Thursday, 9 June 2011

Laura Smith, Film Pioneer

Laura Eugenia Smith (née Bayley) was a significant figure in the development of British cinema at the turn of the twentieth century, acting in films made by her husband, George Albert Smith (1864-1959), and making films herself. Despite her importance to film history, information about her is sparse. She seems to disappear from the historical record entirely with Smith’s retirement following the demise of the colour process with which he is closely associated, Kinemacolor, during the First World War.

Laura Bayley was born at 5 Belle-Vue Place, Ramsgate, on 4 February 1862. Her father, William Bullivant Bayley, was a journeyman saddler, her mother was Elizabeth Rebecca Bayley, née Francis. Laura and Smith married at Ebenezer Chapel in Ramsgate on 13 June 1888 before honeymooning on the Isle of Wight. They had two children: Harold (born 5 April 1889, so almost a honeymoon baby, died in 1975) and Dorothy (born in 1891, died in 1964). Laura acted with her three sisters, Blanche, Eva and Florence, together known as the Bayley Sisters, before and after her marriage. She brought a comic style to the films in which she acted, most famously Smith’s 1903 Mary Jane’s Mishap. The Smiths also ran a pleasure garden in Hove, St Ann’s Well and Wild Garden, and it is likely that she was involved in the extensive programme of entertainments mounted there.

More intriguing is her involvement in the film industry as a filmmaker in her own right. Her husband became interested during 1899 in the 17.5mm Biokam camera, a format marketed for amateur use. While he was being interviewed by a journalist at St Ann’s Well, he showed the interviewer “a small hand-held camera”, ie a Biokam (Brighton Herald, 14 October, 1899, p.2). As they were chatting, “Mrs Smith came in to borrow the identical camera, to go off and photograph the waves breaking over the Hove sea wall”.

That this was not a one-off incident is indicated by a number of references to Laura in Smith’s cash book (which has survived) in connection with the Biokam during 1899-1900, such as the entry dated 9 December 1899: "L. E. Smith: 100 Biokams at 1/3", totalling £6 5s 0d. Luke McKernan’s Women Silent Filmmakers in Britain lists over eighty Biokam films, both fiction and non-fiction, which may have been made by Laura.

According to Tony Fletcher, who gave an illustrated presentation on Laura Eugenia Smith and the Biokam Films at the 11th Silent British Cinema Festival at Nottingham in 2008, the surviving examples of Biokam films are not up to Smith’s own standards. Even so, the Warwick Trading Company, with which Smith was closely associated as film supplier and processor, had a Biokam list, and it would seem that Smith sold Laura’s films on her behalf.

Bearing in mind the important part she played in the film industry in Britain in its earliest years, Laura has not been well served by film history. Smith is often referred to as part of The Brighton School or The Hove Pioneers, but Laura has never been considered a member in her own right. She is sometimes referred to merely as “Mrs Smith” or “Smith’s wife”. Even as fine a historian as John Barnes, writing on Mary Jane’s Mishap in the journal Film History in 2004, manages to misspell her surname as “Bailey” (twice). As an indication of this neglect, while we know about Smith’s death, and obituaries were published detailing his achievements, Laura’s was shrouded in mystery. Smith’s will (dated 4 February 1950) said that his wife’s maiden name was Edith Kate Harman, which left Laura’s fate a mystery. Had she died or had she divorced Albert?

Given Edith’s maiden name, it was straightforward to discover that she and Smith had married in Hove in late 1939 (when he was 75). As always when researching a name like Smith it is difficult to be sure one has the right person, though Eugenia was an unusual name. Finding her death record proved difficult, however, as she was listed as “Laura E Smith” in the register of deaths, and there were a few likely candidates named Laura Smith.

Her certificate supplies unambiguous information and we now know that Laura died at home – 7 Melville Road, Hove – with her husband at her side, on 25 October 1938, aged 77. Her cause of death was given as acute rheumatic arthritis. Smith registered her death the following day and put her occupation down as “Wife of George Albert Smith, a Cinematograph Technical Adviser (retired)”, with no acknowledgement whatsoever of her own varied career. A rather sad end, but at least we have fragments of screen work by a true pioneer to delight us still.