Sophie Hancock

One of number of prominent women Bioscope pioneers

Throughout the 1890s and early 1900s the firm of W.C. & S. Hancock dominated Britain's West Country fairground scene - not solely because of the size of their enormous collection of rides and shows, but also due to the flamboyant characters who ran the firm - William, Charles and their older sister Sophie; who was particulary well remembered, long after her death, for her outrageous hats, booming voice, and colourful, 'indigo' use of the English language. Verbal accounts suggest that the firm was persuaded to enter the cinema-show business by one of their in-laws, Richard Dooner (1870-1951), who was the lion-tamer working on their menagerie show. His father, James Dooner, an ex-shadowgraph artiste, had given brief demonstrations of a cinematograph apparatus in Bristol. (In the early 1900s the Dooners would move to South Wales and tour the 'Dooner's Electrograph' Bioscope show, prior to opening a small but prosperous chain of cinemas. In 1934 Richard Dooner became President of the National Cinematograph Exhibitiors Association). The first recorded sightings of a Hancock shown incorporating film occured during the 1898 season, when they travelled a joint exhibition entitled 'Edison's Electric Biograph and Japanese Entertainment'. By 1900 the original combined show had been replaced by a more ornate, purpose built 'walk-up' booth - the 'Bio-Tableau'. In 1906 - the start of the golden age of the Bioscope show - the 'Bio-Tableau' was modified to form a double-entrance centre-organ show, 'Hancock's Electric Palace of Varieties'. The Hancocks continued to reign supreme until 1913 when the firm's entire, uninsured, collection of rides and shows was inadvertently razed to the ground in Devonport, following an arson attack by local suffragettes on an adjacent woodyard. The fire was also recorded on film by a locally-based Pathé cameraman, and brief footage still survives. Despite the setting up of a nationwide relief fund by the showman's paper The World's Fair, the firm never recovered. Charles died in 1916, William in 1918 - and Sophie in 1926, in a park in London. (Other notable contemporaries of Sophie Hancock include the nonagenarian operator Elizabeth Crecraft ('Crecraft's Wild Beast and Living Pictures') of the West Midlands and South Wales, and Annie Holland ('Holland 's Palace of Light') of the N & W Midlands).

Mervyn Heard