The wind blew in from the South West, a faint hint of moisture from the tide as it came in. I looked down the steps next to the Cliff Lift and then across to the anchor outside the Yacht Club. I lifted my gaze to the sea and then onto Kent.

He would not have seen the Cliff Lift as it was opened a year after he had left and the gardens around the Yacht Club would have been different but the fact remained I was standing where he had once stood.

Would he have been as nervous as I am? Would he get that knotted muscle in the pit of his stomach which has preceded every Challenge and World Record I have undertaken?

I wish I could ask him but over one hundred years and countless innovations separate us both.

The man I am referring to is the late Eric Weiss yet he is perhaps better known for his stage name, Harry Houdini.

Houdini performing water torture cell

Say the name Houdini and images of a world of Victorian architecture, gas lamps and roads without cars can easily spring to mind. Houdini, who became almost the byword for stage presence, magical illusions and for the then unnamed process of Escapology remains an enigma, even with the passing of the years almost 90 years between his death in 1925 and the modern era.

It may sound ridiculous but we do not even know all the locations where he performed his shows, commanding top billing through chains of local Theatres, such as the Hippodromes or the Empires.

Amazingly though we do know that Houdini did perform in Southend on Sea and that he did so not once but twice which is almost unique.

He walked the High Street, he visited Royal Terrace, performed an unofficial engagement at the Alexander Yacht Club and played to sell out performances in the Hippodrome. Time being what it is, the Hippodrome changed into a Cinema and was pulled down to make way for the modern supermarkets and banks that formed the corner of Southchurch Road and the High Street. The Hippodrome is now a Greggs.

Houdini Challenge in Southend

On Friday the 31st of March 1911, as a highlight to his show, he accepted a challenge from F & E Davey of Elmer Yard, Elmer Avenue, Southend. They agreed to build a wooden box, live on stage, into which Houdini would be sealed. The process was simple, all but the top was created, Houdini would step inside and then the lid would be nailed shut. All of this would happen in front of the one thousand, five hundred strong audience.

A small screen, a curtain, would be pulled across the box and after some time, whilst the house band played, the curtain would be pulled aside and Houdini would be sitting atop the box and not a nail or plank of wood could be found to be out of place and the crowd would go home wondering ‘how’?

Elmer Yard and Elmer Avenue now form part of the Forum complex and it is on that spot that on the 9th of May 2014 the story of Houdini as well as the history of Escapology and those that came before and have followed will be told.

Southend Event: History of Escaplogy

So the next time you walk past the old Barclays Bank, past it’s new home under the University of Essex and continue on until you reach the Pier, spare a thought, as you are following in the footsteps of one of the World’s most famous, most mysterious and most emulated Escapologists.

3 Responses

  1. Dave Dobbin

    Very interesting article.
    One minor correction, if I may. The Hippodrome is *not* now Greggs, which is on the site of the old Hotel Victoria. The Hippodrome (later the Gaumont) was on the other side of Leather Lane and is currently the YMCA charity shop.
    Sadly, another of the places where Houdini performed is about to be demolished – the Alexander Yacht Club building is now closed because it is unsafe.

    • Ria

      Very well spotted, Dave. I would have had no idea at all. Still a fantastically written article from Stuart and I can’t wait to learn more about Houdini and the art of escapology at the Forum next month!

      At the time of this blog post the Alexandra Yacht Club had been declared as unsafe, I believe, but not to the point where it was decided that it should just be demolished. Very sad indeed. As is the demolishing of any local historical building.

  2. Stuart Burrell

    Thank you both and I am sorry about the address. Not that there is an excuse but the photo I was shown was inverted, giving me the impression that it was the Greggs side of the road.
    I will make that clear in the talk on Friday the 9th.
    As for the news of the Alexandra Yacht Club, it has come as a surprise.
    The location itself will still remain a talking point, especially given that Sir Arthur Conon Doyle wrote about the adjacent gardens in his non fiction work on Fairies.
    It is amazing that we have a famous debunker next to a firm believer. The only separation was time and a small iron fence and just down the road from where Laurel and Hardy stayed in the 1950’s and where Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton resided for a short time…..
    We have a lot of history in town.
    Again, sorry for any confusion.

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