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Wills, Frederick Charles (1870–1955)

by Pat Laughren

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

This is a shared entry with Henry William Mobsby

Henry William Mobsby (1860-1933), and Frederick Charles Wills (1870-1955), were artists and photographers and motion picture pioneers. Mobsby was born on 17 August 1860 at Hove, Sussex, England, son of William Mobsby, watchman, and his wife Sarah, née Humphrys. Educated at Hampton Place school, Henry trained in art, design, chemistry and commercial practice at the School of Arts, Brighton, and in London. In 1883 he accompanied the artist I. W. Jenner to Queensland. Mobsby married Jenner's eldest daughter Mary Ellen on 10 September 1884 at the general registry office, Brisbane, and for some years taught decorative art at Brisbane Technical College.

Wills was born on 14 November 1870 at Torquay, Devon, England, son of Charles Rundle Wills, tailor, and his wife Elizabeth Sarah, née Mountstephen. Frederick came to Australia about 1889 and by the mid-1890s was an artist, living at Croydon, Sydney. On 26 April 1895 at the district registrar's office, Waverley, he married English-born Edith Emily Walker. They were to have five children.

Appointed to the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock as its first official artist and photographer on 13 March 1897, Wills moved to Brisbane with his family. His duties initially involved illustrating plant life and farming scenes for the new Queensland Agricultural Journal and specimens for the Botanic Gardens. He also produced photographic enlargements and lantern slides to advertise the colony's primary industries and resources. Actively involved with the Queensland Amateur Photographic Society, he frequently contributed to Australian photographic magazines.

The prospect of the Greater Britain Exhibition in London in 1899 induced the Queensland government to agree to Wills's proposal to supplement its displays with motion pictures, 'lantern slides . . . prepared on the Lumière Cinematographe principle'. The Chief Secretary's Department agreed to finance the motion picture venture for a year from October 1898. In December Wills was sent to Sydney to obtain a Lumière cinematograph and the expertise to operate it. Photographic suppliers Baker & Rouse imported the equipment and Wills made five successful trial films in Sydney.

On Wills's return to Brisbane in March 1899, Mobsby was appointed as his assistant. By October 1899 Wills and Mobsby had produced some thirty, one-minute films during various 'still' photography excursions around Queensland. These illustrated agricultural processes, and also covered topical events. Among the earliest was the arrival of Governor Lamington for the opening of parliament on 18 May 1899. The next evening, Wills exhibited 'some very good specimens of locally taken cinematograph pictures' at the Queensland Amateur Photographic Society. Between June and August 1899 Mobsby took the cinematograph to the Torres Strait on a tour led by the home secretary Justin Foxton, but the productions lacked the technical and artistic assurance of Wills's.

Most of the films made by Wills and Mobsby were shot in the spring of 1899 and illustrated wheat harvesting on the Darling Downs, sugar harvesting at Nambour and aspects of stock management. These were the first Australian industrial documentary films and are among the world's earliest films of the type. Many of the sixty-second rolls were constructed in sequences of two- and three-camera set-ups and intended for screening in a logical order to construct a narrative of the processes shown. 'When a subject takes more than one film', Wills casually observed in 1900, 'they are joined with the aid of amyl acetate with some of the celluloid dissolved in it'. He made the earliest surviving Australian films exhibiting sequential editing techniques.

'There is artistic taste needed in the choice and management of subject as much, and perhaps more, than in ordinary photography', he wrote in 1900. Yet Wills was at pains to point out that a cinematographer was 'by no means a wizard, but, to use a familiar expression ''a real hard grafter”'. He claimed that 'out of thirty negative and thirty positive films which I have exposed only two negatives and one positive have been spoilt. It behoves one to be careful when each film costs 22/6d'.

The series was also important for images such as those of Kanaka labourers at work in the cane fields in conditions resembling slavery. Wills and Mobsby also filmed the Queensland cabinet boarding the government paddle steamer Lucinda for a ministerial banquet. Their last and most impressive films recorded Queensland troops bound for the South African War, the only known surviving footage of such departures. Shot in Brisbane between 28 and 31 October, this marked the end of the film experiment. The chief secretary's twelve months of funding had elapsed.

The only recorded complete showing of the films was a private one in the Department of Agriculture boardroom on 17 November 1899. By the time they reached Britain in 1900 (too late for the exhibition) the Lumière 35 mm stock, with round sprocket holes, had fallen victim to technological change and the films would not fit newer projectors. The films also met resistance from George Randall, Queensland's immigration lecturer, who avoided using a Lumière projector even after one was provided. Randall had not been consulted and considered that these motion picture novelties would attract 'the flotsam and jetsam of the cities' rather than 'the good men from the villages'.

Though Wills gave a 'Paper on Cinematography' to the Queensland Amateur Photographic Society on 15 June 1900, he was never to resume moving film production. In 1903, after continued disputes over limits to the quantity and quality of pictorial content in the Queensland Agricultural Journal, he resigned his government post. For two years he operated a photographic studio in George Street, Brisbane, before taking his family to Toowoomba where he ran a photographic equipment business and studio as an agent of Baker & Rouse. He published a series of postcard views of Toowoomba, gave art classes on Saturdays and was president of the Toowoomba Photographic Society. Nevertheless, in 1914 he and his family left for Sydney. His name appeared on Souvenir of Brisbane, a pictorial guide to the city published that year by the New South Wales Bookstall Co. His last known photographic assignment was a portrait of a 5-year-old at Croydon in 1938.

Mobsby had taken over as official artist and photographer for the Department of Agriculture in 1904 and remained until his retirement in 1930. He had scant direct involvement in subsequent Queensland government film production, preferring to commission others, such as the Salvation Army limelight department's former cameraman Sid Cook, to undertake the filmmaking. Mobsby's contemporary reputation stemmed from his scenic photography and exhibition design. A fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Artists, London, he regularly designed and organized Queensland's exhibits for the annual shows in southern capitals and at the Royal National Exhibition in Brisbane. His photography gained international distinction, and he officially represented Queensland at the Franco-British Exhibition, London, in 1908, the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, San Francisco, in 1915, the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, in 1924 and the South Pacific Exhibition, Dunedin, in 1925-26.

In December 1905 Mobsby's 11-year-old son Arthur Timewell drowned; each year thereafter, the Mobsby memorial medal was awarded to the Indooroopilly State School student who achieved the highest percentage in the year 8 scholarship public examination. A keen Freemason, Mobsby was a member of the Lodge, Indooroopilly, No.155, United Grand Lodge of Queensland. He died on 9 April 1933 at his home in Station Road, Indooroopilly, and was buried in Toowong cemetery. His wife and their daughter survived him.

Predeceased by his wife, Wills died on 8 August 1955 at his son-in-law's sheep property, Beethoven, Rowena, New South Wales, and was buried with Anglican rites at Collarenebri. Two sons and a daughter survived him. That year the Lumière cinematograph and the Wills and Mobsby films were transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Queensland Museum to await their belated first public exhibition on 15 September 1993.

Select Bibliography

  • P. J. Skerman et al, Guiding Queensland Agriculture 1887-1987 (Brisb, 1988)
  • C. Long and P. Laughren, ‘World’s First Government Film Production’ in K. Berryman (ed), Screening the Past (Canb, 1995)
  • T. Barker (compiler), Frederick Charles Wills (Brisb, 2000)
  • C. Long and P. Laughren, ‘Australia’s First Films: Facts and Fables’, Cinema Papers, no 96, Dec 1993, p 32
  • C. Long and P. Laughren, Queensland’s First Films, 1895-1910 (video, 1996)
  • J. K. Brown, Versions of Reality: The Production and Function of Photographs in Colonial Queensland 1880-1900 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1985)
  • Randall papers (University of Queensland Library).

Citation details

Pat Laughren, 'Wills, Frederick Charles (1870–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wills-frederick-charles-13276/text23707, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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