WHO was Chung Ling Soo? My mind was racing after I read a letter from hairdresser Maurice Kobelt, of Bollings Yard, Bolton, who had read about "the great Chung Ling Soo" - supposedly from Bolton - in an American book on magicians.

He went on: "In the early 1950s, I used to cut the hair of an elderly man who worked for this magician at a workshop on Spa Road, Bolton, which later became the Regal cinema.

"It seems that Chung Ling Soo was in fact a Bolton lad who achieved worldwide fame, convincing many people that he really was a Chinese Mandarin."

Well, to be honest, I had never heard of him. Neither had members of the Evening News' library staff. Yet, eventually, after searching through a few drawers in the library I surprisingly found a file on Chung. Or should it be Ling? Perhaps even Soo? And, yes, he did have connections with Bolton. However, they were not quite as close as Maurice seems to think.

Chung (Ling?) (Soo?) was, in fact, an American illusionist named William Ellsworth Robinson, but the amazing thing about his career was that he managed to keep up his Chinese pose as far as the public was concerned for many years, in spite of the fact that hundreds of his friends and fellow illusionists knew who he really was.

So now we know that Chung was not born (in about 1861) in Bolton. Robinson had changed his name to Chung Ling Soo in 1900, at the age of 39, and became one of variety's most legendary illusionists. He certainly appeared at Bolton's Grand Theatre in Churchgate on a number of occasions.

In 1955, a book by fellow illusionist Will Dexter was published, called "The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo", and it explained that, for many years, Chung's tricks and props were manufactured at Ritherdon's North Bridge Mill, Salt Pie Yard, White Lion Brow, Spa Road, Bolton.

Mr Percy Ritherdon's firm's business was really electro-plating and enamelling, but Mr Ritherdon was a conjuring enthusiast who had a flair for thinking up new tricks, and as, at the time, most magical apparatus came from Germany, he decided to build his own. He gathered round him a team who used to work in the evenings (many had jobs with other local businesses), and, as the fame of the material made there grew, Chung Ling Soo (or Willie Robinson if you prefer!) was attracted and came to Bolton to see Mr Ritherdon. From the first visit a bond of confidence was established, with Chung himself also putting up new ideas.

On the top floor of the mill was a long room in which a temporary stage was erected for the tricks to be tried out. Sometimes, a big effect would be rehearsed on the stage at the Hippodrome in Deansgate, with no audience but the clever craftsmen, and sometimes Chung, there. Eventually, most of the team started working full-time at the mill because there was so much to do.

If anything went wrong with apparatus when Chung was on tour, a telegram would arrive in Bolton calling one or other of the team to the aid of the illusionist. Naturally, the fame of the firm spread, and other illusionists sought the aid of Ritherdon's. Yet, whatever they made, the team were sworn to secrecy on how the illusions worked. There is no record of anyone ever giving away the details.

One of the best made at the mill was the talking skull, which answered questions from the audience and which worked with a very primitive form of radio, called "magnetic radiation".

Another was a "Wrestling Cheese" in which an apparently ordinary cheese was carried on to the stage and set on edge. Then a £5 challenge was put out that no one in the audience could push it on to a flat side. When strong men had strained their utmost, the magician would do it with ease.

Another of Chung's tricks was "bullet catching". When that one went wrong at the Wood Green Empire, London, in 1918, there was no sending a telegram to Ritherdon's; Chung was killed.

This is how the trick was done. The old muzzle loading guns which Chung's attendants fired at him were devised so that a blank charge exploded in a secret barrel, and the actual bullets were not discharged. Then the illusionist "caught" bullets (which he had previously palmed) by dropping them on an earthenware plate held up in front of him.

However, the guns were dilapidated, and on the fatal night some of the powder trickled through from the secret barrel into the one which held the bullet. So the real bullet was discharged, and Chung killed in full view of a horrified audience. Years after his death there was controversy as to whether it was suicide, murder, or just an accident, but the inquest decided on the story above, and returned a verdict of "Accidental Death".

Yet, even as late as 1955, Mr Ritherdon's nephew, Jack Clarkson, a magician himself, wrote to the Evening News saying that it could not possibly have been an accident. He alleged that Chung Ling Soo's wife (Mrs Robinson to put it in its proper perspective!) was having an affair with his stage manager, and that Chung was deeply in debt. That, seemingly, in Mr Clarkson's mind, pointed to suicide, but perhaps we shall never know the truth.

That was not the end of Chung's association with Bolton, however. A story in the Evening News in 1962 told of how illusionist Benson Dulay, who was appearing at the Theatre Royal in the pantomime "Aladdin" at that time, had, a few years, previously heard while at the Grand that Chung's effects and costumes were still in Bolton, stored at that same mill.

Benson had approached Mr Ritherdon, asked if he could have one or two of the effects and was told he could have all of it without charge if he would pay the cost of transport to take it away. It took a 22-ton railway truck to move the equipment down to Northampton where Benson lived.

So, although Chung had come to his end in 1918, it took many more years before his connection with Bolton was finally broken. And that's no illusion . . .