The Steenomatographe

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The Steens and the Steenomatographe. 

On notice of his retirement to the U.S.A. reported in “The Era” in April 2, 1898 Charles Steen had been in show business for over thirty-five years. ”The Steens” were Charles N. Steen and his wife Martha E. Steen. They presented an act of mind reading and conjuring and were described as “Mystifiers”, (see handbill for Theatre Royal Darwen for February 1897.) They did include a select company of Vaudeville Entertainers in their shows and whilst the main body of their act is of little interest as part of the study of the growth of the cinema in the North West of England, the fact that as part of the show they presented to their audience a programme of films using the “Steenomatographe” is of interest. It was reported in The Era on the 12th of December 1896 that The Steenomatographe had been introduced into the programme and it was “without doubt the finest specimen ever placed before the public.” After successful weeks at The People’s Palace at St Helens and The Theatre Royal, Birkenhead the manager of the latter, Mr Thomas Boardman, stated that “Your Steenomatographe is the finest I have seen and I think I have seen them all.” (Era 9th January 1897)

The Steens toured with the Steenomatographe throughout 1897 and 1898 with reported appearances recorded in The Era as follows: –

Theatre Royal, Darwen,6th February 1897

The Grand, Chorley, 20th February 1897

Rotherham, 29th May 1897

Bilston, 10th April 1897

Tudor’s Circus, Cambridge, 3rd July 1897

Prince’s Theatre, Preston, 24th July 1897

Batley, 4th September 1897

Royal English Circus, Wolverhampton, 25th September 1897 (Steenomatographe but no Steens)

King Ohmy’s Circus, Blackburn, 6th November 1897 where they exhibited “The Queen’s Jubilee” and “The Greek and Turkish War”

People’s Palace, St Helens, 16th January 1898

Theatre Royal, Castleford, 29th January 1898

Darlington, 5th February 1898

Theatre Royal, Runcorn, 26th February 1898

Theatre Royal, Bilston, 2nd April 1898

Grand Theatre, Hebburn on Tyne, 3rd October 1898

New Theatre, Consett, 10th October 1898

What films they presented are not indicated in their advertising except when they were at Darlington where “The Steenomatographe with its original animated photographs concludes a capital entertainment”.

The reason the Steens are included inthis study is, like King Ohmy, they were around at the birth of the cinema in the North West of England ant they were amongst the first to realise the potential of this form of entertainment which was still a novelty at this time. The Steens appeared at Ohmy’s Circus on a number of occaisions their fourth visit to King Ohmy’s Circus at Blackburn was advertised in The Era on the 6th November 1897 and it was followed by performances at Tudors’ Circus, third visit, and at Lord John Sanger’s Circus, billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth”.  After touring with the Steenomatographe The Steens again performed for King Ohmy, at Oldham in April 1899 with no mention of films.

Charles Steen didn’t retire as planned and formed a touring company that for fourteen weeks included The Great Gillin and his associated partner D’Eston. Towards the end of 1900 Gillin was still with The Steens and when they played Grimsby there was an exhibition of animated pictures. (Era 24th November 1900). After this Gillin was due to play at The Prince’s Theatre in Preston but was prevented from doing so because of the fire that destroyed much of the stage area.

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How Ohmy Got His Name

How “King Ohmy” got his title

There are several suggestions in a variety of publication both in book form and on the internet as to Ohmy’s birthplace and his early life. “The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express” in June 1889 (1) published what appears to be a record of a conversation between their correspondent and Mr Ohmy. In this he states that he, Joseph Smith, later known as King Ohmy, was born in Maldon, Essex in July 1854. He was the son of Joseph Smith the owner of the “Smith’s Sanpareil Circus” and the descendant of a long line of strolling players. His mother was an actress.

When he had attained the ripe old age of two and a half years he made his debut and his initial bow in the role of a clown in the Smith’s Troupe of Acrobats .When he was old enough he travelled around with his father’s circus which attended the principle fairs and pitched its tent like the Arab. Whether he played the clown, the bare-back rider or the gymnast, he was always well received by a kind and indulgent patrons. (1)

Tayleure and Hutchison’s built a new circus at Cardiff in 1870 in Westgate but by the time Joseph Smith joined them around November 1871 the circus was probably sited in either Wind Street or Walters Road.

The widely accepted origin of Joseph Smith’s adopted name “Ohmy” is that it  came from the reaction to his slack-wire performance when, at the concussion of his “fall” in 1873 and on subsequent falls, the audience cried out “Oh My”. This explanation of how he got his adopted name is widely held, but in the interview referred to earlier to Ohmy gave a different explanation: –

When Mr Ohmy started life it was with very little notion that he would ever adopt his present surname, and to his sponsors it can only have been a still more remote contingency as they gave him his Christian name at baptism. By the time he had reached his eighteenth year whatever he did in public he did well, for he never came from behind the scenes until practice and rehearsal had made the novelty or the feat as perfect as possible, whatever the public verdict might be on the finished thing. In the Midland counties he had acquired a reputation of the first order for feats of daring and the cleverness with which he performed them. When the natives take a particular fancy to an artist, and to imagine that in his own line he can lick creation they dub him “Homey”, which being interpreted signifies “cock of the walk”. This enviable distinction it was Mr Ohmy’s good fortune to gain. For a long time he accepted the title meekly, not dreaming that the day would come when in a modified form he would adopt it as his own. But great events hang on slender threads – with Mr Ohmy it happened to be a rope. The day of the “flying trapeze” had gone by as a sensation though not as a clever performance, so Mr Ohmy tuned his attention to the “flying rope”, a hazardous feat that electrified spectators. It was instead a matter of life and death. The novelty was attended with a great risk to the performer, and involved a drop in space from 30 to 50 feet, with a rope to break the fall. Mr Ohmy had on one occasion ascended as usual for the performance, when for some reason never thoroughly comprehended the rope refused to “give”, and he was left dangling in the air with no hope of release alive. The audience applauded loudly under the impression that it was a new trick. Fortunately for the performer an artist realised the situation and recognising that death itself was no worse than that what was taking place over the heads of the people climbed up as only a gymnast can to cut the rope. With the rope around his neck Mr Ohmy had been unconscious for five minutes. When the body dropped to the floor with a dull and ominous thud the spectators thought the worst had happened, and the lament on every hand was “Homey! Oh, my poor Homey!” But Mr Ohmy had no intention of giving up the ghost. He had had plenty of rope, and as is proverbially the case with folks who are given enough rope he nearly hanged himself, or was in danger of being strangled. The rescuer, when he cut the rope, chose the least of two evils, and, as it afterwards appeared did the very best in the circumstances, for the shock of the fall saved the performers life. In the mind of Mr Ohmy the word “Homey” now acquired a force and significance it had not hitherto enjoyed, and he at once not only patented the trick but the name. The one and only “Ohmy” with a new lease of life entered upon a career which in its way has been an unbroken success. (1)

Where this story doesn’t quite ring true, that he adopted the name after his fall in April 1873, because a month before his fall” The Era” dated 9th March 1873 informs us that “the comic element at Tayleure and Hutchison’s circus in Cardiff (was) being provided by messers Hill, Ronef, Ohmy and Golliger”. As this was a month before Ohmy suffered the accident that he said initiated his change of name, it seems that even the story relayed by Ohmy himself contains an element of mystery.

Ohmy’s “Coronation” seemingly occurred around October 1891 when, following a court case brought about by “Buffalo Bill” Cody against the Sanger Brothers for the misuse of his name in their advertising, George Sanger became a self declared “Lord Sanger” and other circus owners followed his example. Bob Fossett became “Sir Robert Fossett”, Cook became “Sir Henry Cooke” and Ohmy became “King Ohmy”. (“The Sawdust Ring”, Rupert Croft-Cooke)


Pete Vickers M.A.

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The Latest on King Ohmy

It would seem that King Ohmy was quick on the uptake with the newfangled cinematography for in the Lancashire Daily Post in December 1896, the year of the first public cinematograpic exhibitions, there appeared an series of adverts for Ohmy’s new circus at Accrington. The “Grand New Building” was opened in mid-December with usual variety of circus entertainers and then for the “Grand Holiday Programme”,  held over for the New Year week, in addition there Ohmy presented the “VITOGRAPH, The Greatest Novelty in England”, was included. The people of the area were encouraged to “Come and see the Greatest Wonder of the Age” The advert in “Era” magazine for 19th December 1896 informs us the it was the “first vitograph pantomime in a circus.”

All this poses the question of how was this effected? In an “Era” report of October 1898 the venue is Ohmy’s circus at Ashton under Lyne where “The life-size living pictures are exhibited on an immense screen which hangs from the roof of the arena. The pictures can be viewed from both sides of the cloth and can be seen from all parts on the auditorium.”

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A link between Will Onda, W.E.Gillin and Atroy

In September 1907 Will Onda using his real name, Will Rain, formed a variety company and they performed at The Royal Theatre, West Kirby. (The Stage 19th September 1907). Included in the line up were Atroy, juggler and hoop roller, his wife Violi who was a multi-instrumentalist and Gillin, ventriloquial humorist. The Will Rain Company appeared with their Motor Maniac and it would be reasonable to assume that this is when the photograph of them all in a motor car was taken (in The Stage archives).

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William E. Gillin

William E. Gillin


Professor W. E. Gillin, to give him his “proper” title, was a stage ventriloquist who as early as 1895 boasted of being the “Premier Ventriloquist” who manipulated ten walking, talking singing and dancing figures.  (Era 16th March 1895). His permanent address was Rotherham in Yorkshire and it is probable that he was born about 1867 and continued live until the census of 1901 when his occupation was shown as a self- employed watchmaker. (Best match on Ancestry files).

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James Atroy and the Variety Artists’ Federation

From the The Stage Year Books on line Pete has discovered that James Atroy was a commitee member of the Variety Artists’ Federation in 1908 and 1911.

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Research into Will Onda, film maker

Pete is working with Emma Heslewood of the Harris Museum to uncover as much information as we can about Will Onda, film maker, distributer and in his spare time a town alderman and a board member of Preston North End. Progress can be seen at Emma’s blog : –

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James Atroy

Also doing research on James Atroy, music hall performer and film exhibitor in the Lancaster Area.

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King Ohmy

I am interested in “King Ohmy” the circus performer who presented early film shows at his circus in Preston in the early 20th Century.

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