From self-raising flour to hair-raising excitement

From self-raising flour to hair-raising excitement

We look at the history behind one of Britain's great film studios...

Nick Thorne, Writer at TheGenealogist

Nick Thorne

Writer at TheGenealogist

The unlikely founder of one of Britain’s most influential cinema production companies of the 20th century was a devout Methodist who was reportedly called a ‘dunce’ by his wealthy industrialist father. However, his father seems to have massively underestimated the drive and enthusiasm of a son that took on the might of the Hollywood film industry and put Britain firmly on the ‘film-making’  map!

J. Arthur Rank came from a family with a successful flour milling business that continued to go from strength to strength. Initially, Arthur himself suffered a business failure when he struck out on his own as a young man, but his determination and spirit to succeed came to the fore in his other passion completely separate from flour- the British film industry and his major project, the Pinewood Film  Studio.

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This week in 1936 saw the official opening of the studios in Buckinghamshire. The studios have since played host to many productions over the years from huge blockbuster films to television shows, commercials and music videos and is well known as the home of the ‘Carry On’ and ‘Superman’ films, and most significantly the ‘James Bond’ film series.

… had to take on the might of the Hollywood Film industry

As well as creating a leading film studio, J. Arthur Rank had to take on the might of the Hollywood Film industry that dominated world cinema from California. He was up to the challenge and much more as he also oversaw the Rank Organisation begin to manufacture televisions and radios and also photocopiers as well in partnership with Xerox!

Joseph Arthur Rank was born on 23rd December 1888 in Kingston upon Hull. His father, Joseph Rank, was from a milling background and had established his own business. His business skills were such that the company grew into a very profitable operation. He later acquired the Hovis-McDougall company and the operation became one of the UK’s largest food production and flour-milling businesses for many years until it was taken over by Premier Foods in 2007.

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Birth record for Joseph Arthur Rank from

The family became staunch Methodists in the late 1890s and this faith stayed with J. Arthur Rank throughout his life.

He initially ventured on his own with ‘Peterkins Self-Raising Flour’, but when that business failed he returned to work for his father.

Here is J. Arthur in the 1911 census living with his parents.

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Kelly's Directory for Hull 1913 from
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The Rank family in the 1911 Census from

The flour business kept moving forward with many Rank flour milling operations throughout the UK, particularly near ports. The family business is listed in the Kelly’s Directory for Hull in 1913.

He would show films at Sunday School

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J Arthur Rank

In his middle age years, J. Arthur Rank taught at his local church. He would show films at Sunday School, these would be of a religious nature and really grew in popularity. This practice expanded to other churches and schools and it led to him setting up the ‘Religious Film Society’. As a film-making enthusiast, he distributed his own films his first production was a film called Mastership.

When the Methodist Timesnewspaper began to complain about the negative influence that British and American films shown in Britain were having on family life, J. Arthur Rank took up the challenge and via an introduction from a young film producer named John Corfield, he discussed both the problem and a solution with Lady Yule of Bricket Wood, one of the richest women in the UK. The result of these meetings was the formation of the British National Films Company. The first commercial production by this company was a film called ‘Turn of the Tide’ but this proved very difficult to distribute due to the power and influence of Hollywood over cinemas worldwide.

… a movie studio that would rival those in Hollywood

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Sean Connery as James Bond in 'Dr No'

Having now created a film production company and having made a movie at another studio, Rank, Lady Yule and John Corfield began talking to building tycoon Charles Boot who had recently bought the estate of Heatherden Hall at Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, for the purpose of turning it into a movie studio that would rival those in Hollywood. Pinewood Film Studios was now born!

The determination of Arthur Rank to battle American dominance (American films occupied 80% of British screen time during the era before World War II) continued when he formed General Film Distributors to more effectively distribute his films. Expansion continued in 1938 when he acquired the Odeon cinema chain and the Amalgamated Studios in Elstree.

… made a Baron

In 1953 he set up the J. Arthur Rank Group Charity to further promote Christian belief. The charity later became known as The Rank Foundation. In 1957, in recognition of his work and achievements, J. Arthur Rank was made a Baron of ‘Sutton Scotney in the County of Southampton’.
1962 saw the beginning of the most famous films from Pinewood- the James Bond film, ‘Dr No’ was made that year. That same year J. Arthur Rank stepped down and retired as Chairman.

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Death record for Joseph Arthur Rank from

Joseph Arthur Rank died in March 1972 aged 83 leaving a significant legacy behind him. Not bad as we stated earlier, for a boy who was reportedly called a ‘dunce’ by his father and was told the “only way he would succeed in life was in his father’s flour mill!”

The Rank Group owned the Pinewood Studio until 1995 when it was taken over by a consortium that also now own Shepperton Studios in Middlesex. With further expansion abroad planned for the Group and continued technological excellence the future looks promising and secure for one of Britain’s most iconic film  sets!

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