I once did some work on the films of Ernest Symmons, one of the early pioneers of filmmaking, and founder of Beverley Picture Playhouse (20th February 1911). Born in 1872, he was originally a London portrait photographer by trade, but turned his hand to film making after moving up north to York and founding the company ‘Debenham and Co’ with his brother-in-law, Leslie Holderness.
It soon became apparent, from delving into this man’s life story, that he was something of a forgotten hero of early cinema, with a remarkable back catalogue of work. In particular, he was known for producing his own newsreels, which he screened at the Picture Playhouse. In fact, this was the only theatre in the country to do this at the time, and it’s probably no exaggeration to claim that Ernest Symmons was the man who brought moving pictures to Beverley (at least to mainstream audiences).
The problem with so many early films, however, is that they were often produced on a material called silver nitrate, which is highly volatile and has a tendency to spontaneously combust. It may come as no surprise then, that in the years following Ernest’s death in 1957, the Beverley Borough Fire Brigade condemned huge swathes of film, in storage at the Picture Playhouse, as a potential fire hazard. The scale of destruction (around 33,000 linear feet of film footage) was nothing short of a cultural tragedy. The surviving remnants of this purge eventually found their way to East Riding Archives via the old East Yorkshire Borough of Beverley Council and former Picture Playhouse Manager and film enthusiast, Peter Robinson (now deceased). We are so grateful that they did, because the films still provide an incredible record of Ernest Symmons’ work.
Personally, the two most notable films are his coverage of the 1937 pageant procession ‘Beverley Through The Ages’ (featuring renowned local artist Fred Elwell, in period costume), and ‘The Man With The Notebook’ (1946); the first road safety film (with sound) to be made outside of London. It received an audience of 298,000 across East and West Yorkshire and was sold to 44 cinemas nationally, and also to Accra, in Ghana!
Given what happened to many of Ernest’s films way back in the mid-20th century, imagine how satisfying it was for me to be able to oversee the safe transfer of his remaining material to the custody of the specialist facility at Yorkshire Film Archive (YFA). We were then able to further secure their ongoing accessibility by paying YFA £15,000 for the transfer of the Symmons footage (amongst other films) to digital format. It was also my great pleasure to have the opportunity to produce a video presentation about Ernest and his work (‘Black & White Beverley’), which we screened regularly at the Treasure House (currently closed due to COVID-19 lockdown) and later sold on DVD. When we’re eventually able to re-open our service, you’ll be able to buy that DVD again from Beverley Tourist Information Centre (£5.99), but for now, here’s an edited clip from one of his other films, showing the King and Queen’s visit to Hull in 1941.
By working on the footage and researching the life of this remarkable man, I think I developed an affection for these films, and it always pleases me whenever I see people enjoying them and celebrating his work. With the 75th anniversary commemoration of VE Day now upon us, another such opportunity has arisen with the footage that Ernest took of the contemporary celebrations in Hull on 8th May 1945 as part of his regular newsreel, and I was delighted to be contacted by Lambent Productions, who wanted to cover this for their Channel 5 documentary ‘VE Day: The Lost Films’ (Friday 8th May 2020, 7pm, and on ‘My5’ catch-up).
Having decided to use some of the footage from the Yorkshire Film Archive that we had digitised, they needed background details about Ernest to tell his story, which I was more than happy to give.
Admittedly, Ernest’s films only have a small role in the wider documentary, but it’s a fantastic opportunity for some of his amazing work to be given a national airing and provides an insight into the VE Day celebrations that took place in Hull City Centre at this time, with scenes from Victoria Square and Queen’s Gardens included amongst the footage. Ernest’s contribution stands out in the make-up of the programme as being that of a professional film maker, amongst footage that is largely by amateur enthusiasts, and this documentary is a great tribute not only to his work but the people’s story of VE Day itself.
‘VE Day: The Lost Films’ is on Channel 5, Friday 8th May 2020, 7pm. It is also available on catch-up at ‘My 5’ https://www.channel5.com/show/ve-day-the-lost-films/
You can find some of the films of Ernest Symmons in our Archives Playlist on the East Riding of Yorkshire Council YouTube channel, and by a strange (yet happy) coincidence while writing this post I was asked to contribute information about Ernest Symmons for Beverley Town Council’s Virtual VE Day celebration.
The podcast, by Jonathan Levy, will be available on the Beverley Virtual VE Day 75 Facebook page (@BeverleyVE75) during the course of the VE Day anniversary on Friday 8th May, and will also feature on Beverley FM’s special VE Day broadcast from 6pm. Listen live at https://beverleyfm.com/ or download the Beverley FM app .
By Sam Bartle
Digital Archivist / Editor