Victorian London on Film

The very first moving pictures of London were taken by the cinematographic pioneer William Friese-Green in January 1889. He filmed Apsley Gate near Hyde Park Corner – the first moving picture in the world to use celluloid, but not (quite) the world’s first movie; Louis le Prince had filmed Roundhay Park and Leeds Bridge the previous year.

Friese-Green’s film does not survive, but have included the oldest-surviving footage (ten frames of Trafalgar Square) from 1890 in their compilation below. It was shot by the splendidly named Wordsworth Donisthorpe on a film camera of his own invention. This was obviously an incredible time for cinematographic pioneers – we’ve already mentioned three inventors with their very different processes and in the US Edison had patented his Kinetograph, to be followed in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers and their Cinématographe.

There are clips of Lumiere brothers’ films of London from 1896 in the compilation, along with films from the early 20th century. Generally speaking (where the film quality is good enough to make out detail) the places filmed are still recognisable today although look at the backgrounds and you will see much has changed. The films also cover an interesting period when the horse gives way to the motor – there are no cars to be seen in the 1896 shots, but by the 1920s horse drawn vehicles have all but disappeared.