany’s famous ‘flying train’, while recommended UK-centric searches include ‘Mitchell and Kenyon’ and ‘Leeds Bridge 1888’. The Wessex Film and Sound Archive channel is a great example of the regional content available, and has more than 200 digitised highlights.
5. East Anglian Film Archive
The archive preserves some 12,000 hours of film and 30,000 hours of videotape, mainly covering Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
6. London’s Screen Archives
Search old films of London and its inhabitants from a network of archives, museums, galleries, groups and charities.
7. Media Archive for Central England
This archive focuses on East and West Midlands.
8. National Library of Scotland
Watch more than 3,000 clips and full-length films from the library’s Moving Image Archive.
9. Film Archives UK
This site lists about 20 national and regional moving-image archives across the country.
10. British Pathe news
Enjoy news stories dating back to the early 20th century including a lovely compilation of clips celebrating the BBC's 100th anniversary.
11. Northern Ireland Screen Digital Film Archive
Watch news clips, public information shorts and family film archives from across Northern Ireland. You can browse collections, or register an account and create your own collection.