One of the more usual items in the records of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society held at the Glamorgan Archives is a poster (28cm by 43cm) with accompanying postcard size flyers advertising an afternoon of ‘Humorous Entertainment of Artistic Magic including Sleight of Hand, Novel Magical Effects and Oriental Magic’. To be held at the Cory Hall in Cardiff, on January 6 1919 at 2pm, the show was to be provided by Mr Douglas Dexter, ‘The well-known entertainer of London’. In addition, ‘musical items’ were to be provided by Mr Shapland Dobbs’ Party.
While the subject matter covered by the lectures provided by the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society was wide and varied, this was, without a doubt, a new departure for a Society created for the study of the natural sciences. The explanation was provided on the back of the flyers.
This invitation is issued by the members of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society who desire to give a pleasant afternoon to members of the Forces who happen to be in Cardiff.
Although the war had ended with the Armistice of 11 November 1918, there were thousands of men and women serving in the armed forces waiting to be demobilised. In January 1919 Cardiff was a major hub for troops returning to south Wales. There were also a number of military hospitals in the town and the surrounding area. The Cardiff Naturalists’ Society was clearly looking to play its part in helping to provide entertainment for the armed forces. The concert may also have been a contribution to ‘Gratitude Fortnight’, a series of events organised by the Mayor of Cardiff, in January 1919, to reward the troops and raise money for charities including the King’s Fund for Disabled Soldiers and Sailors. The entertainment was provided free of charge for ‘Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen (whether British, Colonial or Allied). On leave or in Hospital’. The Society was anticipating a large turn-out for the Cory Hall was a much bigger venue than that used for most of its public lectures. Even so, the flyers warned that:
It is regretted that the accommodation will not permit the admission of others than men in uniform.
Dexter was indeed well known. Born Arthur Marks in Eastbourne in 1878 and a teacher by profession, Douglas Dexter made his mark as both an accomplished magician and as an international class swordsman who was selected for the British team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. On the afternoon of 6 January those present would have witnessed the skills of a leading figure in the Magic Circle. Dexter’s repertoire included tricks, such as the Triple Stab, that he guarded jealously, so much so that he sued a fellow magician for allegedly stealing his ideas. The reference to artistic magic was probably to a trick that Dexter was developing at that time that involved white silk scarves being placed in an empty bowl and mysteriously emerging coloured as if they had been dipped in dye.
In the Transactions for 1919 it was reported:
… an entertainment was held at the Cory Hall under the auspices of the Society, to which all of the wounded sailors and soldiers in the Military Hospitals were invited. Over 700 attended and had a thoroughly enjoyable time [Transactions of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society, Vol LII, 1919, Cardiff, 1922].
No doubt Douglas Dexter was well received by the service men and women. Dexter went on to perform in a number of Royal Variety Performances and for King George V at Windsor Castle in 1928. He was awarded the Gold Medal by the Magic Circle in 1926. For the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society, however, it was back to business later in the month with a lecture by Dr A E Trueman, on 23 January 1919, ‘A Geographical Study of the Cardiff Area’.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer