Blue Plaques

RANK, J. Arthur (1888-1972)

Plaque erected in 2012 by English Heritage at 38 South Street, Mayfair, London, W1K 1DJ, City of Westminster

All images © English Heritage


Industrialist and Film Producer


Industry and Invention, Theatre and Film


J. ARTHUR RANK 1888-1972 Industrialist and Film Producer worked here



Rank is generally credited with saving the British film industry at a time when the government was willing to cede control to Hollywood. Without him, many of the greatest British films of the twentieth century may simply never have been made. Modest and extremely hard-working, his ardent Methodism influenced the moral tone of the films of his day. He became a powerful but popular figure who wanted the industry to be a force for good, and played a key role in the success of directors such as Carol Reed, Alexander Korda, David Lean, and Michael Powell. He was also a highly successful industrialist who transformed his family business into one of Britain's biggest companies; renamed Rank Hovis McDougall in 1962, it survived until 2007, when it was taken over by Premier Foods.

Joseph Arthur Rank was born near Kingston upon Hull, the youngest son of a rich and successful miller, becoming director of the family business in 1915. Rank's devout Methodist faith sparked his interest in film when he saw its potential as an effective medium for promoting the Christian message; after starting to show films to his Sunday School classes, he went on to found the Religious Film Society in 1933.

The family business continued to expand, and grew into an international food-processing concern. It was during this period that Rank built an empire in film production and distribution that would come to dominate the British film industry. In 1934, in association with Lady Yule, Rank formed the production company British National, and produced the film Turn of the Tide (1935). After Hollywood-dominated distributors declined the film, he became convinced that British films would only flourish once the Hollywood monopoly had been broken.

In 1935 Rank formed the General Cinema Finance Corporation, holding a large stake in the American company Universal Pictures, and was Chairman from 1938; from 1937, he was also Chairman of General Film Distributors and in that year formed the Rank Organisation to consolidate his interests. In 1936, together with Lady Yule and John Corfield, he opened Pinewood Studios at Heatherden Hall, Buckinghamshire, and soon became Chairman; in 1938, Pinewood was merged with Alexanda Korda's Denham Studios. 

During the Second World War, cinema attendance reached a peak and the British film industry surged, thanks largely to Rank's contribution. His empire continued to grow: in 1941, he took over the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, and the following year acquired Odeon Theatres. He thus controlled not only the Pinewood and Denham studios, but also those of Gaumont-British and Gainsborough, while Ealing Studios - run by Michael Balcon - became part of the Rank Organisation in 1944.

During this period, Rank was responsible for producing a string of successes, including In Which We Serve (1942), Henry V (1944), The Wicked Lady (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Great Expectations (1946). By 1946, Rank's companies owned five studios and 650 cinemas; they employed a staff of 31,000, while the turnover was £45 million.

Late in 1947 Rank's ambitious production programme ran into financial difficulties, yet he was still able to finance notable films including Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (both 1948), and Ealing Studio's Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets (both 1949). In 1953, following the death of his only surviving brother, Rank ceded his controlling interests in the Rank Organisation and founded a charitable trust (later known as the Rank Foundation) to distribute the profits to good causes. During Rank's lifetime, it disbursed an estimated £100 million. For the rest of his life, he directed his energies principally towards Joseph Rank Ltd, and in 1962 retired as Chairman of the Rank Organisation. He remained a committed Methodist, greatly assisting the church financially, and was raised to the peerage in 1957 as Baron Rank of Sutton Scotney. Rank died at his country home, Sutton Manor, Hampshire, in 1972.

38 South Street

Grade II-listed 38 South Street, Mayfair, is a substantial 'Wrenaissance' mansion built in 1920 for wealthy industrialist Henry McLaren, later Baron Aberconway. Its combination of nostalgic grandeur and twentieth-century solidity reflects the monumentality and modesty which characterised Rank and his career.

38 South Street was where he established the headquarters of the Rank Organisation. They financed films such as The Red Shoes (1948) and the Ealing comedies Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets (all 1949). When hard-working Rank was at the helm, the office day began at 8.30am, and executives arriving later were told that 'these hours wouldn't do in Yorkshire'.

“Synonymous With the British Film Industry”

J. Arthur Rank's grandson, Joey Newton, said:

“The Rank family are very proud that he has been honoured in this way.”

Sir Christopher Frayling, English Heritage Blue Plaques panellist, said:

“For over a quarter of a century - between the 1940s and the 1960s - the name 'J. Arthur Rank' was virtually synonymous with the British film industry. His companies owned over half the British film studios and more than 1,000 cinemas.”

“His corporate symbol of a bare-chested ex-boxer banging a huge gong was instantly recognisable the world over - on a par with the celebrated Hollywood studio logos. The films presented by the Rank Organisation were sometimes good, sometimes bad - but never ugly. And they turned British film into an industry, from the headquarters in Mayfair.”

Nearby Blue Plaques

Nearby Blue Plaques