Pictured: Jasper Maskelyne
(A further post from Farnborough…)
John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917) was an English stage magician, and inventor of the pay toilet, amongst other devices, leading to the euphemism “to spend a penny”. Many of his illusions are still performed today. His book Sharps and Flats is considered a classic overview of card sharp practices. E Nesbit introduces her “Railway Children” by saying: “I don’t suppose they had ever thought about railways except as a means of getting to Maskelyne and Cook’s…”. Maskelyne captured the first ever film of a solar eclipse on 29th May, 1900. His book with psychiatrist Lionel Weatherly, The Supernatural? (1891) is considered an early text in the field of anomalistic psychology.
One of Maskelyne’s three children was Nevil Maskelyne (1863-1924). Following his father’s death, he assumed control of Maskelyne’s Ltd. He had three sons, one of whom was Jasper Maskelyne, born in 1902.
Jasper joined the Royal Engineers at the outbreak of World War II, thinking that his skills could be used in camouflage. The story goes that, by use of mirrors and a model, he convinced sceptical officers by creating the illusion of a German warship on the Thames.
So to the connection with Farnborough, from where a quarter hour drive will bring you to Farnham Castle. Like Pauline Baynes and her sister, Jasper arrived here in 1940 to join the Camouflage Development and Training Centre. The camoufleur Julian Trevelyan commented that Jasper Maskelyne “entertained us with his tricks in the evenings” but was “rather unsuccessful” at camouflaging concrete pill-boxes.
Recruited to work for MI9 in Cairo, Maskelyne created small devices – tools in cricket bats, saw blades in combs, maps on playing cards – to assist soldiers to escape if captured. After an unsuccessful period as head of the Camouflage Experimental Section at Abbassia, Maskelyne was “transferred to welfare”, ie entertaining soldiers with magic tricks.
Brigadier Dudley Clarke, Head of the “A” force deception department, who recruited the flamboyant Maskelyne to MI9, encouraged him to take credit for a central role of inventive genius for two reasons: firstly, as cover for the true inventors of the dummy machinery, and secondly, to encourage confidence in these techniques amongst Allied high command.
A ghost written book about Maskelyne’s exploits, Magic: Top Secret, was published in 1949. Peter Forbes, author of Dazzled and Decieved: Mimicry and Camouflage (2009) describes Maskelyne’s book as “lurid”. Richard Stokes suggests that much of it is pure invention; no unit called the “Magic Gang” ever existed.
Forbes comments that David Fisher, who wrote the biography The War Magician (1983), was “clearly under the wizard’s spell”.
Jasper Maskelyne died in Kenya in 1973. A memoir of 2002 in The Guardian reflected: “Maskelyne received no official recognition. For a vain man this was intolerable and he died an embittered drunk. It gives his story a poignancy without which it would be mere chest-beating.”.