The Example of Important Life’s

I read the obituaries in the Telegraph on a regular basis. It was Bill Conte, a building contractor, who in 1962 said “when I get up in the morning I read the obituaries. If I don’t see my name, I go to the office”.

I am not so well known to ever appear in the newspapers, but there are many, mainly not household names, who do. It allows us to share their experiences, amazing life’s and the contributions they have made to the world. Fergus Anckorn is one of those. If you ever feel down or unmotivated, I can recommend a daily energy boost in the columns of whatever newspaper comes your way.

Colin Watson



FERGUS ANCKORN, who has died aged 99, began his career as a conjurer called “Wizardus” aged 18 when he was the youngest member of the Magic Circle; by the time of his death he was its oldest and longest-serving member.

In later life Anckorn revealed how magic tricks had saved his life during three-and-a-half years of captivity as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, during which he became known as “the conjurer on the River Kwai”. He survived several brushes with death including one of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century – the massacre of patients and medical staff by Japanese soldiers at the Alexandra Military Hospital, Singapore.


One of four children of a journalist, and one of boy-girl twins, Fergus Gordon Anckorn was born on December 10 1918 at Dunton Green, near Sevenoaks. At the age of four he was given a magic set by his mother and as a young boy would perform tricks at parties. In 1936, after education at the Judd School, Tonbridge, he became the youngest member of the Magic Circle.

Encouraged by his father, he took a course in journalism, but never pursued it as a career. Instead he worked as a clerk at the Marley Tile Co in Sevenoaks until the outbreak of war in 1939.

He enlisted as a gunner in the 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, where he met the artist Ronald Searle. Soon afterwards he became ill with a serious skin condition and spent time in Joyce Green hospital, Dartford, where he met his wife to be, Lucille Hose, a nurse. While still stationed in Britain, he and Searle organised concert parties before they were both shipped out to the Far East, arriving in Singapore in early February 1942.

Anckorn had his first narrow escape two days after his arrival when, on duty at the docks, he and his colleagues were dive-bombed by the Japanese. With no time to reach shelter, he plunged into the sea, re-emerging to find that five of his companions had been blown to pieces.

A few days later, shortly before the fall of Singapore, he was ordered to drive a lorry carrying a live shell which had become jammed. He ran straight into an air raid and the shell exploded. He was eventually found lying in a storm drain, so badly wounded that his dog-tags had already been removed and handed in.

Barely alive, suffering from burns and shrapnel wounds, and with his right hand dangling from his arm by a piece of skin, Anckorn was taken to Alexandra Military Hospital where a surgeon decided not to amputate after discovering that he was a conjurer.

Anckorn was unaware that a Japanese salient had been driven deep into the British defence line and the hospital had become isolated in the middle of no-man’s land. On the morning of February 14 Japanese troops entered the building in force and unleashed an indiscriminate orgy of killing, shooting or bayoneting patients and staff.

Semi-conscious and covered in blood, Anckorn was in a ward on the ground floor when he heard a commotion and saw the flash of blades as Japanese soldiers in full battle-gear moved from bed to bed, bayoneting the occupants. Convinced he was about to die, he muttered to himself, “poor Mum” and pulled a pillow over his head, not wanting to witness “the moment of penetration”.

Instead, he was astonished when, instead of the searing pain he was expecting, he heard the cries of the man in the next bed; the Japanese, apparently thinking that he must be dead, had passed him by: “When I came up for air, I discovered I was one of four men who were still alive. The other 72 in my ward had been murdered. The ground floor was a scene of total carnage while, upstairs, the killing continued.”

By the time the Japanese left, about 200, mostly British, victims had been murdered.

The survivors were taken to Changi Jail, where Anckorn somehow managed to survive with his crippled leg and smashed right arm (saved by introducing maggots to devour the gangrene) for several weeks before he was sent north with thousands of others to work on the Burma Railway.

There, though still weak from his injuries and lack of food, he was put to work on the Wampo viaduct. He had another miraculous escape when, ordered to carry scalding creosote up the viaduct, he had an attack of vertigo and found himself unable to move, whereupon a Japanese guard emptied the creosote over him, causing his skin to blister and swell.

After saying goodbye to his friends, he was taken to the hospital at Chungkai camp in Thailand: “Three weeks later they were all dead. If I hadn’t been burnt I would have been dead as well.”

His wounds began to heal and as he gained strength he began to do some simple magic tricks to entertain his fellow prisoners. Word reached the camp commandant, Osato Yoshio, who, despite his reputation as a sadist, turned out to be a devotee of magic.

Osato summoned Anckorn to his office, handed him a coin and was amused to see it disappear – then reappear in an opened tin of fish he had sitting on his table. Since the Japanese would never touch any food “contaminated” by the prisoners, Osato then gave Anckorn the half-empty tin.

Realising that if he continued to do magic with food he could supplement his meagre rations and those of his friends, he asked for more food to use as props.

If you got caught stealing a potato you could have your head cut off,” he recalled. “But the guards did like magic and I’d often manage to get food from them by making it ‘disappear’.”

On one occasion he almost overreached himself when he performed a vanishing egg trick for a visiting general. Camp commandant Osato had written him a note so that he could obtain an egg from the Japanese soldiers’ kitchen. The note did not specify a single egg, so Anckorn asked for 50, all but one of which he gave to his friends.

The performance went well, but the next day he was summoned by Osato to explain what had happened to the other 49 eggs. After a brief moment of panic, he improvised, “Your show was so important, I was rehearsing all day.”


“He nodded and let me go,” Anckorn recalled. “I think to this day he probably knew that I was lying but it was enough to save his face … I couldn’t perform that trick again for 40 years. My knees would knock even thinking about it.”

Anckorn continued to perform magic tricks as he was transferred to other camps. One day in 1945, however, he thought his luck had run out when Japanese guards took him out into the jungle with four fellow soldiers, stood them up against trees and trained a machine gun on them: “We waited for the bullets for 10 minutes … then for some reason [they] thought better of it.” When the prisoners got back to the camp they found the war had been over for three days.

Despite being away from England for years, Anckorn was detained in Rangoon for three months as he “looked too horrible” and needed fattening up, though by the time he arrived in Liverpool on the SS Orbita Rangoon, he still only weighed six stone.

To begin with he found freedom almost too hard to bear. He became something of a recluse and suffered nightmares for many years until he revisited Singapore in 2005 and finally banished his demons.

Shortly after the war he had married his sweetheart Lucille, with whom he had a son and daughter. In 1951 the nerves in his injured hands were reconstructed by surgery and he went on to make a complete recovery.

As well as performing as a magician, Anckorn, an old-fashioned gentleman who rarely left his house without a tie, worked as a teacher at West Kent College.

In 2016, during the 10th series of Britain’s Got Talent, he was featured, aged 97, during the final act of the magician Richard Jones, a serving soldier in the Household Cavalry, who went on win the series.

“I am probably the luckiest man alive. I’ve been blown up, I’ve been shot. I’ve survived a massacre and I also got away with that egg trick,” Anckorn said. “Every day is a wonder to me.”

Anckorn’s wife, Lucille, predeceased him. His children survive him.

Fergus Anckorn, born December 10 1918, died March 22 2018

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