The Dreaming Spools Trailer

We’re excited to release this short insight into the project, with a few peeks at some of the shots of the footage we have collected so far:

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From Attic to Archive

A few years ago, Westminster Council digitised a reel of film that was shot by the wartime mayor of Marylebone in west London, Alfred Coucher, who was also the area’s chief air raid warden.

After the war he stored the films in his attic where they were recently discovered by his family and passed on to the St Marylebone Society, an architectural preservation group of which he was founder.

The films have now been made available at ‘West End At War’, demonstrating the undertaking that Dreaming Spools aims to achieve – from attic to archive! We are receiving a great response from people who have remembered taking footage of Oxford, so keep them coming!

© Nesster – available on Flickr via CC-BY (1)

© Nesster – available on Flickr via CC-BY (1)

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Lights Out for Oxford

With last night’s lights out across Oxfordshire marking the centenary remembrance of the country going to war, we too are remembering Oxford at war, as it was captured in film.

One of our primary connections for the planning of one of our first video podcasts- on Oxford during WWII-  has been with the filmmaker William Lorton, who has been liaising with us from Los Angeles. William’s great uncle, Major James Savage, was based at Mount Farm Airbase, which is now the village of Berinsfield in Oxfordshire, and William tells his story in his film, ‘Spitfire 944’:

With some detective work, William managed to track down the unit with which his great-uncle served, which has provoked our own research into archive footage of Oxford during World War Two.

It is generally presumed that Oxford was spared from all bombs due to the fact that Hitler had chosen Oxford as his new capital once Germany had invaded Britain. Indeed, it is clear that much of Oxford has remained unaltered since then, a fact that is most pronounced when comparing the streets in the footage we have found to our shots today. However, Oxford’s war was not non-existent- the few bombs that fell on Oxford are largely unremembered, such as the two high-explosives that landed on Witney on the night of 21 November, 1940. Over 200 properties were damaged by the blast, and Stanley Jenkins records the testament of Millie Harris in ‘Oxfordshire At War Through Time’, who describes how the town was in ‘a great mess, with stone slates all over the road and windows smashed everywhere! (‘Stanley C Jenkins, Oxfordshire At War Through Time, (Amberley Publishing, 2014)).

The city also had to endure the secondary effects of total war, with various colleges expected to do their bit for the war effort. Brasenose College has described its experience during this period:

“As early as March 1939 the College had welcomed the suggestion ‘that it should, if asked, house part of the Royal Courts of Justice in the event of a war’. This did not happen, but the proposal certainly got as far as a detailed list of room allocations for the College, down to the last clerk. The Hall, Lecture Rooms VII and XI, and the JCR were among the areas proposed to serve as Courts. During the first half of 1940 there was a great deal of calculation and negotiation about how the Colleges should be compensated for their losses. The Bursar of Brasenose was on the committee trying to decide about rents, floor space values, income lost and valuations of furniture. Formal agreements were entered into with the Ministry, and payment was either by charges to the War Office for services or by compensation under the Compensation (Defence) Act.”

They go on to depict the preparations for war that the college undertook – long gone was the belief from World War One that it would be over by Christmas. This time England would be prepared: “In 1939… Cellars were being strengthened and equipped for emergency use two months before war was declared, and Principal Stallybrass photographed boarding of windows and sandbagging three weeks into hostilities.” (‘A shadow of its real self’: Brasenose College during the World Wars‘).

And yet, while our footage shows that many of the buildings remain the same, the population of Oxford was irreversibly changed. Tertius Van Dyke’s ‘Oxford Revisited in War-Time’, though written after World War One, depicts the universal changes and emotions that war inflicted upon the city and its inhabitants:

“Beneath fair Magdalen’s storied towers
I wander in a dream,
And hear the mellow chimes float out
O’er Cherwell’s ice-bound stream.

Throstle and blackbird stiff with cold
Hop on the frozen grass;
Among the aged, upright oaks
The dun deer slowly pass.

The chapel organ rolls and swells,
And voices still praise God;
But ah! the thought of youthful friends
Who lie beneath the sod.

Now wounded men with gallant eyes
Go hobbling down the street,
And nurses from the hospitals
Speed by with tireless feet.

The town is full of uniforms,
And through the stormy sky,
Frightening the rooks from the tallest trees,
The aeroplanes roar by.

The older faces still are here,
More grave and true and kind,
Ennobled by the steadfast toil
Of patient heart and mind.

And old-time friends are dearer grown
To fill a double place:
Unshaken faith makes glorious
Each forward-looking face.

Old Oxford walls are grey and worn:
She knows the truth of tears,
But to-day she stands in her ancient pride
Crowned with eternal years.

Gone are her sons: yet her heart is glad
In the glory of their youth,
For she brought them forth to live and die
By freedom, justice, truth.

Cold moonlight falls on silent tower;
The young ghosts walk with the old;
But Oxford dreams of the dawn of May
And her heart is free and bold.”

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The Oxford Film society and the Oxford Experimental Film Group

An interesting week with many new leads and films turning up to help us understand what films were made in Oxford last century and also a trip to BBC Oxford to spend time with colleagues there chatting about the project and their own video archives. I also was delighted to be asked to talk on air with Radio Oxford presenter Kat Orman about the Dreaming Spools project and some of the material we’ve found. It’s on iplayer for a few more days :

Radio: Kat Orman, BBC Radio Oxford
This month sees the launch of ‘Dreaming Spools’ a project run by Oxford University to unearth film footage for an exhibit on the history of Oxford through time. Project leader Pete Robinson, who manages the educational media team at Oxford University, is interviewed about the new initiative.

As we find out more, we’re starting to piece together the history of film-making at Oxford University in the period before the team’s own memory, the era pre-1990. Although we knew about some films, including my favourite film ‘Our College’ made in 1949 by Hugh Wyn Griffith a student at Jesus College, we were unsure when the Oxford Film Society started, was in it in the 1940s or earlier?, and how it evolved into the Oxford Experimental Film society. Having met many students over the years who want to make a film I know how obsessive they can be and it’s no surprise that some of them from the early years of the society have carried on to work in the film industry after experimenting with filming at Oxford.

We’ve now been in touch with people who can tell us the story of the Oxford Film society and the people involved and we’re starting to find documentation that explains the sequence of events that led to other films being made and how some of the pioneer film-makers of the 50s,60s and 70s got started in their careers with films at Oxford. Below is the very sophisticated letter-headed notepaper used by Guy Coté of the society during the making of the experimental dance film ‘Between Two Worlds.

Oxford Film Society note paper

The story is an interesting one and needs a much longer post to explain, meanwhile here is a still image of the Oxford Film Society’s logo on the ski film ‘Sestriere 1949’ which was previously thought lost even by the director but which through the help of Guy Coté’s daughter has now been made available this week at the comprehensive web site dedicated to this amazing film-maker

Oxford University Film Society logo

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The Kish Expedition, 1923-29

In 1921, Stephen Langdon of Oxford University wrote to Berthold Laufer, then Chief Curator of the Anthropology Department of The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, to propose a joint expedition to Kish, Mesopotamia. The archaeological site of Kish is located on the floodplain of the Euphrates River in modern Iraq, twelve kilometers due east of ancient Babylon and eighty kilometers south of Baghdad.

Laufer expressed The Field Museum’s interest, and in 1921-22 the expedition’s eventual chief financier, Mr. H. Weld-Blundell, conducted a survey of important sites in Mesopotamia, settling on Kish as the site holding the most interest and archaeological potential. In March of 1923, Mr. Ernest Mackay, protégé of the famed archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie, began the first season of excavations of the Joint Oxford-Field Museum expedition to Kish. Excavations continued during the winter months of the next ten years, from 1923-33, under the absentee direction of Stephen Langdon who, although serving as the director of the project, visited the excavations only twice, in 1924 and 1926. Mackay served as field director through the 1925-26 season, after which Mr. Louis Charles Watelin became field director. Watelin served as field director for the remainder of the project.

The Kish Collection – the product of the 1923-29 expedition and later studies right up to a more recent project in 2004 – remains at the Field Museum; a compilation of the artefacts found on this project.

What also remains is a film reel – a 23 minute, monochrome silent film of the archaeological dig that has survived in the Field MuseumScreen Shot 2014-07-22 at 14.10.45 Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 14.09.49 archives. The footage depicts the mammoth excavation that took place, which was conducted on seventeen different mounds both inside and outside the ancient boundaries of Kish. As was the custom of the day, the excavations were absolutely enormous in scale. Both Mackay and Watelin employed hundreds of local men and boys who worked at a break-neck pace to remove soil to depths of fifteen or more meters in trenches tens of meters on a side. This is captured on film, with boys running alongside speeding tipper-trucks on rail tracks, and dozens of local people digging on site.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 14.07.11

The film also gives a hint of the British conspicuity of the expatriate archaeologists, with a 1920s automobile stuck in the sand, and a group attempting to dislodge the vehicle – can anyone identify the car? It’s hard to imagine driving this sort of vehicle over any tough terrain: 

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 14.04.55

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

The first of two articles on ‘Dreaming Spools’ has been published today in the Oxford Times Online, and in today’s Oxford Mail paper.

As we discussed in the article, we are extremely grateful to William Lorton, for contributing such fantastic footage of the Oxford Steamers in 1944, filmed by Major James R. Savage during the war. Most colour film during this period was found in America, as it was hard to get hold of and expensive, so it was rare for 16mm colour cine film to be around in Oxford, and to capture such great images of his experience on the steamers on the River Thames.

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 15.38.15 Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 15.41.07 Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 15.41.49

Check out the article and continue to spread the word:

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Article In The Oxford Times

The Dreaming Spools appeal for footage has taken off this morning, with The Oxford Times photographing our team for their article on the project. We’re hoping to raise awareness of our research, and get some more people searching for their old films of Oxford. Keep an eye out for their piece!

We are also in the process of recording an interview with Jack FM Oxfordshire for their Sunday morning programme. Tune in soon to hear us talk about the progress of the project.

Here are some behind the scenes shots of Josh and Hannah as The Oxford Times article comes together:

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Filming the Film

Over the years many famous films have been shot in Oxford. It’s well known that the Harry Potter films were shot in the Divinity School of the Bodleian library and Christ Church college. But did you know that in the 70s, the epic Hollywood film ‘Heavens Gate’ filmed its opening sequence of a graduation ball in the Sheldonian Theatre. Or more recently a Bollywood film was shot around the streets of Oxford ending with a big set piece dance routine filmed in front of the Radcliffe Camera.

Filming Quills outside Hertford College

Quills actors

If you are interested in finding out more then Wikipedia has a list of films shot in Oxford with a link to further information at the IMDB Movie Database.

We’ve some video taken in 1999 during the filming of Quills on the streets of Oxford. The film is set in revolutionary France and these crowd scenes, full of extras dressed as French peasants and soldiers were shot in front of Hertford College on a sunny Saturday morning as bemused tourists walked by. Although it took all weekend to film the crowd scenes, they only ended up using three or four seconds in the film!

The last photograph is from a drama set in Oxford, the civil war epic To Kill A King. This was filmed a year or two later than Quills around the Bodleian library quads and the Sheldonian Theatre and is based on the relationship between Oliver Cromwell and General Carfax in the fall out from the English Civil War. Although there is a great film to be made about Oxford in the Civil War, the film itself came out as being a little bit too obtuse for most.

Actors outside the Sheldonian

We’d love to know if you have any film footage of the filming of the Hollywood ( or Bollywood ) films shot in Oxford over the years.

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Sneak Preview

We’re very excited here at Oxford about the footage that we’re already discovering for the project. Can you spot the differences between Turl Street in 1944, and 2014?

© Robin Sones – available via
© DAvenport 3-2614

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Dreaming Spools: An Introduction

This month sees the launch of Dreaming Spools, a media project run by the University of Oxford to explore and discover film footage of the city’s history. We are searching for footage of any length, from any time period, featuring the city and its inhabitants. We aim to produce a number of threads that can be translated into video accounts and podcasts, constructed from potentially unseen or unused footage.

We are looking for films shot by visitors to the city, students, lifelong residents; any footage is invaluable. Do you remember filming some events or friends during your time in Oxford? Then we would love to know about it. This may involve digging out films that have not been watched in years, getting in touch with older friends and relatives, perhaps even some rifling through an attic! Ultimately, we want your help to surface movies that might not otherwise be in the public domain; for friends of Oxford to help reconstruct the city’s history in film.

We will be documenting the progress of this project on this blog, through the accumulation of material to collating it into potential narratives – watch this space for updates.

If you think you can help us, or know someone who can – get in touch!

© Charlie Davidson-  available on Flickr via

© Charlie Davidson- available on Flickr via 

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