Sea Salts and Celluloid
"Living beside the historic harbour of Portsmouth with its great naval traditions and fame as a yachting centre, and with my own love of the sea which as a boy gave me a strong desire to join the Royal Navy and capture pirates, it was natural that in taking up photography I should grasp the opportunity that dry plates offered to obtain sea scenes, and that on the advent of cinematography I should welcome the chance to take living pictures where I had taken still ones. My first attempts with snapshots in 1881 and with the ciné camera in 1897 were both brought to Royal notice, and being thus honoured gave me zest to obtain pictures which were to cause considerable sensation in all parts of the world.
There are still many who have happy recollection of my films which, under the title of "Our Navy", were shown for fourteen years at the Polytechnic, Regent Street, and throughout this country and Colonies. Commencing with an exhibition given before the late King George V when he was Captain of H.M.S. "Crescent" in 1898, it subsequently was honoured by Royal commands from Queen Victoria and King Edward VII.
I think I may lay claim to be one of the earliest of the pioneers following M. Lumière and Mr. Paul, who started exhibiting films in this country in 1896. Certainly I was the first to take films of scenes at sea, and to my programme were later added films of the Army, the Mercantile Marine and the Dominions overseas. Thus was formed an entertainment of imperial interest, in which I was greatly encouraged by the intense enthusiasm with which it was received by the public. 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.
The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty and the members of the Army Council recognised that my efforts were proving splendid propaganda for recruiting purposes, and granted me every facility for obtaining films. I felt that in stimulating patriotic interest with my pictures, I was making myself useful to my country, and from the time of its regal inception until the moment when, fourteen years later, I had to relinquish my work through ill-health, this was my aim. Before I started, I knew nothing of how to run a show, but with the able help of my staff, which numbered something over 50, all of whom loved their work and rendered me loyal assistance, most of the difficulties were overcome. On the eve of my departure for Canada in 1902, my wife and I were deeply touched when the staff presented me with a gold watch and her with a gold bracelet as tokens of their esteem.
It has been suggested that I should write a book about my lifes work, and I am leaving this record of my experiences in the hope that it may be as interesting in the reading as it has been in the fulfilment."
ALFRED J. WEST.
The Victoria Hall Cinema
The first cinema in Portsmouth was the "Victoria Hall" in Commercial Road 1896. Records show that a Mr. Arthur Andrews hired the Victoria Hall for the regular showing of films at the cost of £60 per week and his first presentation on March 26th 1900 was "Our Navy" The film commentary was given by an old sailor Mr Harry Coveneny.
Information taken from: "The cinemas of Portsmouth" published in 1981 by Ron Brown, J.Barker & E Greer.
West's 'Our Navy was firmly established at the Polytechnic Regent Street by 1899. These contemporary reports are taken from University of Westminster Archives by kind permission.
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