Tracing the history of the Hepworth film studios from pioneering in the 19th century through the 1960's to today.
The studios started life in March 1896 (some say 1899?), when Cecil Hepworth (1874 – 1953) leased a house called "The Rosary" in Hurst Grove, Walton on Thames, for £36 a year. Here he installed electric lighting and set up one of the first film laboratories in the country.
Together with his cousin Monty Wicks, (hence their trading name "Hepwix") they began to make short films of everyday events, starting with "Express Trains In A Railway Cutting", lasting about 45 seconds, which simply showed two trains passing in a cutting at nearby Byfleet. Other ‘actualities’ were from local news items such as ‘The Ladies Tortoise Race’ and ‘Procession of Prize Cattle’. These were all 50ft short films shot locally - probably to keep costs low. They built a 15ft x 18ft stage in the back garden and among the first films to be made at the new "studio" with its one stage were "The Egg-Laying Man" (1896), and "The Eccentric Dancer".
By the turn of the century the expanded Studios were producing over a hundred short subjects a year. Hepworth filmed the funeral of Queen Victoria (on right) at Marble Arch, London in 1901 which gained a great deal of publicity for the Studio.Cecil Hepworth committed all of the small resources at his disposal to cover the route at various points, and the resulting sales secured the future of his company. The company worked 24 hour shifts for several days to process all the orders that came in for film of the funeral from around the world. At some point "Hepwix" became known as "Hepworth Picture Plays".
In 1905 Hepworth built his first indoor studio, still relying on daylight and therefore situated on the first floor where more natural light was available, with laboratories for processing, cutting etc. beneath.
In the early days he made much of the documentary, filming scenes of British troops departing for and returning from the Boer War, and perhaps one of the earliest films of British politicians and of the Royal Family. During this time Hepworth presented the first cinema Royal Command Performance.
His studios made Documentaries, Classics, Melodrama, Horror, Scenic films, Comedies (notably the "Tilly" series), Heritage films, Location films in Brighton and Ireland, you name it!
Hepworth was primarily a producer more than an actual film-maker but did on occasion, write, direct, edit, photograph and star in many films, however many of the films credited to him were in fact the work of his associated Percy Slow and Lewin Fitzhamon, the latter co-directed perhaps Hepworth's most celebrated work 'Rescued by Rover' (1905) as well as other inventive comic films such as 'The Other Side of the Hedge' (1905) and 'That Fatal Sneeze' (1907). Alice in Wonderland, an 800 foot film produced in 1904, was the largest such project that had been attempted at the time. It was shot at Mount Felix, Walton, just round the corner from Hurst Grove.
As mentioned in the autobiography, the studios were destroyed by fire in 1907, killing a young technician, an event which clearly affected Hepworth deeply. The risks associated withNitrate Film are huge - it is a mixture of guncotton and camphor and can burn spontaneously!
Apart from his base in Walton on Thames, Hepworth shot extensively on location, and used Bognor Regis as his base during the summer filming periods of 1907-1909. Chrissie White said the company also used to regularly spend time in the summer at Lulworth Cove, Dorset.
The Hepworth Manufacturing Company became Britain's most distinguished film company of the pre-war period. By 1914 and the outbreak of World War One, Walton had become one of the three major film studios in Britain. Unlike other studios, production continued at Walton-on Thames through the First World War, both by making propaganda films and by renting to visiting companies.
There is a photo of Hepworth in military uniform. His health did not permit him to do active service, but according to Chrissie White he supported the war effort as a transport driver - it is not known whether he was personally involved with making films during WW1 but his company was very active, as the studio publicity indicates.
As the studios expanded, Hepworth acquired a number of properties in Walton On Thames for the use of his stars and staff. Some were used as residences.
The Studios made a number of "shorts" to support the war effort. They were clearly very active at this time as the catalogues of the time indicate. Sadly not much survives.
British film policy began to develop after World War I, when the cultural domination of British cinemas by Hollywood films became apparent. By the 1920s, restricted access to cinema screens in Britain for UK films was an acute problem; they represented just 5% of all releases in 1926. The 1927 Cinematograph Films Act established a progressively increasing quota for UK films. Quota regulation remained in place until it was finally phased out in the early 1980s.
As an aside, local man, R.C. Sherriff, recorded his memories of life as an officer on the Western Front in his play, 'Journey's End', which later became a major theatrical success, making so much money that even today a local trust established in his name is supporting the arts from the proceeds.
Later on, as the studios expanded further, attempts were made to build a new studio in Walton. A design for the new studio made in 1922 is also included in the autobiography - below - very impressive it is too.
This development did not take place and instead Hepworth acquired the Lodges of Oatlands Park (now Oatlands Park Hotel). According to Chrissie White, the intent was to build a new studio in the grounds. The legal Deeds associated with this transaction came up for sale in 2005 or so but sadly I was not able to secure them for display on this site. It seems he did not own the Lodges for long.
After World War I, when the US emerged as the dominant force in world cinema, many European countries took steps to protect their domestic film industries from aggressive American policies. Most of these national schemes involved some form of distribution or exhibition quota, linking the number of imported US f