Tommy Crellin

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(b. Hammersmith, London 20/01/1883 – d. Port Elizabeth, 16/02/1949). British-born cameraman. There is a family story that, at the age of 16, Thomas Frank Crellin won a photographic competition run by London’s Daily Mail, yet in the Census of 1901 his profession is given as ladies’ tailor. Clearly that was not where his interest lay, because between July and September 1907 he made his first visit to Africa when he accompanied Dom Luis Felipe, the Portuguese Crown Prince, on an extended tour of the country’s African colonies as “pictorial representative”. Towards the end of November the following year he arrived in South Africa as manager of the kinematograph department of Lennon Ltd., in charge of equipping cinemas and training projectionists. In September 1910 he was joined by his wife-to-be, Annie Punter, and early in October they were married at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Durban. That same year he was part of a team of cameramen employed to photograph a unique documentary called From the Cape to the Zambezi for the South African Railways & Harbours. This film, which was partly shot from the front of a locomotive, was subsequently distributed by Lennon Ltd.

Late in 1911 Rufe Naylor’s Tivoli Theatres Company amalgamated with the Union Bioscope Company to form Africa’s Amalgamated Theatres. In order to attract customers to new cinemas such as the 1,500-seater Orpheum Theatre in central Johannesburg, AAT started screening “local scenes” shot all over the country, a precursor of the newsreel African Mirror, which was launched soon afterwards when, in turn, AAT became part of the African Theatres Trust. In the early days Crellin, together with R.C.E. Nissen, was one of the key cameramen involved in providing “topical shorts”. Screening of the footage they shot of the strike at the New Kleinfontein mine on the East Rand was prohibited in Johannesburg, but extensive coverage was given to the second Johannesburg to Durban motorcycle race in 1914, primary because the African Theatre Trust’s I.W. Schlesinger was the President of the Rand Motor Cycling Club and would award the Schlesinger Vase to the winner. Thelma Gutsche also makes mention of Crellin’s “outstanding film” of the waterfalls of Natal.

In June 1919, Annie Crellin died and in April 1923 he married his second wife, Lillian McCarthy, at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in George. Soon afterwards the couple left for England and, travelling via North America, went on to China, where by that time Crellin was the representative of Eastman Kodak, based in Shanghai (a number of his photographs taken there between 1923 and 1926 are available for viewing on the internet). Towards the end of 1926 he again passed through South Africa, but in 1927 he was back with Kodak, this time in England. There is some evidence that during World War II he worked on aerial reconnaissance photography, but in May 1946 he and Lillian returned to South Africa and moved to Port Elizabeth, where their youngest son lived. He died there in February 1949. (FO)


The Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly, 15 December 1910

The Kodak Magazine, July 1923

Gutsche, Thelma - The history and social significance of motion pictures in South Africa, 1895-1940

Correspondence with David Crellin

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