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Arthur Melbourne-Cooper (1874–1961) was a British film maker who witnessed the birth of the movies as an assistant/cameraman of Birt Acres (1854-1918) who, in 1895, developed the first British 35 mm moving picture camera. Cooper, for the next 20 years, pioneered in making moving pictures.

Cooper's most important achievements

Although Cooper is almost forgotten today, he created several "firsts" in the film history:

  • animation movies since 1899
  • the interpolated close-up in 1900
  • parallel action shots in 1904
  • cinemas with raked floor, expensive seats at the back, uniformed staff, and an isolated projection booth, in 1908 and 1909.

Start with Birt Acres

Arthur was born in St Albans as the son of a local photographer Thomas M. Cooper, who educated him from very early on in his profession. Aged 18, Arthur was fully trained in photography.

Birt Acres

First film camera

He applied for a job with Birt Acres, another almost forgotten film pioneer. Acres specialized in photographic emulsions. In 1892, he became manager of Elliott & Sons, manufacturers of photographic plates in Barnet. Acres experimented with movement during the projection of clouds and waves, which he took on successive series of glass plates. He could, therefore, use the assistance of young Cooper as experienced photographer.

On January 1, 1894, Cooper assisted Acres on a journey to film the commercial opening of the Manchester Ship Canal on 70 mm film. This film size was introduced by Kodak for their snapshot cameras. Acres glued three or four of these films together into one roll and used this for his first film camera. Later that year, they filmed with the same camera at the Henley Regatta. A strip of this film is kept in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York.


In the same year, the first Kinetoscopes appeared. These machines used 35 mm film. The German chocolate manufacturer, Ludwig Stollwerck, who had large interests in slot machine shops in several countries, asked Acres to provide him regularly with 35 mm films for the Kinetoscopes which he acquired from Thomas Edison's agents. Acres re-designed his camera and, in 1895, patented a 35 mm camera, the "Kineopticon", on the construction of which he was assisted by a young mechanical engineer, Robert W. Paul. In March 1895, Acres filmed with this camera Waves at Dover Pier, and later the Epsom Derby and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.
In June 1895, Acres travelled to Germany to sign a contract with Stollwerck and to film the Opening of the Kiel Canal and Kaiser Wilhelm Reviewing his Troops. Acres was therefore the first who traveled abroad in order to make newsreels. Soon, his films were shown, not only in England and Germany, but also in Denmark and America, where Acres had sold his cameras and projectors. During the next two years, young Cooper was cameraman for many of the short films which were produced for the Kinetoscopes, such as Arrest of a Pickpocket and Spilt Milk in which a farm hand unsuccessfully flirts with a maid who is milking a cow.

First British film show

On January 14, 1896, Cooper assisted Acres when he gave the first public film show in England in the Queen's Hall in London before the members, their wives and friends of the Royal Photographic Society. On February 20, 5 weeks later, the Lumière Cinématographe was shown, first at the London Polytechnic and two weeks later at the Empire Theatre of Varieties in Leicester Square. On March 25, 10 weeks later, Robert W. Paul started showing films at the Alhambra Theatre in London for the next two years.


In 1897, Cooper made a trick film Bird's Custard Powder in which the contemporary Bird's poster comes to life. An old man, walking downstairs carrying a tray of eggs, trips over and smashes them. But no worry - he uses Bird's Custard Powder. Cooper also made a commercial for Keen's Mustard for which he animated the setting sun at Blackpool into a rising sun.

Stop motion

In 1899, Cooper made for Bryant and May what is considered the earliest surviving stop-motion advertising film, Matches Appeal (also known as Matches: An Appeal). The film contains an appeal to send money to Bryant and May who would then send matches to the British troops which were fighting in the Boer War in South Africa. It was shown in December 1899 at The Empire Theatre in London. This film is the earliest known example of stop-motion animation. Little puppets, constructed of matchsticks, are writing the appeal on a black wall. Their movements are filmed frame by frame, movement by movement. With this film Britain was 6 or 7 years ahead of animation pioneers in France and the United States.
When he was needed, Cooper assisted Birt Acres who had established the Northern Photographic Works for the manufacture of 35 mm film stock. In his own time Cooper filmed many short comedies, newsreels, sports events and travelogues. He sold them to R.W. Paul, the Warwick Trading Company, Charles Urban, James Williamson, William Jury, the Walturdaw Company, and many others, also abroad.


In 1900, Cooper made another "first". He filmed in his father's photographic studio in St Albans a boy and a girl who are playing grandson and grandmother in Grandmother's Reading Glass, of which film historians generally agree it is the first instance where close-ups are deliberately cut into a medium shot. He sold this film to William Jury, Pathé and the Warwick Trading Company. The close-ups represent what the boy sees through grandmother's magnifying glass and are much enlarged projected on the screen: a Bovril advertisement in a newspaper, a cat's head, a canary in a cage, and grandmother's eye. The girl playing grandmother is Cooper's youngest sister Bertha,[citation needed. It clearly looks like the "grandmother" is actually a man.] the boy is Bert Massey, a young son from the neighbours, and the eye in the close-up is that of Cooper's mother Catherine Cooper.
Unfortunately, long before the film was rediscovered in Denmark in 1960, the French film historian Georges Sadoul, in his "Histoire du Cinéma Mondial", credited it to a Brighton Film-maker, Georges Albert Smith (1864-1959) who, in 1903, had made his own version. It is a pity that Cooper's version is disputed and sometimes still credited to Smith.

Photo 1

Visual evidence

Photo 1: The eye as it appears in close-up in the existing film Grandma's Reading Glass (1900) by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper.

Photo 2

Photo 2: Arthur Melbourne-Cooper's mother Catherine Cooper, née Dalley.

Photo 3

Photo 3: Close-up of the eye from George Albert Smith's version of Grandma's Reading Glass (1903) as it appears in the existing negative in the Graham Head Collection of the Cinema Museum, London.

Alpha Trading Company

In 1901, Cooper established his own company, The Alpha Trading Company. He took the lease of a little park in St Albans, Bedford Park, where he established his Alpha Cinematograph Works.

Parallel action

MacNab's Visit to London

In 1903, Cooper was commissioned by the Duke of Devonshire to film a garden party at Chatsworth House in honour of the King and Queen. He astonished the guests by filming them during the day and showing the developed film in the ballroom the same evening. He repeated this feat by filming the Lincoln Handicap (1903) and later the Grand National (1903), showing the films the same evening at The Empire Theatre, processing them in a railway coach on the way back to London. This was reported in the Daily Mail as a record.
In 1904, he filmed a drama Rescued in Mid-Air in which a lady, after a traffic accident, finds herself floating in the air hanging onto an umbrella. She strands on a church spire, from which she is rescued by a professor in a helicopter-like flying machine. Cooper used tracking shots of the floating lady and applied parallel action scenes of the lady on the spire, cheering crowds in the street and the flying professor in the air.
Cooper played, as the Scotchman MacNab, the lead in the slapstick send-up of the game of golf, MacNab's Visit to London (1905). He made The Motor Pirate (1906), which is one of his masterpieces, in which bandits in an armoured car are making the roads unsafe several years before army tanks were constructed. Precursors of Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops are chasing the bandits.

Film dramas

The demand for moving pictures was great in those early days, and during this time Cooper sometimes made almost a new film every day. Cooper's films were sought after because of his many outdoor locations. One of his popular dramas was The Blacksmith's Daughter (1904) about a young girl deceived by the local squire. Another one was For An Old Love's Sake (1908) about a rich man's suicide who, with his life insurance, rescues his warden from ruin.

A Dream of Toyland

These films are still in existence, just like the little gem A Dream of Toyland (1907), in which dolls and toys are wonderfully animated to play, in a dream of a young boy, their roles according to the one-frame, one-picture technique. "A stop-and-start film", as Cooper himself used to call it. No less than 76 copies were sold to the United States and many others to several countries abroad. This was followed by another animated film, Noah's Ark (1908) in which a young girl dreams that Noah and the animals of her toy ark come to life.
In order to protect his rights as maker and producer of these films which were too often copied or duped, Cooper, in 1906, became one of the founder-members of the British Kinematograph Manufacturers Association, KMA. The Great Western Railway commissioned him to make a documentary, London to Killarney (1907) which, at 3,000 feet (910 m) in length (some 50 minutes in projection), is one of the longest films made at that time. In 1905 he made a remarkable documentary, The Empire's Money Maker, or A Visit to the Royal Mint. It is one of the earliest surviving examples of available light documentaries, because Cooper was not allowed to use artificial light when filming inside the Royal Mint.

St Albans Picture Palace

A palace for moving pictures: in 1908, Cooper, in order to lift going to the cinema from its low status, opened in St Albans what the Shell Book of Firsts considers to be one of the first cinemas as we know them today: the Alpha Picture Palace which had a sloping floor, a separate fire-proof projection booth, uniformed ushers and usherettes, free teas during the intervals, and the cheapest seats in front, not at the back. All these features got special attention in the press. The St Albans Picture Palace was a commercial success. In the same year, he married the young Kate Lacey. They had three children.

In February 1909, he visited Paris where he had been once or twice before on business, but this time to represent his Alpha Trading Company at the first international film congres, the Congrès International des Éditeurs du Film, in order to secure the rights of film producers. In the same year, encouraged by the success of his new cinema in St Albans, he opened in Letchworth a second Picture Palace. This was not a success in a town populated by church-going people who disliked the moving pictures. Two fires in the cinema got Cooper into serious financial difficulties.

Kinema Industries Ltd

After twelve years, Cooper folded up his businesses in St Albans and, with his wife and young children, he moved to Manor Park, Lee. During the day he made here a series of surprising puppet animation pictures for Butcher's Empire Films, which had its studios at the back of his garden. One of his most beautiful animation films was Cinderella (1912), which was distributed in hand-coloured versions. In the evenings Cooper, for a while, became manager of a new cinema in Harrow, paying his debts in St Albans.
With his assets of the Alpha Trading Company and capital of a semi-retired officer, Andrew Heron, Cooper established Heron Films Ltd., a company which set out to produce longer films, comedies and dramas, with the theatrical company of Mark Melford, a well-known actor in those days. Cooper also established Kinema Industries Ltd, for which he made several documentaries and newsreels, among which the notorious The Suffragette Derby of 1913 at Epsom, in which suffragette Emily Davison can be seen being trampled to death by the King's racing horse. It was filmed by Cooper with his camera at the finish and his brother Hubert at Tattenham Corner.
Both companies were wound up at the outbreak of the First World War when Andrew Heron reported himself for active service. Cooper became munition inspector in Luton, while the family lived nearby in Dunstable. After the First World War, Cooper and his family moved to Blackpool where he became manager of Animads, a subdivision of Langford's Advertising Agency Ltd. He made a number of animated advertisements films. Among them: Cadbury's chocolates, Paddy Whiskey, Swiss Rolls, and Clean Milk Campaign.

Audrey Wadowska

Arthur Melbourne-Cooper retired in 1940 and moved to Coton near Cambridge. Here, in 1961, he died. His wife died the next year. They are buried in the cemetery of St John's Church, Coton. Though he is almost forgotten today, he lived long enough to give testimony of those very first years of film history and of his own career in a number of interviews of which 15 were recorded on 17 reel-to-reel tapes.
In 1996, the city of St Albans with the British Film Institute, to celebrate 100 years of British films, erected a plaque on a flat building at the corner of Alma Road and London Road, commemorating that Cooper once had on this spot his Alpha Cinematograph Works.
The above information comes from sources, much of which was collected by Cooper's eldest daughter Audrey Wadowska (1909-1982) during a 25-year research about her father's career. The following lists are a selection of the most important sources and references. A complete list of sources, references and literature is published by Tjitte de Vries in Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, A Documentation of Sources, Frankfurt am Main 2004.


  • The Alpha Trading Co Open New Works At St Albans, The Bioscope, September 18, 1908.
  • How Bioscope Records Are Made, The Herts Advertiser & St Albans Times, March 13, 1909.
  • First Film Cartoon, by E.G. Turner, Evening News, November 17, 1955.
  • Advertising Was in At the Beginning, by W.J. Collins, World's Press News, May 11, 1956.
  • The Observer Film Exhibition. The Animated Cartoon, by Richard Buckle, London, 1956.
  • He Started the Newsreel, by Barnet Saidman, News Chronicle, July 15, 1956.
  • Mr A. Melbourne-Cooper, Pioneer of the Film Industry, by Joe Curtiss, Hertfordshire Countryside, Summer 1960.
  • A Portrait in Celluloid, by John Grisdale, ms. St Albans Museums, 1960.
  • Coton is the Hom,e of One of the Pioneers of Film-making, Cambridge Daily News, August 8, 1961.
  • Mr A. Melbourne-Cooper, A Pioneer in the Cinema, The Times obituary, December 7, 1961.
  • The Unsung Pioneers of the World of Celluloid, by Bill Field, Barnet Press, September 24, 1965.
  • A British Film Pioneer in Ireland, by Anthony Slide, Vision, Winter 1967.
  • The Oldest Purpose-built Cinema, by Audrey Wadowska, Hertfordshire Countryside, July 1970.
  • The Visionary, St Albans Gazette, September 20, 1973.
  • Forgotten Film-maker Ahead of His Time, Herts Advertiser, October 19, 1973.
  • The Forgotten Movie Pioneer, by Ronald Riggs, Herts Advertiser, June 18, 1974.
  • Pioneers of the British Film. The Work of Birt Acres and Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, by Luke Dixon, ms. Eastern Arts Association/St Albans Museums, 1976.
  • Film Pioneer is 'Recognised aAt Last', by Steve Payne, Herts Advertiser, August 12, 1977.
  • Birth Place of the Movies, by Nicky Whinerah, Post-Echo, August 24, 1977.
  • Arthur Melbourne-Cooper: Motion Picture Pioneer, Film Collecting, Fall 1977.
  • Father Was Rather Flamboyant, Review, September 17, 1981.
  • Chasing Dreams and Shadows, by Ronald Riggs, Herts Advertiser, April 10, 1991.
  • Ludwig Stollwerck - Wie der Film nach Deutschland kam, Martin Loiperdinger, KINtop-1, Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, Frankfurt a/Main, 1992
  • Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, Film Pioneer Wronged by Film History, by Tjitte de Vries, KINtop-4, Frankfurt a/Main, 1994.
  • Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, A Documentation of Sources, by Tjitte de Vries, KINtop-13, Frankfurt a/Main, 2004.


  • Robertson, Patrick; The Shell Book of Firsts, London, 1974.
  • Whitmore, Richard; Of Uncommon Interest, Spurbooks 1975.
  • Gifford, Denis; The British Film Catalogue 1895-1970, Newton Abbott, 1973.
  • Gifford, Denis; The British Film Catalogue 1895-1985, Newton Abbott/London, 1986.
  • Lange-Fuchs, Hauke, Birt Acres. Der Erste Schleswig-Holsteinische Film Pionier, Walter G. Mühlau, Kiel, 1987.
  • Whitmore, Richard; Hertfordshire Headlines, Countryside Books 1987.
  • Gifford, Denis; British Animated Films 1895-1985, Jefferson, N.-Carolina and London, 1987.
  • Lange-Fuchs, Hauke, Der Kaiser, der Kanal und die Kinematographie, Schleswig, 1995.
  • The American Film Institute Catalogue. Film Beginnings 1893-1910, Metuchen NJ and London, 1995.
  • Lopiperdinger, Martin, Film & Schokolade. Stollwercks Geschäfte mit lebende Bilder, Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, Frankfurt a/Main, 1999.
  • Ayles, Alan; Cinemas of Hertfordshire, Hatfield 1985/2002.
  • Christopher Winn, I Never Knew That About England, Ebury Press, 2005.
  • De Vries, Tjitte and Ati Mul, They Thought it was a Marvel - Arthur Melbourne-Cooper: Pioneer of Animation, Filmmuseum Amsterdam, 2007.

External links


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