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Tetley Churn Challenge

The great illusionist Harry Houdini was due to appear at the Empire Theatre, Briggate, on February 9, 1911. He issued a challenge to local companies to devise a means of securing him so that he could not escape.

His confidence was justified since nobody had ever succeeded; prison cells, specially made handcuffs, a solder-sealed metal coffin submerged in water, straitjackets, and burglar proof safes had all been tried… and failed.

The well-known local brewery, Joshua Tetley & Son challenged Houdini to escape from a beer cask filled with bitter ale, a feat he undertook to attempt on Thursday 9 February 1911.

Padlocked inside, Houdini, who did not drink, was overcome by the alcohol. Had it not been for his assistants he would have drowned. He was only partially conscious when hauled from the container.

Seventy years later, on Saturday 18 June 1983, escapologist David de Val successfully performed the feat when he emerged from a 50-gallon cask of Tetley beer.

De Val had reckoned with something that Houdini had ignored. That 'something' was the carbon-dioxide gas given off by all beer.

As de Val explained,'Although he, and I, both managed to perform the escape in water, with beer it is a different matter as carbon-dioxide builds up in the barrel if there is any air space and can send you unconscious. 


15th June 1983 Yorkshire Post


Self styled Houdini David De-val hopes there won’t be any extra “body” in his beer when he tries to go one better than the king of escapologists in Leeds, Saturday.

The 44 Year-old children’s magician is to attempt to escape from a full 50 Gallon barrel of best Yorkshire bitter with a lid padlocked from the outside.

David from Springhead Oldham gives him-self 90 seconds to complete the stunt, which almost killed the original Houdini when he attempted it at Leeds Empire in 1911.

On that occasion, frantic aides had to split the barrel open with axes in front of a shocked audience and Houdini almost drowned.

The challenge is being thrown down by Joshua Tetley’s Brewery of Leeds, which organised the great Houdini attempt. The 1983 version will take place at Westwood Gala.


A Houdini disciple, David pulled off his biggest escape trick last April when it took him only four minutes to escape from shackles and unlock the death cell door in York Castle Museum, where highwayman Dick Turpin spent four months before being hanged.

The man who admits to being “three sheets to the wind” on two pints of ale is quietly confident and jokes “I just hope the beer doesn’t reach the places others aren’t supposed to”

But he adds: “I’m serious when I say this is going to be a real danger. One slip and I could drown” It’s not a sure fire set up, as many people seem to think.”

He will have an emergency team standing by with axes and bolt cutters. If there is no sign of him after 90 Seconds, he will give a signal to get him out.


20th June 1983 Yorkshire Post

Escapologist David De-val rolled out the barrel this weekend- and rolled straight in to the record books. And he did it by celebrating Fathers Day a day early in a way many dads would love – up to his ears in Tetley’s bitter!

The Oldham escapologist did what the famous Houdini couldn’t when he escaped from a padlocked 50 Gallon barrel of beer at the Tetley’s gala day in Westwood, Headingley Leeds.

Mr. De-val was challenged by Tetley’s to perform the escape after he shot to fame when he escaped from Dick Turpins cell in York this April.

In 1911 the brewery issued the same challenge to Harry Houdini at the Leeds Empire, but the attempt failed and the famous escapologist had to be freed from the barrel with axes.

Before climbing in to the steel barrel, Mr. De-val told the 2,500 strong crowds “Carbon dioxide was Houdini’s problem. Although he and I both managed to perform the escape in water, with beer is a different matter. As CO2 builds up in the barrel if there is any “Air Space”, and this can send you unconscious”

Anxiously watching he was lowered in to the barrel.


20th June 1983 Yorkshire Post

A Stunt man proved at the weekend that some people will do anything for a drink.

Mr. David De-val 44 escaped from a 50 Gallon barrel of best bitter- a stunt which nearly killed Houdini in 1911 at the Leeds Empire.

The stunt was the highlight of Saturdays annual gala at Tetley’s sports ground in Westwood Leeds

Mr. De-val, above of Springhead, Oldham practised for the escape by holding his head in a 12 Gallon container filled with the bitter and the stunt provided no problem for him. Mr De-val said “I discovered the main problem during rehearsals that was that if you tried to create an air gap while inside the barrel, it was poisonous – not oxygen. I am delighted to have beaten Houdini at his own game.”


By Eddie Dawes

The Houdini Milk Churn escape was naturally grist to David’s mill at the Llandudno British Ring Convention in 1983 he accepted the challenge to escape from a churn filled with 50 gallons of milk, featured as the outside publicity stunt. This followed a similar escape at Westwood Gala Leeds, when the magical folklore of the Houdini beer escape was re-enacted with a milk churn filled with Tetley’s bitter.

The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death

Harry Houdini

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