The History of the British Magical Society
A detailed history of one of the worlds oldest and most prestigous Magic Societies.
In 1905 Mr. F.E. Walker invited a few magically-minded friends to his home in Birmingham and The British Magical Society was born. The Society is generally considered to be the oldest of its kind in the world. For fifty years ‘Freddie’ Walker held the position of Secretary, steering the Society through two world wars.
From the very beginning the Society was associated with famous magical names: David Devant was the first President and held the office for three years. His equally famous partner, John Nevil Maskelyne, designed the Society Emblem and gave considerable help in forming the Rules.
Ernest Noakes, the second President, became a prominent member of The Magic Circle which was formed six months after the inauguration of The British Magical Society and there has been a strong bond of friendship between the two Societies over the years, with many members common to both.
Over the years, prominent members have included Gus Fowler the ‘Watch King’, Clive Maskelyne, Burtini, Milton Woodward of ‘Wonder Bar’ fame and many other well-known performers. An illustrious list of Honorary Vice-Presidents, past and present, includes Carl Hertz, remembered for his Vanishing Cage and Canary, the internationally-known Servais Le Roy, along with stars of television: David Nixon, Robert Harbin, Paul Daniels, Ken Dodd, Wayne Dobson and Past President of The Magic Circle David Berglas. Plus TV guru John Fisher, Geoffrey Buckingham, Leslie Levante, Peter Warlock, John Ramsay, Roy Johnson, Derek Lever. Indicative of the close ties that exist between professional and semi-professional performers.
JOHN NEVIL MASKELYNE
1839 – 1917
For the first eighty-five years the Society (along with most magic clubs) only admitted male members. In 1990 the rules were changed to open its doors to lady magicians. Since then there have been a number of active lady members and two female Presidents.
The programme of meetings consists of talks and demonstrations by performers who are experts in their specialised subjects. Plus shows, competitions, quiz nights and practical work-shop evenings. A number of temporary headquarters were used in the beginning, but for over 50 years a permanent home was found at the Imperial Hotel, Temple Street, in the centre of Birmingham. The Society then moved to The Friends Meeting House (The Quaker Society) in Bull Street, and eventually to the Birmingham and Midland Institute where it remained for many years.
This is where the magnificent Library of nearly 2000 books, DVDs and videos on Magic and Allied Arts was housed, many of which are still available on loan to members. The BMS publishes a bi-monthly Newsletter that reports on shows, lecturers, upcoming events and other subjects of interest and is distributed to all members by post or e-mail.
Whilst mentioning the printed word, one cannot omit the stupendous efforts by the late Goodliffe, three times President (1951-52, 1968-69, 1979-80), who created the world’s only international weekly magic magazine ‘Abracadabra’. It was edited for 20 years by Fabian (E. Ray Griffiths) who was President in 1947/48, then by Donald Bevan, President 1999/2000, for 41 years until retirement in December 2006. The magazine ceased publication in March 2009.
John Nevil Maskelyne
1839 - 1917
1873 - 1956
Over the years the Society has given many public shows and raised money for charities. Four beds were endowed in the Woodlands Hospital, Birmingham and the BMS plaques are still over the beds to this day. At the time the cost of each bed was the equivalent of buying a medium sized house.
On the occasion of the Society’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees, four-day Conventions were held in Birmingham and these attracted hundreds of magicians from all over the British Isles, plus artistes who travelled from Europe and America to appear on the many shows that were part of the celebrations. For the Centenary in 2005 a one-day convention with a public Gala Show was mounted.
Members are active on the wider magic scene; on four occasions members have won the International Brotherhood of Magicians’ British Ring Shield which is recognised as one of the premier competition awards in the country, as well as many other awards for manipulative magic and originality.
Past Presidents Donald Crombie, Ted Whebell, Tony Shelley, Mike Gancia, and Neil Roberts, also members Geoffrey Robinson and Milton Woodward, have been honoured by being elected President of the British Ring of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. In 1989/90 the Society was privileged when Tony Shelley was granted the ultimate honour of being made International President of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
Edward Maurice, author of the book Showmanship and Presentation, presented a trophy to the Society, as did Charles Duval’s widow, in memory of her husband who was an extremely clever sleight-of-hand performer. Both these trophies are competed for annually but are only awarded if the performance reaches the standard of excellence required. A further Trophy for Close-up Magic competed for annually was presented to the Society by Ray Bradbury in 1978.
These awards are presented at the Annual Dinner, always a highlight of the year. For many years it was held at Penns Hall Hotel, Sutton Coldfield, but in recent years has been held at Tally Ho Banqueting Centre, Edgbaston, Birmingham where members and guests enjoy a meal, speeches, presentations and top-line cabaret.
BMS members are known everywhere and many professionals have graduated from its ranks to appear on television and in top stage and cabaret shows throughout the country, whilst many members perform regularly at private parties, weddings, dinners and corporate events.
Other popular activities are ‘At Homes’, fund-raising for organisations where groups of people are entertained by members to a full evening of magical entertainment, with close-up magic at tables and finishing with a cabaret.
The BMS may be the oldest Magical Society in the country, but it is still very much at the forefront. Enthusiastic members are constructively moulding its shape in the present to ensure that The British Magical Society has a great future.
Written by Neil Roberts 2014, amended 2018