THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Owen Brooks (1863-1947)
Pioneer Photographer and Motorcycle enthusiast
Founder of Cottage Road Cinema
There’s a wonderfully flamboyant newspaper photograph of Owen Brooks in 1906, with handlebar moustache and tight-fitting leather flying helmet, posing proudly by his motor cycle, the first to be registered in Leeds. He looks every inch a bold pioneer, and so he was. From humble beginnings as a grocery assistant he launched out into the new field of studio photography, developed his own cine-camera and worked on improved projection equipment, built himself a prototype motor-cycle, and in 1912 founded a new venture, an ‘electric picture palace,’ in the expanding suburb of Headingley. His Cottage Road cinema survives today, the oldest continually operating cinema in Leeds.
William (Willie) Owen Brooks was born in Stony Stratford, one of four children of Richard Brooks, an agricultural labourer from rural Northamptonshire. The family moved to Leeds around 1870 when he was seven, drawn by the prospect of work in the booming industrial town, where his father got a job as a gas meter inspector and his mother worked as a dressmaker. They lived in Hunslet, in a back-to-back terrace in Ebony Street, then Mario Street. Owen (the name he preferred) started work as a grocery assistant, but took his first plunge, as he called it, when he was 19 and bought a grocery shop in Dewsbury Road for £150. He only had £19 but he borrowed the rest and set up in business. That was not the end of his ambitions. Increasingly fascinated by recent developments in photography, he divided his shop to create a studio for portrait photography. Once the preserve of the wealthy, here ordinary working folk could afford to sit for their portrait, which he presented in fine style. He prospered.
His other passion was for the new technology of motor engines: he built himself a motor cycle, importing a top-of-the-range Buchet engine from France, and getting local cycle makers to provide the parts. His red motor cycle, with its wicker side-car, became a familiar sight, terrifying the residents of Hunslet and Beeston as it raced noisily around the streets with anyone brave enough to ride along. He was first to register his motorcycle when registration began, acquiring the coveted U 1 number plate (a separate series from motorcars). He took part in rallies and hill-climbs with his famous bike.
But photography remained his first interest, and like many others he became increasingly engrossed in the feasibility of taking and projecting moving pictures. He developed his own cine-camera and around 1900 rode in a horse-tram down Boar Lane taking shots of passers-by – a piece of Leeds cinema history which has recently resurfaced. He worked with the music-hall entrepreneur Thomas Barrasford developing new projection equipment (the Barrascope) which was used to show short films and newsreels at Barrasford’s Tivoli Theatre in Leeds (it often broke down!). He looked for exciting news items to film. One of his biggest scoops was in 1903, filming the great statue of the Black Prince, meant for City Square, being precariously unloaded from the barge which had brought it from Belgium.
In 1912 he plunged into a new project: to set up one of the new picture houses which were springing up around Leeds, showing short films and newsreels. A growing suburb like Headingley would be ideal. One of his motoring friends, a young engineer called George Reginald (‘Reg’) Smith, knew a suitable building in Cottage Road: a garage purpose-built for the cars of the wealthy Kirk family of Castle Grove, now unused and available to rent. Owen Brooks and Reg Smith teamed up, converted the building and after rigorous inspection by the Watch Committee were granted a license. Brooks was to manage the new cinema, and so he moved with his wife and two children to 18 Winston Gardens, Headingley, his home for the rest of his life.
The cinema flourished, in spite of increasing competition. He and Reg Smith’s widow bought the freehold of the building in 1922, when a new company was formed with another partner, but after two years Owen Brooks left the company – why is not clear. He remained in the cinema business, still working into his eighties at the Ritz Cinema at Cross Gates, even sleeping there during WW2 when an air raid threatened. Interviewed aged 81, he said ‘A man is as old as he feels – and I feel about 40, perhaps a bit younger..’ He died in 1947, still at work until near the end.
He was a cinema pioneer, less known than Le Prince and others, but remembered as the founder of a cinema which has survived more than a century, which holds a place in people’s affections and memories, and thanks to another enthusiast continues to provide pleasure and entertainment.