Bonnybridge and Henry Harris

Bonnybridge is a small town - or large village - which forms a cluster with Greenhill and Dennyloanhead about half way between Falkirk and Cumbernauld, in the industrial belt between the Forth and the Clyde. It does not appear in the 1911 census as a separate burgh but its population at that time was around 3,000. It was an industrial village with, at one point, four railway stations, a foundry and a small ironworks. The Forth and Clyde Canal runs through the village.

From the perspective of early cinema history, the interest of Bonnybridge lies in the Bonnybridge Picture House and its proprietor, Henry Harris. We are grateful to his descendants for asking us to research his history, and to the Greenhill Historical Association for their earlier work on Harris and the Picture House. Since Bonnybridge did not have a local paper of its own, much of our information comes from the Falkirk Herald. This means there is relatively little information about its programming, and much of the advertising would have been done through handbills and posters; so the information which is available tends to focus on Harris, who seems to exemplify the career of a number of early cinema pioneers.

The first recorded cinematograph exhibition in Bonnybridge is in October 1899 at the Bonnybridge Sabbath Scholars Soirée where the children from the Sunday School sang hymns, were addressed by ministers from Glasgow, Paisley and Stirling, and were entertained by a magic lantern show, and by the cinematograph. Further occasional screenings followed, sponsored, for example, by the Cooperative Society, or shown in the George Turnbull Juvenile Tent of Rechabites. In the 1900s, Bonnybridge, as part of an area with a high population reach, was visited by a number of the major touring companies and concert parties: William Walker and the Royal Cinematograph, Robert Calder and the Famed Cinematograph and Concert Party, the clairvoyant Dr Ormonde and his Sunflower Company, and Prince Bendon and his High Class Touring Company with Bendon’s Bioscope.

Henry Harris came from a family of travelling showpeople and spent his childhood and youth in a caravan, travelling in the season from Fair to Fair, exhibiting Bioscope Shows in a canvas tent. The traction engine which powered the rides were fitted with a dynamo to run the projector. Harris was a friend of George Green, and seems to have wintered with Green in Vinegar Hill, one of the main settlements for travellers on the east end of Glasgow. By the end of the 1900s, he was married and had a young family and elected to settle down in Bonnybridge, still living in the caravan in which he had toured. In 1912 he replaced his tent with the wooden structure of Harris’s Pictures and Varieties. According to one account he and his family continued to live in the caravan on the same site until 1930.

Model by a member of the Greenhill Historical Society

The move in 1912 from travelling fairground show to a fixed-site purpose-built cinema was not a coincidence. A number of travelling showmen and touring concert parties left the circuit at the same time. George Calder, for example, with his ubiquitous Cinematograph and Concert Party seems to have stopped touring in 1910, became manager of a cinema in Fraserburgh in 1912 before returning to his original craft as a jobbing joiner. In our sample, in Dumfries the Theatre Royal was converted to the Electric Cinema in 1910, and the Liberal Club was converted to the Lyceum in 1912; in Montrose, the ice-skating rink was converted into the Picture Palace in 1911; in Bo’ness, the Hippodrome as a purpose-built cinema opened in 1912; and in Campbeltown, Oban, Lerwick and Hawick purpose-built cinemas opened in 1913. There are two main reasons for this shift from touring shows and fairground entertainments to fixed-site cinemas and variety acts: first, the 1909 Cinematograph Act, alarmed by the number of fires cause by the highly inflammable nature of film stock introduced licencing which mandated strict fire safety regulations which were difficult to sustain in canvas tents; second, the films got longer, and were no longer the short ‘attractions’ which could hold the attention of a fairground audience. In 1911, an editorial in the Bioscope remembers ‘

….when a drama of a 1,000 feet was grumbled at on account of its length, but it seems as if that day were past, and the demand for a picture play constituting the usual length of an entire programme has sprung up.

The Bioscope regrets this shift, and believes that it loses the attractions of a two-hour programme full of variety and diversity which the earliest cinema represented, but it signifies the shift from a cinema of attractions appropriate to touring companies and fairground shows to a cinema of features and what were called ‘super-films’ appropriate to a purpose-built cinema and to increasing (and highly variable) levels of comfort and cleanliness.

Henry Harris’s move from fairground to fixed-site cinema, then, was not entirely motivated by a desire to settle down with his growing family, but was typical of a general move within the industry. The only surprise is that his purpose-built Picture House was built of wood, a fire hazard that may have been compensated by a fire-proof projection box. By 1930, the talkies had begun to appear and were again driving up the business, and Henry had replaced the old wooden structure with a new brick-built cinema, with a seating capacity of 650, and he had built a house on the same site as his caravan had been.

With little evidence from the archive on cinema programmes (though the sense is that it was mainly a pictures-only programme with only occasional variety acts, many of which may have been local), three court reports in the Falkirk Herald help to place Henry Harris.

First, in 1916 Henry pleads guilty to a charge of speeding, driving his car at 22 mph when the speed limit in the village was 10 mph.

Falkirk Herald, 8 July, 1916

What is interesting about this is less his excessive speed and more that in 1916 he had a car. Before the 1920s when popular cars began to appear on the market, car ownership in the UK in 1910 was around 100,000. The average house cost was £195; the average wage was £89; and the average car cost was £240. The fact that he was still living in his caravan may indeed have given him some disposable income, but the ownership of a car suggests firstly, that business was good; and secondly, that a car may have been deemed to be a tool of the trade when trade shows in Glasgow were to be attended and films were to be transported from Glasgow when the railways were not always reliable. Louis Dickson, proprietor of the nearby Hippodrome in Bo’ness, is famous for driving around town in a Rolls Royce.

Second, Henry appears in court the following week in 1916 when he appeared before the District Appeal Court to appeal for exemption from military service on the grounds that military service would make his business unsustainable. This was quite common among cinema exhibitors during World War 1, and it is notable that he only appeals for exemption on his own behalf and not for other members of his staff “ many managers/proprietors did claim exemption for projectionists. (Louis Dickson in Bo’ness did do his military service in the navy during enlistment, and his cinema was managed by his daughter.) The terms of Harris’s appeal may be symptomatic. ‘Could not your wife run the business?’ asks the Military Representative. ‘If she were to look after it’, says Henry, ‘the business would not last five minutes.’ ‘But you say that she does all the writing.’ ‘Yes, when I tell her what to write.’ (Falkirk Herald, 15 July 1916) Apart from the domestic picture which this creates, it also supports the view that Henry was not a competent writer, and his family have confirmed that he was functionally illiterate. The written part of a business which seems to depend quite substantially on reading trade press and communicating in writing with distributors seems to have been devolved to his wife. In a business which was significantly managed by men who had spent their childhood and youth in a travelling community, the levels of illiteracy may have been quite high, and dependency on the literate, in Henry’s case, on his wife, may not have been uncommon.

In February 1928, Harris appears in Falkirk Sheriff Court charged with obstructing an investigating officer and failing to pay his Entertainment Tax. Entertainment Tax was introduced in 1916 as a wartime measure, but it was so successful in returning tax revenue that it was retained after the war. By 1928 tax was payable on any ticket valued at more than 6 pence. It was deeply unpopular with exhibitors. Harris claims that he was only charging people 6 pence but was trying to use up some tickets he had bought earlier which were valued at 8 pence. On 2 December 1927, the Inspector from Customs and Excise tried to interview members of the audience during the film show about the price of the tickets, but met with little sympathy from an audience loyal to the proprietor and Henry threatened to throw him out ‘contrary to Inland Revenue regulations’. On 10 December, the Inspector reappears, with his wife and another Inspector, and this time the clandestine Inspector is wearing a false moustache. To little effect. He is still met with evasion by Henry and hostility by the audience. The Sheriff decides that there is very little in the affair, does not comment on the false moustache, finds the case of obstructing the Investigator not proven, but fines Henry £3 or twenty days imprisonment for non-payment of tax. (Falkirk Herald, 4 February, 1928)

Unfortunately, Henry does not learn from his mistakes and in December of the same year he appears again in the Sheriff Court for evading the same Entertainment Tax. His lawyer observes that Harris runs a small ‘village cinema’ and that normal prices are four pence and six pence and are therefore exempt from tax. On this occasion, however, it was a special film and a few tickets were issued at eight pence. Tickets were also issued without the price being clearly marked on them, and they were not torn in half at the box office which meant they could be used again. This constituted a second offence. His lawyer defended him on the grounds that ‘he was not a business man, and was perhaps somewhat careless. He was not an educated man, and he suffered accordingly…’ This time Henry Harris is fined £5 or thirty days imprisonment. (Falkirk Herald, 12 December 1928)

The Entertainment Tax, although tolerated during wartime, was deeply unpopular in the postwar cinema trade, particularly at a time when the country was on the edge of depression and cinema entrance prices were already severely depressing trade. In 1921, Henry had already tried reverting to pre-war prices to bring back customers, and tax evasion was common within the business.

Apart from these symptomatic brushes with the law, and besides being an uneducated man, Henry Harris emerges from press reports and from his obituary in 1948 as a public figure and a successful business man. He is generous in his support of charities and the local community and popular with his audience. During World War 1 he supports the Belgian Relief Fund and the Ambulance Day. In World War 2, he supports the Aid-to-Russia Fund and gives free admittance to the cinema to all members of H.M. Forces. Between the wars he gives annual free entertainments with collections for old age pensioners. This is characteristic of many exhibitors who were keen to establish the respectability of cinema after it had lost its initial innocence. His success in business can be measured by his interests in a number of cinemas in Stirlingshire, noted in his obituary, and in 1942 a note appears in The Scotsman business pages announcing a new company, with capital of £8000 (equivalent to almost £350,000 in todays’ values), under the direction of Henry and William Harris. (Scotsman, 24 January, 1942)

This profile of Henry Harris seems to exemplify the growth of the industry and to address many of the issues facing the pioneering exhibitors of early cinema in small towns and large villages in Scotland. It also confirms the civic significance of cinema in small communities in the first half of the twentieth century.