If, for personal or political reasons, the imminent festivities are not exactly setting your heart aglow with joy, might I suggest that there is some perspective to be gained by considering the circumstances of the Friese-Greene family at Christmas, 1915.
Twenty-five years earlier, in 1890, William Friese-Greene had been riding high. He was the well-known owner of a highly successful chain of photographic studios, with an upmarket clientele, spending his profits on inventing. That year, he was the first person to present to the world what could be called a “Moving Picture” camera: a compact device that shot a rapid series of images on a roll of celluloid.
The next year, he spectacularly crashed and burned. Multiple bankruptcies robbed him of his businesses, his home, his lifestyle and his reputation. He even lost control of his camera patent. But William was no quitter. Over the next five years, he built himself up again and, despite the death of his wife Helena, who had helped him through those difficult times, he relaunched himself with new inventions that brought him income and respectability. He remarried and, with his new wife, Edith, had six children in the following years – all boys.
But, as Edith would discover to her cost, life with William Friese-Greene was always a rollercoaster. Abundance, lack. Fame, shame. Optimism, disappointment. They were your bread and butter.
William had spent a great deal of the freshly-minted 20th century working on various methods of creating moving pictures in colour. In 1911 this had brought him crashing into conflict with one of the movie heavyweights of the era, Charles Urban, who believed he owned that territory, having invested a great deal in developing his successful Kinemacolor system. But Urban’s desire to squash this relatively insignificant rival proved to be a massive tactical error.
Sympathisers got behind Friese-Greene and the conflict escalated to the High Court, then the House of Lords, both of whom agreed that the Kinemacolor patent was meaningless as it didn’t do what it claimed. Without patent protection, the bottom fell out of Urban’s business, whose value was founded on operating a monopoly. But it was the definition of a Pyrrhic victory for Friese-Greene. It was now 1915 and Britain was in the throes of the Great War. Nobody really cared about colour moving pictures, especially since these systems cost more than the monochrome alternative.
William and Edith’s eldest son, Claude – who would go on to become a renowned cinematographer – had been actively working in the film business from about 12 years old and, after leaving school at fourteen, that became his full-time occupation. In 1915, aged sixteen, Claude was also inventing in the field of colour motion pictures and already had his own business, The Aurora Film Company, which had made a film using a Friese-Greene colour process, The Earl of Camelot, that screened in Brighton, where the family had lived since 1904.
It was wartime. Claude had been in the Imperial Cadet Corps alongside his two immediately junior brothers, Kenneth and Graham, but now Lord Kitchener’s finger was pointing straight at him. He enlisted, joining the 14th London regiment. His first recorded tour of duty began on 7th February 1916 and he would go on to become part of the Cinematograph section of the Royal Flying Corps.
Claude’s decision inspired his younger brothers and, out of jealousy or desire for adventure or a wish to relieve the financial pressure on their parents, both Kenneth and Graham headed down to the recruiting office. Despite being significantly underage, they were allowed to sign up. This must have been devastating, heartbreaking and profoundly worrying to William and Edith.
Whether these three boys were able to be in Brighton with their parents that Christmas is not clear. But their younger siblings, Maurice and Vincent, certainly were – little Raymond having died ten years earlier, aged four, from being kicked in the head by a horse. A Christmas of Dickensian hardship was looming.
The first the world heard of their situation was a letter from Will Day, published in the film industry weekly, The Bioscope.
I have written about Will Day before. He was a well-known and easily-recognisable figure in the British film industry. His daily business was his shop, Kinutilities, in Lisle St, just behind Leicester Square in the heart of filmland, where he sold all sorts of cinema equipment and created some of his own. He was gregarious and very active within trade organisations, always dressing distinctively. But his passion was creating what is still, to date,the most extensive collection relating to the development of the moving image that any individual has ever compiled. Alongside this, he was writing a history of the subject, personally knowing many of the key figures, although he would never see it published. So, he was the kind of person who was listened to.
This is what Will Day wrote, on the 17th December: “I have had a visit and a letter from Mr Friese Greene, who, I am sorry to say, is in very low water indeed, and has a bailiff in possession of his home for the sum of £50 due for rent. [Multiply figures by 100 to get rough 2019 equivalents.]
I was thinking that, at this period of the year, we in the Trade, who have so much to thank Mr. Friese Greene for, could hold out the hand of help, and in his present distressful position, forget anything that may have happened in the past, and for the sake of his wife and children help him along the road.”
He offered to collect monies on behalf of the family, setting the ball rolling by saying he would put up the handsome sum of five guineas – £5 5s. It worked. Within no time at all he had persuaded various film companies to do likewise – some matching him, others giving less. Even The Bioscope threw in two guineas. And that wasn’t all the paper did.
Six years earlier, the Editor of The Bioscope had had a great deal of fun mercilessly ridiculing William Friese-Greene for asserting that, since Edison was then officially legally recognised in the USA as the inventor of moving pictures, with a right to tax all who made or showed a film, then surely he was due something, having pre-dated Edison by years. To say the paper changed its tune would be an understatement comparable to commenting that John Wayne isn’t making quite as many movies as he used to.
The week after Will Day’s letter, the cover editorial was boldly titled “THE FOUNDER OF COMMERCIAL CINEMATOGRAPHY”, referring to William Friese-Greene and supporting Will Day’s proposal that a “penny fund” should be instituted by all cinemas, from their customers, to ensure Friese-Greene financial security for the remainder of his life. It also pointed the reader to the eight-page feature inside, written by Day, laying out Friese-Greene’s place in the development of cinema, with images of his workshop, his 1889 patent and more.
William Friese-Greene couldn’t believe what he was seeing and wrote appreciatively to the editor, “You cannot imagine my feelings during the time I was reading your able leader, and Mr. Will Day’s article. Well, no words can express my thanks and gratitude. All the years of my connection with kinematography seem to focus in one day.”
A bank account was opened for the immediate financial appeal, with a committee and treasurer to oversee it. The money kept coming for two months, eventually amounting to the sum of £131. The donor list reads like a real Who’s Who of the major figures and companies of the British film industry at that time. Even R. W. Paul, a pivotal early figure, who had now left the business, put in two guineas. (He is currently the subject of an exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum and a new book.)
Perhaps most touching, is to find the name of Charles Urban, matching Day’s five guineas, his devastating legal defeat of just months before temporarily forgiven, although never forgotten. The accounts also reveal a reassuring first act with the fund, with two items of £5 for “Christmas Expenses” on the 21st and 22nd of December, before that letter had even been published. So, it’s fair to say that Will Day pretty much single-handedly rescued the Friese-Greene family’s Christmas with his speedy intervention.
The final report stated that the committee would be disbursing the rest of the money to Mrs. Greene at the rate of 30s (£1.50) per week. Perhaps it is significant that the money was not put into the hands of her husband. Edith wrote to Will Day to thank him for all he had done, “Dear Mr. Day, l have seen in this week’s BIOSCOPE the kindness and generosity shown to both my husband and myself. Will you, for your personal efforts, and all the committee, please accept our sincerest thanks, and also will you, through the Press, please thank all the subscribers, on our behalf, who so kindly came forward and assisted so generously at such a trying time. We both very deeply and sincerely appreciate all your great kindness.”
This letter came from a London address, not a Brighton one. That family home had now gone. Despite her doubtless sincere thanks, this may have been the turning point for Edith. For her family and herself to become such public recipients of charity and pity, was perhaps a humiliation too far. A year later, she would leave William, taking Maurice and Vincent with her. Happily, the three other boys would make it back from the war alive and go on to successful careers. Despite earnest efforts, the “penny fund” from cinema owners never materialised, their deep sympathies not extending quite as far as the bottom line.
But all that still lay in the future. In the Christmas of 1915, there can be little doubt that the good heart and exceptional kindness of Will Day brightly illuminated what would otherwise have been the very darkest of times for the whole Friese-Greene family.