John (aka Jack) Milton Woodward might have become a household name in Leamington as the second generation of the family to own Woodward’s department store on the Parade, but instead chose a career in showbusiness. Leamington History Group member and member of the Inner Magic Circle, David Budd, learned his first tricks from Jack Woodward and is writing a book about his former mentor.
David writes: Jack (- I always called him ‘Jack’) taught me all I know. He was born in Eastbourne in 1900, and in 1908, the family moved to Royal Leamington Spa, where his father took over a store at the corner of Regent Street and the Parade. Jack’s first hobby was building model theatres, but when his father gave him a 1/- box of tricks during a bout of measles at the age of 10, he was instantly captivated. Already bitten by the ‘magic’ bug, he gave his first show at the age of 14. When he left school at the age of 16, Jack was apprenticed to the drapery business, but his heart was not in it. He moved to Gravesend as an apprentice. Following the introduction of conscription in 1916, Jack joined the army, and it was at St Leonards on Sea, Sussex, that he began entertaining his colleagues and performed to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. Back in Leamington, he joined the family business in 1921 and three years later married Stella Watson-Mill, staying in the drapery business with magic as a sideline for another fifteen years. Stella’s father was manager of the Theatre Royal, – a very useful contact.
In the 1920s, as ” Milton Woodward”, Jack joined the Popular Purple Pierrots, a concert party based at St Leonard’s on Sea, and turned semi-professional in 1934 with his own amateur concert party, the Fête Follies, who performed regularly in Jephson Gardens. In 1937, with the ‘vocal mannequin of variety’ Millicent Cooper, as his assistant, he became a full-time professional in variety. He formed a group called the Red Admirals, and was soon performing at large theatres in major towns.
When war broke out in 1939, all seaside venues were closed, so Woodward moved into ‘Illusion’ as a variety act, supported by Millicent Cooper, his daughter Betty, and two female assistants. In 1949 he and Cooper devised a new act, the Woodward Wonderbar, where he played the barman and produced ‘any drink called for’, whilst Millicent rushed through 16 costume changes. It was a huge success, and the pair frequently appeared on the same bills as entertainers such as Nat Jackley. As music halls closed, Woodward adapted the act for cabaret, and went on to perform on television in the early 1960s. He also lectured at the Magic Circle in London for several years. He was a very good close-up magician, and during the Christmas period he would go to hotels from Scotland down to Leicester and do what is now called ‘table magic.’ He was philosophical about his way of life and chosen career: in those days, if you had work for 35 weeks of the year you were doing well, – and you counted your blessings. Milton Woodward never neglected his roots. He maintained a base in the town and was very much involved in the burgeoning Leamington and Warwick Magical Society, which began in 1948, holding meetings in the back room of The White Horse in Clarendon Avenue. As the Society increased in size, he was instrumental in securing accommodation at The Regent Hotel, which remained the Society’s HQ for the next 40 years, until closure. The Society, complete with a Junior section for over 10s, now meets in Cubbington. Milton Woodward organised many magical soirées at the Regent, playing to capacity audiences, and his annual Children’s Party was always unforgettable.
He was elected president of the British Ring of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in September 1963, but sadly died the following year before he could complete his term of office.