Osmund Waller Jeffs - Scientist and Showman

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Waller Jeffs Waller Jeffs - achieved considerably success as a showman in the first decade of the 20th Century and, as such and as we have seen (see main text) was the first, it is believed, to exhibit film shows in Beeston. He had been quick to realise the potential of moving pictures - and turned recognition into action in a most decisive way. But, there had been little in his earlier life to point to the direction his life was eventually to go.

The son of a surgeon - Robert Smith Jeffs, who was himself the son of a surgeon - he was born in Marylebone, North London towards the end of 1861, 1 His full name was Osmund (sometimes "Osmond") Waller Jeffs, which he used throughout his life, dropping his first name only during his period as a showman. By 1871, Robert and his wife Sarah had moved their family to Higher Bebington, near Birkenhead in Cheshire 2 where they lived an apparently genteel life with a domestic servant to assist with the running of the household. Besides Osmund - who was the oldest - there was to be two other sons, the youngest born in 1874, about four months or so after Robert's early death, aged just short of 50. 3

By 1881, Sarah had returned to Higher Bebington with her three sons and had established herself as a lodging house keeper. 4 Osmund, the elder of her sons, now aged 19, had started work as a clerk in the offices of a Steam Shipping Company - in all probability the Pacific Steam Navigation Company 5 which had its offices at 31 James Street, across the Mersey, in Liverpool. Later - at least by 1891 - he had risen to be its cashier. 6 However well regarded he was by his employer and how good an employee he was - and it appears from the positions he held, he was so regarded and was conscientious in his job - it looks likely that his true interest lay elsewhere. During this period in his life, he remained single and seems to have devoted all his spare time to a developing interest in scientific study - notably in geology and The Wirral - the part of Cheshire in which he lived - was certainly of geological interest. He became a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and, although relatively young and an 'amateur' amongst many distinguised academics, he was not content to take a passive role. His work on the study of fossilised chirotherium footprints which were discovered locally was highly regarded 7 and - perhaps a small indication of the direction of his interest in his later life - he advocated the creation of a collection of geological photographs which were made eventually into a series of prints and lantern slides for distribution to subscribers. From 1889 to 1896 he served as the Secretary to a committee that formed and managed the collection 8 - an onerous role but, perhaps significantly as things turned out, not the true figurehead.

Waller Jeffs with camera Towards the end of 1892, aged 32, he married Elizabeth Walker Black 9 and it was in the years that followed that his life began to change. Three years later he gave up his role as Secretary to the British Association committee Perhaps his status as a 'gentleman scholar', rather than a 'true academic', had taken him as far as it would go and it was time to move on - or perhaps he wanted a new challenge. After experimenting with journalism and as a lantern slide lecturer he eventually, from about 1901, found success and acclaim - some would say, somewhat bizzarly - as a showman - and particularly in the emerging cinema industry. The photograph on the left, shows Jeffs filming, watched by a group of apparently wealthy individuals, complete with chauffeur.

From his base in Birmingham 10 - where he had a particularly strong following - he branched out with a travelling show which, while introducing a wider population to film, was to become the cause of his declining fortunes as local entrepreneurs saw the opportunity and opened purpose built cinemas - notably in Birmingham where he had been eclpsed by the arrival of full-time cinema.

Despite the personal blow from the loss of his wife - who died in 1909 11 - Osmund was able to adapt to this latest period of change by settling in Stratford on Avon as manager of the Picture House cinema - a role that he continued up to his death on 1 July 1941. 12 He is buried in Brandwood End Cemetery in Kings Heath, Birmingham. 13

Footnotes - (Note: the respective footnote text may now be viewed in a pop-up window by clicking on any blue, underscored note number within the main text)

© David Hallam - 2010
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