When Wardour Street Was 'Film Row'

By Zoe Craig Last edited 52 months ago
When Wardour Street Was 'Film Row'
Welcome to Wardour Street. Photo by mumphalee.

Walk down Soho's Wardour Street today and you'll notice plenty of bars and restaurants of all different pedigrees, alongside a few post-production houses, and other fairly anonymous West End office spaces.

Look a little closer, and you can find some clues as to the street's relatively uncelebrated past as London's 'Film Row.'

Charles Urban: Trendsetter

The first film company to set up business in Wardour Street belonged to Charles Urban.

On 25 March 1908, Urban moved into 89-91 Wardour Street, calling the building Urbanora House.

Two years later, his business was expanding, taking over the building on the other side of the street (numbers 80-82), and calling it Kinemacolor House, in honour of his ground-breaking new colour-film company.

Where Urban led, others followed; even some foreign film companies looking for London headquarters moved into the street.

By 1914, Wardour Street housed more than 20 film companies, including British Pathé (next door to Urban at 84, and also, at 103-109).

103 Wardour Street from britishpathe.com.

Check out this footage of the Pathe teams working in Soho in these very offices.

Flammable Film

The successful but short-lived Ideal film company moved into the premises at 76-78 Wardour Street just before the first world war.

In his memoirs, quoted on londonfilmland, the co-founder Harry Rowson recalls how the stores of extremely flammable celluloid film stock meant the price of insurance for London film companies was especially high.

As a result, film dealers looked for buildings with low rents, away from the usual business districts. There was also an incentive to share premises, in order to save on costs.

Rowson's company paid £650 a year to lease the ground floor and basement of 'a modern fire-proof building' on the corner of Meard Street, formerly occupied by printers.

'I thought it the most conspicuous film office in London at that time, situated in the heart of theatreland,' said Rowson.

Wardour Street in the 1920s

By 1926, there were around 40 film companies on Wardour Street. The nearby Shaftesbury Avenue, Gerrard Street and Charing Cross Road also housed plenty of film companies.

In 1929, the old Faraday Electrical Works at 146-150 had been rebuilt as the modern-style office building Film House.

Film House at 142 Wardour Street, formerly the headquarters of the Associated-British Pathé film company. Via wikicommons.

Welcoming Warner Brothers and Hammer Productions

Warner Brothers opened an office and film store at 135-141 Wardour Street in the 1930s, as did J Arthur Rank, British industrialist and owner of the Rank Organisation British entertainment conglomerate. You name it, they did it: make films, run studios, own cinemas, sell radios and so on.

National House, at 60-66 Wardour Street was occupied from May 1935 by a new film distribution company called Exclusive Films.

National House today. Photo via showcase.co.uk.

Exclusive Films was run by a comedian and businessman called William Hinds in conjunction with a a former cinema owner and Spanish émigré Enrique Carreras.

Earlier, in November 1934, the pair had registered a new film company called Hammer Productions Ltd. The company name came from Hinds' stage name, Will Hammer, which in turn came from the place Hinds' called home: Hammersmith.

The following years saw bankruptcy and liquidation for Hammer Productions; but Exclusive survived. And by 1949, Hammer was back.

On 12 February of that year, Exclusive registered Hammer Film Productions as a company with Enrique and James Carreras, and William and Tony Hinds as directors.

Hammer moved into the Exclusive offices in 113-117 Wardour Street, and the building was rechristened 'Hammer House'.

Hammer House today. Photo via renderosity.com.

By the late 1950s, the company would dominate the horror market, enjoying international success.

It's hard to believe, but by the late 1940s, there were around 100 film companies rubbing shoulders along Wardour Street.

By the end of the 20th century, the film companies on Wardour Street had been joined and then replaced by other media firms: TV and video companies, post production houses, and advertising agencies.

Wardour Street Today

Wonder what its like inside those old Pathé Film offices today? They were converted in 2016 to, guess what: 13 luxury apartments, a gym, and two duplex penthouses.

The newly refurbished 103-109 Wardour Street. Image: Sheppard Robson

It's now called The Pathé Building.

Inside the 'new' Pathé Building. Image: Sheppard Robson

Did we miss any other connections to Wardour Street's past as the centre of the British film industry? Let us know in the comments below.

Last Updated 15 October 2019