World’s Oldest Surviving Dickensian Film Unearthed by The British Film Institute

Dickens - H 2012

BFI’s Bryony Dixon stumbles across "The Death Of Poor Joe," a character from Charles Dickens’ "Bleak House."

LONDON – The world’s oldest surviving Dickensian film The Death of Poor Joe directed in 1901 by G.A. Smith has been discovered by the British Film Institute.

The discovery was made by the BFI’s silent film curator Bryony Dixon in the organization’s archive.

Dixon’s research places the film as the earliest made featuring a Charles Dickens-created character.  

Up until the discovery – the film had been wrongly labeled -- the earliest known Dickens film was Scrooge or Marley’s Ghost (1901), released later that year in November and is currently on nationwide release from the BFI National Archive.

It remains the earliest direct adaptation.

The Death of Poor Joe will screen as a special addition to a program of Dickens playing as part of this year’s celebration of Dickens’ life and works.

Dixon was researching early films of China when she noticed a catalog entry referring to a film called The Death of Poor Joe which she realized might be a reference to the character in Bleak House.

On checking the BFI’s archive she discovered the film was listed as being in the collections under alternative title Man Meets Ragged Boy, wrongly dated c1902.

The film has been identified as by British film pioneer G.A. Smith and is reckoned to have been shot in Brighton sometime before March 1901 when it appears in the Warwick catalogue although it may have been filmed earlier.

It depicts the Dickens character ‘poor Joe’ the crossing sweeper from Bleak House, one of a number of pitiable child figures and arguably the most helpless and poignant of all Dickens’ child deaths - in the arms of a night watchman who finds him freezing to death against a churchyard wall.

The film is just one minute long.