The shoe town that rivalled Hollywood

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The Battle of Irthlingborough must be one of the most pleasant battles in history.

For not a life was lost, and only three soldiers were wounded, and then, quite accidently. The battle was fought in 1913 and hostilities came about in this way.

Charles Weston, a film director and producer, put up at the Horseshoe Inn in High Street and, looking around the countryside, came to the conclusion that the lie of the land was similar to the terrain over which the Battle of Waterloo had been fought 98 years earlier.

Mr Weston decided to make use of this scenery for a motion picture, and when he was asked to produce The Battle of Waterloo for the British & Colonial Kinematograph Company he settled on Irthlingborough as the location for the battle scenes.

Rarely has there been such excitement as when the film company moved in to stage full-blooded sequences of cavalry charges, infantry fighting among the farm buildings and artillerymen working their old-fashioned cannon.

The 12th Lancers from Weedon Barracks, permitted by the War Office to take part, rode into Irthlingborough and were billeted in the Skating Rink.

Old cabs and wagons were bought up and the property men took off the wheels and axles, which were then used as mountings for the cannon.

Scores of horses arrived from Tillings, hundreds of period costumes from Clarkson’s and local men were hired to play the part of additional troops.

Just before the great day Napoleon’s coach rumbled in and, as battle was about to commence, dead horses from a Rushden knacker’s yard were strewn artistically about the field.

Principal parts were played by London professionals, but one local man, Jack Inward, son of the licensee of the Horseshoe Inn and brother-in-law to Mr Weston, was chosen to play the part of aid-de-camp of the Duke of Wellington.

Ernest G Batley played Napoleon, George Foley played Blucher and Vivian Ross played Marshal Ney.

On the morning of the first day the actors, 100 Lancers from Weedon Barracks, more than 300 unemployed men sent from Northampton Labour Exchange and local shoe operatives – who had been promised seven and six pence a day – gathered in High Street and were rapidly converted into Prussian, English and French troops.

Fitting out uniforms for some 500 or 600 was a big undertaking.

Those employed as extras who could ride a horse, or better still, provide their own, were immediately promoted to the rank of officer.

Scenes during the three days of filming in the town were watched by crowds that grew larger and larger.

So realistic was the sham fighting that one soldier had two ribs broken; another smashed his ankle while the third had his hand partly shattered by an explosion.

But there was humour for the onlookers who roared at the spectacle of the producer in check cap shouting instructions through a megaphone at the magnificent figures of Wellington, Napoleon and Blucher.

Infantry fighting at close quarters enjoyed themselves so much that casualties forgot to die and dead men got up after a few moments and carried on with the fight.

Horses which lacked the enthusiasm of the amateur actors were urged on by a man with a big stick just out of the view of the camera.

The story is also told that before the second day’s filming the director called all the extras together and said that all men who died yesterday were to die again today, but to put a little more life into it.

So many men failed to turn up for work that the majority of the factories in the town found it difficult to continue production.

In retaliation, two shoe firms took the stringent course of closing the factories for the rest of the week. Consequently about 1,000 men and women received no wages.

All the same, as so many of them were earning seven and six a day, the pubs of Irthlingborough were drunk dry.

The total cost of making the film – a real blockbuster of its day – was £6,000.

The film had its first showing at The Palladium, Argyll Street, London, before going on national release.

The Battle of Waterloo was the forerunner of several pictures for which scenes were shot in and around Irthlingborough.

No further films were made in Irthlingborough after 1914 – with the problems of war in Europe, objections from local people and potential extras enlisting for the Armed Forces, the film-makers looked for an alternative location – and they decided upon a suburb of Los Angeles.

The rest, as they say, is history.

As years went by all copies of the original film were lost and, despite many efforts to trace it, after 50 years it was accepted that no copies still existed.

However, a few years ago one of the members of Irthlingborough Historical Society saw a reference to the film on an Italian website and the group finally found the only copy of the only 22 minutes of the film in existence in the British Film Industry archives in London.

Events to celebrate centenary

June 9, 2013, will be the centenary of the filming, and to celebrate that event Irthlingborough Historical Society is producing an exact replica of a brochure of stills from the film, made using the same materials of the day.

This is a limited edition of 100 and is boxed and beautifully presented. At £30, it will undoubtedly become a collectors’ item and is available to order from Mrs J Lee, 48 College St, Irthlingborough, NN9 5TX.

On June 9 at the Cross in Irthlingborough there will be a march by the Waterloo Drummers and displays by the East 44th Essex Regiment of Foot in the period costumes of the original Battle of Waterloo.

There will also be an exhibition of photos in St Peter’s Church and refreshments available.