Magic touch


How, for several glorious decades at the start of the 20th century, the Maskelyne family’s unique brand of magic—irreverent, funny and technologically audacious—turned a Marylebone theatre into one of London’s most compelling attractions

Words: Glyn Brown
Illustrations: Matthew Hancock

Long ago, not too far away, there was an astonishing building known for the best part of its life as Maskelyne’s Theatre of Mystery. Like any truly enchanted thing, it had taken other guises in the past and would be transformed again in the future, but for nearly 30 years it boasted scenes of jaw-dropping, spine-tingling sorcery. The man responsible was John Nevil Maskelyne, known to most as JN, a debonair dandy who would make the young Albus Dumbledore seem uncharismatic. He took Marylebone’s decrepit, crumbling St George’s Hall and turned it—presto!—into a wondrous place.

Born in 1839 in Cheltenham, the young JN became a trainee watchmaker with a gift for constructing mechanical illusions such as singing canaries in cages or clockwork beetles, which were all the rage in the early Victorian era. He met the quiet and reserved George Cooke, a perfect straight man with an interest in sleight of hand, with whom he developed an amateur conjuring show. But when JN was 26, the hugely famous Davenport Brothers, sons of a Buffalo cop, arrived from the United States with their cavalcade, claiming to be able to enlist the spirits of the dead. JN was incensed by this chicanery. A born showman, he stood up in the audience, insisted that the Americans’ tricks were all about dexterity, not the supernatural, and promised to duplicate every part of the act within three months.

And he did, at a performance at the Aviary Gardens, with the loyal Cooke assisting. That night, drunk on applause, the pair decided to chuck in their jobs and change modern magic forever—because instead of solemn hocus-pocus done in dramatic silence, they planned to deliver amusing playlets, a mixture of stories, banter and the breath-taking mechanics at which they were gifted.

Miniature Eiffel Tower
At first, this looked like a big mistake. A series of hot summers meant audiences were virtually invisible. But things picked up, and in May 1873 the pair took over the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. JN’s grandson Jasper, in his 1936 book White Magic, describes one or two early efforts. “In the plate-spinning trick, JN spun a couple of score of ordinary dinner plates, one after the other, with inconceivable rapidity, and away they went, spinning down a four inch-wide gangway, then round and round up a spiral, mounting the sides of a sort of miniature Eiffel Tower, the plates climbing to a height two or three feet above that of the table top from which they had set out.” There was a walking stick that lived up to its name, prancing about the stage unaccompanied, and JN even levitated his shy young wife Elizabeth, floating bouquets from the audience up to her in the air.

And then a Lincolnshire farmer turned up, saying he’d invented a ‘mechanical man’. JN went to the farm, couldn’t believe his eyes, paid a high price for the robot, and improved it in his workshop for two years. He named the little metal figure Psycho, but Psycho had the life of Reilly. He sat on the stage, without wires, tubes or anything, and would nod in a friendly manner, perform minor conjuring tricks, multiply and divide on paper, spell, smoke cigarettes and play whist. Oh yes, and give a Masonic handshake. Not a healthy lifestyle, but he seemed happy. London went wild. Racehorses, overcoats and assorted products were named after him. Psycho. Oh well. 

In 1875, JN’s fame was such that he and his troupe were invited to present a Royal Command performance, the first time magic had been performed at Sandringham since the days of court jugglers. With the bit between his teeth, JN decided to come up with more robots. There was Zoe, an artist, disgracefully reviewed in the Morning Post: “Mr Maskelyne, more complacent than Frankenstein, has created a Titania for his Oberon. Psycho is to be envied. A lovely companion, always smiling, never contradicting him, never troubling him about bills or talking of the last sweet thing in bonnets…” She could draw like Whistler, actually. Why was that not said? After Zoe there were musicians—Fanfair and, I’m afraid, Labial. Writes Jasper, “Fanfare played the cornet, Labial the euphonium. They were scholarly little men, with the long locks and dreamy eyes of true musicians.”


A stupendous inventor
JN may not have been all that good with names, but he was a stupendous inventor. He produced a prototype typewriter that no one then saw a need for, though he used it in his office. He came up with a neat bus ticket checker, but no one wanted it. Later, he even invented a wireless that might broadcast entertainment in every home. The trouble was, no broadcast company existed to send out programmes. Ironic that, around 15 years after his death, the BBC took over St George’s Hall. The only thing that made JN any cash was his novel idea for the pay toilet. Thanks a bundle, pal.

In 1893, the retiring Mr Cooke retired, and his place as Maskelyne’s partner was taken by the charismatic rock star type (there actually is a band named after him) David Devant, whose eventual obituary in The Times would call him “the foremost magician of all time”. Ten years later, this crack team were so successful that they left the Egyptian Hall, where they were tenants, and moved into a theatre they could call their own: the elaborate 1,500-seater St George’s Hall, Langham Place.

A theatre devoted to magic had never been attempted before, but JN was unstoppable. He refurbished the hall, added the house next door to the building, framed the stage with 300 electric bulbs and called it Maskelyne’s Theatre of Mystery. After a shaky start, he opened with a show entitled A Feast of Magic. His son Nevil performed with him, and acts included knife-throwing tricks, a skit in which JN vanished while actually being held down by members of the audience, and a charming little illusion where a beautiful girl, Cassie Bruce, leapt out of a pie and did an ‘oriental’ dance.

Wizard’s wedding
Cassie, who demonstrated total cool, began to feature in more and more performances. Said one review: “Miss Cassie Bruce mounts an apparently ordinary wooden table in the centre of the stage. A cloak is thrown over her, a pistol fired, and Miss Bruce, who instantly disappears, exclaims from the back of the hall, ‘Well, I’m here.’” After leaving university, JN’s younger son, Archie, became the hall’s manager. There, he met and married Cassie (at Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone). She was five years older than him, but by some alchemy never looked it. One newspaper reported, “Wizard’s Wedding: Mr Maskelyne to Marry Disappearing Lady.” Actually, she adored Archie and never left his side.

JN was still furious with spiritualists, who insisted they could party with the undead. He decided to play them at their own game and, as he’d done before, debunk the whole thing. One night he took to the stage, closed his eyes as if in a trance, and thickening mist, like steam from a kettle, issued from his torso. Finally, to gasps, a hand, then an arm, then a golden-haired spirit materialised from his chest. According to White Magic,

“The spirit turned her feet to the ground, spoke to the audience in a clear and intelligent way, ate a baked apple if requested to do so, then vanished before our very eyes.” Onstage JN uttered a cry and apparently woke up; meanwhile Cassie, in the wings now, shrugged on a jumper and went to have a cup of tea.

Manipulative and moral
Manipulative and moral as Albus Dumbledore, JN wasn’t a real wizard, and couldn’t go on forever. When he died, the hall was draped briefly in black, then Nevil took control. Nevil’s youngest son, Jasper, after a hilariously failed attempt at farming, became an apprentice magician, finally learning the secrets, as he explained: “The machinery of magic is extraordinarily interesting. Tricks that seem quite impossible become elementary. You can apparently make dead hands write and skulls speak, cause a lamp to fly lighted through the air, make a watch disappear from a man’s pocket and appear tied round the neck of a rabbit somewhere else entirely, catch a bullet between your teeth... but why go on?” Oh yes, why?

Stuff went wrong, of course, because it always does. As Jasper was about to take the stage one night, a frantic magician said his donkey had escaped through the back door. Assisted by two clowns in full make-up, Jasper raced into Langham Place. “We were soon joined by five policemen, and presently ran the donkey to ground in Berners Street, where he was walking sedately along, apparently wondering whether Oxford Street itself would be a bit too hectic.” The donkey, accompanied by five constables, two clowns and Jasper, reached the hall just in time to do his act immaculately and then have a lovely rest.

When Nevil himself died, Jasper took the reins—at 24, he was London’s youngest theatre manager. It’s probably fair to say he felt haunted by the urbane grandfather (“a genius”) he idolised, but was still surprised when an assistant came to him in the wings to say, “My God, Jasper—your grandfather’s standing up there in the flies.” Jasper followed him up a series of ladders until they were directly above the footlights far below. “Standing opposite us, against the back wall of the theatre, about 40 feet above the stage with his arm on the fly-rail, and apparently intently watching the actors on the boards, was the figure of a man in full evening dress—undoubtedly my grandfather. Through the forest of ropes that intervened I could see his characteristic pose and absorbed face.” He walked round the fly-rails and back, and his watching friend insisted that he walked right through the ghost. Clearly, wrote Jasper, it was an optical illusion caused by lights shining through the ropes... Still, others saw the figure each night when the house lights went on at the start of a performance; when the lights went out, it vanished.

A gallon of gold
Jasper loved this big old hall. For many years he lived there, first on his own and then with his wife and soon their two children, in a flat above the auditorium. When the hall grew threadbare, he redecorated it himself with two volunteer assistants to save money: “I bought 15 gallons of grey paint, a gallon of gold, four dozen brushes, and a very doggish-looking cap. Then I hired an electric spray, laid in several hundred cigarettes, and really got going...”

This makes it even more painful that in 1933, a family feud meant his two older brothers—a wireless engineer and an expert on lifts—took control of Maskelyne’s Theatre, despite all Jasper’s blood, sweat and tears. He went freelance in what was, he admits, “truly a tragic and terrifying” situation, and managed to make a go of things on his own. His brothers failed, of course, and sold the hall that same year to the BBC, which made all sorts of alterations to the building to accommodate its comedies and revues, displacing the previous lights and shadows. The sadness was evidently still raw when Jasper wrote his book. “I was broadcasting from St George’s Hall some months ago,” he muses, “and went up into the flies to see if the ghostly figure of JN Maskelyne still kept his quiet ward. But he had gone.”

And soon the hall had, too, bombed to bits in March 1943 during the war and demolished completely in 1966. You could say the hall missed the Maskelynes too much to put up a fight and, with outside help, just let itself vanish. But hang on. If you actually look, maybe pick up a corner of pavement in Langham Place, a little sparkle of magic dust might just appear.

HistoryMark Riddaway