20 Middle Street, Brighton

William Friese-GreeneThe house at 20 Middle Street, Brighton bears a plaque [left] that claims 'It was here that the inventor of cinematography, William Friese-Greene (1855-1921) carried out his original experiments which led to a world-wide industry'.
          Although he had numerous achievements to his credit, including being awarded a patent (no 10,131) in 1889 for an 'improved apparatus for taking photographs in rapid series'—the first cinematograph camera specifically designed to use perforated film—the strength of the claim is disputed. Whatever else, his was not the technology that was eventually adopted as the worldwide standard.
          More significantly, he was living in London at the time this work was being conducted. There is no contemporary record of him having any connection with this address—nor, indeed, any address in Brighton or Hove at any time. (He never appears in the electoral register of the time, either, although that may be explained in part by his periods as an undischarged bankrupt, which would have disqualified him from voting.) The only evidence for his association with Middle Street is a reference in the not entirely reliable 1948 biography by Ray Allister (real name Muriel Forth) Friese-Greene: Close-up of an inventor, referring to the period around 1907.

'Harvey Harrison [Friese-Greene's young brother-in-law] had come to help at [203a] Western Road and the new, elaborate laboratory at Middle Street, where there were also other assistants. The young Friese-Greenes thought Middle Street the best playroom in the world. Not that their father allowed them to play there. But he sometimes let them come and watch him play. In the centre room an airship about six feet long was suspended above a complicated system of railway lines. The boys might stand in the outer room and look through a glass panel.
          Friese-Greene, from a third room, would move model trains about the railway lines, directing them by some black magic of his own. They were being directed by a wireless beam...'

This shows the fertility of his mind which, had it been coupled with even moderate business acumen, could have made Friese Greene the equal of Thomas Edison, whom he admired and perhaps emulated. The lack of clarity about Friese Greene's association with the building is not helped by the omission of a house number from Allister's account. What is certain is that he never lived in Middle Street, contrary to many accounts—and which the plaque carefully avoids stating. About the time Allister places him in Middle Street, he was moving his private family residence from Arundel Street to Worcester Villas.

However, Pike's Directories for 1904 and 1905 show that Capt W Lascelles Davidson and Dr Benjamin Jumeaux had a 'laboratory for natural colour photography' here. Davidson may have lived here, as in 1904 [below left] his name appears separately from his partnership with Jumeaux, although this may refer to the business identified as 'Davidson's Patents' in 1905 [below right]. This is also the address on the patents for which Davidson and the partnership applied at this time.

Pike's Directory 1904 Pike's Directory 1905
          Intriguingly, another resident in 1905 is 'Miss Marx'. (The mayor of Brighton in 1903-04 was Emile Marx.)

The house remained a mix of private residence and office space until after the Second World War. At the turn of this century the building was a backpackers hostel. It is now occupied (in 2009), appropriately enough perhaps, by John Worth Media, a digital design company. An exhibition space at the adjacent Brighton Media Centre is called the Friese Greene Gallery.

20 Middle Street
20 Middle Street door 20 Middle Street window
20 Middle Street as a backpackers' hostel [top left] and as it was in November 2008. [Photos: David Fisher, Terra Media]

Robert Donat as William Friese-GreeneLaurence Olivier in The Magic BoxA somewhat romanticised version of his story is told in the film The Magic Box, made to coincide with the 1951 Festival of Britain, which includes the memorable scene in which Robert Donat as Friese Greene [left] shows his first moving pictures to a suspicious and then incredulous policeman played by long-time Brighton resident Laurence Olivier [right], whose attention is earlier drawn to the suspicious goings on in the Freise Greene household. The film is based on the 1948 biography by Ray Allister. Donat received Friese Greene's purse and spectacles from the family for use during the shooting of the film, for which he gives his thanks in a letter of 21 March 1951 to Graham Friese-Greene.

The plaque itself has some significance. It used a design created in 1924 by Eric Gill (1882-1940), who was born and grew up in Brighton and later lived at Ditchling, on the Downs above the city. His later work includes the bas relief carving of Prospero and Ariel on the BBC's Broadcasting House, London, and the typefaces Gill Sans and Perpetua. The plaque was unveiled in September 1951 by Michael Redgrave, one of the large number of stars who appeared in The Magic Box. (Robert Donat died at the age of 53 the following June.)


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Page updated 3 April 2018
David Fisher