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"The wind of change...": From magician to driving instructor

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent,” declared British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, on a visit to South Africa in February 1960. A month earlier, majority rule came to Kenya and a period of colonial transition to independence started.


That same year, the British accepted the principle of one person one vote. This would end the privileged political position of the white settlers for good. By 1963, Kenya's newly franchised population elected a black majority government for the first time. It declared independence on 12 December 1963.


Jasper Maskelyne had lived in British East Africa, otherwise known as Kenya, from 1950. For a decade he'd enjoyed the status and privileges of being a Briton in Kenya. But, change was coming and the advantages of Jasper’s expatriate lifestyle were soon to be eroded.


Spotting an opportunity to turn disadvantage to advantage, Maskelyne got involved in setting up two driving schools in the early 1960s. Car ownership was increasing as imports of cars grew and they were becoming more affordable, bolstered by Volkswagen building a Beetle assembly plant in the country.


From his early twenties, Jasper had enjoyed owning and driving vehicles. In his autobiography White Magic, his enthusiasm riding a motorbike around London as a despatch rider during the 1926 General Strike came through. Later in the book, he wrote, “I… bought a very fast car, of which I was very proud, and I proposed to give myself a day off on Derby Day and run down to see the race.” At the onset of World War Two, he owned two cars, a rarity at the time. And he’d gained much experience of military vehicles and overland driving from his time in the army, touring his show around Africa in 1930/31 and 1950/51, and more recently from his police work in and around Nairobi.


Jasper Maskelyne & Company's Africa tour with ex-army vehicles in 1950/51
Jasper Maskelyne posing for the photographer while sitting on the running board of a 1940s era car

Within the Kenya Police, there was a traffic department containing driving instructors and test examiners, while in the army there were instructors and examiners in the Army School of Driving in the East Africa Army Service Corps. These existed to train native Kenyans who joined the police or army and who were to be employed as drivers. When these organisations reorganised and reduced in size as the Mau Mau violence ended and the country headed towards independence, Jasper exploited his contacts in both to set up the driving school businesses.


The first was the Overland Driving School, based at Lullington House, Queensway, Nairobi. Jasper was the named owner of this business, which he ran in partnership Keith Graysmark Brown (a driving test examiner). The second business, the Maskelyne Driving School, operated from St John’s Gate, Nairobi. Mary Maskelyne (Jasper's wife) was the named owner of this business, which the Maskelyne’s ran in partnership with Clifford Leonard Hunt, another driving test examiner.


The Maskelyne’s driving schools were the best known in the city, at least among the white population who were their main clientele.


Maskelyne's Driving School in Nairobi, Kenya (c1960s)

Jasper and Mary operated a fleet of dual-control cars, emblazoned with ‘Maskelyne’ on the roof. The vehicles were a common sight around Nairobi in the 1960s and early 1970s, with many thousands of learner drivers passing their driving tests with the company. According to Alistair Maskelyne, the businesses were profitable:


“When the troubles were concluded [my father] continued his affair with cars by founding a very successful driving school in Nairobi. The profits were large.”

Jasper not only ran the businesses but was also a driving instructor. One of his students was Rachael England. She described him as “a very military sort of man, a disciplinarian.” She said, he was “brusque and no-nonsense, but not unfriendly.” By this stage, Jasper had all but given up performing, at least professionally. Rachael England knew the Maskelyne name for its driving school brand and was not aware that her instructor had been a famous magician.


Jasper Maskelyne attending to business matters at his desk in the driving school (late 1960s)

Jasper owned the driving schools with Mary for over a decade. Heading into semi-retirement, he sold the Overland Driving School as a going concern in May 1969. The Maskelyne’s continued to run the Maskelyne Driving School until 1973, when it too was sold as a going concern.


Jasper Maskelyne died in March 1973.


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