Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

Cinema newsreel maker British Pathé has made all of its 85,000 films, spanning 1896 to 1976, available on YouTube. One writer takes you on a personal tour of the archives

News that British Pathé has added all 85,000 of its films to its YouTube channel should come with a health warning: dip a toe in its archival stream and you risk losing all sense of time and place – and half a day. More than 3,500 hours of newsreel include classics such as the Hindenburg disaster and Arnold Schwarzenegger at Mr Universe 1969, but is best viewed as a captivating resource for personal historians.

I decide to spend my Bank Holiday, slightly indulgently, taking a historical tour of the places I know. The vast digital library spans 1896 to 1976, all of it before my time. A search function allows you enter any word you like - your street perhaps, or favourite childhood haunt. What might I discover?

I start where I started, in 1982, at King's College Hospital in south London. A search produces dull news items but others which are gloriously odd. The whole archive hums with curiosities to make the web's current output feel derivative (try a search for "cats") and most come with the received pronunciation and groan-inducing wordplay of British Pathé's stiff-collared narrators.

I'm the ninth person to view "Hospital Kitchen", a 1953 story about a training kitchen for disabled housewives (innovations include a clamp for one-armed bread slicing). In a 1937 film, a doctor demonstrates a hi-tech new stethoscope. Using a gramophone, he records and then plays the pulses of two women who recline submissively on a chaise longue. "Affairs of the heart, to say nothing of the chest, have always held abundant interest," the film begins.

I move the short distance to New Cross, where I grew up. I remember being doubtful when my geography teacher, Mr Barber, recalled commuting to school by tram. But he could have done; a search brings up a 1952 report of the last London tram, which winds from Woolwich to New Cross, where thousands line the last metres to the depot. There's also footage of a 1958 Afghan Hound race at New Cross Stadium, which I never knew existed.

I spent a lot of my youth in North Chailey, in East Sussex, where my grandmother still lives. So, too, the archive reveals, did victims of the thalidomide drugs scandal of the early 1960s. A haunting, silent film shows small children at play at the Chailey Heritage School, using various prostheses and motorised chairs to cope with their deformities.

Work is Kensington in west London, where The Independent is based inside the handsome Barkers Building, one of several old department stores that once dominated our high streets. A 1955 film shows crowds waiting for the January sales and, brilliantly, is reported in rhyme: "Patiently waiting, their hearts palpitating, they stand there in line, biding the time till they open the doors to the multiple stores." Another clip shows German prisoners of war preparing Kensington Gardens, just over the road, for a 1946 victory parade under the watchful eye of their British captors.

You can search for interests, too. There are hundreds of bicycle clips, including a 1936 public information film that has currency today. "Cycling Sins" includes the tip: "Riding without holding the handlebars is about as clever as giving a balloon to a hedgehog, so don't!"

I end my tour in Brixton, where I now live. Sillier films include reports of blind darts and a dogs' tea party, but the most revealing come from the 1950s, and the settling of the Windrush generation. "Our Jamaican Problem" shows a visit by the Lambeth Mayor, Cllr White, to the Colonial Office, where he pleas for controlled immigration. But in answer to the film's title, the narrator concludes: "If we dig deep enough we may find the solution hidden within the conscience of us all."

And that's it. If only it had always been possible to learn this much while watching time pass in a blur of online videos.

To take your own tour, visit youtube.com/britishpathe

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