Leeds coulda been a Contender, Leeds coulda been Hollywood by Chris Nickson

This month, Chris Nickson delves into the mystery of the disappearance of former Leeds resident, Louis Le Prince and what that could have meant for Leeds had he not vanished without trace.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first moving pictures were taken in Leeds in 1888, by a man named Louis Le Prince. There’s the famous two-second clip of traffic on Leeds Bridge filmed from the second floor of a house just south of the bridge, the same building where the Band of Hope had been formed a few years earlier and another of his family playing in his father-in-law’s garden in Roundhay, known as The Roundhay Garden Scene.

 

 

For a Frenchman it’s all very Leeds. And Le Prince was certainly French. He learned photography from one of the pioneers, Daguerre, and studied as a chemist. But he was also an artist, specialising in pottery. In the 1860s he arrived here at the invitation of John Whitley, who ran a brass foundry in Hunslet, and ended up marrying his daughter Lizzie who had studied pottery in Sèvres. The couple lived in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Le Prince volunteering as an officer, then returned to Leeds to found an art school in Park Square.  He was also, as surviving work shows, a talented artist himself. 10 years later, in 1881, the family – now with children – was in New York and he was a manager of artists, and began work on the first machine to make moving pictures. He applied for a patent in 1886 and was granted one for a camera with 16 lenses but not for one that just employed a single lens although that was given in other territories.

Back in Leeds again, he rented a workshop on Woodhouse Lane – where the old Broadcasting House stands – and set to work. What he made can be seen at Armley Mills and at the National Media Museum in Bradford. He even invented a projector to show the films he shot in Leeds.

Lizzie Le Prince and children moved back to New York in anticipation of him joining them there. He had the single-lens camera and planned on securing a patent. First, though, he made a trip back to Dijon to see his family. After the visit, his brother claimed to see him board the train to Paris, with camera. But Louis Le Prince was never seen again. No trace has ever been found.

Stories and plays have been written about it. It’s a crime writer’s dream (and yes, I’ve shamelessly used it as a subplot in my new book, Two Bronze Pennies). There have been countless theories over the years, but time has pretty much whittled them down to three possibilities.

The first is that Le Prince, broke and desperate, knowing he was unlikely to receive the vital and lucrative American patent, killed himself. Possible? Maybe. Certainly no one saw him arrive in Paris. But, and it’s a huge but, no trace of a body was ever found after scouring the line, nor did any luggage turn up, and certainly no camera.

The second. Broke and desperate, Le Prince simply got off the train somewhere in France and made a new life for himself under a new name. Possibly. It’s happened before and since, and in a time of little documentation it would have been relatively simple. Again, though, plenty of people have scoured ever since and not discovered anything.

The last, though, is very interesting: that somehow or other the American inventor Thomas Edison arranged for Le Prince to ‘disappear.’ Possible? Well…Edison had made a fortune (this is a man who patented almost 1100 inventions, including the lightbulb and the phonograph) and he was close to having a motion picture camera ready. In fact, he did patent the kinetograph, a single-lens moving picture camera, and the kinetoscope, allowing viewers to see films. It’s the most interesting of the three, but again there’s no evidence to suggest Edison had anything to do with Le Prince vanishing.

So…take your pick, or come up with an idea of your own. But remember, if the dice had rolled a little differently, Leeds could have been Hollywood.


 

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson recently published Dark Briggate Blues, a noir mystery set in Leeds in the 1950s.

His next novel, Two Bronze Pennies, is the second in the Detective Inspector Tom Harper series, taking place in 1890/91, against a backdrop of anti-Semitic violence and murder.

He will be appearing at the Big Bookend festival on 6th June at Leeds Central Library talking about his new book, Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories (Armley Press, July 2015).

 

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend Festival. Fiona is the Festival's Coordinator, helping to bring the whole festival together.

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