I want to share a history of magic and magicians in Preston, my home town, and touch on Blackpool. Blackpool may well feature in a separate article in the future.
Preston’s nearby Ribble Valley was the backdrop to the “Pendle witch trials”, also known as “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster” in 1612. Whose name reminds me very much of Reginald Scot’s “Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot” published in 1584. This is an interesting reminder that the practice of witchcraft and magic (as modern magicians know it) were written about and seen in a very similar way. Reginald Scot’s book was published 28 years before the “Pendle witch trials”, Reginald Scot was a sceptic and wanted to debunk and dissuade the reader from believing in the supernatural. However, 28 years later 11 people were trialed for practicing witchcraft and all but 1 were hanged for the crime.
Preston in bygone times was called Priest Town and the lamb signifies the Prince of Peace or ‘lamb of god’. The ‘PP’ on the Preston emblem is latin for Prince of Peace – ‘Princeps Pacis’ but latterly locals often refer to it as ‘Proud Preston’.
I’ve lived in Preston all my life, it became a City in the millennium year, but still retains a town size feel and culture. It’s become a very nice city with beautiful parks and a nice town Centre. It has a rich history, once an important part of the cotton spinning industry, Sir Richard Arkwright a leader during the Industrial revolution was himself a Prestonian. In 1842 the riot act was read in Preston after an uprising by mill workers against poor conditions and pay, workers were sadly killed for not dispersing when ordered to.
It boasts the beautiful archeological building the Harris museum built in a Neo-Classical style and many treasures such as the covered markets, St. John’s Minster and St. Walburges (the highest parish church spire in the country). The fantastic Avenham and Miller parks. Then very near the spot of the rioting there was an important moment in Mormon religion history when a group of missionaries ‘faced satanic attack’ and had visions.
We are also proud to have some world famous magicians!
The first is not world famous but in my mind and to many others in Preston is a magic icon, Brian Berry. The first magician I ever saw at 7 or 8 years old was Brian Berry, it was at my birthday party and from that moment on I caught the magic bug. Brian was a school teacher by profession and has a gentle warm captivating style. He seemed old to me at 8 years old but years later (around 30) he performed for my nephew at a local fete, he still has the same appearance and manner. At each annual Blackpool Magic convention he has a stand, I have spoken to him on occasions and told him it was him that got me into magic. A very nice gentleman and a captivating magician for children.
Brian Berry (from the small amount of research i’ve done) was friends with Peter Diamond, our first world famous magician. Peter Diamond lived in the Brockholes area of Preston and was famous the world over. Publisher of the ‘Magic News magazine’ and performer and creator of illusions. The below is is obituary in the local paper when he passed away.
Transcribed from article – “Globe trotting magician, illusionist and trick creator Peter Lawrence Diamond has died in Preston at the age of 83. Peter who lived a Brockholes View , was found dead at home after police broke in following reports he had not been seen for a few days. He had been an acclaimed figure in the world of magic, not only performing but also creating illusions for other top magic makers. He had his own studio and travelled to Las Vegas with is acclaimed act. His former magician’s assistant Karen Mortensen-Fowler, the first Miss Preston guild in 1972, paid tribute to his long career, saying he had been her mentor and they had remained friends. Karen, now 63 , had continued to help Peter prepare his annual accounts and said: ” He worked up until very recently and was still running his magic mail order business.” (Credit: Lancashire Evening Post)
The following was also shared by Quentin Reynolds about Peter Diamond on the Genii magic forum:
“Peter Diamond was quite a character and loved theatre and showbiz. He must have seen every summer show that appeared in Blackpool during his adult life. He was also good friends with John Inman (Mr. Humphries from Are You Being Served) and as a young man John used put on shows in Peter’s garage. In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s Peter always had a couple of showgirls at his stand. He knew most of the greats who performed or toured in England and made props for many of them. He made almost a whole new show for Mandrake before Mandrake moved to Australia – without paying Peter. Mandrake was running off with Max Andrews’ wife and got himself killed in Australia. Peter supplied Ken Brooke with his Multiplying Bottles.“
Quentin has also shared with me another story about Peter:
“Peter once told me he went to a machine shop to have some Asrah forms made. When he was trying to explain it all to the mechanic, the mechanic grasped what he was saying before Peter fully said it? Peter asked how did he know all this. The mechanic said, “I repaired one for Dante.”
Peter had a long career and i’m told had many showbiz stories that Quentin urged him to write down but it seems they are lost to the mists of time. From what I understand Peter’s front room acted as a shop for visiting magicians.
As part of this research I discovered that John Inman, a friend of Peter Diamond’s (famous as Mr. Humpheries in the BBC T.V. comedy “Are you being served?”) was from Preston! Living at 18 Garden Street near the nice Preston town centre area of Winckley Square. There’s no plaque on the building and it’s an odd corner house that backs on to a large shopping centre, it’s situated very near Preston train station.
Not a magician but a very notable Prestonian is the poet Francis Thompson (again born near Winckley Square on Winckley Street). Known for ‘ethereal’ poems and being a ‘Catholic Mystic’. Being a Catholic mystic from what I understand is he had visions and the like. His attempted suicide attempt was stopped due to a vision of that of a youthful poet, Thomas Chatterton, who had committed suicide almost a century earlier. These visions will have more than likely have been down to an Opium addiction.
Not living too far down the road from Garden Street on Frenchwood Avenue lived Eddie Gibson, famous the world over for producing coin gimmicks of the highest quality. An engineer by trade, his attention to detail was second to none.
Quentin Reynolds also turned my attention to another Prestonian, Professor James Dodding of nearby Garstang who died in 2018. A multi-talented man who’s main profession was an acting coach/tutor, his students, included Gary Oldman and David Bowie. He also liked to perform magic and is someone Preston is proud of. More about the illustrious career, of the multi-talented Professor James Dodding can be found here.
Then we have perhaps the most famous magician from Preston, Johnny Hart, living very close by at Robinson Street. My wife’s Dad went to school with Johnny Hart attending St. Joseph’s Boys Roman Catholic School, he was in the same year as him. My wife’s Dad saw him perform tricks and was well aware of his glittering career. Johnny Hart’s time at school is captured very well in this article. His achievements are well publicized and my wife’s Dad was pleased when I recognized his name. The career is a stunning one, from Las Vegas, to the Ed Sullivan show and then the London Palladium, he did it all. The best article on Johnny Hart’s career can be found here. It’s hard to explain how much an achievement it is for a young man from Preston, a working class town (Americans – think blue collar Detroit), to defy all the odds and become an internationally recognized star. This is undoubtedly down to his talent, which is captured very well in the video shared by Duncan Trillio on MagicWeek.
Rae Hammond author of “The Magic of Edward Victor’s hands” and the Wilane’s “Method for Miracles” had a close association with Preston . Rae’s father Fred taught at Hutton Grammar School (Preston) and Rae was a student, Fred came over from Dublin (Ireland) to be a teacher at the school. I was also a pupil at Hutton Grammar School, which has a very rich history and alumni, with perhaps Stephen Borthwick, ex-England Rugby captain being the best known. Fred and son Rae were both magicians and I’m told by a relative of Rae’s (a friend) that Edward Victor was friends with Fred and may have performed at the school when Rae was there. I’m working with the Hutton Grammar School Historical society on this, I like to think seeing Edward Victor perform is what sparked his interest in Edward Victor. From what I understand Rae’s props and writings now reside with the Magic Circle (London).
Brian Sefton (very much still with us!) is another notable Prestonain magician living near the border to Blackpool, who has had a lifelong career in magic. A member of the Blackpool Magic Circle and a friendly convention organizer for the worlds biggest magic, i’ll leave it to Shaun McCree (well known for his manipulation act, whom also has a close association to Preston) to talk about the influence Brian had over his magic….
“There are some performers you see at a key point in your life who shape what you become as a performer yourself – for me, Brian Sefton was one of those performers. As a young magician just entering my teens I first saw Brian perform his superb manipulative act in a magic show in Brighouse and that set me on a path to become a manipulator myself, which became the focus of my acts for years to come. Brian’s sheer class and attention to the tiniest detail was a revelation, let alone his fantastic skill, as people who have seen him lecture will attest, performing the act and then resetting and explaining every move with the hows and whys of each. Brian was kind enough, and perhaps more important, patient enough to help me learn some of those skills and help me create my own acts, lending me his old tailcoat so I could have my own made (with the necessary modifications, naturally), albeit mine was powder blue rather than his more traditional black one! If you ever watched him do his particular floating ball routine, it too was a masterclass in how it should be done. I will say though that despite my best efforts, as time rolled on I never quite managed to get my acts as portable as that first one I saw Brian perform, his stage act fit in a case little larger than my close-up case, mine sort of sprawled into larger and larger cases, eventually holding a marble archway and a lifesize portrait painting! I consider Brian to be one of only a couple of magicians I think of as mentors and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his wisdom and willingness to help a precocious young magician find his way in our strange art.” (Shaun McCree)
Now crossing over into Blackpool itself, there is Mark Raffles, famous for his linking rings routine and countless others… but I think Johnny Hart is one of the finest from the region. Nowadays we have some rising stars of the magic world from the Preston and Blackpool area, Mark James, an adopted Prestonian, (hey friend!) and countless others have benefitted from their custom or indeed work at the magic shop owned by the Mark Mason. Mark Mason is well known the world over as one of the the best magic dealers out there, he had an influence over many magicians that visited his magic shop. After spending many hours (and very likely £’s!) at the shop after getting to know Mark he would spend time showing you some amazing magic and freely give tips on moves and everything in between. From my discussions with Mark I recall that Joe Riding had an influence on his well known ‘Think of a Card’ handling, something I still use to this day, Mark told me that it paid the mortgage! It is a great routine, i’d recommend looking up Mark’s think of a card handling it’s on his Real World Magic DVDs.
Joe Riding was another Prestonian, in his younger days he was a prize fighting boxer from the Ribbleton area of Preston. He achieved very high notoriety for his ‘commercial’ approach to constructing tricks’ He ran a magic shop in Preston from a room within an electrical shop on Church Street Preston and was a very accomplished magician. Perhaps most known for his success in the effect ‘Think of a card’ and ‘FRED’, ‘FRED’ being an excellent bar trick. ‘FRED the card trick’ was a Dave Campbell creation in 1971 based on a trick called “Christened Reverse” by Fred Lowe. From what I understand from another Prestonian he also did cold reading/palm reading and pseudo-clairvoyance. More about Joe Riding can be found on this Magicweek article.
Another influential magic dealer from Blackpool was Bill Thompson at the ‘House of iIlusion’ in Blackpool. This is where Mark Mason and Joe Riding first met. His finest friend has to be Paul Zenon, Paul has an excellent show about his experience of getting to know Bill and the shop and also his association to Houdini, I won’t ruin it, but it is very heartfelt, funny, warm, clever, one man show called Linking rings. < available for DVD or direct download.
Paul Zenon (incidentally a star in the Preston Panto (2017) as Abanazar in Aladdin) also brought to my attention a dark day in Preston’s magic history, where the man widely believed to have killed Houdini with a sucker punch was born in Preston a – J. Gordon Whitehead – this is written about in this book The Man Who Killed Houdini . Paul has a close association to Houdini, and it’s well worth watching his ‘linking rings’ show to hear how this came about and how Bill Thompson influenced his career, a truly captivating story. Here’s an article to wet your appetite.
There used to be two magic clubs in Preston, from what I understand there was the Preston Magic Guild and the Preston Magic Circle, whom did a show in the Charter Theatre for Preston Guild celebrations. Shaun McCree recalls doing the beginnings of walkaround magic on the walkway there and doing the manipulation act on the show, and it would have been around 1980 ish. There are no longer any Preston Magic Clubs, I think this may be due to the fact that the popular Manchester and Blackpool magic circles are in close proximity. You may notice the the word Guild is mentioned twice in this paragraph, the Preston Guild is a very prestigious occasion for Preston, it happens every 20 years and for this reason you may hear the phrase ‘…it only happens once every Preston Guild’ – meaning a long time to have to wait. This article captures the atmosphere of the last Preston Guild in 2012.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote about the Preston Lune street riots (1842) for the 2012 Preston Guild celebrations. The poem is told from the perspective of a rioter that sadly lost his life in the hope of better working conditions.
Prince of Peace
There’s rumour at’ Mill of disquiet and unrest, the word is there’s a man out there that’ll put ‘em to the test.
If th’owners get their ways and cut my pitiful wage, I’ll be nowt but a broken, penniless cotton master’s slave.
It’s not right! It’s not fair! It’s not just! I’m a working man, just let me earn an honest crust!
So, an uprising of men, a union of power. We’ll turn out and march on them, surely our finest hour.
The swelling crowd, the thirst for change, we’ll make ourselves heard by the Corn Exchange.
A lone voice takes to the stand and cries!
“Richard Arkwright our fellow Prestonian led the industrial revolution; now it’s our turn proud people; let’s fight exploitation!”
The Riot Act read, a warning shot fired.
“The Queen commandeth that rioters disperse!”
God commandeth love thy neighbour, which comes first?
Shot standing shoulder to shoulder with my valiant friends, my life now taken, drifting away, but defiant to the end.
As I take one last look at our lost campaign I pray peace may prosper, and my life not taken in vain.
Dear reader, let us respectfully remember the four men tragically killed defending workers’ rights before the 1842 Preston Guild.