Films of India in the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

By Jayne Pucknell and Nicky Sugar, archivists at Bristol Archives

Some amazing films from the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum are now in the care of Bristol Archives. In our last blog post, we talked about starting to catalogue the collection and our first catalogues are now available online.

1997-153-1-17 Kendal

A film still showing a street scene from Haswell’s expedition (Kendal Collection, ref. 1997/153/1/17)

The collection includes films from many countries and most are amateur films made for private viewing. This blog post looks at a couple of collections relating to India.

One of these, the Kendal Collection (ref 1997/153/1), contains 40 films of varying lengths, many taken in India during the 1930s. The films were made by Colonel John Hamilton Bernard Peyton who served with the British army in India until his retirement in 1935. His footage reflects domestic and military life, including tourist trips, local festivals and fairs, and early tank trials.


Kendal - Water Divining

Brigadier Haswell using a divining rod to locate underground water (Kendal Collection, ref. 1997/153/1/3)

One film records a small army expedition from Northern India to Kandahar in Afghanistan, in 1931. The trip was led by military engineer Brigadier Chetwynd Henry Haswell, and its objective was to give advice to locals about roads and water supplies. As well as his role as Chief Engineer, Haswell was a keen and practiced water diviner (and apparently an effective one). His responsibilities included sinking bore holes and building bridges and fortifications. Colonel Peyton filmed the journey, capturing landscapes, people, camel trains, town life and buildings along the way.


Also filmed in India were a collection of five films by R W W Turner – Reggie to his friends (ref 2001/103/1). Turner moved to India after the First World War to work as an administrator in the refinery arm of a new oil exploration venture. This was the Attock Oil Company based at Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan). The family lived at near the refinery at Pindi and moved out to the cooler weather of Murree during the summer months.

Turner - Sarangi

An Indian musician playing a sarangi, a type of string instrument (Turner Collection, ref. 2001/103/1/4)

Turner’s films show daily life in India, tourist trips and holidays back to England. One film shows a journey the family made through India to Bombay where they boarded a ship for home. En route they visited popular sites such as the Taj Mahal and the Old Fort at Delhi. As they travelled, they recorded the scenes around them so, for example, we see a street musician playing his sarangi. We also have footage taken from their moving train showing scenes of rural India, then cargo being loaded on the ship and the start of their voyage back to England.


If you want to find out more about films in the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection, you can browse or search the online catalogues and then view films in our public searchroom.

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