The Fascinating History of Nottingham’s Wizards Guild

Regardless of what the Nottingham Guild of Magicians has achieved in the eighty-plus years since its founding in 1939, nothing will have been more wonderful than the names of its founders – a group of illusionists and performers in grass and workbenches ranging from Captain Val Jackson to Bertram Millidge, Stonewall Jackson to Reverend RW Lax West. No, we are not inventing anything.

Millidge, the Guild’s first secretary and future president, was a passionate magician whose passion took him across the country and earned him a place in the prestigious Magic Circle. Reverend West found time outside of religious ceremonies to perform tricks and illusions, joining his other founding members at the Sign of Four Theater Shop to entertain visiting members of the armed forces during the war. Since its inception, the Guild has been built on a devotion to magic craftsmanship and its ability to bring joy to performers and audiences alike – and that has held true ever since.

“We are a place where people of all skill levels, from professionals to novelists, can come to learn and improve,” says Andrew Morrison, current president of the Guild of Magicians. “We help people realize that they can accomplish anything if they put their mind to it, and we use our network of experts and enthusiasts to make sure they do it to the best of their abilities. It’s a skill that can spark happiness both for the people who do the tricks and for those who experience them, so we try to ensure that as many people as possible who want to get into it can do so.

We help people realize they can accomplish anything if they put their mind to it, and we use our network of experts and enthusiasts to make sure they do it to the best of their abilities.

Throughout its illustrious history, the Guild has welcomed an impressive mix of the country’s most established magicians to our great city. This includes Lewis Ganson, one of the most prolific and well-known magic writers of all time, and Ken De Courcy, a man known to have written for almost every magic-focused magazine until his death in 2008. Not bad for a band set up for a hobby.

Now based at Arnold’s Art Centre, the organization devotes most of its time to helping budding magicians of all ages perfect their craft, through lectures, workshops and bi-monthly events. Current members range from young teenagers to people in their nineties, from plumbers and taxi drivers to doctors and lawyers. Asked why magic appeals to such a wide variety of people, Andrew simply replies, “A lot of people are interested in it from childhood. They like to watch people do tricks at a young age and want to learn from them- As these people get older and earn more money (at least in theory – thanks to the “cost of living crisis”), they are able to spend funds to try things out for themselves, and quickly become addicted to the thrill of it all. “It’s a hobby that can take over your life,” laughs Andrew. “Some come here to have a little fun and become speakers and performers themselves. Once he has a hold on you, you can’t let go.

Yet while the Guild has always been an inspiration to aspiring wizards over eight decades, the nature of magic itself has undoubtedly changed over that time. Andrew explains that the discipline is no longer so focused on big stage shows and jaw-dropping performances, but rather on the more intimate side of the art. Card tricks have become the most popular aspect of the craft, he explains, with more magicians performing at weddings and parties than in the West End. Considering why that’s the case, Andrew pauses, before explaining that “there’s just no more interest” in flashier productions. Many of the prop stores he relied on during his performing days at the Playhouse and Bonington Theater are no longer available, and many closed as demand began to decline. “It’s really a shame,” admits the president of the Guild.

You look at modern magic versus what my grandfather taught me as a kid, and it’s amazing how far it’s come

Despite losing the more explosive elements of magic, it’s still an exciting and innovative field, with modern technology helping performers both attract new fans and try new things. Through platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, Julius Dein and Nicolas Suriano bring hundreds of thousands of viewers each week, showing their talent to a growing audience. And with access to a global network of contacts and information, new ideas are much easier to discover. As a result, the field keeps expanding and changing, which Andrew says isn’t a bad thing.

“When I go to conventions, I watch some of the tricks that are being talked about now and it’s amazing,” he says. “You look at modern magic versus what my grandfather taught me as a kid, and it’s amazing how far it’s come. There’s such a focus on close-up magic, where the audience can really analyze what you are doing and how they are doing is quite remarkable.

Despite all the benefits of a changing landscape, Andrew admits he would like the Guild to bring back some of the most spectacular shows of the old school. who drew himself and many others to the field in the first place – hoping magic fans will once again return to bigger venues. The committee is currently looking for a new home, after initial plans were put on hold due to COVID, in hopes that they will soon be able to set up larger-scale productions – offering a greatest platform for the countless up-and-coming magicians in the county to showcase their talents. It’s a tough challenge, says Andrew, but one he’s determined to overcome. It might take a miracle but, hey, that’s what the Nottingham Guild of Magicians does best…

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Brian L. Hartfield