By Stewart Williams, Founder Member and Past President.
The Leamington and Warwick Magic Society was founded in 1948; there were four founder members: Teddy Godfrey, a retired milkman (Our first President); Rex King, a schoolmaster; Colin Shaw, a commercial traveller; and Stewart Williams, an engineering draughtsman. Stewart Williams, now in his 91st year, is the only remaining founder member and still regularly practises his art.
All four were originally members of the Coventry Magic Circle (known then as the Midland Magic Society) but in those early days, transport was a major problem and it was at Teddy Godfrey’s suggestion that we formed our own local Magic Society.
Thus, in the summer of 1948 the Leamington and Warwick Magic Society was established with the first meetings taking place at the White Horse Hotel, Clarendon Avenue, Leamington Spa, where the landlord allowed us the use of the Smoke Room for our business and where, business concluded, we would regale the customers with close-up magic.
In the Autumn of that year we decided the time was ripe for extending our membership and activities and we placed an advertisement in Leamington’s own newspaper – The Morning News – inviting practising magicians to join us.
The response far exceeded our expectations, for as well as attracting applicants from Leamington and neighbouring Warwick, we were approached by magicians from Kenilworth, Coventry and Stratford-upon-Avon – so many in fact that the landlord of the White Horse immediately made the upstairs function room available to us for our regular meetings.
Enthusiasm was boundless and very soon we were performing as a Magic Society at many local venues in an attempt to broaden our horizons. Our performances were enthusiastically received and at the end of the first year we celebrated our achievement with a dinner – looking back, a very modest affair – at the Blue Cafe in Bath Street, but so successful that we repeated the event annually.
One of the most important events that proved to be a significant turning point in the Society’s fortunes was the recruitment into our ranks of J. Milton Woodward.
Milton Woodward, a Leamingtonian, was a top professional magician who with his assistant, Millicent Cooper, toured all the principal theatres in the country with his breathtaking “Garden of Flowers” and “Woodward’s Wonderbar” presentations. He was soon to become our president and to make major changes to further the Society’s image – one of his first objectives being the identification of the Society with an official badge.
This matter was quickly brought to the attention of the Council and Stewart Williams, a draughtsman by profession, was requested to undertake the design of a suitable badge.
Three designs were produced, but the one that found most favour with Council and members alike, was the Society badge proudly worn by our members today.
However, it was not always in its present form – the original badge being in the form of an equilateral triangle bearing the title Leamington and Warwick Magic Society on the sides of the triangle. Each side of the triangle had a special significance and represented knowledge, endeavour and skill.
Some years later however, a decision was made at Council level, to change the form of the badge to a circular shape and rename the Society Leamington and Warwick Magic Circle and it remained this way for some years until objections were raised at the number of magic organisations throughout the country who were using the words “Magic Circle” – something to which the Magic Circle at London felt they had an exclusive right.
Though several magic circles declined to make the change, an extraordinary general meeting of the society was convened and by a large majority the decision was taken to accede to their request and revert to the title Leamington and Warwick Magic Society though still on a circular badge.
The inner emblem of the modern magic wand with the serpent remained unchanged throughout, signifying the combination of the ancient magic arts and practices with modern magic methods and techniques and a description of the significance of the design and carefully chosen colours to complement it was to be later written into our initiation ceremony by the late E. Ray Griffiths, Associate Editor of Abracadabra.
A major step forward for the society came early in 1956 when Milton Woodward negotiated and organised the transfer to Leamington’s prestigious Regent Hotel situated centrally in the town on The Parade which remained the headquarters of the Society for over 40 years. Now have a very pleasant venue at Cubbington, near Leamington Spa, to make the most of our talents.
Milton Woodward organised many magical soirées at The Regent with members and guest artistes playing to packed audiences. He never forgot the children either and his Annual Christmas Party for less privileged children that was such a glittering affair and ran for so many years with so much success will be long-remembered.
But what was to put the society firmly on the magical map was the annual Banquet which was the highlight of the year and became a most elaborate and grand occasion with a succession of the mayors and mayoresses of Royal Leamington Spa sitting top-table as our guests of honour together with famous personalities from The Magic Circle, The International Brotherhood of Magicians, The British Magical Society as well as stars of television and members of other neighbouring magic societies.
Indeed, such was the splendour of the affair that the late Goodliffe of Abracadabra fame – so often a guest after-dinner speaker at the Annual Banquet – once wrote … “how such a small Society can stage such a magnificent Annual Banquet and then go on to repeat its success year after year is quite beyond comprehension”.
The Society celebrated its coming-of-age with a 21st Birthday Gala Show at the Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa in the Autumn of 1969. This truly was a masterpiece of planning, publicity, organisation and execution and played for three nights and a Saturday afternoon matinee to absolutely packed houses with the local press in attendance publishing rave reports.
Just prior to the staging of this event, the late Billy Wells, at that time one of our longest-serving members, approached Stewart Williams with the suggestion that they present the famous “Catching a Bullet in the Teeth” illusion with a view to generating interest and thus boosting the audience ratings.
This effect was created by Billy Wells – a toolroom engineer by profession – who made a superb job of crafting every item used in the presentation: the antique duelling pistols, the beautifully lined pistol cases; everything, right down to the tables.
The Bullet Catching was a tremendous success, so much so that the late Goodliffe who was in the audience and declared himself completely baffled by the method employed, asked if we would include it in the forthcoming magical extravaganza Magicana 1969 that the British Magical Society was presenting in the Great Hall at Aston University, Birmingham.
This was agreed and gained us more valuable publicity for one of the members of the audience was none other than Bayard Grimshaw, Magical columnist of The World’s Fair, who came backstage to the dressing-rooms, questioned us, examined the pistols to establish their authenticity and went on to give an excellent write-up concluding with the words …. “if there was one item on the bill that made my journey to Birmingham worthwhile, it was without doubt the Bullet Catching Illusion”.
Maintaining cordial relationships with other magic organisations has always been one of our highest priorities and our list of distinguished guests reads like a “Who’s Who” of magic and this applies not only at national level, but internationally too – for who will forget the memorable evening we spent – albeit many years ago – at the sumptuous testimonial dinner organised to honour Dr. Zina Bennett of the United States – to name but one of our overseas visitors.
The Society encourages the competitive spirit as a means of maintaining the high standard of performance that is expected of its membership and each year the Frank Allen Cup and the President’s Shield are vigorously contested for Close-up and General Magic.
Much more can be written of the activities of the Society throughout its 56 years and much about the various personalities, but suffice it to say that throughout its colourful history it has played a significant supporting role to many deserving organisations such as The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, The British Red Cross and The Royal Midland Counties Home (for Incurables) at Leamington Spa.
It was here that for well over 20 years two great benefactors of the Society (Past Presidents George Webber and Edward Farmer) together with Stewart Williams as compère, organised and presented a two-hour Sunday afternoon entertainment for the patients and staff on a monthly basis from September through the long winter months to the month of April when the residents were able to start enjoying the Spring and Summer sunshine once again.
More recently, perhaps mention should be made of the support that was given to the Children-in-Need Appeal when in conjunction with the local Lions Organisations the handsome sum of £2,500 was raised.
A glance at our records reveals the names of many well-known and interesting personalities from the world of magic – among them Past President Lou. E. Flynn, Frank Cleaver famous for his blue-riband effect “The Flying Saucer” in 1951, and Wally Walker – who was without doubt one of the most distinguished presenters of children’s magic in the country.
The society continues to flourish and at present the membership lists upwards of forty magicians, the quality of whose magic cannot be underestimated.
Visiting magicians are always made welcome at our meetings and always leave us happy in the knowledge that they have enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours in delightful surroundings and the company of magicians who have deservedly earned for their club the nickname of the Friendly Society.