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William Carr Crofts

Direction - Cinematography | United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The history of early film is full with forgotten faces and lost talents. Individuals seem to be vanishing behind other names and other inventions. In time, recorded history makes it almost impossible not to exclude certain pioneers from the cinematic canon. Always in the shadow of his celebrity cousin, William Carr Crofts appears by now as a mere footnote in the history of the medium.

The question to ask is whether time can be considered as a good judge into evaluating what is truly great in the world of cinema. One could easily argue that since one’s cinematic output is a bare ten extant frames, shot in collaboration with a more celebrated director (Wordsworth Donisthorpe), then there’s little reason to consider an individual as worthy of research. However, at a closer look, there could be more to William Carr Crofts’ contribution to film than current evidence suggests.

“Born in Bradford in 1846”, Crofts became a “student of architecture and later, like his cousin [Donisthorpe], studied the Bar”[1]. Throughout the 1870s, heavily influenced by liberalism, he became one of the founders of the Liberty and Property Defence League (LPDL), an “extreme anti-statist organisation run by some of [Herbert] Spencer’s more eccentric self-proclaimed disciples, such as Auberon Herbert, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, and W. C. Crofts”[2] himself. The interest in photography emerged for Crofts as part of his political ambition. “As keen Darwinists, […] the two [cousins] inventors saw the machinery of the industrial revolution […] as a legacy that could evolve into a mechanism of the communications revolution - the motion picture camera - ensuring their financial security, and perhaps even useful in promoting their extreme libertarian views”[3].

Donisthorpe and Crofts obtained a patent for their motion picture camera, the Kinesigraph, on 15 August 1889 and shot their first film “at eight to ten frames per second, in Trafalgar Square, London, in 1890”[4]. This was to become the only remnant of their cinematic work to date. We do know that Crofts was at first in charge of the camera and projector drawings[5], however following his premature death in 1894, Donisthorpe was quick to downplay his contributions by claiming that he “invented the instrument long before Crofts even saw it”[6]. Ironically, following his cousin’s demise, Donisthorpe’s interest in the medium of cinema seemed to had had an abrupt end.

Speculatively, what appears to play in Crofts’ favour is how closely Donisthorpe’s cinematic career is linked to his own contributions. Crofts appeared to be central at the success of developing a working camera, following a few failed single-handed attempts from his cousin. Their choice of setting for their only film, London's Trafalgar Square (1890), is also closely linked to a string of contemporary riots against the rise of socialism in Britain. Film thus developed for Crofts (and LPDL by extension) into a political tool and not just a technical invention. The medium allowed them to express most clearly the independence of libertarian thought from any state driven agenda.

What is tricky to assess though is to what extent Crofts actually influenced Donisthorpe and vice versa. When it came to film, the two seemed to have worked as a very tight unit, which makes it almost impossible to distinguish one against the other. Time was in Donisthorpe’s favour in the end, but lost mavericks, such as Crofts, were always in the shadows, allowing progress to take place.

[1] Herbert, Stephen. Industry, Liberty, and a Vision: Wordsworth Donisthorpe's Kinesigraph; p. 20. London: The Projection Box, 1998.
[2] Collini, Stefan. Liberalism and Sociology: L. T. Hobhouse and Political Argument in England 1880-1914; p. 17. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
[3] Herbert, Stephen. Wordsworth Donisthorpe (original entry by Brian Coe); square brackets added. London: Who's Who of Victorian Cinema, 2000.
[4] Burns, R. W.. Television: An International History of the Formative Years; p. 69. London: The Institution of Electrical Engineers, 1998.
[5] Herbert, Stephen. Industry, Liberty, and a Vision: Wordsworth Donisthorpe's Kinesigraph; p. 52. London: The Projection Box, 1998.
[6] Herbert, Stephen. Industry, Liberty, and a Vision: Wordsworth Donisthorpe's Kinesigraph; p. 84. London: The Projection Box, 1998.

Essential Films Canon Winner

Best Direction
Best Cinematography


  1. London's Trafalgar Square (1890)

  1. London's Trafalgar Square (1890)

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