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11. J N Maskelyne (Spa Pharmacy)

This shop was once the home of J N Maskelyne, world-famous magician, inventor and watchmaker. Maskelyne is known for inventing the coin-operated toilet, from which we get the British phrase, ‘to spend a penny’.

What's the history?

The name Maskelyne is familiar to illusionists and magic historians across the world. John Nevil Maskelyne, the first of three generations of illusionists who bore the name, was born at 20 White Hart Row, now White Hart Street, off the Lower High Street, Cheltenham, the son of a saddler and publican.

By 1861 Maskelyne had completed an apprenticeship as a jeweler, silversmith and watchmaker, setting up in business at 12 Rotunda Terrace, Montpellier.  At that time he was living at that address with his family, including six of his seven surviving sisters. He married Elizabeth Taylor, a Cheltenham girl, on 10 December 1862 at Swindon Village Parish Church.

John Nevil Maskelyne had been interested in magic from an early age, and formed a conjuring club with half a dozen friends, meeting at each other’s houses and developing simple mechanisms to create illusions. On 7 March 1865 Maskelyne watched a performance by the American spiritualists known as the Davenport Brothers at the old Town Hall, Regent Street, with great interest. A few weeks later he announced in the local newspapers that he and his friend George Cooke, a tailor from Burton Street, Cheltenham, would ‘…undertake to perform, in open daylight, the tricks which the Davenports professed to accomplish by “spiritual aid” at Jessop’s Gardens, where Waitrose stands today. The show was a great success, and Maskelyne and Cooke toured the country with their act for several years. They gave their first performance before the Prince of Wales at Berkeley Castle in January 1870 and later at the Crystal Palace, London. In 1873 they took out a lease on part of the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London, expecting to stay there a few months. They stayed for over 30 years! In 1904 the company moved to St George’s Hall, Langham Place, London. Maskelyne died at St George’s Hall on 18 May 1917.

In addition to the construction of stage illusions Maskelyne turned his talents to many other inventions, including a coin-operated ‘penny-in-the-slot’ lock for ladies’ toilets, from which we get the British phrase ‘to spend a penny’. He also invented two typewriters, a gas burner for a hot air balloon and an automatic bus ticket dispenser. His descendants inherited his innovative skills and the family registered a total of 40 British patents from 1875-1913.

Sue Rowbotham


Historical images courtesy of Sue Rowbotham

A local opinion

John Nevil Maskelyne (often described as the father of British Magic) was very involved along with David Devant in forming the British Magical Society (BMS) in Birmingham in 1904.This is the oldest such Society in Europe and having used the British reference later, when it was proposed in 1905 to form a similar magical society in London they had to think again and hence the Magic Circle was born.

Maskelyne was very involved in writing up the BMS constitution and his family continued an involvement with the world of magic, including Clive, who was President of the BMS in 1926.

Magic has continually changed since Maskelyne’s day with in the second half of the last century the introduction of television, which generates a wide impact for such stars as Paul Daniels, David Blaine and Dynamo. Over about the last 20 years the world of the computer has also had a serious impact, in that young enthusiasts who would have previously joined a junior magic club now prefer to present their performance on YouTube and the like. This means of course that they miss out on being tutored by seasoned professional performers. Meanwhile local Societies including the Cotswold Magical Society which meets in Gloucester and the British Magical Society meeting in Birmingham are delighted to take in new members on the condition that they are seriously interested in learning and performing this fascinating art form.

Dr Bob King (President of the British Magical Society and Member of the Magic Circle)

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