We should be proud of our cinematic pioneer

Gazette: William Friese-Greene. William Friese-Greene.

IN front of a nondescript house in Dovercourt is a plaque in recognition of William Friese-Greene, who lived there from 1897 to 1904.

But few of the residents of Cliff Road are likely aware of the role of one of their predecessors as one of the “fathers of cinematography”.

Friese-Greene once said: “Movement is life. Moving pictures will satisfy something deep inside all the people in the world.”

Although many question the role he played in the development of moving pictures, the Harwich Society put up the plaque in recognition of his work in 1974.

Colin Farnell, Harwich Society chairman, said: “Friese-Greene has made an incredible impact on the world of cinema and the Harwich Society felt the fact he lived in Dovercourt should be recognised.

“Harwich has the Electric Palace, believed to be the oldest purpose-built cinema. It is remarkable a town so small should have two such significant connections with the world of film.”

Born William Edward Green in 1855, he was the seventh youngest son of a Bristol metalworker.

Upon leaving school at 14, he was apprenticed to a photographer, Maurice Guttenberg.

He changed his name when he married Helena Friese in 1874. She died in 1895, two years before he moved to Dovercourt.

Friese-Greene quickly remarried and moved to 5 Cliff Road after stumping up £625.

He had spent the early 1880s experimenting with cameras to create stereoscopic moving images with little success – he was declared bankrupt in 1891 and spent a week in prison for contempt of court.

To cover his debts, Friese-Greene sold the rights to his Chronophotographic camera patent for £500.

In 1889, Friese-Greene wrote to Thomas Edison describing in detail the construction of his cameras and the experiments he had carried out.

Edison requested full drawings of the camera, which Friese-Greene duly supplied.

He never heard from Edison again.

Chris Strachan, of Harwich’s Electric Palace Trust, said: “He was involved with the early development of moving picture cameras.

“A lot of people were trying to do the same thing at the same time, so it is difficult to see who was actually first.

“He would have been in competition – although not direct competition – with Thomas Edison in America – he is often credited with being the first person.”

Friese-Greene lived in Dovercourt in style and luxury with servants to wait on him and his family.

During that time he patented 20 inventions.

But things soon took a turn for the worse. By 1902, he owed numerous people money and he was declared bankrupt for a second time.

Cases were brought against Friese-Greene for borrowing money without disclosing he was bankrupt and he spent two months in prison.

On his release, Friese-Greene turned his attentions to Brighton and the field of colour motion pictures.

What followed was a series of legal battles with rival inventors and he did not live to exploit the successful creation of Biocolour pictures, which produced the illusion of true colour by exposing alternate frames of black and white film through two different coloured filters.

He died in 1921 while attending a film and cinema industry meeting in London.

His son Claude would go on to develop the system in the Twenties and become a successful cinematographer.

Mr Strachan said: “The film the Magic Box is about him – he is portrayed as a rather tragic character who didn’t achieve his maximum.”

Friese-Greene’s grave is in London’s Highgate Cemetery.


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