Cecil Hepworth: Cinema's Forgotten Pioneer

Cecil Hepworth, who lived in Walton-on-Thames, was a key player in the early development of cinema. His work helped to develop filmmaking techniques that are still used today.


A Walton man

In 1899, Cecil Hepworth rented a house in Walton-on-Thames for use as a production studio. He was already becoming famous for short comic shock films such as 'How it Feels to be Runover' (1900) and 'Explosion of a Motorcar' (1901), and it is possible he filmed those near to his studios. The house was in Hurst Grove, a short way from the centre of the village.

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Having a film crew in Walton interested a lot of villagers, who were used as extras. The actors would often be outside in costumes and makeup. A local resident J.T. Smith remembered that:

'They looked horrible. Deep yellow faces with blue around the eyes, thick eyelashes and sometimes a man would be seen with terribly life-like scars on his face'

Local residents also recall a funny incident that happened one day while at Walton Village Hall. A local (unpopular) doctor thought that the dummy that Hepworth was using for a scene had been involved in an accident. The doctor rushed over to help, much to the delight of the gathered crowd.

In 1905, Cecil Hepworth submitted a planning application for another studio to be built. This was to be a photographic studio that would give him more control over the elements and would enable he and his team to film indoors on a set. The application was approved and was the first of three extensions he applied for.

Actors in costumes for Cecil Hepworth's 'Alice in Wonderland' at Mount Felix in Walton, 1903
Actors in costumes for Cecil Hepworth's 'Alice in Wonderland' at Mount Felix in Walton, 1903

'Alice in Wonderland' 1903


This was the first feature length film of Lewis Carroll's book, Alice in Wonderland. Cecil Hepworth filmed the film in the gardens of Mount Felix, the manor house in Walton.

For a film made in 1903, the details on the costumes are extraordinary. The playing cards have their own outfits, and Hepworth himself appears in the film as a frog. Hepworth mainly used his family in his early works; and in this film his wife appears as the White Rabbit. When the film was first produced, it was filmed onto negatives.

This film was particularly long at 800 metres (roughly 0.15 of a mile), so people could purchase copied sections of the negative if they didn't want the whole reel. The film is full of 'trick shots' and illusions, which were very advanced for the time. The special effects Cecil Hepworth used include Alice falling down the rabbit hole and that Cheshire cat that appears in the tree is a real cat, imposed onto the shot by combining two negatives.

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Hepworth's Studio


Situated in Hurst Grove, Walton-on-Thames, Cecil Hepworth used his studio as the central point for all things to do with film. The rented property was rarely used as a home. Instead, the rooms were used as production rooms for developing negatives. Hepworth once experimented with film processing to see if he could speed up the process. He used Collodion, a chemical combination that includes alcohol and ether. The vapours from the experiment had the same effect as drinking alcohol, which left them feeling rather giddy. This picture (from 1912) shows the inside of Hepworth's studio. 1912 also saw an application for a proposed garage, toning room and projection room.

Cecil Hepworth worked on an invention called a 'vivaphone', an early (if somewhat unsuccessful) attempt to introduce sound into film. The vivaphone played on a gramophone record and the actors mimed along - the trick was to keep the record matching the image (otherwise it would be out of sync) which often made the film funnier than it was intended to be.

'Rescued by Rover' film by Cecil Hepworth
'Rescued by Rover' film by Cecil Hepworth

'Rescued by Rover' 1905


This short film was one of Cecil Hepworth's most popular films. It was so popular that the original negatives wore out twice, and 400 copies were sold at £8 each, a large sum of money in 1905. Hepworth's early films often included his family, and this film featured the family pet dog Blair as Rover.

In the story, Rover rescues the family's kidnapped baby daughter after she is stolen. Blair was probably the first animal film star! What makes this film and Cecil Hepworth both so important is the way Hepworth uses the movement of the camera and editing the negatives to create a story. By using these techniques it helped the audience to follow the story even though there were no words spoken.


Funeral of Queen Victoria
Funeral of Queen Victoria

Capturing Reality


Cecil Hepworth also shot real life footage, and one extremely important film he took was of Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901. This was an event of national and international significance, and represented an opportunity to demonstrate how modern technology and communication were evolving.

The borough of Elmbridge had its own connections to Queen Victoria, who frequently visited Claremont House. Hepworth filmed the procession with a camera of his own invention, which although movable, was very loud. It was loud enough make the future King Edward VII halt, and there is a moment in the footage where he looks directly at the camera. These early films offer valuable insights into historical events such as this, and it is because of Cecil Hepworth that we can see such an event unfold.


Hepworth's Legacy

Cecil Hepworth was an inventor who was not afraid to experiment with film and to deliver the unexpected. His contribution to filmmaking is still evident today. Rescued by Rover uses panning shots to follow Rover's progress on screen, something that an audience will expect to see to help tell the story even when watching an ordinary television programme.


'Came the Dawn, Memories of a Film Pioneer' Cecil M Hepworth, Phoenix House Limited, London 1951

Baynham Honri 'Cecil M Hepworth, His Studios and Techniques' Part 1, British Journal of Photography, 1971

Baynham Honri 'Cecil M Hepworth, His Studios and Techniques' Part 2, British Journal of Photography, 1971

Typescript of Memories of Miss Wing and Mrs Hyman

Typescript of the Memoirs of Mr Stanley Faithfull, March 1973

Extract from chapter 10 of J.T. Smith's life in Walton on Thames, 1912-1930

All maps and postcards available from Elmbridge Museum's archive. To find out more information, please get in touch.|get