Friday, 31 May 2019

The Baffler Box, Prevalence to Obscurity.

In most magic sets sold from the 1920s to the 1950s was a small metal pot with which small items could be vanished. This powerful little tin was a stalwart pocket money effect in the catalogues of practically every dealer of the early twentieth century. Despite its prevalence for more than thirty years a few factors have pushed this trick out of the dealers' lists.

This example is the earliest I have, taken from a Gamages magic set from the early 1920s. An object, usually a silk handkerchief, would be pushed into this pot, the magician's sleeves would be rolled up or adjusted and the pot would be shown empty. It requires a small amount of skill, but is very effective.

This early Davenports advert shows the box in use. Davenports produced a huge number of these pots over many years and it must have been one of their best sellers for decades. Most of their little cups look like the example below.

This Davenports box was sold in its own packaging but most were sold in magic sets such as the Maskelyne's Mysteries sets in this post. Made in many colours they almost always had two bands painted either silver or gold. Ernest Sewell's sets normally included a Baffler Box too and his were decorated the same as those manufactured by Davenports though manufactured in his workshop. Davenports also sold a plain version, though I have only seen this one.

Davenports also sold a tube from which a cigarette could vanish using the same principle. They marketed this as the Baffler Vanishing Cigarette, pointing out to purchasers the method used. One of these can be seen on the left of the last photo on this post. In the 1930s Davenports marketed a different effect which built on the main secret of the baffler box.

This tube is broadly the same as a baffler box with the bottom removed and with the gimmick a dye tube rather than a closed pot. Although it was retailed by Davenports it is possibly an imported trick.

The handling of this effect and the baffler boxes is a real pleasure to use, but has some draw backs that have assigned them to the collectors' cabinet. Not only do they depend on the magician wearing a dark jacket or blazer, but also one they're not too worried about about jabbing holes in. The necessity of a very sharp point on the gimmick perhaps explains why it is no longer considered a good item for children's magic sets.

Friday, 3 May 2019

The Mystic Bottles, a Pocket Novelty.

Pocket novelties that walked the line between magic trick and puzzle were common place in catalogues through the first half of the twentieth century. The Imp Bottles were already a long established trick as discussed in this article but there were other pocket puzzles with miniature bottles such as The Mystic Bottles. This little toy appeared in the early 1930s when small magnets were not as commonly used as today.

These bottles, sold as a pair, interact with each other in a range of different ways due to their magnetic corks and a magnet in the base of one bottle. One bottle also has rounded corners to its base allowing it to fall over when stood near the other. The range of different tricks the bottles can do can be seen in this advert from a 1937 Davenports catalogue.

In 1937 these bottles were sold decorated to celebrate the coronation of George VI. The box was red, white and blue with labels featuring a version of the royal cypher affixed to the turned wood bottles. This set has a label on the inside of the box and a stamp on the instructions for James A. Sinclair and Co. Ltd., a London manufacturer and retailer of scientific equipment.

James A. Sinclair and Co. Ltd. don't appear to be the manufacturer of these bottles however. The bottles are stamped with a patent pending number, 4256/36. This patent seems to have been dropped before being fully filed however as the patent for that number is totally unrelated. The patent immediately following this number however, 4256/37, was filed and granted. This patent, filed in December 1933, was for a system to mount light pieces of scientific equipment using magnets for educational demonstrations. It doesn't seen too big a jump to assume the company who filed this patent using small magnets, W. J. George Ltd. of Birmingham, also manufactured these magnetic bottles. They were a scientific equipment manufacturer so would have had all the necessary equipment to make these and the network to distribute them with their products.

Magnetic novelties were popular during this period and it's possible W. J. George Ltd. were responsible for others on the market. Maybe they kept their name off these bottles as they were also selling more educational products and marketing "mystic" bottles may have undermined their scientific reputation.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Feature Article: Deveen.

Last year I wrote an article about the stage manipulator Deveen. At the time it was the best overview I could manage with the limited information I could find. Since then I have been contacted by a few people who have added a great deal to the story of Deveen, most notably one of Deveen's past assistants; Barbara Barham. Given the volume of the new information gathered, including two wonderful photos from The Davenport Collection and a few recent acquisitions, I felt it made more sense to rewrite the article rather than attempt to update it. So here follows Deveen’s story, starting with his career, then information on his act, and finally some notes on his publications.

Deveen’s Career:

Magicians' acts can become dated with time, but few more than Deveen's. Deveen had a successful and long career on stage and occasionally on screen. His stage act remained similar throughout most of his career, generally billed as "Deveen and his Two New York Blondes".

The first concrete record of Deveen as a performer I've been able to find appears in The Era in January 1925. He's listed as appearing at a ladies' night at Will Goldston's Magician Club with an act billed as "The Smoker's Dream". With this act Deveen appeared throughout variety halls, quickly gaining a strong reputation as a slick manipulator. Peter Warlock reminisced in a 1986 editorial that Deveen started performing in early 1923 under his real name, A. W. Parsons, though there is no record of an A. W. Parsons performing magic at this time in the British Newspaper Archive. Warlock states that Parsons adopted the stage name Desmond Deveen in December 1924, which explains why January 1925 is the start point for Deveen’s name appearing in theatrical listings. I think all of these statements from Warlock should be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly as Deveen used the first name David, or nickname Dev; with no other mentions of Desmond in my research. 

His specialism was cigarette manipulation and his reputation in this field rapidly rose with him becoming a popular act across the UK. Deveen used the draw of his "New York" or sometimes "American" blondes for most of his career. Objectifying female assistants in this way is just one of the factors which dates Deveen's act, sadly it is still done by many backward looking magicians working today. Of course the assistants were probably never from America.

Deveen sometimes adopted the name Devil Deveen in the late 1920s, but he shortened this back to Deveen or D. Deveen in the early 1930s. Moving into the 1930s we join Deveen in 1934, performing in Liverpool.

In this case Deveen is far from the most problematic act on the bill. This poster is the earliest item I have relating to a Deveen performance and comes a few weeks before he appeared as the cover star of Gamages' house magazine, The Magician.

In 1935 there’s a possible clue to where Deveen may have called home. Goldston mentions in his Magical Quarterly Magazine that Deveen is Vice-President of Leicester Magic Circle, so it is likely that Leicester was where he lived when not on the road. It’s also a rare glimpse of Deveen being involved socially with other magicians outside of IBM convention performances. One such IBM appearance was the 6th convention of the British Ring, held in Northampton in 1936. John Davenport kindly found and scanned this photograph from The Davenport Collection. Taken at the convention, it shows Deveen with two of his assistants to the left and Eric Williams on the right.

Deveen’s career seems to have continued from strength to strength through the 1930s climaxing in June 1939 with him boarding the S. S. Normandie for New York. On the occasion Deveen took out an advert in The Era with his portrait alongside a boastful thank you to bookers and agents for nine years of unbroken engagements. He also says he will return to the UK with a new act, “World’s Fair, New York Programme”. It’s interesting to note that Deveen was already calling his assistants “New York Blondes” before he travelled there.

The trip was not an adventurous solo venture for fame and fortune as his Era advert implied though, in reality he travelled to the USA with a cohort of magicians. This group was travelling to Michigan for an IBM convention and included Levante, Esme Levante, John Ramsey and Arthur Dowler, among many others. The visit was documented by Annemann in the 1939 Summer Special of The Jinx alongside this picture of the group. Deveen is waving, standing third from the left. 

It was quite an undertaking to travel to America by boat and required five days at sea. The SS Normandie was a grand up-to-date ship which held the record for crossing the Atlantic. When they arrived in Michigan, another day’s travel from New York, they were warmly received by the American IBM. In fact they presented the group with this cup to commemorate their visit. The cup was donated by Amos Coke Cecil, a prominent amateur magician in the IBM, who also gave out an annual cup to the performer of the best trick in each convention.

The convention ran from the 14th to the 16th of June. On the 19th of June the group performed to a huge crowd of 1800 people at York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois. This was Harlan Tarbell’s home town and he invited the group to perform there. This was reportedly the only performance the contingent did together in America apart from at the conference. On this occasion they were presented with another cup, by their host Harlan Tarbell.

These cups returned to the UK with Walter Wandman. He kept them until he sold his business, along with these cups, to Colin John who kindly sold them to me.

The American magazine The Sphinx included a lively article describing the “All British” show put on at the convention. Throughout the shows and on the cups above much is made of the fact the group were all British, but it should be remembered that the lead member of this group, Levante, was an Australian. Accompanying the article was a collage of photographs from the convention.

Of particular note in the collage is Deveen, numbered 3, and Percy Abbott presenting the Coke Cecil Cup to Levante, numbered 17. For a full list of who’s in the image see the key below.

Sadly the rest of 1939 did not go as Deveen had planned. It’s unclear how long he stayed in America but the outbreak of the Second World War, within two months of his departure across the pond, was possibly the reason for his return to Britain. Alternatively he may have just travelled over for the convention and returned fairly quickly, though he did employ an agent in the USA for this trip so it does seem he planned to stay for some time. Interestingly the SS Normandie itself was taken by the US army in New York immediately when war broke out and capsized while still in service in 1942.

Goldston’s Magical Quarterly gives us a few insights into Deveen’s war, thank you to James Green for directing me to these. Goldston reports in December 1939 that Deveen was already in France serving in ENSA. ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association, had recently been founded to provide entertainment to British armed forces during the war. In September 1940 Goldston writes that Deveen is managing the Garrison Theatre Variety Company “D” and his act included items from his American tour. This does imply Deveen’s pre-war trip to America was a tour, though this may have been exaggerated to or by Goldston to boost Deveen’s image.

Deveen seems to have remained in ENSA performing oversees for the whole war. In June 1944’s issue of The Magic Wand Frederic Culpitt reports that Deveen has returned to England after three years touring the Middle East. During this marathon Deveen stayed in Algiers, Tripoli, Cairo, Western Desert, Damascus, Baghdad, The Persian Gulf and Teheran. Presumably he remained in ENSA until the war ended in September 1945. For more details of Deveen’s war some appear in this article written shortly after the war, sadly I received this as a clipping so don’t know the date or publication it came from.

This article also adds New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, India and South Africa to the countries Deveen had performed. After the drama of the war Deveen returned to touring the UK, though the thriving variety scene he left in 1939 was now in a slow decline. Deveen continued to perform for the IBM and reused his pre-war publicity shot (below) in a programme for the British Ring's conference of 1948, held in Bournemouth.

When looking through variety programmes from the late 1940s and into the 1950s Deveen’s name appears regularly. He performed on television at least four times in the late 1940s after which his assistants were often billed as his "Television Blondes". Below is a typical billing for Deveen from this period, though a rare example of his name being featured on the cover of a programme. This 1948 programme from Preston's Palace Theatre illustrates the smaller, declining theatres Deveen occupied during his post-war career.

A small note sent by Deveen in April 1950 also gives a snapshot from this time. Here he’s replying to a request for a postcard from a fan. He lists his addresses as The Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow this week and The Gaiety in Ayr next week. Both these theatres were under the same management, so it is likely he toured all the Scottish theatres in this group in this run.

In 1954 he shared the bill with many greats of the time at the IBM conference in Brighton.  It’s interesting to note he’s sharing the bill with Levante, an IBM favourite, who Deveen travelled across the Atlantic with in 1939.

This is the last IBM conference Deveen performed at, though he may have continued to attend them to see his fellow magicians. As the variety theatres closed, or converted to cinemas, Deveen continued to find work. He seems to have moved into holiday resorts, sometimes working with his wife Ivy. In 1968 they were running games for children at a Butlin's camp in Cliftonville billed as Uncle David and Auntie Ivy (the programme for this can be found in Peter Lane's article here).

In some ways this seems a sad decline for the successful stage magician of his earlier years. On the other hand he was still in work beyond the closure of the variety theatres and he still performed magic. There is a record of him employed as a magician for the summer season of a small holiday camp near Filey in 1971. Between 1971 and his death in 1989 I haven't found any sign of him performing, hopefully he enjoyed a good retirement.

Deveen’s act:

Early in his career he was billed at the "Gay Deceiver", then later the "Distinguished Deceiver" or occasionally the "Debonair Deceiver". This was almost always followed with some variant of "...and his [two] New York Blondes. When I wrote the initial article on Deveen I couldn’t find the names of any of his assistants. Luckily one of Deveen’s assistants, Barbara Barham, read the article and got in touch.

She assisted Deveen at the end of his music hall career from 1953 when she was only seventeen. Barbara, then Barbara Wells, assisted Deveen with another woman, Ivy Banks, who went on to marry Deveen in 1957. Thank you to Barbara’s husband Pete for researching Ivy’s surname and wedding.

Unusually, Deveen used masks and blindfolds when on stage. Initially he used a quite sinister peaked blindfold (above) and later an open eyed mask in the style of Zorro's mask (as above, c.1953). The smoke, cape and mask would probably have made his act more dramatic than most of his contemporary manipulators.

Initially I was under the impression that Deveen dealt exclusively in cigarette manipulations but his previous assistant Barbara Barham describes a much broader act. Here Barbara describes Deveen’s act:

“Dev was in 'real life' an unremarkable man to look at, but when he was dressed on stage he looked magnificent. He wore a silver wig and the mask, his floor length cloak was full and silk lined. As the music started and the tabs opened at the front of the stage he would come from the centre at a sharp confident pace, his cloak flowing. Ivy and I, dressed in black and white, coming in from left and right of stage to meet up with him and he would go into his routine.
...He did the cigarettes as his finale, for the rest of the act he did cards, silks, ring to square [squaring the circle] etc. and then the music would change. He would stand still and with a flourish produce a cigarette case, and light one from it, then, as the music quickened, he would move faster and faster producing the apparently lit cigarettes. Ivy and I would have large black boxes and as he threw them in high arcs we deftly caught each on in our boxes. Our routine of catching was frequently rehearsed so as to keep it 'elegant' but really to stop us bumping into each other trying to catch the same cigarette!”

I haven’t yet found a photograph of Deveen in performance, but John Davenport has found this postcard in The Davenport Collection illustrating Deveen and two assistants mid performance. Here he’s producing a large quantity of money, a part of his act mentioned in some reviews prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.


Deveen didn't keep his cigarette manipulation secrets to himself, he contributed cigarette effects to magic magazines, including The Jinx and The Sphinx during his American visit. He also published two books on cigarette manipulation. The first, "Cigarette Magic", was published in 1929 by Davenports. It was hugely popular for many years and reprinted multiple times.

"Cigarette Magic" was followed in 1932 by "Expert Cigarette Magic", published by Edward Bagshawe. Unlike the earlier line drawings of the Davenports publication, this was photographically illustrated with dozens of pictures of Deveen performing his sleights. Here’s an advert from a 1939 Davenports catalogue showing its continuing popularity seven years on.

This doesn't appear to have sold as many as the earlier publication however, probably due to the higher price such a well printed book would have been. It’s still a remarkable book though, which would continue to be much used if cigarette manipulation had not declined. There is much crossover in the two books and a photographically illustrated version of the earlier book was also published by Bagshawe. This appears to be much more common in the US, so possibly the UK rights for the first book were retained by Davenports preventing Bagshawe from selling the improved edition in the UK.


Deveen was a professional magician of his time. He varied his act slightly over his stage career but he had a core skill he stuck to throughout.  As with many magicians of his era the decline of the music halls cut short his stage career and, though he did appear on television a few times, holiday camps provided a way to continue working as a magician into old age.

I think it’s important to include a few notes of Deveen as a person. He’s rarely written about warmly in magic magazines. Even the articles that mention his trip to America focus on his act rather than him. Barbara remembers Deveen as a man of his time.

“He was a difficult man to work for, he was very exacting and I was not allowed to speak to anyone he didn’t know, I think he feared I would give away the secrets of his tricks.”

“…he hated it if either one of us had any discourse with other acts on the bill, I suppose these days he would be thought a bit of a control freak, if this sounds unkind its only the recollections I have. There was never any bad feeling between Dev and I, but never any warmth either, we never shared a light- hearted moment…”

Of course he may have been a different man behind closed doors, but when working he seems to have been rather coldly professional. This may have always been his nature, but it may have been the result of working on an increasingly challenging circuit. We also can’t rule out the impact his wartime experience may have had on his outlook.

I hope this rather marathon post has given some context to a magician rarely mentioned today. Thank you again to Barbara Barham, Pete Barham, James Green and John Davenport for their invaluable help with this article.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Cigarette Sensations, Defunct Deceptions.

In this post Deveen was discussed, a cigarette manipulator. Along with cigarette manipulators, tricks involving cigarettes have become much rarer as smoking had decreased and attitudes towards smoking have shifted. In this post effects that use cigarettes are going to be explored.

First, here are some gimmicks that would have been familiar to cigarette manipulators.

All of these would be used by the magician without ever being seen by the audience, assuming all goes to plan. The large dropper at the back was manufactured by the Australian magician Alma, the other items are from a variety of suppliers.

Davenports had a section devoted to cigarette tricks in many of their catalogues, below are some of their items used in cigarette manipulation.

On the right is a 1930s cigarette box which allows you to produce cigarettes from the air one at a time and drop them into the box until it is full. It appears utilitarian but contains quite a complex mechanism. In the foreground are two cigarette pulls, the larger one allows a cigarette to be changed into a silk. The boxed items are all cigarette catching gimmicks, probably the most widely produced cigarette trick.

Davenports also made a special cigarette holder that allowed the instantaneous production and vanishing of a cigarette.

This was most famously used by the superb manipulator Cardini. His act combined many forms of manipulation and was notable for being performed with gloved hands. Unlike Deveen in the previous post Cardini had a hugely successful career, performing on the best circuits.

This image is a full page from a variety programme for the London Palladium in 1937.

Cigarette magic wasn't just used in manipulation acts though, it was perfect for close up. At a time when cigarette smoking was widespread, they were just as useful as coins for performing pocket tricks. Alongside sleight of hand effects with cigarettes dealers produced apparatus such as the Davenports examples below.

On the right are two tubes that allow a lit cigarette to turn into a match, these are beautifully engineered, probably in Germany. The tube on the bottom left allows a real cigarette to vanish from a tube using the Baffler Box principle, hence the name "Baffler Vanishing Cigarette".

Cigarette effects have naturally declined as smoking has gone out of fashion, but the gimmicks and sleights can still be applicable to similarly shaped objects today. It's interesting to look back at how many cigarette effects were available that simply would not work in a modern magic act. Effects using pipes and cigars were also popular, but I'll leave that for another post.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Imp Bottles, a Popular Pocket Puzzle.

One of my favourite magic tricks masquerades as a puzzle, the imp bottle. This tiny bottle can be laid down on its side by the magician, but anyone else trying to push it on its side can't, the bottle pops back upright. Although it's presented as a puzzle, it's one the participant will never be able to solve as it is really a trick and requires a little extra something only the magician has.

An early description of this effect appears in Hoffmann's  Modern Magic as The Bottle Imps. He's clearly describing a dealer item already popular by 1876. He mentions that they can be made of papier maché or other light materials, though most are made of wood or, more recently, plastic. 

Below are some in my collection in approximate chronological order. 

These examples were made in the 1920s by a German firm, most likely Kingl. They have small paper champagne labels and originally had painted gold collars.

This example, probably also made in Germany, has a more bulbous shape and a flat bottom. Instead of wobbling around and settling upright like most bottles this has a very positive action. You can see the gold collar more clearly on this example. I think the reason the collar is so often rubbed can be explained by the handling used by the magician when introducing or removing the gimmick.

This later example is slightly larger than the above examples and much brighter. I feel the longer the neck gets in comparison to the bottle's body the more it points to the method, though it's still very deceptive.

This item was retailed by Ellisdons from the 1950s. It's unusual in being completely of metal construction. This material only works here because the body is of light spun aluminium and the base the usual lead.  Here the bottle shape used in most modern plastic examples is introduced.

Ellisdons also retailed this example in the old shape. Although it looks similar to the wooden examples at the top of this article it's of plastic construction with a moulded lead base.

Below is a picture of these bottles together to show how their sizes varied:

The Imp Bottle is still very popular today, available as a pocket money item and as a toy in Christmas crackers. Unlike most cheap plastic items this effect is truly deceptive and introduces a small amount of sleight of hand instead of being self-working.  

Friday, 23 February 2018

C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd. Friend or Foe?

In the first years of the twentieth century public interest in magic was at its height. Most people would see live magic regularly and exposure of secrets was a major fear for professional magicians. David Devant was famously suspended from the Magic Circle in 1909 for publishing secrets in a magazine aimed at the general public.

C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd. (founded by Cyril Arthur Pearson, above) published a range of cheap books alongside magazines and newspapers such as the Daily Express. Their biggest book topic seems to have been the "Amusements for the Home" series which was mostly made up of magic books. Below are a selection of magic books published  by them between 1913 to 1925.

These sent a bit of a ripple through the magic community as they were priced very low and advertised widely to the general public. Some magicians felt this was not normal magic book publishing, but exposure, with customers merely buying books out of curiosity. It didn't start with C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd., surprisingly it seems to have been a more obscure publisher, S. H. Bousfield who got the ball rolling. David Devant's first magic book, Magic Made Easy, was published by them in 1903.

Although there were cheap magic books printed long before this one, there's an argument to be made that this paved the way for Pearson's range. The colour scheme, size, pricing, cheap binding and photographic cover all appear in Pearson's magic books. Pearsons even bought the rights to this book and published it in their series. I've struggled, and failed, to find information on S. H. Bousfield, it's possible they were already connected to C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd in 1903.

Pearson's books were well illustrated, with striking colour covers and sold well for over thirty years. As mentioned, some magicians felt they were too cheap and this put them in reach of the general public. As such they gained the nickname "Yellow Perils", reusing a racist phrase used previously to represent fear of the East. It's true some books were aimed at the beginner market, but most were original creations of the authors and would offer only interest to someone already versed in magic methods and writing.

This exposure fear lead the Magic Circle, and other magic societies, to introduce a minimum pricing rule, whereby members who sold magic books under a set price could face suspension or expulsion. It seems wildly anachronistic now, rewarding wealthier laypeople with access to magic books and penalising genuinely interested poorer people. Thankfully magic societies now understand that restricting access to books isn't positive for the art. Regardless, a real magic book would be a very hard trudge for someone with only superficial curiosity to hold their attention.

Pearsons did publish a few magic books in better binding. Below is a small hardback, very similar to later Yellow Perils but properly hardbound, The Drawing Room Entertainer. To the right is Pearson's major magic publication C. Lang Neil's The Modern Conjurer.

This large format, photographically illustrated, book brings together sections from other Pearson publications, including bits from their magazines. It is well known for including a series of pictures of J. N. Maskelyne plate spinning, below is a video made by John Helvin showing Maskelyne in action.

Returning to the Yellow Peril issue, I don't think they were published for the exposure market. I think it's fairer to say these books went towards democratising magic as a hobby, bringing good quality literature to a wider audience of aspiring magicians. It's interesting to note that these were published in two formats, the hard board yellow editions (generally two shillings) and later paperback editions with simpler illustrated covers (usually one shilling). There is some overlap where books were published in both formats between 1925 and 1927 but generally speaking this range is later. Below is a picture of some of this later range.

This series petered out in the late 1930s, though Pearson's did publish magic books in later years. Of particular note was Norman Hunter's Successful Conjuring in the 1950's. I'm planning a post specifically on Hunter though, so I'll explore that properly there.

Also, some other publishers sold books that are easy to confuse with Yellow Perils, such as this edition by Routledge. It is exactly the same size, though poorly illustrated and written.

In some ways the legacy of the Yellow Peril and contemporary publishers of affordable magic books is still with us. Dover still publish a large range of affordable magic books for the beginner to professional, though with much better binding! Like many of the exposure worries in the early days of magic they never developed into real problems and magic lived on.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Feature Article: Ellisdons.


In this feature article I've gathered together information about Ellisdons. As a business that firmly concentrated on the novelty and toy end of the magic market it isn't often written about in depth. This is despite its' considerable success over many years. Solid facts about Ellisdons are hard to come by, no longer around to write its' own history and not being a social hub for professional magicians, Ellisdons rarely appears in magic history books.

For this article I'm indebted to the late Allen Tipton who, aside from greatly encouraging my interest in magic history when I was a boy, wrote a potted history of Ellisdons for Abra Magazine. He later posted it online and it can be found here. Much of Allen's information came from his correspondence with Tina Futch, a member of the Ellisdon family. In this article I've stuck to the history of the business, Allen's articles contain more Ellisdon family history for those interested.

For simplicity, I will refer to the company as Ellisdons throughout, though it was sometimes given its full name Ellisdons and Son or E&S for short. If an Ellisdons item is marked or packaged they often used the E&S abbreviation.

Early Years:

So, starting at the start, Ellisdons always advertised that they were founded in 1897. Based in Sydney, Albert Ellisdon sold tools and equipment to Australia's growing agricultural and gold prospecting population. Ellisdons didn't have a chain of shops, they operated through mail order posting items to individuals, a business model kept for generations. Very little is written about this period in the company and I have tried, and failed, to find any adverts or ephemera from their time in Australia, it's possible they were a very small outfit. The age of the company may have been an exaggeration, I've always thought it was funny they claimed to be founded a year before Davenports.

The company as we know it really begins when Albert, his son Ernest and grandson Bryce Ellisdon moved to London in the early 1930s. This seems to be when they change tack and begin trading in jokes, novelties and magic. Allen Tipton points out that at this time Davenports were the only retailer of magic equipment that also embraced jokes, novelties and puzzles, so there was space for Ellisdons to move into this area. Here are some early Ellisdons items.

Mail Order:.

What made Ellisdons different from other magic dealers of their time was their target market. Magic shops traditionally depended, and to some extent still do depend, upon a large group of enthusiastic amateur and semi-professional magicians. Generally speaking,  amateur magicians like to regularly buy new exciting props. So keeping up with the demand for new, well made and novel props was essential for these dealers. Ellisdons didn't invest in making novel, new effects or importing the latest American ideas, they aimed at the casual child magician, schoolboy and prankster. Here are some of the jokes and puzzles they sold at their height.

Alongside these joke items they also sold small sets of jokes. Here is a very early example of one such set.

Targeting this market they concentrated on small, easy to post, items from little packet card tricks to stink bombs and fake spiders. They advertised heavily in comics to grow a huge mailing list of joke and novelty fans. At their height they had a circulation of over 100000 on their mailing list to receive catalogues.

One interesting note is that Ellisdons' first magic and joke catalogue was printed by Davenports, as covered by Fergus Roy in The Davenports Story. Ellisdons and Davenports traded with each other as well as being competitors for the whole of Ellisdons time in business in the UK. After this first catalogue, Ellisdons regularly printed their own. These comic and catalogue adverts featured fun, mischievous artwork drawn in-shop by Bryce Ellisdon.

These enticing adverts are probably what has been remembered most about Ellisdons and two reprints of their catalogues have been published since the shop closed. One of these reprints is still available in this mixed pack of reprinted 1960s ephemera. Ellisdons was very much the British parallel of the American companies covered in Kirk Demarais' book Mail-Order Mysteries. Below are the parcels that would make a schoolboy's heart leap with excitement. The pink slip is a substitution form and the blue sheet is an order form.

More than any other magic company of the time Ellisdons concentrated on mail order. The few shops of equal or bigger size to Ellisdons boasted showrooms and sometimes even small stages for the demonstration and examination of apparatus before purchase. Ellisdons didn't stock this high-end professional apparatus and instead depended on colourful descriptions and illustrations to secure purchases. Here are some of the magic items Ellisdons sold at their height.

Ellisdons' best selling magic items were probably card tricks. They were cheap to print or import and cheap to post. They sold their own marked cards and also had a card tricks magic set, really just a collection of packet tricks boxed together. Below is a photo of some of the card tricks Ellisdons sold, on the left is the card magic set with contents in a fan below the box.


In addition to their direct mail order business Ellisdons wholesaled their stock to chain shops, independent toy shops and department stores. Their biggest customer in this field was almost certainly Woolworths (the UK, not the US, chain). With over 1000 shops children had access to magic tricks and jokes even if their town had no dedicated magic shop. The packaging followed this market and Ellisdons produced a huge range suitable for display on simple self service racks. I've mocked one of these up to display some of my Ellisdons items.

In addition to individual items Ellisdons also put together magic sets for shops. Much like Davenports had done with their Maskelyne's Mysteries sets discussed here, Ellisdons allowed Gamages and other shops to badge their sets. Below is a Gamagic set made by Ellisdons for Gamages.

Ellisdons also made their own magic sets for sale by mail order and in toy shops. Here is an example from the 1940s or 1950s.

Below is an example from the 1960s or 1970s.


I'd briefly like to look at two items that sold like hotcakes for Ellisdons for many years. Both were perfect for Ellisdons' style of advertising and probably over promise on what they can deliver. Here's Ellisdons' "Vamping Chart".

This proudly boasts that "without the slightest knowledge of music whatever" one can play music on the piano. The idea being that this chart rests on the piano above the keys and by learning a few, supposedly simple, rules anyone can play along to popular tunes. Although they sold many thousands of these they can't work that well as no one is selling them today.

If there were to be one product Ellisdons is most remembered for it is likely the Seebackroscope. It was available for many years before Ellisdons marketed it in the UK, but it's popularity spread through the back pages of comics and they sold huge quantities of these little gadgets.

Much like the Vamping Chart this over promises somewhat. It does allow you to see a very small amount slightly behind you, but the hijinks children may have imagined possible would probably not have been. Sid Templer, the founder of novelty shop Hawkin's Bazaar wrote in the forward to an Ellisdons catalogue reprint that he had ordered a Seebackroscope as a boy. He complained to Ellisdons that it didn't work to his satisfaction and they sent him half a page of stamps as compensation.


As mentioned, Ellisdons were targeting young amateur magicians and their publishing history reflects this. They published very few titles, and they were very general and aimed at the beginner. Although their range was small they sold huge quantities of these small-format, cheap books.

These are some of the easiest second hand magic books to find today, despite the fact that they fall apart very easily and most printed have probably ended up in the bin. They have wonderful, full-colour covers to catch the eye of aspiring magicians.

An unusual anomaly from Ellisdons is the hardback version of J. C. Cannell's Modern Conjuring. It is much larger than the paperback above and has extra sections on a range of other entertainments.

Though still aimed at the beginner, it's well printed and bound, in stark contrast to Ellisdons paperbacks. Published in 1938, in the first decade of Ellisdons UK business, maybe it was their first publication (excluding catalogues). Possibly it simply didn't sell well mixed in with the cheaper products on offer. I don't think a second hardback edition was printed.

The Shop and Factory:

Although they're mostly remembered as a mail order business they did have a public shop. They settled in the High Holborn area of London and had a large shop there for many years. In 1959 they moved from 245-246 to 145-146 High Holborn, very close to Davenports' 111 High Holborn address. It's not easy to pin down when they moved out, but it seems to have occurred in the 1960s. Certainly by 1969 they were no longer in London as can be seen from this catalogue on The Davenport Collection website.

It's very hard to find images of the inside of the shop or the staff who worked there, if anyone has any I'd be very interested to see them. One thing I did find was this clip from 1963 which shows members of the Ellisdon family joking with each other. I assume that at the head of the table is Ernest Ellisdon as Albert would likely have died by this time.

Ellisdons had a factory in Bedford on Kempston Road while they were still based in London. At its' peak it was a very large operation with 40 employees at the factory and more than 100 craftspeople working from home in the local area. Some of the work would have been manufacturing items, but much or it would have been packaging and re-labelling imported goods. With the closure of their London shop Ellisdons became entirely based from this factory until 1980 when, in steep decline, it briefly moved to Cornwall before closing altogether in 1982. The family blamed the decline on the changing tastes of children, moving away from cheap jokes towards computer games.

Ellisdons' mailing list was purchased by a different joke firm, Jokes Corner who advertised in comics and magazines to sell novelties. They still trade under the name Magic By Post, in fact I remember ordering their catalogue as a boy and it coming with a free trick, it was an Ellisdons Three Card Monte. They still sell these, along with Two Card Monte packet tricks in their distinctive Ellisdons packaging.