Tracing the history of the Hepworth film studios from pioneering in the 19th century through the 1960's to today.
The studios started life in March 1896 (some say 1899?), when Cecil Hepworth (1874 – 1953) leased a house called "The Rosary" in Hurst Grove, Walton on Thames, for £36 a year. Here he installed electric lighting and set up one of the first film laboratories in the country.
(Historical note, at the time most houses were commonly referred to by name not number - and it is known that on Hurst Grove, there was a"La Boheme" at 7 Hurst Grove. Unfortunately it has not yet been possible to trace The Rosary" to a number.)
Together with his cousin Monty Wicks, (hence their trading name "Hepwix") they began to make short films of everyday events, starting with "Express Trains In A Railway Cutting", lasting about 45 seconds, which simply showed two trains passing in a cutting at nearby Byfleet. Other ‘actualities’ were from local news items such as ‘The Ladies Tortoise Race’ and ‘Procession of Prize Cattle’. These were all 50ft short films shot locally - probably to keep costs low. They built a 15ft x 18ft stage in the back garden and among the first films to be made at the new "studio" with its one stage were "The Egg-Laying Man" (1896), and "The Eccentric Dancer".
He built the first studio a few years later on the corner of Bridge Street and Hurst Grove. For some years, Hepworth regularly used locations in the town as his sets and used locals as extras in the films. [Ref.] The pre-war Hepworth studio at Hurst Grove, Walton-on-Thames, was quite small, being just over 2,000 square feet with two daylight studios. [Ref.]
By the turn of the century the expanded Studios were producing over a hundred short subjects a year. Hepworth filmed the funeral of Queen Victoria (on right) at Marble Arch, London in 1901 which gained a great deal of publicity for the Studio. Cecil Hepworth committed all of the small resources at his disposal to cover the route at various points, and the resulting sales secured the future of his company. The company worked 24 hour shifts for several days to process all the orders that came in for film of the funeral from around the world. At some point "Hepwix" became known as "Hepworth Picture Plays".
Hepworth Film Manufacturing Company operated from 1898 until 1919. In the early days, Hepworth had a business partner, H.V. Lawley, with whom Hepworth split in 1904. The company name is listed as “The Hepworth Manufacturing Company Ltd.” on a poster for the Vivaphone sound process, with the address as 15 and 17 Cecil Court, Charing Cross Road, London, WC.
In 1905 Hepworth built his first indoor studio, still relying on daylight and therefore situated on the first floor where more natural light was available, with laboratories for processing, cutting etc. beneath.
In the early days he made much of the documentary, filming scenes of British troops departing for and returning from the Boer War, and perhaps one of the earliest films of British politicians and of the Royal Family. During this time Hepworth presented the first cinema Royal Command Performance.
His studios made Documentaries, Classics, Melodrama, Horror, Scenic films, Comedies (notably the "Tilly" series), Heritage films, Location films in Brighton and Ireland, you name it!
Hepworth was primarily a producer more than an actual film-maker but did on occasion, write, direct, edit, photograph and star in many films, however many of the films credited to him were in fact the work of his associated Percy Slow and Lewin Fitzhamon, the latter co-directed perhaps Hepworth's most celebrated work 'Rescued by Rover' (1905) as well as other inventive comic films such as 'The Other Side of the Hedge' (1905) and 'That Fatal Sneeze' (1907). Alice in Wonderland, an 800 foot film produced in 1904, was the largest such project that had been attempted at the time. It was shot at Mount Felix, Walton, just round the corner from Hurst Grove.
As mentioned in the autobiography, the studios were destroyed by fire in 1907, killing a young technician, an event which clearly affected Hepworth deeply. The risks associated withNitrate Film are huge - it is a mixture of guncotton and camphor and can burn spontaneously!
Apart from his base in Walton on Thames, Hepworth shot extensively on location, and used Bognor Regis as his base during the summer filming periods of 1907-1909. Chrissie White said the company also used to regularly spend time in the summer at Lulworth Cove, Dorset.
The Hepworth Manufacturing Company became Britain's most distinguished film company of the pre-war period. By 1914 and the outbreak of World War One, Walton had become one of the three major film studios in Britain. Unlike other studios, production continued at Walton-on Thames through the First World War, both by making propaganda films and by renting to visiting companies.
There is a photo of Hepworth in military uniform. His health did not permit him to do active service, but according to Chrissie White he supported the war effort as a transport driver - it is not known whether he was personally involved with making films during WW1 but his company was very active, as the studio publicity indicates.
As the studios expanded, Hepworth acquired a number of properties in Walton On Thames for the use of his stars and staff. Some were used as residences.
The Studios made a number of "shorts" to support the war effort. They were clearly very active at this time as the catalogues of the time indicate. Sadly not much survives.
British film policy began to develop after World War I, when the cultural domination of British cinemas by Hollywood films became apparent. By the 1920s, restricted access to cinema screens in Britain for UK films was an acute problem; they represented just 5% of all releases in 1926. The 1927 Cinematograph Films Act established a progressively increasing quota for UK films. Quota regulation remained in place until it was finally phased out in the early 1980s.
As an aside, local man, R.C. Sherriff, recorded his memories of life as an officer on the Western Front in his play, 'Journey's End', which later became a major theatrical success, making so much money that even today a local trust established in his name is supporting the arts from the proceeds. The story was later remade into "Aces High", a cinema hit (but sadly not produced by Hepworth).
The company becameHepworth Picture Plays in 1919.
Later on, as the studios expanded further, attempts were made to build a new studio in Walton. A design for the new studio, made in 1922, is also included in Hepworth's autobiography - below - very impressive it is too. As you can see there are six glass-ceiling studios, with offices at the front. Whilst no scale is given, judging by the size of the doors it would have been a hundred yards long or more.
This development did not take place and instead Hepworth acquired Oatlands Lodge (close to Oatlands Park Hotel). According to Chrissie White, the intent was to build a new studio in the grounds. Duncan Amos, Research Coordinator of theOatlands Heritage Group provided the following information: "Hepworth owned "Oatlands Lodge" - a very large property much closer to the Broadwater Lake. This had previously been owned by Judge Swiffern Eady as was, until much later, completely separate from the hotel. It is believed that Hepworth shot several films that included Oatlands Lodge in the background but, as yet, I have not been able to determine which ones they may be." The legal Deeds associated with the purchase of Oatlands Lodge came up for sale on eBay in 2005 or so but sadly I was not able to secure them for display on this site. If you have them pleaseget in touch.
Hepworth did not own the Lodges for long, sadly the demise of the business was imminent.
After World War I, when the US emerged as the dominant force in world cinema, many European countries took steps to protect their domestic film industries from aggressive American policies. Most of these national schemes involved some form of distribution or exhibition quota, linking the number of imported US films to a required minimum proportion of domestic productions. Although regulation was applied at the point of offer to the public, it was assumed that this would have the effect of stimulating domestic production by creating a guaranteed market. In the case of Britain, by the early 1920s access to the exhibition market was an acute problem, and British producers were complaining that distributors’ forward and block booking policies were preventing their films from being released. In 1923–24, ‘British film weeks’ were organised to highlight this problem and to enable indigenous films to be seen; but these were not enough to salvage the longest-established British producer, Cecil Hepworth. (source)
The studio produced many films, but Hepworth Picture Plays Ltd closed down in 1923 due to Hepworth becoming bankrupt. Many of his films were lost when his company was liquidated (some say they were melted down for the silver content, others liquified to make water-proofing resin). Whatever the reason, it becomes clear how important the impact of this is when learning the shocking fact that following producer Cecil Hepworth’s 1924 bankruptcy, his entire back catalogue (some 2,000 titles) was sold off thereby destroying 80 per cent of British films made between 1900 and 1929 — a vast swathe of cinematic history denied ongoing enjoyment or assessment. We are fortunate indeed that despite this disaster, many of the films have been rescued from prints, providing insight into the brilliance of the studios and those who worked there.
Why, exactly, did the studios go bankrupt? There are many reasons, including US competition, and a study of finance in the early film industry is here which explains many of the factors.
In 1926 the studios were bought by Archibald Nettlefold, a wealthy Birmingham industrialist, who rebuilt and renamed them Nettlefold Studios. Productions included “Scrooge” (1951) with Alastair Sim. Archibald Nettlefold visited Hollywood in 1929 to study American production methods and subsequently a new theatre was built at Hurst Grove. The latest recording equipment was installed there and other alterations made to improve the quality of Nettlefold's films. Despite this, the studios were still criticised for their small size and cramped working conditions. Nettlefold employed the comic actor Walter Forde to produce and star in feature length comedies and these revived the fortunes of the studios. Forde produced a series of silent films and, in 1930, a 'talkie' entitled The Last Hour.
"The Rosary", birthplace of British film, wassold at auction "by direction of the Public Trustee" on 20 March 1930 at the Sun Hotel, Kingston upon Thames.
Film making continued vigorously through World War Two. The Walton studios became available for use by other film companies and were used during the 1940s for a succession of 'B' movies featuring various well-known names.
In 1955 the studios were taken over by Sapphire Films and renamed Walton Studios. Walton Film Studios became one of the principal centres of filmmaking in Britain, along with Ealing, Shepperton and Pinewood. As well as making movies they also produced television series including 143 episodes of the hugely successful “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1955 – 59) with Richard Greene in the lead role and its catchy theme song which was sung by children all over the country. You can listen to the song by following the link to the website.
Nevertheless, Walton could no longer compete with other studios and closed on 10th March, 1961, many of the 200 employees moving to the Shepperton Studios. The site was then purchased and redeveloped to create the recently-redeveloped Walton Centre "The Heart" and Hepworth Way.
All that remains is the old power generating house which was converted to a wonderful theatre in 1925 called The Playhouse. The building is still used as a theatre today and is on Hurst Grove - just off Hepworth Way. A plaque on the building commemorates its former use.
The Studios are commemorated in Walton's new shopping mall, "The Heart". As well as an informative static display, you can see Hepworth films every day, projected onto the wall of the High Street entrance. Fantastic!
Walton-on-Thames has lots of other connections with television and cinema. Many of the scenes for Monty Python’s Flying Circus were shot around the town centre. Actress and singer Julie Andrews was born at Rodney House maternity home on Rodney Road on 1st October 1935 as Julia Elizabeth Wells.
The Elmbridge Museum have a nice picture of an early film set from Walton Studios among other local memorabilia and I hope to bring more images to this page soon.