Norman Whitten

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Norman Whitten in Dublin (1917)

Norman Hughes Chaplen Whitten (20 October 1881 – 3 March 1969) was a British silent film producer, director and actor and the first actor to play the Mad Hatter, which he did in the 1903 film Alice in Wonderland, the first film adaptation of Lewis Carroll's 1865 children's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.[1][2] In 1907 he married May Clark, who had played Alice. A pioneer of early film in Ireland, Whitten made newsreels, light comedies and dramas and Ireland's first animated film.[3]

Early life

Whitten was born in Brompton in London in 1881, one of six children of Sarah Ann née Chaplen (1849–1906) and Dr. William John Whitten (1846–1891), a medical practitioner and surgeon.[4]

Hepworth Company

May Clark as Alice (left) and Norman Whitten (right) as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (1903)

In 1902, Norman Whitten and his brother Claude became actors for Cecil Hepworth at the Hepworth Film Studios in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, with the brothers soon also taking other roles behind the scenes including becoming camera operators and learning film processing.[5] Here Whitten met his first wife, the young actress May Clark (1885–1971) – the first actress to play Lewis Carroll's Alice in film, appearing in Alice in Wonderland (1903). On 14 March 1907, the two married at St Mary's church in Walton-on-Thames,[6] with their marriage certificate showing the professions of both Clark and Whitten as Cinematographers and living in Walton at that time.[7] They had at least one son: Vernon Norman William Whitten (1908–1982),[8] a director, film cameraman and photographer.[9]

After their marriage Whitten and Clark left Hepworth Film Studios to set up their own Stamford Hill Film Cleaning Company which used the experience they had gained at the Hepworth Studio to repair perforations and tears and clean films. Later with Clark's brother Reggie Clark they formed the County Film Company.[8]

Irish film pioneer

In about 1913, Whitten and Clark moved to Dublin where he set up his own film-making facilities in offices at 17 Great Brunswick Street. Here in 1914 he set up his General Film Supply company (GFS)[10] of which he was the managing director, cameraman, director, editor, film developer and processor. Whitten had been making films for a decade and had a wide network of film production and distribution. GFS made newsreels, advertising and propaganda films, films about pilgrimages and Ireland's first animated film – all designed to be shown before the main feature. When on 18 June 1917 he filmed the release of Sinn Féin prisoners convicted for their part in the 1916 Easter Rising and in July 1917 the Sinn Féin convention he had his films in local cinemas the same evening,[3][11] whereas other companies had to send their film to London to be processed.[3] His film Sinn Féin Review (1919) was seized by police during a showing and banned by the authorities as propaganda, whereas Whitten believed he had merely been filming a newsworthy event.[12] His 1920 début feature film Aimsir Padraig (In the Days of St Patrick) starring Ira Allen and featuring his son Vernon Whitten as a young Patrick[2] showed the life of Ireland's patron from birth through slavery and then returning to Ireland as a Christian missionary[13] and enjoyed international success. Whitten acted as an agent for several British cinematographic equipment manufacturers and distributed films in Ireland for other film companies. In July 1917, he set up Irish Events, Ireland's first regular newsreel service.[3][14] Easy to produce, they became a regular feature of Irish cinema showings and by the end of the year he had made 24 editions.[15]

Throughout his time in Dublin Whitten was supported by his wife May Clark who ran the business for seven months while he was in the United States.[8] In 1922 Whitten produced a series of light comedies: Casey's Millions, Cruiskeen Lawn and Wicklow Gold starring the Irish comedian and variety artiste Jimmy O'Dea.[16] Now lost, these were made for and were popular with local audiences.[17][18] When the business failed it was sold and Whitten and his family returned to England where he set up Vanity Fair Pictures with Reggie Clark, who was then calling himself Reggie Strange and who had a film printing business as a sideline. May Clark ran the business side of both ventures. At around this time Whitten and Clark's marriage ended.[8][19]

Later life

Whitten's marriage to May Clark was dissolved before 1929 as in that year he married Hilda Pleasance (1904–1962) in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.[20] In 1939 he and his second wife were living at 54 Girton Road in Ealing in London where Whitten was a Patent Medicine Advertising Manager and was also an ARP Warden.[21]

Norman Whitten died aged 88 in 1969 in Ealing in Greater London. He left an estate valued at £2,318.[22]


  • Casey's Millions (1922) – Producer
  • Cruiskeen Lawn (1922) – Producer
  • Wicklow Gold (1922) – Producer
  • Aimsir Padraig (In the Days of Saint Patrick) (1920) – Director/Producer
  • Sinn Féin Review 1&2 (1919) – Director
  • The Honeymoon: First, Second and Third Class (1904) – husband
  • The Neglected Lover and The Stile (1903) – boy
  • The Joke that Failed (1903) – student
  • Alice in Wonderland (1903) – Fish/Mad Hatter
  • Peace with Honour (1902) – Boer[2]


  1. ^ Mills, Ted (31 March 2016). "The First Film Adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (1903)". Open Culture. Retrieved 19 May 2017.
  2. ^ a b c Filmography of Norman Whitten – British Film Institute Database
  3. ^ a b c d Ruth Barton, Irish National Cinema, Routledge (2004) – Google Books p. 15
  4. ^ 1891 England Census for Norman H C Whitten: Essex, West Ham – Ancestry.com (subscription required)
  5. ^ Simon Brown, Cecil Hepworth and the Rise of the British Film Industry 1899–1911, University of Exeter Press (2015) – Google Books
  6. ^ Fletcher, Tony. "May Clark". Women Film Pioneers Project. Columbia University. Retrieved 28 December 2018.
  7. ^ Surrey, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754–1937 for Mabel Louise Clark: Walton on Thames, St Mary, 1884 Jan-1912 Jun – Ancestry.com (subscription required)
  8. ^ a b c d May Clark- Women Film Pioneers – Columbia University Libraries
  9. ^ Filmography of Vernon Whitten – British Film Institute database
  10. ^ Roddy Flynn and Tony Tracy, Historical Dictionary of Irish Cinema, Rowman & Littlefield (2019) – Google Books p. xxii
  11. ^ 'Sinn Féin Prisoners’ Homecoming: Story of the Filming of Recent Remarkable Street Scenes in Dublin'. Irish Limelight 1:7 (Jul. 1917): 16–17
  12. ^ Barton, p. 16
  13. ^ Barton, pp. 31–32
  14. ^ "'Irish Events': An Enterprise that Merits the Support of Every Exhibitor in this Country: News Films from the Four Provinces." Irish Limelight 1:8 (Aug. 1917): 18–19
  15. ^ Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill, Cinema and Ireland, Routledge – Google Books
  16. ^ Flynn and Tracy, p. 3
  17. ^ Barton, p. 40
  18. ^ Denis Gifford, The British Film Catalogue: The Fiction Film, Routledge (2000) – Google Books
  19. ^ Harvey O'Brien, The Real Ireland: The Evolution of Ireland in Documentary Film, Manchester University Press (2004) – Google Books
  20. ^ England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1916–2005 for Norman H C Whitten: 1929, Q4-Oct–Nov–Dec – Ancestry.com (subscription required)
  21. ^ 1939 England and Wales Register for Norman H C Whitten: Middlesex, Ealing – Ancestry.com (subscription required)
  22. ^ England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858–1995 for Norman Hughes Chapler Whitten: 1969 – Ancestry.com (subscription required)

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