Despite being based in Manchester for 6 years, I had never visited the North West Film Archive until recently. Set up in 1977, the Archive preserves moving images made in or about Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire, Merseyside and Cumbria and offers a variety of access services to users in the public, academic and commercial sectors. The North West Film Archive is part of Library Services Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University, but accessed at Manchester Central Library.
In discussions whilst planning this project, I was advised that they may have some films of ocean liners from the 1930s. In advance from their website, I identified ten silent films, predominantly in black and white of films of the transatlantic route, and embarking and disembarking on either side. Geoff Senior from the archive was incredibly helpful in sourcing the items and also transferring some to DVD so I could watch them over two visits.
The first film I viewed in their viewing booth at Manchester Central Library was Cunard to Canada (1927). The film is punctuated with information graphics that are created by showing a typed message on the screen, and the words stay on screen for a long time so that everyone can read them. It’s an interesting and basic way to create a minimal but clear narrative.
This film focuses partly on third class passengers (the cheapest tickets) and their experiences leaving the port, as well as staff such as waiters and chefs. The film pans onto travellers drinking tea and coffee on the deck, as well as playing games such as ‘deck tennis’ and ‘shuffleboard’, as well as dancing – ‘a pleasant outdoor dance enjoyed by old and young’. We are given access to the daily routines on board, most which encourage health and well being. The day starts with a morning cup of broth on deck, tennis late morning and afternoon tea on deck, all which happen facing the sea water. The film also gives in depth access to extensive bake shops, kitchens, pantries and areas for stewards and housekeeping. Also, very interestingly, it shows the print room of the ‘Atlantic Daily Mail’, the daily paper created mid ocean through letter press printing. As the ship arrives towards Southampton, the passengers get the ‘first glimpse of the old country’. Passengers were a mixture of tourists coming from Europe, emigrants (this was lessening significantly around this time due to new laws) and Canadian citizens visiting their ‘old country’.
A Day in Liverpool (1929), produced by the Liverpool Organisation, is a long film of just under one hour, that documents a working day on Liverpool docks, showing everyday practices and relating it to Liverpool as an internationally serving commercial port. The film features the overhead and underground railways that I have read about that powers the local businesses. Statistics are shared such as ’10 million of timber enters the port of Liverpool every year’, and informing us that port is a trading place of ‘cattle and frozen meat from British Dominions’ – so much of the shipping wealth due to Britain’s history as colonial power. During the day, a White Star Liner arrives from New York with imports such as cars coming off the boat. The film also shows some of the prestigious, classical architecture in Liverpool, like the The Walker Art Gallery. At 5pm sharp, the day’s work is done. During the entire film, I noticed that nearly every working person in the film wore a hat all day.
The Royal Mail Line – Leaving Asturias focuses more on the leisure time spent at sea as traveller’s journey on ocean liners to Spain, Madeira and the Canary Islands. The daily life at sea features sunning themselves on deck and playing games with hoops. The fashion, of the seemingly more upper class traveller’s is very stylised. Women have short cropped hair and wear drop waisted dresses and swimwear. As the women swim in the on deck pool, men look on admiringly and quite creepily.
Views of Liners Cedric and Brittanic follow a family from Stockport boarding the Brittanic at Liverpool for New York on its maiden voyage. The ship is dressed appropriately for its special occasion, covered in flags and bunting, and the dock is packed with well-wishers waving it off. Again the female fashion is reminiscent of what I identify as thirties style – fur collars, cloche hats and drop-waisted coats.
The Glengarry Cinema Topical Newsreels No 8 also cover the maiden voyage of the Brittanic, with tug boats to the front and rear of the ship, and strings of flags and hoards of people waiting in Liverpool to wave it off. In the Glengarry Local Newsreel (1929) White Star Liner Albertic is also filmed leaving Liverpool, which has another great feeling of collective celebration for those on land and onboard. The New World Wonder Tunnel in Merseyside is opened by King George IV in 1934, and filmed in the Glengarry Topical News No.17.
One of the most personal films I viewed on the first visit was A Trip to America (1937) where Mr and Mrs Hindley, a seemingly wealthy couple travelled to USA on an ocean liner. There is ample footage of the open sea and the approach to New York as you view the Statue of Liberty for the first time. The film shares them walking through New York streets during their visit. The 1932 film Sunshine, Sea Breezes and Strange Places on the Lancastria shows more of life on board – the entertainment, games such as boules and exercise classes on deck, all performed in the seafaring fashion of wide brimmed hats, tighter tops and wide trousers.
North West Film Archive – https://www.nwfa.mmu.ac.uk/