The Incredible Noakesoscope

Laydeez and Gentlemen. Pray silence for your Chairman as you witness the enlightening (Ooooh!) and elucidatory perambulations (Aaahhh!) of this great and mighty, megascopical (Wooooh!) invention! Cancatervate your praise, lend him your polyphloisboian applause and welcome the prestidigious creator of The Incredible Noakesoscope!

Early Hollywood had the great D.W.Griffiths. Here in Greenwich we had our own D.W. – one D.W.Noakes.

Straw Delivery Man by day, crazy inventor of nutty Victorian magic lantern shows by night…

Considering that he’s part of the history of cinema, D.W. Noakes is virtually forgotten these days. I can’t find any dates for him at all, but he was most active with his amazing Noakesoscope in the latter part of the 19th Century.
He became lanternist at the Albert Hall, and created his own slides for Dioramic Projection in various venues (The Diorama in Regents Park still exists as a building – it used to be an arts centre but I think it’s closed or maybe turned into luxury flats by now.)

Noakes was quite a character. He owned Hay’s Wharf at Greenwich, which, as might be guessed from its name, supplied hay for London omnibus horses.

But what he really loved to do was fiddle with stuff, to invent things, to build things, to mend things.

He loved illusions, and especially trick photography. There was already a fair amount of new-fangled photography equipment being created as the race to create the One Magic Lantern Show to Rule Them All gained momentum. That the incredible Noakesoscope would eventually turn out to be the Betamax of Victorian projection equipment does not in any way detract from Noakes’s achievement.

He was definitely of the opinion that ‘more is more.’ According to the accounts I’ve read, his ‘new and original Dioramic entertainment’ wasn’t much different in concept from other magic lanterns, more that he used a quadruple instead of a triple lantern, and added his own ‘dissolver’ that he called The Gem, which meant that he could play all four lanterns in any combination or order. Handsomely presented in a mahogany box, the Noakesocope featured all the newest innovations – limelight burners and a gas regulator. In fact, here it is

His screen was the IMAX of its day – massive in comparison to anything that had gone beforehand.

But inventing his own projector was only half of Noakes’s vision. He had another idea that could, I guess, make a (frankly rather tenuous) argument to dub him the Father of the Documentary.

Up ’til this point, Magic Lantern shows had tended to be a miscellany of photos – whatever could be scrambled together, all bundled up in a big old mishmash of a variety show that could show a medical operation in one slide, followed by a dog in a hat in the next, followed by a picture of Margate. It was totally random. Noakes liked the idea of creating a themed picture show.

Back in Greenwich, he built his own steam launch, the Lizzie, and took her from London up to the Midlands, gathering priceless footage along the way.
The tantalisingly-titled England Bisected by a Steam Launch attracted a rapt audience of 1500 at the Crystal Palace in 1891. I understand the set of 300 slides still exists. I can only assume it’s at the BFI.

Less romantically, he became the official photographer for the Thames Conservancy Board, responsible for photographing all the wrecks on the Thames – a frankly grisly job, but not as bad as that of Gaffer Hexham and his daughter Lizzie (surely Noakes didn’t name his steam launch after her? Nah…) in Our Mutual Friend (a book I’m finding almost impossible to read) collecting all the human wrecks washed up on the river…

Noakes eventually became Mayor of Greenwich and a Local Character. He even earned the gratitude of the local working man by repairing a 6ft fracture in the hydraulic cylinder of the lift of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel that no one else had been able to fix.

Noakes’s son Ernest, BTW, was quite a character in his own right. A leading light of the Magic Circle, Noakes Jnr. wrote the seminal Magical Originalities – A Chat on Practical Magic in 1914, explaining some of the secrets behind the contraptions he and his father built in their stage-magic properties workshop somewhere in Greenwich (sorry – no clue where.) If I had between ¬£182 and ¬£408 going spare, I’d buy a copy on Abebooks and tell you what was in it, but since I haven’t, I’ll just have to guess that most of it was done with mirrors, angled glass and a waft of smoke.

I notice that there was a special slideshow of Noakes-a-bilia at Hammersmith in 1961 – nearly fifty years ago. I reckon it’s about time for another screening. Myself and the incomparable Julian Watson, in whose book In the Meantime I first discovered our own local cinematic genius, can’t be the only two members of the D.W. Noakes Appreciation Society.

How about a glittering “Night of Noakes” at the Picturehouse..?


One Comment to “The Incredible Noakesoscope”

  1. [...] it might have been invented by a chap named Lacey,¬†presumably a rival of Greenwich’s own Incredible Noakesoscope [...]