London – birthplace and home of the British film business
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London, in the period covered here (1894-1914), was the largest city in the world. It was the national centre of industry, manufacture, politics, commerce and communications. It was the country’s largest port, the focal point of road and rail networks, and the centre of the British Empire. Over the previous fifty years, London had experienced huge population growth. At the time of the 1911 census, the population of Greater London was 7,160,441, while that of the inner London metropolitan areas was 4,521,685. It was home to some twenty per cent of the British population.
Greater London was defined as an area measured within a fifteen mile radius of Charing Cross. The County of London or inner London area was that covered by the London County Council (LCC), a directly elected body first established in 1889, replacing the corrupt and discredited Metropolitan Board of Works. The LCC embraced twenty-eight boroughs (the City of London was administered separately, but has been in the London Project database survey, which also takes in the Greater London area as a whole).
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The motion picture business, which first emerged in 1894, was very much a product of London’s status as an industrial and commercial centre, as well as its being the nation’s entertainment centre. Here were not only the theatres, music halls and public centres where films would first be exhibited, but it was where the first speculators in this new business gathered, here the exploitation of innovations in technology was nurtured, and here were the pre-existing businesses in the photographic, lantern and theatrical entertainment industries which would form the basis of the new industry. It was in London that the motion picture businesses producers, distributors and exhibition companies were based, and from London that films would be distributed across the country and abroad.
London also provided a huge new audience for cinemas, once these started to emerge, from 1906 onwards, as recognisably new venues for public entertainment. By 1911, London had 104 theatres and music halls with seating for 140,857. But it now had 265 cinemas (and 383 film venues of all kinds, including theatres and music halls), with a combined seating capacity of 155,000. This figure should be multiplied that much further to accommodate at least two, and in at least half of all cases several programmes a day. Of course, the cinemas were never full all the time, and the actual cinema audience as opposed to the potential one is a far more difficult figure to determine, but nevertheless, by 1911 alone there was potentially a total cinema seating capacity of perhaps half a million. The majority of this audience was working class, which flocked to this new, cheap entertainment now to be found on their doorstep – by 1911, there were an average 2.8 cinemas per square mile across the County of London. With tickets as cheap as a penny, the audience for the cinema was also dominated by children, a sector of society hitherto excluded from most forms of public entertainment. By 1914, London had some 475 film venues (most of which were cinemas), whilst in the country the figure was 4,000. By any measure, the social impact of this new industry and this new form of public entertainment, appearing so rapidly, was huge.