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Conjuror on the River Kwai, Fergus Anckorn, dies aged 99


Fergus Anckorn, the longest serving member of The Magic Circle and former prisoner of war, whose sleight-of-hand skills helped save his own life and the lives of his fellow soldiers during their time in Japanese internment camps has died. He was 99 years old.   

A Magic Circle member since he was 18 years old, Anckorn was a noted magician before he joined the British Army in the run up to WWII. The young magician-turned-soldier very nearly lost one of his hands while he was stationed in Singapore, when a live artillery shell he was carrying exploded during an air raid, leaving his right hand hanging by a shred of skin and muscle tissue. 

Military doctors originally wanted to amputate his severely damaged hand, but Anckorn was recognized by orderly Julian Taylor (who would later be knighted for his work in orthopedic surgery), who had seen one of his magic performances back in England. Taylor convinced a surgeon to attempt to save the young magician’s hand. The surgeon succeeded in saving Anckorn’s hand, but during his recovery, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the field hospital he was in was sacked and its occupants murdered. He only survived because his injuries were so severe that Japanese soldiers thought he was dead as they passed. 

Anckorn was eventually found and shipped off to Changi prison, where he was forced to let maggots eat the dead tissue on his hand and arm to stave off gangrene.  Eventually, he was sent to the Burma railroad, where allied soldiers were being used as slave labor. Gravely injured, but still capable of work, Anckorn was forced to carry buckets of boiling hot creosote up a 100ft shaft. Eventually, suffering from malnutrition and infection, he passed out, only for a camp guard to kick one of the buckets of creosote over onto his bare flesh. Anckorn was transferred to a hospital camp to treat his burns. 

The camp he was transferred to was overseen by a man called Osato. He was known by the camp’s prisoners as a vicious beast of a man, who regularly had prisoners beaten and shot dogs for his own entertainment, but he also had a love for magic. When he learned of Anckorn’s history as a performer, he demanded the prisoner perform for him. 

Anckorn, now partially recovered from his injuries, used coins and a tin of sardines to pull off a simple vanishing trick, and was surprised when the officer let him keep them afterwards.  

“I found out that they wouldn’t touch anything we touch,” he told the British newspapers decades later. “We were verminous and horrible so if we touched it, they didn’t. So every time I was called back there, if there was some food I would do a trick with it.”

On one occasion, Osato asked Anckorn to demonstrate his vanishing trick for a special guest, and sent him to the kitchen with a chit to fetch an egg. Anckorn took 50 eggs, and gave the remaining 49 to his fellow soldiers. When questioned about the extra eggs, his life likely hanging in the balance, he told his captor, “Your trick was so important to me, I was rehearsing all day’.”  

The bluff worked, but Anckorn wouldn’t perform that trick for another 40 years.

“My knees would knock together even thinking about it,” he said.   

But he did continue performing for his captors, earning him and his friends longer rest breaks and more food. He was eventually released in 1945. The army held him for three months while he gained weight, convinced his gaunt frame would be too shocking for his family. Three months after his release from the Japanese camp, he weighed just 84 pounds.

Anckorn’s story was eventually recorded in a number of biographies, almost all of which refer to him as “The Conjuror on the River Kwai.” He was an inspiration to Britain’s Got Talent winner, Richard Jones, who invited the elderly magician and fellow serviceman to appear on stage alongside him during the 2016 final of the variety show.

Jones was one of many magicians and soldiers who paid tribute to Anckorn when he died, aged 99, last Saturday. 

Jones described him as, “a true soldier till the end.”

Fergus Anckorn was the longest serving member of the Magic Circle.