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Literature, History, Heritage

The Hollywood of Pembrokeshire

Pembroke Dock served as film set in several of early British cinema’s most successful films thanks to enthusiastic film pioneer William Haggar and his family. 

A still image showing a fight between the police and the main villain from the 1905-film The Life of Charles Peace, filmed on locations on Hawkstone Road, Birdcage Walk and the Railway Station in Pembroke Dock. Source: People’s Collection Wales ~ Creator: William Haggar ~ Date: 1905

William Haggar (1851-1925) was a travelling showman with a large family and a vision. Following his marriage to Sarah Walton in 1870, the newlyweds established a travelling theatre company and toured extensively across England and Wales. Eight of their children survived into adulthood and would perform in their parents’ theatre productions. In 1898, William Haggar acquired a Bioscope projector, showing early films across the fairgrounds of the south Wales valleys.

A still image showing a chase between the police and the main villain from the 1905-film The Life of Charles Peace, filmed on locations on Hawkstone Road, Birdcage Walk and the Railway Station in Pembroke Dock. Source: People’s Collection Wales ~ Creator: William Haggar ~ Date: 1905

Since the 1890s, the Haggar family toured almost exclusively across south Wales and frequently pitched up their winter camp in Aberdare. It was in nearby Maesteg that Haggar produced his first scripted film, The Maid of Cefn Ydfa (1902) and exhibited it at the next Swansea fair to great popular acclaim. Over the following years, Haggar would produce at least another thirty films, including Desperate Poaching Affray (1903), The SheepstealerA Message from the Sea and The Life of Charles Peace (all 1905). The latter two were filmed in Pembroke Dock and its surroundings.

A still image showing a gun fight between the police and the main villain from the 1905-film The Life of Charles Peace, filmed on locations on Hawkstone Road, Birdcage Walk and the Railway Station in Pembroke Dock. Source: People’s Collection Wales ~ Creator: William Haggar ~ Date: 1905

Today, The Life of Charles Peace is the oldest surviving British story film. In this box office hit, William’s and Sarah’s fifth child, 22-year old Walter Haggar (1880-1953) performed the energetic lead role of the titular villain, the infamous Victorian burglar and murderer. In addition to the rest of the Haggar family filling almost all other roles, members of the public from Pembroke Dock performed as extras. Despite its brevity, this single-reel film includes burglaries, fist and gun fights, a daring escape attempt from a moving train and the final hanging of Charles Peace.

A still image showing a fight between the police and the main villain from the 1905-film The Life of Charles Peace, filmed on locations on Hawkstone Road, Birdcage Walk and the Railway Station in Pembroke Dock. Walter Haggar, the leading actor, performs his own stunt as he hangs from the open window of the train carriage. Source: People’s Collection Wales ~ Creator: William Haggar ~ Date: 1905

About half of the film was shot on location around Pembroke Dock during the summer of 1905. Filming locations include Hawkstone Road, Birdcage Walk and the Railway Station. William Haggar also received permission from a local lady to use her house for a burglary scene and the Station Master loaned a train for several scenes. While a dummy was used for Peace’s daring escape from a moving train, Walter provided his own stunt work and only narrowly survived filming the execution scene.

A still frame from the 1905-film A Message from the Sea, filmed in Pembroke Dock. Only a short fragment of this film survives. The scene shows William Haggar Jnr on the right with his arm around the leading lady played by his wife, Jenny Lindon. Source: People’s Collection Wales ~ Creator: William Haggar ~ Date: 1905

With a more elaborate remake of his earlier success, The Maid of Cefn Ydfa, William Haggar’s film making career came to an end in 1914. He opened several permanent cinemas between Llanelli and Aberdare. Further west in Pembrokeshire, his sons upheld the family tradition. Walter, the former star of Charles Peace, operated Haggar’s Electric Coliseum in Neyland from 1915 to 1919 and William Haggar Jnr. (1871-1935) established Haggar’s Cinema in Pembroke in the early 1930s. Out of all the family’s owned theatres, this was the longest one in operation. The final curtain fell for Haggar’s in 1984 when the cinema no longer provided a viable income for the family.

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The Hollywood of Pembrokeshire by Rita Singer. The story was originally published on Ports, Past and Present on 9 March 2022. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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