Long Lost Morning In A Roundhay Garden

Still from Roundhay Garden Scene. Shot in Joseph and Sarah Whitley’s garden, at Roundhay Cottage, 14th October,  1888. IMAGE: Wiki Commons, Public Domain

On October 14th, 1888, Augustin Louis Le Prince shot the world’s oldest surviving piece of film – in a Leeds suburban garden.


Widely known as the “Roundhay Garden Scene”, the footage was shot by Louis Le Prince at the now demolished Roundhay Cottage, later known as Oakwood Grange, Roundhay in Leeds, and featured Le Prince’s son, Adolphe; a family friend, Annie Hartley;  and Le Prince’s parents-in-law,  Sarah Whitley (1816 – 1888) and Joseph Whitley (1817 – 1891).  Le Prince had succeeded in developing a single lens camera and also figured out how to project images. There is every reason to believe he was the first person in the world to do this successfully.  This caught my eye for several reasons.  Not least, because like many of Leeds’ burgeoning middle classes in the nineteenth century; my family made the move from industrial Holbeck out to Roundhay. Later, my father was born close by Roundhay Park and one of my great grandfathers farmed on Lord Harewood’s estate at Roundhay. So when I see “Roundhay”, I always take an interest.

The compelling and weirdly haunting footage lasts only 2 1/2 seconds,  showing the well-dressed, middle class family dancing on the lawn. Adolphe Le Prince, trying to establish a US patent for his father’s invention, was able to prove the film’s date as his grandmother, Sarah (the lady walking backwards), died ten days after the film was made. Imagine being the first person in the world to see moving images of your dead loved one, which the Whitleys and Le Princes almost certainly were.  I wondered who Sarah Whitley was, and where she lived before she came to Roundhay. The answer, as I was to find out, was fascinating. To me, anyway.


By the time Adolphe Le Prince was doing this, his father was missing, presumed dead – vanishing somewhere between Dijon and Leeds, in September, 1890, only two years after the Roundhay Garden scene was shot.  Louis was waved off on the Dijon-Paris train, by his brother and no-one was to see him alive, again. He’d been  on his way back to Leeds where his invention and contents of his studio were packed up, ready to be dispatched to New York where the rest of the family waited and he had planned the world’s first public demonstration of his invention;  moving pictures.  Louis, and the luggage he had with him, which may have contained crucial information about his latest camera, vanished seemingly into thin air.

In recent years, a photo of a drowned man from Paris has come to light that some people believe could be Louis. We will never know.  At the time of his disappearance, he was about to get a UK patent for his latest projector.  As a strange codicil to the story, a few years after giving evidence about his father’s invention, Adolphe Le Prince was found dead in an alleged “shooting accident” in upstate New York. There were no witnesses – his body was found in woodland.

Even before I know the fate of two of the first ever film’s ‘stars’, and its cinematographer and inventor, I found the fleeting 2 seconds’ of footage somehow haunting and moving, without really knowing why.  Part of me looks at this like any costume historian.  (The Whitleys could come from the 1850s, rather than the 1880s!  The two younger folk look, as you’d expect, much more fashionable for 1888).  Part of me looks at this like …. well, you’ll see.

Louis Le Prince, ca. 1885, (I’d put this earlier) image from Armley Mills, Leeds Industrial Museum – see us there June 2nd at Leeds Wool Festival! IMAGE:  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Louis was born in Metz, France, in 1841. His father was a friend of Daguerre, one of the founding fathers of still photography. Whilst studying in Leipzig, Louis met John Whitley who invited him to come to Leeds to work for his father, Joseph Whitley, brass founder. Louis duly moved to Leeds in 1866 and three years later, married Joseph’s daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Whitley (“Lizzie”).   As we have seen elsewhere on the blog, Victorian Yorkshire industrialists were often very well travelled, and those working in technical fields, frequently went to Germany for the sort of advanced scientific and  technical education British universities remained too hidebound to provide.

In 1930, a memorial plaque was placed on Woodhouse Lane – Louis had worked there in Joseph Whitley’s workshop.   One of Joseph’s employees, James William Longley, was especially closely involved in the camera and projector’s development and the week the plaque was unveiled, Longley’s sister in law, “Mrs Rider”, told a reporter the camera “‘…looked like a knife-cleaning machine. Le Prince bought some black cloth for a cover, and I remember him giving my sister a sovereign for making the cover…'”  [The Evening Telegraph and Post (Dundee, Scotland), Tuesday, July 1st, 1930].

During their time in Leeds, Louis and Lizzie set up a school for the applied Arts, on Park Square – their work included printing images (photos?) on various items. Coincidentally, my great grandfather was later to own a printing business on Park Square. I have no idea if it was the same building.


Thomas Edison’s employees started work on trying to create moving images around 1890 – two years after Louis Le Prince had shot footage in the Roundhay Gardens, and on Leeds Bridge. Before Louis disappeared, he had been well beyond his first iteration of his camera. But with Louis “missing” and yet not able to be certified dead by his family for seven years, Edison forged ahead and claimed to be the inventor of cinematography. Which was, in fact, the invention of a Frenchman, and largely carried out in a workshop in Leeds.

Reading a little about Le Prince, after I stumbled on the haunting Roundhay Gardens Scene, I saw a rather familiar address.  It belonged to the elderly couple in the film; Joseph and Sarah Whitley.

Joseph was born in Wakefield and came to Leeds in 1844, to set up business as a brass founder.  Like many of Leeds’ early industrialists, he lived for some time in Holbeck. An obituary described him as “‘the best brass founder in the world'” [Iron and Steel Obituaries, 1891]. No small claim.


On the 1851 Census, Joseph Whitley and family can be found at 1, Water Lane, Holbeck, in Croft Buildings, living with their two young children and a servant.  Sarah, future artist and teacher, was then aged 5 – a few doors down, my great grandmother x 2, Mary Hannah Hepton, was two, and she had a number of siblings including an older sister, another Sarah, a year younger than Sarah Whitley.  It’s unlikely the children, at least, didn’t know eachother.

Mary Hannah Hepton was to marry twice and her second husband was the nephew of a well known industrialist; the man who made his fortune from developing umbrella spokes and crinolines!   Water Lane, Holbeck,  seems to have been full of metalworkers.

A few doors down from the Whitleys, my great grandfather x 3, George Pool Hepton, lived then at 8 Water Lane. George was born in 1814 so a direct contemporary of Joseph Whitley, the older man in the film.   In 1861, my great great great grandad was at 55 Water Lane on the junction with Saw Mill St, where my other great great great grandfather, William Stephenson, journeyman carpenter, from Westmorland,  lived. The Whitleys were in Hunslet.  By 1871, they were at Roundhay Cottage and in the same year, my Heptons were elsewhere on Water Lane, somewhere near Butcher St and finally, in 1881… at 1, Croft Buildings, Water Lane where George Pool Hepton was a Rent & Estate Agent along with his partner,  and son in law, Joshua Strother.  Thirty years on, and when the Roundhay Garden footage was shot, my family were still living in the very house where Joseph and Sarah Whitley, Louis Le Prince’s in-laws, had once lived and where Sarah Elizabeth Le Prince’s wife spent part of her childhood, until the Whitleys moved to Roundhay.  At the time the Whitley’s lived in Croft Buildings, my family were just three doors down. Two of the people in the Roundhay Gardens film, were neighbours of my great grandparents x 3 and as contemporaries with children the same age – they must have known eachother.

After discovering this, I have found the footage even more haunting and cryptic.  I don’t have a single photo of George Pool Hepton, or  Hannah and they will always be unknowable to me.  But there, dancing on a lawn, one long lost autumn in Leeds – their direct contemporaries and former neighbours – people who would have recognised them in the street.  Somehow, you can imagine Joseph doffing his hat.

Images taken from Wiki Commons. In public domain.

Images of Le Prince’s cameras can be found here:











How To Be A Luddite – Leeds Wool Week

ohkdboxGot a parcel, this morning. Getting parcels is always brilliant, but this was a particularly brilliant parcel.  Some print copies of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’.

These will be distributed around the shops of museums in the North of England who helped us during our period of research. I will put up details soon.

On October 4th, I will be at Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds for the launch of Leeds Wool Week, being a Luddite (in costume) and will do workshops on great wheel spinning and ‘Knitting the Old Days Way’. (Details to be posted, soon!) Would love you to come along and learn about spinning and knitting the old Dales way.  Will have a few copies for sale with us on the day, so if you want to buy one – ask a Luddite!


If you are in the US, or  – wherever you are – it’s an e-version of the book you’re after, check this out:



From the Armley Mills Wool Week Ravelry page:


Join us on Saturday the 4th of October 2014 to help launch Wool Week here in Leeds. Armley Mills Wool Festival is going to be a really exciting combination of shopping and a celebration of our woolly heritage, with workshops, demonstrations of now rare skills and machinery, talks from well known knitwear designers and performances of rare knitting music from WWI and WWII. Held within a historic woollen mill which now houses an amazing collection based upon Leeds’ industrial heritage. This event is going to be very special. The festival is open from 11am to 5pm, normal museum admission price applies, some sessions may be charged separately. More details to follow soon……

Armley Mills Industrial Museum
Canal Road
LS12 2QF
Museum Website


The Leader of the Luddites, engraving, 1812

Trunk No. 8


My blog posts are like buses – nothing for ages then two come at once.
This is another pic found on my sons’ machine.  Dad, outside his house,  in Leeds, would be early 1930s.  This house was technically a ‘back  to back’  so it had two addresses. This side of the house I never saw once as everyone came and went the back door way.  This side’s address was Vicar’s terrace – but the more-used side was Bankside Street, Harehills, Leeds.  Elderly people have told me that when they were young,  Harehills was where the ‘rich people’ lived.  How times change!
By the 1960s this was a ‘slum clearance’ area and at one point the council were threatening to forcibly buy this entire street – so they could knock it down.  This house was sold in the mid 1970s – for £150. It had an organ built into the attic by my grandfather – literally built on site.  Somehow, even that had been stripped out and stolen when we came to sell the house.


In my dad’s childhood, it had been the Jewish area of town.  Down the road they had theatrical digs where all the acts playing the Leeds City Varieties, and the Empire etc, would stay. Before it belonged to my grandad it had belonged to his father-in-law, Tom Boothman.


Tom Boothman (right) and my great uncle, Jack


The house was built for Tom. He had come from Shadwell on the outskirts of Leeds,  and still owned Bradley terrace (off Roman Ave) and the big house on the left at the very top of Roman Ave (now renamed  Birchwood Hill).  He also had a 1930’s house built for him on Roman Ave.  Although he lived at Bankside St til my great grandmother died.

My dad was born in one of the stone cottages at Bradley Terrace which was and remains pretty idyllic-looking – but came here to Bankside St when my grandad took over the dairy business from his father-in-law, in the 1930s. He was an only child and very happy.

My grandad used to say he once saw Houdini do his underwater escape off Leeds Bridge…  He also used to say he was friends in later life with one of Houdini’s locksmiths.  I’ve often wondered if Houdini stayed at the digs up the road on one of his several visits to Leeds.

My grandmother would have enjoyed watching the music hall and occasionally film stars staying up the road, just to check out the fashions!  Dad used to say she could look at an outfit and make a copy – without a pattern. As you can see, she liked to look good:


Lillie, 1920s


More recently, I’ve wondered about Houdini’s props. The most famous of his underwater escapes was using a milk churn, after all – and we had a dairy….  I wonder now if my grandad didn’t know Houdini’s mysterious locksmith, via his father-in-law, Tom Boothman – original owner of the dairy?  I think my grandad was led to believe that the padlocks were doctored (they weren’t). But I do wonder if he was also visited by someone on Houdini’s tour who’d maybe stayed up the road and spotted the dairy?

My grandad would only be a teenager when he saw the Leeds Bridge stunt. But I knew he knew the locksmith in later life and Houdini had an affection for the North of England, returning on tour several times.



A Houdini expert, writer and magician, tells me:

He did have a mechanic who travelled with him, Jim Collins, and he used a big trunk, Trunk No 8, which contained all manner of equipment  to make or repair the special apparatus Houdini used on tour.
However, there would have been times when he didn’t have what he need in that trunk, so he would call upon a few selected locksmiths local to the area that he was working to either repair things, or use their workshops.
He struck up friendships with these men, and would sometimes visit them when in the area, so it is entirely possible that your grandfather could have known one of these locksmiths.
There was one particular handcuff maker in Birmingham that he had a 20 year friendship with, Thomas Frogatt, and it is a fact that he repaired handcuffs for Houdini, and made a “special” set to try to fool him. I have been researching this chap for a while. As far as I know, Froggatt did not have any Derbyshire connections, but there would have been others I am sure.
In Buxton, Derbyshire, there is a museum, housing a collection of Houdini padlocks etc. I can’t remember the name of the man who the collection belongs to, but he could be the man you mentioned. A call to Buxton Tourist Informantion should put you in touch with the museum.
I hope this information is of use to you. It is always very nice to hear from people with a possible Houdini connection.
Yours sincerely
‘Mr X’
PS…Houdini performed a few times in Leeds. First in 1901 (your grandfather would have been 2, so I don’t think it was then!)

Probably 1914. He was performing at The Empire Theatre there between February 16th to the 21st. Your grandfather would have been 15, so there’s every chance he saw Houdini perform then. Sometimes he would jump in the river shackled, and escape, as publicity for the theatre shows, although what he did at Leeds is not in my records. As you now have the dates, Leeds Local History Department could maybe help. If you find out, please let me know and I’ll include it in my Houdini diary.

Next time I get to Leeds – I’m going to try and find out!

And for more info about hidden/forgtoten aspects of Leeds history, check out: