He was born into the Renton family on 13th March 1926, the son of a Gunnery army officer (M J Renton (b) 1912-1918). His surname was not changed to include ‘Sandys’ until 1946, following his father Mervyn’s death – hence Sandys-Renton.
As an only child for a decade he was most ‘niggled’ on his 10th birthday that no birthday presents had arrived from his parents, but instead was told he had a younger brother, David (D S Sandys-Renton (b) 1949-1954). To quote from James’s Life Book, “David has turned out to be a splendid fellow, and very clever, but the only problem was I didn’t get a present that year!”
James was sent to Sherborne in 1939; he boxed, winning his school colours three years in a row, and played rugby for the 2nd XV team. During these war years, he kept pigs and drove a tractor for a local farmer, helping him to plough his fields. As payment he was rewarded with a pint of cider which meant his cycle ride back to school was somewhat erratic. He also borrowed a ferret, hoping to catch rabbits as payment but, when it failed to emerge from a warren, he was late for chapel and the novelty soon wore off.
During ‘Spitfire Week’ he raised money for new Spitfires and Hurricanes, and divided his time between giving demonstrations of bayonet fighting and, perhaps more indicative of his love of ‘Am Dram’, dressing up as Widow Twankey and telling people’s fortunes, including that of his French master! James was confirmed in 1941, three months after his father was killed in the North African desert. His night at the Franciscan Friary at Batcombe was most uncomfortable and James was woken early the next morning by a monk who said, “Christ be thy light brother.” James misheard him and, thinking he said,” what a night brother”, replied, “yes, it was bloody awful!”
In November 1945, after a short course at Oxford University and the RA OCTU at Catterick, James was Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, joining 19th Field Regiment in Palestine, and gaining a Mention in Despatches. He swapped his tractor driving experience for motor cycles and even signed his own driving test certificate. We are told this explains a great deal about the quality of his driving for the rest of his life!
In 1949, James joined 4th Royal Horse Artillery and was posted to a U.S. Base at Sculthorpe in Norfolk, guarding top secret weapons and, because the camp was in ‘lock down’, James came up with the idea of a talent show. It was at this time that his interest in Magic started – in due course he became a member of the Magic Circle.
His magic took him to many places during his life, including into trouble during the voyage on The Queen Mary to a yearlong army weapons course in America. The Captain invited him to perform a magic act for the other guests, and James decided to include his current favourite which involved setting light to a $10 bill. The captain and waiters froze in horror as it rose perilously towards the ship’s sprinkler-system, threatening a titanic-like stampede to the life-boats. Thankfully this was averted when the note fizzled out in the nick of time.
In 1955, a month or so before setting sail for America, James met Elizabeth, but she had to wait for his return before they were married in 1957 and Richard (b) 1972-1977, was born several years later.
After a tour in Germany and 18 months in Kenya he retired from the Army in 1965, aged 39. William, Jane and Lucia were born in fairly quick succession between 1964 and 1967, during which time James worked at Hargreaves Group before becoming a stockbroker in 1972, just as the market crashed.
While working (as a stockbroker) in Harrogate, James bought magic equipment and the stage name of Foo Man Soo and performed magic, as a hobby, in venues around Yorkshire, including Leeds City Varieties, Ripon Festival and the Georgian Theatre, Richmond. Amusingly his performance at Leeds women’s prison came to an abrupt end after the prop-forward prison bully stepped forward to be levitated and then cut in half. The levitation went according to plan, but when she sat on the table, it collapsed – much to the amusement of all the inmates and guards! On another occasion, the owner of a Yorkshire country house hotel asked him to entertain a delegation of Russians who were meeting with De Beers to discuss the pricing of diamonds used to pay for the wheat imported from USA. What started as two half hour ‘slots’, ended with a demonstration of fire eating well after midnight, including participation by several KGB guards!
Dressed in his oriental costume, fire eating was a particular speciality, and one outdoor performance in particularly blustery conditions accounted for his lack of eyebrows! Notably in 1986, James devised, organised and appeared in a 12-hour entertainment marathon, the Harrogate ‘Enterthon’, raising £10K for the British Heart Foundation. He also gave his time freely and performed in many other fundraising events over the years. James retired from public performances in 1999.
James died on 20th July 2015. He leaves a widow, Elizabeth, to whom he was married for over 58 years, 4 children, 9 grandchildren, and his brother David, all of whom are left wondering how on earth did he enable a five pound note lent by a member of one audience to turn up a bit later in the middle of an uncooked sausage!