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John Bull's Hearth (1903)

British Film Institute

Main image of John Bull's Hearth (1903)
35mm, 185 feet, black & white, silent
Production CompanyG.A. Smith

A dramatised sketch which suggests that Free Trade with independent nations should be replaced by fair trade that does not exclude Britain's colonies.

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This was probably the first in a line of political films about the contentious issue of tariff reform that dominated politics from 1903 to the 1930s. The debate centred on whether to impose customs and duties on imports - protectionism - or to continue the free trade policy.

The issue was brought to the fore by Conservative politician Joseph Chamberlain, who began an unprecedented campaign for reform: unprecedented as there was no looming election; the campaign was nationwide; the issue was addressed to all social classes, including the working class; and it included all media available at the time - newspapers, pamphlets, cartoons and film. Film pioneer G.A. Smith, in an enterprising move, produced two films: John Bull's Hearth (pro-reform) and The Free Trade Bench (anti-reform).

The pro-reform film shows how Britain, in the guise of the iconic John Bull, is abused by foreigners to the detriment of itself and its empire. The 'colonial', who cannot find a seat at the hearth, carries a picture of Joseph Chamberlain to reinforce the political message. The stereotyped images are typical and reflect the cartoons, theatrical political sketches and pamphlets of the time.

The films would have been shown by travelling showmen in theatres and music halls, and may well have been hired by the vying political groups. The Tariff Reform League, founded in 1903, had, after only a few months, fifteen branches in Hertfordshire alone. If this were replicated over the rest of the country, there would have been enough demand for screening in public halls and at political meetings. Indeed there are two versions of this particular film. This may, as in the case of Rescue by Rover (1905), indicate such popularity that the negative became worn and another print had to be made.

Tariff reform was a fault line in British politics and continued to dominate the political scene. In 1905 Cecil Hepworth was able to make a 'political cartoon', The International Exchange, on the disadvantages of free trade. He does not seem to have made a pro-free trade film. In 1906 (for that year's election) The Voters' Guide included reference to the issue. Furthermore, in 1910 Gaumont, copying Smith, made two films: England Under Free Trade and John Bull's Foolish Hospitality. These films were expressly made for the January 1910 election and Gaumont cheekily advertised both films in The Bioscope under the heading "Films for both Parties".

Simon Baker

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
Complete film (2:18)
International Exchange, The (1905)
John the Bull (1930)
Two Lancashire Cotton Workers Discuss Safeguarding (1935)
Politics and Film 1903-1935