How to make movie magic out of everyday life...The life and legacy of Charles Chislett

How to make movie magic out of everyday life...The life and legacy of Charles Chislett

By Gareth Dennison | 01/03/2021

How to make movie magic out of everyday life...The life and legacy of Charles Chislett


IT WAS early morning on May 27, 1936, and amateur film-maker Charles Chislett stood clutching his camera on the Southampton docks.

Soon he and wife Grace would board the Queen Mary cruise ship for its maiden voyage to New York, an experience he documented in 51 minutes and eight seconds of silent, black and white footage.

“No camera can do justice to the magnificence within” was one caption he added later in his film.

Shots of the smoky funnels set the scene, as a group of people carry on board a huge ceremonial cake in the shape of the ship.

The crew looks out over the side, a brass band plays, the tug boats move into place and a plane passes overhead, towing banners behind.

“To the sound of every siren in Southampton water, our escort forms up,” says another caption.

New York greets the travellers with skyscrapers and the neon-lit night-time scene of Times Square.

Whereas now everyone on the Queen Mary would be filming, tweeting and otherwise digitally documenting their travels, Chislett’s film — also charting the return journey — was movie magic in 1936. These were seldom-seen scenes at the time.

Chislett was a bank manager in Rotherham, who became heavily involved in his amateur film hobby, making more than 100 between the 1930s and 1960s.

The interest might have stemmed from his Second World War experience, when he compiled a photo-record of a 2,500-mile trip through Europe with the Intelligence Corps in 1945.

Later, he made movies highlighting poverty for Church and Pastoral Aid, and documented how steel was made at a local plant.

One film explores the canal heading out to Thorne, leading Chislett to ponder (and call the clip itself): “Is Rotherham a seaport town?”

But his 1960s trips to places like Africa, Egypt and India caught the public’s imagination most because they were new sights on screen.

Dr Anna Bocking-Welch, a history lecturer at the University of Liverpool, researched Chislett’s adventures in her paper The British Public in a Shrinking World.

She said: “Rotherham does not seem to have had an active cine-society renting and screening these sorts of films, but it did have Chislett.

“When Chislett stood on stage to lecture alongside his films he provided an important link between the ‘here’ of the school hall or community centre where he was speaking and the ‘there’ of Egypt, Africa, Lebanon, Malaysia or wherever he was showing footage of.

“Chislett gave what he called ‘personal running commentaries’ when he screened his silent films, ‘spoken to the split second’ and varied ‘to suit different audiences’.

“Rather than reading from a full script, Chislett lectured using a series of typed introductions, followed by scrawled note-cards that prompted key narrative events, supplementary facts and impressions to be discussed.”

She added: “As chair of Rotherham Celebrity Lectures, Chislett organised talks on foreign places and international issues.

“Within the Rotary Club he used his post as chairman of the International Service Committee to encourage interaction with clubs overseas.

“Chislett also travelled extensively with his wife Grace, sharing these experiences with the Rotherham community through lectures and film shows.”

Chislett was a regular face in the Advertiser.

He chaired the Chamber of Commerce and Rotherham Celebrity Lectures; was past president of Rotherham Round Table and Rotherham Continuity Club; held honorary roles with the kids’ convalescent home, boys’ welfare club, St John Ambulance and the Rotherham Freedom from Hunger Campaign; and was also involved with Rotary, Church and Pastoral Aid Society, the local arts council and civic society, hospital management and several sports clubs.

Chislett retired from the bank in 1962, was awarded the freedom of the borough in 1967 and died in 1990, aged 86.

But his name remains at the heart of community life in Kimberworth Park, where the Chislett Centre is located.

In the early 1960s, the Advertiser reported that the area’s biggest step forward in the campaign to provide for young people was a full-scale appeal to the public.

As a sponsor, Chislett sent out a letter, saying: “I take the liberty of drawing your attention to this project so that you may have the opportunity of associating yourself with an organisation which will translate your assistance into a lasting force the benefit of hundreds of young people who are still at school or who work in many parts of Rotherham but have no centre for club activities in their own district.

“Every house in the Kimberworth Park estate is being visited and each family is being asked to give £1. This appeal is aimed at raising at least £2,000 by means of generous donations.”

After a lengthy fundraising campaign, there was enough cash for most of the building — but not the roof. Chislett stepped in to cover the cost and the centre was opened in 1968 by singer Frankie Vaughan.

Rotherham Council later took over the centre before but, in the face of austerity cuts in 2011, Kimberworth Park Community Partnership took control and oversaw a £432,149 National Lottery-funded renovation.

Centre strives to help quality of life...

KIMBERWORTH Park Community Partnership emerged after a group of residents set up a community forum in 1998 to influence decisions about the area.

It became a charity in 2011 and now delivers a wide range of services and activities under its mission statement: “Working in partnership towards improving the quality of life and wellbeing of the whole community.”

Crafts, pamper sessions, dementia support, and friendship networks preventing people from being lonely or isolated are among some of what the partnership offers in normal, non-lockdown times.

A community gym caters for people of all abilities, helping them to improve their physical and mental fitness.

The Men in Sheds group?provides opportunities to share skills and experiences over a cuppa in a welcoming environment.

There are also children’s play schemes; the ACE Project (Alternative Curriculum Education) supports young people who find formal education difficult to re-engage with learning.  

Chat ‘n’ Chill provides an informal social approach to supporting young people who experience autism.

During normal times, some 220 people attend and — through a contract with Voluntary Action Rotherham and Rotherham CCG — GPs refer patients via social prescribing.

During pandemic times, services have continued through the likes of Zoom and WhatsApp and over the phone.

Partnership spokeswoman Dawn Heald said: “The focus is on those most vulnerable and the partnership’s work impacts at individual, family and community level, as people develop the confidence and skills to self-help and be supportive of each other.

“This ethos carries through in practice with the partnership developing a supportive infrastructure of services and activities that  create a renewed sense of community spirit that brings about social change through community action.

“We do this in partnership with a range of local groups and agencies.”

She added: “As a response to Covid-19 we set up a shopping, food parcel, prescriptions and signposting services.

“This was undertaken in partnership with RMBC and Morrisons supermarkets. For some time now we have been addressing the issue of food poverty as it presents in Kimberworth Park and surrounding communities. Food poverty is not as issue that is going away any time soon, and we have moves afoot to play our part in a practical way in addressing this.”