Principal pioneer of cinematography, 1855 - 1921

William Friese-Green
William Friese-Green
20 Middle Street Brighton C. 1948 | From the private collection of Peter Groves
20 Middle Street Brighton C. 1948
From the private collection of Peter Groves

It is surprising that the city of Brighton and Hove, which once had an unprecedented number of cinemas, is rarely connected with the invention of motion pictures. Furthermore, it’s almost unknown by most people, that the principal pioneer of cinematography (motion pictures) once lived at number 20 Middle Street, Brighton.

Apprentice photographer at 14
William Friese-Greene (born William Greene) was born in Bristol in 1855. In 1869, at 14 years of age, he became an apprentice to a photographer named Maurice Guttenberg. He married Helena Friese on 24th March 1874, and modified his name to include her maiden name. In 1875 he set up his own studios in Bristol and Bath. His business expanded and new studios were soon opened in London and Middle Street, Brighton.

Experimented in 1887 with celluloid
Through business he came into contact with an instrument manufacturer, John Rudge. Rudge had begun to specialise in a ‘Biophantic Magic Lantern’. This was unique, as it could display seven slides in quick succession which created the illusion of movement. Friese-Greene began to work with Rudge improving the instrument in order to project photographic plates. They called the enhanced device a ‘Biophantascope’. With his expertise in still photography, Friese-Greene realised the limitations of glass plates. In 1885 he began to experiment with oiled paper and, by 1887, was experimenting with celluloid as a medium for ‘motion picture’ cameras.

‘Chronophotographic’ camera’ in 1889
In 1889, Friese-Greene patented his ‘chronophotographic’ camera, which could take ten photographs per second, using celluloid film. Early one Sunday morning in January 1889, Friese-Greene took his new camera to Hyde Park and exposed 20 feet of film. His subjects were pedestrians, open-topped buses and hansom cabs with trotting horses. He developed the film later that evening and then projected it onto a small screen and became the first man to witness moving pictures! Low film rate and unreliability of the instrument resulted in limited interest.

Rising costs of experimentation
The cost of development became a drain on his finances and in 1891 he was declared bankrupt. Because of this, he sold the patent for his chronophotographic camera for £500. The patent renewal fee was never paid so the patent then lapsed in 1894. The Lumiere brothers patented their invention, ‘Le Cinematographe’ in 1895 and Thomas Edison is also widely credited as the inventor of cinema.

A prolific inventor
Between 1889 and 1921 Friese-Greene registered more than 70 other British patents. However, none of them were to become a basis of an industry in their own right. Working from Middle Street in Brighton he experimented with a system called ‘Biocolour’ in which alternate frames were stained red and green. He found it impossible to show Biocolour films because the inventor of a rival system known as ‘Kinemacolor’, Charles Urban, claimed Friese-Greene’s film was an infringement of his patent. This was eventually overruled in 1914 when the House of Lords found in favour of Friese-Greene.

Died penniless
In 1921, Friese-Greene was attending a meeting in London to discuss the poor state of the British film industry. He stood up to speak but shortly became incoherent and was helped to his seat, where he slumped forward and died. He was found to have only a few pence in his pocket, the price of a cinema ticket at that time. On the hour of his funeral, all the cinemas in the country stopped their films and held a two-minute silence. On his gravestone in Highgate Cemetery he is described as ‘The Inventor of Kinematography’. His former home in Brighton’s Middle Street is now a hostel for backpackers.

Comments about this page

  • William Friese-Greene is, unfortunately, one of those pioneers who, not unlike Thomas Edison, has been subject to a degree of myth-making that obscures the reality. This is not helped by the charming but overly imaginative version of his life in ‘The Magic Box’, the film made for the Festival of Britain in 1951. The claim that he was ‘the inventor of cinematography’ on the plaque at 20 Middle Street, unveiled by Sir Michael Redgrave–one of the film’s stars–in 1957, has long been regarded as something of an exaggeration. I have never been able to pin down exactly when he lived in Brighton nor what inventions he worked on at Middle Street. He certainly had a photographic business in partnership with another Brighton film pioneer, Esm Collings, in Western Road at the time in question. Although he was a significant film pioneer, he was not to first to witness moving pictures. At least two others (Le Prince and Donnisthoirpe) had achieved this in 1888. Kinemacolor, although backed financially by Charles Urban (an adopted Brightonian, who died here), was developed by another Brighton film pioneer, George Albert Smith, whose claims as a pioneer are less controversial. Ironically, it was Friese-Greene’s patent case that ended Smith’s film career, without Friese-Green being able to capitalise on his Pyrrhic victory. Sorry to have to debunk some of what is still a story in which Brighton can take pride.

    By David Fisher (28/11/2004)
  • I’m exploring Friese Greene in the context of the claim of Kilburn to have been the home of the father of cinematography.  We clearly have some link to him according to the plaque on the Tricycle Theatre, the Friese house and the general knowledge associated with him in local hearsay – anyone know anything?

    By Ed F. (25/07/2008)
  • I was told that a place called The Cottage (behind the houses in Roman Crescent, Southwick) was formerly one of his studios.

    By Roy Grant (05/11/2008)
  • I knew a chap who lived in The Cottage behind Roman Crescent in the late 1970s. He told me that a famous photographer had lived there, but I can’t remember which one! There were quite a few in the Brighton and Hove area, so I couldn’t be sure it was Friese-Green.

    By Peter Groves (05/12/2008)
  • The ‘photographer’ who lived in Roman Crescent was George Albert Smith. He was one of the ‘Brighton School’ of film-makers from 1896 to c1904 and a major figure in the early development of the medium. Unlike the others he was never a photographer but was running the pleasure grounds at St Anne’s Well Gardens when he got into films. He moved to Southwick around 1903 when he took on the challenge of developing a colour film system, which he achieved by July 1906. The first test films were shot in Southwick. The system, which was named Kinemacolor, became the first technically (and commercially) successful colour film system anywhere in the world (see previous comment). Ironically its success ended when Friese-Greene won a lengthy and costly patent case, ironically in the same year that Technicolor was founded. Nonetheless, there ought to be a plaque on The Cottage if there isn’t already.

    By David Fisher (01/01/2009)
  • William Friese-Greene did live in Kilburn, the address was 136 Maida Vale. I remember the house and it had a blue plaque for him but it was in disrepair and sadly was knocked down in the 90s. Flats were built on the site, but no plaque remains.

    By Samantha (30/01/2009)
  • I have just found a photo taken of my grandmother by Friese -Greene in Bristol. Not sure of the date but my mother was born in 1909 (still living) and this is of her mother as a young woman- my mother was the youngest of four girls and her eldest sister was born in 1893 so  looks as if before this date. The quality of the photo is amazing. I would love to know more about his work and studio in Bristol.

    By pamela corrigan (08/03/2009)
  • I have a photograph that I think is William Frieze-Green. It is in a collection of photos from my Masonic lodge presented to the Lodge in 1889. Should anyone like a copy, just email me.

    By Michael T. Harrington (14/04/2009)
  • Michael: if the photo is of (ie, not by) Friese-Greene, I’d love to see it. Do you know if he was a member of the lodge?

    By David Fisher (22/09/2009)
  • Pamela: Friese-Greene’s studio in Bristol was at Queen’s Road in Clifton. It appears to have opened before 1877 – accounts are vague and/or conflicting. He moved to London in 1885 and does not seem to have had a studio in Bristol any later than 1887, when he went into business with Esmé Collings. (They had a studio in Western Road, Hove as well as three in London and two in Bath.)

    By David Fisher (22/09/2009)
  • I recently visited Brighton for the first time in search of information about William Friese-Greene to whom I am distantly related ( a cousin of my maternal grandmother, I believe). Does anyone know if there are any old photos of Friese-Greene taken in Brighton.

    By Phil Mullane (18/10/2009)
  • Incidentally, both Friese-Green and Sir Michael Redgrave were born and educated in Bristol, and there are plaques and a Redgrave theatre in the City. Not sure about anything else.

    By Birbeck (05/05/2010)
  • I have been told by a previous owner that the house I now live in was his home/studio in Southwick. If anyone has any further info I would be very interested.

    By Kate Foster (23/09/2010)
  • The statement in the text “In 1885 he began to experiment with oiled paper and, by 1887, was experimenting with celluloid as a medium for ‘motion picture’ cameras” cannot be taken seriously. The inventor of the celluloid photographic film, Hannibal Goodwin, applied for a patent in 1887. This was issued only in September 1898. First good quality celluloid film was manufactured by Reichenbach and Eastman during 1889. Dull celluloid sheet film was sold by John Carbutt since 1888. Still not enlightened is the story of celluloid film manufacture at the Joynson paper mill of St Mary Cray, Kent.

    By Simon Wyss (10/10/2010)
  • Hi Kate, see comments above about “The Cottage” behind Roman Crescent in Southwick.

    By Peter Groves (08/11/2010)
  • My great-granddad was born in Brighton in 1877. He was an engineer and, according to his obituary, he first met William Friese-Greene in Brighton in 1908 and started to work with him, making and improving cameras. Also according to my great-granddad’s obituary, his camera was used for what is believed to be the first colour motion picture film, “The Earl of Camelot.” My granddad was friends with William Friese-Greene’s sons and went to the premier of ”The Magic Box”. All of this work took place in Brighton between 1908 and 1915.

    By Katherine Southall (28/09/2014)
  • I am linked to the Friese Greene family but I do not know how! My great grandfather Abraham Tuck and his wife Anna Maria lived in Dovercourt Essex. In the 1911 census William and his second wife Edith Harrison lived there.  I am sure there is a link. Does anyone have any information on Edith?

    By Martin Tuck (11/01/2016)
  • To Ed F. I lived in Maida Vale for many years, and an old empty house in a bad state of repair near the borders of Maida Vale and Kilburn had a plaque relating to Friese-Green. However, after much local argument, it was knocked down and developed as a very small block of flats.

    By Stefan Bremner-Morris (12/01/2016)

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