Randolph Douglas - aka Randini
by Ann Beadham
Sheffield's Houdini - Randini.
One fan of the magical and unusual sights of Sheffield, including the Bostock Jungle, was a man named Randolph Robert Osborne Douglas - aka Randini. Randolph was born at Greenhill in 1895, which was then in Derbyshire. He was an aspiring escapologist and a great admirer of the great Harry Houdini. Randolph also frequented the Sheffield Empire Theatre, which was on Charles Street, soaking up magic shows whenever possible.
In March 1911, Randolph took himself to see the wonders of that other great venue in town - The Bostock Jungle. The advertisement in the newspaper for the elephant act there certainly sounded exciting enough to tempt many a punter through the gates: "A revelation in the annals of elephant training... begins about where other trained elephants finish... has forgotten MORE than other performing elephants ever knew." What the elephants thought about it is another matter. The advertisement had the usual limerick competition, where anyone sending the best closing line on a postcard to the 'Limerick Manager' at the Jungle would win a prize.
What Randolph thought about the show, who knows, but I am sure he would have loved it. He was impressed enough to buy a pack of twelve postcards for 2d (1p) as a souvenir. And the Jungle building had another show between the two Sheffield Jungle events, The Royal Italian Circus commencing in September 191: 'The Greatest and Grandest Circus Entertainment Ever Seen in This Country... 'Over 200 performing animals. Truly a sight of a lifetime.'
Another sight of a lifetime for Randolph was when superstar Harry 'The Handcuff King' Houdini came to the Sheffield Empire in January 1904. Considering the then nine-year-old Randolph Douglas's passion for escapology, he was likely to be present that night. Ever the self-promoter, Houdini had already got the Sheffield public hooked with his pre-show escape from legendary burglar and murderer Charlie Peace's old cell. To prove it he was given a certificate of authenticity by the police. A report in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent newspaper tells of the 'enthusiastic crowd' at the Empire which is where Randolph first met Houdini. He knew immediately that Randolph was no ordinary fan with his knowledge of locks and stage magic. The two became close friends and whenever Houdini performed at the theatre in Sheffield, Randolph went backstage to help.
Randolph's interest in escapology started early. He was apprenticed to his father Robert Strachan Douglas, a talented silversmith, modeller and designer. One of Randolph's notebooks lists locks, handcuffs and a straightjacket as a shopping list in 1911 - not the usual type of haul for a 16-year-old's pocket money. He would buy locks from Sheffield's 'rag and tag' market, perhaps on route to the Jungle for an afternoon show.
Speaking to a reporter in a newspaper cutting from 'The Worlds Fair' of May 28, 1938, Randolph says: "Ever since I was 13 I have been fascinated by the mechanism of locks. Every lock I could get hold of I used to dissect and assemble again. Hundreds passed through my hands, and from that stage I turned to handcuffs, and so on. When I first met Houdini he soon realised that I was not the usual type of fan or autograph hunter, and I think I impressed him with my knowledge of locks and the art of escapology".
In fact Houdini was so impressed that he often visited Randolph at the Douglas family home, which was by then at Carrington Road, near Hunter's Bar (Sheffield). Such a visit was a rare occurrence for the famous man. Sometimes he went alone and sometimes with his wife Bess to see Randolph, where they were given tea and cakes. Randolph was also a talented silversmith and he gave Bess Houdini a jewellery box he had made for her. These visits must have been very exciting for Randolph, and set many a lace curtain on the road twitching.
On another visit, one afternoon in June 1914, young Randolph gave another gift - he gave something back to the man who had inspired him. He showed the great Houdini a trick, which became his trademark escape feat all over the world. Houdini had done his act at the Nottingham Empire the night before and came up to Sheffield to visit 19-year-old Randolph. After the usual tea and cakes in the parlour, Houdini was led to the attic room by Randolph and his stepmother Kitty. Randolph put on a strait jacket, an item which Houdini was already using in his act. Then he did something different - he literally turned the usual straitjacket escape on its head. Randolph lay down as Kitty tied the rope around his feet then walked over to a winch. After asking Mr Houdini to give her a helping hand she hauled Randolph into the air until he was dangling upside-down from the beam. Then, as a bemused Houdini watched, Randolph proceeded to shed the straitjacket looking like some kind of emerging butterfly. The jacket fell to the floor and Randolph swung to and fro, his arms open in a gesture of accomplishment. Houdini took the show back to the US and an iconic image of escapology was born.
But Randolph's own dreams of escapology stardom never flourished. After he volunteered for the Army in 1916, Randolph was sent home from basic training because it was discovered he had a rheumatic heart. That was effectively the end of his escapology career but being invalided out of the Army could well have saved his life.
He worked during the war machining in a smoky workshop, escaping to the fresh air of the Peak District every Sunday, with his girlfriend Hetty. By 1926 - the same year as Houdini died- they were married and had bought a cottage in the village of Castleton. Half of the cottage was used as a home and the other half was turned into The Douglas Museum House of Wonders, to display his collection of locks, some given to him by Houdini, as well as keys, stalactites and other curiosities he had accumulated over the years. It became a popular tourist attraction where visitors were shown round by torchlight, for a sixpenny fee.
Randolph also displayed tiny models there, which he created without the use of a magnifying glass. One model of a greenhouse full of potted plants fitted on a thumbnail. Another, a working electric motor, fitted under a thimble. Randolph and Hetty ran their museum together until Randolph's death on December 5, 1956, aged 61. He was buried at the Castleton church of St Edmund's.
Hetty continued to run the place until her own death on April 21, 1978, but with the couple gone, the House of Wonders came to an end. The museum was closed, the marvels boxed and the cottage sold.
- Castleton Information Centre has a Randolph Douglas display with photos and models. Click here to see an original flyer for the Douglas Museum.
- Letters and postcards between Randolph and Houdini are in the Magic Circle archives. Most of the itmes from The House of Wonders are in the Douglas Collection which is housed at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.
- The story of Randolph and Houdini is told in the book 'The Man Who Helped Houdini' by Ann Beedham, published by youbooks.co.uk and available from firstname.lastname@example.org, £9.99.