worthing history
 

© FREDDIE FEEST 2012

 
Early days of the Silver Screen
 
       
      
Joan Morgan
SILENT WITNESS: Joan Morgan may have started in silent movies because her father was producer at the Shoreham “glasshouse” film   studio but on her own merits she went on to make more than 30 films and become Britain’s oldest    working film actress.

ASK Arnold Schwarzenegger where the movie industry began and his answer would almost certainly be Hollywood, California. In fact, film producers were making movies in Worthing, West Sussex, long before California attracted the first glint in a movie mogul's eye in 1911 – and one of the earliest young stars of British cinema made films in a glasshouse on Shoreham Beach.

AMERICAN William Kennedy Laurie Dickson – soon to be dubbed the father of film-making – arrived in Worthing with his “magic black box” in April, 1898, intent on making a movie film containing typical scenes of the English seaside.
     Dickson had invented the first viable 35mm movie camera while working for the Edison research laboratory in the US and when he appeared in Worthing with his mysterious equipment, it caused a stir among the town’s Edwardians.
     Everybody in Worthing was familiar with the signal gun that was fired all too frequently to indicate a ship was in distress off the coast and its bangs always attracted crowds to the lifeboat station in Marine Parade.

 But the day Dickson visited the scene with his moving picture camera, the gathering was puzzled by what met their eyes.
     Instead of a team of horses towing the lifeboat to its launching area near the Pier, the crowd found a single horse pulling a heavy cart laden with electric batteries, connected to a huge camera mounted on a rigid iron tripod.
     What followed was Dickson’s first “take” for a series of seven short films that he made in Worthing on April 6 and 7, 1898.
     In those earliest days of movie-making, nobody shouted lights, camera or action. Instead, Dickson’s single command, before his camera started rolling, was, “Let her go!”
     This doubled up as a cue for the Worthing lifeboat crew to heave their boat into the water as the camera operator began cranking a 200ft reel of film through his new-fangled machine.
     The following day, the same camera filmed Worthing Swimming Club playing water polo in West Worthing (Heene) Baths, making them one of the first sports teams in the world to appear in a movie.
     Even that was not Worthing’s earliest claim to moving picture fame. An entrepreneur named Walter Cole projected the first “movie” ever shown commercially in West Sussex, in the pavilion at the southern end of Worthing Pier in August, 1896.
     Thus Worthing was only a few months behind the world-famous Lumiere brothers, who made history earlier the same year when they projected the first moving pictures on their Cinematographe to a paying audience in Paris.
     A few years later, in 1906, the first full-time cinema in West Sussex opened at Worthing – in the Winter Hall, a former Congregational Chapel in Montague Street, which had a seating capacity of 600.
     Arnold Schwarzenegger might find it equally difficult to believe that, less than a decade later, Britain’s earliest endeavour to break into the international movie-making business not only materialised in an abandoned army fort beside the sea at Shoreham but in a film studio without an electricity supply!
     Instead of electric power and floodlights, those early Sussex film-making pioneers on Shoreham beach chose glamour in a glasshouse as their formula for success.
     Because electricity was not available, they built a giant 75ft by 45ft house of glass as a studio and relied for lighting on Sussex’s reputation for more hours of sunshine than almost anywhere else in Britain.
     They also employed two glamorous actresses as star attractions, Joan Morgan in their earliest productions and, later, American glamour queen Florence Turner, reputed to be the first film star to receive a regular salary, rather than daily rate pay.
     The part of Shoreham beach the filmmakers chose for their enterprise was little more than a narrow and largely neglected shingle spit, before a visit in 1900 by the elegant international music-hall star, Marie Loftus.
     Marie was appearing on the stage at Brighton and during a break between shows she hired a small boat and crossed the River Adur to take a stroll along relatively deserted Shoreham beach.
     She was so enamoured by the peace and solitude of the area that she decided to build a holiday home there.
     The area soon became known as Bungalow Town, as many of Marie’s friends visited, fell in love with the place and built their own discreet single-storey holiday home away from the public gaze.
     Well-known – and sometimes notorious – barristers, surgeons, musicians, jockeys and boxers joined the migration. Fledgling British movie-makers began to appreciate the assets this part of Sussex had to offer and first to make a positive move was scenic artist F. L. Lyndhurst.
     He founded the Sunny South Film Company and made his first professional movie film on Shoreham Beach in 1912.
     Lyndhurst’s company produced four films in 1914, using the open parade ground of the old Palmerston Fort – built in Napoleonic times – as an open-air studio and locations on the beach and streets in Shoreham.
     The following year, with growing confidence in the future of movies, Lyndhurst was encouraged to launch a grander enterprise called Sealight Film Productions.
     He purchased a Shoreham Beach site for his new studio for £200 from the Easter family of Old Salts, Lancing.
     It was immediately north west of the Church of the Good Shepherd and it was here that Lyndhurst built a glasshouse studio in 1916. But World War One was at its height and the economic difficulties of film-making in such difficult times contributed to the film company defaulting on its mortgage.
     Not until 1920 and the arrival of the Progress Film Company, with Sidney Morgan as its principal producer, did film production re-start in the Lyndhurst glasshouse studio – still having to rely on natural light for filming as electricity remained unavailable.  
 
Morgan declared at the time: “The climatic conditions of Shoreham-by-Sea are particularly suitable for daylight production, being at least 50 miles from any real smoke.
     "This means the light is pure and clean and probably unrivalled by any other place in England.
     Sidney Morgan’s daughter, Joan, became the first star to shine in the Shoreham Beach firmament, making her debut in 1914, aged nine. 

Bungalow Town homes were created out of redundant train carriages
RIVER CROSSING: Many Bungalow Town homes were created around      redundant train carriages sold off by the Lancing Railway Carriage Works. They had to be dragged across the River Adur at low tide by horse and limber.

As the film studio complex grew, more and more of the staff lived on the site. Actors, technicians and directors built or rented one of the many wooden bungalows that appeared almost overnight, many of them flimsily built around one or two redundant railway carriages sold off cheaply by the nearby Lancing Railway Carriage Works, which had been established in 1913.
     These had to be dragged across the River Adur to Bungalow Town at low tide by horses and limber.
Between 1919 and 1922, Sidney Morgan produced at least 15 silent movies at the Bungalow Town studios. By 1922, every aspect of film production was carried out within the much expanded beach complex – everything from film processing to checking the film “rushes”.
     Morgan left Progress in 1922 and that winter a fire destroyed many of the studio buildings. Despite this, film-making continued at Shoreham under Walter West and in 1923 he made two films, both starring glamorous American actress Florence Turner.
     Sadly, the cost of these “broke” the Progress Film Company and it was officially wound up in 1929.
     The liquidator sold the studio site back to a member of the Easter family for £250 – just £50 more than Lyndhurst had paid for it 14 years earlier.