For 100 years, magicians’ assistants have been feeling a little “saw”!
Sunday 17th January 2021 was the centenary of possibly the most famous magical illusion of all – Sawing a Lady in Half.
First performed in public in 1921 – just 12 years after the founding of The Order of The Magi, by P.T. Selbit at Finsbury Park Empire theatre in London, the illusion has since been adapted countless times.
Some magical historians have suggested that the illusion is much older than PT Selbit’s performance, citing the famous French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin’s Memoirs, written in 1858, where he described a sawing illusion performed by a magician named Torrini. However this description of the illusion is sometimes considered to be a piece of fictional writing.
(or the link between a group of Manchester magicians & The Sex Pistols!)
Recently, one of our members was lucky enough to be able to obtain a programme from a 1952 production by members of The Order of The Magi, entitled “Hackin’ The Hempen” (subtitled ” A Magical Fantasy”). We are still looking into the origins of such a bizarre show title, and whilst various theories have been suggested, we are keeping an open mind at this time.
The show took place at The Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester on Saturday 18th October 1952, just 1 year after the venue reopened after being damaged in 1940 during the Manchester Blitz.
The Free Trade Hall
Located on Peter Street, The Free Trade Hall is an important part of Manchester’s history. Built in 1853 – 1856, on the site of the Peterloo Massacre (1819), the venue would play host to many famous names over the years – Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, and Winston Churchill, and would be the permanent residence to The Hallé Orchestra.
The Lesser Free Trade Hall
The Lesser Free Trade Hall was a smaller venue, upstairs within the same building, which was to later host the Sex Pistols famous concert in 1976, that inspired many bands including the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Happy Mondays and Oasis; as well as being partly responsible for Manchester’s iconic music scene, including The Hacienda, Madchester, Factory Records, and the indie scene:
The Programme and The Show…
As can been seen from the scan below, The programme, costing 3d was decorated with a lovely line drawing of a bearded wizard, dressed in mystical looking robes, surrounded by a cauldron, skull, spell books and other magical items. This drawing was in fact part of the letterhead used in the 1940’s to decorated the society’s “Magi Magazine”.
The Front Inside Cover
Centre Pages – The Show
The centre pages detail the order of the evening’s show, and the performers. It appears that the show’s premise was a “History of Magic & Entertainment” starting with Zoroaster, moving through the Magic of Egypt (The Temple of Osiris), Alchemy, Punch & Judy performed by The Order of The Magi’s President Fred A. Taylor – “The Swazzle Man”, and 19th Century Music Hall. The first half of the show was closed by no other than Magical Legend Ken Brooke.
It is interesting to see that the show’s interval lasted only 5 minutes. Today, even in the smallest of venues, it is impossible to imagine that an interval would last any less than 15 minutes. Was the director being optimistic, or are modern day audiences more demanding of a longer break?
The second half of the “Magical Fantasy” is dedicated to up to date, and futuristic Cabaret. We can only assume that Tommy Hill “The Ballunatic” was a balloon modeller, and that Jack Shepherd & Syd Walton performed in drag as “The Widdingtons” – “Two minds with not a single thought!”; no doubt a parody of the famous contemporary Australian Telepathy duo “The Piddingtons”.
The penultimate part of the evening was Frank Cleaver’s “Flying Saucer” subtitled “Magic of the Future”. It would certainly be interesting to see if he had indeed predicted the future of magic!
After over 2 hours of magical entertainment, the show was to close with a Finale of the entire company, followed by “The Queen” – The National Anthem – a tradition that has died in most theatrical productions in the past 60 years.
This is the only online record of The Order Of The Magi’s production “Hackin’ The Hempen” from 1952. So it seems fitting that we include a full list of all the cast, the majority of whom would have been members of the only Magic Society in Manchester. Perhaps it will help anyone in the future researching any of the magicians, either for personal or professional reasons:
Frank G. Brown – Zoroaster
Reginald Boncey – The Inebriate
Stella Sweet – The Dancer
Len Ainsworth – The High Priest of Os-Ra
Syd Taylor – An Acolyte
Harold Swindells – The Alchemist
Fred A. Taylor – The Swazzle Man (President of The Order of The Magi at the time)
Douglas Ettenfield – The Man
Joyce – The Maid
Edgar Horner – Chairman
Dennis Birch, Stephen Birch and Pat Birch – The Birch Brothers – The Singing Waiters
Leslie Greenhalgh – The Man With The Hat
Arthur Horner – The Pianist
Ken Brooke – The Professor
Tommy Hill – The Balunatic
Jack Shepherd – Vera Widdington
Syd Walton – Gladys Widdington
Oscar Paulson – Tricks & Chatter
Frank G. Clever – Magic of The Future (The Flying Saucer)
Of course, a programme for a such a magical performance wouldn’t be complete without credit to those behind the scenes who helped to put it all together.
Production – Will Hughes
Properties – Mal Davies
Electrician – H. Macartney
Stage Managers – George Wade & Norman Crook
Effects and Music – Geoff Lawrence
Show Devised & Arranged by Will Hughes, Syd Taylor and Harold Swindells
The Order of The Magi desires to express its appreciation of the invaluable help rendered by the following –
Miss Stella Sweet
Mr. Frank G. Brown
The Birch Brothers – (Dennis, Stephen and Pat)
The Staff of The Free Trade Hall
Mameloks of Oxford Road for the loan of musical items
O. Z. Seferian for ticket work
The Inside Back Cover
The last page of the programme gives us a clue as to the length of the performance, declaring “Carriages at 9.45pm approx”.
Reading and researching this programme has been an opportunity to learn a little more about The Free Trade Hall in Manchester, The Order of The Magi, it’s members, and activities nearly 70 years ago. Without currently having any more information about each act, it is an opportunity to imagine what magic tricks were performed that night in Manchester City Centre, and if a similar show was to be performed today with the same programme, how each act might differ. There will be more information on the show in at least one issue of The Order of The Magi’s society magazine “The Magi” from 1952, and hopefully soon we will be able to provide you with more details.
There is no doubt however, that any of the performers on Tuesday 18th October, 1952 could imagine that the stage they were performing on would be host to one of the world’s greatest punk bands just 24 years later.
Can You Help with our Research?
It would be great to hear from anyone related to any of the magicians, or other performers, who took part in “Hackin’ The Hempen”. We would love to see photos of the performers (especially any promotional material etc). Perhaps you have an 1952 issue of The Magi Magazine that details the planning of the show, or features a report of each act’s performance?
If you can help us in our research in any way, please get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org
Unsurprisingly, after 110 years, our archives hold many interesting items, many of which have a great historical value to magicians, that may have been long forgotten, if it wasn’t for the foresight of the committee to save them.
Several documents within the collection refer to the forming of an affiliation between various Magic Societies in the U.K. (and around the world) with one of the most famous magic clubs – The Magic Circle.
The affiliation was active between 1921 and 1944, before becoming The National Association of Magical Societies (N.A.M.S).
Five years after the formation of N.A.M.S. The Order of The Magi hosted a weekend-long event in Manchester, for representatives of other Magic Societies consisting of Dinner, Committee Meeting, Shows etc.
In 1949, the National Association of Magical Societies included the following clubs as members:
In “A Message from the Chairman of the Committee of Management” at the back of the N.A.M.S. Souvenir Programme, Robert Edmanson wrote:
On 7th June, 1952, Magic Magazine “Abra” reported that The National Association of Magical Societies was to be liquidated, with the remaining funds to be distributed amongst the thirty six member societies.
Further Images from the Souvenir Programme of March 12 – 13th 1949:
The Order of The Magi is one of the oldest magical societies in the U.K. and has an extensive archive of historical documents dating back to the establishment of the society in 1909.
Here is a article published in “Wizard Magazine” about inaugural meeting of The Order of The Magi just 1 month after it’s founding:
A Manchester Magical Society
A month ago Mr. G.W. Panter, M.A. (Member of Inner Magic Circle) conceived the idea of forming a Magical Society for Manchester and district.
With this end in view, he arranged with Mr. Waite, magic dealer, of Peter Street, Manchester, to display a notice asking all those willing to join to give in their names.
As a result of this, on the 11th inst. a most enthusiastic meeting was held at the “Cities Hotel,” Deansgate, Manchester, at which about 30 conjurers attended.
It was decided to form a Magical Society, and Mr. G.W. Panter, M.A. was unanimously elected President, Mr. Waite, Hon. Treasurer and Librarian, and Mr. T.H. Halsall, Junr., Hon Sec. (pro tem.).
Mr. Panter spoke about the objects of a magical society, and referred to the success of the British Magical Society, and the Magic Circle; he also read a very interesting letter which he had received from Mr. Fred Walker (Hon. Sec. of the B.M.S.), wishing the new society every success.
Mr. T.H Halsall, Junr, (Hon. Sec.) also read several letters from conjurers anxious to join., but, owing to engagements, unable to attend the meeting.
Speeches were given by Mr. Fredrick W. Collins, Mr. L.M. Varney, Mr. Waite, Mr. Thomas French, Mr. Wildman, Mr. Ritherdon, Mr. J.W. Riley, and others, who all spoke as to the advisability of working together.
Business being suspended, Mr. A. Buckle obliged with a few card tricks, introducing a very pleasing and novel effect by fanning a quantity of cards and making them grow smaller, and finally disappear, bringing them back again to their original position, electing a round of applause for this clever sleight.
Mr J.W. Riley then being called upon gave a monologue, entitled “Oh Memory” in which the speech and mannerisms of an old man were portrayed to the letter.
Mr. Sugden then gave a recital from “The Merchant of Venice,” the rendering of which proved him to be a talented artist.
Mr. E. Wilburt gave the passing of 12 cards from hand to pocket, which as an example of Digital Dexterity left nothing to be desired.
Mr. T.H. Halsall Junr., then presented the passing of coins from left hand to tumbler held in right hand; he proved himself to be a master of coins, and Mr. Whitehead showed no mean ability with cards in the Four Ace Trick.
A few of those present gave their experiences with children in the course of entertaining, which were very amusing.
A meeting of the Council was arranged for the 13th inst., at which Mr Halsall, on account of business, wished to resign the secretaryship, and Mr. J.W. Riley, being asked to take the position (subject to the sanction of the members) decided to accept.
Anyone interested in magic residing in Manchester district, and wishing to join the society, are kindly requested to send in their names to the Hon. Sec., J.W. Riley, De Mcglio, Eccles, Manchester