Discover Will Onda in Discover Preston


View of Horrockses display featuring Onda’s films.

Discover Preston is the new history gallery at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery. The first floor gallery contains over 30 displays, each feature a different story from Preston’s history and has welcomed over 70,000 visitors since opening in July 2012.

Display in Discover Preston about Will Onda.

Display in Discover Preston about Will Onda.

One of the displays in the Social and Commercial Hub section is devoted to Preston cinema pioneer Will Onda. Highlights include a poster advertising the Brothers Onda and a set of playing cards stamped ‘Will Onda’s Pictures’ promoting the silent film serial the Trey O’ Hearts. Onda’s own Cinematograph Licence also makes a special appearance. The objects chosen aim to tell his remarkable story. I am extremely grateful to all the people who supported this display.

Alongside the case is a large screen, each press of the button randomly selects a short clip of Onda film for you to watch and enjoy. There are 7 of his local films included spanning 1909 to 1934. This includes his first surviving film Empire Day, 1909 shot at Preston North End’s Deepdale ground and Preston Guild films from 1922. Onda appears in several of the films – see if you can spot him during your visit!


The model of Horrockses Yard Works and Onda’s film ‘The Cotton Industry’.

Onda’s films appear elsewhere in the Discover Preston gallery in the interpretation of Horrockses mill. His greatest film (in my opinion) ‘The Cotton Industry‘ is shown with the model of Horrockses Yard Works which was made for the Royal visit of 1913. Onda recorded all the industrial processes in the Yard Works ahead of the visit of George V and Queen Mary. He also filmed the visit to Preston and the Yard Works on the 8th July 1913. Following this momentous occasion, Onda hired the films to cinemas around the country.

I am currently researching the 1913 Royal visit to Lancashire in detail. More on this and plans to mark the centenary of the visit will be posted shortly.

Hope you enjoyed this post on Will Onda and Discover Preston. Please visit if you haven’t already!

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Talk at Preston Historical Society – December

On Monday 3rd December at Lune Street Methodist Church I will be giving my first public lecture on Will Onda. After over 4 years of digging in archives and reading old newspapers with the help of Peter Vickers, I will give a short but hopefully fascinating insight into an early pioneer in the cinema and film industry from his time as a acrobat to his development as a ‘recorder of our modern age’ and film distributor.

More details can be found on Preston Historical Society website

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Will Onda’s films to feature in new DVD released for Preston Guild

On Tuesday 13th March at 7.30pm a new film about Preston will premier at Preston’s Charter Theatre.

The Film titled ‘Preston and its Guilds 1902 – 1992 is a collaboration between North West Film Archive and the Harris Museum & Art Gallery. The film will be officially released for sale on the 13 March, priced £12.

The film features extracts from some of the many films made by Will Onda’s Pictures. Onda also gets a special mention for his contribution to the film heritage of the city by the film’s narrator Roy Barraclough.

Will Onda, a former stage acrobat, made and produced films of Preston for over 30 years until his death in 1949. The earliest film which survives is Empire Day from 1909. He left his huge collection of local films to Preston Council. The films are now deposited with North West Film Archive in Manchester (part of Manchester Metropolitan University) and the BFI/National Film Archive in London.

Will Onda’s Pictures produced the film of the 1922 Preston Guild. The 1922 Guild proclamation is included on the new dvd and also briefly captures Onda in front of the camera wearing a light coloured suit and his trademark round spectacles (under the right column see the picture below).

Proclamation of the 1922 Preston Guild

Guild Mayor and Mayoress Henry and Mabel Astley-Bell with Will Onda!

Launch of Preston and Its Guild: 1902 – 1992
Charter Theatre, Tuesday 13th March 2012, 7.30pm

Tickets for the premier of the film are £5.00 (+ booking fee) available now from Charter Theatre box office on 0845 344 2026 or online at

Further details on the dvd contact Hilary Machell on 01772 903619 or email
Further details of the North West Film Archive and the films featured

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Did your mother or grandmother work for Will Onda in 1915?

Will Onda set up Preston Film Service in about 1910. By 1915 it employed some 80 people in film making and distribution. The outbreak of World War in 1914 resulted in 40 of his employees joining the army, including his own son Carnie, a manager of Will Onda’s Pictures.

Faced with labour shortages, Onda found it necessary to employ girls as operators during the war.

I am keen to find out exactly who worked for Preston Film Service and trace the women who worked for him. If anyone has any information about a relative who worked for Will Onda, I would be very pleased to hear from you.

Please leave a comment via this blog or contact me at

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Will Onda pictured at the 1922 Preston Guild!

Proclamation of the 1922 Preston Guild

Guild Mayor and Mayoress Henry and Mabel Astley-Bell with Will Onda!

The countdown to Christmas has begun but in Preston it is also countdown to the 2012 Preston Guild.

The first recorded Guild celebration was in 1397 but it has been held every 20 years since 1542 – apart from a 30 year break between 1922 and 1952 due to the Second World War.

Preston is unique in still celebrating a Guild – but is also the only town and city in Britain to have documented each generation’s fashions, tastes, streets, shops and businesses through photography and film. For more info on Preston’s Guild films see my earlier post.

Will Onda was a Preston councillor by the time of the 1922 Preston Guild and as such involved in the official events. The featured image in this post was taken on the day of the Guild proclamation by the Guild Mayor Henry Astley-Bell. Will is the man standing in front of the column on the right wearing a light coloured suit and round glasses.

Will and the other councillors also had their portraits taken for the official records of the Guild. These vintage portrait prints are now in the Harris Museum photographic collection. I have chosen his 1922 Guild portrait as the featured image in the new Will Onda display in the new history gallery at the Harris, which is opening in the summer. Will also filmed the 1922 Preston Guild and I am hoping to include some of his film footage too.

For more details of the 2012 and how you can get involved visit the Guild website.

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Visit to Manchester

The Brothers Onda visited the Palace in 1899, 1900 & 1904

Visited Manchester last week for the Social History Curators Conference and I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of the Palace Theatre on Oxford Road as I strolled past.

The Brothers Onda performed at the Palace Theatre in 1899, 1900 and 1904. Glad to see this great northern theatre is still going strong.

I am writing the chapter on the Brothers Onda at the moment. I have recently been contacted by the relatives of a performer connected to the Brothers Onda who have sent me some amazing images of them performing on stage.

I would love to see the behind the scenes of the Palace and imagine them swinging on their horizontal bars across the stage! Unfortunately the cost is prohibitive as they only do group tours and don’t have a tour you can book onto. Shame. Missing out on all those potential tourist keen to see where the young Chaplin danced in his clogs!

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Three men in a car!

See Pete Vickers blog for the latest on that photograph of William Gillin, Will Onda and James Atroy.

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Entertainment and Public Service – Onda in the 1920s

The 1920s are turning out to have been quite a busy decade for Onda both personally and professionally – but one that had ups as well as downs.

By the time Onda turned 50 in 1929 he had he become a town councillor and a director of Preston North End football club. His work as a theatre and cinema proprietor continued and he made dozens of local films of many events during this decade including the 1922 Preston Guild and numerous Royal visits by Princess Mary. Today I also discovered a great image of him wearing his oval rimmed glasses amongst the portraits of the Guild Aldermen and Councillors from 1922. His face is full of obvious pride.

On the down side I am starting to read about the impact of changes in the film industry and his work with the Provincial Entertainers to stop or change the film bill of 1927 which threatened his livelihood. This issue is touched upon in his interview with Kinematograph weekly in 1926 and meetings of the Provincial Entertainment and Managers Association Limited published in The Stage newspaper. He is deeply concerned by the changes and mourns the decline in quality of films and the change of terms for local exhibitors. I think he saw what was coming for the entertainment industry but at least he could look back at a very successful decade…

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Onda employs Matt Raymond in 1901!

Amazing discovery yesterday which connected Onda to the film pioneer Matt Raymond. A document with the Rain family confirmed that Onda was the organiser of a variety show in 1901 that included a cinematograph. When I double checked the listings in the newspapers the cinematograph show was none other than Raymond’s Vivigraph! Onda got 45% of the takings for just 6 days work and paid Raymond and the 8 other acts who also appeared on the bill. Now looking to see how many other shows Raymond did with Onda? They were certainly together again in 1902 but how often? Back to the Stage archive again….

For more information on Raymond see Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema.

To mark this discovery Pete Vickers has also sent me a link to a film by British Pathe of a meeting of cinema owners in Brighton. Raymond is included in the film. Was Onda there too?

The search continues ….

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Special screening of Will Onda’s film ‘Preston’s Outrage’ this tuesday!

The Harris is holding an special event on tuesday to celebrate International Women’s Day. Titled ‘Votes for Women’ museum curator Laura Briggs will discuss the suffragettes in Preston and show Onda’s film of the infamous damage caused to the Earl of Derby statue in Miller Park during the struggle for women’s votes.

This is a free event, but booking essential, please call 01772 905414 to reserve your seat.

This is the first time this film has been publicly shown for over 80 years. Don’t miss out.

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