A Yank in Britain

Charles Urban spent the last few months of his life writing his memoirs. Unfinished at his death, they describe his childhood and early business career in America, and his period in Britain with the Warwick Trading Company. They remained in private hands until their discovery in 1998. Now edited and annotated by Luke McKernan, with an afterword that describes the later part of Urban's career that he was unable to cover before his death, they have been published by The Projection Box as A Yank in Britain: The Lost Memoirs of Charles Urban, Film Pioneer, from which these extracts are taken.

Urban describes his father, an embittered business failure

"... Father became almost inhuman in his treatment of mother and we children. He gloried in devising methods of punishment which could hurt most. A favourite punishment was to make us kneel bare legged on a handful of dried beans for one hour, with inspection every ten minutes to see by the indentations of the flesh and discoloured marks if we did not push the beans aside to escape the pain. Another peculiarity of his was - to delay punishment for such period as to convey the idea of his having forgotten. For instance - for some fib of fancied wrong I had committed, I was promised punishment. As days went on, I had entirely forgotten the incident until ten days after, I was ordered to remain indoors all day and evening. This day was the 4th of July - celebrating the Declaration of Independence - the one day in the year, we boys were looking forward to. I had prepared for this day to hold a parade of twenty to thirty boys of the district, I being selected their captain. Early after a hurried breakfast, my father forbad me to leave the house nor make contact with any of the boys. You can imagine my disappointment and grief. This was the punishment father was storing up for me. What love and respect I ever had for him was now finished with, and I determined to no longer submit to future punishment. I decided to fight him ..."

Urban, working as a phonograph salesman, describes how he first encountered moving pictures

"... Early in 1895 the first Edison motion pictures were on exhibition in a music publishers' show rooms on Woodward Avenue, Detroit. These were in the form of an enclosed oak case with an eye piece, called the kinetoscope. You paid fifty cents (2/-) and had a peek of half a minute into six boxes showing Loie Fuller's Skirt Dance, May Irwin and John Rice 'The Kiss', Approach of a Railway Train, Surf on Beach etc. These pictures created a sensation. After showing these kinetoscopes in the larger towns of Michigan, Raff and Gammon, the Concessionaires, sold the six machines to the Michigan Electric Company. I had sold them the idea of opening a slot machine parlour on the ground floor of their extensive building on Woodward Avenue (the Piccadilly of Detroit). I also sold to them my phonograph agency with twenty slot machine phonographs, and five additional picture machines, to which were added a phonograph, the record of which would synchronise with the movement of the picture. This was called the Kinetophone and was the first talking picture machine. I undertook to manage this 'parlour' with its thirty machines. It was beautifully decorated and lighted and became very popular. Looking after the automatic coin devices, changing the film and sound records daily and keeping them all in adjustment, was a whole day's job. Later that year, was announced the first exhibition of the Lumière Cinématographe at Koster and Bial's Music Hall, New York City. Lumiere was sent from Lyons, France. This was preceded a few months earlier by Edison's 'Vitascope' at the Eden Musée West 23rd Street, New York. I took an early trip to New York to see their wonders, which were shown on an open screen before a large audience. I lost all interest ever after in slot machines and tried to acquire one of these projecting machines but neither Lumière's nor the Edison Vitascope could be bought, only leased..."

Urban's first day as manager at Maguire & Baucus, Edison film agents in London

"...I had an early breakfast the next morning, with intention to get into early touch with the Maguire and Baucus office, which was located in Dashwood House, Broad Street, near Liverpool Street railway station. It was a nice day so I climbed to the top of an Oxford Street bus to the Bank, another one at Moorgate Street to the Station, where I had no trouble finding Dashwood House. I found the office in the hallway on the ground floor, but its door was still locked, although it was 8.45 am. About 9.30, a young man dressed in a frock coat with a silk hat (topper I think they call them) unlocked the door, picking up the mail as he entered. I addressed him and told him who I was. He seemed very pleased at my arrival, saying that I had been expected during the day - but hardly so early, he thought. He introduced himself as asst manager, book keeper, film salesman, machine demonstrator, packer and delivery clerk. His name was George Scott - known however as 'Scotney George' and so I always called him as this title seemed to suit his character better than his real name. While he was changing his coat, in walks the office boy - Jimmy King - followed by Miss Rosenthal or 'Rosey' as she was called by all who dealt with us. 'Rosey' was the stock keeper, saleslady and cashier. Unfortunately she had no control over the money, once she deposited same to the firms account at the bank. As consignments of Edison films arrived we had a rush of buyers, once the information got out. As this was a cash business, considerable sums were collected on such days and it was 'Rosey's' business to see it in safe custody. Shortly after a film sales day, the managing director would usually find an excuse to go to Paris for a week or so. After his return a very small balance stood to the credit of one account at the bank. This was one of the reasons why there had been a change of four managers (including Mr. Maguire and Mr. Baucus) during fifteen months. The amount then owing to the New York office for Edison film shipped was about £1800. This debt was not being reduced ..."

Urban lays down his philosophy of film-making

"... I have had no training in the photographic field and cannot today manipulate the ordinary still life camera - but give me a motion picture camera and I can assure you of procuring results comparative to the best - simply because I am highly interested in cinematography, whereas ordinary snap shots, I care nothing for. Nor do I know how to develop the films. I know the formulas of developers etc., how to handle the film etc., but I have never spent any time learning the practical application. I could engage trained men for pay to do this work. My interest has always been to find anything new which has practical value, especially of an instructive character, develop and exploit same for general use. I saw great instructive value in the motion picture as an educational factor, just as the talking machine is now used as a dictograph and the study of languages, besides recording for posterity, the voices, songs and speeches of famous personages and historical events. Throughout my entire connection with the motion picture industry I have specialized in educational subjects of science, travel and topical episodes, now referred to as 'documentary' films ..."

Urban tackles film pirates A.D. Thomas and Walter Gibbons

"... I succeeded in waylaying Thomas emerging from the Islington Empire after the show one night and hung on to him like 'grim death'. He was returning to the St. Pancras Hotel to pick up his bag and take a train north from Paddington. I persuaded him to defer his departure until morning as he and I had a bit of business to transact that night. He was a big strong chap who could have made a nasty customer in a fight. We stopped the cab at Warwick Court, entered our office and while I put Thomas 'on his honour' I went into the packing room, got a chisel and a hatchet with some tacks which I showed to Thomas with the hint that I would not hesitate to use these tools, if he tried any nonsense. I told him we were bound for Chandos Street. He tried to assure me that Gibbons had given up the quarters, had removed all machines and developing equipment and that we would find an empty loft. There was a padlock to the side entrance of the building, leading to the upper floors. This I prised off at the staple. Thomas signed one of my business cards that he was upstairs etc. This I tacked onto the door in case the patrolman found the loose staple of the padlock. We found the loft almost empty but there were a few boxes and a barrel partly filled with rubbish. As the electric light was cut off, we used a candle, I brought with me. I instructed Thomas to empty the barrel while I treated the boxes likewise. The result of this search was three short duplicated films even bearing the Warwick trade mark at each beginning. I now had the evidence I wanted - even more so - I could now hold Gibbons for forging the company's trade mark by photography. We left the building, pounded back the staple with its padlock and bid Thomas to go where he wanted to as I had finished with him. For his help, I promised not to prosecute him. It was now three o'clock in the morning and I went home. Early next morning I took my evidence to the office of our company's solicitor and had a summons prepared ..."

Urban looks back on the achievements of the film pioneers

"... By leading the way in photographing such historical events as Queen Wilhelmina's coronation, the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, Queen Victoria's funeral and King Edward VII's coronation, all of spectacular interest, we did much to popularize cinematography and start it on its journey of ever increasing favour, until now (1942) it ranks as the fourth largest industry of the world, being preceded only by agriculture, railways and the steel industry. That is some accomplishment to be attained in the short period of forty-five years and I feel proud to have been one of its pioneers and veterans. Every man who had been engaged in some capacity in this industry from its inception to 1903, is eligible to become a member of the Cinema Veterans Association known as Veterans of the Cinema Industry - of Britain. Only 141 members registered as such since 1924 when this association was founded; only seventy-one of whom have survived to this (1942) year's reunion. As there are no new members now eligible, the membership is decreasing annually. I wonder who the last representative of this band of hard workers will be, very few of whom retired in comparative comfort. The rough virgin soil was cleared, ploughed and sown by these men. The real reapers of this toil are the men engaged in the industry today (1942). They have little knowledge of the difficulties encountered and to be won in the early days, caring only for the ease, comforts and monetary returns they enjoy today from a business which was erected for them by the veteran who did not benefit proportionately for his initial efforts and finished too old to continue actively to compete with the more modern methods, finding himself without a living and practically broke to the world ..."