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Geoffrey Malins-early adopter?

Official cinematographer Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins (right), with the official photographer Lieutenant Ernest Brooks, at a coffee stall behind the lines on the Somme, 1916. © IWM (Q 1456)

One of the recurrent pleasures of historical research is proving that something we assume to be up-to-the-minute in fact has a long back-story…

I have recently been asked to write the entry for Geoffrey Malins (1886-1940) for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Malins was among the first cameramen to film combat in the First World War and in 1916 was one of the two ‘War Office Official Kinematographers’ responsible for the film of The Battle of the Somme, the origin for much of the best-known imagery of that grim event and thus also for much of the world’s shared visual impression of the First World War.

Because my word limit was tight and the brief for my work was to concentrate on his work as a combat cameraman, I was able to make only limited use of a lot of material from his life in the 1920s and 1930s, although this was intrinsically no less interesting than his war years. He alternated between continuing work in the film industry – there are over 50 ‘director’ credits in his IMDB entry – and the pursuit of adventure. In the latter role, he was involved in unsuccessful attempts to fly round the world in 1922-1923, completed a successful journey round the world by motorcycle in 1926-1927, and led an overland expedition from London to Cape Town in 1931.


Lieutenant Geoffrey H Malins, British official film cameraman, films British and French heads of state with their senior commanders during the Battle of the Somme. © IWM (Q 950)


Given that I was barely able to list these events, there was certainly no possibility to describe them in detail, though there were aspects I wished I did have space to notice. One of these was the discovery that Malins used two very modern-seeming techniques to finance his adventures: product placement and crowd-funding. During his 1926-1927 expedition, the Daily Express ran advertisements by the chocolate-drink company Ovaltine featuring its links with the ‘Round the World by Motor Cycle’ expedition. One of these (15 December 1927) after the project had been ‘triumphantly accomplished’ quoted Malins as saying “ ‘Ovaltine’ and ‘Ovaltine’ Chocolate saved us in the desert—they were all we had for three days.”

 I was still more impressed to find evidence for crowd-funding. After the first round-the-world flight attempt had ended with a forced landing in the Indian Ocean, those behind the project tried to start again. ‘Personal’ advertisements were placed in The Times in June and July 1923 reading ‘MACMILLAN and MALINS WORLD FLIGHT. Air Ministry approval. More funds required. ONE POUND will send us ONE MILE. How many miles will you send us?—Flight Secretary, 6, Adam-street, Adelphi, London, W.C.’

I have no idea how much money was raised in this way (the second attempt was called off after the yacht chartered to arrange supplies for the pilots became embroiled in a rum-running scandal in California) but I admire the initiative. Sometimes it seems there really is nothing new under the sun.


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