James William Longley

With stories of murder, abduction, suicide, court-battles, and police cover-ups, the origins of film could have been written by an over-enthusiastic Holywood script-writer.

James William Longley

So, just who invented cinematography? Unless you’re a film buff, an historian or just somebody with lots of random knowledge, the answer may surprise you.

The birthplace of film

Was it The Lumiere Brothers in 1895? Possibly.

Maybe Thomas Edison in 1896? Close, but no cigar.

According to many authoritative sources, the person who first demonstrated moving films was a French inventor – Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince – working out of a small workshop in Leeds. But how is it that Le Prince has been consigned to historical footnotes, and what does his life have in connection with the Longley name?

Louis Le Prince

Originally from France, and having spent time in the USA, Monsieur Le Prince moved to Leeds, Yorkshire to work alongside his father-in-law. While in Leeds his focus turned to the moving picture, and the creation of what we would now refer to as a film.

His work is reported in significant detail in many lengthy and authoritative journals, so I shall not attempt to cover it here in much detail here. The headlines are that he created two short moving films – one set in Roundhay, Leeds, and a more famous one overlooking Leeds Bridge. These, it is strongly contended, were the first moving films, and that as such he should have a notable place in history.

His success is reaching this point was no straight and easy road, and he was required to resolve numerous issues that were thwarting others in the race at that time. Fortunately for him, he had working alongside him a remarkably capable inventor and mechanic.

Having created his camera, lodged a patent, and recorded his films, Le Prince was scheduled to formally project his motion pictures at the Jumel Mansion in upper Manhattan. It’s worth noting that the Jumel Mansion has a long and very distinguished role in American history, and as such the screening would have been a notable event.

He would have done this, and most likely taken a major place in history, had he not disappeared in very, very mysterious circumstances. 

Disappearance

In September 1890 Le Prince was travelling from Dijon, France to Paris, then on to the U.S.A for his formal screening. Waved farewell by his brother, the train departed Dijon, and arrived into Paris – just without Le Prince on board. Searches were conducted on the train, along the trackside and at stopping points along the way. No body or luggage were found, and the speculation has swirled around ever since as to what became of him.

Had he been murdered by Edison, a known rival in the business? Had he committed suicide? Had he staged his own disappearance in order to start a new life? Was he killed by a family member in pursuit of family wealth?

The fact is, it went un-solved, and each possible explanation is equally plausible and then almost as easily dismissed. However, the story doesn’t stop there.

His widow and son, Adolphe, continued to assert the claim that Le Prince was the originator of cinematography, and took the case in the US courts, with Adolphe giving evidence. They lost their case, though the decision was ultimately over-turned in their favour.

Continuing the run of bad luck in this part of the family, Adolphe was killed in a duck-shooting incident shortly after the legal outcome. An unfortunate series of events…

Nearly a century after his disappearance, pictures emerged in Paris police archives of a body that may well have been Le Prince. No formal identification has been made, and the rumour mill grinds on.

James William Longley coin
James William Longley tokens

The connection

What, you may ask, does this have to do with the Longley name? The answer is that a certain James William Longley was Augustin’s right-hand man, and an extremely accomplished inventor and mechanic in his own right.

James William Longley b1859

James William Longley, more commonly known as Jim by his friends and family was the son of Job Longley and Lucy Longley (nee Taylor). He was born on the 21stof August 1859 in Holbeck, Leeds. His father declares his occupation as “Mechanic” in the parish church entry for his baptism, so the Jim appears to have been following in his fathers footsteps.

In 1861 he is recorded in the census as living at 12 Keating Street, Holbeck with his parents.

I have not been able to locate them in the 1871 census. By this time Jim would be 12, so still living at home. Looking at the 1871 census the family have not yet moved to Tatlock Street and are not living at Keating Street.

In 1881 the census records him living with his parents at 14 Tatlock Street, New Wortley with his parents and siblings (Joseph, Richard, Mary, Robert, Emma and Sarah E).

Later in 1881, on the 22nd October, Jim marries Eliza Wise at the parish church, New Wortley, Leeds.

In August 1898 a letter from Jim to Le Prince places him at 53 Whitehall Road, noting his profession in grand and flowery terms. He also cites a workshop of 26 Colman Street, Leeds.

In 1891 the census records him living with Lucy at 53 Whitehall Road, New Wortley. With them is Emma Longley, recorded as sister. This is presumably James’ sister. This address is corroborated by letters sent from James to Le Prince.

In March 1897, some time after their marriage, their daughter Millie is born.

In August 1898 a letter from Jim to Le Prince places him at 53 Whitehall Road

Jim is responsible for a wealth of creations including the world’s first coin operated ticket dispensing machine. His 1885 patent described a device for ‘Theatres, Concert Halls” but it looks to have been first used at Leamington athletics ground, Leeds and was then further used on Leeds trams/ omnibuses and for matchboxes.

On his headed stationary of 1898 he described himself as:

Sole maker of the patent ticket checking and registering boxes.

Sole maker of the patent match issuing machines.

Also maker of counters of every description, turnstiles and brass checks, labels and tokens.

Gentlemen’s own inventions worked out.

Records and letters from the period show that Jim’s creativity and problem solving skills resolved a number of issues, and that he was instrumental in the work with Augustin and Adolphe Le Prince.

In 1901 Jim and Eliza are located with their daughter Milly on High Street East, Northallerton. Northallerton is 50 miles North of Leeds, located between the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. Whether they’re living here or temporarily residing here is not clear. The census record is indistinct, but he appears to be a salesman of Electro Works/ Electrical Apparatus.

Records after this time are indistinct and I have yet to understand when Jim or Eliza passed away, what became of Millie, or whether she had any siblings. I’ve found a Millie Longley living with Sarah Ann Longley in 1911. Sarah Ann has children with the surname Robinson, and Millie is listed as step-daughter. If this is our Millie, then I assume that Sarah Ann married a Robinson and then a Longley. Presumably this would be Jim?

Conclusion

Le Prince had a workshop located at 160 Woodhouse Lane. There are connections between this story and my ancestral line. John Longley, one of my direct ancestors had property at 70 and 90 Woodhouse Lane in the early 1870s – a few hundred feet from Le Prince’s workshop – a place that Jim Longley is known to have visited and worked.

Discussions between individuals researching other Longley lines have found it likely that the James William Longley (clever mechanic) line and the Joseph Longley Bedsteads line merge in Morley in or around 1811/ 1813.

I have yet to find anything to suggest that my line is related, but never say never.

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