Harry Venson

(Member of the Inner Magic Circle, London)
(1883 to 1961)

Click here to read "Memoirs of a Magical Entertainer" by Harry Venson - A most intriguing account of magical experiences and gives the reader an insight into the life of Harry Venson.

Harry Venson's real name was Harry Stevenson, and he was born in Glasgow - Scotland on 5th June 1883, and died on 16th April 1961 at 78 years. He was educated at St Thomas' Charterhouse School - London.

Harry Venson became interested in magic at the age of 21 or 22, and joined the London Magic Circle in 1906, and advanced to Associate of the Inner Magic Circle in 1907.

While living in Holland Park, London he received magic tuition on conjuring and sleight of hand from the well known 'Cogswell'. He knew a number of well known conjurers and celebrities of the theatre and Music Halls such as: Sir Walter de Freese, Vesta Tilley, Sir Harry Lauder, David Devant, Charles Bertram, Gertie Miller, Chung Ling Soo, Horace Golden, Dr Byrd Page and many others. He spent five years presenting magic shows in London.

In 1912 Harry left England because of ill health and went to East Africa to work for his brother in law - Stephen Ellis in Nairobi. He arrived in Mombasa by ship where he put on magical performances in order to pay his fare to Nairobi. His wife Emily and children Donald and Winifred were to follow later. He continued with his magic in Kenya which did not have the European population of London so put on shows for the native population.

During the First World War (1914) he joined the Army and saw active service in East Africa. After the war in 1918 his third child Peggy was born.

He toured South Africa in 1920 for African Theatres, with a programme called 'Still going Strong'. Although most of the tour centred around the Transvaal he did perform for one week at the Criterion Theatre, Durban. After this he toured Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika with his magical shows until 1931.

1932 saw his return to South Africa, this time for a two month contract with the Port Elizabeth Publicity Association and African Theatres. It was during this visit that Harry and Rodriques founded the Transvaal Magicians Club, of which Harry Venson was the first President.

Harry Venson's daughter Winifred used to assist him on stage with his magical performances until her untimely death in 1932 at the age of 20. A few years later in 1935 a decision was taken to emigrate to South Africa, firstly to Cape Town, then to Johannesburg in 1936, and finally to Durban in 1939, where he assisted Major Leslie Leon with Troop Entertainment. Harry Venson found it hard to make a living out of Magic, so after the war he went back to accounting and worked for many years for William Palmer's, Durban.

He lost the sight in one eye due to glaucoma when he was in Kenya. His sight in the other eye lessened as he grew older until he became completely blind. He learned Braille which was a great undertaking at the age of 71 years. He had a very alert mind and wrote a Memory Training Course which he taught from Carrs College in Johannesburg and then again in Durban. He also invented a calendar from which, when understood, one could tell the date of any weekday in any given month, as well as which day of the week any given date falls in a given month.

Chess playing was another skill which Harry had mastered, which together with his memory training, he was able to perform the 'Knights Tour' from any selected square on the chess board.

This he performed blind folded with a numbered chess board. Harry's wife Emily was a wonderful support to him throughout his life and he depended on her for her criticism of his new tricks and presentation. She died on 23rd December 1960.

Harry's magic word was "GAZEKA" - when he waved his wand and said 'GAZEKA, GAZEKA, GAZEKA' things happened. Harry's daughter Peggy Wood named their Southbroom beach cottage 'GAZEKA' after her father.

Harry Venson had an insatiable appetite for magic. During the 1950's there was a New Trick Section documented in the minutes and members were encouraged to present new tricks at the meetings. It appears that the members were awarded a star for new tricks. When 12 stars had been accumulated they were awarded a Silver Star, and after 24 stars had been accumulated a Gold Star was awarded. The only member to be awarded the Gold Star was Harry Venson. It was suggested that a Diamond Star Award be introduced for the likes of Harry Venson! As stated in the opening of this paragraph he had an insatiable appetite for magic.

He tutored a number of magicians including Peter Warby, Arthur Arnold, Eric Churton. Peter Warby confirmed Harry's appetite for magic and remembers that he was a perfectionist when it came to performing sleight of hand. Although his fingers were short and stubby , making him an unlikely sleight of hand candidate, Peter remembers seeing Harry vanish a full pack of 52 cards using a back palm. It appears that the pack had been doctored, stripping the middle layer out, thus making the pack thinner and more flexible. However this is still a mean feat!

The spectacular Harry Venson Trophy was donated to the South African Magical Society by Mrs. Peggy Wood, the daughter of the late Harry Venson. Harry Venson believed that magic done by sleight of hand was superior to 'box tricks', which inspired Mrs. Peggy Wood to insist that the trophy be awarded for excellence of sleight of hand.

The donation of the trophy is first mentioned in the minutes of August 1974 and it was first competed for on the 25th September 1976 at a show at the Outspan Hotel. This extract from the August 1976 minutes reads:

"The Harry Venson Evening, this is on the 25th September at the Outspan Hotel. The president (David Lewis-Williams) reported that the trophy was really outstanding. It was decided that members should only be allowed to bring wives or girl friends. The cost would be R1.00 a head. Dark suits to be worn. The performing order would be decided on the night, each member being allowed a maximum of 10 minutes. The judges were to be Brian Tarr and Basil Emery, who would be allowed to call upon performers to explain how they performed their sleights. Brian Tarr then explained the rules of the competition and how judging would be done."

The winner of the trophy was David Lewis Williams. A comment in the president's 1976 report indicated that the art of sleight of hand certainly was not dead and that it was hoped that all members would compete in 1977.

It was in 1977 that other societies were invited to attend a mini convention and take part in the Harry Venson Sleight of Hand competition. The competition was planned for 11th June at the Barn and some Pretoria magicians were to attend. It is not clear whether this event actually took place or not but Bernard Dyer believes it did. Apparently Graham Kirk performed his 'Flip Stick' routine, Brian Tarr (judge) requested to see the wand and could not believe it was in fact a painted dowel stick! This is the letter that was sent out:

The Harry Venson trophy was again competed for in 1978, as recorded in the April 1978 minutes:

"Harry Venson Evening, this will be held at the Holiday Inn on Sat 3rd June. Arthur (Arnold) suggested closed circuit TV close up of table. Magicians will be free, wives to be paid for. Visitors (performers) free. It was estimated that we would be able to cope with 50 people."

It is interesting to see that TV was suggested as a medium for permitting more magicians to view the close-up, particularly in view of the fact that TV had only made its appearance in 1975/76 and was still in its infancy in South Africa.

The late Graham Kirk
Sleight of hand Master
7th August 1941 - 1st October 1997

(Photo from the "Oggendblad" 23 May 1980)

Graham won the prestigious Harry Venson Trophy for his superb sleight of hand at a National Sleight of Hand competition held during a Mini Convention in Durban during May 1980

South African Magical Society, P.O. Box 21296, Bluff, 4036
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Member of the South African Magic Council