In 1897, John Le Couteur opened an English agency for the French "Gaumont et Cie" company in London in order to sell their cinematograph machines and films. His assistant was Alfred Bromhead, who soon took over, managing the agency from Le Couteur. In 1899, Bromhead opened a small open air studio at Loughborough Junction on a four-acre site used by the "Loughborough Cricket Club", and for a short period produced a number of fake "China" and "Boer War" films.
By January 1901, Bromhead had moved their production facilities to Walton-on-Thames where he joined forces with Cecil Hepworth to produce and develop films. However, by the end of 1902, Bromhead had returned to the open air theatre at "Loughborough" where a number of films were produced on an uncovered open wooden stage, 30ft by 15ft. Bromhead later recalled a number of these early films, which were often shot in the local streets, including in one film being arrested for causing a disturbance.
During 1904, Bromhead moved to a larger site nearby at "Freeman's Cricket Field" which was situated between Champion Hill and Dog Kennel Hill with Green Lane (now Greendale) appearing as a feature in many of the films, including one extant film where a sheep can be seen grazing in the area, which also included a sign for "St. Olave's" school ground which is still there. The site of "Freeman's Cricket Field" was owned by a local builder, Thomas Freeman, and is situated where the present Sainsbury's supermarket and Dulwich Hamlet Football Ground are. The original site had been leased to the "Champion Hill Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club".
In February 1905, Bromhead stated that the company was based on a 14 acre site, and that it produced 80 000 feet of film per week which converts to an average of 15-20 new films every month. New subjects were staged and rehearsed at approximately £300 each. The wooden open air stage revolved in order to keep the sun in position. The painted scenery and furniture were hired on a daily basis. The actors who the company employed were paid two shillings and sixpence a day, plus an additional four pence for their train fares. "Supers", who were used for the chase crowd scenes in the local streets, were usually paid with free beer from the local pubs.
Bromhead hired a number of outside producers and cameramen to make the films, however his main stage-manager was Alfred Collins, who fitted in his film obligations in between time when he was working as stage manager for Kate Carney, a popular musical performer of the period. If Collins was working outside London with the Kate Carney troupe, Bromhead would send Collins a cameraman so that he could make a film wherever he was at the time.
Apart from the "chase" films, which were a specialty of the company, Gaumont also produced sound-disk films using the Chronophone-Messter system. Leon Gaumont, the French founder of the company came over to Champion Hill to supervise the first two "Chronophones" in 1904. The main producer of these sound films seems to have been Arthur Gilbert who, several years later in 1908, was exhibiting films at the nearby Imperial Hall, in Grove Vale, later the site of the Odeon Cinema. There is an advert from December 1905 relating to a Gaumont Theatre Studio which was used to film the Chronophones. This glass-house studio was 130 ft long, 65 ft wide, and 100 ft high, and was advertised as "a veritable Crystal Palace". Two film sets could be used at any one time, and additional lighting was provided by Cooper-Hewitt Mercury Vapour Lights.
During 1908, Gaumont separated itself from its French parent company and changed its policy to producing "artistic subjects" which included a dramatisation of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (Charles Dickens). Alf Collins had been reduced from being the stage-manager of the company to just an "ideas" man, and his film career was more-or-less over, probably because of his inability to read or write. He had always depended on his wife Maud to write down his ideas for the films, which usually came from "comics".
By 1912, Dulwich Hamlet FC had moved away from the Freeman's site to another pitch nearby, and Lorraine Wilson had taken charge of "The Champion Hill Cricket and Lawn Tennis Ground". This change may have been one of the reasons why Gaumont decided to move. Because of their changeover to making more dramatic films, they decided to dispense with the outdoor film studio and made plans to build a large, indoor, glass-house studio at Lime Grove, Shepherd's Bush, which was opened in 1915.
Approximately 35 fiction films survive from this period between 1903-1910 at Loughborough Junction and Champion Hill, including five Chronophone disc films. As well as producing fiction films, the Gaumont company also specialised in topical films, and in 1906 the company opened one of the first cinemas in London - "The Daily Bioscope" in Bishopsgate.
A number of films from 1903-05 survive as paper print copyright deposits at the Library of Congress in Washington, USA. In Britain, during 1904-05, many of the films were copywrited by having either one frame or one photograph deposited at Stationer's Hall. A number of these deposits indicate that Gaumont hired outside producers, such as the local "Norwood Company" as well as William Haggar, from South-Wales. Gaumont also distributed films by other companies, including the "Clarendon Company" which was based at Selhurst, and the "American Biograph Company" for whom there was a reciprocal agreement.
(I would be interested for any feedback from readers relating to any memories of the film studio at Champion Hill - Tony Fletcher)