worthing history


Worthing became Hollywood-on-Sea

ALL who lived in Worthing during the final years of Queen Victoria’s reign were only too familiar with the sound of the signal gun that was fired whenever a ship was seen in distress off our shore. That gun was the duty call to volunteers who manned Worthing’s lifeboat and its boom invariably attracted a large crowd to the lifeboat station on Marine Parade to watch a team of horses drag the heavy lifeboat across the road to the beach and into the waves. But when the usual crowd gathered after the gun was fired on April 6, 1898, they faced a puzzling sight. The lifeboat was being hauled from its station as usual but alongside it a second horse was pulling another heavy cart laden with electric batteries connected to a huge teak and black-painted box, mounted on a rigid iron tripod!

WORTHING had been introduced to `electric animated photographs’ two years earlier, just a few months after the inventive Lumiere brothers first projected moving pictures with their Cinematographe machine to a paying audience in Paris.
     It was on August 31, 1896, that a Lieutenant Cole introduced this new wonder of the age to an enthusiastic audience in a small pavilion then gracing the southern end of Worthing Pier. It was an event that led the usually conservative Worthing Gazette to predict with uncharacteristic boldness: `This will prove to be the greatest sensation of the Worthing entertainment season.’
   Even so, the crowd on Worthing seafront two years later could hardly be expected to realise they were watching history being made by an American, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, who would eventually go down in entertainment history as the father of film-making.
    Most generations alive today could be excused for believing the movie industry was born in Hollywood, California. In fact, movies were made in Worthing by William K L Dickson more than a decade BEFORE Hollywood attracted the first glint in a movie producer’s eye in 1911.
    Dickson arrived in Worthing in 1898, determined to make a movie that included typical scenes of the English seaside. In what would eventually become true sensational Hollywood style, a dramatic rescue by lifeboat – even if set up just for the camera – was just what the filmaker ordered.
    Already a master of his craft, having invented the first viable 35mm film camera while working for the Edison research laboratory in the United States, Dickson was about to cause a near-sensation amidst the serenity of this quiet late-Victorian seaside resort.
     Imagine the scene on Worthing beach that April day of 1898, as the crowds watched in awe every time movie director Dickson, in his broad American accent, yelled `Let her go!’ It was his signal for the Worthing lifeboat crew to once more heave their boat into the water and for the cameraman to start winding the handle of his cumbersome film camera.
     In those earliest days of the movie business nobody had yet thought of shouting `lights!' `cameras!' or `action!'  `Let her go!' was as far as movie director jargon had progressed.
     Dickson gained his lead in what was to become a cuthroat business by working at an amazing speed. He was only in Worthing for three days but in that time he made seven (albeit brief) films!
     Sadly, speed had its casualties and I feel sorry for the bystander who, cajoled into acting the role of a `drowning' man that the lifeboat `rescued' from the sea, missed his legendary two minutes of fame because nobody remembered to make a note of his name!