Frank Guinness and the Ashburton Wizard

The most curious mystery I encountered in writing “Guinness Down Under” is the incident of the night the Ashburton Wizard took to magistrate Frank Guinness’ top hat with a pen-knife, sliced it into pieces, then handed them back to him. It must have been one of the most embarrassing moments of his life.

The good citizens of Ashburton had arranged a benefit concert for Mrs. Hill, the widow of a recently deceased entertainer, and included in the programme advertised in the Ashburton Mail on May 17th 1879 was a “Wondrous Feat by the Ashburton Wizard” (first time in the colony). Not long into the show the Wizard told the audience his trick would involve a top hat and he invited patrons to lend theirs. Just how many people would there be wearing top-hats in Ashburton in 1879? Somehow he managed to select magistrate Frank Guinness who handed over his bell-topper. At that point the magician produced a pen-knife and very calmly cut the hat to shreds.  He then said he had forgotten the rest of the trick – putting the hat back together – so he just gave an astonished Guinness back the remnants of his hat. According to the “Ashburton Mail” of 19th July 1879 the audience was highly amused. Guinness’ reaction can be imagined.

So who was the magician?  His name was W.H. Bristow, and the sole reference to his magical career seems to be that night in Ashburton.  The only W.H. Bristow in the town it seems was one William Hunter Bristow a surveyor who later became a civil engineer and served as county engineer at Akaroa.  Was he the magician?  He had the same initials and there don’t appear to have been any other W.H. Bristows in Canterbury at the time, but without knowing the magician’s full name the only answer can be “possibly”.  Whatever could motivate such a public mockery? Guinness had been in Ashburton only two months: had he built such a reputation for pomp that a young man would feel the need to take him down in such dramatic fashion?  We will probably never know.

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