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From Ballifield, Handsworth, to Ballifield, USA

Trenton is the capital city of the U.S. state of New Jersey and the county seat of Mercer County. It briefly served as the capital of the United States in 1784

Mahlon Stayce was born at Dore House on the family’s Ballifield estate, Handsworth, in 1638, and married Rebekah Ely in 1668. Both their families were English Quakers, a new religious movement that was treated with suspicion and hostility under the parliamentary rule of Oliver Cromwell following the English civil war. With the return of the monarchy by Charles II, Quakers were subject to persecution for their refusals to conform to the Church of England. Their refusal to pay mandatory tithes meant they faced crippling fines or imprisonment, and many decided to practice their faith in the American colonies.

Mahlon Stayce, a tanner, acquired, as a creditor, a large chunk of colonial soil in West Jersey, America, and his family sailed from Hull in 1678. He established his home on the south bank of the Assunpink Creek and called it Ballifield after his ancestral home at Handsworth.

Ballifield Hall in the late 1800s, rebuilt by Peter Cadman, and for many years previous was the home of the Stacye Family. Photograph: Picture Sheffield

Stacye was given permission to build a new settlement at the side of the Delaware River where he founded a church. The town was originally called The Falls, and later Stacye’s Mill.

Stacye held a large estate, had several business interests, and held many titles in public life.  He died a wealthy and respected citizen in 1704.

By 1719, the town had adopted the name “Trent-towne”, after William Trent, a Philadelphia merchant, who purchased much of the surrounding land from Stacye’s family

This humble settlement, with its Handsworth origins, grew into a big city – Trenton, New Jersey.

Back in Sheffield, Ballifield Hall has gone, the Ballifield housing estate built on its former parkland.

In 1910, the Trenton Chamber of Commerce put out a contest to create the slogan to be put on the bridge. S. Roy Heath was the winner of the contest, making him the creator of “Trenton Makes, The World Takes.”
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A forgotten son who created visuals for classic mid-century travel posters and architectural landmarks

Time makes us forget, and this applies to the work of Sheffield artist Kenneth Steel. He was a painter and etcher, noted for his watercolours, but since his death in 1970 his work is often overlooked.

Kenneth Steel was born in 1906, the son of George Thomas Steel, an artist and silver engraver. His eldest brother, George Hammond Steel (1900-1960) was a successful landscape painter, and both brothers studied at Sheffield College of Art under Anthony Betts. During the 1920s, Kenneth studied briefly under landscape artist, Stanley Royle, and exhibited his watercolours, oils, and engravings in Sheffield at the Heeley Art Club and Hallamshire Sketch Club.

In 1932 he secured a contract with the print publishers, James Connell and Sons, and annually published line engraving and drypoint prints both before and after the War. In 1935 he exhibited two of these prints at the Royal Academy and then in November 1935 he became the youngest elected member of the Royal Society of British Artists. His work in watercolour was shown at three one man exhibitions in London in 1934 and 1937 and Dublin in 1938. After World War Two he diversified into the fields of perspective drawings and commercial art. This included railway posters and carriage prints.

Among his most famous pieces are Sheffield Castle from 1964, commissioned by the Brightside and Carbrook Co-operative Society to hang in Castle House, an imaginary view of Sheffield Castle as it might have looked.

Oil Painting of Sheffield Castle by Kenneth Steel R.B.A. S.G.A. Art., commissioned by the Board of Directors for the new Boardroom at Castle House, September 1964. 

From his studio in Crookes, Kenneth found work preparing watercolour washed perspective drawings commissioned by the construction industry. One of these, the Electricity Sub Station on Moore Street, painted in 1965-1966, was a classic piece of Brutal architecture. Other works included Jodrell Bank Observatory, South Kirkby Colliery and Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet.

Kenneth wrote a number of books on artistic techniques and had his work widely reproduced in such publications as Arts Review, Sphere, Studio and The Artist.

Cadman Lane by Kenneth Steel, looking towards the Town Hall and Norfolk Street. Photograph: Picture Sheffield

But there was tragedy in his life. His mother and pregnant wife were both killed during the Sheffield Blitz, and much of his work destroyed. He remarried in 1953 and the last two decades of his life produced some of his most experimental artistic work.

The proposed Sheffield city centre redevelopment, 1908-1926 showing the Law Courts from a new Chester Street. There were a number of artworks created by Kenneth Steel that are thought to be lost. Devonshire Green now occupies the site of the original Chester Street. The proposal never came to light. Photograph: Artist’s Estate

His work can be found in a book ‘Kenneth Steel. Catalogue Raisonné of Prints and Posters’ with full-colour illustrations of his watercolour and oil paintings, plus his perspective drawings and later palette knife oil paintings of the Balearic Islands and beyond. The appendices include a complete catalogue of his fifty-four line engraving and drypoint prints, plus a full catalogue raisonné of his 48 Railway posters and thirty-five carriage prints.

These now sought-after posters – nostalgic reminders of a vanished world – adorned railway station platforms, carriages, and waiting rooms.

This month you can view Kenneth Steel’s work in a new exhibition at Weston Park Museum. It is curated by Lucy Cooper, exhibitions and display curator at Sheffield Museums, and runs from December 17 until May 2.

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Roger Moffat: “Nobody did it like me.”

Roger Moffat at Radio Hallam. Photograph: Picture Sheffield

There I was, looking for something completely different, and I discovered that on this day in 1986 Roger Moffat died (aged 59) at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital.

It was a hard-drinking, fag-fuelled, career with Radio Luxembourg and BBC Radio, not to mention TV with Pinky and Perky (1957), Here’s Harry (1960) and Like … Music (1962).

Roger Moffat was best-known to us on Radio Hallam (as was) – an eccentric, masterful storyteller, and leader of controversy. As somebody commented, “Who would dare hire somebody like this nowadays?”

‘Our Rog’ might only have been on the airwaves at Radio Hallam for seven years, but it is quite incredible that Sheffield people still talk about him 35 years later.

The photograph above is dated 1980/1981 which meant his days at the station were numbered. He “sally forthed” to Scotland for a holiday, was dropped by Hallam, and only reappeared when his own pre-recorded obituary was broadcast after his death.

Here is a sad story that takes place in 1985, a year before he died.

I was working at a supermarket at Broomhill in Sheffield and asked to deliver provisions to him. Carved ham, cut half an inch thick, and Italian garlic salad dressing. He was bed-ridden in a ground-floor bedsit. Memorabilia was piled high – records, cassettes, newspapers, books, fag packets, and, of course, a radio to listen to.

Roger looked a lonely old man, very charming, and still able to entertain an audience of one. He was a brilliant storyteller. I was so captivated that I forgot to take payment for his shopping and ended up paying for it myself.

Had he still been alive, Roger would have been ninety-four.

Long-gone, not-forgotten, and if only he had completed his autobiography that was to have been called ‘Nobody Did It Like Me.”

Announcer Roger Moffat announces the end of the Light Programme, 1967. Photograph: BBC

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved

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Robert Eadon Leader’s long life saw the greatest development in world history and Sheffield shared it to the full

Robert Eadon Leader (1838-1922). “One may be quite sure in reading anything he wrote that if he made a definitive statement he had verified everything before committing to writing.” Photograph: Picture Sheffield

If it had not been for Robert Eadon Leader, we might not know much about Sheffield history. Today, his work provides us with a definitive account of our past. “He was an antiquary to the finger-tips, with an infinite relish for patiently searching among old records, and a comprehensive knowledge which enabled him to distinguish truth from myth, almost at a glance.”

Robert Eadon Leader, journalist, Liberal activist, and historian, was the son of Alderman Robert Leader and was born at Broomhall in 1839. He was the descendant of an old Sheffield family, his ancestors for four generations connected with the firm of Tudor, Leader, and Nicholson, silversmiths.

His grandfather became proprietor of the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent in 1830, and his father succeeded to the paper in 1842.

In 1860, Robert and his older brother, John Daniel Leader, were admitted into partnership. Four years later, the father retired in favour of his two sons, though he continued to take an active part in the editorial work until 1875.

The brothers divided work between them. Robert became editor and John became commercial manager, an arrangement that lasted until 1892, when Robert became a Liberal Parliamentary candidate and gave up the editorial chair. The  Leader family sold the paper a few years later.

“Occasionally when some question arose regarding Sheffield history I wrote and asked him about it and invariably received a courteous reply giving me all the information I wanted. It was invariably accompanied by a note that I was at liberty to make what use I liked of it, but not to mention his name.” -Unknown journalist – 1939. Photograph: Picture Sheffield

His expertise in local history was comprehensive, and his most famous volumes were ‘Reminiscences of Old Sheffield’ and ‘Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century’. He also published two volumes of the ‘History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire’, written at the request of the Company. It was completed when King Edward and Queen Alexandria visited Sheffield for the opening of the University and handsomely bound copies were presented to them.

Robert also wrote ‘Local Notes and Queries’ and ‘Spectator in Hallamshire’ for the Sheffield Independent.

He lived at Moorgate, on Crookesmoor Road, and moved to London in 1893. He died at his home in Whetstone in 1922 and was cremated, his ashes afterwards brought to Sheffield and interred in the family vault at the General Cemetery.

The widespread collection of his papers is held by Sheffield City Archives, and what a treasure trove these will be! And don’t forget that Leader House, the ancient family home, still stands at the end of Surrey Street.

R.E. Leader had the reputation of being able to put more cutting sarcasm into a few words than any man in Sheffield, and wielded a terrible lash with merciless power. But, personally, he was an agreeable man, with a charming manner.” Photograph: Picture Sheffield.

NOTE
Next year will be the centenary of Robert Eadon Leader’s death and I plan to put together a more comprehensive history then.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved

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Joe Cocker: “A bruised but not beaten prize fighter, a lover of the blues, someone who lived hard, but always a decent man.”

Wiping his hands on his faded overalls, Joe loftily informed East Midlands Gas Board that he was tired of being a pipe fitter and would prefer to be a rock star. They handed him his cards with knowing northern smiles which said: ‘All right, lad – but you’ll be back.”

But John Robert ‘Joe’ Cocker, late of Sheffield Central Technical School (plumbing, bricklaying, and carpentry) never came back.

He became the biggest pop sensation in the United States. The Yorkshire lad who once connected gas stoves packed them in coast to coast with his gutsy, gravel voice.

“The force that flows from him so openly, places him as one of the top white blues singers around,” was how one critic put it in 1970.

He shuffled on stage in a scruffy pair of bleached jeans topped by a ragged grey sweatshirt. Hands contorting, eyes rolling, body jerking, he put on a fascinating display of frenzied agony.

By this time, it had been eight years since he had left the gas board and singing in Sheffield pubs. “The audiences were a young crowd, heavy drinkers and good scrappers. We didn’t make much money, but that didn’t matter. We only spent it on beer anyway,” he recalled.

In 1968, when Joe and his newly-formed ‘Grease Band’, were playing in London they were spotted by American promoter Dee Anthony who took them to the States.

A string of concert dates and TV appearances climaxed with his appearance at the Woodstock festival in August 1969, where his extraordinary performance of With a Little Help from My Friends became one of the unforgettable sequences from the ensuing movie of the event. It became number one in the UK and would later be used as the theme song in the US TV series The Wonder Years.

But he was impatient with the trappings of stardom.

“Sometimes I think I would like to go back to things just as they were, like in the old days in the Sheffield pubs with people enjoying themselves.”

Cocker’s musical career lasted more than 50 years with over 21 studio albums as well as a multitude of live ones, and in 1982 released Sheffield Steel, a nod to his home city. His hit singles included You Are So Beautiful, Woman to Woman, Unchain My Heart and the most successful of his career, Up Where We Belong, his duet with Jennifer Warnes  (and the theme song to 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman).

An American resident, Cocker bounced chart-topping success with drug and alcohol abuse. He died in Colorado from lung cancer, aged 70, in 2014.

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A Fiennes Romance: From Darnall to Hollywood

Sir Maurice Fiennes. A leader of British industry during the 1960s. His long association with Sheffield ended in 1969 but his family legacy is quite remarkable. Photograph: British Newspaper Archive

Sir Maurice Alberic Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, (1907-1994), played an important part in Sheffield’s industrial history. He is forgotten, but his grandchildren are most certainly not.

Fiennes was the son of Alberic Arthur Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, and great-grandson of Frederick Benjamin Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 16th Baron Saye and Sele. 

He was born at Brentford, educated at Repton, Derbyshire, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and in 1937 joined the United Steel Companies of Sheffield, taking charge of the forging and gun departments at Steel, Peech and Tozer. After a spell in Loughborough, Fiennes became Managing Director of Davy United Engineering at Darnall in 1945. He became Chairman of Davy-Ashmore, was knighted in 1965, and achieved success as a producer of high quality British steel until 1969.

Davy and United Engineering Company Ltd, Darnall Works, Prince of Wales Road, seen here in 1960. Photograph: Picture Sheffield

Amongst his other roles, Fiennes was a President of the Iron and Steel Institute, Chairman of the Steel Works Plant Association, was on the Committee on Overseas Credit of the Federation of British Industries, and a member of the Engineering Advisory Council of the Board of Trade. Locally, he was President of the Sheffield and District Engineering Trades Employers Association, an Assistant on the Cutlers’ Company, and Chairman of the Committee of the Sheffield Philharmonic Society.

He married Sylvia Finlay in 1932 and had five children – three girls and two boys – the oldest of which was Mark Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (1933-2004), a photographer and illustrator, chiefly known for his architectural photographs, which appeared in Country Life.

Mark Fiennes. “The breadth of his work reflected his alertness to the eccentricities of mankind, his keen eye, his mischievous humour and his deep sensitivity.” – Ralph Fiennes. Photograph: HowOld

Mark Fiennes (third cousin to explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes) married novelist Jennifer Lash in 1962 and had six children: Ralph, Martha, Magnus, Sophie, Jacob, and Joseph. They also fostered the 11-year-old Mike Emery.

Martha and Sophie are both film producers and directors, with Martha winning awards for her film Onegin and Sophie being director of arts documentaries. Magnus is a film and television composer whose work includes his sister’s Onegin and Chromophobia as well as television programmes like Hustle, Murphy’s Law, and Death in Paradise, and has also worked with Shakira, Pulp, Tom Jones and Morcheeba.

The two most famous of Mark and Jennifer’s children are Ralph and Joseph, acclaimed movie actors.

Ralph’s breakout role occurred in Schindler’s List, when he played Nazi concentration camp commandant Amon Göth. He’s since been in The Avengers, The English Patient, Red Dragon, and Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.

Joseph is no pale shadow, known best as William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love, as well as Elizabeth, Enemy at the Gates, Luther, The Merchant of Venice, and most recently in The Handmaid’s Tale. He also starred as Edward II at the Crucible Theatre in 2001.

Joseph’s twin brother, Jacob, is Director of Conservation at the Holkham estate in Norfolk, and foster brother Michael Emery is an acclaimed archaeologist.

Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes was born at Ipswich in 1962.
Joseph Alberic Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes was born at Salisbury in 1970.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved

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The Devil Man: Edgar Wallace and The Life and Death of Charles Peace

Edgar Wallace (1875 – 1932)

Reading a biography of Edgar Wallace is an exhausting experience. He was the author of over 170 books, translated into more than thirty languages. More films were made from his books than any other twentieth-century writer, and in the 1920s a quarter of all books read in England were written by him.

He was said to sleep just a few hours every night. The rest of the time was spent dictating novels, plays (many of which were performed at Sheffield’s Theatre Royal and Lyceum), newspaper articles, and racing tips. His secretaries typed out finished copy and sent them off to publishers.

Edgar Wallace, the illegitimate son of a travelling actress, rose from poverty in Victorian England to become the most popular author in the world and a global celebrity of his age. He scooped the signing of the Boer War peace treaty when working as a war correspondent, before achieving success as a film director and playwright. At the height of his success, he was earning a vast fortune, but the money went out as fast as it came in. Famous for his thrillers, with their fantastic plots, in many ways Wallace did not write his most exciting story: he lived it.

Edgar Wallace. “He knew wealth & poverty, yet had walked with kings and kept his bearing. Of his talents he gave lavishly to authorship – but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.”

In the 1930s, Joseph P. Lamb, the Sheffield city librarian, analysed borrowing trends and decided that people wanted the same type of books – they ‘read along mass lines,’ he once said, and people were irritated when ‘their’ books were out on loan. As a result of this, books by populist authors like Edgar Wallace were purchased in fifties of each title.

In 1931, Edgar Wallace published ‘The Devil Man,’ with definitive links to Sheffield.

The book focused on Sheffield’s favourite criminal Charles Peace. According to the Sheffield Daily Independent it held the reader throughout. ‘The bad little man is as fascinating in Mr Wallace’s pages as he was supposed to be to women during his lifetime.’

“He was a queer, incongruous figure of a man. His height could not have been more than five feet; the big, dark, deep-set eyes were the one pleasant feature in a face which was utterly repulsive. They were the eyes of an intelligent animal. The forehead was grotesquely high, running in furrows almost to where at the crown of his head, a mop of grey hair rolled back. The unshaven cheeks were cadaverous, deeply lined and hollow. He wore home-knitted mittens, and in one hand clutched an ancient violin case.”

The Devil Man: The Life and Death of Charles Peace (1931)

Wallace did not mix fiction with fact, ‘he rather built an additional storey of fiction on the solid house of fact.’

Wallace raked Peace’s ugly career as it stood – his friendship with the flashy Mrs Dyson and the subsequent murder of her husband – and superimposed a strange plot regarding the secret of a new steel process – presumably stainless.

Dyson had in his possession a bottle containing some all-important crystals, and Peace is offered a large sum of money by foreigners living in Sheffield if he will steal the bottle.

This, according to Wallace, was his errand on that terrible night in Banner Cross in November 1876 when Peace shot Dyson, a former neighbour at Darnall.

Peace quarrelled with Mrs Dyson, shot her husband, secured the bottle, and then handed it to a confederate, which was the last he ever saw of it. It was in connection with this murder  that, according to Wallace, Peace had previously gone to Manchester to commit a burglary and murdered a policeman.

Charles Peace (1832-1879) Photograph: Picture Sheffield

‘The atmosphere of Sheffield in the ‘70s is deftly caught,’ said the Sheffield Daily Independent. ‘And although one feels in this book as one does in other Wallace novels – that toward the end the author has got a little bored with his subject: the story is brilliantly told.’

Wallace stated that it had taken him four years to collect the facts for the story, four months to construct the book, and four days to write it.

According to author Neil Clark, who penned ‘Stranger Than Fiction – The Life of Edgar Wallace’, ‘Sir Patrick Hastings was a guest during the weekend Wallace wrote the 70,000-word novel in just sixty hours. Hastings had difficulty in sleeping on the Friday night, and had gone to Wallace’s study where he found him dictating. He sat and watched him for two hours and was enthralled by the way Wallace worked. By nine o’clock on Monday morning, Wallace had completed his task, which earned him £4,000 in serial rights alone. He then went to bed for two days to make up for the sleep he had missed.’

A year after the novel was published, Edgar Wallace went to Hollywood to work on the RKO ‘gorilla picture’ King Kong, but his gruelling lifestyle finally caught up with him, and he died of diabetes and double pneumonia in February 1932.

In his will it was revealed that he had debts of £140,000 and almost all his possessions had to be sold. However, within two years, the royalties from Wallace’s work had cleared all the debts.

Sources: Stranger Than Fiction – The Life od Edgar Wallace, The Man Who Created King Kong, by Neil Clark (2014) and Val Hewson at The Auden Generation and After conference, Sheffield Hallam University, 17 June 2016.

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John Harris: a bestselling author over four decades

John Harris (1916-1991). Photograph: Picture Sheffield.

He might not have been from Sheffield, but Rotherham counts, and the steel city had a big impact on his career.

Ernest John Harris (1916-1991) was a sailor, airman, a journalist, travel courier, cartoonist, and a history teacher. He was best known as a productive author publishing a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Pel, as well as numerous war books. He wrote under his own name, John Harris, and under the pennames of Mark Hebden and Max Hennessy.

He wrote more than 80 novels, including The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1953) that became a film of the same name starring Michael Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde and Anthony Steel.

Harris was educated at Rotherham Grammar School before getting a job as a reporter at the Rotherham Advertiser in the early 1930s.

He married Betty Wragg in Rotherham and had a son, Max, and a daughter, Juliet, who carried on the Pel detective series after her father’s death.

Harris moved to the Sheffield Telegraph and during World War Two served in the RAF as a corporal attached to the South African Air Force. It was said that he served two navies and two air forces during the war.

Afterwards, he re-joined the Sheffield Telegraph as a political and comedy cartoonist, drawing comic strips such as the Calamity Kids and Amateur Archie, and published his first novel, The Lonely Voyage, in 1951.

Amateur Archie featured in the Sheffield Telegraph, as well as other regional newspapers during the 1950s. Photograph: British Newspaper Archive.

He stayed in Sheffield until the 1950s and following the success of The Sea Shall Not Have Them became a full-time author, moving to West Wittering in West Sussex.

After turning to full-time writing, Harris wrote adventure stories and created a sequence of crime novels around the quirky fictional character Chief Inspector Pel.

Covenant with Death was published in 1961 and despite critical acclaim has long-since been overlooked. Photograph: Sphere.

Harris’s books are still in publication, and for Sheffielders, a must-read is Covenant with Death (1961), a ‘fictionary’ account of the Sheffield City Battalion from its formation to catastrophe at Serre on 1 July 1916.

“When war breaks out in 1914, Mark Fenner and his Sheffield friends immediately flock to Kitchener’s call. Amid waving flags and boozy celebration, the three men – Fen, his best friend Locky and self-assured Frank, rival for the woman Fen loves – enlist as volunteers to take on the Germans and win glory.

“Through ramshackle training in sodden England and a stint in arid Egypt, rebellious but brave Fen proves himself to be a natural leader, only undermined by on-going friction with Frank. Headed by terse, tough Sergeant Major Bold, this group of young men form steel-strong bonds and yearn to face the great adventure of the Western Front.

“Then, on one summer’s day in 1916, Fen and his band of brothers are sent to the Somme, and this very ordinary hero discovers what it means to fight for your life.”

Harris interviewed battalion survivors for the book, and the central character, Mark Fenner, is partly based on his Sheffield Telegraph colleague Jess Richard ‘Roddy’ Robinson.

John Harris died in 1991.

A master of war and crime fiction. Photograph: Curtis Brown.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

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J. Stuart Blackton: From Broomspring Lane to Hollywood

The land on which the Vitagraph Studios were situated can trace its motion picture history back to around 1906, when it served as a studio and backlot. In 2017 the site became an eight-story, 300-unit apartment building. Photograph: Google.

This story starts with an apartment complex in Brooklyn, bounded by East 14th Street, Locust Avenue, Chestnut Avenue, and the Brighton Line of the New York City Subway. The smart new development is called The Vitagraph, built on the site of Vitagraph Studios (1906), the first modern motion picture production company in the U.S.. Apart from the name, the only thing that survives is an adjacent smokestack on which you can still make out the VITAGRAPH name.

In 1896, James Stuart Blackton, a journalist and illustrator for the New York Evening World interviewed Thomas Edison about his new Vitascope, and the man was impressed enough with Blackton’s drawings to make a cartoon film with him: Blackton the Evening World Cartoonist. This was twenty-eight years before Walt Disney formally introduced us to Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. Blackton bought a Kinetoscope from Edison and went into partnership with Albert E. Smith, and later William T. Rock, to form the Vitagraph Company.

The studio produced films in which they acted themselves. Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (1898), proved popular in recreating an incident from the Spanish-American war and Vitagraph went on to explore all types of filmmaking, including actualities of local events, comedy series (such as The Happy Hooligan) and adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens.

At the Vitagraph Studios, Blackton pioneered stop frame animation and shot one of his most successful films, Humorous Phases of a Funny Face (1906). He was also innovative in editing techniques and camera work and streamlined processes of the studio to supervise several productions at once.

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is a 1906 short silent animated cartoon directed by James Stuart Blackton and generally regarded by film historians as the first animated film recorded on standard picture film.

This was long before Hollywood established itself as the centre of the movie industry and at its peak, Vitagraph was producing up to eight films a week on the Brooklyn lot, and all because of one enterprising Sheffield lad.

James Stuart Blacktin was born in Sheffield in 1875, the son of Henry Blacktin, a saw-maker, and Jessie Stuart, but weeks after his birth his mother filed  for divorce.

“She had been beaten regularly by a drunken Henry Blacktin prior and during her pregnancy, he raped her when she refused sex, denied her food at home if she didn’t put in slave hours at the saw-making shop, was told she would have to become a prostitute if that was the only way he could get back money to pay a loan to her father, threatened her with death if she informed her family of the state of her marriage, and cut her off from all her friends.”

Mother and son moved into her family home at 121 Broomspring Lane, and James attended nearby Eton House Collegiate School. In 1886, when he was aged 11, they travelled from Liverpool to New York aboard the SS Celtic to start afresh. He changed his surname to Blackton and ten years after arriving met up with Thomas Edison.

Broomspring Lane, Sheffield. James Stuart Blacktin lived here with his mother’s family before emigrating to New York and setting up Vitagraph Studios. Photograph: Google.
James Stuart Blackton (1875-1941), the British-born U.S. film director and producer who introduced animation and other important film techniques that helped shape and stimulate the development of cinematic art.

Blackton left Vitagraph in 1917 selling his stock for $1.5million and became an independent producer making four big productions a year that were released through Paramount.

In 1920, Blackton visited Sheffield for the first time in 34 years and presented a private showing of his latest picture Passers-By at the Electra Palace in Fitzalan Square (later to become the Classic).

Accompanied by his beautiful young wife he had been looking around the country with an eye to producing pictures here.

“I think there is a splendid opening, and I expect to be over again by the New Year ready to start work.” he said. “I shall never produce a photo-play that I would not like my wife and children to see. I want all screen plays to reflect the beauty of the home, of motherhood, and of life, and to appeal to clean-minded people.”

In 1921 he came to England, where he directed three lavish costume dramas in ‘Prizmacolor’. The Glorious Adventure (1922) and The Virgin Queen (1923) both starred the society beauty Lady Diana Cooper (billed as Diana Manners); Gypsy Cavalier (1922) starred the world light heavyweight boxing champion, George Carpentier. 

Blackton returned to the US in 1923 and directed several more films, including Beloved Brute (1924) starring Victor McLaglen, who he had used in The Glorious Adventure.

In 1927, Hudson Maxim, the U.S. inventor and chemist, visited his ‘young’ friend James Stuart Blackton, who had invented a stereoscopic film, to examine the latest development in motion-picture technique. He was seen comparing a film of the new ‘natural vision’ negative with an ordinary roll of film. Photograph: British Newspaper Archive.

His world came crashing down after losing his fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He then made a living from showings of his old films and giving lectures about silent movies.

He ended his days working for the Anglo American Film Company and died in 1941 when he suffered a fractured skull after being hit by a car while crossing the street with his son. He was buried at Glendale, Los Angeles County.

Vitagraph was bought by Warner Brothers in 1925 and the name was briefly resurrected from 1960 to 1969 at the end of Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, with the end titles reading “A Warner Bros. Cartoon/A Vitagraph Release”
The Vitagraph Studios were bought by NBC in 1951 and later used to film The Cosby Show, and soap operas Another World and As the World Turns. The famous old studios were demolished in 2015.
The surviving smokestack was part of Vitagraph Studios, which made silent films in Brooklyn, New York, more than a century ago. Actress Norma Talmadge got her start in the movies at Vitagraph’s Midwood facilities. America’s first film versions of William Shakespeare’s plays were shot there.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.