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Edna Purviance:
Collection Re-Visited at BFI
London Visit

London, England - July 2005
Article and Photos by Linda Wada ©
Editing Wesley Wada

Special report continues with our visit to London, England.

'U.S. troops ordered not to enter London!', such reassuring reading at 30,000 feet winging our way from Italy to England. Thankfully, I had learned that my friends were not touched by the horrible bombing events of the past week.

Despite the security jitters, we were still looking forward to our London stay. On our itinerary was a trip to BFI (British Film Institute) to see the Edna Purviance Collection. Lita was quite interested in seeing the archives since the items were once in Edna’s home.

Also on tap were research trips and visiting favorite London sites. And for me, a visit to see good friends topped the bill!

From our cabin windows, the English Channel looked as smooth as paper with ferries making 'white watermarks' as they steamed their way between France and England. Seeing the channel for the first time made those tales of swimming across it come alive.

Circling Crawley, we made our landing at Gatwick Airport, the second largest airport outside of London.

Lita ‘and her entourage’ got the Queen’s treatment, as we rode an electric cart from the gate to our pick up point. Our helpful driver remained with as we looked for our chauffeur booked by the US-based travel agency. After no one arrived, our cart driver directed us to the Gatwick Express.

English countryside from Gatwick Express.
Photo: Linda Wada

The Gatwick Express is a non-stop service between Gatwick Airport and Victoria Station in London. Other trains are available from the airport to London, including Southern Railways, but the Express suited our needs. You should buy a pass before boarding or carry British Pounds to purchase a ticket once on board.

The trip to Victoria Station was a smooth, relaxing one. The evening sun, low in the sky, broadly brushed the farm fields and pastureland so common outside of London. The train slowed for each train station, and glimpses of towns and villages flickered by the window like movie frames. Row houses and church steeples defined locations of each town, as we traveled above and below ground.

Nearing London, an industrial area south of the Thames filled the windows. Many trains appeared on all sides as we slipped into Victoria Station. We walked to our cab through a bustle of activity, quickly boarded and were on our way!

Our friendly cab driver pointed out London landmarks along the way to our hotel, and the summery evening and light traffic made for a pleasant ride.

The Citidines Hotel is an apartment hotel in the heart of central London. Located near the British and Tate Museums, our two-room unit was complete with mini-kitchen, air conditioning, large tub and shower. Designed for longer stays where guests supply many of their own personal needs, the Citidines made for reasonably priced lodging.

We were worried about the place being too noisy for it sits in the heart of London, with a street running nearly under the building. But, it was VERY quiet. Even young children in neighboring rooms could not be heard. The only downsides were one-towel-per-person during our full week stay and expensive continental breakfasts, which we learned to avoid.

As in Bologna, I popped out to scout the hotel surroundings. We were only a block from Holborn Station, so I brought a one-week pass good for all buses and trains.

Riding the ‘tubes’ the first day (less than a week after the July 7th bombings) I noticed fewer passengers in general. Many visitors and casual users were avoiding the system.

At the station, trains whizzed by with a blast of air. I noticed that most passengers were filling cars in the middle of each train, and few passengers occupied the first two cars. After a few days of observation, I began to think the first two cars were less of a target and would have been the safer ones to ride.

The first day, Lita and I took a walk about the area, and Mike ventured off on a family research trip to Bristol, England. Lita and I stocked up on food for the week at the nearby grocery and treated ourselves to a nice lunch at a local pub tucked away on a narrow side street.

One of my anticipated stops was to revisit two-cinema collector’s shops located near the British Museum. If you have been to Chaplin Society events at the Royal Festival Hotel in the past, you may have visited these shops yourself.

Pharmacy mopeds Italy shoes and handbags
Victoria Station is the same station Chaplin walked throught many times.
Also the London Eye and view from our London cab.

The next day, arriving at the first storefront off Greater Russell Street, I looked for the shop’s trademark book and poster window display, but nothing looked familiar. Failing in that search, I walked to the smaller ‘The Cinema Book Shop’ a few blocks down Greater Russell Street.

As I entered, the owner Frank crumbled a letter and tossed it into a dustbin. About the store were empty boxes. As I was browsing the ‘star-filled’ shelves that stretched to the ceiling, I began to wonder if something was amiss. Frank brought me a tea, and as we chatted, conversation came around to the other shop.

Frank told me it had closed a month earlier, and HIS shop was going to close too! The empty boxes were the start of his move. No fanfare, he said, just box up the books, lock the doors and go home for good at the end of July.

High rents coupled with auction sites like eBay have hurt many collectable and used bookshops over recent years. Dealers and customers have drifted to the internet. The attraction of a worldwide market for buyers and sellers has been the death knell for small brick-and-mortar bookstores.

This is sad for those of us who like to ‘touch and feel’. One of the pleasures I will miss will be visiting these special shops, thumbing through volumes before laying down cash, and heading home with a prize book underarm in anticipation of a good read.

I said my goodbye to Frank, and I mentioned I would try coming back. We were scheduled to be at BFI the next day and hoped to stop by the bookstore a final time.


The Edna Purviance Collection at BFI
I had viewed this collection before in November 2003 with comic artist and illustrator, Garen Ewing. On that visit, Garen and I spent about three hours viewing the collection. For this July trip with Lita and Mike, we would be there nearly a full day.

BFI Special Collections and Library is located on 21 Stephen Street, just off of Tottenham Court Road, north of the Tottenham Court Road tube station. (Update: The new BFI Reuben Library has opened, and that is where researchers go to see the library and special collections.)

Well-known for its film archives and library, BFI is a great resource for researchers, but remember to make arrangements in advance of your visit.

BFI’s Edna Purviance collection started life as the Hunter Collection, when Inman Hunter, a London collector, purchased the items at a sale.

No estate sale of Edna’s possessions ever occurred according to Lita Hill, Edna's grand niece. One of the real mysteries is how these items were transferred out of Edna’s estate.

Clues to the mystery can be found in the collection itself. One of our theories is that a box could have gotten lost during one of the family moves. Edna's sisters did sell Edna's Hollywood home and all her possessions were moved from the dwelling.

Things not needed were stored in boxes at the next location. Anyone who has moved can understand how items get shuffled, stuffed into dusty corners and dark holes and eventually forgotten, lost or removed.

Another theory is that the box was taken from Edna’s personal belongings either during her later years, when she was quite ill, or after her passing. Edna had many people living with her over the years. Her house was a family home for all her family: open when needed. She also had hired help, so the chance of something being taken is likely.

When looking at this collection, what is striking is that the items seem too fragmented and haphazard to have been a planned taking. A more careful examination might reveal the most recent item in the collection. That might tell us if all the items were from Edna's home at the time she was still alive, or if something is dated in the collection after her passing.

looking at Edna's scrapbook
Lita and Mike looking at the scrapbook that could have been created by Edna's mother Louise Nurnberger. Photo: L.Wada

The current collection contains a jumble of artifacts ranging from trivial to important.

Some of the valuable items in the collection include: photos from three of Edna’s movies ('A Woman of Paris', 'Education de Prince' and a few prints from 'Seagull'). These would be of value to anyone interested in cinema, so could have been taken for that reason alone.

The other important item is a personal scrapbook with newspaper clippings through the years of Edna’s film career. Lita felt Edna’s mother, Louise, most likely put this book together. Louise was always proud of her daughter’s achievements.

The clippings had been sent to Edna personally from many different newspapers around the world. Louise did live with Edna at the family Hollywood home from the early 1920's until her death in 1950. It would have been natural for her to create this scrapbook as a keepsake of Edna’s career.

An intriguing part of the collection is a random selection of personal photos marked “unknown”. Some were friends, or people she knew in the film world, like one of Edna and Mabel Normand on a hunting trip. (Yes, Edna could shoot a gun. She grew up in farm and ranch country during the time of stagecoaches and buggies, so handling a gun was just part of life in northern Nevada.)

And finally a chance to unravel the big mystery of my 2003 BFI visit: Were there photos of Edna’s family in the collection?

On this trip we found two family photos for sure: a portrait of Myrtle, Edna’s sister, and another of Edna with her mother Louise and her sisters Bessie and Myrtle at the Chaplin Studio. A satisfying find in my research is that Edna always valued her family. How closely knit the family was I learned after meeting Lita. Make no mistake: family was very important in Edna's life.

Along with all the personal photos was an assortment of personal postcards, letters, and even scrap paper with notes handwritten on them. I mentioned this before in my London Report from 2003, but it is these little bits, along with a flat golden wallet that are leading us to the ‘lost’ box theory. There were several items like this that made the collection too casual to have been a planned taking. The contents were more like something thrown together without much thought.

The photos and scrapbook do make you wonder if this grouping could have been part of a bigger lot of items. Maybe the box at one time had other valuable items that were sold off (items that could be on eBay today). But whatever the history, what is left is now under the care of BFI.

What Inman Hunter might have done with the collection when it was in his possession may never be known. He passed away many years ago. I do have information directly from BFI, that the London Museum of the Moving Image purchased the collection from Hunter in 1986. Another story says that the Hunter family donated the collection to LMMI, but the BFI version is documented.

Over many years, people have viewed and published items from the collection. Four photos of ‘Seagull’ have been published in David Robinson’s book, “Chaplin: His Life and Art”. The letter Wheeler Dryden wrote to Edna Purviance is in this collection. Dryden had written Edna for help in contacting his half-brothers Sydney Chaplin and Charlie Chaplin.

letter from Wheeler to Edna
Sample of the Wheeler Dryen letter to Edna.

There is a contract that Edna signed with Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s brother) during the early days of the making of 'The Kid'. Sydney was Edna’s agent for a short period of time, during the quiet years of Edna’s later career. Finally of note, there is script for 'Education de Prince'.

Notes to future researchers: In 2003, I studied the collection, taking notes on pieces of interest, thinking I might never see it again. 2005 provided the second opportunity, a longer viewing with Lita and her husband Mike. A notable change in how the collection is no longer intact, as Hunter once had it. It is now separated into two different areas of the BFI archives.

In 2003 the package was listed under the Hunter Collection. In the 2005 notes, Hunter’s name has been removed from the list we were given from BFI.

Photos have been moved to the BFI Still Photography Department. These included images related to Chaplin's films and some private photos dealing directly with Edna. Production stills include Edna’s work in 'A Woman of Paris', ‘Seagull’ and ‘Education de Prince'.

The ‘Edna Purviance Collection Box’, which contains the scrapbook, is housed at the National Film and Television Archive in Berkhamsted, outside of London. (BFI kindly brought this part of the collection back to London for our special visit.)

For an Edna researcher, the crucial thing is that time has further scattered the pieces, as items are stored in separate locations for different reasons. Our viewing this July took longer than in November 2003, partly because of the need to visit two areas of the library for viewing.

What the future holds for the collection is hard to say. Unless there is interest in keeping the remaining items together, pieces could drift further apart. The Hunter Collection, as it once existed, is no more. But for one afternoon, we got to see Edna’s past: keepsakes that had drifted from Hollywood to London.

Whether we will find out how this Edna collection got into being in the first place, we may never know for sure, but at least we learned more and have seen how the collection is changing. I just hope it too doesn’t become a lost box in the shuffle…

cinema shop and peter jewell

On the day of our BFI visit, a good ‘Chaplin’ friend and Chaplin fan, Peter Jewell, met us at the library for the middle of our stay. We had an enjoyable time looking at the stills collection, and even helping identify some of the images.

After a nearly full day at the collection, we walked over to ‘The Cinema Book Shop’ to see Peter’s old friend, Frank (pictured left above), but only his son was there on this visit. We chatted a bit and then walked to small sandwich shop for a cup of tea.

After sharing some fun stories with Peter and chatting with another friend of Peter's, who joined us, we bid Peter goodbye. We decided to take a leisurely walk back to the hotel to end this memorable day.

A few blocks from where we walked that day, another event happened a week earlier that brought the 'eyes' of the world to London and a day to remember...
Seven Days after July 7th
In the period that followed the London terrorist bombings, people watching the coverage on television may have been more unsettled than the Londoners who walked the streets.

The Londoners lived with a heightened state of awareness: glancing suspiciously at packages and backpacks when people boarded a train or bus. Newspaper stands and small markets had news photos plastered in windows and walls. But people of all ages walked past these horrific images, talked on their cellphones and just carried on with their day. They had to. This was their home and where they worked, and played...

It was evident that the terrorist acts were on their minds. Some people rode bicycles instead of using the underground, and the streets were packed even more than usual with cars and pedestrians. Even to see Chaplin's statue in Leicester Square was strangely different, with the nearby trains all shut down.

One day, in this city of millions, a bell rang inside BFI, people stopped what they were doing, and began filing out.

London English two minutes of silence July

July 14 was one week after the bombings, and London and other UK cities, streets filled with employees, employers and visitors alike for a moment of silence.

Trafalgar Square got the ‘star billing’ of focus as news cameras covered the event.

As the clocks chimed noon, taxis, buses and business vans jockeyed their vehicles to help ‘block the street’. These chaps made sure that no one strayed through, and the city came to a halt.

Big Ben chimed and for two minutes, the city of seven million stopped in remembrance. An eerie silence filled the streets.

Taxis signaled the end, by starting his engines and others followed suit. People chatted on cell phones and calmly filed back to their daily business.

As we walked back into BFI, I planned visiting Kings Cross and Russell Square, the following day.
Royal National Hotel. Tavistock Square just beyond the white screen in the trees in the background.

From our hotel, it was a rather short walk toward Russell Square where the Royal National Hotel is located. This was the site of the May 2001 Chaplin Society festival that I first attended. This time, I didn’t have to wait for traffic lights and look right and then left, but just walked down the middle of the street.

As CNN’s cameras focused on live updates from Kings Cross, the largest portion of the recovery work was being done here.

Except for wary police, locals and some tourists walking about, there was an uncommon silence. There were no loud voices or soldiers brandishing weapons, just a quiet getting on with the business at hand.

As I approached Russell Square Underground Station bombsite, all was quiet except for many uniformed police standing about in bright yellow jackets. A tall white screen blocked the view of onlookers of the sensitive police work occurring behind.

Up the street from Russell Station was another tall screen marking the Tavistock Square bombing location. As I looked at the plastic screen, I heard a rumbling sound behind me and spun around to see what it was. Tourists were wheeling their personal luggage down the middle of the street. With the street totally blocked off, not even taxis could take you to your destination. As the tourists passed, I noticed they were heading for the building whose sign was hidden behind a tree: the Royal National Hotel.

The screen actually started just steps past the hotel’s east entry. Nearly a third or so of the hotel was in the restricted zone. Rooms appeared to be in use, but maybe not, hard to tell. People in those rooms would overlook police activity on the backside of the screen blocking Travistock Square.

I walked by a closed gas station and got a closer, but faint view through the screen of cars, taxis and double-decker buses just frozen in time since July 7th.

I continued to Kings Cross. In comparison to Russell Square, Kings Cross was buzzing with activity!

I read in an American newspaper that Kings Cross was one of the ‘seediest’ places in London. I don’t think the writer has ever been here, because it is not the ‘seediest place in London’. Some Londoners would gladly give that clueless writer an orientation tour of the really ‘seedy’ locations.

If Kings Cross is anything, it is one of the busiest train stations in London. This is one of the main stations for trains heading north out of London and the station is crisscrossed with numerous tube connections. Kings Cross is next to one of my favorite buildings in London, St. Pancras, a beautiful Victorian style train station towering over Euston Road.

The station is being completely restored, and a new train tunnel is also being built. The construction work there is massive!

The CNN World newsman chatted with his crew under some trees next to Euston Road, waiting for the next live broadcast to the globe! But the people passing by didn’t pause to listen. CNN would soon go away to report on the next big event. Londoners were left to wonder if more attacks were to come.

The Russell Square Underground Station left of the underground sign and the last bus stop for the July 7th Number 30 Bus. Photo: L.Wada
Back at Russell Square, I paused to photograph the security screens at Travistock and Russell Station. Stepping into position for the tube station photo, I noticed I was standing by the number 30 bus stop. This bus picked up passengers from the Russell Underground train. This was the place the bomber had boarded too.

At a corner of the park, flowers were being laid to remember the Londoners who stepped on those trains and bus that day, never knowing what was going to happen to them. Just people doing what they always do, living their daily life.

There were faces of people still thought to be only missing when posted, but the truth came out in newsprint as days passed
. There were posters around Kings Cross and portraits beside bouquets of flowers in Russell Square. Walking through these haunting memories, I was glad to be going to Victoria Station to meet up with living, larger-than-life friends.

Even with this tragic event, life carried on in London. And for us, like the ending of ‘A Woman of Paris’, it was time to ‘hitch a ride’ and head back ‘over the pond’.

And as for those American Troops ordered to stay out of London? Well, if they were there, we didn't see any of them, but we would assure them, we had a very pleasant stay.

We were lucky on our trip. We encountered no airline strikes, bombings or hurricanes! We just had a memorable time, on a most memorable trip!

And our adventure does not end! Work is now in progress on our book about Edna Purviance. But that is another story…

We'd like to send a special thanks to BFI’s Victoria Hedley and Nigel Arthur for their warm welcome and help with viewing the Edna Purviance Collection. Peter Jewell and the Bill Douglas Centre for their help with Edna research. And to Garen Ewing for much appreciated help with Edna’s family research and the visit to the Family Research Center in London, and for a wonderful visit, as well.

Finally, a very special thanks to Lita and her husband Mike for all their help and support, for this trip of a lifetime! I like to also add a
special dedication to Ellie Hill and a special person we know as MP... We will not forget you!

UPDATE 2013: I am currently in the process in learning about a problem with this collection.

Linda Wada © Copyright 2005 - 2009 - October 8, 2005
Special thanks: Wes Wada, editing, and Lita Hill for her editing help and history on Edna's later years.

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