The British Empire on Celluloid – Alfred West’s “Our Navy”

All_of_West_Life_in_Our_Navy_catalogue

Alfred West’s Life in Our Navy catalogue, 1912. Courtesy of the Wessex Film and Sound Archive.

John M. MacKenzie argued that early film transposed popular imperial propaganda from the music hall stage to the screen.[1] He cited the films of R. W. Paul and Cecil Hepworth on military life as being influential for amalgamating military spectacle and popular entertainment.[2] Often overlooked, filmmaker Alfred West from Gosport, Hampshire, was one of British cinema’s pioneers.[3] West operated under the film company “Our Navy” and his films featured a strong connection with the senior service.[4] The films served as paragon of cinematic imperial propaganda during the Edwardian period.[5] When West sold his catalogue of films in 1913 he maintained that:

“This patriotic entertainment – borne under Royal auspices – has … and is still fulfilling a useful purpose in stimulating enthusiasm, and enabling the public to have an insight into the ways and doings of those who SAFEGUARD THE INTERESTS OF THE EMPIRE and keep watch and ward over its HONOUR AND SAFETY.” [6]

His first public showing took place in Portsmouth at the Portland Hall, Southsea, in September 1898. The event borrowed from the cannon of popular entertainment; the songs sung were mainly naval in tone and a full string orchestra performed several pieces in addition to accompanying the film footage. The screen was “tastefully and appropriately” decorated in bunting and surrounded by plants.[6]

West’s films were recognised not just of local, but national value and he was invited by the Secretary of the Navy League to bring them to London for screening at St. James’s Hall, Piccadilly.[7]  They were given a permanent home at the Polytechnic, Regent Street and received strong patronage from the Navy League and the Royal Navy, who afforded West unprecedented access.  The First Lord of the Admiralty had given his patronage to the exhibition “recognising the good … (it) is doing throughout the country in making the British public familiar with our first line of defence”.[8]  West ran several provincial touring companies which would take the show around the country simultaneously. He noted the apathy of imperial feeling, especially in the Midlands where the citizens did not have any opportunity to see the work of their Navy or Army.[9] In his autobiography West boasted of the strength that it had on recruitment in the Midlands:

“With the aid of these pictures it was made possible for people to realise what life in the Services is like, and in the Midlands, where many had never seen a ship and some not even the sea, the films aroused intense patriotic feeling and stimulated recruiting.” [10]

 

In a town such as Portsmouth, which was ‘home’ to West and the Royal Navy, this sense of patriotism must have been extremely palpable. Reports in the Portsmouth local press record footage of a highly monarchistic and militaristic tone.[11] These were also mixed with footage of the empire at large and moving images of events of a local nature.[12] Indeed, many in the town might have attended just to see their faces in celluloid. The films from the ‘Our Navy’ series were noted in the local press for the strong patriotic and imperial resonance they had on the viewer. In 1906 the Portsmouth Evening News described the films as an “instructive and patriotic entertainment”[8] Later it enthused that:

“As one sits staring open-eyed at the screen the blood of patriotism runs hot in the veins, and as the scenes of Colonial life and mercantile Navy experiences on the high seas pass before the eye one realises the greatness of Empire.” [13]

The Portsmouth public subsequently became the sounding board for each new programme of films before their screening in London and the provinces and in 1906 successfully run in the town for over three months.[14]

References

[1] J. M. MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire. The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), 68. R .W. Paul has most recently been cited by Stephen Attridge, Nationalism, Imperialism and Identity in Late Victorian Culture. Civil and Military Worlds, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 26-27.

[2] MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire, 70

[3] Alfred West was born in Gosport 1857 and was part of the family photographers’ business. West later moved the business to Palmerston Road, Portsmouth. http://www.ournavy.org.uk/ last accessed 29.07.2013.

[4] West’s ‘Our Navy’ series was incredibly popular in its time and was shown in London and throughout the provinces, though he has been largely forgotten about in the historical cannon of early cinema. He must thus been seen within a context of the burgeoning cinema industry of which the likes of R. W. Paul and Cecil Hepworth.

[5] Unfortunately little of West’s footage exists but evidence of the extent of ‘Our Navy’ footage can be seen by looking at the catalogue produced by West shortly before he sold the business in 1913. Wessex Film and Sound Archive hold some footage reportedly from Alfred West’s ‘Our Navy, Our Army’ under the finding number AV222/1/V1. Related documents are also held under the catalogue number 3/61/2/3. See particularly, Alfred West, Life in Our Navy, Our Army, catalogue found online at Wessex Film and Sound Archive, http://www.hants.gov.uk/rh/wfsa-media/alfred-west.pdf last accessed 17.10.2011.

[6] West, Life in Our Navy, Our Army, catalogue.

[7] Songs sung included ‘The Bay of Biscay’, ‘They all Love Jack’ and ‘The Sailor Sighs’. Hampshire Telegraph, 17th September 1898.

[8] Alfred West, Sea Salts and Celluloid, Unpublished autobiography, 1936, 16. Transcription found at ’’Our Navy’ Alfred West FGRS – Film Pioneer’, http://ournavy.org.uk/, last accessed 18.10.2011.

[9] Hampshire Telegraph, 20th January 1900.

[10] West, Sea Salts; 60.

[11] West, Sea Salts; 5.

[12] Such as the funeral of Queen Victoria, the coronation of King Edward VII, life and training in the Royal Navy, British troops and naval brigades in South Africa and the 1906 Royal Tour of India.

[13] For example, the fleet at Spithead, a children’s demonstration at Canoe Lake, the decorations of the Portsmouth streets (taken from the top of a tramcar in motion), and the King’s Birthday Review on Southsea Common. Portsmouth Evening News, 8th July 1902.

[14] Portsmouth Evening News, 31st July 1906. 

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One Response to The British Empire on Celluloid – Alfred West’s “Our Navy”

  1. David Clover September 25, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

    Thanks so much for this appreciation of Alfred J West’s work. You might be interested to know that he is referenced in the IMDB with many references to his films, though as his biographer – I run the website – I have no idea who researched and put them there. I wish I did! See http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4634048/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

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