On the 13th of October 1988, a blue plaque was unveiled in Leeds on what were once the premises of Hick’s ironmongers and the British Waterways building overlooking the River Aire.
The plaque commemorates the 100th anniversary of the taking of the very first moving pictures anywhere in the world. Yes Leeds goes down in history as the city that gave birth to the cinema, and the scenes were Leeds Bridge, and also a garden in Roundhay taken in October 1888
The film on the bridge was of a busy, bustling, Leeds with horse-drawn vehicles going about their business in long gone Victorian Leeds. The man responsible for filming this busy scene was a Frenchman called Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince who lived and worked in Leeds.
‘I first became aware of the work of Augustin Le Prince in 1888 and 1889 when I had to see him about a focusing lamp to attach to a projector of moving pictures. He had a workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane.’
( E.K. Scott, local historian writing in 1930)
The pioneer of the cinema was born in Metz, France in 1841 and educated in Paris and Bourges, he spent some time in the studio of Louis Daguerre the pioneer of photography and friend of his father. Le Prince attended Leipzig University, and it was there that he met John R. Whitley who owned an engineering company in Leeds. Le Prince impressed Whitley and he was invited to Leeds in 1866 to work for Whitley and partners as a draughtsman. Not only did Le Prince work for Whitley, he became his brother-in-law when he married Whitley’s sister Elizabeth in 1872. Le Prince’s wife Elizabeth was an experienced artist and had trained under a Messieur Belleuse, a director of the government pottery in the Paris suburbs of Sevres’ noted for its fine porcelain. In a short while, Le Prince became interested in the firing and painting of pottery, then the next step for him was photography, and with the encouragement of his wife they founded the Leeds School of Applied Arts in Park Square, Leeds.
Le Prince’s brother-in-law, John Robinson Whitley, became involved with Frederick Walton, an inventor. They began work on a process called the ‘Lincrusta-Walton process of wall decoration’. They opened agencies in New York and Paris, and Le Prince took his wife and family to New York in 1882 where she became an art teacher for ‘The Institute for The Deaf’ in Washington Heights.
It wasn’t long before the decorating business was sold to an American company, and Le Prince became interested in a Panorama exhibition, which involved producing glass lantern slides. When these slides were projected they would give the impression of continued movement. It was this that gave Le Prince the idea of trying to develop moving pictures with photography.
During the five years in New York from 1882 to 1887 when his wife worked for the institute for the deaf, he formed a friendship with the institute’s Principal I.L. Peet who became interested in his ideas. He gave him access to the Institute’s workshops and also placed at his disposal, a mechanic called Joseph Banks. Here Le Prince worked alongside Banks making ‘receivers’ and ‘deliverers’ or in plain English, cameras and projectors. Le Prince’s daughter Marie who was fourteen at the time in 1886, may well have witnessed the earliest showing of primitive moving pictures anywhere in the world.
‘seeing a light shining under a door, I entered to see my father and Joseph Banks operating a machine which threw dim outlines of figures on to a wall.’
Louis Le Prince applied for a U.S. patent in November 1886 for this machine, and in May the following year when he came back to England, he applied for a British patent which was granted in November 1888.
The year 1888 was to be the historic as far as the moving pictures were concerned. It was that year Le Prince took the very first moving pictures ever on Leeds Bridge, and also a scene in Whitley’s garden in Roundhay. In the same year he designed a projector which was capable of showing moving images he had taken and projected on to a white sheet. Le Prince gave a private showing to some of his close friends in his workshop on Woodhouse Lane in late 1888. This was perhaps the first time anybody had gone out to the ‘cinema’ for the evening. As well as the plaque over Leeds Bridge, another one was unveiled on the site of the workshop where the B.B.C used to have its studios, and unveiled by Richard Attenborough, now Lord Attenborough in 1988, to commemorate Le Prince and his work.
There is a report in a local paper telling of the return to Leeds of Le Prince and his wife, and a little while before, the workshop that he had was pulled down to make way for the new B.B.C studios:
Early in 1887 the couple returned to Leeds where Le Prince improved His camera. He was helped by his son Adolphe, Joseph Whitley, Frederick Mason and James Longley, all of Leeds. Le Prince applied for a British patent On the 10th of January 1888. Although similar to the American patent it Concerned machines with single as well as multiple lenses. That year, having Made a one-lensed camera, the inventor photographed moving pictures At 12 per second in Whitley’s garden at Roundhay. He shot another series At 20 per second from the south- east corner of Leeds Bridge.
There appears to be a discrepancy as to whether his wife did return with him to Leeds, as he wrote to her in New York in 1890. He said that he was making plans to return to America where his wife was making preparations for him to show his moving pictures. However, he told her that he needed to visit his brother first who was an architect living in Dijon, in order to claim his share of an inheritance.
Reports later indicated that his brother saw him board a train in Dijon on September 1st 1890 in order to get back to Paris to meet some people from Leeds, where he was to pick up his equipment. He was then due to move on to Liverpool and from there, sail to America. It is here that the real mystery of Louis Le Prince began. He did not arrive in Paris, but seemed to vanish into thin air. It was as if it was like a plot from an Agatha Christie novel. To coin a phrase, the big question is did he ‘jump’ or was he ‘pushed’ and was never to be seen again. His luggage was never found, his body was nowhere on the train. The French police along with our own Scotland Yard investigated his disappearance but to no avail and Le Prince was officially declared deceased in 1897.
His mysterious disappearance has never been satisfactorily solved. Over the years there have been many theories as to what happened to him. His brother’s grandson later said that Le Prince wanted to take his own life because he was in financial trouble and approaching possible bankruptcy, and that he had arranged his suicide along with his complete disappearance. The film historian Georges Potonniee looked into this but found no evidence of any financial problems on the part of Le Prince. On the contrary, the business was apparently making a profit giving no reason for him to take his own life.
The French film theorist Jean Mitry in his Histoire du cinema in the 1960s, proposed that Le Prince was a victim of ‘foul play’ and speculated that if Le Prince had wanted to vanish, then he could have at any time he liked. He also doubted that Le Prince had even got on the train in Dijon, and that as the last person to see Le Prince was his brother perhaps thinking that he was suicidal, why didn’t he at least try to prevent him from taking his own life ?
Another school of thought is perhaps he was murdered. Did Thomas Edison have anything to do with Le Prince’s disappearance, or was George Eastman, the inventor of the Kodak camera? We shall probably never know. His wife Elizabeth believed he was murdered for his invention by Edison, who not long after, claimed to have invented a moving picture camera. Most schools of thought think it very unlikely that Edison was part of a plot. Edison, as we know went on to work on other inventions.
A photograph was discovered in Paris police archives in 2003 taken in 1890 of a victim of drowning. There was a resemblance to Le Prince and many believe the victim was him and proof that he was murdered. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t we shall probably never know. Today, Louis Le Prince is sadly almost forgotten, but we should be justly proud that it was here in Leeds that the ‘moving picture’ was born.