A Film Pioneer from St Albans

Celebrating St Albans History Fact number 12There is a rich history of film making here in Hertfordshire, with famous studios at Elstree and Leavesden producing movies which are known around the world. If we turn the clock back to the end of the nineteenth century St Albans too can claim a place in the history of the film industry, with a central role in the first experiments in moving pictures.

Commuters walking towards St Albans station along Alma Road will barely notice the small blue plaque fixed to the wall of a block of flats at the corner of Telford Court. The plaque commemorates the site of the Alpha Cinematographic Works and its founder Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, a pioneer of early British cinema. Although Cooper was undoubtedly present at the birth of the British film industry, film buffs dispute some of his claims to this day.

Cooper was born in St Albans in 1874, and was the son of Thomas Cooper, the city’s first professional photographer. Cooper Snr had moved to St Albans in 1854, and set up his business in rented property in St Peter’s Street, and later in London Road. Learning from his father, by the age of 18 Arthur was an accomplished photographer in his own right, and in 1892 he took up the position (although this is disputed by some) of assistant to Birt Acres, a photographer and film pioneer based in Barnet. Acres patented the first working 35mm moving picture camera in Britain in 1895, and is said to be the world’s first travelling newsreel reporter, with the 1895 Derby and Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race among his early films.

It is claimed that Melbourne-Cooper assisted Birt in filming the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal and the Henley Regatta the previous year. For a number of years around the turn of the century Cooper continued working as a jobbing film cameraman, filming newsworthy topics including the launch of the battleship HMS Albion in 1898, the Coronation of King Edward VII in 1902, and the 1903 Grand National. Some Cooper supporters argue that in 1897 he made Britain’s first film advertisement, for Bird’s Custard Powder. The film showed an old man falling down stairs while carrying a tray of eggs.

Seeking to get into film making himself, in 1901 Cooper set up the Alpha Trading Company in Alma Road, St Albans. The studio was soon producing almost a complete film every day, from documentaries to comedy shorts and animated films. Cooper used toys bought from shops in his animated films, often combining animation with live action sequences. One of his most controversial claims is that he produced a government-backed film in aid of supplies for the Boer War called Matches: An Appeal, said to be the world’s first stop-motion animated film. While Cooper maintained he made the film in 1899, others have dated it to 1908 or 1915. Sadly the original film reel no longer exists to provide the evidence. There is also confusion about other films claimed by Cooper to be his own work, notably Dolly’s Toys from 1901, which has been credited at various times to two other early film animators. Cooper’s daughter, Audrey, has stated that her father rarely took out copyright protection on his work and that often distributors and agents would add their own trademarks, leading to her father’s films being wrongly attributed in later years.

As a precursor to the multiplex entertainment centres we see today, Cooper’s next venture was to open the Alpha Picture Palace on London Road, in 1908. This was the first cinema in Hertfordshire, and the first in Britain to feature a sloping floor for easier viewing. Adjacent to his cinema Cooper built shops, a restaurant, swimming pool and hairdressers. Increasing concerns about fire safety forced Cooper to sell the property in 1911, and the building was in fact eventually destroyed by fire in 1927. Happily, though, a new picture house was built on the site in the Art Deco style, and in 1945 this was re-named the Odeon cinema. After a long period of decline the Odeon closed in 1995, only to be resurrected in late 2014 after a complete refurbishment, and the building now operates with great success as The Odyssey cinema.

As for Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, two fires at his second cinema in Letchworth brought him into financial difficulties and he was forced to close down his businesses in St Albans in 1911. Moving to London, Cooper found work where he could in the film industry, before setting up two new production companies, Heron Films Ltd and Kinema Industries. Among the films and documentaries they produced is The Suffragette Derby from 1913, which infamously includes footage of Emily Davison being trampled by King George V’s horse.

At the outbreak of World War One, the film companies closed down and Cooper became a munitions inspector in Luton. The end of the war saw Cooper and his family move to Blackpool, where for a number of years he made animated advertising films, including adverts for Cadbury’s chocolates and Paddy Whiskey. After retiring in 1940, Cooper moved to Coton, near Cambridge, where he died in 1961.

Despite the confusion over the attribution of some of the early works claimed by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, there is no doubt that he contributed significantly to the early years of film production in Britain. Who knows, without him there may have been no James Bond, Indiana Jones, or Harry Potter making films at Hertfordshire’s famous film studios.

This article is part of our Celebrating St Albans History series. You can view all our historical facts on our Celebrating St Albans History page.