This article was published in the Observer newspaper on 24th August 2014 - it was originally published by the same paper on 24th August 1986 and is about the vote of the Magic Circle, the International Brotherhood of Magicians, in that year on whether to allow female magicians to become members of the organisation.
I hadn't realised that the Magic Circle had been determinedly all-male for quite so long. The article quotes Chris Pratt, the then honorary secretary offering an explanation as to his reluctance towards equality: "A vote in favour of women will destroy the gentlemanly nature of the Circle... and wreak havoc with the lavatory arrangements."
Unfortunately, as with restrictions on women's membership to other professional networks of performers, their ineligibility to join the Magic Circle meant that female magicians didn't have access to the shared resources and support of fellow magicians and couldn't associate themselves with an organisation that signified a level of professionalism and skill - something which surely would have affected their ability to be taken seriously as magicians, learn new skills and get high profile and well-paid work.
I wonder if Mr Pratt and the other voters knew that one of the founders of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in 1905 was a suffragist. Three magicians performed at the WSPU Christmas Fair and Fete in 1911, including a Herbert J Collings who performed his Drawing Room Seance in the bandstand at the event. Collings, born in 1883, was one of the founder members of the Magic Circle and was the President twice.
The WSPU Christmas Fair and Fete ran from 4th - 9th December 1911 at the Portman Rooms in London. It was quite a spectacle, with stalls and sellers dressed in eighteenth century costumes, an enormous Christmas tree donated by German suffragists, a theatre space, tea room, a lucky dip for children and a Beadle who processed through the space announcing the entertainments. Mrs. Monsell-Moullin reported in the WSPU's paper Votes for Women on December 22nd 1911 that she "overhead a whisper from a lady entering the room, 'Are these all Suffragettes? I did not know they were like this.”’
A particularly special aspect of the 1911 Christmas Fair was the part played by the Men’s Political Union for
Women’s Enfranchisement , a group of militant men who shared the purple, white and green colours of the WSPU.
The MPU ran the All the Fun of the Fair section of the event which included a Roundabout, Hoopla and a Shooting Gallery as well as specially designed Suffrage Shies. Five paintings were hung on a screen, with a hole at the centre of each painting and if the visitor could throw a ball directly through the hole, a mechanism was released that replaced the image with another.
The pictures depicted two sets of ideas: “Life as it is to-day, and Life as it should be and will be when women are able to improve their own conditions in their own way and on their own more expert knowledge.” Therefore, for just two balls a penny, or 7 for 3d, visitors with good aim and honest intentions could turn Injustice to Justice, Jealousy to Comradeship, Prejudice to Commonsense, Bondage to Freedom and Ignorance to Wisdom!
Perhaps Herbert Collings was a member of the MPU as well as the Magic Circle. All the performers involved in the Fair volunteered their time, so he would have to have been keen to contribute to the work of the WSPU and MPU for political rather than financial gain. He, and the other two conjurors at the Fair performed twice a day, at 4.30pm and 7pm, and were part of a group of entertainments at the bandstand that included suffrage Punch and Judy - written by the Actresses' Franchise League's Inez Bensusan - and several groups of women musicians, including the all female Aeolian Orchestra. I was curious to find out more about Collings and his public support for Votes for Women and thought perhaps he had a wife who was a suffragist... but in the 1911 Census he is listed as single and living with his parents in Wandsworth.
A glimpse into Collings' act can be obtained through an endorsement of his Drawing Room Seance given by The Revd. Dr. Rendall, Head Master of Charterhouse School in Godalming.
" In March, 1911, Mr. H. J. Collings gave his Entertainment, at Charterhouse, in the large hall, to the entire school, over 500 in number. I have never seen a conjuror more effective in holding interest and furnishing amusement. The illusions were direct, telling and inexplicable ; the sleight of hand and manipulation flawless ; everything well judged for effect on a big audience, and the running comment extremely well sustained and witty from start to finish, without any touch of vulgarity''
[from Paton's List of Schools and Tutors, 14th Annual Edition 1911-12]
Collings is remembered today for his founding of the Magic Circle and for performing as a Chinese-themed act called Col Ling Soo - a popular style of act in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period. If you clickhere you can see a picture of the main room of the Magic Circle Museum - the figure in the right hand corner of the room is wearing the original robes of the most famous act of that genre - Chung Ling Soo (really an American magician named William Robinson). Unlike Collings, who performed as himself and as Col Ling Soo, Robinson maintained the illusion that Chung Ling Soo was authentically Chinese, only ever appearing in public in his costume, and using an interpreter to speak to reporters and interviewers.
The only English words "Chung Ling Soo" uttered onstage were apparently "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain" after his famous bullet-catch trick went wrong during a performance at the Wood Green Empire on 23rd March 1918. Robinson died of his injuries a day later, aged 56.
It seems, fortunately, that Herbert Collings never attempted such a dangerous trick - and if he did, definitely survived it! Here's a British Pathe film, made in 1956, where you can watch him showing off the costumes for his Col Ling Soo act.
Collings died in1958, two years after the filming of that piece - and as it happens the programme for his Magic Circle Golden Jubilee and the Order of Service for his Memorial are up for auction next week!
Click the picture below to be taken to the auction site.
I began to perform with magicians about ten years ago, because of a late night conversation in a pub and a sense of adventure! For a few years I was part of a double act with magician Richard Leigh and worked with him and many other magicians on a number of shows. It was great fun to be involved in illusions and stage magic - yes, I disappeared and then reappeared in boxes! - and a treat to have been part of that world.
My comedy character, Ada Campe, developed out of that work and I'm lucky to have friends and colleagues with magical brains who can give me advice and information.
I've also been fortunate to go the Magic Circle, near Euston, to see a show in their theatre and have a look around the museum and library. The show was a night of female magicians, including Fay Presto, and featured some brilliantly presented acts, including Katharine Rhodes who Ada Campe's been on the bill with a couple of times at Scary Little Girls' Mother Mae I cabaret nights.
Re that Observer article: Fay Presto's campaign for the formal admittance of women members to the Magic Circle in 1986 was unsuccessful. Women were not admitted as members
until 5 years later, in 1991.
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research