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Burglar for One Night, A (1911)


Main image of Burglar for One Night, A (1911)
35mm, black and white, silent, 775 feet
DirectorBert Haldane
Production CompanyHepworth Manufacturing Co.

Cast: John MacAndrews (John); Flora Morris (Flora Morris)

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An unemployed labourer is driven to burglary when he is unable to find work.

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Like The Touch of Nature (1911), A Burglar for One Night is a crime film, with the added social issue of unemployment. Both films' unemployed protagonists are driven to crime by their circumstances. Here, Jack, a casual labourer, is "discharged because of slack trade", and decides to go to London to find work. His arrival at Euston station and walk through the now-demolished Euston Arch lend an air of verisimilitude to the drama. With no luck in getting work, he is forced to pawn his tools. Finally, he is driven to steal, but is rescued from crime by his sweetheart.

Unemployment was an increasing concern of socially minded reformers and politicians in the early years of the 20th Century. Contemporary reports into poverty and unemployment had raised concerns over the issue. Charles Booth's 'Life and Labour of the People in London', published in 1902, was the culmination of his investigations since 1887. Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree complemented and reinforced Booth's views in a similar report into conditions in York, 'Poverty: a Study of Town Life' (1901). William Beveridge, later credited as the founder of the welfare state, joined the debate with 'Unemployment: a Problem of Industry' (1909). Previously, poverty had largely been linked with personal failings (alcoholism, gambling and indolence), lack of skills and lack of mobility. However, these reports acknowledged that the vagaries of the labour market were the cause of unemployment, which in turn caused much of the poverty.

The Victorian and Edwardian economy went through a series of trade cycles - the 'slack trade' referred to in the film. Slumps in the economy were evident in 1903-05 and 1907-09, when the unemployment rate increased to 6-8%. While these rates are certainly not as high as those during the later interwar years, it has to be remembered that there were no unemployment relief payments (the limited National Insurance Act only came into operation in 1911) and no social welfare system beyond the dreaded workhouse and poor relief schemes.

Simon Baker

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Video Clips
Complete film (11:37)
Touch of Nature, A (1911)
Haldane, Bert (c. 1871-1937)
A Year in Film: 1911