From shelf to screen: the journey of a can of film found in the archives in 2014

by Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer

London’s Screen Archives has been an indispensable resource for Southwark Local History Library and Archive. It is a fantastic network of organisations including museums, galleries, charities, community groups and public sector bodies who hold heritage film and whose aim is to ‘preserve and share London’s history on film’. They started digitising our film and video holdings in 2011 and now host them on their website and YouTube site for streaming. Over the years they have offered us training and advice on how to catalogue and license our holdings and have welcomed us as a Steering Group partner. This has enabled us to keep on top of developments in this ever changing sector. We are very grateful to them, so it was naturally to LSA that I turned when a can of film was discovered in our archive store by my colleague, Lisa Moss, in 2014.

Some lessons from the Brandon Estate Cine Club collection

Previous to this discovery, the last time I had had the opportunity to look at film held in the archive was in 2009. I bought an 8mm viewer on eBay and tentatively began looking through what was to become the Brandon Estate Cine Club film collection. With no accession paperwork, tracing the provenance of that collection of around 22 films was the first step in a journey that turned out to be one with a few twists and turns.

I knew that there were two film makers as they credited themselves in intertitles made of what looked like magnetic alphabet.

Screenshot from the film Canvey Capers made in 1969

I established via a telephone call with his sister, Dorothy that Richard (‘Dickie’) Morgan was alive but I was unable to get any more information about Brian Waterman. Suffice to say that despite my best efforts, which included holding the first ever screening of the films in one of the estate’s community centres, (which I thought might elicit some memories about the film makers), contacting local tenants’ associations (a member of whom knew Brian but did not know if he was alive), contacting local newspapers, writing letters and making other general enquiries, I had assumed Brian’s demise. So, obviously I was shocked when a few weeks after the film show, I received an email from Brian himself informing me that he was ‘very much alive’! I am well aware of the moral to that story.

So, when my colleague found another can of film in the archive I knew there were two things I needed to do immediately; get the film viewed and assessed and research the provenance thoroughly and that’s exactly what I did.

How I assessed the condition of the film

The can of film was in a flat archival box. There was little information on the outside other than the words ‘film can’ and no accession documentation to be found so we had no idea who deposited the film or under what agreement.

On opening the can, I got a slight whiff of something chemical and I wondered whether the film had vinegar syndrome, (safety film, introduced by Kodak in 1923 is made of cellulose acetate plastic and can degrade if not kept in the right conditions giving off a vinegary smell).

I couldn’t see any warping or buckling of the film however, which is a clear sign of film degradation.

I also wasn’t sure if there was any mould deeper into the reel. Perhaps the smell was just the release of chemicals built up over the years. This is where the possession of AD strips would have been useful. They can detect the severity of acetate deterioration and can therefore also be used on 35mm stills film.

The gauge of the film was 16mm, so I wondered who made it, as this was a format commonly used by municipal organisations, professional businesses and broadcasters between the 1930s and 1970s, though it was still popular with amateur film makers despite the introduction of the smaller Standard 8mm. The Bermondsey Borough Council films for example, were mostly shot on 16mm.

The problem with this film was that there was no leader (a piece of film at the head and tail that helps to thread or ‘lead’ the film into the projector). The head end could sometimes contain written information about the film such as title or filmmaker.

As I carefully unravelled a few inches of film away from its roll I wondered if we had stumbled across a local amateur film. Without a 16mm viewer I couldn’t be certain of the source or content and if the film was not relevant to Southwark, we would have to consider transferring it to another relevant archive. For now, I needed to keep the film as cold (but dry) as possible to prevent further degradation.

Some expert help from the Cinema Museum

As luck would have it the Cinema Museum were having one of their fantastic open days in October 2014 where anyone could bring along their film and have it viewed and assessed by a professional film archivist for free! It was important to view the film before sending it to a professional organisation like LSA or British Film Institute first, since the volume of material they receive (or did at that time) would mean I would be waiting a long time before I received any information about it and I may not have been allowed to view it while they worked on it. So, Home Movie Day was next on my list of things to do.

Volunteer film archivist, Sally, made the following observations

  • The film was approximately 600ft in length (that’s approximately 25 minutes duration).
  • It contained mixed film stock from Ilford dated 1965 and Kodak dated 1966. (The date a film was manufactured can be worked out from the symbols on the edge of the film – here’s a handy guide that you can download).
  • Part of the film was shot at 24 frames per second and part at 18 frames per second. (It was cheaper to shoot at 18fps as fewer frames per second means you could save on film stock.)
  • The film was spliced in several places. (An edit of two separate films, so they can be shown continuously.)
  • It was perforated on both sides of the film. (Otherwise known as ‘double perf’ and therefore the film was silent with no separate sound track.)
  • There is evidence of ‘slight mould’ on the edge of the film in places although it is inactive with ‘slight shrinkage in places.’ (This was perhaps the most important point, and meant that regardless of its overall good condition, film conservation was going to be an important step in this film’s journey.)

Sally’s recommendations were to get the film professionally assessed and digitised.

Once the assessment was completed, I was invited to look at the film via a film projector in another part of the main hall. As the viewing started I immediately realised that I was looking at footage from Clubland.

Clubland: Walworth’s pioneering youth club

Clubland was founded by Reverend Jimmy Butterworth in 1922 and was based in the Walworth Methodist Church on the corner of Camberwell Road and Grosvenor Terrace for over 50 years. It was a Christian youth club which pioneered a new approach to youth work and became one of the most successful in the UK, with royalty and celebrities among its fan base.

The film began in quite grainy black and white, showing the exterior of the Clubland building and went on to show young people from Clubland cleaning a property, presumably for the purposes of club activities. Rev. Butterworth is clearly seen managing the youth with his trademark pipe in mouth. As the film went on, I was aware of more and more people in the hall joining the viewing and would occasionally hear the utterings from film enthusiasts about details of the filming.

The film went from black and white to colour, indicating a different film and showing footage of the club’s outings including one to Wissant in France and sports day in Burgess Park, Camberwell. All of it was in remarkable condition and the local history details were fantastic! Shops no longer on Camberwell Road were revealed, the old factories that lined the perimeter of Burgess Park, and of course the Rev. Butterworth who featured regularly.

I was keen to know who the film maker was but there was no doubting the significance of the film to the borough. But did the film exist in another format elsewhere?

Researching provenance

Since the subject matter of the films meant there was significance to the borough of Southwark, I decided that the next steps would be to research the film’s origins.

A few days after the Cinema Museum’s Open Day, I called Mary, daughter of the late Rev. Butterworth. I had spoken to Mary on numerous occasions, the family have close ties to the archive as it holds the majority of Clubland’s records. I told her about the film. Did she know anything about it? Mary said it was filmed by her mother, who she said did most of the filming of the club’s activities and was probably part of a larger donation of items by the family over 20 years previously. Mary and her brother, John were happy to transfer the rights in the film to Southwark Local History Library and Archive, particularly as it had stored it for so long. Documentation would later be drawn up between the archive and the Butterworth family but for now, we had the permission to pursue the film’s preservation and digitisation with London’s Screen Archives.

Digitising the film

Timing is everything and as luck would have it (again) in the late Autumn of 2014 London’s Screen Archives were checking archives with moving image across London to see whether they had any film material they would like to put forward for their Unlocking Film Heritage programme in association with the British Film Institute. I recommended the Clubland film and it would be a couple of months of back and forth emails before I would receive confirmation that it would be accepted into the UFH programme. Hurrah!

It was not until the following year in March 2015 that I finally handed the film over to the LSA in person at their then offices in the Tea Building in Shoreditch. I met with film archivist, Louise Pankhurst, who began the official assessment process. Of course the film had no name and so one was assigned to it – ‘Clubland Activities of the 1950s and 60s‘ since that’s what the film showed (or so I thought).  

That was the last time I saw that can of film which is now safely stored courtesy of the LSA.

It would be another 9 months from the handing over the film before I would get a DVD copy of Clubland Activities of the 1950s and 60s. Such was the success of Unlocking Film Heritage that thousands of films were being assessed, preserved and made available to the public. However, it was worth waiting for and our archive is grateful for the opportunity to have our films digitised for free and made available for the public to enjoy. The film is available on both LSA’s website and the BFI Player for free forever. The BFI assigned their own title: Rev. Jimmy Butterworth and the activities of Clubland (1966).

If you have old film, significant to the borough of Southwark, and would like help to get it digitised or would like to deposit a film of any format with the archive, do get in contact with us by email at local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

With thanks to David Whorlow, Volunteer and Archives Co-ordinator and Jack Reichhold, Information and Media Officer at London’s Screen Archives.

Check out the recently published book The Temple of Youth: Jimmy Butterworth and Clubland by John Butterworth and Jenny Waine (J B Club Press, 2019).

For as long as I can remember: Using film in reminiscence and outreach

by Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved watching films. As a young girl I went to Saturday morning pictures at the Odeon Cinema in Elephant and Castle. The noise of the young excited audience was deafening, but somehow you managed to work out the plot of some cowboy and Indian film or ‘Lardy Hardy’ flick (my childhood translation of Laurel and Hardy) amongst the pea shooters, sticky gum and chanting. Cinema-going up the West End was rare and only if you were flush. So I tended to stay local, and between Peckham and the Elephant my enthusiasm for watching films was satisfied.

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Camberwell Odeon, Denmark Hill, 1955

Films have stood the test of time and, if seen in the cinema or as another type of theatrical screening, this medium is perhaps the only one where you cannot really rush it. You have to go at the film’s pace. You can’t swipe, skip, delete, forward, select or delete sections. You have to sit, wait and watch a film that will either have wasted your money and the last 90 minutes of your life, or will have completely immersed you in it, left you in awe, questioning, wondering and may even have rocked you, just a little. Whether you like or dislike a film, it has the power to change your emotions and awaken your senses and for some, bring to life memories and thoughts that were buried.

The first reminiscence session I organised using films from the Film Collection at Southwark Local History Library and Archive was in May 2017 at Camberwell Library, with the help of Storm Patterson, Screen Heritage Archivist from London’s Screen Archives. I was keen to organise a reminiscence session, having attended the LSA’s conference on using film as reminiscence in 2016. I did so, and just three people attended. Initially, I was disappointed. I’d done my preparations, choosing a suitable location, risk assessing, getting the signage just right, ensuring the refreshments were laid out and publicising the event as best I could. Storm provided a compilation of films and I provided a range of photographs on different themes relating to the Southwark area. So, where was everyone?

As well as having Storm from London’s Screen Archives, I was also lucky enough to have Anne Williams, volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Society with me that day. By observing Anne, I learned how to be person-centred when working with people with dementia. Anne patiently sat with a gentleman who watched the films and browsed the photographs and they struck up a beautiful conversation about his life and work.  Anne recalled that experience:

“I will never forget an older gentleman at Camberwell library who had cared for his wife with dementia until her death. The screening of local cinema footage evoked strong and happy memories of a Friday night ritual with his mother when they would visit the pictures, enjoy the films and interval music and then share some fish and chips on the way home.  He was moved to tears remembering this period of his childhood and I felt privileged to listen to his precious memories.”
Anne Williams, volunteer, Alzheimer’s Society, 2018

Between us three helpers we went on life journeys with our three elderly guests who enjoyed looking at the visual memorabilia which sparked their memories. It got me thinking… what a wealth of knowledge and history we have in this room!  It was Anne who reminded me that it was quality not quantity that mattered and wondered whether our guests or we, as helpers, would have got the quality of conversation and engagement had more people been there.

I learned a great deal from that experience, not least that ‘outreach’ means what it says – you must reach out, and certainly when working with people with dementia, being respectful of their physical and emotional needs is crucial in organising any event for them. So, one way I could achieve this was by reaching out to my audience and going to places where they are most comfortable.

In 2018 I had the pleasure of collaborating on many outreach events with local and other organisations as well as a local Nunhead artist, using films and photographs from Southwark Local History Library and Archive. I have worked with the Alzheimer’s Society delivering reminiscence sessions at their coffee and drop-in sessions at Time and Talents in Rotherhithe and at the Daffodil Café at The Green, Nunhead’s Community Centre. The people with dementia and their carers enjoyed watching the films (a selection of Bermondsey Borough Council and other local films) judging by the conversations that followed.

Memories were triggered about particular places featured in the films. The groups wanted to talk about their lives and how they remembered those places and share stories. I remember a conversation that started about East Street Market between a lady who was born in Jamaica and another who was born in Cyprus, both of whom had lived in Southwark for much of their lives. Neither was engaged in any conversation before the photographs of the market from the 1970s were passed around. “Do you remember the Sarsaparilla stall?” I asked them. Both studied the photographs in silence and then, their expressions changed.  “Ahh, yes!…” they said and from that moment the two were sharing memories. I couldn’t get another word in after that, nor did I want to.  It was so interesting listening to them and how they remembered East Street Market, especially the particular stalls.

“Thank you so much for taking the time to attend the Daffodil cafe today. Both the film made by the school children from the Walworth school and the hop picking film were ideal choices for our service users. They were engrossed in the plot of the first film as well as enjoying recognising local landmarks around Burgess Park.  For people unable to get to the cinema it was a unique opportunity to watch a relevant and suitably short film programme.”
Anne Williams, volunteer, Alzheimer’s Society, 2018

Being person-centred means putting the person at the heart of what you do. The preparation I do for the sessions involves asking the co-ordinator of the group to give me some information about the users – where they lived and when, what they did as jobs and what they would be interested in seeing again. Research into reminiscence sessions has taught me that just because someone lived through the Second World War doesn’t mean they want to be reminded of it! So, there are certain subjects I tend to avoid and I take my cue from those who know. It does help, however, if you know a little history about some of the resources you are handing out, as this too can start conversations and engage people.

That said, even if you know a little about your subject, it doesn’t necessarily mean you always get to say anything on the subject. I have also delivered reminiscence sessions at Blackfriars Settlement. These were very lively events, particularly during the film screenings where the audience would get a running commentary from one or two knowledgeable members of the audience. “That was where Peak Freans was, my mum worked there”, “That was the Town Hall”, “That’s Tower Bridge Road Market!” “You see all those trees, Ada Salter was responsible for those…” and so it went on. The knowledge of the audience was amazing and to be perfectly honest the audience answered many questions that I’d wondered about myself! Wonderful!

“What a great afternoon. Thank you so much. I love when my members get taken back to their yester years. It was magic. And, I thought the Children also learned a lot . On our tables, they couldn’t believe how Walworth Road looked before.  They loved listening to stories. And the little singalong was an added bonus…. Alice who is 97 in August and Veronica who is 92, were so happy talking about the good old days and looking at photos and the film. We should do this more often.”
Tina Johnston, Co-ordinator for Positive Ageing, Blackfriars Settlement, 2018

By the end of these sessions, groups of people would be reminiscing together, sharing photographs, sharing memories, laughing and singing. The atmosphere in the room was a completely different one by the time the session ended.

At one session, Tina Johnston, co-ordinator for Positive Ageing at Blackfriars Settlement arranged for a group of children from the local secondary school to join the reminiscence session. They were looking at photographs of the areas they lived in from 50 or more years ago. “That’s what the Elephant and Castle looked like over 100 years ago”, I said to one totally disinterested pupil. He glanced at the photograph, raised his eyebrows and said “Is it?” and proceeded to look through all of the photographs in silence and in awe. The banter between the older people and the school children was fantastic and both enjoyed each other’s company. Intergenerational reminiscing is a fantastic way to teach history to children.

For Black History Month this year, we invited Nunhead artist and co-founder of Women in Film SE15, Tracey Francis, to talk about her career as an artist and present two of her films – ‘Peckham Wall’ and ‘Landscapes of Girlhood’.

Watching ‘Landscapes of Girlhood’ was one of those times when my senses were awoken. This short but moving film, which gives a voice to 5 girls with learning difficulties left me and the audience quiet and reflective and the young people in the audience asked questions about how they might do what Tracey did. This is how you inspire, I thought.

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Tracey Francis presents her films at John Harvard Library for Black History Month 2018

My most recent collaboration was with LinkAge Southwark where, with the help of Catrin Waugh and her volunteers, we delivered a reminiscence session on the Kingswood Estate, using photographs and film to a very astute group of pensioners whose questions were coming in thick and fast. (I think I managed to answer most questions with the help of one or two local history books I shrewdly brought along – phew!)  The group were engaged in conversations around different themes, remembering cinemas, parks and markets and the film compilation finished off the session nostalgically. The group were a real pleasure to be with.

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Reminiscence session for the pensioners of LinkAge Southwark, Kingswood Estate November 2018. Photo courtesy of LinkAge Southwark / Catrin Waugh

The Film Collection at Southwark Local History Library and Archive is a fast growing one, now with around 215 titles, originating from different film and video formats on a variety of themes.  Included in it are information films that were made by the Bermondsey Borough Council from the 1920s to the 1940s, Southwark Council commissioned films from the 1970s to the 1990s on a variety of themes (e.g. redevelopment of  Surrey Docks in the 1970s, Elephant and Castle shopping Centre, elections etc), amateur films by cine enthusiasts like Brian Waterman and Richard Morgan, makers of the Brandon Estate Cine Club films, copies of broadcast television programmes and community films such as Tracey Francis’s.

All 215 titles are available to view on DVD free of charge within the archive during opening hours. All of the original film and video that is owned by Southwark Council (around 60 titles) has been digitised and is available to view online via London’s Screen Archives and its YouTube channel.  London Screen Archives is the virtual hub for the film collections of London’s archive repositories.

We are continually collecting films significant to the story of Southwark. So, if you have a film that you would like to deposit with us, get in touch. For details of all the titles available to view, visit our website or contact Southwark Local History Library and Archive on 020 7525 0232 or email local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

I would like to thank the following people and organisations for helping me to deliver reminiscence and other outreach sessions from the Southwark collections in 2018. I (and my colleagues with whom I share knowledge) have learned much from you and the outstanding work you do: Anne Williams, Sheena Ogilvie and Chloe Pardell from the Alzheimer’s Society, Caroline Clipson from Southwark Dementia Action Alliance, Tina Johnston and staff at the Blackfriars Community Centre, all the staff at The Green, Nunhead Community Centre, staff at Time and Talents, Rotherhithe, Sands Films Studios, Tracey Francis, Catrin Waugh and Gemma Kern from LinkAge Southwark.

Of course a big shout out to my colleagues, Patricia Dark, Chris Scales and Lisa Moss at Southwark Local History Library and Archive for their help and support. I look forward to future collaborations.

Southwark on Film

By Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer at the Local History Library and Archive

Historically, films have not really been given the same status as traditional manuscript archives.  Yet, films can contain rich information about place, time, and culture that the written word can’t capture so accurately. ‘Seeing is believing’ is definitely my mantra for film archive! Films can remind us what a street, building or person used to look like and entertain, educate and enlighten us.  Films aid research and those in our collection, on different film formats and spanning over 100 years of film making, help build the story of the borough of Southwark.

Some of the gems in our Film Collection include those from The Bermondsey Borough Council, whose Health Department under the direction of Dr Connan (Medical Officer for Health at the time), made over 30 films between the 1920s and 1940s.  Most of the films were made in-house as it was deemed important that they were made by people with medical expertise. The aim was to send a clear message about good health for its residents.

The Council showed the films in ‘cinemotors’ which, being portable, enabled the film makers to reach a wide audience, much to the delight of local children!  For decades, the films were shown around Bermondsey and Southwark, helping to improve the health of residents and prevent deadly diseases like Diphtheria – a fact highlighted in the film Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council (1931) which boasted an impressive reduction in deaths from infectious diseases over the previous 30 years.

Cinemotor van, Bermondsey, 1937

Around half of our film collection was digitised by London’s Screen Archives in 2012. You can view many of these films on their website and YouTube channel, including some of the films from the Brandon Estate Cine Club whose collection of around 20 films, all shot on standard 8mm film, was made by Richard Morgan and Brian Waterman. Both cine enthusiasts, they started the club on the estate in Walworth in the 1960s. The films record life on the estate through the residents’ activities over more than a decade – summer fetes, Christmas parties and coach trips to Canvey Island.

While some of our films are available online, others can only be viewed in the library and archive. We have the fantastic  ‘Two Bob’s Worth of Trouble’,  a film made by class 3C of Walworth School in 1961, which follows the adventures of a boy who is robbed of his trophy cup. The film features some of Southwark’s lost sites, like the Surrey Canal.  We also have many great films made by local historians, such as Michael Holland, and films by the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV.

Each month we showcase a different film from the archives. You can view this, or any of the films listed in our Film Collection booklet, at Southwark Local History Library and Archive, free of charge. It’s usually possible to just drop in and speak to a member of staff about viewing a film, but if you need any more information please give us a call on 020 7525 0232 or email local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.