Secrets of Nature and Secrets of Life were made by a wide range of individuals. Aside from nature photographers, cameramen and film producers, these also included scientists and teachers who acted as consultants. This page collects information about these individuals and offers links to explore more about them.
Harry Bruce Woolfe; Winifred Clara Cullis; Mary Field and Sir Edward James Salisbury. Photograph by Howard Coster.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
F. Percy Smith (1880-1945) was one of the most innovative cinematographers of the twentieth century. He was a pioneer of early nature cinematography. Described by one contemporary as a ‘wizard’, Smith mastered the techniques of microcinematography and fast-motion photography, helping him to create spellbinding images of microscopic animals or plants in motion. [Read more] Image: Mary Field and Percy Smith, Secrets of Nature (1934).
Mary Field (1896-1968) became the series producer of Secrets of Nature in 1929. Previously a history teacher, she joined the film industry as an historical consultant in 1925. Although she had no training in science, Field quickly proved herself to be a first-class film director, developing a unique style that fused education and instruction. [Read more] Image: Mary Field and Percy Smith, Secrets of Nature (1934).
J. V. Durden joined the Secrets team in 1935, after the move to Gaumont-British Instructional. Durden became one of the principal cinematographers in the Secrets of Life series, and rapidly adopted Percy Smith’s enthusiasm for laboratory-based films. Unlike Smith, however, Durden was formally trained as a scientist, having gained a degree in Biology and Entomology at the Royal College of Science (London). In 1934, he had been the official photographer on a plant collecting expedition in Basutoland (present-day Lesotho). Spending time in South Africa, he happened to see a Secrets film in Cape Town and resolved to make scientific films himself. [Read more] Image: with permission from Janet Hey.
Harry Bruce Woolfe (1880-1965) was the managing director of British Instructional Films, and later Gaumont-British Instructional, the two production companies responsible for producing Secrets of Nature and Secrets of life. Bruce Woolfe produced a number of World War I films before embarking on the Secrets series. He devised of the idea behind the series after reading Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne. Bruce Woolfe was a keen imperialist and a fierce promoter of his own films. He sat on several influential committees, including the Federation of British Industries and the Colonial Office’s Film Committee. Image: Mary Field and Percy Smith, Secrets of Nature (1934).
Oliver G. Pike (1887-1963) was a pioneering naturalist photographer who specialised in ornithological pictures. Alongside Percy Smith, he was one of the principal cinematographers for the Secrets , producing footage for them between 1921 and 1947. Pike was active in the field from the very beginnings of natural history film, and his silent films In Birdland (1907) and St Kilda, Its People and Birds (1908) were groundbreaking ornithological films. Image: Mubi.
Phyllis Penn Bolté (dates unknown) was F. Percy Smith’s laboratory assistant. We know very litle about her, other than this picture of her demonstrating Smith’s ‘plant machine’, and a quote by Smith and Field that reads: ‘An association of this kind is in no way analogous to that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but comparable rather to the relationship between the right and left hands’. For someone so important to the whole Secrets operation, Bolté received very little recognition. Image: Field and Smith, Secrets of Nature.
F. Martin Duncan (1873-1961) pioneered many of the techniques in microcinematography employed by F. Percy Smith. Duncan worked for Charles Urban making science films for popular audiences, and later became Librarian of the Zoological Society of London. Image: The Bioscope.
Julian Huxley (1887-1975) was a well-known biologist who collaborated with the Secrets producers on several ocassions. In the 1930s, he supervised a series of educational films in biology produced by Gaumont-British Instructional. Huxley later collaborated with Walt Disney in making the True Life Adventures. His review of Field and Smith’s 1934 book Secrets of Nature can be read here. Image: Huntingdon Library.
H. R. Hewer (1903-1974) was a zoologist at Imperial College London, who specialiased in the study of seal behaviour. Hewer used film in his own research, and collaborated as a scientific consultant on several Secrets. Together with Julian Huxley, he supervised G.B.I.’s Biology teaching films in the 1930s.
Margaret Thomson (1910-2005) was a zoology graduate from New Zealand who moved to London in 1934. There, she was hired by H. Bruce Woolfe to produce a series of films on ecology, the footage of which is likely to have ended up in Secrets of Life. Later she became part of the documentary film movement, working with Realist Films before returning to New Zealand as director of the National Film Unit. Image: Julie Benjamin.
W. P. Pycraft (1868-1942) was an assistant of the British zoologist E. Ray Lankester. He worked at the British Museum (Natural History), where he was Curator of Osteology, and was the author of numerous books in popular science. He is listed as a collaborator in several early Secrets of Nature films. Image: from Portrait of the Piltdown skull being examined by John Cooke, 1915. Geological Society of London.
Gladys Callow (dates unknown) was a schoolteacher who appeared in the Secrets film Strange Friendships in 1924. Callow appeared in the London Zoo alongside ‘her wild animal friends’, which had become accustomed to her presence. Image: British Newspaper Archive.
Clotilde von Wyss (dates unknown) was a science educator who was consulted on several Secrets films and was a prominent figure in the ‘Nature Study’ movement in Britain. She worked at London’s Institute of Education. The producers appreciated not only her pedagogical experience, but also her detailed scientific knowledge, which was critical in making the 1936 film Wood Ants. Image: UCL Special Collections.
E. J. Salisbury (1886-1978) was a well-known botanist and ecologist, who taught at University College London before being appointed as director of Kew Gardens in 1943. He published several popular books, and was a major collaborator on G.B.I’s biology educational films. Image: American Philosophical Society
H. Maxwell Lefroy (1877-1925) was an economic entomologist who pioneered the use of insecticides. From 1903 to 1912 he was Imperial Entomologist to the government of India, and became the first Professor of Entomology at Imperial College London in 1912. He collaborated with several early Secrets of Nature films. One of the more unusual Secrets was made under his supervision: The Story of Westminstell Hall (1923) recorded Lefroy’s eradication of the death watch beetle from the old timbers in the Palace of Westminster in London. Image: Rentokil.
Peter Chalmers Mitchell (1864-1945) was a zoologist. He was Secretary of the Zoological Society of London between 1903 and 1935, when he was succeeded by Julian Huxley. He collaborated on several Secrets films, especially those filmed at the Zoo. In the early 1920s, British Instructional Films advertised themselves as ‘sole agents’ to the Zoological society, something which Chalmers Mitcell is likely to have arranged. In 1912 he published ‘The Childhood of Animals’. Image: Zoological Society of London
Edgar Chance (1881-1955) was an ornithologist. He possessed a large collection of birds’ eggs that resulted in his expulsion from the British Ornithologists’ Union and is now held at the Natural History Museum in Tring. His book The Cuckoo’s Secret (1922) was released in the same year as the eponymous Secrets film, demonstrating for the first time how the Cuckoo lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. Image: archive.org.
Madeline Munro was a science educator who sat on the British Film Institute’s science committee and wrote reviews of scientific films in the Monthly Film Bulletin. Originally trained as a paleontologist, she received her degree in Geology from the University of London in 1907. Munro was also consulted in the production of school broadcasts in nature study and science for the BBC.
H. M. Lomas (1873-1926) was one of the few photographers in the Secrets team who joined the team as a professional cameraman, rather than a naturalist who took pictures. He began working for Charles Urban in 1902, and joined the Secrets team in 1921.
Charles D. Head (? – 1938) was a specialist cameraman who worked closely with the Secrets team. He was described by Field and Smith as ‘like an eighteenth-century diarist, bent on recording the simple scenes of everyday life that surround him’. According to the Bioscope, His film The Merlin (1930) broke a record for shorts by being exhibited at the Marble Arch Pavilion 312 consecutive times.
Frank Goodlife (dates unknown) was a cameraman who specialised in biological subjects and cinemicrography, and produced footage for both the Secrets series and the G.B.I educational films. In the 1950s, he went on to work for ‘Science Films’, a company established by Norman MacQueen and H. Bruce Woolfe.
Walter Higham (1900-?) was described by Field and Smith as “an artist absorbed above everything in trying to capture for all time the passing beauty that he sees”. He worked for the Secrets team from 1922, mainly supplying ornithological footage, and won a medal from the Royal Photographic Society for his film The Bittern (1931). He was a well-respected still photographer and his book Birds in Colour (1946) was the first British bird-book to be illustrated solely with colour photographs. Image: The Bittern (1931)