Gaumont Comes Home to Champion Hill

By Jasia and William Warren

Setting up a “Friends of…” group for a new park involves a long to-do list: there are constitutions to write, councillors to meet, members to entice in and umpteen conservation projects to initiate. What we hadn’t envisaged as we set up the Friends of Dog Kennel Hill Wood back in 2010 was that we would need to become silent film buffs. And yet this last year has been spent doing just that.

As we were researching the history of the wood and its immediate area we found an article on the Dulwich Society website that mentioned a piece of local history that had been seemingly forgotten, as we could find no mention of it elsewhere. The article was titled “A Franco-British Film Studio at Champion Hill” and was written by film historian Tony Fletcher. It described how Alfred Bromhead had set up a British arm of the French Gaumont film company on the site of Freeman’s Cricket Ground near Champion Hill. In the eight years that the studio was located here, from 1904 - 1912, they made hundreds of short fiction films. The Gaumont stage manager during this period was a local man called Alfred Collins. We came to realise he was an important character in early film as he directed, scripted and starred in many of these short comedies and dramas. He’s credited with being one of the pioneers of the chase scene and for many cinematic breakthroughs such as the close-up.

As we read Tony’s article we realised the location for this early film studio was the current-day Green Dale fields which included Dog Kennel Hill Wood. Tony mentioned that some of these films survived and an idea was born: wouldn’t it be great to track down these films and screen them on the spot where they were made 110 years ago?

Tony is affiliated with the Cinema Museum in Kennington and spends a lot of his time in the basement of the BFI researching early silent films. On hearing of our plan to screen the early Gaumont films on the site of the old studio, he was very keen to help us and invited us to see them.

We descended the stairs of the hallowed Stephen Street building, squeezed into a tiny viewing room and watched as the first 35mm viewing copy rolled. To our amazement we recognised the streets and buildings in the films straight away. The Edwardian actors flickered like ghosts as we saw the area around Champion Hill with Edwardian eyes; the Green Dale fields with sheep grazing on them and groundsman’s lodges; the Constance Road workhouse; St. Augustine’s Church at One Tree Hill and an old horse-drawn 35 bus in Camberwell Green. In total we watched 26 early Gaumont films from the BFI archive with Tony, who also showed us a collection of films from the Library of Congress in Washington that contained six further confirmed Gaumont titles. We had more than enough content for an evening programme, we just needed to work out how to get them out of the BFI basement and into Dog Kennel Hill Open Space.

One option was to rent the 35mm viewing copies from the BFI. This would have meant hiring a 35mm projectionist and projector which can be temperamental at the best of times, let alone when run outdoors in the unpredictable weather conditions of the British summer. The second option was to transfer some of the films onto digibeta. The advantage of this was that the project would leave a legacy of having paid for the digitisation of these rare films, thereby making them more accessible in the future. After a few meetings with the BFI we agreed a budget and on a warm summer’s day we sat in a Soho post-production house and watched as the reels turned and captured the films onto DVD.

Next on the list was finding someone to accompany the films. When films were screened in music halls in Edwardian times, they would have had an improvised musical accompaniment to act as a score. As luck would have it the UK’s most celebrated silent movie pianist, Neil Brand, lives nearby. He was due to accompany a Buster Keaton film for the Peckham Free Film Festival so we approached him after the screening. He had never heard of the Gaumont studio being on the Green Dale fields and, intrigued, agreed to play for us.

Now all we had to do was raise some money! In November the Camberwell Community Council Fund opened its coffers and our application for a grant was successful. We also contacted local businesses and civic societies to ask for donations. Both the Camberwell Society and Dulwich Society offered us some financial support and slowly but surely we reached our target.

All the while we were furiously researching the locations in the films and the history of the area at that time. We made several trips to the Southwark local history library where we pored over maps, photos and Kelly’s Directories with the aim of piecing together a vision of the past. Champion Hill in 1904 was an area in flux: the large houses of the rich Victorians were being knocked down or turned into hotels and schools. In 1906 the trams made their way up the hill from Camberwell and towards Goose Green. These films captured the end of this wealthy era, in the years before the approaching wars and the devastation that they brought.

One of our first film location discoveries came when we found an old photo of the Dulwich Hamlet football team standing in front of one of their pavilions, which we recognised as having featured in the films. It became apparent that Alf Collins hadn’t travelled too far from his outdoor stage with his heavy camera equipment. Little by little we were able to piece together more locations by looking at idiosyncratic brickwork, windows and backgrounds. A building site in one film turned out to be the Arts and Crafts houses on Champion Hill being built. We spotted the long since closed Camberwell Station in the background of another film along with waste-ground which is now the car park of Kings College Hospital.

The real breakthrough moment came when, after the hundredth viewing, we realised that in ‘How Percy Won the Beauty Competition’ (the only film viewable on Youtube) Alf leads the chase past the front of his own stage. In the distance of a long Green Dale shot, a blurred structure can be seen. Early film cameras were not able to shoot inside due to poor lighting and interior scenes needed to be filmed outside to make use of the strong daylight. No other photographic record of the studio has been found but in these few frames we got a glimpse of the simple truth of the Camberwell studios: an open south-facing wooden platform with decorated walls held up by diagonal struts. Other in shot landmarks meant we could pinpoint the location of the stage to the wild ground immediately behind East Dulwich Sainsbury’s today.

After more than a year of planning, researching and organising the screening took place on 30th August 2014. We showed fourteen of the surviving films, interspersed with local history presentations, to an audience of about 400 people. Neil Brand played magnificently, the Free Film Festival team provided the outdoor screen and audio visual know-how and Tony came along to join the audience.

Although the Gaumont studio on Green Dale was no more than a wooden outdoor stage, its importance in UK film history is undeniable. The company ceased production in Champion Hill and moved to its purpose-built studios in Lime Grove in 1915 where they worked with well-known film-makers such as Alfred Hitchcock up until the 1940s.

Our film night’s celebration of the Green Dale area added to another current local discussion: a few weeks earlier the new owners of the DHFC stadium, Hadley Property Group, had announced their intention of putting in a planning application to build (flats?) on the existing football stadium and a new stadium on the Green Dale fields. The freeholders, Southwark Council, have responded with a counter-plan to sanitise the wild space and turn it into a park with an outdoor gym and zip wire. Whatever the future holds for the Green Dale fields, it’s pretty certain that we will never return to the sheep-grazed green playing fields of Edwardian times. At least now we have a record of what the area looked like in 1904.