Sunday, 13 December 2015

Forgotten London: Egyptian Hall (Trail of Cthulhu, Bookhounds of London)

England once had a Home of Mystery, founded by one of the premier family businesses in all of entertainment history: the Maskelynes. Forgotten London has touched on the Crystal Palace and Tussauds Museum. Now it's time to turn our attention to the history of magic, and with it, the Egyptian Hall.

Built by Mr William Bullock in 1812 to house his extensive collection of curiosities, the Egyptian Hall covered numbers 170 to 172, Piccadilly, Westminster. Egyptology being the prevailing obsession, it was designed in a broadly Egyptian style, with a frontage reminiscent of Karnak or Luxor. However it was a multi-purpose building. The Musical Repository had shops there, where it manufactured sheet music. A grocer's, Jacksons, remained there until its destruction in 1910, and even after the Hall was gone Jacksons still maintained a shop at its old location for many decades afterward. There were other shops, and an art gallery, but from Bullock's point of view the main purpose of the Hall was to house his museum, originally called the London Museum of Natural History. It went through several other name changes before finally becoming the Egyptian Hall, sometime between 1819 and 1821.

It was an odd collection. One moment the Hall might be home to Egyptologist Belzoni's collection of artifacts, and then next week it might house fresh exhibits Bullock had brought home from Mexico. Then again it might be home to Eng and Chang Bunker, the original Siamese twins. Or P.T. Barnum, or Tom Thumb, or the Mysterious Lady, or magicians, hatchet throwers and other entertainers. This was the age of spectacle, and the Egyptian Hall excelled at spectacle.

The Maskeylnes were not the first magicians at Egyptian Hall by any means, but they were the first to realize the possible benefits of having a theatre of their own. Up till that time a typical magician's career was peripatetic, and one of the consequences was that he had to rely on the theatre having what he needed to carry off the performance. It meant that he had to be versatile, but it also meant that he had to accept the misfortunes of travel. Sometimes this meant disaster; imagine being the magician who, on unpacking his expensive and carefully crafted props and devices after a long sea voyage, discovered that his life's work had been eaten by termites. The Maskelynes were no strangers to this kind of life, and when J Nevil Maskelyne signed up for a three month stay at the Hall in 1873, he probably had no intention of staying longer than that.

Bullock, by this point, was out of the picture, having died in 1849. Before his death the Hall had been bought by lifelong bookseller George Lackington, who rented it mainly for art exhibits and entertainments. It's difficult to find out who owned it after Lackington's death in 1844; presumably either the Lackington bookselling firm owned it outright, or it was held in trust for Lackington's heirs.

J. Nevil Maskelyne soon discovered the benefits of being master of his own theatre, even if, in the Hall, he was merely a tenant. It became his home base. He could travel to Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and rest assured that, on his return, he had a space, and his tools of the trade, waiting for him in London, the grandest city of the Empire. His son Nevil followed in his footsteps, spending the first nineteen years of his performing life at the Egyptian Hall.  Yet nothing lasts forever. Its owners decided there was more profit in office blocks than magic, and in 1905 the Egyptian Hall was demolished.

As a side note, its dissolution was captured by the artist Muirhead Bone, who later went on to become a famous war painter. The best version I've been able to find is here, and isn't all that clear, but you may have better luck.

The Maskelynes, father and son, went on to St George's Hall, which J Nevil significantly adapted for their work. J Nevil died in 1917 leaving the business to his son Nevil, and Nevil's children, including grandson Jasper who, at the time of J Nevil's death, was only fifteen years old. Jasper's father Nevil died in 1924, when Jasper was barely in his twenties. Nevil had the benefit of nineteen years at the Hall and a further twelve at St George's before inheriting the family business. Jasper had less than a decade. Jasper must have felt bereft, and perhaps a little unsteady on his professional feet, which may help to explain his later erratic behavior.

Jasper was one of five Maskelynes to inherit the magical Maskelyne empire. He had three older brothers. Captain Clive fought in the War and won the Military Cross, despite a heart murmur, and later became a stage magician. John Nevil had no interest in working the stage, and handled the business side of things. Noel also became a magician and maker of illusions, along with Jasper, who was the most adept of the brothers on stage. Their sister Mary, a talented performer, completed the Maskelyne menage.

Before his death, J Nevil attended the inaugural meeting of the Magic Circle at the Green Man pub in Soho, and St George's Hall later became a regular meeting place for the Circle. The Magic Circle eventually established itself at Euston, where it remains to this day. For a time Captain Clive was president of the Circle, but that heart murmur proved to be the death of him at a tragically early age, in 1928. Jasper would have been twenty six years old at that point, when the last strong connection with the Maskelynes of old was severed.

That was the start of the Maskelyne family feuds. Jasper proved to be a difficult sibling to work with, and Clive the war hero seems to have been the glue that held the family together. Jasper was dismissed from the family business in 1933, which coincided with the loss of St George's Hall. It was taken up by the BBC, and the Maskelyne's permanent home for magic ceased to be. The Maskelynes briefly tried to keep the dream alive at a different location, but by the end of 1934 the family business was kaput. St George's itself was demolished in 1966, and a hotel stands where the Maskelynes used to entertain all of London.

Jasper's life never really lived up to his early promise. Though he had an interesting wartime career, how interesting it actually was depends on how much you're willing to suspend disbelief and take Jasper's word for it. "You are not actually under oath when writing your own memoirs," as one historian put it. He chucked it all in and went to Kenya to start a new life as a farmer which, in hindsight, was one of the worst things he could possibly have done. He would have been there post-1960 and during the age of Mau Mau, when independence made things very difficult for those white settlers who'd chosen to believe, in their folly, that the sun would never set on the Empire. Jasper died in 1974, an embittered drunk. 

With all that in mind, let's talk about what this might mean for a Bookhounds game.

Both the Egyptian Hall and St George's Hall offer strong possibilities. By the 1930s the Egyptian Hall no longer exists, but the grocer's, Jacksons, does. In fact it may still exist, as Jacksons of Piccadilly, though I can't be certain that the modern Jacksons still occupies its old Egyptian Hall address. Be that as it may, Megapolisomancers may wish to take advantage of this long-standing lever by using Jacksons to keep in contact with the Egyptian Hall of former days.

It may even be possible, if you walk through the right door at Jacksons, to get to whatever's left of the memory of the Egyptian Hall, though what you'd find in that hidden space between worlds is anybody's guess. It once housed anything and everything, from a family of Laplanders plus reindeer to relics from the tomb of Seti I. Who knows what might still lurk in the shadowy, somehow dustless corridors of that Hall which is still a prisoner of time? Possibly spending the night there, or investigating the Hall further, would confer 1 potential Magic point.

Alternatively Jacksons' records might prove very interesting, to students of history. After all, the firm's been there since the Hall was first built. The account books, photographs, and other memorabilia hidden away in Jacksons' offices would prove very interesting, if they could be accessed. Of course, they might be very dusty, the perfect environment for Dust Things.

Or perhaps something else is still living there. A Rat Thing that's been hiding in Jacksons all this while would know everything about the old Hall. It could be that the oldest employee at Jacksons has been there much longer than even his or her employers know; did one of the many mummies housed at the Hall over the years decide to sneak to safety when the Hall was demolished?

St George's Hall is slightly different. It's still home to the Masklynes until 1933, which means it's also home to the Magic Circle. Getting involved with any of the Masklynes, especially Jasper, could be interesting. They're all going to want to collect books on magical practice, mechanical engineering, and other topics related to their craft. J Nevil, like many magicians, was a confirmed skeptic, and founded the Occult Committee to investigate strange claims. By the 1930s J Nevil is long gone, but perhaps Jasper, in his ongoing feud with his siblings, is reviving the Committee out of spite, spending family money on its endeavors. Or perhaps the protagonists, desperate for a bump in the shop's profit margin, is courting members of the Magic Circle in hope they'll become patrons. It's also possible that one of the characters is a practicing stage magician, in which case they might be members of the Circle, or be hoping to join.

Of course, when St George's Hall is taken by the BBC in 1933, the Maskelynes would have to downsize. Even if each of them took some of their props and properties with them, there would probably have been plenty of items left over that Nevil's heirs either wouldn't or couldn't take. That sounds like an excellent opportunity for an auction.

Alternatively among the many bits of props, papers and other ephemera carted over to St George's Hall in 1905 may be something that the characters really want. It might be something owned by the Maskelynes, or something accidentally moved over from the Egyptian Hall. Perhaps an occult artifact, or book, or something more substantial. Maybe something in old J. Nevil's notes holds the key to the protagonists' current dilemma. Or it could be that the stuff in St George's Hall, while not useful in itself, could be used to make a squiz, or be material for a forgery.

That's enough for the moment. Enjoy!

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