We live in London. We both work in marketing. We have active social lives. Whilst our world maybe not be a complete whirlwind of cocktails and decadent debauchery, it’s not bad, and we’re certainly not short of things to do. So what on earth had captivated us on this Sunday afternoon in the sleepy Norfolk market town of North Walsham. In a warehouse of all places. Davenport’s Magic Kingdom is the answer.
We were surprised too. The visit had been recommended by the local tourism board, and so we thought we may as well. I had a Paul Daniels kit as a kid, but we weren’t kids any more, and would much rather be relaxing with afternoon tea at the Beechwood Hotel down the road. But one of the best things about travel is that it challenges your preconceptions. Even when you only travel a couple of hours outside of London (in fact, Davenports have their main shop in central London, at Charing Cross station.) In the end, whilst we did learn about the history of magic and sorcery, this was really a story of entertainment, entrepreneurial-ism, and employment.
Founded in 1898, Davenports is the oldest magic shop in the UK. The story starts much earlier than that. Once magic moved from the realms of witchery and being punishable by death, to trickery and thus entertainment, it was one of the ways in which people entertained themselves in the evening, along with reading, dancing, and acting. With popularity often comes a willingness to pay for it, and Lewis Davenport, the great grandfather of Bill Davenport, who runs the shop, and Roy Davenport, who oversees the Magic Kingdom, started to learn tricks in order to earn a bit of spare cash to help lift his family out of poverty.
After a while he began performing to crowds, and whilst out in Germany, having managed to give up his manual labour work, he realised that there was a market for distribution of the tricks and novelty goods, and so visited all the main manufacturers and engineered his position as the main market contact for the UK. He started a mail-order operation, and in early kits was writing out instructions by hand, and only got a printing press around 1905 by putting an ad in the paper saying he was willing to swap a printing press for magic tricks.
Fast forward a few years and the family were worth millions, Lewis a renowned magician, who performed at many venues, including the London Colosseum, Berlin Winter Gardens and the world-famous Maskelyne’s magic theatre, St. George’s Hall over 3,000 times. Visitors to the Magic Kingdom are now treated to a show in the replica theatre.
Those from a poor background tend to save everything – just in case. And so the museum is filled with old posters, where Davenport’s name steadily rises up the bill, hand written instructions, order forms, letters, original tricks and their later incarnations. It’s warming and inspiring to see how a need became a passion which genuinely transformed a life. These Davenport artefacts have been supplemented heavily over the years, and now include a first edition Discoverie of Witchcraft, written in 1584 by Reginald Scott, he full size reproduction of Harry Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Tank (built for the film Death Defying Acts starring Catherine Zeta Jones), Lewis Davenport’s 1928 Rolls Royce Limousine, as well as numerous bills, ventriloquist dolls, props, equipment and jokes.
The museum features exhibitions on David Devant, Robert Harbin, Harry Houdini and Chung Ling Soo, as well as modern day magicians, such as the afore mentioned Paul Daniels, and David Blaine. As the latter’s popularity shows, we haven’t lost our need to be enchanted, even as we become more sceptical, and it was a joy to grin so much from ‘simple’ card and die tricks. We may believe there was a ‘golden age’ but as long as that capacity and openness to wonder and fascination exists, there is still a place for good old fashioned entertainment and enchantment to exist.
Maybe that’s why we (unexpectedly) enjoyed ourselves so much. This wasn’t so much a museum about magic, but a place where hard work and happiness counted for so much. Never lose your sense of wonder, even if you lose all else.