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Sydney George Piddington (1918–1991)

by Nigel Starck

This article was published:

Sydney George Piddington (1918-1991), showman, was born on 14 May 1918 at Randwick, Sydney, son of New South Wales-born parents Albert Sydney Keith Piddington, commercial traveller, and his wife Hilda Mabel, née Warby. He attended Sydney Grammar School, winning prizes for history in 1933 and 1934. On gaining his Intermediate certificate, he was articled in February 1935 to C. A. Le Maistre Walker, a Sydney firm of chartered accountants. He remained with the company for the next six years.

Piddington demonstrated early potential for the entertainment industry by becoming an accomplished conjuror, practising a repertoire that included card tricks, the pea-and-thimble distraction, and the linked rings. One of its more hazardous features was ‘the disappearing lighted cigarette’; it failed to disappear at one rehearsal, in his bedroom, and the fire brigade had to be called. Refining the art, he won a junior conjuring competition and was frequently engaged for appearances at social events. There were indications, too, of his capacity as an entrepreneur: when one prospective client offered him a talent fee of one pound, he asked instead for two pounds—and got it.

Never notably passionate about the profession of accountancy, after World War II broke out Piddington enlisted on 2 May 1941 in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). He was posted to the 2/15th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, which embarked for Singapore in July. Following the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December, he fought in the battle of Muar in mid-January 1942 then joined the retreat south to Singapore. On 10 February he was promoted to lance sergeant. When the Allies surrendered five days later, he became a prisoner of war. Over the next three years and six months, he was held at Changi, where he established himself as courageous and resourceful in the operation of concealed radio receivers. His sleight of hand proved useful when components had to be hidden from the guards.

It was another form of showmanship, developed while at Changi, that eventually brought Piddington international recognition. He found at the camp a magazine article about the art of stage telepathy. In company with an artillery comrade, Russell Braddon, he developed a mind-reading act that helped relieve the monotony of prison life. Their commander in captivity, Lieutenant Colonel (Sir) Frederick Galleghan, subsequently reflected that ‘I know of nothing that kept the men’s minds and their mental capacity more agile than the contribution to their welfare made by Piddington’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1991, 4). In front of an audience of fellow prisoners, Piddington would ‘project’ images and thoughts towards Braddon: colours, shapes, cards, names, and addresses. Braddon later wrote of the controversy that ensued, with fierce disputes erupting over the question of whether or not there had been the exercise of a sixth sense (Braddon 1950, 123-25).

Released from imprisonment after Japan’s capitulation, Piddington was discharged from the AIF on 10 November 1945. He was inspired by the reaction to his wartime act, and took it to radio, television, and the vaudeville circuit. On 19 July 1946 at St Mark’s Church of England, Darling Point, he married Lesley Elizabeth Pope, an actress and daughter of Rear Admiral Cuthbert John Pope. Lesley became her husband’s telepathy partner. Their program made its début on Sydney radio station 2UE in July 1947, achieving such immediate popularity that stations in Melbourne and Brisbane also took it. On the strength of that response, and further encouraged by a profitable Queensland tour, they ventured abroad. This initiative was typical of the energy and confidence, verging on audacity, that Piddington displayed throughout his career. He had an unfailing ability to promote himself. That quality was complemented by his appearance: tall and slim, with well-defined cheekbones and impeccably groomed hair, he dressed with meticulous care and an eye for fashion. Yet his speech was mildly afflicted by an impediment in delivery: a hesitancy that could lead to a stammer.

After auditioning successfully in London for the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Piddingtons presented a season of eight radio broadcasts in 1949, followed by televised shows and another season in 1950. Their manager, Braddon, sent Lesley to a variety of inventive locations: into the Tower of London, underwater in a diving bell, and 15,000 feet (4570 m) above Bristol in an aircraft. Whatever the degree of physical separation, she appeared able to ‘read’ with a consistent degree of accuracy the messages purportedly transmitted by her husband from the BBC studio. Listeners were intrigued, especially when she would deliver a line from a book selected apparently at random by a member of the studio audience. The chosen passage was written on a blackboard by one of the celebrity guests acting as a judge, but never read aloud by Piddington. The intimate and seemingly unrehearsed nature of their act, devoid of slick patter, protected them from violent accusations of fakery.

The act aroused considerable public debate. Capitalising on the controversy, the Piddingtons appeared at British provincial theatres, topped the bill at the London Palladium, and made tours of Austria, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), New Zealand, and Australia (an eight-week Sydney season and a month’s run in Melbourne, in 1951). They eventually retired the act in 1952. From surviving recordings, it is apparent that word-cues were employed in ‘transmitting’ colours and shapes. But the more complex aspects, especially those requiring identification of sentences selected from a book, continued to defy explanation. The Piddingtons maintained the mystique: when interviewed over the decades, they gave evasive responses. A letter Braddon had written to his mother in 1949 provided a clue; he told her that it all relied on ‘a memory system,’ but did not elaborate (Starck 2011, 84).

Remaining in Britain for another two years, Piddington joined the impresario Harold Fielding as agency director. In 1954, he turned to advertising and sales management in Australia. This led by 1964 to appointment in Sydney as general sales manager of the television company ATN7 and later as chief advertising manager for Fairfax newspapers. Sydney and Lesley divorced in 1966; the following year, on 20 October, he married Carol Lesley Cowell, an insurance clerk, at the registrar general’s office, Sydney.

In 1972 Piddington’s second marriage was dissolved, and, on 25 October, he married Robyn Delca Anne Greig, a personnel consultant, at the registrar general’s office, Sydney. With her, he re-launched the act. Ever the entrepreneur, he took his revived show to the club circuit and generated widespread attention by sailing one hundred nautical miles (185 km) out to sea aboard a Russian liner and transmitting ‘thought waves’ to his new partner in the 2GB Sydney radio studio. His energies were further displayed in publicity engagements for the retail corporations Lend Lease and Myer, and for Singapore Airlines.

Moving to Leura in the Blue Mountains, Piddington and Robyn developed a boutique tourist accommodation operation. His final years were shadowed by illness. Following surgery for cancer of the larynx, he lost the ability to speak. Survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, and the son of his third, he died on 29 January 1991 at Katoomba and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Braddon, Russell. The Piddingtons. London: Werner Laurie, 1950
  • Hazlitt, Lesley. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX5822
  • Piddington, Robyn. Personal communication
  • Starck, Nigel. Proud Australian Boy. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘ESP Showman Sent Images from Plane to Diving Bell.’ 31 January 1991, 4.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nigel Starck, 'Piddington, Sydney George (1918–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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