Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
Exeter, England - November 2013
University of Exeter
Southwest England & Eastern Wales
Article and Photos by Linda Wada ©
In May 2001, I attended my first Charlie Chaplin Society event in London. During the day long program, I happened to strike up a conversation with Peter Jewell.
Peter told me about movie artifacts he had collected with his lifetime friend, Bill Douglas. Handing me a brochure describing the collection, I mentioned my desire to see it someday. Twelve years later, I was finally heading to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum!
Visiting the museum required a three hour train ride to southwest England to the town of Exeter. With the train trip swinging close to Wales, I included an extra stop to see Welsh friends I had not seen in ten years.
Train travel is a treat, since I have very little public transportation at home. To take advantage of the UK train system, the BritRail Pass is a must. The pass cannot be bought within the UK, so must be purchased before going through BritRail or Visit London.
While the journey went well, with no crowds, I did have one unexpected problem that nearly derailed the day. Because I had an England-only pass, I needed to purchase an extra ticket for the trip into Wales. But, some of my British Pounds were considered too old for the train station to accept! Luckily, I had enough change to cover the extra ticket. If using cash, make sure you are carrying the latest British currency. You can get your money exchanged at local banks.
The weather in Wales was ideal for sightseeing. We enjoyed walks in town, and in the Welsh countryside. The landscape reminded me of late September, instead of November. One everning, we strolled pass a popular boating canal at the foot of the mountains. After a hearty British roasted dinner, I had to pack-up and leave this idyllic setting.
Requiring two train changes enroute to Exeter, I arrived at Bristol after sunrise. Walking on the station platform, I could see parts of downtown Bristol. In 2001, my husband and I spent a day strolling through the local zoo and also visited the famed Old Vic Theater. Bristol is also known as the home of Archie Leech, better known as Cary Grant.
As my train pulled out, I was heading into new territory. The countryside did not disappoint, as the land was as green as the rest of England. Growing up in a truly dry and grey land in the western US, I just can't get enough of this stunning green countryside. My expectations of a flat landscape gave way to scenery of endless rolling hills.
As commuters read their newspapers, I watched the landscape change from the high Black Mountains of Wales, to the rolling hills near the Dartmoor Forest. The train slowed, then stopped at St. David Station. While many people got off here to go to the University, my lodging was elsewhere. I caught the first train to Centre Station. The wait was short and I was off the train, before I even got settled. My bed and breakfast, located in an old remodeled Victorian home, was a short walk from the station.
After a visit with the host, I asked about the shortest way to the University. She directed me through a well-kept neighborhood of older homes, that led to a paved path. On the map, what looked like a large grass field, was instead a steep ravine.
In the distance, I could see the campus of the University of Exeter, amongst all the trees. If I could have walked straight across, I could probably walked right into the Bill Douglas Centre. After a 10 minute walk to bypass the ravine, I was at the steps of the museum.
The beautiful University of Exeter campus sits on top of a hill overlooking the city. Scouting the museum location on Google street maps, made the building easy to find. Once inside, I was greeted by Philip Wickham, president of the museum.
The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
The roots of the Bill Douglas Centre began in the early 1950s, when Peter Jewell met Bill Douglas. They served together in Egypt with the Royal Air Force for the National Service.
Their friendship found common ground because both had a serious interest in cinema. Bill Douglas eventually became a filmmaker. Peter and Bill enjoyed time together, buying cinema memorabilia. For 30 years the collection grew, as they shopped boot sales, bookshops, charity stores, and places where people were discarding the past. Sadly, Bill Douglas was diagnosed with cancer, and passed away in 1991.
Inheriting the collection, Peter decided to create a living tribute to his lifelong friend. Peter eventually donated the collection to the Exeter University Foundation. The Foundation created this museum, that today houses a treasure trove of early moving picture history. Recently renamed to The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, the museum is visited by scholars and film buffs from around the world.
Bill and Peter gathered over 50,000 items over their lifetime. Even after Bill's death, Peter continued to add to the collection. Today, thanks to new donations, the archive has grown to over 65,000 pieces. In Bill's memory, Peter also worked on a documentary about Bill's cinema work titled the Bill Douglas Trilogy. Available on DVD, Peter has presented the program at film events in the UK.
As I entered the main offices located in the film book library, Mr. Wickham had a spread of Edna Purviance and Charlie Chaplin items on a table ready to view. Postcards, posters, news articles invited viewing, with some items unique and rare. The book library alone would take months to examine. One section is devoted to just Chaplin.
The exhibits are split onto two exhibition halls. The main hall is next to the library and offices. This floor houses a fine collection of Magic Lanterns, shadow puppets, panoramas, dioramas, and stereoscopes of all descriptions. The artifacts are displayed in a timeline representing moving picture history. One special item is believed to be the very first book on creating moving pictures.
The film memorabilia exhibit is located one floor below the main hall. This exhibit showcases an array of memorabilia from the silent film era to recent classics. A special case is devoted to Charlie Chaplin. Unique toys, press brochures, photos, and even a few Edna items would delight Chaplin fans.
Mr. Wickham provided an audio tape tour which covers the full exhibit. Peter Jewell and other museum staff members, tell the history of each of the pieces. Peter’s personal insights are a highlight of the pre-recorded tour.
I did urge the museum to correct the audio recording where Edna is mentioned as living in France in her later years. Edna had only been to France twice in the 1920s, but never stayed there permanently. During her eight year marriage to John Squire, she did live in other parts of the US, and for a few years in South America. The rest of her years, she was living with her family members at her home in Los Angeles, California, until her death in 1958.
During a break, Philip showed me more of the Exeter campus. From the student union, you can see a commanding view over the city. Inside the Commons, I found the campus bookshop, which had a movie poster sale! I wish I could have fitted some of the posters in my carry-on bag.
Back at the museum, Peter Jewell had arrived! I hadn't seen him since 2005. We last had tea together in London with Lita Hill, Edna's grand niece. On that visit, we saw the closing of The Cinema Bookshop, near the British Museum, and visited BFI's Edna Purviance Collection.
Following a long chat, I presented Peter with his first viewing of Lita's interview that I recorded in April 2005. After the program, we toured more of the museum checking out some of the latest additions. But before we knew it, Peter had to catch the bus home. We said our temporary good-byes, as I planned to see him later in the trip.
After Peter left, Philip invited me to stay for another hour before closing. I checked out more of the Chaplin items on file including photos, original press clippings and a few rare books, I hadn’t seen before.
With night time approaching, a golden sunset greeted us at the campus. Philip gave me the best directions back to my lodging. The evening was crisp, but the walk was pleasant as I returned for a quiet evening at the inn. An enjoyable day has passed too quickly!
Being the off season, I had the lodging nearly to myself. That night I learned something, I didn't know, about lodging in some bed and breakfasts. Some hosts turn off the gas heat about midnight! Just something to remember if you're wondering why it’s getting chilly.
After breakfast and chat with my host on the background of the city, I took a walk around town. The university is a major draw, as students from around the world attend the school.
But Exeter, I learned, is not quite as popular destination for holidays, as people tend to pass through on their way to other parts of southwest England. Part of the reason, Exeter's lack of older structures compare to other English towns. Locals even apologized for the lack of old buildings.
The main High Street was severely bombed during raids in the second World War. Many historic buildings were destroyed. What the bombs didn't ruin, fires ravaged. However, living in a town where the oldest surviving structure is from 1907, the remaining architecture in Exeter was still impressive to me.
Exeter was as interesting as many of the other UK villages and cities I have seen. I surely hope to make another trip. Exeter is close to Edna's grandmother's home area of Cornwall, so southwest England deserves a return visit.
Back to London by the Waterloo Route
After my enjoyable stay in Exeter, I had two options to return to London. Rather than go back to Paddington, a route I have done several times, I chose to take the train to Waterloo Station, which takes about 30 minutes longer.
The London train that arrived was smaller than the one I took from Paddington, but uncrowded. Passing through some charming English countryside and by pleasant villages instead of highways and traffic, the train swished by endless farms and rolling green hills. Even some traditional thatched roof homes were visible. I saw buildings old enough to have been around in Edna's grandmother's day.
By the time I reached Waterloo Station, one could easily see where much of the new construction was happening in London, with large apartment buildings constructed close to the rail lines, and newer skyscrapers nearby.
By late afternoon, I was back at the same Chiswick bed and breakfast inn.
In the days remaining before the Napoléan event, I visited more of the city and met with friends. I saw the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, Gosh Comics, Forbidden Planet, and Chinatown. Tucked off a side street near the Thames, I stumbled into a wonderful old cinema and theater shop.
When I talked to the proprietor, he mentioned a story about Charlie Chaplin walking into the shop one day in the late sixties. The owner was very busy with customers, as Chaplin looked about. But as quietly as Charlie came in, he slipped out the door.
I did look for items on Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance. I didn't find anything on Edna, but they had a nice variety of Chaplin pieces. With other stores now gone, this was the only cinema related shop in Central London I found. The prices maybe beyond some peoples budgets, but certainly worth visiting.