Rare footage of 1930s Biggleswade discovered in rusted biscuit tin

The only know footage of Ernest 'Billy' Lincoln. Picture: Edward Street

The only know footage of Ernest 'Billy' Lincoln. Picture: Edward Street - Credit: Archant

When Edward Street’s grandfather passed away, he left him with several biscuit tins which had been rusted shut.

However, rather than old, stale biscuits, the tins contained rare footage of Biggleswade, taken more than 80 years ago.

“They were in reasonable condition because I don’t think they had been watched since the 1950s,” said Edward.

“The films were all taken by Ernest ‘Billy’ Lincoln, who died in 1936 at the age of 35.

“He was my grandfather’s cousin and as he had no children, the films passed to my grandfather.”

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Born in Biggleswade in 1900, Billy was the only son of Rose and William, who worked as a bootmaker and served in the army.

Billy followed a similar path to his father.

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“He was originally apprenticed as a cobbler but the ‘urge of the sea’ – according to his obituary – was too strong and he joined the navy in 1918,” explained Edward.

“He was on duty at the surrender of the German fleet in the Firth of Forth in November that year.

“Billy served in the navy around the world, in India particularly, until he was discharged in 1931 as the result of illness.

“He then returned to Biggleswade and joined the Eastern National Omnibus Company as a bus conductor and, perhaps weakened by his earlier illness, died suddenly a few years later of pneumonia and pleurisy.”

On his return to the town after being discharged, Billy aquired a camera and began making the now rare films.

Among these films are shoots of Lincoln family trips to the Netherlands, Belgium and the south coast of England, as well as footage of Biggleswade town centre and its residents celebrating the jubilee of King George V in May 1935.

Among Edward’s favourite clips is one showing the townspeople gathering in the Market Square for the proclamation of Edward VIII as king in January 1936.

He said: “Similar scenes must have been played out in towns across the country but weren’t captured on film.

“There’s a great moment at the end when the dignitaries line up for the camera with the scroll – Billy must have been known as the local cinematographer.”

One of the most valuable videos among the collection is of Billy himself, which Edward said is another one of his favourites.

“I think his friend must have picked up Billy’s camera and filmed him without permission,” said Edward.

“He turns to the camera and looks annoyed at first, then there’s a grudging smile.

“He’s filmed with his mother, Rose, and you can see the family resemblance.

“As far as I know it’s the only image of him there is. It was thrilling to realise that it was him!”

Motion picture film was a fairly new invention in the 1930s.

Louis Le Prince filmed the oldest surviving video – the Roundhay Garden Scene – in 1888. But video cameras only started to be mass marketed in 1923, when Kodak produced the 16mm film as a low-cost alternative.

Billy’s films were captured on 9.5mm cinefilms, Edward believes he took the videos due to an interest in the world around him – although he doesn’t know how he got hold of the camera.

“He kept a journal of his naval service which has disappeared, unfortunately,” said Edward.

“He also had a technical mind. His obituary says that, as well as filmmaking, he was interested in radio and modelmaking, and filled his mother’s house with meticulously-made models.”

Edward, with the help of Biggleswade History Society, has had the films converted to DVD. He believes they are invaluable to the town’s history.

He said: “Films like these show you what people looked like, how they dressed and what they did – the ‘normal’ world of the time that they took for granted, but now looks strange to us.”

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