Queen Victoria's long reign famously saw extraordinary advances: in industry, transport, science, culture... But one vital innovation is too often missed: the moving image, the last great invention of the age. Yet film forever changed the way we see the world. And even before the French Lumière brothers presented their first demonstrations in London in 1895, British filmmakers were beginning to make their mark. Now, for the first time, we are making publically available all of the BFI's collections of British films made in the first six years of the medium - from 1895 to 1901.
Some of these films have been in common circulation for decades, but others are little known, and many are appearing in public for the first time since their original screenings well over a century ago.
In these collections you'll find the most comprehensive gallery of Victorian films ever assembled. Hundreds of films made over the last years of Victoria's reign - six years in which film was transformed from the pursuit of a handful of showmen, chemists and amateur enthusiasts into a dynamic industry, and from fairground novelty into the greatest entertainment of the age.
For too long, Britain's role in the development of film has been undervalued or downplayed. It's time for that to change. Starting here.
This collection is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
The Victorian Street
Some of the most fascinating of early films are those which are content to watch the Victorian world go by. Numerous filmmakers parked their cameras on street corners, outside workplaces or churches, or into sports venues to capture moments of everyday life.
"We are not amused", said Queen Victoria - or so we're told. Her subjects, though, were eager for all manner of entertainments. The first films made their homes in the fairground and the music hall, and the first filmmakers - several of them originally showmen or magic lanternists - were more than happy to supply the laughs, drama and thrills that audiences demanded.
The Victorian age witnessed a transport revolution, but even at the end of Victoria's reign, overseas travel was still beyond the reach of many. Films, though, could transport their audiences to distant climes.
Pomp and Circumstance
Parades, processions and royal visits were a great draw for early filmmakers - not only did they guarantee spectacle but their fixed place in the calendar allowed for planning ahead. Even minor royals commanded endless fascination, while the Queen herself was the greatest celebrity of all.
Military heroes came second only to the Queen herself in the hierarchy of Victorian celebrity culture. With the British Empire at its peak, filmmakers jostled for glimpses of conquering heroes like Lord Kitchener and Field-Marshal Roberts.
There's a lot we can learn about early films from producers' and exhibitors' catalogues, in contemporary accounts in newspapers or the trade press, or by examining the original celluloid film. But sometimes, try as we might, the archivists and historians draw a blank. Where and when was this film shot, and who by? Is it British? French? American? Egyptian? What does it mean?
Maybe you can help...
Victoria's New Media Pioneers
Electrical instrument maker, inventor, photographer, chemist, magic lanternist, magician - these were the men who built British film. Among that first generation of filmmakers, there were a few whose ambition, ingenuity and business acumen lifted them above the rest. And even if today's filmmakers may not always recognise it, they tread in the footsteps of these intrepid pioneers.
Inventing Film Language
In any new technology, it's the early adopters whose innovations and discoveries begin to map out what is possible. The first filmmakers had a lot to learn, but with eager audiences to please, they learnt quickly.