Watching History Online

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I have just completed a dissertation on the history of the Lower River Lea and West Ham on the eastern edge of London in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During years of research and writing I’ve looked at a wide range of sources from this time period including government documents, newspapers, photographs, maps, oral history interviews, civil engineer’s records and public health reports. Together these sources allowed me to know this area very well, but until today I’ve never seen film footage of the landscape from the late-nineteenth century.

Through pure serendipity I decided to write a post about historical films on the internet two days after the British Film Institute (BFI) uploaded a fifty-five second clip to their YouTube Channel of the launching of the HMS Albion from the Thames Ironworks Shipyard in West Ham. The HMS Ablion was one of the last battleships built on the Thames. This film records a major tragedy, as the launch created wave that capsized a jetty killing almost forty onlookers (it is not easy to figure out exactly where this takes place watching the film). While I knew about this tragedy, I was more captivated by this very short footage of the landscape I’ve been studying for more than five years. The abundance of smoke and smokestacks, the scale of the warship built near the mouth of the Lea and the huge piles of coal in the right of the frame all add to my existing knowledge of this space. This moving image, even of limited quality and length, is different from all the other sources I’ve consulted; it seems to bring history to life.

As a nineteenth century historian I’ve never worked with film as a historical source, but my brief exploration of the BFI’s YouTube channel suggests it is a medium that will be very useful for historians of the twentieth century and perhaps even more useful for teaching history in classrooms, museums and on the web. Below are a small selection of films from the first half of the twentieth century that caught my attention as I scrolled through the films uploaded to YouTube. The BFI’s website has an even deeper collection on their websites, but much of it is unfortunately restricted to users in British libraries, colleges and universities.

The second film below, is a longer colour film of the Thames in the mid-1930s.  The colour footage makes clear the abundance of coal smoke produced by London’s heavy ship traffic.  The film provides a significant contrast with today’s London. The Thames was a working river through to the middle of the twentieth century before a number of factors including containerization led all of the London Dock (aside from Tilbury) to close in the decades after World War II. Now this same river is crowded with tourist and commuter boats.

Beyond these two films of personal interest, I found a large number of clips that are very useful for teaching social history. The next two films record street scenes from Petticoat Lane in 1903 and 1926. They show the crowded East London market and provide an opportunity to see how working-class people dressed and shopped in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Even more impressive is the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection of film from the first years of the twentieth century, which recorded both every day life and a number of special events in England. The BFI have created an amazing Google Earth layer that allows you to choose the different films based on their location in the Midlands and North of England and watch them in Google Earth. Click Here to download the layer that will open in Google Earth. Here is one example from the collection: a factory gate film from Huddersfield in 1900:

The YouTube channel also has a few great films for students of Rural History, including this one that records the use of mechanized harvesting equipment in the 1930s:

This second film records the annual migration of urban labourers from London’s East End to the Hop field of Kent.

Finally, the BFI has a significant number of clips that would be of interest to historians of sport and popular culture including this clip of a Wales vs. England rugby game from 1922:

The BFI’s YouTube channel is only one of many sources of early film on the internet. Here in Canada the National Film Board has put a large collection of its films online. Not many date back to the early twentieth century, but the collection becomes more significant for the 1940s and after. Like the BFI’s YouTube collection, the NFB allows you to embed their films in your website or blog:

The Internet Archive has a huge collection of films and movies.
The Library of Congress also has a collection on movies on its website, but they are not as well organized as the BFI or the NFB collections.
Please add a comment if you know of other great collections of historically significant films on the internet.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

One thought on “Watching History Online

  1. John Horn

    It was the rugby playing on Facebook that brought me here. And it was a worthwhile trip.

    I’m continually amazed by how much “edutainment” – such as showcasing film or other media that discusses or addresses the educational topic in question – engages an audience. Even the most masterful storytellers can create a vibrant setting with their words during a lecture or in a book – but the images coming to life, as you said, make it very real for the audience.

    Well said, Dr. Clifford.

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