William Haggar, Fairground Film-Maker

The Book - "William Haggar, Fairground film-maker"

        by Peter Yorke

Illegitimate son of an Essex housemaid. Docker, cornet-player, stage-carpenter. Comic actor. Portable Theatre proprietor. Amateur photographer. Fairground showman. Proprietor of Haggar's Royal Electric Bioscope. Pioneer film-maker. Amusement Caterer. Councillor and Guardian of the Poor. Charitable Philanthropist. "Dear old William Haggar", his memory would be "held in love and reverence by all".

These phrases describe the life of William Haggar (1851-1925), the subject of his great-grandon's vivid biography. Born in Dedham, Essex, William ran away from home. Learning to play the cornet, he got a job as musician with a travelling theatre company. In 1871 he married Sarah, an actress member of the "Inimitable Walton Family" of theatricals and pantomimists. Together they travelled for 38 years through eastern England, the West Country and South and West Wales "following the coal". By 1891 Sarah had had eleven children, eight of them surviving to adulthood. Becoming the boss of his own theatre company, William accumulated savings kept in gold under his mattress. He blued £80 on a primitive film projector worked by limelight, a hazardous mixture of hydrogen and oxygen jetted onto a cone of lime. In April 1898, after several experimental explosions, he and his sons Jim and Walter pushed his first bioscope exhibition onto Aberavon fairground.

On the first day they took a massive £15, but the risky enterprise nearly foundered on a six-month South Wales pit-strike which deprived them of custom: they only narrowly survived. By 1901 they had done well enough to buy a portable steam engine to generate electric light, but now William faced tough competition from showmen with other attractions as well as films. The supply of films was drying up and audiences were bored with Rough Seas at Dover and Turnout of the London Fire Brigade. Reacting by buying a movie-camera and film stock, William began experimenting: as well as taking 'actuality' subjects such as a train leaving Burry Port station, he tried his hand at a first few 'made-up' fiction films, using the two family theatrical companies' actors, plots and scenery: in 1902 he hit the jackpot with these.

The Maid of Cefn Ydfa (Cefn Ydfa means 'back of the wheatfield', the name of the Maid's house) was a romantic tragedy based on a novel by Isaac Craigfryn Hughes, who had much embroidered a local tradition. Now William filmed it in seven scenes, using his actress daughter-in-law Jenny Lindon in the title role and her husband Will Haggar Junior as her lover Will Hopkins. Shot in an hour and a half and lasting six minutes, the film was an instant success. It was said that "it brought in hundreds and hundreds of pounds", and that "when Haggar first put on The Maid, any opposition show could close down".

During the next three years, William made The Poachers, a three minute chase film which sold 470 copies, more than any other film. The Sign of the Cross was the predecessor of Cecil B. de Mille's 1932 epic of the same name, famous for Empress Poppaea's bath in asses' milk. The Life of Charles Peace, combining in ten minutes the genres of drama and chase, concludes with Peace's drop from the gallows: Walter Haggar, playing Peace, said later that he "had a very narrow escape from being choked to death". In these films, William introduced innovatory panning shots, camera placing and cutting to produce more immediate, less stage-bound films than many of his contemporaries. He also made short slapstick comedies, including the Mirthful Mary series, in which an actress of formidable stature and voluminous underwear lays waste snowballers, pub drinkers, coppers and magistrates - anti-authoritarian humour sure to appeal to his fairground audiences; and "hundreds" of short topical films, including fake newsreels of the Boer and Russo-Japanese wars, fought on the hills above Rhymney Valley. So well did this fare go down that he acquired three showman's traction engines and two huge ornate organ showfronts brilliant with coloured lights.

Sarah's death in 1909 persuaded William that it was time to settle down. Buying suitable buildings and sites, he opened a chain of cinemas. He was elected to the Merthyr Board of Guardians and Aberdare Urban District Council. With Will and Jenny, he made a third, 50-minute version of The Maid of Cefn Ydfa, longer than any other film of the time made outside a film studio. First shown in Aberdare in 1914 and reviewed in the South Wales Echo in 1938 (a preface quotes the review), it was rediscovered in a family cupboard in 1984 and conserved: 38 minutes survive. It is a superb record of an Edwardian theatre company performing its trademark play, wordless but enhanced by the greater visual possibilities of film. William's last years were spent in honoured retirement. He died in February 1925. He had said there would be money in it and he was right: he left £16,912 - perhaps a million and a half today.

The story unfolds in ten chapters, the last relating the rediscovery and recognition of the pioneering quality of William's eight surviving films. The author's grandmother, Violet Haggar, led the paraders, the "bevy of beauties in short skirts gracefully throwing their nether limbs about" before the show to attract customers: his Haggar relatives' reminiscences amd memoirs are combined to produce first-hand accounts of the events described. A family tree is included. Illustrations from the time, interspersed with the text, include portraits of the family in theatrical costume, the showfronts and stills from the films: the titles of seventy Haggar films are listed and sales catalogue synopses quoted for thirty of them. Press articles on the opening of William's Kosy Kinema in 1916 and William as a "Man at the Wheel" in 1924 and his obituaries are quoted in full. Notes give references to sources. There are full Indices. This book is a "must" for all those interested in the popular entertainment of 100 years ago.

Picture: Showfront