When Simon Papouis saw the three unlabelled reels of film, he knew instantly they were old. 1920s old, at the very youngest.
They’d been sent to him by a customer from Cornwall, whose husband had jemmied open an old brown leather suitcase she’d inherited from distant relatives. She had heard these relatives had ties with the USA, but other than that she knew nothing about them.
“She rang me to ask how much it would cost to recover the film from these three old reels, and when I gave her a rough quote she was very unsure – it isn’t cheap, and she had no idea what could be on the films,” Simon told C4S. “So she slept on it for the weekend, then on the Monday rang up and said she’d agreed to spend the money. She felt the suitcase must have been left to her for a reason, and this could be precious film of her ancestors that she’d never get back if she didn’t do it.
“The next day a courier arrived with the reels, which were 9.5mm gauge film. In those days, people with access to that kind of film would have had to have money. And a lot of wealthy people would pay to have these films, as they thought of it as preserving their family’s legacy.”
Simon began to process them with painstaking, meticulous wet clean lubrication.
“Film of this era is as brittle as autumn leaves,” he said.
The first two reels were interesting, but nondescript. The black and white footage was of sheep herding, steam-powered farm machinery, dairy cows and the countryside. The second contained similar material.
But the third reel was different.
“There was footage of these two lads – late teens, maybe early twenties – who looked like they were going on some kind of journey,” said Simon. “They had bags with them and they were obviously dockside, filming each other, having a laugh.
“They boarded some kind of ship and they were filming themselves on it, around different parts of it, mainly on the deck. They obviously couldn’t go in all parts of it, they were restricted to certain areas. Then suddenly there was a shot of four giant funnels – and the film shifted to a sign, which read R.M.S. Titanic.
“The hairs stood up on the back of my neck.”
Simon watched in astonishment as the pair of carefree youngsters continued filming themselves aboard the giant Titanic, which would set sail that day – 10 April, 1912 – before docking at Cherbourg and Queenstown (now Cobh) and heading across the Atlantic for New York.
Film shows footage on board the Unsinkable – before it all goes dark
The story of the Titanic is well known, the unsinkable, luxury ship the like of which the world had never seen.
Tickets for a first-class cabin on the four-day voyage sold for £30 – in today’s money, £3,500. A first-class ‘parlour suite’ could sell for £870 – today, almost £100,000.
But there were cheap seats, too – a £3 ticket (today, £350) would get you into third class. And the ship wasn’t full for its maiden voyage; it was actually only about half occupied.
Most passengers travelled in third class, and from the footage it’s not clear if these two lads were in third or second.
They certainly didn’t go up the Grand Staircase, or into any of the ballrooms, and they were certainly not in first class, where 337 wealthy passengers enjoyed the plush dining rooms and lounges.
Whatever class they were in, the passengers were oblivious to at least five iceberg warnings that were sent from other ships on the evening of April 14, and oblivious to the desperate attempts to change course when the night look-out saw the iceberg that was to gash a 300ft hole in the side of the great vessel.
As Simon watched the film, it went dark.
It was just before midnight that disaster struck, and not until nine and a half hours later that RMS Carpathia arrived to rescue the 705 passengers and crew who had made it onto the insufficient number of lifeboats and by some stroke of fate, survived.
On the film Simon was watching, there was no footage of what happened after the iceberg struck.
But there is an epilogue after those dark few seconds.
“I don’t know what the seconds of darkness are,” Simon says. “It could just be film deterioration – it could be anything. But I carried on watching, and suddenly there was footage from New York, the two lads sightseeing – filming each other again.
“I couldn’t believe it. They had obviously been rescued, and here they were, in New York, beginning their lives in America. How had the film survived – how had it not got wet? How had the camera survived? This footage in New York was very short, but they were both in the film – they had survived.
“Again, I got chills down my spine.”
Simon’s Cine Film Factory is a film transfer studio in Worthing. It has recovered thousands of films from customers the length and breadth of the UK, restoring and transferring the images of people and their lives, gone forever, in a digital format that can be preserved forever.
The films have spanned decades, as far back as film itself.
“I work with ghosts,” says Simon. “And I bring them back to life: their personalities, their voices, their images.
“A lot of my customers bring films to me when one of their dear relatives is nearing the end of their life. They want to show them the films before they pass away, so they ask me how quickly I can turn it round – can I turn it round before they die.
“They feel it’s important to show their dear ones their past lives before they go.”