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Beermat of mystery
WHAT connects Swindon, Morecambe and Wise and an American music hall star mortally shot while pretending to catch a bullet in his teeth?
The answer is a 105-year-old beer mat that may be the only one of its kind in existence.
On Monday, October 23, 1961, the Adver ran an unusual news item: “...a memento of Chung Ling Soo, perhaps the world’s most famous illusionist, has just come to light from behind the mantelpiece...”
The mantelpiece in question was at a small terraced house in Gooch Street, and our article went on: “Mr Tony Hewer was dismantling a fireplace when he came across the beermats in remarkably good condition.”
The reporter seems to have been confused by the pictures sent in by Mr Hewer, because he wrote of more than one beermat. In fact, the two shots showed either side of the same one. We added: “The Willow Pattern blue in which they are printed is still bright and clear despite the sooty hiding place from which they have been rescued.
“A few years after his appearance at the now defunct Empire Theatre, Swindon, in 1908, Chung Ling Soo was fatally wounded during his act of catching, between his teeth, bullets fired from a rifle.”
The world famous Chung Ling Soo pretended to be Chinese, but was an American magician called William Robinson. He used sleight of hand and a rigged rifle to create the illusion of catching a bullet in his teeth or his hand. He died, aged 57, during a show in London in 1918 when a malfunctioning trick gun barrel put an all-too-real bullet into his chest.
The Morecambe and Wise connection came a couple of years after the Adver article. The up-and-coming comedians, avid beer mat collectors at the time, appealed for an example of the Chung Ling Soo Swindon mat, which had legendary status among enthusiasts even then, and seem to have got an answer from Swindon.
Tony Hewer, known to friends as Bill, died in 1992, but his son has been in touch to ask whether readers can tell him more about the curio. Mick Hewer, who was still in junior school when the original article appeared, is now a 61-year-old building project manager who lives in Eldene with wife Diane. The couple have two grown-up children.
“I was 10,” he said. “My parents lived in Gooch Street. I remember that in the rear bedroom there was an old fireplace. My dad decided to get rid of the fireplace.” The younger Mr Hewer, like his father before him, believes the mat had somehow slipped behind the fireplace casting from a shelf above, putting it out of harm’s way.
“I remember dad took it out. At the time he worked for Pressed Steel and I think somebody there had a friend or relative at the Adver and suggested he got in touch.
“Not long after that, Morecambe and Wise advertised in the Times for a Chung Ling Soo beer mat because they were collectors. It was considered to be very rare. I think Dad contacted them and they said, ‘Send it in and we’ll reimburse you. Dad thought he might never hear from them again, so nothing happened.”
The stars seem to have mentioned this incident in a double interview with the Dublin Evening Press in 1963, when they recalled a phone message about the elusive piece of memorabilia. “We were delighted and asked him to drop it in the post to us and we would settle with him for his trouble. The mat never came. We reckon this fellow just wanted to know what it was all about.”
Is Mr Hewer the owner of a unique Holy Grail among beermats or are there other examples elsewhere? If you can tell us anything, we’d love to hear from you.