The Pentacle Club Cambridge -

History of the Pentacle Club. 1919-2004

By John Whitmore MMC, updated by Alan Maskell MIMC

The Pentacle Club was founded on Wednesday 14th May 1919, by Professor W W Rouse Ball (President), JH Johnson, CR Cosens, FJW Roughton and WI Grantham (Secretary and Treasurer). The Club consisted of members of Cambridge University who were interested in magic and the subscription was half-a-crown (12.5p) a term.

Rouse Ball had started the ball rolling by issuing a notice in April asking for anyone interested to contact him. Well known as a mathematician, he was the author of Mathematical Recreations and Essaysand a book of string figures - cat's cradles - and had a collection of mechanical toys. He continued as President and the driving force behind the Society until his death in 1925.

The Pentacle Club was the successor to "The Mystics" which was founded in 1909 and lasted to the outbreak of war in 1914. "The Mystics" emblem was an equilateral triangle inside a circle and there were two classes of members, "Inner" - those skilled in conjuring, and "Outer" - those who could entertain in other ways. The founders all came from Caius College: George Arrowsmith, eventually a Vice President of The Magic Circle, WG Arrowsmith (no relation), who became Chaplain to the Queen and WG Gingall, killed in the First World War. Jack Hulbert was an "Outer" member; he qualified by doing a tap dance! They had an annual dinner at the Dorothy Café and produced an annual entertainment in the Guildhall. There is evidence to show that another club had existed before the First World War called "The Cambridge University Magical Society" or the "Cambridge University Society of Magicians".

The first full meeting of The Pentacle Club was held the following week on 21st May, again a Wednesday. Twenty-five men turned up and, as well as socialising, saw demonstrations of rope and card tricks, thimble and billiard ball manipulations. Three meetings a term were usually held, including a Club dinner in November at which Douglas Dexter was the first guest of honour. Other guests in the early 1920's were Clive and Nevil Maskelyne and two local magicians, Sidney Pratt and John Gambling, (who, in 1952, became President of the British Ring). As a result of Nevil Maskelyne's visit the Club received, in 1921, an invitation to perform half of a public performance given by The Magic Circle in London. After several try out performances, including one at Westminster School in the afternoon, five members gave a successful and well-presented entertainment.

Guest nights were held each year in the Alexandra Hall and 1924 saw the first public performances by the Club at the ADC Theatre which, although a success, lost over £20. Harold Warrender appeared in the "Annual Pentacle Entertainment" in 1925. The programme shows that as well as performing "Sawing Thro' A Woman", (invented in 1921), he gave two scenes that were a send-up of Hamlet. Andre Charlot of "Charlot Reviews" was in the audience and made Harold an offer, which led to his professional career as a star of stage and screen.

In the late twenties, the annual shows always featured playlets written and produced by Harry Rottenburg, a don at King's College. The most famous of these was "The Marvels of Modern Medicine" in which a golfer had his leg sawn off, and then drilled with holes before being replaced. Another patient was decapitated, the severed head smoking a cigarette with the aid of a pair of bellows before being restored. This sketch was to feature in many Pentacle Shows both during and after the Second World War, when it was called "Bloodless Surgery". It was also performed by the original cast as part of The Magic Circle Grand Séance at Maskelyne's Theatre, St George's Hall. Other playlets included "Dope or the Plastic Art", in which a clay sculpture came to life and "The Skeleton in the Cupboard" which featured an animated skeleton that smoked a cigarette.

JT Garrus, who first brought the Centre Tear to the notice of other magicians, was Secretary 1928 -29 and performed "Through the Eye of a Needle" in the 1930 show. This was one of many illusions lent to the Club by their inventor PT Selbit. In 1933 the Club took their show "Wizards at Work" to the Fortune Theatre, London for a week. In the late thirties the Club entered a decline and no public shows were given. These were revived in 1940 when, for three years in succession, shows were given in aid of the Red Cross. The evacuation of London University to Cambridge meant that London students augmented the Pentacle Club membership.

The Club reconvened in 1947 and performed on television and at The Magic Circle. Performing visits to The Circle became a regular feature of the Club's calendar. In 1948 the annual show was at the Arts Theatre and in 1949 members toured Butlin's Holiday Camps during the summer vacation. This was the first of many summer tours both in this country and on the continent, including two years in Germany. Peter Brough and Archie Andrews were the guest stars in the 1950 show; also on the bill was Alex Elmsley, a new member that year. He went on to be Secretary and producer of the 1952 show. John Gardener, (now a famous author), appeared in the 1951 show with a mental act.

Roger Crosthwaite was a member in the early sixties as was Michael Colley, who compiles the Abra index and runs the Young Magician of the Year Competition. The Club admitted members from outside the University for the first time in 1963 and since then the number of undergraduate members has dwindled and the membership comes mainly from Cambridge and the surrounding areas. 1968 saw the last annual show at the ADC Theatre but the Club staged a series of outdoor stunts at carnivals and leisure fairs in the early seventies. These included "Cheating the Gallows", a blindfolded car drive and a straightjacket escape performed by John Davenport hanging upside-down from a crane 60 feet above the ground on Midsummer Common.

The early eighties saw four excellent one-day conventions organised by Roy Gilbert (Royston). These were well attended and featured lecturers and performers from both this country and the continent, many new to the convention scene. Sir William Hawthorne, a Master of Churchill College, was President for many years and had been a member of the Committee, 1933 -34, when a student. Claude Perry succeeded him as President in 1991.

In 1995, two new trophies were instigated for annual competition. The Widger Cup for stage magic, named in memory of Eric Widger, and the Sylvia Lawrence Shield for close-up magic. 1999 saw the Club's 80th anniversary and this was celebrated by 100 members, both past and present, at the annual dinner held at Selwyn College on 15th May, eighty years almost to the day since the first meeting.

In 2009, the Club celebrated it's 90th anniversary, firstly with it's own issue of ABRA and then, on Saturday 9th May, a full day of magic at Girton College when members, former members and friends of the Pentacle Club attended what was generally agreed to be the friendliest, most entertaining and magical one day convention ever! Dealers Magic Books by Post and the Card Collection, a fine display of the Club’s archives, lectures from Geoffrey Durham, Alan Shaxon, Will Houston and Paul Kieve, a great lunch and an excellent dinner with cabaret from Keith Cooper & Carol, (with the last ever performance of their cabaret act), and Graham Jolley, well and truly marked this milestone in the Pentacle Club's history.