Of Empire and the City

Remapping Early British Cinema

by Maurizio Cinquegrani (Author)
©2014 Monographs VIII, 316 Pages
Series: New Studies in European Cinema, Volume 15


This book explores the cinematic representation of the city in British film from 1895 to 1914, featuring depictions of London, Glasgow, Dublin, Delhi and other British colonial cities. The author argues that the films are not only an invaluable record of the economic, social and cultural life of these cities but also that the spatial organization of these urban areas, and the cinematic representations of them, were shaped by the ideology and activity of imperialism. The pioneer camera operators who made these early films often put forward an imperialist ideology by paying particular attention to the cinematic representation of monumental and ceremonial spaces, modern communication and transport within the city and between the city and the empire. Of Empire and the City establishes connections between these cities and their cinematic representation by means of continuous motifs and themes, including modernity, Orientalism, spectatorship and the imperial subject. The book makes a unique contribution to studies of early film, British urban history and the history of the British Empire.
«This is a highly original and genuinely groundbreaking piece of scholarship on early British cinema. Very little work on this subject to date has sought to contextualise films of the 1890s and 1900s within the broader field of the history of imperialism. Cinquegrani's book systematically corrects this ‘blind spot’, and in its use of a wide range of ideas and methodologies […] it offers a compelling new model for future scholarship on British cinema of the silent era.» (Dr Jon Burrows, Associate Professor, Department of Film and Television Studies, University of Warwick)

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: The Absent-minded Cameraman?
  • Non-fiction films and the city in the Age of Empire
  • Interdisciplinary threshold: Films and urban space
  • A long-standing neglect: Early non-fiction filmmaking
  • Early cinema and urban space: Middle-class filmmaking in context
  • Imperial propaganda and popular culture in early British films
  • Empire and the production of cinematic space
  • Part I  London
  • Chapter 1: Film at the Heart of the Empire
  • “Animated pictures, the wonder of all”: Ideology and the medium
  • Hyde Park Corner
  • Parliament Square
  • Embankment
  • Waterloo Place and Trafalgar Square
  • The Strand
  • The City
  • Crowds, processions and imperial events in early topical films
  • Chapter 2: Connecting Places: Film, Transport and Display
  • Exhibitions on film: Displaying the empire in London
  • The London Zoological Gardens
  • The Crystal Palace
  • The railway and London’s suburban spaces
  • West London: Ealing
  • North London: From Seven Sisters Road to Euston Road
  • A legitimate space of empire and uneven modernity
  • Part II  The British Isles
  • Chapter 3: Cinematic Empire: Seaside, Industry and Trade
  • Cinematic Liverpool: Gateway of the British Empire
  • Manchester: Films of industry and civic pride
  • Chapter 4: Regional Urban Spaces: Scotland in Film
  • Glasgow: Films of an industrial city in expansion
  • War, peace and industry
  • Chapter 5: Hybrid Space: The Irish City
  • Joyce’s Dublin on film: Imperial political hegemony
  • The East Coast of Ireland: Wexford, Belfast and Derry
  • The third city of Ireland: Street life and the International Exhibition in Cork
  • Part III  The Empire
  • Chapter 6: Travel Cinematography in India
  • Culture of travel and exploration: Towards a cinematic encounter
  • From travel photography to travel cinematography: Geographical knowledge and the British Empire
  • The exoticism of everyday life: Early films of cityscapes in colonized societies
  • A passage to India: Imperial narratives and cinematic exoticism in South Asia
  • Varanasi: A colonial cinematic narrative
  • Delhi the Durbar city on film
  • Chapter 7: The Perilous Exoticism of the East
  • Chapter 8: From the Boer War to the Great War
  • The Boer War and South African cityscapes on film
  • Mediterranean cityscapes: From Egypt to the Holy Land
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Books
  • Chapters in books
  • Articles in journals
  • Newspapers
  • Filmography
  • England
  • London
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester
  • Other English towns
  • Scotland
  • Glasgow
  • Other Scottish towns
  • Ireland
  • Dublin
  • Belfast
  • Cork
  • Other Irish towns
  • Empire
  • South Asia
  • East Asia
  • Africa
  • Canada
  • Australia
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for supporting my research with a Doctoral Award. My supervisors, David Green and Mark Shiel, have given me enormous help during my research. Thanks.

I should also thank Palgrave Macmillan, Tate Britain, the University of Edinburgh Press, and Taylor & Francis for the permission to include here sections of the articles and book chapters I have authored for these publishers. Portions of Chapter 1 have been published previously as “Empire and the City: Early Films of London” (The Camden Town Group in Context, eds Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy, London: Tate Britain, 2012) and “The Nexus of the Empire: Early Actuality Films of London at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” (Journal of British Cinema and Television, vol. 6, no. 1, 2009, pp. 207–219). Sections of Chapter 2 have been published previously as “The Cinematic Production of Iconic Spaces in Early Films of London” (The City and the Moving Image: Urban Projections, eds Richard Koeck and Les Roberts, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 169–182). Portions of Chapter 6 have been published previously as “Travel Cinematography and the Indian City: Imperial Spectacle at the End of the Long Nineteenth Century” (Nineteenth-Century Contexts: an Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 3, no. 1, 2010, pp. 65–78). Parts of Chapter 8 have been published previously as “‘A fit of absence of mind’?: Empire and Urban Life in Early Non-Fiction Films” (Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 9, no. 4, 2011, pp. 325–336).

Ideas, support, help and inspiration have been given generously by friends and colleagues, among them Jon Burrows, Bryony Dixon, Sarah Cooper, Patrick Keiller, Richard Koeck, John MacKenzie, Lynda Nead, Sally Parrott, François Penz, Laurel Plapp, Vanessa Toulmin and Lawrence Webb. I also wish to thank my students, whose thoughtful discussion of the ideas in this book has enabled its content to grow.

Above all I wish to thank my family. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 → INTRODUCTION

The Absent-minded Cameraman?

We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.

SIR JOHN SEELEY, The Expansion of England (1893)

The world of today is a bare, hungry, dilapidated place compared with the world that existed before 1914, and still more so if compared with the imaginary future to which the people of that period looked forward.

EMMANUEL GOLDSTEIN, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism


A middle-class man born in London on 20 June 1837, Queen Victoria’s coronation day, could have been lucky enough to visit the Zoo in Regent’s Park as a young boy after its opening to the public in 1847. He could have also visited the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park or James Wyld’s Globe in Leicester Square in his early teens. As he turned twenty he would have read about the Sepoy Mutiny in India, perhaps in one of those illustrated magazines which often devoted their pages to events taking place in the colonies. Later he could have read serialized novels by Charles Dickens in All Year Around or Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories on The Strand while sitting on a train boarded in one of the fourteen major railway stations which opened in London during his lifetime. The train could have taken him on a short holiday to a seaside resort like Brighton or Blackpool, or visiting relatives in Manchester, Glasgow or Liverpool. Unless he had joined the army or the civil service and travelled to distant destinations, his knowledge of the colonies would have come from shows, exhibitions, books, postcards, and magazines. At the age of sixty he would have hardly been able to dissimulate his wonder in front of the first exhibitions of ← 1 | 2 → moving pictures in his local music hall. Perhaps too tired to travel to central London or unwilling to face the great crowd, he would have watched the Diamond Jubilee procession on film. He would later get used to the new technology, as he would realize that the themes and representational strategies of films were already familiar: exhibitions, means of transport, parades, crowded street and images of distant and exotic places had long been part of his experience of urban life in Victorian Britain.

This age witnessed the arrival of mass communication and mass visual culture, as new technologies of printing, reporting and reproduction fuelled an unprecedented expansion in the circulation of material such as newspapers, magazines and photographs. Towards the end of the Victorian era, technological advances aimed at capturing images and motion on a light-sensitive medium led to the invention of film. Early cinema, in Britain and everywhere else, was a quintessentially urban phenomenon and city life was a favourite subject for audiences and filmmakers.

Images of cities in visual culture, previously the subject of paintings, prints, and novels, became increasingly accessible in the nineteenth century because of the possibilities given by photographic reproduction. Cinematography was part of a wider series of challenges to that uniform notion of perspectival space which had governed visual culture since the Renaissance and which, as Stephen Kern has argued, was being questioned by artists, novelists, scientists and sociologists for the first time. According to Kern, cinema offered new spatial possibilities and displayed distant and exotic places to which the audience rarely had access, within the context of a series of dramatic changes in technology and culture leading to new ways of thinking about and experiencing time and space.1 In this book, I investigate the cinematic experience of urban space at the turn of the twentieth century and the historical and political conditions which defined it. These conditions included the new technologies which began to penetrate everyday life at the end of the nineteenth century when, according to Henri Lefebvre, the contours of modernity emerged vividly. Progress and ← 2 | 3 → bourgeois well-being, Lefebvre suggests, was short-lived, as the escalation of the technological progress was soon applied to armaments, the threat of war and eventually war itself.2 Nevertheless, at the turn of the twentieth century, a certain democratization of visual culture, technological progress, and improved living and working conditions defined the predictive vision of a rich, leisured, orderly and efficient future society which, according to George Orwell and through the words of Emmanuel Goldstein, was expected by the literate masses. Goldstein, whose quote opens this book, is a fictional character in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, he is either a former top member of the ruling Party who had broken away early in the movement and started an organization dedicated to the fall of the Party or, perhaps, a scapegoat fabricated by the Party itself. The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism is a fictitious book allegedly written by Goldstein and secretly read by Winston Smith, the main character in Orwell’s novel.3 This “imaginary future” expected by people in the West had its roots in the technological progress and middle-class well-being which characterized the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

This book looks back at that period and explores cinematic cities of the British Empire during the years between the invention of cinematography in 1895 and the outbreak of the First World War. This period coincides with the second half of the era defined by Eric Hobsbawm as the “Age of Empire”.4 Between 1875 and 1914, the capitalist core of the world economy, according to Hobsbawm, contributed to the creation of a world of empire where large numbers of people around the world were dominated by technologically and industrially advanced countries. During those years, the mass market and technological change contributed to the spread of the imperial message and, Hobsbawm argues, revolutionized the arts appealing to the working classes. The official birth of cinema thus coincided with ← 3 | 4 → the height of British imperialism.5 The outbreak of the First World War in 1914, on the other hand, coincided with radical changes in film production, the application of technological novelties to strategies of annihilation and the end of the long-enduring nineteenth-century balance of power.6 The aim of this book is to explore the ways in which the city on film came to signify the historical achievements of a Victorian Britain. Most films from this period are now gone: they have disappeared, burnt, or destroyed. Many of those which have survived are scratched and ruined, but they still offer an invaluable record of city life at the turn of the twentieth century. This book is also based on primary and secondary records of long-lost films; this material contributes to offering a more precise definition of the themes, places and spaces emerging from early non-fiction cinematography.7

The intersection between recent studies of the cinematic city, scholarly work on early cinema, and the cultural history of the British Empire is the junction where I aim at tracing an interdisciplinary discourse on early films of imperial and colonial cities. This book brings together topics and studies not previously united, and promotes a new understanding of the early cinematic city. On one hand, I propose a re-evaluation of the often neglected practice of early non-fiction filmmaking and, on the other, I aim at assembling a narrative of imperialist influences on British cities and their cinematic representation. In this way, I want to argue for a shift in focus in the study of early cinema. Arising from the intertwining of cultures of modernity, as Vanessa Schwartz suggests, non-fiction films marked an ← 4 | 5 → unprecedented crossroad of expressions of practices associated with urban life.8 The study of early cinema has thus primarily focused on the modernity of the medium and seldom on the imperial forces which shaped cinema and were represented in films, and which were equally defining in my view. Hence, by bringing together the domains of early cinema and imperial history, I aim at filling a gap. In early films, imperialism was a discourse which legitimized Britain as a country whose technological superiority over colonized peoples was a key foundation of British modernity. The Victorian era was also characterized by anxiety about slum conditions and by urban degeneration which coexisted with state-managed urban development; fittingly imperial, early cinema largely focused on the latter. Film evaded crucial topics such as urban poverty and perpetuated an ideological view of reality seen through the eyes of middle-class filmmakers unconcerned with urban deprivation. Hence early films exemplify the ways in which texts can signify by what they leave out, their “structured absences”, as much as by what they include.9

This book is preoccupied with the ways in which socially marginal groups and the spaces they inhabited were absent from cinematic representation. The work of nineteenth-century novelists like Charles Dickens and George Gissing and photographers like John Thompson, Thomas Annan and Samuel Coulthurst contributed to the creation of an idea of urban life in the slums through diverse representations and stories of the poor and the disadvantaged. In the second half of the century, social researchers like Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth and Fred Scott investigated and exposed chronic poverty and a semi-criminal underclass in Victorian society. Early films entirely neglected narratives of urban deprivation in the Victorian and Edwardian city and privileged a more prosperous cityscape made of monuments, landmarks, tourist sites, busy thoroughfares and workplaces.

← 5 | 6 → Films of urban transport and everyday life in the suburbs also revealed the nature of urban society, and recorded the importance of self-regulation and movement in understanding urban modernity in the Age of Empire. My investigation of these films aims at contextualizing the governance of conduct as it emerged from the business of movement in the imperial city and the order within this movement. Images of disorderly movement, for example in films of popular markets, and very occasional displays of anti-imperial sentiments and resistance to the British rule in films of strikes and demonstrations will also be discussed in the following chapters.

Non-fiction films and the city in the Age of Empire

At the beginning of the twentieth century, three-quarters of the British population lived in cities and towns with over 10,000 inhabitants.10 The nineteenth century had seen a growth in the total population from sixteen million to over forty million, as well as an increase in per capita income and other changes in the economic structure. An accelerated urbanization was driven by new forms of transport, improvements in sanitation, the concentration of commerce and industry in urban centres and an increasing division between working-class tenements in the inner city and middle-class residential suburbs.11

Early non-fiction films offer a great wealth of information on urban life in subsequent years. Late Victorians and Edwardians would go to film screenings to view moving images of familiar street scenes, technological novelties, and distant and exotic places. Richard C. Raack has evocatively ← 6 | 7 → defined each frame of an actuality film as “a separate first-hand record of the past.”12 By recording a particular area of human conduct, Raack continues, an actuality film supplies the historian with vital information not provided elsewhere.13 “Animated photographs”, as the Daily News put it in 1896, can be seen as the result of a journey in a time machine taking us back to a version of reality which belongs to the filmmakers and the original viewers.14 The specific point of view of early filmmakers has been investigated by Antonio Costa, who has looked at the theme of the journey around the world in early European cinema and at the ways in which early films contributed to the creation of a new concept of space and time:

With film, landscape, understood as the synthesis of the geographic-anthropological features of a territory, could be reproduced with an unprecedented objectivity that now included duration as well as movement. Yet, even the most neutral of shots always involves the adoption of a point of view, the presence of interpretative models and attitudes that belong to culture, ideology, and the world views of both filmmakers and viewers. Thus, landscape shown in cinema is never a pure or simple reproduction. Rather, it is a technical, economic, cultural, and semiotic (discursive) production.15

Early films reproduced reality but, as Costa suggests here, both the camera and the filmmakers are part of reality themselves, and cinematic reality is therefore an expression of the dominant ideology. Bill Nichols has investigated the ways in which ideology informs images in films, with a particular focus on non-fiction cinema. He writes:

← 7 | 8 → Ideology arises in association with processes of communication and exchange. Ideology involves the reproduction of the existing relations of production (those activities by which a society guarantees its own survival). Ideology operates as a constraint, limiting us to certain places or positions within these processes of communication and exchange. Ideology is how the existing ensemble of social relations represents itself to individuals; it is the image a society gives of itself in order to perpetuate itself.16

This argument can help us to understand the immediate relationship between early film and the ideological apparatus which produced it. Early actuality films should be discussed by giving priority to their social, historical and political interpretation. Only such a reading of the film text can result in a full understanding of early factual filmmaking, and its exemplification of a collective meaning of history.

As Siegfried Kracauer observed, public spaces crowded with people moving in diverse directions were filmed by pioneer filmmakers exploiting the ability of the new medium to record and reveal reality.17 In One-Way Street, Walter Benjamin also explained how activities such as driving through busy thoroughfares can only be visually recast in films. He suggested that the moving picture “commands optical approaches to the essence of the city.”18 In 1928, Benjamin was the first theorist to discuss the privileged relationship between cinema and urban space that began with the invention of cinema. As the Lumière brothers’ early views of Lyon and Paris or the moving pictures of New York produced by Thomas Edison demonstrated in the 1890s, the built environment and film established an axiomatic relationship from the first days of the cinematograph. As Tom Gunning suggests:

← 8 | 9 → The first film shows were primarily big city affairs. Nearly all early film documents present a mise en abîme of audiences filling vaudeville halls from busy city streets in order to see projected on the screen… busy city streets. The transfer to film allowed the city street to become another sort of spectacle, one mediated by an apparatus and filled with endless attraction.19

Giuliana Bruno has also emphasized the relationship between early cinema and the modern street, arguing that early films provided new spectatorial means of transportation through the streets of the city “as an intentional phenomenon, insistently portraying urban space by reproducing the captivating fluvial motion of cities.”20 The study of British cinema, however, can challenge the assumption that visual attraction of early films always sought to shock the audience. According to Gunning:

Theatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe.21

Gunning is here referring to fiction films produced in the United States and, in particular, to the films made by American film pioneer D.W. Griffith. Similarly, Charles Musser has investigated the origins of motion picture technologies and the social and economic aspects of the beginnings of American cinema. Like Gunning, Musser traces the development of an early ← 9 | 10 → cinema of attractions into a cinema of narrative complexity.22 That early cinema was an attraction which aimed at causing shock in the spectator is one of the most widely held ideas used in the study of films made in the first decade of cinema. When we take into account the specificity of place and its distinct ensemble of wider social relations, however, this model does not fit neatly the themes and aesthetics of early films of the city. In particular, empire was a local, national and global force which played a dominant role in early British cinema. British films require a somewhat different model to that suggested by Gunning and Musser. This book thus investigates the application of cinematographic technologies to the ability to situate oneself in the empire as it emerges from the relationship between non-fiction films and geographical imagination. This dimension is more often than not absent in studies of early cinema, which tend to favour a focus on the modernity of the medium and often pay insufficient attention to the specificity of the place where the films were made and its social and historical implications.


VIII, 316
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
imperialism Orientalism urban history modernity ideology
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. VIII, 316 pp.

Biographical notes

Maurizio Cinquegrani (Author)

Maurizio Cinquegrani is Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Kent. He received his PhD from King’s College London in 2010. His articles exploring the relationship between British cinema and the city have appeared in Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Early Popular Visual Culture, Journal of British Cinema and Television and the anthology The City and the Moving Image: Urban Projections (2010).


Title: Of Empire and the City
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