Winifred Holtby

Featured<strong>Winifred Holtby</strong>

Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) was a Yorkshire writer, journalist and activist who remains primarily remembered for her final, posthumous novel South Riding. She is also frequently linked to her closest friend, writer and journalist Vera Brittain, who penned the influential First World War memoir Testament of Youth. Holtby and Brittain studied together at Oxford’s all-female college, Somerville, and subsequently shared households for most of the remainder of Holtby’s life.

Although Brittain remains the better-known of the pair (arguably partially because her life was not cut short like Holtby’s), Winifred Holtby was more than a friend and companion to Brittain. She had her own strong political and feminist views, which were expressed in her journalism and activism. After a visit to South Africa in 1926, Holtby actively supported the Black South African community for the rest of her life.[1]

Winifred Holtby was born in Rudston, a small Yorkshire village between Hull and Scarborough. She came of age during the First World War and briefly served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) before starting her studies at Somerville in 1919. Here she met Brittain, who was some five years older than her. After the war, Holtby lectured for the League of Nations, the ‘first worldwide intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace.’ She also became involved in the Six Point Group, a feminist collective set up by Lady Rhondda. The latter also co-founded Time and Tide, a feminist interwar publication to which both Holtby and Brittain became regular contributors.[2] (E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady also started as a column in Time and Tide).

Committed feminist as Holtby was, her journalistic writings of the time are striking both because they address some issues that remain unresolved, and because they reveal a sharp sense of humour. The overall tone of Holtby’s writing in this area demonstrates optimism. After the expansion of the vote to all men and women in 1928, interwar feminists seemed to believe that equality between men and women on all fronts was just a matter of time. Nearly a hundred years on, such optimism seems naïve. However, it does mean that Holtby’s writing on inequality remains recognisable and accessible.

In ‘Should a Woman Pay?’, which appeared in the Manchester Guardian in October 1928, she tackles the social dilemma of who should pay the bill when a man and woman go out together. Introducing us to the fictional Jack and Jill, Holtby demonstrates how a clinging to the social custom of the man paying can lead to resentment between modern couples – Jack insists on paying for Jill’s lunch because ‘his masculine honour is affronted’ by the suggestion she pays, or they split the bill. When both return to their respective jobs for the afternoon, they are distracted, make mistakes, and ‘they both hate everything.’

Holtby links this very relatable scenario to ‘the industrial revolution, the introduction of factory labour, the divorce of women from domestic industry’ and the subsequent removal of women from any source of substantial income.[3] A quick internet search reveals that the question ‘Should the woman pay?’ remains unresolved – Harvard Business Review devoted an article to it in April 2021 and a live WikiHow page talks readers through the ‘problem’ (which remains presented in heteronormative terms).

In ‘Counting the Cost’, also published in the Manchester Guardian in the same year, Holtby responds to a letter to the editor submitted by a man who is frustrated that his wife is undertaking too many activities in the community and does not have enough time to manage the household. ‘If I came home from work at six (which I don’t) and had to get my own tea [dinner], things would happen’ fumes the man. Holtby gently pokes fun at the man’s worked-up tone: ‘He really is very cross indeed. He makes you feel that the first of those things which would happen would be a very bad tea. Bad temper never fries good bacon.’[4] She ends the article by acknowledging that whilst some things may be lost when women go out of their home, both economy and society gain much by women actively participating in it.

Holtby herself was one such woman actively participating in public life during the interwar period. Although she never married, she did undertake caring responsibilities for Vera Brittain’s family, whom she lived with for large proportions of her life.[5] Holtby repeatedly referred to herself as ‘50% a politician’ and she tirelessly raised funds to help unionise Black workers in South Africa.[6] Despite only being ‘50% a writer’ in her own perception, Holtby produced seven novels, two volumes of poetry, two short story collections, a play, and four works of non-fiction including a memoir of Virginia Woolf. As a witty and gifted writer and commentator, her work deserves continued recognition.


[1] Testament of a Generation: The journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 21-23

[2] Marion Shaw, ‘Introduction’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. xi

[3] Winifred Holtby, ‘Should a Woman Pay?’, reproduced in Testament of a Generation, pp. 57-60.

[4] Winifred Holtby, ‘Counting the Cost’, reproduced in Testament of a Generation, pp. 54-57

[5] Shirley Williams, ‘Preface’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. ix

[6] Marion Shaw, ‘Introduction’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. xii; Testament of a Generation: The journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 22

Let Me Explain, Dear (1932)

Featured<strong>Let Me Explain, Dear (1932)</strong>

The introduction of sound film in Britain around 1930 opened up more opportunities for filmmakers to produce comedies based on dialogue rather than slapstick. As London’s theatre sector was thriving, many comic plays transferred over to the silver screen. Popular plays such as Pygmalion were turned into films, and of course a whole series of popular farces performed at the Aldwych theatre were also adapted.

Almost more than any other genre of film, comedy is specific to the time and place in which it was made. An adaptation of a 1915 comedy play made in 1932 is a good example of this. Let Me Explain, Dear was based on the play ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’, the full text of which is available to read online. ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’ was a great success when it was first staged and it ran for the majority of the First World War at the Criterion Theatre, no doubt giving audiences a welcome respite from the war news (the theatre poster available on Wikipedia highlights that the Criterion was ‘built entirely underground’ and therefore safe in case of air raids).

The play was adapted into a film in 1919 by the short-lived Q Film Productions company, and again in 1928 for a larger-scale production starring Betty Balfour as one of the female leads. Let Me Explain, Dear is the first sound film adaptation of the play; all three adaptations are produced in Britain for the domestic market, as they cater to a specific cultural sensibility. ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’ is positioned as a farce, but its comedy is much broader than that of the Aldwych farces that had become so popular by the time Let Me Explain, Dear was released.

The story of the film, which is only slightly evolved from the play, is simple enough. George Hunter is married to Angela, a domineering woman who holds the financial purse strings in the relationship. When George believes Angela to be away from home, he meets Mamie, a glamourous young woman with an undefined job in some sort of performance-related industry. Mamie has borrowed an expensive pearl necklace from a banker boyfriend.

Mamie (Jane Carr) and George (Gene Gerrard) getting cozy in a taxi in Let Me Explain, Dear

The necklace accidentally ends up with George and then Angela. In an attempt to retrieve the necklace or make enough money to buy a replacement, George ropes in the help of his neighbour Merryweather to scam a newspaper insurance scheme. Eventually personal relations, necklaces, and scams get hopelessly tangled up before George ends up reconciled with Angela and Mamie returns to her banker boyfriend.

One of the ways in which the film has updated the original play text is through the inclusion of the apparently newfangled and fictitious concept of the ‘water taxi’. At the opening of the film, George takes a ‘water taxi’, a speedboat across the Thames, because he sees Mamie inside it. Due to George’s clumsiness, the taxi ends up crashing into the side of a much bigger vessel. This accident later forms the basis of George’s attempt to claim insurance money from his newspaper. In the original play, the alleged accident was that of a bus. The inclusion of the water taxi allows for some spectacular shots of the boat speeding across the Thames – and by 1932 buses were much safer than they had been in 1915, perhaps making the idea of a bus accident slightly less believable.

The ‘water taxi’ in action in Let Me Explain, Dear

The fact that George tries to scam money from an insurance scheme run by a popular newspaper also does not appear in the original text. In the play, the insurance scheme is run by the bus company itself – prior to the unification of London Transport in 1933 separate bus companies maintained the various routes across London. By the time Let Me Explain, Dear was made, the ‘newspaper wars’ were in full swing and popular newspapers tried to gain more subscribers in part by offering generous insurance schemes. Let Me Explain, Dear uses this to bring its plot right up to date for contemporary viewers.

Let Me Explain, Dear has the occasional moment of verbal wit that has stood the test of time – when Angela reveals the pearl necklace she has found in George’s overcoat pocket, she snaps ‘What do you say to that?’ George’s friend Merryweather responds: ‘I don’t know, I’ve never talked to one before.’ Mostly, though, the blatant sexism underpinning the entire plot and dialogue alienates the film from modern viewers. The relationship between George and Angela appears to be solely built on mutual distrust and annoyance. When Merryweather asks George how he came to be married to Angela, his response is ‘I just sort of sobered up and there she was.’

Merryweather (Claude Hulbert); Angela (Viola Lyel) and George (Gene Gerrard) in Let Me Explain, Dear

Whereas in the play it is made clear that George is such a bad entrepreneur that his work activities were actively costing the couple money, and that is why Angela has demanded he stop ‘working’, in the film Angela appears to solely want to emasculate George by paying everything for him. George’s quick work to woo Mamie is not judged, and Mamie herself is a cardboard character who prances around in underwear and starts screaming hysterically (and then faints) when she thinks her pearl necklace has been stolen.

Mamie (Jane Carr) relaxing at home in Let Me Explain, Dear

Lead actor Gene Gerrard also co-wrote and co-directed Let Me Explain, Dear; a feat he repeated in the same year with Lucky Girl, another light comedy adapted from a stage play. Alhtough there is not much to recommend Let Me Explain, Dear to modern audiences, it is a necessary reminder of the range and variety of output of the British film industry during the interwar period.

Let Me Explain, Dear is available on DVD from Network Distributing.

Featured

Aerodromes in interwar Britain

So far, this blog has had plenty to say about the increase of car ownership in interwar Britain; the development of public transport; and even the popularity of competitive cycling. It has, however, not yet touched upon that other mode of transport which swiftly developed during the 1920s and 1930s: airplanes.

Like many of the changes that became embedded into British society during the interwar period, it started in the Edwardian period. After the Wright brothers made their pioneering flight in the US in 1903, the first flight in England took place in 1908. As is common with the development of new technologies, its first application was in the military. Germany’s successful use of Zeppelins and Gotha bomber planes during the First World War prompted the British army to expand the activities of the Royal Flying Corps (later to become the RAF) and develop a first aircraft factory in Croydon.[1]

A short-lived RAF base in Hounslow hosted the first ever commercial international flight in 1919, to Le Bourget airport in Paris. Shortly thereafter, the facilities at Croydon developed into the only international airport in Britain, launching flights to Paris, Rotterdam and Cologne. The Hounslow base closed, although after the Second World War Heathrow Airport was developed nearby.

Early flights were not just for passengers, but also for the transport of ‘air mail’, allowing much swifter international communications than had hitherto been possible. The pilots of these commercial flights were often ex-RFC pilots, as they were the only group of people already trained to fly planes.[2]

Although Croydon was the international airport, there were many other airfields in existence throughout the interwar period, including around London. The types of planes used in the interwar period were light and flew relatively low to the ground compared to modern jet planes. They therefore did not need extensive runways to take off and land. A large and level field was usually all that was required. This is visible, for example, in this British Pathé footage from 1927 showing ‘Mousehold Aerodrome’ in Norfolk:

Mousehold was a former RAF base which after the First World War housed a flying club, and eventually developed into Norwich Airport in 1933 (NB the current Norwich Airport is on a different site). Throughout the 1930s, many local airports opened up across Britain as domestic flights were viewed as the modern alternative to rail travel. Once again, the need to expand air travel was framed as a competition with Germany, where passenger numbers were much higher.[3] The general enthusiasm for flight and flying which also expressed itself in literature and other art forms has frequently been referred to as ‘airmindedness.’[4]

In addition to the development of commercial domestic and international flights, aerodromes were also sights of spectacle when they hosted the arrival or take-off of celebrity aviators. Throughout the 1920s especially, there was an appetite for developing new flight routes and setting new speed records. Although Alcock and Brown managed the first successful non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919 (from Newfoundland to Ireland), the man who managed to do the trip as a solo flyer received much more attention. Charles Lindbergh flew from Long Island to Paris in 1927. When he landed in Croydon a week later, an estimated 120,000 people attended the airfield to welcome him.[5]

A few years later, Britain’s own Amy Johnson became an icon of modernity when she flew on her own from England to Australia in 1930 – the first woman to manage that feat. An article in the Daily Mirror at the end of that year lauded 1930 as ‘the most wonderful year in history for women’ partially because of them being ‘outstanding in aerial feats.’[6] Johnson herself savvily used the media to secure an income, as she did not receive any formal sponsorships. She sold the exclusive reporting rights of her flight to Australia to the Daily Mail and continued to use this tactic for subsequent record-breaking attempts.[7]

The development of jet planes after the Second World War shifted aviation from something that was potentially accessible to a large portion of the population, to a technology that required large capital investment and specialist training. Croydon Airport could not accommodate the newer, bigger planes and Heathrow, opened in 1946, took its place as London’s premier airport. Many of the local airports either closed down or became solely used by amateur flying clubs. The war had demonstrated the devastation that bomber planes could cause, tempering previous enthusiasm for air flight. For a brief period, however, Britain had been enamoured by the modern possibilities of going up in the air.


[1] Bob Learmonth, Joanna Bogle, Douglas Cluett, The First Croydon Airport: 1915-1928 (Sutton: Sutton Libraries and Arts Services, 1977), pp. 19-20

[2] Ibid., pp. 40-48

[3] Michael John Law, 1938: Modern Britain – Social Change and Visions of the Future (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 115-120

[4] Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber (eds), Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain (London: Palgrave, 2020)

[5] Learmonth, Bogle, Cluett, The First Croydon Airport, p. 72

[6] ‘1930 the most wonderful year in history for women’, Daily Mirror, 29 December 1930, p. 3

[7] Bernhard Rieger, ‘‘Fast couples’: technology, gender and modernity in Britain and Germany during the nineteen-thirties’, Institute of Historical Research, vol 73, no. 193 (2003), 369

Featured

Cinema management

As going to the cinema became Britain’s most popular leisure activity in the 1920s and 1930s, there was increased attention for the business side of managing cinemas. Working in the cinema industry now became a viable career path, albeit mostly for men. Cinemas also increasingly became parts of chains such as Odeon and ABC. These chains set up their own internal training schemes and rotated management staff between cinemas to ensure consistency of service.

The interwar period also saw a big increase of the print market, including the appearance of many trade papers, guides, and ‘self-help’ books. The majority of the population still left school at 14, and there emerged a vibrant culture of self-improvement and lifelong learning. In one of the main trade papers for the cinema sector, Kinematograph Weekly, cinema managers were encouraged to constantly learn from one another and improve their craft. In addition, several handbooks were published in the interwar period which purported to teach the budding cinema manager how to best run a picture palace. Together, these articles and books demonstrate what were considered the most important aspects of the cinemagoing experience at the time.

In 1934, Kinematograph Weekly reprinted a lecture given by a supervisor at ABC, for an audience of assistant managers keen to advance their careers. The lecture demonstrates the wide range of skills managers were expected to have: knowledge of engineering, the ability to retain staff discipline, but also knowledge of accounts and figures and the ability to market the cinema’s films to the public. The speaker claims a manager needs ‘professional integrity beyond reproach, a cool head for emergencies and tact sufficient for the average international diplomat.’[1] Statements like this are clearly designed to make the audience feel they have chosen a challenging and rewarding career, even if its professional standing or pay was nowhere near that of lawyers, doctors, or diplomats.

The lecture also advised that managers should be in the cinema from around 10am, and stay until the end of the final screening. It was considered good practice for managers to be at the front of house in evening dress at the end of the night, to personally wish patrons a good night. It is clear from this article that the role of a manager demanded long hours and knowledge on a wide range of subjects. At the same time, the manager had a clear position of authority in the cinema and did not have to undertake manual labour such as cleaning or carpentry, like the other staff.

Three years after this lecture was published, a guidebook appeared which was sanctioned by the Cinema Exhibitor’s Association (CEA), the professional body for cinema owners. Like the lecture, the author of the book is keen to stress the emotional appeal of the cinema manager’s job, describing it on the book’s opening page as ‘a real man’s job’ with ‘grave responsibility’; a job that is ‘enthralling’, ‘creative’ and requiring continuous learning.[2]

The book continues to provide very detailed information on how to manage the day-to-day operations of a cinema, implying that its intended audience was those who were new to the business and not assistant managers who already had significant experience. A substantial proportion of the book is concerned with advice on staff management. Depending on the size of the cinema, a manager could be in charge of anything between half a dozen and several tens of staff. Both the Kine Weekly article and this handbook advocate daily inspections of staff, to instil discipline and check for cleanliness.[3] The front-of-house staff were expected to adhere to strict rules on appearance: ‘the hair of all uniformed male attendants must be cut short at the back and sides, and their face and hands kept clean.’[4]

There were a handful of female cinema managers in the interwar period, but they were very much considered to be the exception rather than the rule.[5] As noted above, the 1937 guide describes cinema management as ‘a real man’s job’, perhaps restating the supposed masculinity required for the role in response to a small but growing number of female managers. During the Second World War, the CEA had to allow women much more access to cinema work to allow cinemas to continue operating.[6]

Both the handbook and the lecture quoted here are fairly light on what education (if any) is required for cinema managers. Whilst similar books aimed at cinema operators (projectionists) stress that theirs is a skilled role requiring technical expertise, the guidance for managers mainly highlight the variety and responsibility of the role.[7] Provided the aspirant manager felt confident that he had the physical and mental ability to manage a varied job, these sources present the role as an achievable career goal for anyone who wanted to pursue it.

Want to read more about employment in 1930s cinemas? I recently published a more in-depth article on this topic which you can find here.


[1] S. Simpson, ‘The Principles of Kinema Management’ in Kinematograph Weekly, 5 April 1934, p. 41

[2] JH Hutchison, The Complete Kinemanager (London: Kinematograph Publications, 1937), p. 1

[3] Ibid., p. 91

[4] Ibid., p. 83

[5] In 1934, the Ideal cinema in Lambeth was managed by a Miss M.A. Ball, Kinematograph Weekly, 8 February 1934, p. 58; and the Queen’s Hall in Catford was managed by a Miss M Woodroffe from 1916, Kinematograph Weekly, 22 Feburary 1934, p. 36

[6] Rebecca Harrison, ‘The Coming of the Projectionettes: Women’s Work in Film Projection and Changing Modes of Spectatorship in Second World War British Cinemas, Feminist Media Histories, vol. 2, no. 2 (2016), 47-70

[7] W.S. Ibbetson, The Kinema Operator’s Handbook (London : E. & F. N. Spon, 1921), p. 1

Featured

Muriel Jaeger – The Question Mark (1926)

Although the interwar period is known for the large volume of crime fiction it produced (examples here, here and here), it also saw the publication of some classic works of science fiction. Aldous Huxley penned Brave New World in 1934, and across the pond Orson Welles’ classic War of the Worlds aired on radio in 1938. Preceding both these high watermarks of science fiction is Muriel Jaeger’s 1926 novel The Question Mark, which has recently been re-published by the British Library in their ‘Science Fiction Classics’ series.

Jaeger is not a household name, and certainly a lot less well-known then her good friend Dorothy L. Sayers. The pair studied at Somerville, Oxford together and were both members of the ‘Mutual Admiration Society’, a group of female students with literary ambitions.[1] The Question Mark was Jaeger’s first novel, and it was published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at their Hogarth Press.

The protagonist of The Question Mark is Guy Martin, a young-ish bank clerk in London. He is of the lower middle class and resentful about it. Along with his generic name, there are few distinguishing features about Guy – Jaeger deliberately keeps descriptions of him generic. Guy has a lingering dissatisfaction in life, which he tries to quench by attending meetings of the Socialist Club. The Club almost allows him to believe in a future in which class boundaries can be transcended, until Marjorie, the girl he has fallen in love with, throws him over in favour of a Tory.[2]

Marjorie’s rejection leads Guy to sink into a stupor; when he wakes up, he is several hundred years into the future. It is later explained that Guy actually died on the night of Marjorie’s rejection, and is the first corpse to be successfully revived by a Dr Wayland. There is then, no chance of Guy returning to the 1920s, or roaming around time and space in the manner of H.G. Wells’ ‘Time Traveller’. Instead, Guy must make the best of his new life in this future version of London.

At first, naturally, all seems much better in the future: London has turned into a pleasant green landscape of rolling hills, and everyone who works has access to a ‘power box’: a device that acts as a portable power source to ‘Anything you want to make go.’[3] There are ‘areocycles’ for short trips through the air, and silent and impossibly fast planes for travel to the continent.[4] Everything runs so smoothly that workers have very little to do, and education is accessible to everyone.

But of course, these initial impressions are shaken before long. Jaeger’s future society no longer has class divisions in the way a 1920s reader would recognise them. Instead, however, the population is divided between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘normals’. Dr Wayland and his cousin John, who takes Guy under his wing, are both ‘intellectuals’. This means that they do not need to undertake manual labour and are allowed to study and pursue knowledge their entire life.

Dr Wayland, however, married a ‘normal’ woman, Agatha, and as a consequence his children Ena and Terry are also ‘normals’. Because ‘normals’ are denied intellectual development over several generations, they have become highly emotive and impressionable. Ena is twenty years old, but is described as behaving closer to a child in her early teens. She quickly becomes infatuated with Guy, much to the latter’s confusion and disgruntlement.

Towards the end of the book, a religious leader emerges who is able to capture the imagination of thousands of ‘normals’. When this Emmanual predicts the end of the world to be nigh, so many ‘normals’ down tools that the intellectuals have to step in to keep things running. Guy is reminded of a strike in the 1920s:

He remembered how the young assistant-manager at his bank (a post that was practically a sinecure in a certain family) had gone off joyously to take tickets and slam lift-doors on an underground railway along with other numbers of gay young men of the leisured classes who meant to “keep things going until the beggars had had enough of it.” The two situations had a startling similarity in difference.[5]

Jaeger’s point is clear: although traditional social classes are abolished in the future, humanity has still created an artificial boundary that treats one group of people as morally, financially and intellectually superior to the other. When the ‘normals’ refuse to behave according to their allotted tasks, the system does not break down and they are not taken seriously. The religious uprising comes to nothing and things quickly return back to how they were. At the close of the book Guy remains trapped in this future that is fundamentally no better than the past he left behind, ‘heavy with terrible knowledge.’[6]

The Question Mark is no utopia. Instead, Jaeger offers the reader an intellectual exercise in future-building that is quite cynical about humanity’s ability to create a better future for itself. Like all good science fiction, it uses a made-up world to comment on the real one. The Question Mark’s commentary on class differences, social inequality and access to education are just as pertinent in the 2020s as they were when the book was written, nearly a hundred years ago.


[1] Mo Moulton, ‘Introduction’ in Muriel Jaeger, The Question Mark (London: British Library, 2019), p. 9

[2] Muriel Jaeger, The Question Mark, p. 33

[3] Ibid., p. 49

[4] Ibid., pp. 91-2

[5] Ibid., p. 171

[6] Ibid., p. 205

Featured

Cycling in interwar Britain

Alongside the expansion of London’s public transport network, and the increased popularity of cars, cycling also held an important place in British interwar culture. Although modern ‘safety’ bikes with pneumatic tyres were first mass-produced in the 1880s, the interwar period saw an ever-greater adoption of bikes not only as a means of transport, but also as a vehicle for recreation and sport. Between 1924 and 1937, over 2 million bicycles were manufactured in Britain.[1]

According to social historian Michael John Law, in the interwar period the ‘bicycle was used for short journeys that would today be made by car, for pleasure trips out of the suburbs into the countryside, for cycling club outings and also for quite long distance commuting.’[2] Although cycling may have been challenging in central London due to the large number of motorised vehicles on the narrow roads, those living in the city’s outskirts could comfortable cycle around their neighbourhoods. Bikes were primarily associated with the working classes, as they were relatively cheap to purchase and, unlike cars and motor bikes, did not demand an ongoing supply of fuel.

Beyond the use of bicycles for day-to-day commuting and navigation of the urban environment, many thousands of people joined cycle clubs during the interwar period – an estimated 100,000 people were members of such clubs by the mid-1930s.[3] These clubs were very popular in London as well as the countryside. As early as 1921, a London rally attracted more than a thousand participants.[4]

Bikes also quickly became popular in organised sporting events. One pioneering cyclist, Mabel Hodgson, organised a number of extremely popular rallies in London, as well as a 106-mile race from London to the Sussex coast.[5] In south London, the still operational Herne Hill Velodrome opened in 1891. There exist various ‘Topical Budget’ and British Pathé films from the 1920s which show races at Herne Hill, including one which involved a competition of already old-fashioned Victorian penny farthings.

As well as providing a human interest piece of the cinema newsreel, these films’ intertitles also boast about the modern cameras which enabled the capture of high-speed pursuits on film: ‘you’ve never seen a picture like this – taken with “Topicals” special camera which makes the thrills, thrillier”’

One noteworthy feature of these cycle competitions is that they were open to men as well as women. One Topical Budget film from 1929 shows an all-female race at Herne Hill. The riders clearly go around the track at great speed and one is shown tightening the bolts on her bike; however, the riders’ femininity is underlined by a shot of two competitors powdering their noses and applying lipstick before the start of the race. The threat of women engaging in a leisure pursuit which potentially does not align with gender expectations is diffused by the immediate visual assertion that these women still wear make-up and fashionable outfits. The high-speed cycling on display in this video also required the riders to wear shorts, providing a further visual pleasure to the (male) spectator.

In addition to the increased number of women participating in amateur cycling clubs, the interwar period also saw the emergence of the first professional female cyclists. Sport historian Neil Carter has identified Marguerite Wilson as a pioneer in this respect: Wilson obtained full-time sponsorship in 1939 and in the same year set a record cycling from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland.[6] Typist Billie Dovey, who in 1938 broke the record of most miles cycled in a year (29,603.4) also received professional sponsorship.[7]

Cycling, then, was popular in interwar Britain and London and people participated in it in a variety of ways: as a means of commuting; as a leisure activity; and as a professional sport. Nonetheless, in popular fiction and film of the period cycling is often passed over in favour of more glamorous means of transport such as cars, trains and planes. As a primarily working-class pastime, interwar cycling was not given the same exposure as other recreations, which has exacerbated the possibility for this piece of history to remain overlooked today.


[1] Neil Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson and other ‘hardriding…feminine space eaters’: cycling and modern femininity in interwar Britain’, Sport in History, vol 40, no. 4 (2020), 482-504 (486)

[2] Michael John Law, ‘The car indispensable: the hidden influence of the car in inter-war suburban

London’, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 38 (2012), 424-433 (426)

[3] Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson’, 486

[4] Ibid.

[5] Neil Carter, Cycling and the British: A Modern History (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), p. 156

[6] Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson’, 482-495

[7] Ibid., 487

Featured

F. Tennyson Jesse – A Pin To See The Peepshow (1934)

The trial and execution of Edith Thompson have been discussed several times on this blog. The 1923 trial was extensively covered in the press of the period. In short, Edith Thompson was tried and executed alongside her lover Frederick Bywaters, for the murder of Edith’s husband Percy. At the time, newspapers judged Edith harshly for her affair with a younger man (she was nine years older than Frederick). Current scholarship is generally of the opinion that Edith probably knew nothing about the planned murder and should not have been found guilty. You can read a fuller account of the case here.

Due to the high profile nature of the case, it is no wonder that contemporary authors drew on the case for inspiration. I’ve previously discussed E.M. Delafield’s 1924 novel Messalina of the Suburbs which was based on the Thompson-Bywaters case. Where Delafield’s interpretation of the case was fairly loose, a novel published a decade later took a more forensic approach to recreate the story.

The extra years which had passed since the case no doubt help F. Tennyson Jesse to gain more perspective when she wrote A Pin To See The Peepshow, a novel frequently referenced as the definitive fictionalisation of the case. Tennyson Jesse was a prolific writer across several genres including novels, plays, poetry and non-fiction.[1] Some of her work is available to read for free online. She had a definite interest in true crime: in 1924 she wrote a non-fiction work Murder and its Motives and throughout her career she contributed to the long-running book series Notable British Trials. One of the volumes she was responsible for was the trial of Sidney Fox, who was found guilty of killing his own mother.

In A Pin To See The Peepshow Edith Thompson is transformed into Julia Almond, a young, somewhat pretty woman who, like Edith Thompson, works in a women’s fashion boutique and ends up marrying to a man she finds dreadfully dull. The strength of the book is that Julia is not necessarily a sympathetic character, the reader does sympathise with her. Like E.M. Delafield before her, Tennyson Jesse leaves no doubt that her fictional heroine had no involvement in the plot to murder her husband.

The novel starts when Julia is a school girl, living in West London with her parents and counting down the days to her adulthood. When she is ordered to mind a class of younger children one day, one of the younger boys, Leonard Carr, has a ‘peepshow’: a cardboard box with a decorative interior that can be seen through a small hole. Julia is enchanted by this portal into another world: a first indication of her romantic nature which is reiterated throughout the book. Leonard Carr, when he grows up, becomes the fictional version of Frederick Bywaters. In Tennyson Jesse’s narrative, Julia and Leonard’s relationship is marked by make-believe from its inception.

During the real Thompson-Bywaters trial, much was made of Edith’s letters to Frederick. He had kept these letters despite the couple’s agreement that they would destroy each other’s epistles – Edith did destroy Frederick’s letters to her. The letters alluded to supposed plots to kill Percy. The prosecution at the time used them as evidence that Edith wanted her husband to die, and that she was manipulating Frederick to commit the act for her. From the novel, it appears that F Tennyson Jesse agreed with scholars such as Lucy Bland that the letters were works of fiction, written by a woman with a vivid imagination.[2] Another feature that Tennyson Jesse awards her heroine, which may not be entirely historically accurate, is that Julia is terribly short-sighted. This gives her a plausible defense when she claims she did not recognise her husband’s killer, as the real Edith Thompson also initially said.

The heart of the case is, of course, extramarital relationship which Edith Thompson deigned to embark on. In Delafield’s novel, the heroine is sexually active at a young age, but also gets sexually abused by a series of men who are in positions of power over her. Tennyson Jesse’s Julia is less obviously interested in men, but the brief affair she has with a young man at the start of the First World War is described as completely natural and nothing to be ashamed about.

Julia’s eventual marriage to family friend Herbert Startling is primarily motivated by her desire to leave her parents’ home, and her inability to afford her own living space. When Leonard Carr re-appears on the scene as a young adult, Tennyson Jesse makes it clear that sexual relations with Leonard are extremely satisfying to Julia, again without judging or moralising about it.

Julia is less obviously a victim than Delafield’s heroine. Throughout A Pin To See A Peepshow, Julia is often in command. She earns more money than Herbert and is largely able to dictate when she allows him to sleep in her bed. Nonetheless, Tennyson Jesse makes clear that ultimately, Julia is too naïve to understand the passions she’s unleashed in Leonard which drive him to his ultimate act. Her subsequent foolish attempt to cover up Leonard’s involvement to make the murder seem like an accident, seals her fate in a patriarchal justice system. Tennyson Jesse’s Julia probably comes close to the real Edith Thompson: a woman not without faults, whose options in life were narrowly determined by her sex and who paid the price for transgressing accepted norms.

A Pin To See The Peepshow was recently re-issued as part of the British Library Women’s Writers series. Copies can be bought here.


[1] Lucy Evans, ‘Preface’, in F. Tennyson Jesse, A Pin To See The Peepshow (London: British Library, 2021), p. viii

[2] Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in 1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, no. 3 (2008), 624-648

Films by the GPO: Night Mail (1936) and N or NW (1938)

FeaturedFilms by the GPO: Night Mail (1936) and N or NW (1938)

One of the features of interwar Britain is its rapid modernisation and the expansion of its infrastructure. This extended to the General Post Office (GPO) which looked after the expanding telephone network as well as paper mail delivery and the sending of telegrams. Although telephones rapidly became more widely used during the interwar period, placing phone calls outside one’s own exchange district, or outside of working hours, could still be a very costly affair. Writing letters remained very popular, and of course most business affairs were also conducted by writing. With the introduction of long-distance commercial flights in the 1920s, it became possible to send and receive letters to all corners of the Empire much more quickly than before.

In 1933, the GPO established its own film unit, to produce documentaries and propaganda films about the GPO’s work. Britain already had an Empire Marketing Board which produced films to favour the Empire, so the establishment of a specific unit for the GPO was a small step. The GPO film unit was headed up by pioneering director John Grierson.

In 1936 the GPO produced a documentary short about the postal train which travelled from London to Scotland every night. Night Mail has become a documentary classic, mixing art with fly-on-the wall footage of the postal service in action. WH Auden wrote a poem for the documentary, which features as its voice over, and the music was written by Benjamin Britten.

In its runtime of just over 23 minutes, Night Mail shows real postal workers in the business of running the nightly postal train from Euston up to the highlands. On its route, it passes railway workers, passengers on other trains, and farmers. The infrastructure of the railway line is intimately connected with the vast infrastructure of the postal service, which ensures that any letter is delivered to the correct address in record time. Cutting through the country from south to north, the postal train is depicted as cutting through all layers and sections of British society. A high-tech control room, which was in constant connection with station managers up and down the line, ensured that the whole system kept running smoothly.

The control room in Night Mail

The rural scenes the train passes are juxtaposed with the ingenious systems the GPO had devised to ensure maximum efficiency. Postal workers up and down the line hung bags of post from poles, destined for towns further up north. These bags which were picked up by the train as it sped past through a specially designed system. At the same time, workers on the train chucked out bags of mail for postal workers to pick up and distribute. Inside the carriages, dozens of men sorted individual items of post into pigeonholes at high speed.

Postal workers sorting post on the train in Night Mail

Where Night Mail presents the successful running of the postal delivery system as a collective endeavour which uses the latest technology to benefit the whole country, a film made by the GPO film unit a few years later focuses on the personal side of sending post. N or NW was made in 1938, several years after the first introduction of lettered postcode districts in central London. Postcodes in central London are based on compass points, so N for north London, SE for South East and so on.

Map of postal districts in N or NW

In N or NW we are introduced to Jack and Evelyn, a young couple who have recently had an argument. Evelyn is writing a letter to Jack, which she relates to us in voiceover. Jack has been ‘simply beastly’ to her: he got angry with her for going to a party with a male friend. Evelyn demands that Jack sends her a written apology by return post, otherwise the relationship is ‘ruined’.

Upon receiving this missive, Jack is eager to apologise and he quickly pens his response. However, when it comes to addressing the letter, he cannot remember if the postcode for Evelyn’s home in Islington is N or NW. He eventually plumps on NW. We then return to Evelyn, who has waited in vain for Jack’s letter to arrive and is now writing him another one, in which she encloses the ring he gave her. But! Just as Evelyn is about to leave the house to post this final rebuttal, the postman arrives with Jack’s apology.

Evelyn and Jack go out picnicking the water in the countryside, their relationship restored. It is revealed that the post office corrected the address on Jack’s letter, changing the postcode from NW to N. A postman informs the audience that writing addresses clearly and without errors will ensure prompt delivery. However, the film implies that even if you do make a mistake in the address, the GPO is there to correct your mistakes and avert disaster.

Watch N or NW

N or NW has an experimental formalism belied by its thin and sentimental storyline. The film is full over superimpositions, characters speaking to camera and other surprising shots, all set over an upbeat jazz soundtrack. Like Night Mail, it paid attention to its form as well as its message. The films combine instruction with visual innovation. Despite their different perspectives, both presented the postal service as kind, community-based and highly efficient and reliable.

Night Mail can be viewed for free on BFI Player by people in the UK.

Featured

The Wrecker (1929) and The Flying Scotsman (1929)

During the silent film period, which in Britain lasted until roughly 1930, film production was a very international affair. Because the majority of the film’s plot was communicated to audiences with gesture, movement and facial expressions as opposed to dialogue, directors could relatively easily make films outside their own national context. One such director was the Hungarian Géza von Bolváry. Von Bolváry started his film directing career in Germany where he worked for most of the 1920s. In 1928, however, British International Pictures invited him to spend a year at the London studios. During this year he directed three silent films: Bright Eyes and The Vagabond Queen (both starring Betty Balfour), and The Wrecker.

The Wrecker was based on a 1924 play by the same name, which was also turned into a novel published in 1928. It is a prime example of the kind of cross-medial adaptations on which many interwar films are based. It is also one of several interwar British films which foreground public transport as a prime site of action.

The hero of The Wrecker is Roger ‘Lucky’ Doyle, the nephew of a train company magnate. A nefarious criminal, known only as ‘The Wrecker’, is repeatedly facilitating train crashes on Lucky’s uncle’s trainlines. Together with Mary, his uncle’s secretary (played by Benita Hume), Lucky attempts to uncover the Wrecker’s true identity. Eventually, with the help of the Wrecker’s female accomplice Beryl, Lucky finds out that his uncle’s business rival Ambrose Barney is behind the train crashes. Barney runs a company of long-distance charabancs, and the public’s panic about train crashes is boosting his own business. Lucky publicly denounces Barney, and of course wins Mary’s affections as well.

The Wrecker’s main selling point, both when it was released and today, is that Southern Railway allowed the studio to use its real rolling stock. Von Bolváry staged one spectacular train crash on a disused railway line, which is shown near the start of The Wrecker. The use of the real trains (as opposed to models) heightens the veracity of the crash scene and counteracts the sometimes somewhat overblown silent screen acting. The spectacle of the train crash was a draw for contemporary audiences. The value of the train crash sequence is underlined by the fact that its footage was reused for the Walter Forde-directed The Ghost Train which was released two years later.

The train crash in The Wrecker (1929)

Shortly after The Wrecker was released, cinema audiences could enjoy another train-based film with spectacular stunts. The Flying Scotsman, directed by Castleton Knight, was also released in 1929. This short feature is about an engine driver, Bob, who is working his last day on the London to Edinburgh line. A disgruntled ex-employee makes it onto the train with the intention of causing an accident. Bob’s daughter and a younger train colleague work together to avert the disaster.

Pauline Johnson, who played Barney’s accomplice Beryl in The Wrecker, takes the role of the leading lady in The Flying Scotsman, which sees her walking on the outside of an LNER train while it is in full motion. Johnson did the stunt herself, and like the crash scene in The Wrecker, the authenticity of the action creates a high-impact scene.

Pauline Johnson clambering down the side of a moving training in The Flying Scotsman (1929)

High-speed rail travel was not a novelty in interwar Britain. Trains had been running ever faster since their introduction in the early 19th century, and rail travel was popular for long-distance journeys and holiday travel. Although newspapers occasionally reported on the risks passengers faced on public transport, those risks were mainly due to other passengers, not technical faults. The almost simultaneous production of The Wrecker and The Flying Scotsman did not respond to a wider social anxiety about the safety of rail transport. Rather, it is likely that the technological advancements at the end of the silent era allowed directors to move their cameras more freely, which in turn enabled them to capture stunts and high-speed transport more effectively.

With the introduction and rapid expansion of sound film from 1930, cameras once again became static as they had to be connected to microphones and be kept still to avoid the recording of ambient noise. Filming actors clambering down the side of moving trains was no longer possible. By 1935 the climax of the action-comedy Bulldog Jack sees Jack Buchanan clamber over the top of a moving Tube, in an attempt to stop the rogue driver from crashing the train. Shots of characters inside the Tube are interspersed with shots taken from the front of the train and from platforms, and shots of Buchanan clambering horizontally across a ledge. The rapid editing gives the viewer the illusion that Buchanan is really on top of the train, but there is no doubt that the stunt is not real.

Although the introduction of sound film allowed for different types of storytelling on the screen, it also caused the loss of some visual capabilities which took decades to recover. The introduction of sound made film plots more dependent on dialogue, which also reduced the possibility of actors and directors working across national boundaries.

Bulldog Jack can be viewed on YouTube.

Featured

Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook (1934)

The Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829. From the beginning, its operations were based on ‘uniform patrol of regular beats in full and open public view’ to assuage concerns that any centrally controlled police form would become a state spying apparatus.[1] The introduction of plain-clothes detectives into the force was therefore slow. It was not until 1869 that each division of the Metropolitan Police got its own detectives, and a centralised Criminal Investigation Department (CID) wasn’t formed until 1878.[2]

Once detectives were established as a permanent part of the police force, leaders at the Metropolitan Police and its counterparts across the country and Empire were keen to ensure consistency of practice. To that effect, in 1906 the Crown and Public Prosecutor in Madras published the first English translation of a work by the Austrian Hans Gross.[3] Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik, or Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook as it became known in England was originally aimed at lawmakers and police officers in colonial areas. A revised edition was published in 1924, and a third edition appeared in 1934. This third edition was edited by Norman Kendal, then Assistant Commissioner for Crime in the Metropolitan Police.

The work, aiming to be ‘a practical textbook of instruction for all engaged in investigating crime’[4], runs to 569 pages. Although police detectives tended to have been slightly better educated than patrolling constables,[5] it seems unlikely that they all read and memorised the detailed instructions of Criminal Investigation. Moreover, the book provided instructions on best practice, but most of its contents were not legally binding. In short, the book likely tells us more about the ideal of police investigation than of its day-to-day reality. Nonetheless, it helps us understand how interwar police officers, magistrates and prosecutors understood crime.

During the interwar period, the police did not just investigate a crime up to the point of charging an individual, but were also responsible for collating evidence for the police courts. This often involved working with experts. No wonder then that nearly 100 pages in the book set out ‘The Expert and how to make use of him (sic)’. Specific items include ‘preservation of parts of a corpse’ and ‘colour-blindness’ (‘more widespread and more important than generally believed’).[6] The section on fingerprints was extensively re-written for the third edition, this area of work ‘having advanced by leaps and bounds even since 1924.’[7]

Beyond the practicalities of running a sound investigation, Criminal Investigation also sets out in detail supposedly common practices of various types of criminal. ‘Wandering Tribes’ receive a chapter all of their own, marking Gypsies and Travellers as particularly likely to engage in criminal behaviour – although it debunks the myth that Gypsies steal children (‘It must also be remembered that gipsies (sic) are very prolific and in consequence have no need to bring up other people’s children’).[8]

Criminals ‘shamming’ various afflictions such as blindness, deafness or even epilepsy was apparently a regular enough occurrence to warrant inclusion here, as were criminal superstitions. The reader is told how fortune tellers who claim to have ‘discovered’ the guilty party through divination, tarot cards, or their intuition can derail an investigation. Women in particular are claimed to put investigators on the wrong foot with their ‘presentiments’.[9] There is no practical advice on how to handle such a situation as an investigator other than, presumably, to roundly ignore any tips received through paranormal means.

The third section of the book deals with the skills investigating officers must possess, such as drawing and modelling of crime scenes; observing footprints; and finding traces of blood. Again there is a suggestion that criminals have their own communal language in a chapter on ciphers, which is given in addition to a short list of criminal slang.

The final section of the book categorises particular offences, including ‘Bodily Injuries and Poisoning’; ‘Theft’; ‘Cheating and Fraud’; ‘Arson’ and ‘Serious Accidents and Boiler Explosions’ (split up between ‘False Theories’ and ‘Admissible Theories’). Murder is not included as a category, as murderers were believed to mostly be ‘crimes of impulse’ and very few serial killers were known (Jack the Ripper being an obvious exception).[10] When speaking of ‘criminals’, police inspectors tended to mean those who were repeat offenders, often sticking to the same type of crime such as burglary.

Criminal Investigation was from the outset designed to be used across the British Empire. However, its origins as a Western European text does make one wonder its usefulness for lawmakers and detectives in, for example, India. There is little to no consideration of cultural differences. The impression created is that criminals, like lawmakers, are a homogenous group who behave the same regardless of their physical location or background. This demonstrates how handbooks like Criminal Investigation fostered the consolidation of the British Empire through their discourse.


[1] Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 56

[2] Haia Shpayer‐Makov, ‘Becoming a Police Detective in Victorian and Edwardian London’, Policing and Society, 14:3, (2004) 250-268, (pp. 251-253)

[3] John Adam and J Collyer Adam, Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook, 3rd edition, edited by Norman Kendal (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1934), p. xii

[4] Ibid., p. xiv

[5] Shpayer-Makov, ‘Becoming a Police Detective’, p. 263

[6] Adam and Adam, Criminal Investigation, p. 125

[7] Ibid., p. xii

[8] Ibid., p. 248

[9] Ibid., p. 262

[10] Frederick Porter Wensley, Forty Years of Scotland Yard (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 [1931]), p. 86

Vita Sackville-West: The Edwardians (1930)

FeaturedVita Sackville-West: The Edwardians (1930)

During the interwar period, Sackville-West was best known as a prolific and celebrated author in her own right. By 1930, when her best-selling novel The Edwardians appeared, Sackville-West had already published more than a dozen other novels, works of poetry, and non-fiction volumes.[1]

The Edwardians was originally published by the Hogarth Press, the publishing house run by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. The book was a huge commercial success: by July 1930, within two months of its publication, Hogarth Press was already advertising that it had sold 20,000 copies. That the book clearly appealed to a working-class audience is evidenced by the popularity of the cheap sixpenny edition, of which 64,000 copies had sold by 1936.[2]

Advert for The Edwardians, Sheffield Independent, 14 July 1930, p. 3

Sackville-West herself was anything but working class. She grew up at Knole, a medieval palace remodelled into the Sackville family seat in the early 17th century (it is currently managed by the National Trust). Vita had many happy memories of her childhood at Knole, and in The Edwardians she created its fictional equivalent in the Chevron estate, seat of the Duke of Chevron. Chevron is the enduring foundation and backdrop throughout the book’s descriptions of upper-class parties and affairs.

The Edwardians’ main character is Sebastian, the young Duke of Chevron. At the opening of the book, in 1905, Sebastian is nineteen. He loves Chevron and being the head of the estate, but is vaguely dissatisfied with the social life of upper-class Edwardian England. Sebastian’s mother, Lucy, is part of the ‘smart set’: ‘They were all people whose names were familiar to every reader of the society titbits in the papers.’[3] Unlike the matriarchs of the Victorian period, Lucy’s friends think of themselves as less worried about decorum and ‘doing the right thing.’ One of the key themes of The Edwardians is how both the upper and the middle classes still put convention and appearance over personal freedom, despite their insistence that they have done away with Victorian primness.

Sebastian has three key relationships in The Edwardians, which are announced by its chapter headings. In 1905, he meets Anquetil, an explorer who is an outsider to Chevron’s smart set. Anquetil invites Sebastian to come away with him for a few years to see something of real life. Sebastian declines, as he has just fallen in love with Lady Roehampton, a 40-something married woman who is a friend of his mother and one of society’s great beauties. Lucy wholeheartedly approves of this affair, seeing it as a healthy rite of passage for a young man to be introduced to sex.

What is not intended, however, is that Lady Roehampton falls in love with Sebastian. When, after a year and a half, her husband finds out about the affair, he states she must move to the country with him and never see Sebastian again. This creates the first big crisis in the book: Sebastian tells Lady Roehampton that she should get a divorce and come away with him: Lady Roehampton, despite her belief that she is much more modern than her Victorian forebears, shrinks from the idea of divorce and dumps Sebastian instead.

Disgusted by the hypocrisy of the upper classes, Sebastian then pursues a middle-class married woman, Teresa. She is dazzled by the riches and ceremony of Chevron, but when Sebastian makes a pass at her at Christmas she is horrified that he would think she would cheat on her husband. Sebastian is now disillusioned with both the ‘smart set’ and the middle-classes. After a brief affair with a bohemian artist, he resigns himself to marrying a plain but proper daughter of a respectable family. Just before he decides to formalise his engagement, Anquetil shows up again. This time, Sebastian gratefully accepts the offer of escape from his cushioned life.

The Edwardians offers a detailed and, one senses, authentic view of upper-class society in the Edwardian period. Readers are entertained with descriptions of sumptuous parties and Downton Abbey-esque descriptions of the servants’ hall. At the same time, Sackville-West is critical of this lifestyle. For example, she repeatedly stresses that Lucy’s friends, despite their power and influence, are not particularly intelligent. When Teresa is invited to Chevron for Christmas and sits with the other ladies after dinner, ‘she was forced to admit that they did not seem to be saying anything worth saying.’[4] Sackville-West also pokes fun at the group’s own special lingo, ‘deevy’ for ‘divine’ and ‘adding an Italian termination to English words’: ‘lovel-are’ for ‘lovely’ and ‘dinn-are’ for ‘dinner’.[5]

Sackville-West’s critique also touches on more substantial matters: when Sebastian decides to give all his staff a raise of five shillings a week after New Year’s, it leads to critical self-reflection on his own part. He notes that the increase would cost him ‘thirteen hundred pounds a year; very little more than his mother would spend on a single ball; a negligible sum in his yearly budget. He felt ashamed.’[6] When at dinner, Lucy tells the other guests of the raise, Sebastian is harshly criticised by the other lords, who say that he has ‘spoiled the market’ for other landowners and that his staff will only ‘expect more’: ‘They all looked at Sebastian as though he had committed a crime.’[7]

Contemporary reviews of The Edwardians mostly did not note the social commentary of the book. Although the Aberdeen Press and Journal review noted that ‘The Mayfair, Belgravia, and country house lot are shown to us as publicly engaged in whitewashing their own and their neighbour’s private lives’[8], other reviews consistently described the book as primarily ‘entertaining.’[9] Several reviews note that whilst the Victorian period had been extensively revisited by historians and novelists, the Edwardian period had received less attention due to it being overshadowed by the war.[10]

The immediate cultural impact of The Edwardians can be seen in a throwaway comment in the Daily Mirror. In a brief article about Ascot fashion, the journalist writes:

On the cover of Miss Sackville-West’s novel “The Edwardians” there is pictured a group of presumably select persons of that period. The “happy few” look now like a number of charwomen out for a beanfeast. And the question is: Will the belle assemblée at Ascot to-day look like that – a ragbag assortment – in fifty years’ time to those who examine our back numbers? Very likely. But was does it matter? They look nice now.[11]

Already, mere weeks after its publication, The Edwardians was referenced as a text with whom all Daily Mirror readers were expected to be familiar. Whether they enjoyed it for its lavish descriptions of upper-class life, or for its social critique, it is undeniable that the book resonated with many interwar readers.


[1] Kate Williams, ‘Introduction’, in Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. xv

[2] Ibid., p. x

[3] Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. 27

[4] Ibid., p. 193

[5] Ibid., p. 194

[6] Ibid., p. 184

[7] Ibid., p. 205

[8] ‘Book of the Week: A Novel of Edwardian Society’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 9 June 1930, p. 6

[9] ‘Real Life Raffles’, Daily Mirror, 23 June 1930, p. 20; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[10] ‘Books of the Day’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 5 June 1930, p. 8; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[11] ‘Ascot Fashions’, Daily Mirror, 18 June 1930, p. 9

Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

FeaturedLooking on the Bright Side (1932)

By 1932, Gracie Fields was already a huge star. Although she’d only appeared in one film, 1931’s Sally in Our Alley, she had been a major stage star and popular singer since the mid-1920s. After the big success of her first film, it was quickly followed up with a second one which showcases both Field’s singing talent and her comic wit.

In Looking on the Bright Side Fields plays Gracie, first in a series of film roles in which her character have her name, to provide the illusion that she is essentially playing herself. Gracie is a manicurist who lives in a flat in a modern housing estate in London. Her boyfriend, Laurie, is a hairdresser in the same beauty parlour, and lives in a flat opposite Gracie. He is also a budding songwriter who is looking for his big break.

Directors Basil Dean and Graham Cutts make the most of the stage set with its symmetrical staircases running up the front of the building. During the film’s opening, all inhabitants of the estate sing along to Laurie’s newest song in a scene reminiscent of stage musicals. Laurie’s song is the titular ‘Looking on the Bright Side’ which reflects the particular brand of working-class optimism on which much of Fields’ stage persona traded.

Gracie and Laurie in their adjacent flats in Looking on the Bright Side

In the beauty parlour, where Laurie and Gracie work as a team on actress Josie Joy. When the couple tell Josie about Laurie’s new song, she offers to introduce them to her manager, Oscar Schultz. Gracie is sceptical but Laurie enthusiastically jumps at the chance to further his career. When Laurie’s song is a success with Schultz, Laurie gives up his hairdressing job and is swept off his feet by the attentions of Josie Joy.

Laurie doing Miss Josie Joy’s hair in Looking on the Bright Side

Gracie is left behind on the estate. She loses her job when the arrogant Josie Joy comes in for a manicure and Gracie is unable to treat her civilly. After briefly taking a job as a female police officer – a section of the film mostly used to showcase Fields’ comic talent – Laurie sees the error of his ways and he and Gracie reunite for a big singalong at the estate.

Fields’ celebrity persona was inextricably linked with her own, working-class Lancashire roots. She retained her strong northern accent throughout her career, and her films celebrate working-class community over individual fame and riches. The class conflict in Looking on the Bright Side is introduced when Laurie is first invited to play his songs for Oscar Schultz. When Laurie and Gracie arrive at Schultz’ suite at the Dorchester Hotel, a busy cocktail party is in full swing. The women present call each other ‘darling’ and use expressions like ‘it’s a scream!’ – expressions which the down-to-earth Gracie would never use.

After Laurie and Gracie perform their song, Schultz singles out Gracie and tries to persuade her to agree to a role in his next musical production. Although Schultz’ intentions appear to be honourable, his way of cornering Gracie and persuading her to drink another cocktail put her off, and she declines his offer. Laurie, in the meantime, is sitting at the piano surrounded by women and does not want to leave the party with Gracie. Instead he stays out till 3.30am, much to Gracie’s dismay.

Laurie’s dreams to make it big in showbusiness are portrayed as naïve and, to a certain extent, wrong. This is partly because his talent as a songwriter is limited; without Gracie, he struggles to write good songs and eventually Schultz sacks him. Gracie, on the other hand, is genuinely talented but is not interested in pursuing fame. Instead, she prioritises the community of the estate over individual ambition.

The sense of community is not only shown in the estate-wide singalongs that bookend the film, but also in Gracie’s relationship with her neighbour Hetty and Hetty’s young daughter Bettina. No explanation is given for Bettina’s absent father. Hetty works as a police officer and Gracie frequently looks after Bettina when Hetty is on duty. The very warm and natural relationship between Fields and the child actor provides a strong counterpoint to the vacuous lovemaking between Laurie and Miss Joy.

Fields acting with Bettina Montahners in Looking on the Bright Side

The section in which Gracie signs up with the Metropolitan Police has little relevance to the plot. Female police officers were still relatively rare in 1932, and they were certainly not regularly portrayed on screen. Predicably, the rigid enforcement of rules within the corps is used to set up some physical slapstick comedy situations for Fields. Although Fields quickly decides to leave the Police force, it is not the notion of female police officers which is rejected, but rather the idea that Fields herself would be suitable in such a controlled environment.

Looking on the Bright Side takes a reasonably meta approach to the business of song writing and song-selling, as the film itself was clearly a vehicle for selling records and sheet music of the songs it includes. At the same time, it obfuscates its own part in commercial song writing by presenting other careers and industries as more valuable and viable.

Listen to Gracie Fields sing ‘Looking on the Bright Side’

Paul Robeson

FeaturedPaul Robeson

Paul Robeson was born in 1898 in New Jersey. He became an actor, singer, activist and athlete, and was one of the very few prominent black actors to appear in British interwar films. Robeson lived with his wife in London between 1928 and 1939, during which period he studied Swahili and phonetics at SOAS, University of London. In London he appeared on the West End stage as Othello (1930) – the first black man to play the role on the West End stage in a hundred years.

Robeson was a popular actor and singer, and a well-known figure in London society. When, in 1929, he and his wife were denied entry to the Savoy grill room due to their skin colour, the matter was reported in the national press. The Savoy, however, flat-out refused to admit that it operated a colour bar and provided no explanation why the Robeson’s were refused entry.

On British film sets, Robeson also encountered racial prejudices. After appearing alongside his wife Eslanda in the art-house Borderline (1930), Robeson’s first commercial role in British film was 1935’s Sanders of the Rivers, directed by Zoltan Korda. The film was based on a selection of short stories by Edgar Wallace, published in 1911. The Edwardian context in which the source material was written was scarcely updated for the film. Sanders, played by Leslie Banks, is a colonial administrator in Nigeria. He is presented as firm but just, and has a paternalistic attitude towards the tribes which live in ‘his’ part of the Empire. Robeson plays Bosambo, a trusted native who provides Sanders with intelligence. When warring breaks out between the tribes, Basambo helps Sanders restore the peace.

Significant parts of the film were shot on location, which the marketing material claimed lent an air of authenticity to the plot. However, as one viewer has commented, the film appears to have been shot in East Africa rather than Nigeria or elsewhere in West Africa – to the untrained, white, British viewer these two disparate regions apparently looked the same. The film features several African tribes in crowd scenes and performing rituals. Rather than providing an ethnographic account of indigenous culture, these scenes show ‘wild’ Africa as the white colonial gaze imagined it to be.

Robeson distanced himself from the film after it appeared, on the grounds of its sympathetic portrayal of colonialism. Yet he continued to find himself in the bind that the only roles offered to him as a black man were those which also included racist or patronising depictions of African culture. In his next British film, Song of Freedom (1936), Robeson plays a dock worker, Johnny Zinga, who has a powerful voice. This film, at least, allows Robeson to show off his considerable singing talent.

Johnny is catapulted to fame after he is heard singing in his local pub, in the predictable ‘rags to riches’ success story that so many British films of the period included. But Johnny does not simply get famous: he is also discovered to be the rightful king to an African island. Johnny travels to the island and tries to rule it as best as he can, but eventually decides to return home to his old life in the London docks. Life on the (fictitious) African island is depicted as primitive, with Robeson once more asked to don ‘traditional’ native dress for these scenes. It was no doubt titillating to white audiences to see the chest of the 6”3’ Robeson on display for their consumption. Additionally, the suggestion that the one black dockworker in London is also a member of a royal family further undermines the perceived differences between African culture, with its supposed multitude of royal families, and the British Empire, over which one monarch reigns supreme.

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)

The following year, Robeson was once again cast in an adaptation of a popular fiction, this time the Victorian novel King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. The novel appeared in 1886 and was one of the first British novels to be set in Africa. In the film, explorer and adventurist Allan Quartermain agrees to help a young Irish woman whose father has gone off into the African wilderness to find the fabled King Solomon’s diamond mines. Robeson plays Umbopa, a native guide to the party.

When Quartermain, Umbopa and the others get captured by a native tribe ruled by the despotic Twala and the witch-doctor Gagool, Umbopa reveals that he is in fact the legitimate heir to the tribe’s throne. Eventually, Quartermain and Umbopa manage to persuade the tribe to overthrow Twala and the party find the entrance to King’s Solomon’s mine, which turns out to exist. They find the missing father inside the mine and manage to escape before the mine is destroyed.

The portrayal of the native tribe in King Solomon’s Mines leans heavily on depictions of mystical rituals and supposed witchcraft. At the same time, their leader is styled a ‘king’ and the title appears hereditary in the manner of European monarchies. Umbopa is, in contrast, calm, educated and righteous. He is, however, treated as exceptional among his peers, a fact further underlined by his royal heritage. The overall depiction of indigenous African tribes in the film leans heavily on stereotypes of barbarianism and primitivism.

Robeson returned to the US at the outbreak of World War Two. His increasingly radical left-wing political views put him under government scrutiny, and he was denied a passport for several years, effectively trapping him in the US. Although he continued to record songs, Robeson stopped acting after 1942. Although he was a high-profile star during the 1930s, the racism pervasive in British society pigeonholed him into roles where he had to repeatedly act out white fantasies of indigenous cultures; and play characters who unquestioningly submitted to white colonial rule.

Featured

Hints and Hobbies (1926)

By 1926, cinemagoing was firmly established in Britain, and it was transforming from a working-class hobby to something rather more respectable. Super cinemas, which offered lounges and tearooms as well as screenings, were designed to attract middle-class women. Film historian Ina Rae Hark has argued that cinemas tried to draw in female customers by “attempting to create a dream home in which the woman could (…) enjoy complete freedom from responsibility for its maintenance.”[1] Like the department stores that appeared in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, super cinemas gave women a respectable place to go when they were out in town: a female equivalent for male clubland.

Inside the screening room, audiences did not just see a single film, but rather a varied programme of features, cartoons, informational films and advertisements. In 1926, silent film director A.E. Coleby, who had previously directed morality tales such as The Lure of Drink (1915) produced a series called Hints and Hobbies. Twelve episodes of this weekly bulletin survive in the BFI National Archives and are available to view online for UK-based audiences. These amusing films provide insight to the range of topics which were deemed relevant and suitable to a largely female audience.

Each episode of the series is about fifteen minutes long and covers a series of topics for a few minutes each. The very first Hints and Hobbies starts with a ‘Pets Column’ featuring kittens and puppies, showing that a version of the cat video has been a crowd pleaser for over a century. It then moves to a woman demonstrating how you can make a large decorative vase out of cardboard – for the use of dried flowers only one presumes! It is introduced with the title: ‘An Interesting Hobby which can be made to help pay the rent (?)’ It is evidently not going to be the most effective way to earn extra cash, but this does show that the target audience for this segment are women who are not poor but still could do with some more disposable income.

The penultimate sketch included in episode one is clearly aimed at the same audience. Titled ‘If only husbands were like this!’, it shows a married couple at the breakfast table. The woman receives a number of bills for recent clothes purchases: £8 8s for two hats, £10 10s for a ‘costume’, and £21 for an evening dress. This was serious money in 1926, but the fictional husband is unperturbed. ‘Quite alright, darling’, he says, and even says his wife should have treated herself to a second gown. E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady, no stranger to the lure of the boutique and the subsequent bank overdraft, would no doubt have appreciated this scene.

Hints and Hobbies also reflected modern concerns of the time, such as road safety. As this blog has noted previously, the interwar period saw a huge increase in car ownership but little in the way of safety regulations. In lieu of driving licenses or instructors, poor driving was rife. The first episode of the series exhorts drivers to be mindful of others when overtaking one another; the second episode asks female drivers specifically to not be ‘Miss Kareless Kornerer’ when taking a left-hand turn.

Along with the household and cooking tips included in each episode, Hints and Hobbies also took the traditionally feminised profession of nursing and used it to teach first aid to a wide audience. Lady Superintendent Mrs Webb from the St John’s Ambulance Brigade was on hand to demonstrate how to dress a wound in the palm of one’s hand, or how to make a splint for a fractured leg. Seven years after many women had trained as nurses during the First World War, these segments taught a new, younger generation of women the principles of emergency care. Mrs Webb appears in her uniform, capably handling the tools of her trade to fix up male patients.

The penultimate surviving episode of Hints and Hobbies veered away from accepted femininity and treated its audiences to something rather more transgressive: jiu-jitsu for women. The alarmist intertitle ‘You never know when the following may happen to you’ is followed by a sequence showing a young woman being attacked by a male loafer, who tries to steal her handbag. Luckily for the victim, a capable female motorist steps out of her car, grabs the man, retrieves the handbag, and ends with throwing the attacker to the ground. When returning the bag to the first woman, she tells her ‘My dear, it behoves every girl to-day to be able to protect herself…If you will come to the address I will give you at 7 o’clock to-night I will give you a few hints.’

It’s no surprise that this particular episode of Hints and Hobbies has been embraced by some LGBTQ viewers as representing an example of ‘lesbian erotica.’ Dressed in short tunics and standing on mattresses, the two women demonstrate several self-defence moves on one another. This no doubt also gave straight male viewers plenty of ‘visual pleasure’ but the casting of the man as the villain rather than hero in this segment, and a final shot of the two women embracing and leaving the room with their arms around one another, give plenty of space for a queer reading.

Little else appears to be known about Hints and Hobbies – who decided which topics to include, which cinemas they were shown at, or why the series did not last. However, even without any additional information the series provides plenty of insight into what the producers thought would entertain and inform their mostly female audiences. The changing gender norms of the period are reflected in the content that veers from tips on how to remove ink stains from aprons to improvising fancy dress for your next flapper party.  

The full Hints and Hobbies series can be viewed for free by UK-based viewers on the BFI Player.


[1] Ina Rae Hark, ed, Exhibition: The Film Reader (London: Routledge, 2001), chapter 12, Ina Rae Hark, ‘The “Theatre Man” and the “Girl in the Box Office”, pp. 143-154 (p. 145)

Featured

Limehouse

Limehouse is a neighbourhood in London, situated east of the Tower of London at the North bank of the Thames. It is right next to Canary Wharf, which is these days one of London’s financial districts. Limehouse has accordingly gentrified – Google’s description of the area states ‘Limehouse is a regenerated former dockland area where housing in converted warehouses and modern towers lines the Thames and Limehouse Basin, which is also home to a yacht-filled marina. (…) Upscale restaurants and hip cafes sit alongside laid-back global eateries.’

Back in the interwar period, however, Limehouse had very different connotations. As the area housed docks, it had from the mid-19th century been mainly populated by seamen. More specifically, from 1860 onwards Chinese sailors had settled in lodging houses in the area.[1] A similar development occurred in Liverpool, which also had a big and busy port. Unlike the Liverpool ‘Chinatown’, however, Limehouse obtained a cultural significance that far outstripped the mere 5000 Chinese who lived in the area.[2]

The stereotypes and fears around the Chinese inhabitants of Limehouse centred around drugs, gambling, and interracial relationships. Being sailors, most of the Chinese living in Limehouse were single men, who often lived in lodging houses. Those who did decide to settle down often married white women, as there were few Chinese women living in London and they had little means of paying passage for women living in China. At a time when racism was rife and eugenics was still acceptable, the spectre of mixed-race children being raised in Britain was used to cause moral alarm.

Limehouse and the Chinese were also consistently linked to opium and other drugs. In the 19th century, Britain had introduced opium from India into China for financial gain. After millions of Chinese became addicted to the drug, the so-called Opium War took place between Britain and China from 1839 to 1842. So whilst opium came to be seen as a Chinese drug, it had in fact originated from the British empire and planted in China by British officials.

Until the First World War, opium could be fairly easily obtained over the pharmacy counter and it was used as a recreational drug.[3] During the war, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) introduced widespread government powers to clamp down on anything from pub opening hours to press freedom. In the same way that DORA led to the rise of illegal nightclubs in the 1920s, it also facilitated the boom of ‘opium dens’ in Limehouse. Pushing opium use into illegality caused it to be more profitable for traders, and more tempting for users. Alongside opium, the possession and selling of cocaine was also banned in 1921.

The third aspect commonly linked to Chinatown in interwar fictions and reports is gambling. Betting on horse races, greyhound races and football pools was a popular pastime for the British working classes, and card parties often played for substantial amounts of money. The Chinese, however, introduced the casino-style games of Fan Tan and ‘Puck-apu’, a ‘lottery-like gambling game.’ A visit to Limehouse became a great opportunity for West End socialites to go ‘slumming’, partake in recreational drugs, gamble money, and flirt with the possibility of interracial relations.[4]

But beyond the actual activities of Limehouse, which ultimately consisted of a small Chinese community which mostly lived quietly and ‘respectably’, the idea of Limehouse was what really took flight in the interwar period. This started with fictional portrayals of shady Chinese master criminals, most notably Sax Rohmer’s ‘Fu Manchu’. The concept was then borrowed by crime fiction powerhouses Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie.[5]

In Christie’s The Big Four (1927) Hercule Poirot hunts four criminal masterminds who are in league to take over the world order. ‘Number 1’, the ringleader and most dangerous criminal, is the Chinese Li Chang Yen. The Big Four is one of the weaker Poirot novels, pieced together from short stories to fulfil contractual obligations whilst Christie’s first marriage was ending. It is telling that during this time, when Christie did not have the capacity to write a brilliant novel, she fell back on the ‘Chinese mastermind’ stereotype – it had already become an easy shorthand for readers.

Cinema, too, used and abused Limehouse as an atmospheric setting. Possibly the most famous interwar film set in Limehouse is actually an American production, D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms starring Lilian Gish (1919). In Britain, E.A. Dupont’s 1929 film Piccadilly features the Chinese scullery maid Shosho, who works in an expensive nightclub in the West End, but lives in Limehouse with a Chinese companion. As noted above, in reality there were few Chinese women in Limehouse. Shosho (played by Asian American actor Anna Mae Wong) serves to fulfil white male fantasies about ‘Oriental’ women.

Piccadilly’s white male hero, Valentine Wilmott, falls for Shosho, or is seduced by her, depending on your interpretation. The film features extensive scenes of Shosho dancing in revealing outfits with unusual headdresses. She takes Valentine with her to a Limehouse bar, where other patrons use cocaine. Afterwards, Shosho invites Valentine to her house and bed – an invitation which he accepts. Although it was considered deeply inappropriate for a white woman to have a relationship with a Chinese man, Valentine is able to pursue Shosho without consequences. In fact, it is Shosho who ends up dead: she is shot by her Chinese friend Jim, who was secretly in love with her and kills her in a jealous rage. Piccadilly thus ultimately reaffirms stereotypes of Limehouse as a space of criminality and transgression.

During the Second World War the Limehouse docks were subjected to heavy bombing. After the war, London’s Chinese community mostly migrated to the town centre in Soho, which currently remains the city’s ‘Chinatown’. Soho has an enduring mythology of its own, of which Chinatown is a part, but in which it is not prominent. It is in Limehouse and during the interwar period where the stories of London’s Chinese community consolidated into something much bigger than its parts.   


[1] Yat Ming Loo, ‘“Mixed race,” Chinese identity, and intercultural place: Decolonizing urban memories of Limehouse Chinatown in London,’ Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, 2022,  3:1, 23-41 (p. 23)

[2] Annie Lai, Bob Little, Pippa Little, ‘Chinatown Annie: The East End Opium Trade, 1920-1935: The Story of a Woman Opium Dealer’, Oral History Journal, 1986, vol. 14, no. 1, 18-30 (p. 18)

[3] Ibid., p. 21

[4] For more on slumming in London see Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)

[5] John Seed, ‘Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-40,’ History Workshop Journal, 2006, 62, p. 58

Lady in Danger (1934)

FeaturedLady in Danger (1934)

Actor-director-manager Tom Walls was a popular comic actor on the interwar stage and screen. From 1922 onwards he produced and (often) starred in a series of enormously successful farcical plays at the Aldwych theatre. Many of these plays were turned into films in the 1930s, often with Walls directing. At the Aldwych, a steady cast of actors quickly formed, which took roles in each of the plays. Alongside Walls, the other male lead was Ralph Lynn; supporting roles were taken by Robertson Hare, Mary Brough, Winnifred Shotter and Yvonne Arnaud. The scripts were usually supplied by Ben Travers.

After sound film became a viable proposition in Britain, the Aldwych team recorded their repertoire for the screen at speed. Their first film, Rookery Nook, was produced in 1930. Then followed two more films in both 1931 and 1932, three films in 1933, another two in 1934 and the final one in 1935. After the supply of stage productions was exhausted, there followed another five films, based on original scripts, starring both Lynn and Walls (1935-1937). Both men also appeared separately in films during the 1930s, either with or without other Aldwych cast members.

One such film, associated to the Aldwych farcical tradition but not quite a part of it, is Lady in Danger. Walls plays the male lead opposite Yvonne Arnaud, an originally French actress who gave up a promising career as a pianist in favour of the stage.[1] Theatre remained her primary occupation throughout her career, but Arnaud also appeared in twelve films during the interwar period. Half of these were related to the Aldwych team.

Lady in Danger was written by Ben Travers specifically for Walls and Arnaud, although Travers initially intended it to be a play rather than a film.[2] The film plays on their strengths and their personas, which by 1934 would have been extremely familiar to their audiences. Walls plays a charmer and ladies man, as he does in most of his films (and indeed as he appears to have been in real life). Arnaud’s secret weapon was her enduring French accent and supposed ignorance of the nuances of English, which could be played up for laughs. After more than a decade of regular collaboration, Walls and Arnaud had a great chemistry and rapport which is clear on the screen.

Lady in Danger starts in the fictional European state of Ardenberg – a ‘Ruritania’ setting such as this was gratefully used by film writers of the period to add some foreign flavour to their films without getting bogged down in cultural or historical accuracy. Ardenberg is on the verge of a revolution, during with the royal family will be deposed. British businessman Richard Dexter (Walls) flies into the country to retrieve stolen bonds. Before he leaves, the leader of the Ardenberg revolution asks him to escort the Queen (Arnaud) to Britain to keep her safe. The Ardenberg King has found refuge in his Paris apartment.

Upon arrival in London, Dexter has to keep the Queen hidden to ensure her continued safety. It proves difficult to hide her in his London flat, particularly when his fiancée Lydia stops by. Dexter moves the Queen to a country cottage, where the sparks between the couple fly. Ultimately, however, the Queen decides to return to Paris and join her husband. It’s made clear that the King regularly enjoys affairs, which lessens the severity of the Queen’s transgression. The monarchy is restored in Ardenberg and Dexter returns to Britain and to Lydia.

As can be expected for a comedy, the plot of Lady in Danger is rather thin, and mostly there to provide Walls and Arnaud with opportunities for verbal sparring. Sample dialogue includes Arnaud, after getting settled in the cottage and unpacking her luggage, announcing: ‘I am ready now for bed – I have undone all my clothing!’ Travers’ writing had a reputation for these types of jokes which stayed just on the right side of the BBFCs censorship rules, and the Sunday Times noted that ‘Skating on thin ice is this author’s speciality, and the riskiness of some of the double entendres is astonishing.’[3]

For a modern viewer, the ‘risqué’ jokes ensure that Lady in Danger is still funny and watchable, even if the characters are concerned about things such as what the housekeeper may think about an unknown woman sleeping in Walls’ spare room. It is (still) refreshing to see an actress in her mid-forties play a part in which she unapologetically pursues an affair and then also decides to walk away from a charming man in favour of her professional obligations. Arnaud seems to thoroughly enjoy the role in which she gets to boss everyone around.

Although Lady in Danger is not one of the original Aldwych farces, and it does not provide the same brand of humour that films with both Lynn and Walls deliver, it is still very funny. It is less silly than some of the team’s other films, and may appeal to audiences who find farcical humour difficult to enjoy. It also showcases Arnaud’s comic talent and allows new generations to discover this renowned actress.

Lady in Danger is available to view on the Internet Archive.


[1] Mark Newell, Oh, Calamity! The Lost, Damaged and Surviving Films of the Aldwych Farces and Farceurs (Kibworth: The Book Guild, 2020), p. 255

[2] Ibid., p. 170

[3] Ibid. p. 171

Featured

Notorious interwar murders (part 3)

This blog post is the final of a three-part series on notorious interwar murders. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

After the Thorne case, the 1930s started with two murder cases which were even more sensational. On 8 April 1930 Sidney Fox was executed for a crime which was considered even more heinous than murdering a pregnant woman and destroying her body: he was convicted for murdering his own mother Rosaline.

Matricide is rare in the United Kingdom, and Fox became notorious.[1] Fox was also the first person condemned to death since 1907 who did not appeal his conviction, which seemed to further prove his guilt.[2] However, like the Thorne case, the Fox conviction has continued to spark debate and recent re-examinations conclude that it is possible Rosaline died of an accident.

Fox and Rosaline lived a nomadic existence, travelling from seaside hotel to seaside hotel, and committing thefts and frauds to obtain money. In spring of 1929, under the instructions of Fox, Rosaline took out a life insurance policy that guarded against accidental death. The policy expired at midnight on 23 October. And on 23 October, in a hotel in Margate, Rosaline’s bedroom apparently caught fire at 11.40pm. Rosaline’s body was discovered inside, making Fox eligible for a life insurance pay-out.

The doctor attending the scene considered that Rosaline had died in the fire, and she was buried without further examination. However, Fox’s behaviour on the night, the fact of the life insurance, as well as the forensic evidence in the room led Scotland Yard to conduct further investigations. After Rosaline’s body was exhumed, Sir Bernard Spilsbury (yes, him again) concluded that she had been strangled before the fire had started.

The oratory power of Spilsbury, combined with the emotional horror of alleged matricide, Fox’s criminal past, and his homosexual inclinations, were enough to convince the jury to convict him. Not surprisingly, the Home Secretary did not use his executive powers to commute the sentence.[3] The Home Secretary usually only reprieved condemned prisoners if ‘popular feeling’ was in favour of the prisoner, which in this case it was decidedly not.[4]

The British public had barely recovered from the excitement of the Fox case when yet another murder case grabbed the headlines. Whereas the 1920s had seen husbands poisoning their wives and later, men killing their girlfriends, Alfred Rouse tried to fake his own death by killing another (still unidentified) man and setting his corpse on fire to make it unrecognisable. Contemporary commentators may have argued that the nefarious influence of Hollywood cinema had led to this spectacular crime!

Like Patrick Mahon, Alfred Rouse was a salesman; and like Mahon, Rouse also had many affairs with women and teenage girls which his wife was unaware of. These affairs often led to the women having Rouse’s children. Rouse always pretended he was single, and even went as far as to illegally marry several of his mistresses, to keep up the pretence that he was fully committed to them. Although he made a good salary with his job, it was not sufficient to secretly support these many women and children. Things came to a head in the summer of 1930, when two of Rouse’s longstanding girlfriends were both expecting marriage, and several of his past partners were demanding child support money from him.

Rouse planned his scheme carefully; he took out a life insurance policy in case of death in a car accident. He then found a man in a pub who claimed to be out of work and with no family or other support network, who also was of roughly the same height and build as Rouse. This was the perfect victim for his purposes. Rouse offered the man a lift to the Midlands on the evening of 5 November – Guy Fawkes night in England during which a lot of bonfires are traditionally lighted. Rouse hoped that the bonfires would provide cover for his plan.

It has never been fully clarified what exactly happened in the car, but Rouse got his companion drunk enough that he fell asleep. According to Rouse, he never found out the man’s name or any personal details about him. Rouse parked his car in a ditch off a country lane, doused it in petrol and set it on fire.

It is possible his plan would have worked, had he not been spotted emerging from the lane by two teenage boys who were walking home from the bonfires. Seeing a man in a suit (but without a hat!) clambering out of a ditch in the middle of the night was unusual enough, but when they found a car ablaze a few meters further they naturally warned the local constable.

By the time the fire was put out, the body was horrifically charred and unrecognisable. The car, however, was identified as belonging to Rouse. This was passed on to the newspapers, as well as an urgent call for the man without a hat to report as a witness to the police. Rouse in the meantime met up with one of his mistresses, who showed him the newspaper articles about his car. Although Rouse claimed the car was not his, the woman was sufficiently suspicious to alert the police. Rouse was arrested as he got off a coach at Hammersmith bus station.

At the trial, the jury once again took less than half an hour to find Rouse guilty. During the trial Rouse claimed that the unknown man’s death was accidental, but shortly before his execution he wrote a full confession to the Daily Sketch. The newspapers, which had played a material part in Rouse’s arrest, were also able to benefit from his execution. For a man like Rouse, the newspaper coverage of the case was not just a threat, but also one final opportunity to bolster his ego.

There are (many) more murder cases that could have been included in this series, from those which got ample newspaper coverage to those which were considered not newsworthy. Those which were sensationally described in the press, however, subsequently filtered into contemporary crime fiction and non-fiction books, and from there into that nebulous concept, the ‘public imagination.’ Newspapers were instrumental not only in helping solve the crimes, but also in building up a shared body of knowledge on what it means to commit a British murder.


[1] Playwright and actor Emlyn Williams refers in his autobiography to an acquaintance, whose own claim to fame was that he had known Sidney Fox. Emlyn Williams, Emlyn: A sequel to George (London: Penguin, 1976)

[2] Colin Evans, The Father of Forensics (Thriplow: Icon, 2007), p. 221

[3] ‘Margate Matricide: Death Sentence to Stand’. Evening Post, 7 April 1930. p. 9

[4] Douglas G Browne and E.V. Tullett, Bernard Spilsbury: His Life and His Cases (London: Harrap, 1951), p. 264

Notorious interwar murders (part 2)

FeaturedNotorious interwar murders (part 2)

This blog post is the second of a three-part series on notorious interwar murders. You can read part 1 here and part 3 here.

Whereas high-profile murders at the start of the interwar period fit the stereotype of apparently unassuming, suburban citizens calculatedly removing tiresome spouses, from the mid-1920s the cases that occupied the front pages were decidedly less cozy. In 1924, a case that became known as the ‘Crumbles Murder’, stretched the skills of celebrity pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury as the remains of the victim were so mutilated.

The Crumbles are a stretch of beach east of Eastbourne, where the remains of 38-year-old Emily Kaye were found in a beachside cottage. Kaye had been in an illicit relationship with the charming and handsome, but married, salesman Patrick Mahon. A few months into the affair Kaye became pregnant; Mahon had not told her that he was already married and led her to believe he would marry her. Kaye told her colleagues that she and Mahon would emigrate to South Africa after the wedding; he asked her to take lodgings in a cottage on the Crumbles, in apparent anticipation of their emigration.

It was here that Mahon murdered Kaye, but the exact details of her death were never established. Mahon severed her head and legs and stowed her body in a trunk in a spare room of the cottage. He then went into Eastbourne and picked up another woman, Ethel Duncan, whom he took back to the cottage for the weekend. Duncan was oblivious to the corpse locked away in the spare room. After Duncan left, Mahon destroyed most of Kaye’s body by burning, boiling and pulverising it.

The murder was discovered by a private investigator who had been hired by Mahon’s wife. When Mahon left a bag at the luggage storage in Waterloo station, the private investigator collected this bag and found it contained a bloodied knife. Scotland Yard quickly arrested Mahon and he admitted that Kaye had died, although he framed it as an accident. When Spilsbury and his Home Office colleagues arrived at the cottage, they had great difficulty identifying any of Kaye’s remains. Her skull was never recovered, which led them to assume that the cause of death had been a skull fracture.

After the Crumbles murder Spilsbury developed a ‘murder bag’ for Scotland Yard officers, a standard kit they could use in crime scenes which included ‘rubber gloves, a hand lens, a tape measure, a straightedge ruler, swabs, sample bags, forceps, scissors, a scalpel, and other instruments that may be called for.’[i] Spilsbury had been appalled by the casual conduct of the Scotland Yard detectives at the crime scene.

Patrick Mahon, Sunday Express, 12 March 1933, p. 13

Mahon was found guilty of murder and executed in September 1924. Mahon’s good looks, replicated in newspapers across the country during the investigation and trial, seemed to make his acts even more discordant. When the diaries of ‘nightclub queen’ Kate Meyrick were serialised in the Sunday Express in 1933, they were accompanied by a photo of Mahon who Meyrick claimed visited her club quite often. At the time of his arrest, she wrote ‘He is a very nice good-looking man (…) [his eyes] were not like the eyes of ordinary people; there was something behind them.’[ii] As befitted a notorious murderer, his execution became another part of his myth: there were persistent rumours that he had tried to jump off the scaffold when the trapdoor opened.

The high profile of the Crumbles murder, accompanied as it was by voluminous press reporting, led to other young men adopting Mahon as an inspiration. One of these men was Norman Thorne, a 25-year-old chicken farmer and occasional teacher. Mere months after Mahon’s execution, Thorne killed his own fiancée, Elsie Cameron. Like Mahon, he dismembered and hid Cameron’s body after her death. When she was reported missing, Cameron spoke to the press on his farm, every inch the distressed lover but only standing a few feet away from where Cameron’s body was buried.

Once witnesses came forward who had seen Elsie Cameron very near Thorpe’s farm on the day of her disappearance (even though he had denied seeing her), Thorne quickly became the main suspect.[iii] He admitted that Cameron had visited him on the farm but claimed she had committed suicide whilst he was away in the village. When he came back, he allegedly was so distressed that he did not know what to do with the body and decided to hide it. The newspaper clippings about Mahon and the Crumbles murder that were found amongst his belongings cemented the police’s view that Thorne was in fact guilty of murder.

The Thorne case caused controversy at the time, particularly as the forensic experts in the case disagreed about whether the evidence pointed towards death by hanging or death by strangulation. Sir Bernard Spilsbury was convinced that Thorne was guilty; but another pathologist, Robert Brontë, opined that the evidence pointed to hanging. As if the spectacle of two disagreeing forensic specialists in court was not enough, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle happened to live near to Thorne’s farm. He added his voice to Thorne’s defenders. Nevertheless, a jury found Thorne guilty after less than thirty minutes of deliberation.[iv] Whilst awaiting his execution, Thorne wrote a letter to his father which was subsequently published in the national press. In it, Thorne complained that he has become a victim of Bernard Spilsbury’s outsized influence on courts and juries.

Although Thorne was executed, the disagreement on the forensic evidence paired with Thorne’s own insistence of his innocence led to the continued concerns that the conviction was unsafe. This has continued into the 21st century, with the case being re-examined for the BBC series ‘Murder, Mystery and My Family’ (2019 – with a conclusion that the conviction was safe); and in the national press as well as in academic articles.


[i] Colin Evans, The Father of Forensics (Thriplow: Icon, 2007), pp. 148-149

[ii] ‘The Private Diary of Mrs Meyrick’, Sunday Express, 12 March 1933, p. 13

[iii] Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton, ‘Bruised Witness: Bernard Spilsbury and the Performance of Early Twentieth-Century English Forensic Pathology’, Medical History, vol. 55 (2011), p. 46

[iv] Ibid., p. 55

Featured

Notorious interwar murders (part 1)

This blog post is the first of a three-part series on notorious interwar murders. Read part 2 here and part 3 here.

In Decline of the English Murder, written in 1946, George Orwell marks out the period between 1850 and 1925 as a ‘great period in murder.’[1] With ironic nostalgia, he sketches a picture of the ‘perfect murder’ which is committed by a ‘little man of the professional class (…) living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.’ The motive should be extramarital passion, and the murder should be end point of ‘long and terrible wrestles with his conscience.’ The act should be very well planned bar one detail that trips the murderer up; the weapon of choice is poison.[2]

The features of the imaginary murder case described by Orwell were firmly embedded in British interwar culture, and are also echoed in crime fiction of the period. The murder in Malice Aforethought, for example, plays out almost exactly like Orwell’s ideal murder.[3] The cultural stereotype was based on a series of real-life murder cases which were covered by an increasingly sensationalist press. The main popular newspapers each boosted a circulation of over one million throughout the interwar period, and especially in London and the South East of England, the vast majority of people regularly read newspapers.[4] The large numbers of readers, combined with the newspapers’ increased tendency to report in emotive language, ensured that murder cases became collective experiences which became cemented in popular culture.

The first murder case that became a national obsession actually occurred before the First World War: in 1910, Hawley Harvey Crippen was found guilty of the murder of his wife Cora, and executed. Dr Crippen, an American by birth, tried to escape to America by ocean liner. Thanks to the still relatively new telegraph, however, British authorities were warned by the ship’s captain and they managed to arrest Crippen before he could even disembark. Crippen was a doctor, and the murder of Cora had taken place in a suburban house in Holloway – the first elements of the classic story were already there.[5]

Across 1921 and 1922, another case involving a ‘little man of the professional class’ gave newspaper audiences a new story to get their teeth into. Herbert Rowse Armstrong, a solicitor, became known as the ‘Hay Poisoner’ after the village on the Welsh border where Armstrong lived and committed his murders. Armstrong first killed his wife with arsenic; a murder which was initially undetected. Mrs Armstrong’s death was ascribed to natural causes by the family doctor.

However, Armstrong then tried to poison Oswald Martin, another solicitor practicing in Hay. Martin first became sick after eating a scone at Armstrong’s house. Armstrong then sent chocolates to Martin which his wife ate, after which she also became sick. The pair raised their concerns with the Home Office, which after investigation promptly informed Scotland Yard. Armstrong was arrested at the very end of 1921 and appeared before the Magistrate on 2 January 1922. His wife’s body was exhumed on the same day, and Armstrong was convicted of murder and executed on 31 May 1922.

The Hay Poisoner solidified the stereotype of the ‘respectable’ man killing his wife to escape domestic drudgery or to be able to pursue other women. Later in 1922, however, a woman would turn this narrative on its head. Edith Thompson’s behaviour was so far out of the norm that it likely led to her being convicted of a crime in which she took no active part.

Edith Thompson and her husband, Percy, lived in the kind of suburban house that fit right in with the murderous stereotype. Rather than Percy looking to get rid of Edith, however, Edith was the one to strike up an affair with the younger Freddy Bywaters. The couple exchanged many letters during their courtship, in which they described fantasies of killing Percy. Edith destroyed the letters she got from Freddy; but he kept hers. On 3 October 1922, Edith and Percy were walking home late when Freddy suddenly ran up to them, stabbed Percy, and ran off. Although Edith probably did not know about Freddy’s plans to attack Percy, the letters she had written him were enough to get her arrested alongside Freddy.[6]

It was Edith’s behaviour that was on trial, rather than her actual involvement with the murder. Edith had a job, an affair, no children: ‘she smoked, danced, bet on the horses, and read an inordinate amount of books.’[7] In short, she did not conform to the ideal of the quiet suburban housewife. Freddy, on the other hand, was represented in some parts of the press as ‘a kind of hero.’[8] Young, good-looking Freddy fit a stereotype whereas Edith defied conventions. Although on the basis of the police evidence Freddy was definitely guilty and Edith was probably not, both were executed and in popular opinion Edith was considered to be more guilty than Freddy.

The Thompson-Bywaters case inspired several writers of the interwar period to write up fictionalised accounts of the story. Today, historians have used the case to explore gender bias in the British interwar justice system. Although the case was notorious, it did not solidify into one of those classic English murder cases. The method – stabbing – was generally considered ‘un-British’ and the possibility that other suburban women were having affairs and plotting to murder their husbands was too uncomfortable to contemplate.


[1]George Orwell, Decline of the English Murder (London: Penguin, 2009), p. 15

[2] Ibid., pp. 17-18

[3] Francis Iles, Malice Aforethought (London: Gollancz, 1931)

[4] Political and Economic Planning, Report on the British Press: a survey of its current operations and problems with special reference to national newspapers and their part in public affairs (London: PEP, 1938), p. 239

[5] Modern forensic re-investigation of the Crippen case has suggested that his conviction was not safe.

[6] Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (2008), p. 625

[7] Ibid., p. 628

[8] Ibid., p. 641

Featured

How to Entertain: A Guide for Hosts and Hostesses (1924)

The interwar period saw great social change: the upper classes were gradually losing their elevated standing whilst at the same time, the middle classes grew both in volume and significance. But upper-class life still had its lustre, and self-help books were a popular means to learn behaviours of other social strata; or at least to have a peek into different lifestyles.

These books, such as 1924’s How to Entertain: A Guide for Hosts and Hostesses, can serve much the same purpose to a modern audience. A guidebook sets out a prescribed and distilled set of behaviours, which are unlikely to have been exhibited as written by the wealthier classes. The book is apparently written for the man or woman who finds themselves in a position of having to ‘entertain’, but has not learnt the rules of entertaining whilst growing up. Probably, the behaviours set out in the book were not even adopted by its readers/students, who may have used the book as inspiration or a reference guide only.

What is left is a volume providing prescriptive detail on how to host a range of entertainments, quite removed from any real-life application of the guidance. The work should not be seen as an accurate reflection of how five o’clock teas or garden parties took place, but rather as an idealised version of how the author (Mary Woodman) wanted the reader to believe such gatherings took place in moneyed households. Like all etiquette books, it serves as much to reaffirm and strengthen social practices as it does to initiate novices into those practices.

The book covers the following possible social functions one may need to host, in this order: dinner parties; luncheon party; five o’clock tea; evening function; wedding; christening; private dance; musical evening; garden party; picnic party; card party; Christmas dinner party; children’s party; week-end visits. The underlying assumption throughout is that hosting happens by married couples only, who own their own home with spare rooms and a sizeable garden, and preferably access to a car. This naturally excluded a large part of British people living in 1924, and any hosting undertaken by this group is disregarded. ‘Hosting’ becomes a formal activity with rules and boundaries, that needs to be studied and learned.

Although the title of the book purports it to be for ‘hosts and hostesses’, the majority of the hosting is presumed to be taken on by the hostess. For example, in the section on the garden party, it states ‘No hostess should attempt a garden party unless the dimensions of her garden are fairly generous and unless there is a lawn big enough for whatever games she decides upon.’[1] Equally, in the section on picnic  parties, it is stated that the hostess ‘must only invite friends with motors, or must be prepared to carry the folk in her [sic] own car, or select a spot easily reached by other means of conveyance.’[2] Despite its title, the book repeatedly reaffirms that social functions are the responsibility of (married) women, who must follow an intricate set of rules to organise them.

No social engagement appears to have had more rules than the formal dinner party, which is given prominence at the book’s opening. This sets it as the gold standard of all social engagements. Right at the start, Woodman warns that ‘The laws of entertaining are sound common-sense laws which have been evolved for the good of all concerned. This being the case, it is highly necessary that they are strictly observed.’[3] Thus advised, the reader takes note that invitations must be sent out at least two weeks in advance;[4] that an even number of men and women should be invited; and that if a single guest cancels, ideally one should then remove or add a guest to retain the gender balance.[5]

When it comes to topics of discussion during the dinner: ‘[s]afe subjects are books, theatres, sports if not taken too far, public men, holidays, and the fashionable doings of the moment. The weather is a poor subject, but it is better than nothing.’[6] In addition to all these niceties, the hostess should serve up an elaborate meal which could include up to nine courses, each with a different type of beverage.[7] Clearly, hosting a party at this scale would be out of the financial reach for most people, and those who could afford it were unlikely to seek recourse to a guidebook to understand how to organise it.

The card party, which had the potential to be a bit sordid, came with strict rules to allow it to be respectable. The first advice is that ‘No hostess would plan a card party unless she had previously attended many similar functions given by her friends. She would then have the opportunity of seeing how things were done in her own particular set.’[8] It is implied that she should find out if her particular set of friends play for money, or not. At an evening card party, at least half the attendees had to be men, to keep things respectable – and the hostess was excluded from the action unless she had to make up a set of four for bridge or whist.[9] In the world of the Guide, a card party was not an opportunity to gamble but rather a staid affair to which even grown-up sons and daughters could be introduced.[10]

How to Entertain: A Guide for Hosts and Hostesses demonstrates the ideal rules of social engagement as presented in 1924. It also shows that there was a market for books explaining how to behave; a reflection of the significant social change that was occurring in Britain at the time. Through social mobility, people were no longer secure in their role in life or the expectations placed upon them. They could turn to books such as this for reassurance or entertainment. The highly prescriptive nature of the book could provide comfort, although it also placed a substantial burden on (married) women by stressing their responsibilities for the social standing of the family.


[1] Mary Woodman, How to Entertain: A Guide for Hosts and Hostesses (London: W. Foulsham & Co Ltd, 1924), p. 57

[2] Ibid., p. 60

[3] Ibid., p. 9

[4] Ibid., p. 10

[5] Ibid., p. 12

[6] Ibid., p. 20

[7] Ibid., p. 25

[8] Ibid., p. 65

[9] Ibid., pp. 65-66

[10] Ibid., p. 66

Featured

Women and Public Transport

Public transport became part of daily life in the 19th century, particularly in urbanised areas. Almost from its inception, women were at risk in public transport spaces, and this risk is still present in the 21st century.[1] It is no surprise then that in London of the interwar period, too, there were countless attacks on women in public transport, ranging from relatively minor aggressions to murder. Newspapers of the period did report on such cases, but with a view to stress the human or sensational element of such cases without addressing any structural issues that may have led to violence against women.

In newspaper reports, attacked passengers were almost always young women travelling alone, and the reports stressed how the seemingly random attacks were carried out by strangers. A typical article appeared in the Daily Mirror in December 1929. It describes how a Miss Organ, who was in her mid-twenties, was “suddenly attacked by a youth who followed her into a compartment” on the suburban train from Bromley to Charing Cross.[2] The isolation of the train compartment meant that Miss Organ was quite seriously hurt, and her attacker managed to escape before other passengers could come to her aid.

Train compartments were designed to be like private domestic spaces, so that passengers would feel at ease in them. But their public accessibility made them dangerous, too.[3] The repeated attention on female victims reinforced the notion that travelling was especially dangerous for women, and implied that they were perhaps better off by avoiding using transport on their own, thus limiting women’s freedom to move around the city.

Earlier in the same decade, the Daily Express reported on a ‘mysterious outrage in a Tube train’.[4] Daisy Tyler, a 16-year-old from Barking, had her plait of hair cut loose in a crowded Underground train. Interestingly the hair wasn’t stolen – it was severed to the point that it was only held together by Miss Tyler’s hairclip, and it was only when the clip was removed that Miss Tyler realised what had happened. A ‘close friend’ confided to the Express that Miss Tyler was particularly distressed ‘as she was going to a dance’ that evening.

The article goes on to speculate that women with ‘golden’ hair may be at particular risk of these (attempted) hair robberies, alleging that several instances of women and girls having their hair forcibly cut off had taken place in recent months. Again in the words of Miss Tyler’s ‘friend’, it was ‘extraordinary’ that no-one in the packed Tube had noticed the attack. Anyone who has ever been harassed on a busy train or bus will note that busy carriages can actually create an environment in which it is easier to harass unnoticed, as the mass of commuters’ bodies can hide a lot of activity from view.

Far worse than the fate of Miss Tyler was that of an unnamed, unidentified girl whose body parts were found in a paper parcel on a train running from Waterloo to Windsor in 1922.[5] A ‘girl’s hand, arm, shinbone and foot’ were found wrapped up ‘on the rack of a third-class compartment’ in this suburban train. The parcel was initially handed in as lost property by an unsuspecting passenger before it was opened up by station staff the next day, and its contents were revealed.

Even in this initial report the Daily Mail reporter manages to hint at the horrors that may have led to the girl’s death. The police surgeon concluded that the body was dismembered ‘in the same way as anatomical specimens in a surgical laboratory’. The man who found the parcel was quick to allege that his fellow passenger, who had been sitting below the parcel for part of the journey, had been reading a book ‘which I believe was a work on surgery’. The mystery man supposedly also had a stethoscope in his attaché case. This fellow traveller may have had nothing to do with the case, but the description provided in the article allows the reader to fantasise about the supposed surgeon’s nefarious deeds. The article ends with a paragraph on a ‘bushel of human bones’ found by Scotland Yard in Hampstead, north London (miles away from Waterloo or Windsor) which included ‘a skull with the top sawn off, proving that it had been used for anatomical purposes.’

Like the article on Miss Tyler’s hair, the Daily Mail report is quick to draw a picture of a nebulous but nonetheless threatening presence in London, which is attacking young women (invariably referred to as ‘girls’). London’s transport network provided rapid connections to increasingly far-flung parts of the city. Whilst public transport provided a great benefit to Londoners wishing to travel from one part of the capital to the other, these swift connections could also allow criminals to quickly move around the city. Young women were increasingly using public transport to navigate to and from work, disrupting expected patterns of behaviour and movement. In the narratives of these newspaper articles, these women can expect to put themselves at risk of attack if they choose to use the public transport network.

You can read more about the representation of London’s transport network in interwar newspapers in my book: Interwar London After Dark in British Popular Culture.


[1] See Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men (London: Vintage, 2020)

[2] ‘Girl Attacked and Robbed in a London Train’, Daily Mirror, 5 December 1929, 3.

[3] Colin Divall, ‘Civilising velocity: Masculinity and the marketing of Britain’s passenger trains, 1921-39’, The Journal of Transport History, 32:2 (2011), 164-191, here 179.

[4] ‘Girl Robbed of Hair’, Daily Express, 20 April 1921, p. 5

[5] ‘Girl’s Limbs in a Parcel,’ Daily Mail, 18 September 1922, p. 7

Featured

Anthony Berkeley – Trial and Error (1937)

Crime novelist Anthony Berkeley (born Anthony Berkeley Cox in 1893) was one of the key crime writers of the interwar period, producing books both as Anthony Berkeley and as Francis Iles. Many of his books innovated the crime genre, such as The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) in which the members of an amateur crime detective club each put forward unique and plausible solutions to the same crime.[1] In Before the Fact (1932, written as Francis Iles) the female protagonist becomes gradually convinced that her husband is planning to murder her.

Berkeley’s main sleuth was Roger Sheringham, an amateur detective and author. It was common, indeed expected, for interwar crime writers to have a regular detective character, and Berkeley wrote ten novels starring Sheringham. His crime novels that do not include Sheringham, however, allowed him more flexibility in terms of plot development. This is also true of Trial and Error, which Berkeley wrote in the mid-1930s. Trial and Error does feature other characters from the Berkeley crime universe, such as the bumbling Ambrose Chitterwick who also stars in The Poisoned Chocolates Case and The Piccadilly Murder (1929).

The plot of Trial and Error is as typically convoluted and rewarding as can be expected from Berkeley, including a twist in the very final sentence of the book. Like other crime novels by Berkeley and his fellow writers, the plot is based on a historical crime, in this instance a case from 1864.[2] In Trial and Error, Lawrence Todhunter is told he is going to die of an aortic aneurysm at some point soon – as long as he does not exert himself, he may live another year, but anything that increases his heartrate may kill him.

Todhunter asks his friends a seemingly hypothetical question – what would they advise a man who has only a few months left to live, to do? The unanimous response is that such a man should kill someone – after all, the death penalty would form no deterrent. Although Todhunter at first entertains thoughts of killing Hitler or Mussolini (the latter of which was seen as a bigger threat in 1937)[3]; he eventually decides to kill an ‘ordinary’ person who makes the lives of those around them miserable. He finds his victim in Miss Jean Norwood, a stage actress who seduces married men and then financially drains them.

The selection of Miss Norwood as the victim and her eventual successful murder takes up less than the first half of Trial and Error. The second half of the book is concerned with the aftermath – and this is where it copies the historical case. After the murder Todhunter decides to go on a world tour, expecting to peacefully die somewhere en route. Several weeks into his trip, however, he is horrified to find out that another man has been arrested for the murder of Jean Norwood. Todhunter speeds back to England to prove his guilt – but he has been so thorough in hiding his tracks that there is no material evidence to convict him, and the police do not believe his confession.

With the other man tried and found guilty, Todhunter has very little time to prevent the execution of an innocent man (the time between conviction and execution was traditionally only three weeks). Together with his friends, he comes up with a plan. One of his friends, a civil servant, sues Todhunter for the murder under civil law. Whilst the police controlled who would be prosecuted in a criminal court, anyone could bring a case to anyone else a civil court. Todhunter actively works with the prosecution’s legal team to make the case against him as strong as possible. They also ensure that the case gets plenty of press attention, which in turn leads to political debate. The execution of the previously convicted man is paused until Todhunter’s case is completed. At the end of the book, Todhunter is victorious – he gets found guilty of the murder and sentences to death, whilst the other man walks free.  

In Trial and Error, Todhunter’s impending aneurism not only provides the catalyst for the plot, but it is also an effective tool to ratchet up the tension throughout the narrative. During the trial, Todhunter is increasingly worried he may die before he is convicted, and his friends shelter him away from the media circus to keep him alive. The tight timelines of the criminal court case and execution also put the pressure on Todhunter, which of course in turn makes him more likely to suffer his aneurism.

But beyond the race to save a condemned man, Trial and Error raises some questions about the British justice system. The man who is originally convicted is innocent – the police have been able to provide motive and circumstantial evidence and the jury has made its decision based on that. When Todhunter returns to Britain and makes a full confession, the police are unwilling to believe him.[4] A miscarriage of justice is a very real possibility in this scenario. Because Todhunter is initially unable to provide any material evidence to back up his confession, he is disbelieved. Technical advances in policing have made physical evidence so important that even a genuine confession holds no weight.

Like other Berkeley books, such as The Poisoned Chocolates Case and Before the Fact, there is no direct connection between those who commit murder and those who get punished for it. Whereas other crime novelists such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie often ensured that their criminals were either killed or arrested at the end of the novel, Berkeley’s books are much more ambiguous. This critical stance at the British justice system is perhaps one of the reasons why Trial and Error has only been transferred to the screen once, in a 1958 BBC miniseries. Berkeley’s satire still raises uncomfortable questions about the robustness of Western justice systems.


[1] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: HarperCollins, 2015), pp. 85-86

[2] Ibid., p. 360

[3] Anthony Berkeley, Trial and Error (London: Acturus, 2012), pp. 12-13

[4] Ibid., pp. 125-129

Murder in Soho (1939)

FeaturedMurder in Soho (1939)

On the eve of the Second World War, Associated British Picture Corporation produced Murder in Soho, a gangster flick starring American actor Jack La Rue (not his real name, obviously). The presence of Italian-American La Rue, with his cleft chin and strong jawline, brings Hollywood glamour to what is otherwise a crime film with an extremely thin plot. Murder in Soho appears to be a solitary British outing for the actor, although he did take the opportunity to get married whilst visiting London for the film’s shooting.

Like the almost contemporaneous They Drive By Night, Murder in Soho works hard to incorporate American slang into its dialogue, presumably to appeal to younger audiences. They Drive By Night, however, was produced by the British arm of American studio Warner Brothers. Murder in Soho comes from a British production company that was Hitchcock’s home for many of his silent films including Blackmail (1929); Murder! (1930)and The Skin Game (1931). Alongside these British thriller/crime films, ABPC (which previously operated as British International Pictures) also produced musical films such as Harmony Heaven (1930) and Over She Goes (1937). They did not have a strong background in producing American-style crime films – and it shows.

The plot of Murder in Soho is extremely thin. La Rue plays nightclub owner Steve Marco, who runs the ‘Cotton Club’ in Soho. He has just hired a new singer for the club, Ruby Lane. Steve is interested in Ruby as he thinks she has ‘class’. He doesn’t know, however, that Ruby is married (but separated from) Steve’s British associate Joe Lane. When Joe betrays Steve and steals £2000 off him, Steve kills Joe. Soon police inspector Hammond comes asking questions. He recruits Ruby to work with him and reveal Steve’s criminal activities. Also in the mix, although largely superfluous to the plot, are a journalist called Roy Barnes who frequently visits the club and falls in love with Ruby; Steve’s ex Myrtle who he has dumped in favour of Ruby; and performing duo ‘Green and Matthews’ who also work at the club.

The ‘Cotton Club’ in Murder in Soho

Murder in Soho contains all the popular elements of a 1930s crime film: a nightclub; an international criminal gang; a singer; a police inspector; a journalist. Yet these elements are not fused together with a compelling plot or livened up by any original ingredient. Indeed, the film’s insistence to try and introduce Americanisms into the narrative detracts even more from the action. Steve and his henchmen speak in thick Italian-American accents. The character ‘Lefty’ in particular, who is the young comedy sidekick, litters his dialogue with references to ‘dames’ and ‘cops’. The name of the club obviously refers to the famous Harlem nightclub – but there were no British Cotton Clubs and the name does not have the resonance in Britain as it would do in the United States. Steve employs Black bartenders in his club – again a practice which was much more common in the States than it was in Britain. Compared to depictions of nightclubs in other British films of the 1930s, the Cotton Club in Murder in Soho feels more like a replica of a Hollywood set than of anything resembling British nightlife.

Gun-toting American gangsters in Murder in Soho

The very opening of Murder in Soho also presents a version of Soho that was much more deliberately criminal and seedy than what is usually presented in British films. Familiar shots of the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus are interspersed with a close-up shot of a roulette table; a shot of an underground dive bar; and a shot of two prostitutes propositioning a man in an alleyway. Unlike the majority of British films of the period, which worked to preserve an image of London and Londoners as ultimately adhering to the law and to a high moral code, Murder in Soho explicitly positions Soho as a criminal space. Granted, the main criminal element in the film is foreign, but Joe Lane is British, as is Myrtle, Steve’s scorned ex who ends up killing him. Soho here is a lot seedier than the Soho portrayed in, for example, Piccadilly (1929).

Rather surprisingly, then, Murder in Soho also contains plenty of comic notes, and a few secondary characters who are only included to provide comedy relief. Most notably, the performing duo Green and Matthews, which weave throughout the narrative. Lola Matthews is portrayed by Googie Withers, who this early on in her career already had made a name for herself as an excellent comic actress. As Lola she patters on non-stop, innocently flirting with every man and completely oblivious that her dance partner Nick Green is besotted with her. A frequent club visitor whose role is simply credited as ‘Drunk’ provides diversion in scenes when he tries to eat with chop sticks or enters the dancefloor for a solo performance. These interludes do undercut the drama and suspense that the film attempts to create at other points.

Murder in Soho is a late-interwar curiosity – a film that tries to appeal to British audiences by inserting American glamour; a film that tries to be both serious and funny at the same time; and that ends up feeling like a painting-by-numbers effort that adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Murder in Soho is available on DVD from Network on Air

Featured

Typist or servant?

The Daily Mirror was originally launched in 1903 as a newspaper specifically for women.[1] Although its original format was a commercial failure, after a re-launch as a picture paper the Mirror continued to cater to female audiences. As well as covering news stories, the paper also contained feature articles on topics of interest to women.

In November 1934, author Ellen Dorothy Abb wrote up a three-column article for the Mirror under the heading ‘Which is better off, typist or servant?’.[2] Alongside adverts for Phillips Rubber Soled Shoes, antiseptic ointment and a Vaseline for children, Abb sets out to convince the reader that a young girl is better off working as a servant than as a typist. Before the First World War, domestic service was one of the few types of employment available to uneducated women. By the mid-1930s, women had a range of other jobs they could choose from, for example in factories or, as Abb suggests, in offices.[3] Nonetheless, about a quarter of working women were domestic servants at the beginning of the 1930s.

The tone of Abb’s article, however, suggests that women needed convincing to enter domestic service. There was certainly a perception that young women, particularly in the cities, were keen to work in offices instead. Abb’s argument is primarily an economic one. Two-and-a-half of the three columns discuss the supposed material advantages of the servant’s job. These mainly concern the savings servants make on not having to pay for rent, transport or food (pre-supposing the servant in question lives with their employers full-time, which was an increasingly rare occurrence). She neglects to mention that unlike typists, servants had no entitlement to National Insurance benefits.

In Abb’s telling, the servant’s life seems almost luxurious compared to that of the typist:

[The servant] eats her excellent meals at leisure and never has to scamp them to catch a train or fit in half an hour’s shopping at lunch hour.[4]

This may well be true, but the prospect of an employer who can ring for you at any time of the day or night, including during mealtimes, is not raised. Nor is the very frequent occurrence of servants being given poorer quality food than their masters, mentioned. When discussing the daily routine, Abb’s juxtaposition of the typist and the servant stretches credulity even more:

[The servant] has none of the tiring morning and evening rush the typist knows, with washing and mending making further inroads into her scanty leisure, even if she has not to start cooking and cleaning when she gets home.[5]

Again, the generally much longer working hours of the servant are ignored, and there is no suggestion why the servant would not be required to do her personal mending after the chores of the house have been completed. In Abb’s telling, however, the servant’s life seems to be one mostly of leisure, whereas the typist is presented as having to work in ‘noisy, dusty, crowded offices, badly ventilated and using artificial light all day.’[6]

Abb then moves to that sleight-of-hand beloved of interwar journalists, and references an anonymous example which the reader is assured refers to a real person. In this case, a 35-year-old typist decided to switch careers to domestic service. Unsurprisingly, this ‘person’ found that they had more money to spare as a domestic, and they were berating themselves for not starting in service earlier as that would have allowed them to have progressed to a more senior position by now.

After setting out the case for the servant’s superior financial and domestic comfort at such lengths, Abb finally turns to the reasons why the majority of young women choose to ‘accept the pinching and scraping that goes with the typist’s life’ – complete freedom during leisure hours, social recognition, and the opportunity to meet friends and potential partners. Being a servant carried a certain social stigma, as Abb concludes that for most girls it would be too shaming to admit to a potential partner if they worked in service.

At the end of the article there is a call to action for the readers, inviting them to write in and give their opinion on the matter. The invitation is specifically to female readers, as the editors want to know ‘Which would you sooner be? If you are one or the other – would you like to change – and why?’ There is no follow-up article but a short notice printed on the following Tuesday that due to the sheer number of responses received, letter writers will not be getting an individual response – a time-honoured convention to give the illusion of popularity without having to provide any evidence for it.[7]

Clearly, the article taps into a wider debate on what constituted an appropriate job for a women. Female typists were a relatively new phenomenon in the 1930s, an evolution of the 1920s flapper which had caused considerable consternation in the British press. Abb and the Daily Mirror carefully calibrated the article to elicit responses from both those who believed women should go into domestic service, and those who thought being a typist was the better option. Ultimately, however, the article sets up an artificial rivalry between two groups of women in order to generate debate. Although the Mirror may be aimed at women and provide articles written by women, it is far from supportive to women.


[1] Adrian Bingham and Martin Conboy, Tabloid Century, (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015), pp. 8-9; Kevin Williams, Get me a murder a day!, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2010) p. 55

[2] Ellen Dorothy Abb, ‘Which is better off, typist or servant?’, Daily Mirror, 16 November 1934, p. 12

[3] Miriam Glucksmann, Women Assemble: women workers and the new industries in inter-war Britain (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 52-3 

[4] Abb, ‘Which is better off’, p. 12

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Typist or Servant’, Daily Mirror, 20 November 1934, p. 10

Featured

Should journalists go to university?

The interwar period saw the continued rapid expansion of print media, which started in the Victorian and Edwardian period. A host of tabloid newspapers launched between 1896 and 1910, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Daily Express. During the 1920s and 1930s national newspapers aggressively sought to expand their readership. In addition to the national morning papers, British readers could also enjoy Sunday and evening papers, as well as local newspaper titles. The magazine and periodical market also continued to expand, providing content catered to specialist interests.

This ever-growing market required a constant and increased supply of journalists to provide content to all these publications. Journalism was an occupation without formal entry requirements, and traditionally journalists were trained on the job. The sheer size of the print media sector meant that most British people learnt about current affairs, and the world around them, through journalists’ reports. As the interwar period progressed, there were increased concerns about the influence that this group of writers, who often lacked formal qualifications, yielded over the British public. These concerns crystallised in a debate which has continued for the remainder of the twentieth century: should journalists receive a formal university qualification, or is it better to receive on the job training?

As a government-issued report in 1938 noted,

Most London journalists are still recruited from the ranks of the provincial Press. In the past this has meant that reporters and sub-editors on Fleet Street were men whose formal education ceased when they left school at the age of 14 or 15, and this has been a considerable obstacle to the raising of the cultural standards of the Press.[1]

The raising of the ‘cultural standards’ of the press is closely linked to the level of formal education received by journalists, and there was a real concern that journalists ended up having to report on items that they would not understand, which could lead to incorrect reporting. Formal education for journalists, then, seemed to be the answer, but the sector continued to be sceptical about the value of this.

Recent studies suggest that journalism was not established as a university subject in Britain until the 1970s, and that compared to other English-speaking countries, journalism has not been considered a subject worthy of study in Britain.[2] It is true that journalism enjoys a much longer history as a university subject in the USA, and that Australian universities and journalism professional bodies collaborated in the interwar period to build a recognised and respected curriculum.[3] Although developments in Britain were less structured or widespread, here too, the first university course in journalism was established in 1919.

This Diploma for Journalism was established at the University of London, initially as a training course for ex-servicemen who were entitled to government funding for their education.[4] The diploma course existed up until 1939 and throughout the interwar period was the only university course in journalism.[5] Its creation suggests that there was an appetite for university-educated journalists. However, from the start, the diploma was ambivalent about its purpose, and had detractors as well as supporters in the journalism sector.

Initially, students on the diploma took only academic subjects which were part of degree courses delivered by the University of London, such as general history, languages and composition.[6] Unlike students on degree courses, however, the diploma was open to students who had not passed the matriculation exam, the general entry exam for entry onto University degrees.[7] From the start, the academic nature of the course drew criticism from, amongst others, the National Union of Journalists. Throughout the interwar period the syllabus was revised, including a significant update in 1933 after which students spent at least a third of their time on ‘practical journalism.’[8]

According to surveys undertaken by the diploma’s own lecturers, a significant number of graduates landed jobs in the regional or national press, and graduates were generally positive about their experiences on the course.[9] It should also be noted that the diploma welcomed a significant number of female students, who may have experienced barriers entering other types of university education. However, the course delivery team did not unpick whether the diploma was the deciding factor in graduates obtaining employment.

Teaching on the diploma was delivered by journalists, and guest lectures were delivered by high-profile industry names. Needless to say, none of them had themselves undertaken any formal journalism training, and even those involved with the diploma hesitated to state categorically that it was a necessary pre-requisite to employment in the newsroom. When Frederick Peaker, president of the Institute of Journalists, delivered an address on ‘The Training of the Journalist’ to the International Association of Journalists in 1927, he talked at length about the diploma course, but still concluded that ‘the real training of the journalist must be inside a newspaper office.’[10] According to Peaker, the diploma gave the complete novice a general sense of what is required of the role, but the real training began once they are in the newsroom.

Interestingly, graduates of the diploma mostly praised the solid grounding in general knowledge that they received, which expanded their analytical skills.[11] This implies a tacit acknowledgement that practical skills were better learnt in the work environment, a sentiment echoed by Scottish journalism graduates nearly 100 years later.[12] Despite the diploma course, which saw healthy enrolments throughout its twenty years of existence, the 1938 government report still raised concerns about the general lack of education of journalists. As a profession without entry requirements, journalism was difficult to regulate, despite the government’s efforts in stimulating the diploma course. The persistent ethos that the best route into journalism was that of starting at the bottom and working your way up, further hindered acceptance of formal qualifications for journalists. Although those taking the diploma clearly benefited from it, the general view remained that journalists should not go to university.


[1] Political and Economic Planning, Report on the British Press: a survey of its current operations and problems with special reference to national newspapers and their part in public affairs (London: PEP, 1938), p. 14

[2] Mark Hanna and Karen Sanders, ‘Journalism Education in Britain: Who are the students and what do they want?’, Journalism Practice, vol. 1, no 3 (2007), 404-420 (p. 405); Simon Frith and Peter Meech, ‘Becoming a Journalist: Journalism education and journalism culture’, Journalism, vol. 8, no 2 (2007), 137-164 (p. 138)

[3] Kate Darian-Smith and Jackie Dickenson, ‘University Education and the Quest for the Professionalisation of Journalism in Australia between the World Wars’, Media History, vol. 27, no. 4 (2021), 491-509

[4] Frederic Newlands Hunter, ‘Grub Street and Academia: The relationship between journalism and education,1880-1940, with special reference to the London University Diploma for Journalism, 1919-1939’, unpublished PhD thesis (City University, 1982), pp. 160-161; PEP, Report on the British Press, p. 14

[5] Ibid., p. 205

[6] Ibid., p. 164

[7] Ibid., p. 167

[8] Ibid., p. 188

[9] Ibid., p. 184

[10] Frederick Peaker, The Training of the Journalist. An Address (London: International Association of Journalists, 1927), p. 14

[11] Newlands Hunter, ‘Grub Street and Academia’, pp. 183-184

[12] Frith and Meech, ‘Becoming a Journalist’, p. 152

Featured

Mr Smith Wakes Up (1937)

Although the 1930s are primarily remembered for the rise of right-wing politics across Europe, including the increased popularity of the British Union of Fascists (see blog posts here and here), there were of course also activists on the left of the political spectrum. Although the Labour party served in the opposition rather than the Government from 1931 until the outbreak of the Second World War, the 1930s saw the start of some social reforms, particularly in housing and medical care.

In 1937, the Co-op sponsored a short film designed to encourage viewers to question some of the tenets of capitalism and free markets. This information film, Mr Smith Wakes Up, would have been shown in cinemas as part of a mixed programme of features, newsreels and cartoons. Advertisement films from the period were often also lengthy and designed as mini-narratives, making them quite close in appearance to this short film. Mr Smith Wakes Up, however, does not aim to sell goods but rather to influence people’s political thinking.

In Mr Smith Wakes Up, we are introduced to William and Elizabeth, a middle-aged and fairly wealthy couple who live in a nice suburb in a house called ‘Utopia’. Their house is worth a couple of thousand pounds and all the other people in the area are of the ‘better class’ which William defines as them being ‘mostly on the stock exchange.’ The vast majority of houses sold in 1930s Britain were worth less than a thousand pounds, so it would have been immediately clear to the contemporary viewer that William and Elizabeth are well-off. They also still keep a parlour maid and a cook, despite the ever-increasing servant problem significantly raising the cost of keeping servants.

William and Elizabeth are unexpectedly visited by Mr Smith, a friend of their son who had been to Africa. We never learn Mr Smith’s first name or which part of Africa he is from. By his own accord, he has come to the ‘great civilization’ of Britain to learn how it is set up, so that he can take it back to his tribe which he himself describes as ‘very primitive people’. For the remainder of the film, Mr Smith asks William and Elizabeth about how things like housing, medical care and food distribution are arranged in Britain. William consistently takes the position defending capitalism and the free market, whereas Elizabeth acknowledges that there are problems with wealth distribution in the country.

When discussing housing, for example, Mr Smith asks if all people in England own their own homes. William admits that this is not the case, but that the working classes can live in rental homes on ‘nicely planned’ housing estates. His arguments are accompanied by shots of one such an estate. Elizabeth then points out that there is still a housing shortage and that the new estates may lead people to have long and expensive commutes. She also raises the prospect of slums, which were still commonplace in pre-War British cities. The audience is duly presented with shots of slum housing, followed by images of very skinny children being examined by a doctor, when Elizabeth points out that slum living makes people ill.

Later on in the discussion the three actors discuss food distribution, re-armament and the ‘cost of living’. Wages have risen, but so have the costs of food, housing and heating, meaning many people are still struggling to make ends meet. In phrases that will sound very familiar to viewers in the early 2020s, William argues that people need to economise more, while Elizabeth points out that for large, low-income families there is nothing left to economise on.

Unfortunately, there are no opening credits preserved to the film so it is not possible to identify the actor playing Mr Smith, but it is safe to presume he was either born in Britain or one of Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean. Like American actor and activist Paul Robeson, who was often forced to portray stereotypical African tribesmen, the character of Mr Smith supposedly comes straight from an African rural tribe. At the same time, he also wears a very smart suit and overcoat when arriving at Utopia, and his English is flawless. Although his skin colour causes some consternation when he first arrives at the house, Mr Smith is accepted because he is able to pass as a gentleman, and he does not criticise any aspect of Britain. He even praises the food available in Britain as superior to African food, which stretches credibility.

At the end of the film, Mr Smith states that a nation should give its people food, health and protection. The preceding discussion has made clear to him that Britain is failing to provide this to all its citizens. His voice is accompanied by idyllic scenes of African tribes working and playing together. He argues that African tribes do not go to war as long as there is sufficient food available; and that if they do go to war, their methods of combat are more equal than those of Western nations. Nonetheless, he remains grateful for what William and Elizabeth have ‘taught’ him, and takes his leave.

After he has gone, Elizabeth looks in on the kitchen. Cook is just packing her bag to go home, and decides to take left-over meat to cook for her husband, as otherwise it will only go to waste. Elizabeth indulgently smiles and lets her take the food, and then tells the parlour maid she can go up to bed even though the washing up has not been completed. From her position of privilege, Elizabeth generously allows her staff these luxuries. William sits in the study pondering whether ‘peace and plenty’ are as adequately provided for in Britain as he had assumed. There is no indication, however, that either will take any further-reaching political action as a result of their conversation. Instead, their actions stay on the personal plane.

Despite the leading role of Mr Smith, and the film’s sympathetic portrayal of ‘African’ culture, it is clear that its target audience is white. Contemporary audiences for Mr Smith Wakes Up were unlikely to have recognised themselves in William and Mary – cinema viewing remained largely an activity for the working- and lower-middle classes, who were more likely to already be sympathetic to the left-of-centre views the film espouses. Although the filmmakers may have wanted to encourage people like William and Mary to re-consider their political views, it is doubtful whether many wealthy people would have seen the film or taken any notice of it. Although Mr Smith Wakes Up gives modern audiences insight into the socio-political debates and concerns of the late 1930s, it possibly was not effective in generating political change at the time it was created.

Mr Smith Wakes Up is available to view on YouTube.

Featured

Henry Wade – Heir Presumptive (1935)

In the Golden Age of crime fiction, many authors were tempted by the ‘perfect murder’. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, Lord Peter Wimsey ruefully states that the perfect murder would never be considered a murder, and would therefore necessarily go undetected. In 1936, six writers of the Detection Club each wrote a short story containing the ‘perfect crime’. Each story was then followed by an analysis of a retired CID inspector, who unpicked whether the crime would be detected in real life, or not.[1] The inspector concludes that in each case, the police would eventually identify the killer – not surprisingly, he probably felt that to admit otherwise was to invite readers to have a go at replicating the ‘perfect murder’!

This is how it ends up in most interwar crime stories – no matter how ingenious the plot, usually the killer gets caught and either brought to justice, or given the option to take the ‘honourable way out’ and commit suicide. Not so, however, in Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive. In this inverted murder story, the murder central to the book is judged to be an accident.

Henry Wade was one of the original members of the Detection Club. An ex-soldier, he turned to crime fiction writing after the Great War. Unlike most other crime writers of the period, he was genuinely part of the landed gentry – his real name was Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher.[2] Wade used his insider knowledge of entailed estates to concoct the plot of Heir Presumptive, which features a family tree so intricate that a diagram is provided on the first page of the book (and to which this reader, for one, grateful referred back to multiple times).

The main character of the book is Eustace Hendel, a 35-year-old member of the secondary branch of descendants of the 1st Baron Barradys. The Baron’s title and estate are being passed down the male line and Eustace is far removed from them. He trained as a doctor, but after meeting ‘a rich widow’ who then ‘conveniently died’ (through natural means) Hendel came into an inheritance that allowed him to live as a man of independent means.[3] At the opening of the book, these means have nearly run out, debts are racking up, and Hendel is on the look-out for a way to continue his lifestyle without having to work. He also has a relationship with Jill, an actress who makes it clear that she will not stick around if Eustace can’t afford her.

When Hendel reads in the paper that the son and grandson of the current Baron Barradys have both died in a mysterious swimming accident, he makes sure to attend the funeral, in the hope of mending relationships with his wealthy family. Hendel re-acquaints himself with his cousin David, who is now unexpectedly the next heir to the family name and estate. David’s only son is a 20-year-old invalid who is expected to die soon. However, David is young enough to remarry, and there is a general expectation that he will do so now that he is next in line for the inheritance.

It is at this point that Eustace formulates his plan. After David and his invalid son, he believes he himself is the next male heir. If he kills David and the son dies as expected, then he would become the next Baron, and inherit the sizable estate attached to that title. And even until the current Baron dies, being next in line to inherit would be sufficient to secure loans and favours.

It is clear at this point in the book, about six chapters in, that Eustace Hendel is not a sympathetic character. He is greedy, lazy, and openly contemplating murdering his next of kin for his own benefit. Wade surprises, then, by allowing Hendel to execute the perfect murder. David invites him up to his lodge in Scotland, to go deerstalking. On the final day of the trip, David and Eustace go off without assistance to a remote part of the estate. After Eustace shoots a stag, he asks if he can also be the one to cut its throat to allow it to bleed out quickly. Feigning a slip, Eustace instead plunges the knife into David’s femoral artery.[4] After that, the remote spot and lack of onlookers make it easy for Eustace to ensure David bleeds to death before help can be found.

Although there is of course an investigation by the Scottish authorities, who are presented as more thorough and less obliging than their English counterparts, in the end, they decide not to pursue a criminal investigation. Although Wade allows Eustace to get away with the perfect murder from the perspective of a prosecution, he does not get the enjoy the expected benefits of his deed. The current Baron starts exploring options to cut Eustace out of the line of succession altogether, based on the general unfavourable impression he has of him.

In order to change the line of succession, the Baron needs the agreement of the current heir, David’s sick son Desmond. Eustace starts visiting Desmond and, under increasing pressure of Jill and various moneylenders, starts planning a second murder. Before he has time to execute it, however, Desmond dies. It is here that the reader starts to realise that Wade has been stringing them on all along. Although the focus has been almost exclusively on Eustace Hendel, it turns out he has been nothing but a pawn in someone else’s plan.

All along, the real mastermind has been David’s brother-in-law, lawyer Henry Carr. Henry orchestrated the swimming accident of the original heirs; Henry killed Desmond; and, after offering legal advice to Eustace, Henry frames Eustace for Desmond’s murder and then kills Eustace himself, making it look like a suicide. As if this isn’t enough, Eustace finds out just before he dies that whilst he is due to inherit the title of Baron, the estate and money are not passing through the male line and will instead be inherited by Henry’s wife (who is completely oblivious as to her husband’s murdering schemes).

For the final few pages of the book, after Eustace has died, the perspective switches to that of Henry Carr. We move from a world of country houses and independent incomes to suburbia – Carr travels by Underground to Waterloo as a seasoned commuter. ‘It was past the hour of the daily rush return from work, though the third-class carriages were fairly full; he himself never travelled first-class on ordinary occasions, but this was one on which he thought the luxury was justified.’[5] The motive for his murdering was to allow his wife to move out of the ‘semi-detached villa’ and to be able to afford the school fees for the children – middle-class aspirations if ever there were some.[6]

In the end, then, it is not the lazy, good-for-nothing playboy who is the threat to the upper classes, but rather the ambitious professional man who stops at nothing to give his wife and children a better future. Heir Presumptive is a cynical book, perhaps reflecting Wade’s ‘pessimism about the state of Britain’.[7] Eustace, Henry, even Jill – all are grasping for more than they have, without wanting to work for it. But whilst Eustace manages to orchestrate the perfect murder, he is too naïve to see the trap he walks into himself. Henry Carr, for all his cleverness, also has to reckon with justice – the final line of the book announces that ‘In the hall stood Chief-Inspector Darnell, accompanied by a uniformed police officer.’[8] Ultimately, Wade reassures the reader that no matter how clever the crime, justice will eventually be served.


[1] Published as Six Against the Yard (London: Selwyn & Blount, 1936). See Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), pp. 285-6

[2] Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, p. 194

[3] Henry Wade, Heir Presumptive (London: Remploy, 1980), p. 3

[4] Ibid., p. 77

[5] Ibid., p. 203

[6] Ibid. pp. 203-7

[7] Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, p. 197

[8] Wade, Heir Presumptive, p. 209

Brooklands

FeaturedBrooklands

Brooklands race course was an institution in interwar England. Opened in 1907 in Weybridge, just south of London, it was the world’s first purpose-built, permanent racing circuit. Coinciding with the rise of car manufacturing in England, Brooklands was used to test out and perfect new car models. Like greyhound racing and horse racing, Brooklands races became a popular entertainment. Each race held the potential for injury and death, which piqued the audiences’ interest.

Still from Death Drives Through (1935) which was shot at Brooklands

The Brooklands track could be shaped into different configurations, but was mostly used as a long oval lap, made of concrete, and concave, so that the outer edges of the track were higher than the middle (like a modern indoor speed cycling circuit). Footage shot in 1928 shows how cars started on a flat section, and how drivers were positioned outside their vehicle at the start of a race. Pit stop booths were available for technical check-ups during the race. Although the cars in this particular footage look fairly similar to normal road cars, there were plenty of racing cars being developed also.[1]

Examples of these racing cars are on display in the 1935 film Death Drives Through, directed by Edward L. Cahn. Most of the action of this film is set in and around Brooklands, as the main characters of the film are two rival race car drivers. Kit Woods (Robert Douglas) is an up-and-coming driver who built his own race car and used to drive on local tracks before being talent-spotted and contracted to appear at Brooklands. Once he arrives there, established racer Garry Ames (Miles Mander) does everything within his power to destroy Kit’s reputation, including causing accidents on the race track. Death Drives Through features a staged crash at Brooklands which ends in the death of a driver, highlighting the potential for danger which was contained in each race.

A 1938 Gaumont newsreel features footage of a real Brooklands crash. Because the driver in that instance survived the accident, the newsreel commentator can play the incident up as thrilling entertainment, which was ‘filmed exclusively by Gaumont British News’.

‘Mr Clayton was flung out into the trees….miraculously he escaped death although he was seriously injured…his car was reduced to wreckage…below the banking outside the track it was a crumpled mess…hardly to be recognised as a car.’

The newsreel as a whole is titled ‘120 M.P.H CRASH AT BROOKLANDS’, making no bones about the fact that the crash, rather than the overall race, was what was expected to be of interest to audiences.

Racing drivers became celebrities, to the point that by the mid-1930s, their endorsements were featured in Castrol car oil adverts. Drivers not only competed in England, but also participated in European competitions which potentially increased their profile even more.[2] The British Government gratefully used the fame and prestige of some drivers in its own ‘Safety First’ campaign, launched in 1934. The purpose of this campaign was to increase road safety. In the absence of any formal driving test, racing driver the 5th Earl of Howe patiently explains to viewers how to indicate and overtake, and advises against canoodling with a lover whilst driving a car. Although none of the regular traffic rules would apply on a race track, the audience is still asked to presume the Earl to be an expert adviser, both due to his title and his status as a racing driver.

Racedriver John Cobb endorsing Castrol XXL – Front page of the Daily Express, 11 August 1934

There were plenty of women racing at Brooklands too – like aviation, car racing was a sport in which technical skill, rather than physical strength, were paramount. Despite initial opposition, from 1932 onwards women were allowed to compete in the same races as men. One of the most famous female drivers, Kay Petre, appears in the 1938 video showing a crash, referred to above. There are plenty of stories about other female drivers available on the Brooklands Museum website.

A final note on the audiences to these races. The 1928 footage referred to at the top of this blog shows an audience apparently exclusively made up of middle-aged men in three-piece suits and top hats. By 1938, the audience is much more mixed both in terms of gender and (judging by the clothes) social status. There are plenty of men visible in flat caps, or even, no hats at all. There also appears to be a much larger crowd than ten years’ prior.

This change reflects the overall change to car ownership which happened in parallel, away from the race track. Whereas car ownership had started off as something exclusive and only available to the very wealthy, by the end of the 1930s cars were affordable to most middle-class families. This greater exposure to car driving likely also increased interest in car racing. Although most racing drivers came from privileged backgrounds (if not from the actual aristocracy, then at least from wealthy families), there was always the possibility for a ‘regular’ person with technical knowledge and talent to establish him- or herself. Death Drives Through pandered to this fantasy, as Kit is exactly the kind of enterprising and plucky hero whom audience members could relate to. The tracks of Brooklands become not just a space for thrills and entertainment, but also a site of dreams of social mobility.


[1] Bart H. Vanderveen (ed), British Cars of the Late Thirties, 1935-1939, (London: Frederick Warne & Co, 1973)

[2] Bernhard Rieger, ‘Fast  couples’:  technology,  gender  and  modernity  in  Britain  and  Germany  during  the  nineteen-thirties”, Historical Research, vol. 76, no. 193 (August 2003), 370

Fascination (1931)

FeaturedFascination (1931)

Three years after his directorial debut, the silent film The First Born (1928), Miles Mander tried his hand on two sound films. The first, The Woman Between, was an adaptation of his own stage play ‘Conflict’. The second, Fascination, was based on another writer’s script. Unlike some actor-directors, like Tom Walls, Mander decided to restrict his duties to directing only and did not appear in either film.

Fascination’s main attraction for modern audiences is the starring role of future ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ Madeleine Carroll, appearing here four years before her famous role in The 39 Steps opposite Robert Donat. According to the DVD sleeve notes, only one 35mm copy of Fascination survives in Britain, of which the sound and image quality leave something to be desired. It is, however, eminently watchable, not only for Carroll’s performance, but also as an interesting counterpoint to The Divorce of Lady X which was released seven years later. Both films deal with marital fidelity, but whereas the later film treats infidelity as a comic subject and accepts its existence as a matter of course, Fascination is much more moralistic on the subject.

Madeleine Carroll as Gwenda Farrell in Fascination

Fascination opens with a scene in a children’s playroom, where a little boy and girl are playing with a toy train set. They are Larry and Vera, the protagonists of the film. Mander’s directorial style comes across immediately in the close-up shots of various toys, which give an emotive impression of the room from a child’s perspective. He shuns any establishing shot of the space. In foreshadowing of Larry and Vera’s later troubles, the toy train runs of the rails and Larry, in trying to fix it, breaks the tracks altogether. However, the children quickly make up and a third boy, who had been playing in a corner, orders that they should be ‘married’; a mock ceremony ensues.

The film then briefly moves to Larry and Vera’s courtship as young adults (Larry is ‘in his last term at Oxford’ studying to be an architect) before moving on to a time three years into their marriage, when the main action of the film begins. Vera and Larry have been established as a devoted couple, who laugh and play together and commit to a series of ten ‘commandments’ of marriage, which include ‘telling the other everything that matters’ rather than the more traditional expectation for the wife to obey the husband.

Vera and Larry courting in Fascination

Three years into the marriage, there are no children yet (more on that later) but Larry has established himself as an up-and-coming architect/interior designer and Vera is a content housewife. Larry has received a request to do the interior design of an apartment for a famous stage actress, Gwenda Farrell, who is currently starring in the hit play ‘Fascination’. Gwenda, of course, is played by Madeleine Carroll. Reeling from a recent break-up, Gwenda is taken by Larry and he is smitten by her. The reasons for his attraction to Gwenda are never explained; the audience is asked to assume that it is inevitable for a happily married man like Larry to fall in love with another women based on her looks and glamour alone.

After an initial meeting in a cafeteria, ostensibly to discuss the business of the flat, it is Larry who suggests that they go out on the river for the rest of the day and have a picnic. Once outside, he starts flirting with Gwenda and she calls him a ‘silly boy’ and tells him not to ‘spoil things’. However, she immediately follows this up with an invitation to supper in her flat – and as if the audience needs reminding, Mander here inserts a shot of a sign in the adjacent pond which announces ‘Danger’.

Although Larry is clearly an active and willing participant in the affair, it is no surprise that Gwenda is presented as the primary guilty party, as she reciprocates his attention and moves the relationship along. At the night of the supper (where we can assume the relationship is consummated), Vera is starting to get upset with Larry’s frequent absences from home. Her suspicions are confirmed when Gwenda sends Larry an intimate letter which Vera reads. But even here Vera has not done anything illicit or objectionable: Larry has eye trouble and asks Vera to read his letters out to him, even encouraging her to open the one marked ‘Personal’. Vera does not reveal to Larry what she has read and burns the letter without him being any the wiser.

Larry visiting a very modernist optician in Fascination

Although Larry by this point is starting to feel very conflicted about his affair and wants to end it, Gwenda ostensibly still has too much of a hold on him to enable him to break things off. Thankfully for him, his wife has found a solution. Vera writes to Gwenda under false pretences and invites the other woman to her marital home. Here, rather than having an argument, Vera explains that she loves Larry and wants to protect her marriage, so she is happy to silently consent to his affair with Gwenda. In Vera’s reasoning, if she were to cause a big fuss, Larry would be driven into Gwenda’s arms more.

Before Gwenda has a chance to respond to this proposal, Larry comes home – Vera hides Gwenda quickly behind a curtain. Larry confesses his affair to Vera, begs her forgiveness and offers to write to Gwenda immediately to break off the relationship. Gwenda decides to reveal herself and explains to Larry that Vera, in her generosity, had agreed to him continuing the affair just to keep her marriage intact. She insists on ending her relationship with Larry now that she has met Vera.

Vera warmly says goodbye to Gwenda in Fascination

Fascination ends with the contrast of Gwenda, smoking alone in her dressing room and forcing herself to get ready for yet another night’s performance; and Vera and Larry, cuddled together in a chair where Vera reveals to him that she is pregnant.

Larry and Vera happily reunited at the end of Fascination

Unlike in The Divorce of Lady X, then, divorce is an impossible outcome in Fascination. If Vera had opted to divorce Larry, she would have had to stand the shame and exposure of the divorce court, with a famous actor cited as co-respondent in the case. Clearly, for a respectable middle-class woman this was not really a route to contemplate, even without the added complexity of pregnancy or children. Her willingness to allow the affair to continue, then, is perhaps less magnanimous than the film presents, and more pragmatically her only option.

Yet, by perpetuating the narrative that single women ‘steal’ husbands away from faithful wives; and faithful wives should accept this and allow husbands to come back in their own time, Fascination clearly sides with patriarchal norms. Vera’s ostensible agency is in fact non-existent- something also stressed by a scene where she visits Larry’s office to ask him for household money. Fascination presents marriage as the route to a woman’s happiness, and independence and professional success as poor substitutes. Despite the increasingly progressive position of women in British society by the early 1930s, this film demonstrates that cultural texts often still expounded traditional viewpoints.

Pa Puts His Foot Down (1934)

FeaturedPa Puts His Foot Down (1934)

With the rapid increase of car ownership in interwar Britain, it is no wonder that car production companies started to produce high-end advertisements to persuade the public that their cars were superior to all others. In 1934, Zoltan Korda, brother of Alexander Korda, produced a 15-minute advert for Daimler subsidiary company BSA cars. As with other adverts produced in this period, this film would have been shown in cinemas as part of a mixed programme.

Pa Puts His Foot Down starts with several high-angle establishing shots of Piccadilly Circus. There are few road markers and vehicles are seemingly randomly moving around the roundabout. By 1934, the majority of vehicles on the road are motorised: double-decker buses, private cars, taxis, and trucks. Closer shots of traffic, however, also reveal cyclists, bike couriers and the occasional horse-drawn cart. Pedestrians do their best to avoid traffic as they cross the road. These shots are clearly taken on location in Central London.

We are then introduced to Pa and his daughter Betty, who are standing on a pavement trying to cross. For the shots in which the characters are talking, they are clearly on a sound stage mocked up to look like a pavement with a series of shop-fronts. Betty tries to persuade her father several times to cross the road. Each time the shot of her stepping off the pavement in the studio is followed by a shot of a vehicle rushing close by, clearly shot on location. This gives the illusion that the actors really are in Piccadilly Circus.

Betty tells her dad he should ‘just cross over’, after which he starts grumbling about the dangers of modern traffic. It transpires that Pa used to drive a car in the past but now is too nervous to drive. Rather than owning up to his fear, he pretends that modern cars are too expensive, which of course gives his daughter the opportunity to tell him (and the audience) that ‘good cars are quite cheap nowadays’ and ‘the best people drive themselves nowadays’.

After this exposition dialogue which has placed the notion of cheap, reliable cars in the audience’s mind, Pa tries to cross the road himself. In quick succession we see Pa stepping off the pavement; a police officer directing traffic; a close-up of a car; the daughter shouting at Pa; the police officer looking alarmed; Pa’s hat on the asphalt; a female passer-by screaming; and Pa gathering his hat off the road. The final shots are overlaid with the sound of a car horn honking. Korda effectively conveys the illusion of a near-miss without having to stage a stunt or even have any of the actors get close to a moving vehicle. Although Pa Puts His Foot Down is a sound production, this sequence is heavily indebted to silent cinema conventions.

Once Pa is safely back on the pavement, a car pulls up and a young man jumps out, who immediately greets Betty in a very familiar way. She explains to Pa that they met ‘at a dance somewhere’ and that the man has a ‘good job in the motoring business’. The young man promptly offers to drive the pair to their destination – home in the country, 30 miles outside of London. Pa gets bundled in the back seat whilst Betty sits next to the driver.

Immediately after they set off, the young man starts explaining to the daughter that his Daimler BSA has gears but no clutch, because of the Daimler Fluid Flywheel. With a rather dreamy voice, the man starts talking about this innovation, at which point the image cuts away to a diagram demonstrating to the audience the inner workings of this novel gearbox. The Daimler BSA essentially was halfway between a car with a manual clutch and an automatic car. It still had gears, but rather than having to manipulate the clutch pedal and gear change at the same time, the driver could ‘pre-select’ the next gear and then press the clutch pedal at their leisure.

After a minute and a half of diagrammatic explanation, we cut back to the trio in the car where the daughter asks some more detailed questions about how the gearbox works in practice. After several more minutes of explanation, the man invites Betty to try it for herself. Although she previously stated quite confidently to her father that she drove cars, she now minimises her abilities by hastening to add she drives ‘very little’. Naturally, this is no impediment to her being able to drive the Daimler BSA with ease. When Pa wakes up and is alarmed to see that his daughter is driving, the man says it’s quite alright, as ‘this car would be safe in the hands of a child’. The fluid flywheel is so successful that even Pa is starting to get interested in its operation.

After a few more demonstrations of gear changes and brakes, the trio arrive at their destination. While the daughter invites the man in for a drink, Pa subjects the car to a closer inspection. Over a drink, Betty states she is determined to raise the money to get herself a Daimler BSA car. The man immediately ups the ante by suggesting they get engaged. Although Betty quite reasonably counters that they hardly know one another, she falls in with the plan quite readily. Clearly half an hour’s conversation about fluid flywheels has convinced her of the match.

When the couple try to find Pa to get his consent, they realise that he’s driven off with the car and is driving it round the common. When Pa returns he tells the man ‘I thought, if you go off with my daughter, I’ll go off with your car.’ He follows it with saying that he’d always heard the pre-selector gearbox described as an ‘effeminate thing’ but that this was ‘utter rubbish’. When Betty asks him if she may get engaged to the man, Pa jokes that he won’t ‘find her as easy to control as the car’ and then suggests a ‘bargain’: ‘You take the girl, I take the car’.

At this, the end of the advert, both car and woman are commodified and put on equal footing with one another. At the same time, the advert has taken great pains to portray the BSA car as both easy to handle for inexperienced / female drivers, and robust and ‘masculine’ enough for male or experienced drivers who wanted to show off their driving skill. The diagrammatic explanation of the flywheel may appeal to technically-minded viewers, whilst the subsequent practical demonstration demonstrates its benefits to a less specialised audience. Rather implausibly, extensive talk about car technology is also presented as the way to a woman’s heart.

Pa Puts His Foot Down can be viewed on the BFI Player (UK only)

Emlyn Williams

FeaturedEmlyn Williams

George Emlyn Williams was born in the tiny Welsh village of Pen-y-ffordd in 1905. As a Welshman with dark colouring and an unusual name, Williams appeared very different from popular interwar actors such as Laurence Olivier and Brian Aherne, both of whom performed in West End theatre at the same time. Unlike that other famous Welshman of the period, Ivor Novello, Williams steered clear of musical theatre and nightclubs in favour of writing and performing in plays exploring murder and criminal psychology.

After attending grammar school and undertaking some schooling in France on a scholarship, Williams won a scholarship to Oxford, where he became involved with the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS). Williams was supposed to graduate in 1926, but instead of studying for his exams he wrote a play, Full Moon, which was put on at the Oxford Playhouse under the management of J.B. Fagan. Williams decided to move to London without completing his degree when Fagan offered him a small walk-on part in the production And So To Bed, in which Edmund Gwenn and Yvonne Arnaud appeared as the principal players.[1]

This modest role marked the start of a long West End career, in which Williams combined acting with writing and directing, regularly casting himself as the lead for his own productions. In his autobiography, Williams presents the years from 1926 to 1935 as ones in which he finds his feet both professionally and in his personal life. After numerous failures and some mild successes, the book ends with the first West End performance of his play Night Must Fall, which Williams credits as his ‘first solid success’[2] – it ran for a year and a half before transferring to Broadway for another 64 performances.

Night Must Fall is based on a notorious murder case of the interwar period, the ‘Crumbles Murder’ case of 1924. Patrick Mahon, a charming Richmond-based salesman, struck up an extramarital affair with typist Emily Kaye. Kaye fell pregnant, and Mahon led her to believe that they would travel to South Africa to start a new life together. Instead, he murdered her in a cottage on the Sussex coast and dismembered and destroyed her body so thoroughly that very little of it was found during the police investigation. What particularly spoke to the public’s imagination is that, less than 48 hours after the murder, Mahon picked up another woman and spent a few days at the cottage with her, whilst Kaye’s partly-dismembered body was in the next room.[3]

Williams combined this story with the equally notorious murder perpetrated by Sidney Fox, who in 1929 killed his own mother by strangling her and subsequently set her hotel room on fire to cover his tracks. In Night Must Fall, Dan, a charming man (modelled on Patrick Mahon) strikes up a friendship with a rich but cranky old lady and her niece Olivia. Whilst the niece suspects that Dan is a murderer, she still falls in love with him and helps him stay out of the hands of the police. Eventually, Dan murders the old lady and steals her money – although Olivia wants to help Dan escape, the play ends with him being arrested.

In his autobiography, Williams states that he had initially been interested in adapting the story of Fritz Haarman, a German serial killer who murdered at least 27 boys and young men in Hanover, in 1924. Williams was bisexual and identified with Haarman’s young victims: poor or homeless men, in some instances selling sex for money, lured back to Haarman’s flat with promises of food and shelter. ‘Yes, it could have happened to me’, acknowledges Williams. Although the story is clearly close to his heart, British theatre censorship laws absolutely precluded the depiction of a homosexual, paedophilic murderer.[4]

Alongside this career as theatre author and actor exploring the darker side of life, Williams also appeared in films. One of his first appearances was as the comic best friend to the protagonist in the Oxford comedy Men of Tomorrow (1932). Although the film was a commercial failure, it did bring Williams exposure and he was voted the most popular British actor by the readers of Film Weekly, ahead of Leslie Howard and Jack Hulbert.[5] This in turn landed Williams with a contract at Gaumont-British, where he wrote as well as acted. His first gig with them was writing the dialogue, and starring in, Friday the Thirteenth (1933). He subsequently worked on the Jessie Matthews vehicle Evergreen and supplied dialogue for the 1934 Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Although his contract with Gaumont was not renewed beyond 1935, Williams stayed active in film for the remainder of the interwar period, and beyond. As well as adapting Night Must Fall for the screen, he also acted in a range of genres such as the comedy Night Alone and the thriller They Drive By Night (both 1938). In 1936, he was cast as Caligula in Joseph von Sternberg’s unfinished I, Claudius, opposite other such greats at Charles Laughton, Flora Robson, and Merle Oberon.

Later in his career, Williams toured with an innovative one-man theatre show called Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens, in which he delivered parts of Dickens’ novels in a manner similar to how Dickens himself toured in the 19th century. He remained interested in murder, and wrote a book about the Moors murders in 1968. Williams continued to be active as a writer and actor until close to his death in 1987.


[1] Emlyn Williams, Emlyn: A sequel to George (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 13

[2] Ibid., p. 449

[3] Colin Evans, The father of forensics: the groundbreaking cases of Sir Bernard Spilsbury and the beginnings of modern CSI (Thriplow: Icon, 2007), pp. 140-147

[4] Williams, Emlyn, pp. 213-221

[5] Ibid., 319

Featured

Careers for Girls (1927)

The interwar decades were a fertile period for non-fiction books that provided advice and guidance on how to self-improve your life. As well as health and fitness books and books on how to take up new hobbies or learn DIY skills, publishers also put out a steady stream of books that purported to help readers establish a new career. In 1927, George Allen & Unwin publishers produced Careers for Girls, a practical guide written by one Eleanor Page.

Careers for Girls was part of a series of self-help books. The book’s opening sentence immediately set out its purpose:

This work has been compiled to assist girls who have to earn a livelihood to choose a sphere of work suited to their individual gifts and temperaments, and by which they may earn a happy and comfortable living; and for the more favoured girls anxious to develop any talent they may be endowed with, so that they may take their rightful place in the scheme of things.

Immediately the book distinguishes between two types of ‘girls’ (really, young women): those who have to earn a living, and those who have some private income to rely on but have a drive to make a contribution to society, based on their skills and talents. Almost all the career paths covered in Careers for Girls are registered professions, which require formal schooling and certification, which in turn require financial investment to pay for classes and examination fees.

Although most of the roles described in Careers for Girls don’t appear to be particularly exclusive to a modern reader, in the interwar period compulsory schooling stopped at 14. Secondary schools charged tuition fees; the only way for a child of a working-class family to attend was through obtaining a scholarship. Only 14% of all teenagers went on to a secondary school; and only a fraction of those went on to University.[1]

Whilst women were allowed to attend university and could now even obtain a degree, the overall proportion of female students remained very low.[2] So when Careers for Girls advised that to become a librarian, you could complete on-the-job training as long as you had a secondary school diploma, this career would not be accessible to 86% of the population.[3] To become a musician was even more difficult: a qualification at either a University or the Royal College of Music/Royal College of Art would be expected.[4] When the book’s opening therefore distinguishes two types of ‘girls’, it wholly ignores the vast majority of young women for which the pursuit of a skilled profession was completely out of reach.

The rest of Careers for Girls is divided up in chapters, each of which covers a different area of work. Teaching and nursing – two roles traditionally associated with women – make an appearance, as do accounting, civil service, journalism, social service and many others. By 1927, Britain suffered from a surplus of women, as the impact of the Great War, and the thousands of young men who had died on the front, continued to be felt.

Guides like Careers for Girls gave young women ideas to an alternative to domestic married life. The pursuit of a career rather than marriage would have been a necessity to many. Tellingly, a number of the advertised professions, such as nursing and teaching, generally came with room and board. These roles provided a solution to the single woman who had no family members with whom she could, or wanted to, live.

Careers for Girls also gives estimated salary expectations for all posts. One of the more lucrative careers included is the top rung of the Civil Service, the “Administrative Class”. In order to obtain a position here, a woman had to meet the standard criteria for all Civil Service positions, namely be a British subject with a British father, unmarried, at least 5 feet tall and of certified good health.[5] “In the highest branch of the Service – the Administrative Class – candidates must be twenty-two to twenty-four years of age. The standard of education for examination is equal to that for a University Degree.” After meeting all these criteria (and remaining single, as the Civil Service operated a Marriage Bar), Careers for Girls stated that a woman could enjoy an annual salary of up to £550. However, in reality, Administrative Class posts in the Civil Service were only theoretically open to women – no women actually penetrated to this level of work.[6]

The jobs that appeared to give the young woman the chance of the highest salary, without requiring extensive or expensive training, were those in the distinctly modern fields of media and advertising. Eleanor Page claims that ‘Good positions, with salaries from £500 to £2,000 a year, are open to the woman advertising expert. (…) a university degree or large amount of capital are not required.’[7] Both marketing and press firms ‘prefer to take girls from school and train them to their own methods’, making formal qualifications a hindrance rather than a help.[8]

Similarly, it is telling which careers appear to be not for ‘girls’: glaringly absent are, for example, doctor or surgeon – although Elizabeth Garrett Anderson qualified as both in 1865. Women can train to become secretaries, but not board members; chief assistant librarian but not head librarian; a staff manager, but not the head of the business. Ultimately, Careers for Girls provided a small sub-section of British women with suggestions for professions that were acceptable for them to pursue within the prevailing social norms of the period. The book likely allowed some women to plan out a career trajectory, but for many more its advice would have been so far removed from their day-to-day experience that it was no help whatsoever.


[1] Deirdre Beddoe, Back to Home and Duty: Women Between the Wars 1918-1939 (London: Pandora, 1989), p. 34

[2] Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five women, freedom and London between the wars (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), pp. 93-94

[3] Eleanor Page, Careers for Girls (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1927), p. 85

[4] Ibid., p. 81

[5] Ibid., p. 38

[6] Beddoe, Back to Home and Duty, p. 83

[7] Page, Careers for Girls, p. 14

[8] Ibid., p. 73 and p. 14

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

FeaturedThe Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Just as the end of the 1920s saw the introduction of sound film in British cinema, by the time the 1930s drew to a close, a new innovation was introduced: Technicolor – or more correctly, three-strip Technicolor. Earlier versions of ‘two-colour Technicolor’ had been used in Hollywood since the First World War, for example for segments of Carl Laemmle’s 1925 The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. Three-strip Technicolor gave more realistic colour images, and is the process which is famously used in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Technicolor required financial investment, so it took some years to bring it to Britain. The first British Technicolor film was Wings of the Morning, made in 1937. It was followed hot on its heels by a film of Britain’s most lavish film producer, Alexander Korda. A Hungarian by birth, Korda moved in Britain in the early 1930s, when he’d already worked in Hollywood and various European film industries. In 1933, he had a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic with The Private Life of Henry VIII, a lavish period piece that depicted Henry Tudor belching and stuffing his face with food at regular intervals. The role of Anne Boleyn is played by Merle Oberon, in one of her first substantial screen roles.

Korda cast her again as the female lead in The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1934, and also in The Private Life of Don Juan in the same year. By 1939, the pair were married, although the marriage only lasted to the end of the Second World War. During their courtship, they made The Divorce of Lady X (1938), in which Oberon stars opposite Laurence Olivier. This comedy, with its frank discussion of divorce and extramarital relations, shows how ‘propriety’ became less important in Britain towards the end of the interwar period.

The Divorce of Lady X is a re-make of a 1933 film, Counsel’s Opinion, which Korda also produced. Both films are based on a play by Gilbert Wakefield. The 1933 film, whilst favourably received upon its release, is no longer extant. The Divorce of Lady X, by contrast, was syndicated for TV release in the US in the 1940s, and is widely available on DVD and online.

The story of The Divorce of Lady X centres on that favourite trope of British interwar cinema: a man and a woman, who are not married, are forced to spend a night together in a (hotel) room. Nothing untoward happens, but everyone assumes the couple must be having an affair. A similar trope is used in Night Alone, as well as numerous Aldwych farces, such as A Cuckoo in the Nest, Rookery Nook, and Lady in Danger. In The Divorce of Lady X, Leslie Steele, a young socialite, and Everard Logan, a divorce lawyer, are thrown together due to an impenetrable fog, which leaves them both stuck in the same central-London hotel. Leslie talks Logan into sharing his suite with her – her sleeping in bed, him on a mattress in the adjacent sitting room.

Laurence Olivier as Everard Logan, getting ready for an
uncomfortable night on the floor in The Divorce of Lady X

During the course of the evening Logan incorrectly assumes Leslie is married. The next day, a member of his club, Lord Meere, comes to Logan’s office and asks him to arrange for a divorce from Lady Meere, as the latter spent the previous night in the same central-London hotel, with a man in her room. Logan assumes that Leslie, who has not given him her last name, is Lady Meere, and that he unwittingly has become both the barrister and the co-respondent in Lord Meere’s divorce suit.[1]

Logan continues to court Leslie, telling her he does not care that his career will be ruined, as long as she will marry him after she’s obtained her divorce from Lord Meere. Leslie continues to play along, although she herself has also fallen in love with Logan. Eventually, Leslie meets the real Lady Meere, and the two women concoct a plan to reveal the truth to Logan. Logan is initially embarrassed by being taken for a ride and he storms off to France, but Leslie follows him onto the boat and manages to change his mind.

Leslie (Merle Oberon) nursing a sick Logan (Laurence Olivier) on the boat to France

Right from the outset of the film, it is made clear that Logan has had multiple affairs – when Leslie comments that his pyjamas are hideous and he should dump the woman who buys them for him, he shoots back ‘we parted six months ago!’. At the same time, he rings up another woman to apologise for not being able to see her that evening, due to the fog. Although Leslie is not explicitly shown to have any lovers of her own, she is very confident and flirts with Logan in a way that makes it unlikely that he is her first love interest. The real Lady Meere, moreover, is repeatedly quoted as having had four husbands and several ‘episodes’ with other men, and at the end of the film it is made clear that she is cheating on Lord Meere. Crucially, none of this is depicted as wrong or objectionable; although all characters admit that four divorces is perhaps a bit much, Lady Meere is also shown to be a sympathetic and attractive woman. When Logan admits to his assistant that he (as he thinks) has fallen in love with a married woman, it is a matter of amusement rather than embarrassment, and divorce is depicted as largely normalised.

Lady Meere (Binnie Barnes) and Leslie (Merle Oberon)
plotting on how to break the truth to Logan (Laurence Olivier)

This representation of marriages as likely not lasting nor monogamous clearly presents a challenge when the central relationship of the film must also fulfil narrative convention. For the audience to be invested in the relationship between Leslie and Logan they must believe that it will end in a happily ever after, not a marriage that will quickly dissolve because one or both parties are conducting affairs.

To resolve this, The Divorce of Lady X uses the trope of the woman-as-saviour: Leslie, for all her modern manners, is essentially a respectable girl. When she first meets Logan, he is extremely cynical about women, due to his experience in the divorce court. This cynicism reaches a high point during a withering closing-arguments monologue in one of his divorce cases, which Leslie witnesses from the public gallery. ‘Modern woman has disowned womanhood, and refuses man’s obligation!’ he thunders. ‘She demands freedom, but won’t accept responsibility! She insists upon time to “develop her personality”, and she spends it in cogitating on which part of her body to paint next.’

Laurence Olivier as Everard Logan, spouting against Modern Woman in court

Little wonder that Leslie is not impressed after hearing that speech! But no fear – her steadfast conviction that she is the one to save and reform Logan is rewarded in the end. When she follows him onto the boat to France at the film’s close, the choppy waters give her a chance to mother and nurture Logan. Her triumph is crowned by a final scene in the divorce court, in which Logan’s speech is the opposite of his earlier outburst. Appearing now as the defence of the woman accused of divorce, rather than as counsel for the husband, Logan gushes that his client is ‘a woman – that unique and perfect achievement of the human species (…) especially evolved for the comfort and solace of man.’ The message is clear: Leslie has managed to persuade Logan that married life is, after all, best. The open discussion of, and jokes about, divorce that form the backbone of The Divorce of Lady X point towards the ‘permissive society’ of post-War Britain; but its resolution of the protagonists’ story in a traditional marriage shows that in the 1930s the stability of conservative traditions still held sway.

The Divorce of Lady X can be viewed on the PBS website.


[1] In British divorce law, a co-respondent is a person cited in a divorce case as having committed adultery with the respondent ie. the half of the couple not initiating the divorce.

Co-operette (1938)

FeaturedCo-operette (1938)

The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), now the Co-operative Group, has had a presence in Britain since 1863. From its foundation, it set itself apart from other grocers with the notion of ‘dividend’: members who purchased goods from the business would also get a share of the profits – the more goods purchased, the bigger the dividend returned. In the interwar period, the CWS was a wholesaler supplying goods to a range of local co-operative grocers, particularly in the north of England.

In 1938, CWS produced Co-operette, a substantial advertising film for the company’s products. A version of the film is available to watch for free on the BFI player, (for those based in the UK). The BFI copy of the film lasts around 15 minutes, and appears to be incomplete. Nevertheless, the available footage gives a great insight into British advertising films of the late 1930s. A film like this would be shown as part of a cinema screening, which at the time usually comprised of a combination of feature films, educational films, cartoons, trailers, and advertisements.

Like a shampoo commercial produced two years’ previously, Co-operette is framed around the deceit of being ‘on set’ whilst the advert is being filmed. The first shot after the opening credits is of a shooting script, which describes the opening credits we have just seen, and the announcer we are about to see – although the shot ‘close up of shooting script’ does not appear.

Close-up of the shooting script in Co-operette (1938)

The announcer tells the audience who will be featured in the film: comedian Stanley Holloway, band leader Debroy Somers and his band, comedian Harold Walters, and the ‘Six Co-operettes’: a dancing troupe of young women in skimpy outfits. (The fact that the famous and popular Stanley Holloway barely features is an indication that this may not be the full film). The next sequence moves us on to a film set, where Debroy Somers and his band are set up on a sound stage, ready to be recorded. In the set’s lobby, a Co-operette walks past whilst chatting to a man dressed in native American costume, to heighten the effect that this is an active film set on which multiple productions are being shot. Harold Walters plays Sam Small, a character in fact developed by Stanley Holloway who by 1938 would have been very familiar to audiences. Throughout the fifteen minutes, Sam Small serves as the comic relief character who creates confusion on the set.

When filming of Debroy Somers and his band is about to get started, Co-operette serves up a series of close-ups of crew members on the set shouting for ‘QUIET!’

This over-emphasis on the need for absolute silence on the set make the inevitable disruptions of the hapless Sam Small onto the set’s operations even more impactful. The close-up shots are sharply angled, lending an unexpectedly expressionist air to proceedings which is not repeated at any other point in the film.

As Debroy Somers and his band get going for their first song – on a beach set with some women in swimwear decorously arranged in the foreground – the band’s trio of singers start a Co-op-themed song to the tune of ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’:

There is a Co-op in the town
And there, my true love sits her down
And well she knows each penny she could spend
Will go towards her dividend

At this point the scene changes to a shot of a young, fashionably dressed housewife, who is pointedly unpacking her CWS-bought groceries, taking care to position the labels carefully towards the camera.

A housewife unpacking Co-op goods in Co-operette (1938)

This song seamlessly blends into the next one, in which the singers describe the various customer types of the Co-op in catchy rhymes accompanied by visual representations of these customers: a retired couple (“Charles and Jane live all alone/in a four-room flat they call their home”); a young man buying his wedding suit (“Lovely fit/I must admit”); a young woman who cleverly saves money on day-to-day purchases so she can still dress fashionably (“She knows the way to shop/where value is the top”); a young married couple of whom the husband always tries to eat everything in the larder immediately after the wife has done her Saturday shop at the Co-op.

Despite the inclusion of the young groom, women are firmly established as the Co-ops main customer base. They are pithily categorised and visualised as ‘maid’, ‘widow’, ‘flaunty extravagant queen’ and ‘housewife that’s thrifty’. These four women are then shown to harmoniously share a pitcher of lemonade, drinking ‘to the health of CWS.’

From left to right: ‘housewife that’s thrifty’; ‘flaunty extravagant queen’; widow; maid

This section takes up about half of the fifteen-minute video. It is followed by a dance sequence of the six ‘Co-operettes’, after which the most surreal part of the film is launched: the ‘Carrot and Onion dance’. Against a set of three larger-than-life tins (Vegetable Soup, Butter Beans, and Carrots) two female dancers emerge. One is dressed in an orange suit that covers her entire body with a green head-dress; the other in a green, short-skirted dress.

Onion and Carrot emerging for their dance

As Carrot and Onion they dance a graceful pas-de-deux in which they overcome the difficulty of Onion’s smelly leaves. Their performance is followed by more work by the Co-operettes, this time tap-dancing. The final minutes of the film include more comic relief by Harold Walters, and a final song by the Debroy Somers band:

In every town there is a store
You pay much less, you get much more
For CWS has goods galore
For you, fair maid

Remember, remember
From January to December
There are always goods in store
For you, fair maid

The film ends with a title card reading that ‘All the goods featured in this film are CWS products’ – but hardly any goods are featured with any prominence. The first housewife featured is shown unpacking products, and there are some shots of a full larder, but in either case it is not possible for the audience to easily identify what the products are. The only packages that are really clear are the three enlarged cans used as the set for the ‘Carrot and Onion’ dance. No foodstuffs are mentioned by name in any of the songs.

Instead, the focus of the whole film is about the customers who shop at Co-op, and how the organisation caters to what the film presents as the full range of different women. In what is an early example of customer segmentation, women are primarily distinguished by their marital status (unmarried, married, widowed). However, whilst the film may be presumed to target women as the primary shoppers, the repeated display of the ‘Co-operette’ dancing troupe instead suggests a male target audience. During these dance sequences, the deceit and comedy of the sound stage set is dropped in favour of a more straightforward attempt at Hollywood glamour.

Co-operette shows how a British firm used cinematic conventions to create an advertising film that was much more about selling a concept than about selling specific items. The overall effectiveness of the film is, perhaps, somewhat reduced by its attempt to provide comedy, catchy songs, stage performance, and the Carrot and Onion dance which appears to be in a genre all of its own. Despite the overt messaging in the film implying that only women are the CWS’ customers, the film’s varied format indicates that it tries to appeal to all audience groups in the cinema, including men and children.

Co-operette can be viewed for free on BFI Player, for readers based in the UK.

Alastair Sim

FeaturedAlastair Sim

Alastair Sim was born in 1900 in Edinburgh. After an aborted university education and active duty during the Great War, he trained as an elocution teacher and took up a lectureship in that subject at the University of Edinburgh in 1925. Elocution and drama teaching was his route into an acting career, of which his parents were not supportive. In 1930 Sim moved down to London, where his acting career took off.

After several years of stage roles, Sim made his film debut in 1935, with no fewer than five film credits to his name in that year alone. All were mostly low-budget comedies or crime films, in which Sim played smaller parts. Throughout his career he mostly played supporting roles, with the notable exception of Scrooge (1951) in which he played the titular character. It’s still considered one of the best portrayals of Scrooge on film.

As the 1930s continued, Sim got more substantial film roles in higher-profile films. His lanky frame (he was just over 6 feet tall) and distinctive voice made him instantly recognisable to audiences. In 1936 Sim starred opposite George Formby in the Monty Banks-directed Keep Your Seats, Please!. In the same year he was also directed by Monty Banks in the comedy The Man in the Mirror, although his name was misspelt as Alistair in the film’s credits.

In 1937-38, Sim starred opposite Jessie Matthews three times, in Gangway (1937); Sailing Along (1938) and Climbing High (1938). In Gangway, Matthews plays a journalist who gets caught up in a trans-Atlantic criminal plot. Sim is Detective Taggett, who is attempting to arrest the criminals. In Sailing Along, Matthews plays a precocious young woman and aspiring dancer who is brought up on a tug-boat. Sim here is the supporting character Sylvester, a confused and slightly simple-minded man who helps Matthews in her career aspirations. By the time of Climbing High, Sim was sufficiently famous that his name was included on the film’s poster. He again plays a supporting comedy relief character in this film.

Sim was only seven years older than Matthews, but in none of the three films is there the slightest inkling that he may be a suitable romantic partner for her characters. In fact, throughout the films Sim made in the interwar period, he plays characters who don’t have any romantic entanglements with co-stars. This was no doubt partly to do with his appearance, which did not meet conventional beauty standards of the period. Even in his thirties, he looked older than his years, and appeared somewhat ageless. His persistent casting in comedy roles further diminished his romantic appeal.

It is surprising, then, that in the 1937 crime film The Squeaker, Alistair Sim plays a character who has a settled domestic life, just when you least expect it. In The Squeaker Sim is Joshua Collie, a crime reporter for a popular newspaper. Journalists featured regularly in British interwar films, and were usually portrayed on the move, gathering news on the street; or pushing against deadlines in the newspaper offices.

Collie, on the other hand, is shown inside his comfortable living room, where he smokes a pipe after dinner like a suburban family man. He is not particularly interested in chasing down news, even though his friend, Scotland Yard inspector Barrabal, is feeding him plenty of information about the big criminal case he is working on. Collie reluctantly follows Barrabal’s leads only when his editor threatens to sack him for neglecting his duties. Alastair Sim played against the expected stereotype of the crime reporter, by making Collie a bit lazy and committed to his creature comforts. This enabled him to position himself again as a comedy character, even in a serious crime film which was based on a hard-boiled Edgar Wallace novel.

At the tail end of the interwar period Sim starred opposite Gordon Harker, another prolific interwar actor of comedy roles, in Inspector Hornleigh (1939). Sim played Sergeant Bingham, assistant to Harker in the titular role of Hornleigh. The pair are asked to investigate a murder in this comedy. The film was successful enough to spawn two sequels: Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday (also 1939) and Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1941).

Sim’s acting career lasted until his death in 1976. In the 1950s, as well as his interpretation of Scrooge, Sim also starred as the headmistress in the original St Trinian’s films, The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954); and Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957). Although his most commercially successful roles date from the second half of his career, he built up his screen persona and fame throughout the interwar period.

Featured

Olympia, 7 June 1934

This post is the second in a loose series of posts about fascism in interwar London. The first post explored the popularity of the British Union of Fascists in the East End.  

The British Union of Fascists (BUF) was founded by Oswald Mosley in 1932. Within a few years, the party had gained thousands of members, and by 1934 Mosley felt confident enough to stage several large-scale public speeches. In April of that year, the BUF hosted a largely successful rally in the (Royal) Albert Hall. The next event in the series took place on 7 June at Olympia, a Victorian events venue that could hold up to 15,000 people.

The event attracted many people who were not members of the BUF but were interested to hear Mosley’s ideas, or curious about this new political movement. In the run-up to the event, left-wing publications such as the Daily Worker encouraged readers to attend the event and set up counter protests against fascism. Mosley set the event up as a spectacle, using standard-bearers and spotlights and many BUF members in attendance in full uniform.[1]

The exact events which took place in the hall on 7 June 1934 were subsequently disagreed on by attendees from different political persuasions. It is established that at various points during Mosley’s speech, individual audience members heckled and challenged him. In those instances, a much larger group of BUF members, acting as ‘stewards’, would physically accost the interrupter and remove them from the hall. The extent of violence used against these interrupters was disputed, as was the total number of victims, and whether the hecklers formed part of an orchestrated attempt of the extreme left-wing to interrupt the meeting.

Both the political left and the BUF released pamphlets following the meeting, each presenting their own version of events. The left-wing pamphlet, called Fascists at Olympia: A record of eye-witnesses and victims, was published under the pen-name ‘Vindicator’ by publisher Victor Gollancz, a British Jew who openly supported left-wing politics. The pamphlet was distributed for free with the aim of raising awareness of the BUF’s methods.

Fascists at Olympia contains named statements of people who were present at the Olympia meeting; statements of those who claimed they were beaten up by BUF stewards, and statements of doctors who claimed to have helped the wounded in make-shift sickrooms set up in the vicinity of the hall. A statement in the pamphlet’s opening was subsequently used by the BUF to discredit it:

Several of the documents in this book, in their original form, contain references to the attitude of the police. These have been deliberately omitted, as the object of this pamphlet is to call attention to the actions of Blackshirts, and it is not desired to complicate the issue.[2]

During the Olympia meeting, the police were not present in the hall as it was a closed gathering in a private venue, and therefore they had no jurisdiction to enter it.[3] Police officers were present on the roads adjacent to the hall but came under criticism for not interfering with or challenging the violence perpetrated by BUF stewards. The compilers of Fascists at Olympia apparently did not want to risk that anti-fascist sentiment would be considered the same as anti-police sentiment, or anti-establishment feelings more generally.

This agenda is also clear across many of the witness statements included in the pamphlet, which repeatedly present fascism as ‘not English’:

‘I could not help shuddering at the thought of this vile bitterness, copied from foreign lands, being brought into the centre of England.’[4]

‘I witnessed other scenes of great brutality such as I had never thought to see in England.’[5]

‘For that [use of violence] I can see, as an ordinary Englishman concerned for fair play and decency no possible justification.’[6]

‘I can only say it was a deeply shocking scene for an Englishman to see in London. The Blackshirts behaved like bullies and cads.’[7]

‘I fail to see the necessity for this brutality, which is so foreign to the British race.’[8]

‘I belong to no political party, but what I saw and heard on the evening of June 7th made me think that the behaviour of the opposition, those reds to whom Mosley refers as the scum of the ghettoes, were far more in the English tradition than the Blackshirts with their flags and uniforms.’[9]

By 1934, Hitler’s violence in Germany and Mussolini’s hard rule in Italy were well-known in Britain, and Fascists at Olympia worked hard to persuade its reader that this type of political movement was a threat to the British (English) way of life. Terms like ‘fair play’ were still considered foundational concepts that separated the (white, upper and middle-class) English from other, less civilised and more violent people. The authority of the British police was similarly built on notions of ‘decency’ and temperance, and was another way in which England could consider itself more enlightened than other countries.[10]

The emphasis on fascism as ‘not English’, were used by the BUF in their counter-pamphlet about the Olympia meeting. Red Violence and Blue Lies: An Answer to “Fascists at Olympia” was published by the BUF’s own press. On its opening page, it horrifically states: ‘English men and women?’ ‘Who are the “English men and women” who break up Fascists’ meetings?’[11] This rhetorical statement is followed by a list of names, supposedly the names of those arrested by the police for disrupting the meeting – all the names are of Jewish provenance. The author(s) do not need to spell this antisemitism out more explicitly; the reader is expected to conclude that these names do not represent ‘English’ people.

The BUF pamphlet goes on to sketch a wide-spread left-wing conspiracy to silence Mosley’s party. The left-wing press’s exhortations to their readers to visit Olympia and stage a counter-protest, ahead of 7 June, are presented as evidence of this conspiracy. Throughout the pamphlet this argument is subtly built up and alluded to, until it is made manifest at the pamphlet’s end in a way that draws together antisemitism, suspicion of the state, and fear of socialism:

At Olympia [the ‘Red Terror’] was renewed with large organised and powerful financial support from quarters which are well known. Alien finance and Red terror join hands to fight the movement of “Britain First,” with the tacit and even open approval of the Old Parties of the State, who unite to oppose the new force that threatens them with ultimate destruction at the polls.

With the hindsight offered by history, we know that the BUF lost support throughout the 1930s and that fascism did not become the dominant ideology in 20th century Britain. In the debates following ‘Olympia’, this was far from evident, however: as Martin Pugh has demonstrated, MPs in the House of Commons did not roundly condemn the BUF’s conduct during the meeting, and allegations of a left-wing plot were also aired there.[12] The pamphlets published by both the BUF and the political left in the immediate wake of the event demonstrate how both sides sought to influence popular discourse about the meeting.


[1] Julie Gottlieb, ‘The Marketing of Megalomania: Celebrity, Consumption and the Development of Political Technology in the British Union of Fascists’, Journal of Contemporary History, (2006), Vol. 41, No. 1, 47

[2] Vindicator, Fascists at Olympia: A record of eye-witnesses and victims (London: Victor Gollancz, 1934), n. p.

[3] Martin Pugh, ‘The British Union of Fascists and the Olympia Debate’, The Historical Journal, (1998), Vol. 41, No. 2, 541

[4] Vindicator, Fascists at Olympia, p. 11

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 14

[7] Ibid. p. 9

[8] Ibid. p. 20

[9] Ibid., p. 37

[10] Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History, 2nd edition (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd, 1996), pp. 144-145

[11] Various authors, Red Violence and Blue Lies: An Answer to “Fascists at Olympia” (London: BUF Publications, 1934), p. 5

[12] Pugh, ‘The British Union of Fascists and the Olympia Debate’, 532-533

Featured

Sabotage (1936)

As noted elsewhere on the pages of this blog, Alfred Hitchcock started out as a director during Britain’s silent film period. He continued making films in Britain during the 1930s, before making his move to Hollywood around 1940. In 1936, he directed Sabotage, a Gaumont production based on the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent. (Rather confusingly, in the same year Hitchcock also directed a film called Secret Agent which in turn was based on a novel titled Ashenden.)

By the mid-1930s, the tense European political situation was reflected in a spate of British films about spies and international criminal networks. Although Conrad’s source novel was published in 1907, and its plot is set in the 1880s, Hitchcock had little difficulty in adapting the storyline for a contemporary audience which was, again, concerned about German expansionism.

In Sabotage, a couple called Mr and Mrs Verloc run a cinema in central London. Mr Verloc is of unidentified Eastern European origin, whereas Mrs Verloc appears to be British. With them lives Stevie, Mrs Verloc’s teenage brother. Mr Verloc hides a secret from his wife – he is part of an international terrorist gang which is planning a series of attacks to disrupt British society. Scotland Yard have their eye on Mr Verloc, and undercover agent Ted Spencer is keeping a close eye on the cinema from a vegetable stall across the road.

Mr Verloc’s gang plan to blow up Piccadilly Circus underground station with a bomb hidden in a film reel tin. As Verloc suspects he’s being watched, he sends Stevie to drop off the package at the station’s cloakroom. Stevie, however, gets waylaid on the way to the station and the bomb goes off while he is still on the bus, killing him and all the passengers. When Mrs Verloc realises that her husband is responsible for her brother’s death, and he starts threatening her too, she kills him with a large kitchen knife. Ted Spencer, who by now has fallen for Mrs Verloc, shields her from arrest at the film’s end.

The sequence of Stevie travelling to Piccadilly Circus with the bomb is the most-discussed – and indeed, often the only discussed – part of Sabotage. Stevie is unaware of the real contents of the parcel he is carrying, he simply knows he needs to leave it in the luggage collection point in Piccadilly Circus station by 1.30pm. The audience knows that the bomb will go off at 1.45pm. Sabotage heightens the tension by a series of close-ups alternating between the parcel of explosives, Stevie, and various clocks which he sees on shop fronts along the way. As the clocks inch closer to 1.45pm, the individual shorts become shorter and shorter, culminating in an extreme close-up of the hand on a clock moving to 1.45pm. The bus spectacularly explodes, and Stevie and all the other passengers are killed in the blast.

Critics of Sabotage have pointed out that the rationale for Mr Verloc’s criminal gang is not defined. At the start of the film, the gang causes a mass electrical failure in London which causes widespread disruption. Their planned bombing of Piccadilly Circus would not just cause great material damage and loss of life – Piccadilly Circus was the symbolic centre of London, England, and the British Empire. When its underground station was completed in 1928, it was hailed as a feat of engineering. London Underground even produced a poster depicting the station’s tunnel network as the ‘stomach’ and digestive system of London. The motivation of the criminal gang, then, is to disrupt society, to cause unrest without providing a clear enemy against which people can direct their anger. The threat of destabilisation was keenly felt in 1930s Britain, as people watched great social change in Germany, Italy and elsewhere unfold. Many films of the period feature shady and undefined foreign criminal networks, including Laburnum Grove (1936), Midnight Menace (1937), and Bulldog Jack (1935).

The cinema is extensively used as a location in Sabotage. Mr and Mrs Verloc live in a flat situated behind the auditorium. To enter the flat, one has to go through the auditorium, and characters are frequently shown to pass through here whilst patrons enjoy the screening, apparently undisturbed. During his investigations, Ted Spencer is able to approach the flat unseen because the cinema audience is engrossed in a farcical comedy film. Spencer then enters the space behind the screen, in which there is a connecting window to the Verlocs’ living room. Spencer uses this window to eavesdrop on Verloc’s conversation, without the cinema audience being any the wiser.

After Stevie’s death, Mr Verloc tries to justify and explain himself to Mrs Verloc. Following this conversation, Mrs Verloc walks out of the flat and into the cinema auditorium, where a children’s showing of Disney’s Who Killed Cock Robin? is in progress. The children’s laughter prompts Mrs Verloc to first grimace in despair, before she turns to the screen and sits down to watch the show. Despite the centrality of its cinema location, this is the only time any of Sabotage’s main characters actually takes the position as audience member.

Engrossed in the cartoon, Mrs Verloc starts to laugh through her grief. She is unable to process the enormity of her emotions and uses the film as a welcome distraction. The distraction is all too brief: the cartoon bird gets shot, which plunges Mrs Verloc back in despair. This breaks the spell of the cinema for her, and she gets up and walks back through the auditorium with determination to see things out with her husband. Soon after returning upstairs, Mrs Verloc stabs her husband to death. After the spectacle of the bus explosion, the killing of Mr Verloc is understated. Mrs Verloc picks up a knife to carve dinner. She then pauses to look at it for a minute whilst an idea seemingly dawns on her. When Mr Verloc stands next to her to speak to her, she turns around and sticks the large knife in his abdomen. It is a murder which originates from a deep despair, rather than from anger or a desire for revenge.

Immediately after the murder, one of Verloc’s associates sets the flat on fire. Ted Spencer meets Mrs Verloc outside; although she confesses the murder to him and wants to give herself up to the police, Spencer tells his superiors that Verloc died in the blaze. Because Mr Verloc was a foreigner set to disrupt British society, and he stooped so low to use a child as an unwitting assistant to his plans, Mrs Verloc is allowed to go unpunished for her crime. Her insistence that she should give herself up to the police only serves to set her out as even more deserving. One perspective on Sabotage is that it argues that as long as British citizens are willing to make personal sacrifices, they can collaborate with the police to successfully neutralise foreign threats; and it is their duty to do so.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad can be read for free via Project Gutenberg.

New Year’s Eve 1921

FeaturedNew Year’s Eve 1921

For this last blog post of the year we’re travelling back in time 100 years, to have a look at how London spent New Year’s Eve in 1921.

In 1921, 31 December fell on a Saturday, so the Sunday papers had the privilege of welcoming in the new year. The News of the World posted this cartoon on its front page, under the banner ‘A Happy New Year to All of Our Readers’.

Cartoon printed on the front page of News of the World, 1 January 1922

1921 appears to have been considered a year well worth saying goodbye to: the old man representing the past year carries a sack containing, amongst other things, ‘Bolshevism’; ‘Revolutions’ and ‘Shortage of Houses’. These, along with ‘Profiteering’ and ‘Unemployment’, indicate that the impact of the Great War on British society had continued to reverberate. The custom of depicting the previous year as an old person and the new year as a youngster was common, as evidenced by the following report in the Daily Telegraph:

Never has a New Year been welcomed with more public rejoicing and festivity in London than that upon which we have just entered. (…) all the great London hotels and restaurants were crowded with guests, for whom elaborate programmes of feast and entertainment had been arranged, including in most cases some novel and exhilarating means of marking at midnight the death of the Old and the birth of the New Year.[1]

Probably the most extravagant party was held in the Savoy, which catered for either 1600 or 1750 guests (numbers given by the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard respectively). The distinguished guests, which included Lord Curzon, watched as a recording of Big Ben, projected on a screen, counted down the minutes to midnight.[2] Another notable entertainment was given in the Hotel Victoria, where a miniature airplane carrying a little girl appeared to descend out of the ceiling.[3]

Crowds were not just found inside hotels and restaurants, but also in the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral: ‘The crowd which gathered from East and West within the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday night to sing “Auld Lang Syne” was a record one.’[4] This ‘record’ size crowd was unlikely to have only contained ‘London Scots’ as the Daily Telegraph article supposed: the crowd as so great as to make it ‘almost impossible to move.’[5]

Whilst the parties in the hotels and restaurants were only accessible to the wealthy, the poor were not forgotten. The Daily Telegraph reported that some 18,000 deserving children in various East London boroughs had been treated to a special meal earlier in the day.[6]

The Observer looked beyond the London festivities and reminded readers that half the world welcomes the New Year before Britain does, with festivities starting in a ‘small group of islands which belong to New Zealand.’[7] The article also points out that those countries using the ‘inaccurate Julian calendar’ would not be celebrating the New Year until a few weeks later. The article expresses the hope that the newly founded League of Nations may eventually ‘bring about international uniformity in the matter of the calendar and thus ensure a simultaneous celebration of the birth of the New Year among the nations of the Earth.’[8]

In contrast to these reports of parties and celebrations, the Manchester Guardian instead reported on ‘The Old Year’s Violent Passing.’[9] Whilst Londoners were celebrating, other parts of the country experienced forceful gales which particularly affected those living near the sea and rivers and which lead to ‘Wrecks, Heavy Damage, and Loss of Life.’

The other New Year’s tradition was (and is) the publication of the New Year’s honours list, which was reported in full by the Manchester Guardian and The Times but ignored by the more popular papers. Sir J.M. Barrie, who had been made baronet in 1913, was made a member of the Order of Merit in 1922; Gerald du Maurier received his knighthood.[10]

By the time the afternoon of 2 January rolled around, news about the New Year parties already had to make way for developments in what would become one of the most notorious murder cases of the interwar period. The Evening Standard announced a ‘Solicitor’s Sensational Arrest’ on its front page.[11] Over the weekend, whilst everyone had been distracted by the gale force winds and the parties, police in Hay, near the Welsh border, had arrested Herbert Rowse Armstrong, who ran one of the two local law practices.

Armstrong was arrested for the attempted murder of Oswald Norman Martin, a solicitor at the rival firm. By the time the Evening Standard appeared in the stands, the body of Armstrong’s late wife had been exhumed. Upon re-examination it was concluded that she, too, had been poisoned. Armstrong was eventually convicted of her murder and executed – the only solicitor in British history to be hanged for murder. The arrest of the ‘Hay Poisoner’ ensured that 1922 started with the familiar thrill of, as George Orwell would have it, a good old-fashioned English murder.


[1] ‘New Year’s Eve’, The Daily Telegraph, 2 January 1922, p. 6

[2] Ibid., and ‘A Londoner’s Diary’, Evening Standard, 2 January 1922, p. 4

[3] ‘Revels Greet 1922,’ Daily Mail, 2 January 1922, p. 4

[4] ‘Revels Greet 1922’, Daily Mail, 2 January 1922, p. 4

[5] ‘New Year’s Eve’, The Daily Telegraph, 2 January 1922, p. 6

[6] Ibid.

[7] These islands are Tonga, Samoa and Kiribati. ‘The Journey of the New Year’, The Observer, 1 January 1922, p. 9

[8] Ibid.

[9] ‘The Old Year’s Violent Passing’, Manchester Guardian, 2 January 1922, p. 7

[10] ‘New Year Honours,’ Manchester Guardian, 2 January 1922, p. 7

[11] ‘Solicitor’s Sensational Arrest’, Evening Standard, 2 January 1922, p.1

Edmund Gwenn

FeaturedEdmund Gwenn

British actor Edmund Gwenn is internationally best-known for his role as Kris Kringle (‘Santa’) in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. This role earned Gwenn his only Oscar win (although he was nominated once more in 1950). Prior to his move to Hollywood at the start of World War II, Gwenn was a prolific stage and screen actor in interwar London. His instantly recognisable demeanour and voice made him a reliable choice for both leading and supporting roles.

Gwenn was born in 1877 and started his acting career on the late-Victorian and Edwardian stage, specialising in supporting roles of plays written by contemporary playwrights such as J.M. Barrie and John Galsworthy. He was a successful stage actor and did not make the transition to film acting until the start of the interwar period, when films were settling into the length and narrative types that we still recognise today.

Gwenn starred in only two feature-length silent films (Unmarried, opposite Gerald du Maurier, in 1920; and The Skin Game in 1921) before giving films a rest again until talkies became the norm in the early 1930s. Gwenn likely recognised that his power as an actor required him to be able to use dialogue as a means of expression. Once sound film work was available, he took to it with a vengeance, making no fewer than 36 films in the 1930s. No mean feat for an actor who was already 53 when the decade started.

In this film work, as in his stage roles, Gwenn continued to be associated with contemporary English writers. His first foray into sound film was a remake of The Skin Game, released ten years after the silent version in 1931. Both films were based on a Galsworthy play; the 1931 version was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.[1] Gwenn stars as Hornblower, a nouveau-riche industrialist who is looking to buy a piece of land from genteel landowner Hillcrist, to build industrial works. The conflict between ‘old England’ which values rural landscape, tranquillity and honour; and the new, industrial outlook which favours trade, progress and money, is at the heart of the film. The emotions between the two men and their families run so high that Hillcrist’s wife decides to reveal a damning secret about Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, as a result of which the young woman commits suicide. Hornblower, crushed with grief, decides to leave the area. Hillcrist’s victory is hollow, however, as he contemplates the moral depths to which his family has stooped to defend their way of life.

Gwenn played a man from a different social background a couple of years later in The Good Companions, a 1933 adaptation of a popular J.B. Priestley novel.[2] This Victor Saville-directed film remains a popular example of a British interwar comedy, and also stars Jessie Matthews and John Gielgud. In The Good Companions, Gwenn plays Jess Oakroyd, a Northern labourer who gets fired for speaking up against a malicious manager. Oakroyd decides to travel ‘south’ in search of work. In the Midlands, he stumbles across a faltering theatre troupe called the Dinky Doos. Simultaneously with Oakroyd’s arrival in the midlands, the film also follows teacher Inigo Jollifant and Miss Elizabeth Trant, who reach the Midlands from the East and West of England respectively. The three travellers join the Dinky Doos and help to make the troupe a success. The Good Companions was well-received by critics, who praised it as a ‘British’ picture at a time when the British film industry had been under considerable domestic pressure to prove it could stand up to the influence of Hollywood.[3]

Gwenn used his non-threatening appearance to great effect in 1936’s Laburnum Grove (directed by Carol Reed), which has been discussed in detail elsewhere in this blog. In this film, Gwenn plays Radfern, a seemingly innocent and typical suburban husband who is secretly involved in an international crime network. The film is, again, based on J.B. Priestley source material. Reed directed Gwenn again in 1938, as the working-class lead of Penny Paradise. This comedy-drama is set in Liverpool, and Gwenn plays Joe Higgins, a tug-boat captain who religiously enters the ‘penny pools’ – a postage betting system in which players try to guess the correct football scores for the entire league. Miraculously, Higgins guesses all the scores correctly, and he believes himself a rich man. However, his friend Pat, who was supposed to have posted in Higgins’ winning score, forgot to post it on time. Higgins gives up his job and throws a large party for the entire community before Pat has the courage to tell him what has happened.

Penny Paradise is a fairly typical 1930s British comedy, with the expected happy ending and moral lessons for the main characters. Gwenn rounded out the decade with a very different part, in what has commonly been called the ‘first Ealing Comedy’. Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Walter Forde, was released in 1939. It follows the plight of a small beer brewery which is up against a big, capitalist brewing corporation. The conviviality of the workers at the small brewery models how Balcon planned to run his new studio. Gwenn plays Edward Ironside, the head of the industrial brewer. The film’s most striking scene (to a modern audience) is a brief shot of Ironside reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In this last role of the decade, just before his move across the Atlantic, Gwenn came full circle with his performance as Hornblower in The Skin Game: that of an industrialist intent on undermining traditional British values. The changes which Britain underwent in the 1930s, however, meant that whilst at the beginning of the 1930s it was the life of the landed gentry that was worth protecting, by the end of the decade it was the working-class community spirit that was held up as the British ideal.

Gwenn continued to act almost up to his death at the age of 81, in 1959. His later roles increasingly included incidental parts in TV series. Whilst his later, American career may have brought him international and lasting fame and recognition, his frequent appearances in British films of the 1930s made him a key contributor to the interwar cultural landscape.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace (London: IB Tauris, 2010) p. 316

[2] Laurence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), p. 81

[3] Ibid., p. 123

Kate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

FeaturedKate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

Kate Meyrick was known as the ‘Nightclub Queen’ in interwar London. She ran a string of nightclubs, of which the ‘43’ in Gerrard Street was the best-known. Nightclubs operated on the edge of the law – a club in itself was not an illegal space, but if alcohol was sold outside of hours permitted by the club’s license, the club owner could face hefty fines or even prison time. Additionally, clubs were supposed to only be open to members, who paid yearly subscriptions and were known to be of good character. In practice, Meyrick and other club owners generally allowed guests to become ‘members’ upon arrival.

Kate Meyrick made substantial money from her nightclub ventures, although they also cost her a lot to maintain. Her career effectively ended when it was revealed in 1929 that she had been bribing Police Sergeant George Goddard.[1] Goddard would tip Meyrick off if any of her clubs were likely to get raided, so that she could make sure no illegal activity was taking place in them.[2] Both Goddard and Meyrick were convicted – the latter to fifteen months’ hard labour which negatively impacted her health.

Throughout Meyrick’s career as a nightclub owner, she had become a well-known public figure, recognizable from press reports to those who would never get close to setting a foot in her clubs. After her death in 1933, publisher John Long published her memoirs, The Secrets of the 43.[3] Extracts from her ‘private diaries’ were subsequently serialised in the Sunday Express. These posthumous publications show how Meyrick’s family worked to shape her public image from convicted criminal to caring mother.

Meyrick had eight children, and professed that her main goal in entering the nightclub business was to give her family financial support. Many of her children entered her business as managers and staff in her ever-expanding network of clubs. Although Meyrick did not leave her children much capital when she passed, she had been able to secure advantageous marriages for most of them. Mary, one of Meyrick’s eldest daughters, married the Earl of Kinnoull. It was with his introduction that Meyrick’s diaries were published in the Sunday Express, giving them an aura of respectability.

In his introduction, the Earl calls his mother-in-law a ‘remarkable’ and ‘dynamic’ woman who hoped to give her children ‘brilliant chances she had been so determined they should enjoy.’[4] Her decision to start selling alcohol illegally is framed as the only option she had to make money for her children, as well as a result of her ‘impulsive nature’. The subsequent move through periods of financial success followed by raids, fines and prison sentences is related as ‘the slow slipping of the power of wealth from her fingers, her powerlessness to help her children as she longed to do.’

Advert in the Daily Express of 4 March 1933

The diary serialisation was advertised by the Sunday Express with reference to the notorious criminals Meyrick had hosted in her clubs, consciously tightening the public’s association between nightclubs and serious crime. If we accept the printed diaries as accurate copies of what Meyrick recorded, she herself was also eager to align herself and her clubs with notorious criminal cases. She describes that Ronald True, who was convicted of the murder of Gertrude Young, was in the ‘43’ the night before his arrest:

Have just seen the account of the arrest of Ronald True for the murder of Gertrude Young. He was in the 43 last night. Wonder if I am psychic? I went downstairs at 4 a.m. to stop the band, and ask them to come up to the first floor. When I went upstairs I felt I must turn round. When I did turn I found Ronald True gazing at me with murder in his eyes. (…) I suppose I ought to have warned somebody. But who?[5]

True was arrested on 9 March 1922 and was therefore in the club on 8 March – Gertrude Young had been murdered on 6 March, so any warning Meyrick could have given would not have saved her life. The ‘murder’ in True’s eyes was presumably imagined by Meyrick after she heard of his arrest.

This didn’t dissuade Meyrick from believing in her psychic abilities. She raises the topic again when she describes allegedly greeting Patrick Mahon in one of her clubs, shortly before he is arrested for the ‘Crumbles murder’; one of the more graphic murders to take place in England in the 1920s.

He [Mahon] was only in last week. How dreadful to think I shook hands with a murderer. (…) I am sure I am psychic. Just as in the case of Ronald True, Mahon’s eyes impressed me. They were not like the eyes of ordinary people: there was something behind them.[6]

Through the publication of Meyrick’s autobiography and diaries, her family were able to exercise control over her public image, which in turn affected their own reputations. By downplaying the illegal activities in which Meyrick had participated and foregrounding her commitment to her children, the Earl of Kinnoull was presenting his mother-in-law as a courageous and hardworking woman. He also profited from her by selling her diary to a newspaper. The Sunday Express, in the meantime, milked Meyrick’s proximity to notoriety to boost its own circulation. After her death, Meyrick’s own words became a tool for others to use.


[1] Heather Shore, ‘Constable dances with instructress’: the police and the Queen of Nightclubs in inter-war London’, Social History, (2013) Vol. 38, No. 2, 183–202, p. 199

[2] Clive Emsley, ‘Sergeant Goddard: the story of a rotten apple or a diseased orchard?’ In: Srebnik, Amy Gilman and Levy, Rene eds. Crime and culture: an historical perspective. Advances in Criminology (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005), pp. 85–104

[3] Kate Meyrick, The Secrets of the 43 (London: John Long, 1933)

[4] Earl of Kinnoull, ‘The Things She Could Never Tell’, Sunday Express, 25 February 1933, p. 9

[5] ‘Sergeant Goddard’s First Raid’, Sunday Express, 5 March 1933, p. 13

[6] ‘Valentino – Mahon – Kreuger – and Jimmy White’, Sunday Express, 12 March 1933, p. 13

Featured

E.M. Delafield – Messalina of the Suburbs (1924)

In 1924, six years before she would become a household name with her Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M Delafield penned Messalina of the Suburbs, a fictionalised take on one of the most notorious murder trials of interwar Britain. In December 1922, Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were convicted of the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy. They were both hanged, despite the fact that it was Bywaters who stabbed Percy Thompson, and Edith claimed not to have any knowledge that he would do this. At the time, some newspapers launched a campaign to have Bywaters’ sentence commuted or quashed; as historian Lucy Bland notes drily: ‘No public steps were taken at the time on behalf of Edith.’[1] More recently, the case has been re-assessed in favour of Edith’s innocence; there is even a dedicated website that argues her conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

In Messalina of the Suburbs book, Delafield imagines one version of events that could have led to Edith (Elsie in the book) ending up in an unhappy marriage, with a lover who kills her husband. Against the prevailing attitude of the time, Delafield is surprisingly sympathetic to Elsie, without shying away from her more questionable decisions.

The book starts with Elsie as a teenager, living with her sister in the boarding house run by their mother. Elsie is already aware that men find her attractive; in the book’s opening she agrees to go to the cinema with an (older) male lodger, and does not protest when he kisses her. Delafield describes going to the cinema as a sensual experience for Elsie, foregrounding her sexuality:

To-night, as she entered the hot, dark, enervating atmosphere of the cinema theatre, she thrilled in response to the contrast with the street outside. When she heard the loud, emphasised rhythm of a waltz coming from the piano beneath the screen, little shivers of joy ran through her.[2]

After this escapade with the lodger, Elsie ends up working as a live-in help with a doctor and his wife. Before long, the doctor makes advances to her, which culminates in the pair having sex several times. Needless to say, even describing sexual relations between a married man and a younger woman was daring on the part of Delafield. But the scenes also make clear that the doctor is using Elsie for his gratification, with little regard for her well-being. When the doctor’s wife starts to realise what is going on, it’s Elsie who has to pack her bags.

Her next job is as a clerk in the office of Mr Williams, a lawyer. Initially, Elsie thinks the job will be very boring, but she cheers herself up by dressing up for her first day of work:

Elsie spent the week-end in cutting out and making for herself a blue crepe blouse, which she intended to wear on Monday morning. She also made a pair of black alpaca sleeves, with elastic at the wrist and at the elbow, to be drawn on over the blouse while she was working. She put the sleeves, her shorthand pad and pencil, a powder-puff, mirror, pocket-comb, and a paper-covered novel in a small attaché case on Monday morning, pulled on the rakish black velvet tam-o’-shanter, and went off to Mr. Williams’ office.[3]

This quote captures how Delafield consistently presents Elsie as a slightly childish innocent. Although she is aware of her effect on men, and enjoys physical relations with them, she is hardly a calculating vamp.

At the law office, Williams, too, starts flirting with Elsie, and suggests that she go with him on a weekend to the seaside. At this point, Elsie’s friend Irene advises her that she should hold out, as that will persuade Williams to marry her. Marriage represents safety and stability, and both the doctor and Williams indicate to Elsie that her sexual experience lowers her ‘value’. Elsie manages to persuade Williams to marry her by holding off all his sexual advances. Williams tells her that he respects her propriety – but as soon as they get married he makes it clear that she is now his property and he gets to decide what she does, when, and with whom.

Trapped in this stifling marriage with a man she does not find attractive, Elsie eventually meets ‘Morrison’, a friend of her sister’s. From this point, Messalina of the Suburbs largely follows the real-life narrative of Thompson and Bywaters, including the romantic letters they wrote (she destroyed his letters, he didn’t destroy hers – something that weighed heavily against her during the trial) and the fateful events of the final evening. It is here, at the end of the novel, that Delafield makes her sympathies most clear. There is no doubt at all for the reader that Elsie has no idea that Morrison is going to kill Williams. There is no suggestion that she is the mastermind behind the plan, or that she spurred him on to do it, which were suggestions made during the trial. Instead, Elsie’s naiveté and her repeated abuse by men land her in the dock, where the novel ends.

That Messalina of the Suburbs was somewhat controversial is clear from the reviews it received. It was not reviewed very widely, and mostly in the local papers. The most positive review appeared in the Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer on 16 April 1924:

a powerful psychological reconstruction of the woman in a recent murder case. (…) Miss Delafield does more to make comprehensible the motives of the unhappy and blundering woman than any of the more scientific analyses have succeeded in doing.(…) The story is not pleasant, but it is well told. Miss Delafield knows with incredible intuition the hearts of the lower middle classes’[4] 

The review implies that the writer and readers of the book are of a different species than the ‘lower middle classes’ which populate the novel. Nonetheless, the reviewer appears to grasp and approve of the ultimately sympathetic portrayal at the novel’s core. Other reviewers were not so generous, instead protesting that the novel had no reason to exist. The review in the Westminster Gazette stated

Miss Delafield tells the story very well; but, whether, merely as an exercise in fiction, it was worth telling or not is another matter[5]

and the Birmingham Daily Gazette grumbled that

Whether it was worthwhile thus recalling a sordid tragedy eighteen months afterwards is a little doubtful, but the analysis of indiscipline is very skilful.[6]

Somewhat surprisingly, the most negative review appeared in Common Cause, the newspaper of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies:

the characters in this novel are so unrelievedly sordid that there is little pleasure to be derived from their acquaintance.[7]

Delafield’s psychological analysis did not win her many fans, and her career did not take off until she returned to writing the comic works for which she is now best known. With Messalina of the Suburbs, however, she demonstrated a real sensibility for the complex character of Edith Thompson, and an acute awareness of the structural exploitation young women faced, which could lead to devastating consequences.


[1] Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Jul., 2008), p. 645

[2] E.M. Delafield, Messalina of the Suburbs (London: Hutchinson, 1924), p. 16

[3] Ibid. p. 64

[4] ‘Messalina of the Suburbs’, Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 16 April 1924, p. 4

[5] ‘A Bold, Bad Girl’, Westminster Gazette, 4 June 1924, p. 5

[6] ‘An Ilford Novel’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 14 April 1924, p. 4

[7] ‘Messalina of the Suburbs’, Common Cause, 16 May 1924, p. 6

First a Girl (1935)

FeaturedFirst a Girl (1935)

Musical star Jessie Matthews was at the prime of her career in 1935 when she starred as the lead in First a Girl.[1] This musical comedy directed by Victor Saville is one version of a popular film plot; it is a remake of the German comedy Viktor und Viktoria (1933), which was re-made in West Germany in 1957, and most famously adapted by Hollywood in 1982, as Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews.

The basic plot of all four films, including First a Girl, is similar. An aspiring stage actress (in the British film she’s called Elizabeth, and naturally is played by Matthews) meets Victor, an actor who aspires to Shakespeare but in reality performs as a female impersonator. When a bad cold prevents Victor from performing one evening, he persuades Elizabeth to take his place, by pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman. This is a great success, and ‘Victoria’ quickly becomes an international star, forcing Elizabeth to appear as a man when in public. Things get complicated when Elizabeth falls in love with a (straight) man, who believes her to be a man also.

Whilst both the 1933 original and the 1982 American version are regularly interpreted as queer films, First a Girl underplays the homosexual possibilities of Elizabeth’s flirtation with her male love interest. This is partly due to Matthews’ own appearance. As The New York Times noted upon First a Girl’s US release in 1936:

Normally it is with sorrow and self-hatred that this column hints at the inadequacies of a star, but this time it is a distinct pleasure to call Miss Matthews’s acting performance hopelessly bad. In “First a Girl” she is pretending to be a man and making no headway at all, except with the members of her supporting cast, who swoon with astonishment upon discovering her sex. 

Quite beside Matthew’s obviously feminine appearance, First a Girl underplays any potential sexual tension between Elizabeth and her love interest, Robert, until Robert understands that Elizabeth is a woman. Prior to that point, the film focuses on the comedic potential of Elizbeth’s cross-dressing, rather than any transgressive possibilities in her relationship with Robert.

Jessie Matthews as ‘Victoria’, appearing with Sonnie Hale, in First a Girl

All versions of the film appear to include a similar sequence in which ‘Victoria’ is ‘forced’ to perform activities which are coded as specifically masculine, to comic effect. In First a Girl this sequence is set in a Parisian nightclub, where Victor and Elizabeth find themselves during their European tour. Elizabeth has to wear a tuxedo here, and hangs out at the bar with Robert – a part of the club only available to men. She quickly gets drunk when trying to keep up with Robert’s rate of drinking, and struggles when trying to smoke a cigar. Whilst these scenes give Matthews an opportunity to display her comedic talent, they also undermine her sexual capital whilst she is performing as a man. As soon as Elizabeth’s true gender identity is revealed to Robert, she turns from an unsophisticated youth into a charming young woman.

It is significant that these scenes of gender-bending performance are set in Paris – a location that invited connotations of licentiousness and sexual transgression in the British popular imagination of the 1930s. Interestingly, in the 1933 German film, ‘Victoria’ is in London when forced to undertake activities which may ‘out’ her as a woman. ‘Victoria’ finds herself in an environment that is both literally and figuratively foreign to her.

As Jeffrey Richards points out, male and female impersonation had a long tradition on the British theatrical and music hall stage.[2] The character of Victor, then, works well in this British film. He is portrayed as older than Elizabeth (although actor Sonnie Hale was only five years Matthews’ senior) and can easily be read as a music hall performer in the Victorian tradition. His female impersonation act is purely comic, whilst Elizabeth’s is sophisticated. He links the film’s plot to a specifically British performance tradition, whereas the glossy song-and-dance numbers performed by Elizabeth have more in common with Hollywood productions.[3] The film makes no explicit reference to its German origins.

First a Girl, then, significantly dilutes the queer and transgressive possibilities of the original source material, which allowed the film to flourish in interwar Britain. According to the BFI, it was a great commercial success when it was released (something also suggested by its export to the US the following year). It remains a very watchable and enjoyable film for modern audiences; and a good example of how British interwar filmmakers moderated both European and Hollywood influences to arrive at a British compromise between the two.

First a Girl is available for rental on BFI Player (UK only) and on DVD via Network on Air.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), pp. 217-218

[2] Ibid., p. 218

[3] This is not unusual for Jessie Matthews films. See Sarah Street, ‘Got to Dance my Way to Heaven’: Jessie Matthews, art deco and the British musical of the 1930s, Studies in European Cinema, 2:1, (2005), 19-30

Woman: Her Health and Beauty (1919)

FeaturedWoman: Her Health and Beauty (1919)

At the close of the First World War, publisher John Long put an English translation on the market of the French book La culture physique de la femme: beauté et santé par la gymnastique rationnelle. Written by the French sports and physical health specialist Max Parnet, the book provides the reader with daily exercises she should do to stay fit and healthy. The Wellcome Trust estimate that the French edition was originally published in 1913. In its English translation, it was titled: Woman: Her Health and Beauty.

The bulk of the book consists of a weekly exercise schedule, which gives the reader six compulsory and one optional exercise for each day of the week. These exercises are accompanied by illustrative photographs of a woman in a bathing suit demonstrating them. The French edition, which contains the same photographs as the English edition, has been preserved by the Internet Archive. The exercises look familiar enough to anyone who has undertaken a fitness class, although they are all on the less vigorous end of the exercise scale. The book also spends some time instructing the reader in proper breathing techniques; this holistic approach to breath and movement can also be found in many twenty-first century approaches to fitness.

Before the book goes through the exercises, however, there are some 50 pages of text which set out a general argument as to why women should exercise. It is telling that John Long decided to publish the English translation immediately following the Great War. At a time when so many of the country’s young men had either died or been maimed, the book stressed the need for women to stay fit and healthy, explicitly linking female health to the health of the nation:

It is a service to the country and to humanity to make women understand the importance of physical culture, of which health is the principal aim.[1]

Ten years before books like Sleeveless Errand exposed the mental toll to which young women who had survived the war were subjected, Woman: Her Health and Beauty encourages women to use exercise to improve themselves. However, it consistently couches the language of self-improvement in the context of becoming more beautiful. Rather than pursuing physical health as a goal in itself, women were assumed to want to be beautiful above all things.

True beauty depends especially on perfect health, that is to say, on the perfect harmony of the whole organism.[2]

[we] do not aim at producing remarkable muscles which, in a woman’s case, would not be aesthetic, but only to acquire suppleness of the body and harmony of form.[3]

A significant portion of the book’s introduction is devoted to arguing that high heels and corsets are bad for a woman’s form and health. If the French original was written in the early 1910s as suggested, corsets at that point had not yet been as fully abandoned as they would be in the 1920s. However, after arguing that wearing heels deforms a woman’s spine and corsets compress the chest, the book states that ‘civilization demands’[4] that women wear high heels and to suggest a woman should abandon the corset is ‘such a radical step [that] would bring ridicule upon us.’[5] Instead, women are advised to wear heels for as short a time as possible and not lace their corsets overly tightly. Women are instructed to adhere to the conventions of beauty over their own health.

This patriarchal tone pervades throughout the introduction, which states that

In consequence of her more delicate organism, certain exercises which are suitable to men, and even children, might be dangerous to women[6]

And

women, as we have said, do not know how to breathe[7]

The reader is also scolded for her perceived insistence to do things her own way and not follow the advice of the male experts:

The first requirement of rational and beneficial gymnastic exercises is to perform them in accordance with defined rules, and not according to the personal ideas of each individual.[8]

The end result is a book that chastises women for not applying themselves sufficiently to the rational requirements of physical exercise, but at the same time holds out the promise that any woman can be ‘graceful and agreeable to look upon, provided that they take pains to suitably and completely develop their physical condition’.[9] It gives women information about how fashionable clothes may be hurting them, but then tells them to keep wearing them anyway as it makes them beautiful. Ultimately, the book’s exercises are even presented as an inferior replacement for ‘real’ exercise such as horse riding:

Natural gymnastics are in reality the most salutary of all, and they alone are sufficient for health and beauty; but in our unnatural and civilized existence it is almost impossible for most people to indulge in them.[10]

Woman: Her Health and Beauty is therefore a prime example of the type of self-help books that leave the reader feeling insufficient and at the same time offer up a path to salvation, gained through the rigorous adherence to, in this case, a daily exercise regime. It is not possible to trace how many women bought the book or followed its instruction (although there appears to have only been one edition of the English version published). The existence of Woman: Her Health and Beauty in the first place, however, gives an insight in how patriarchal structures created a space for women to be held personally accountable for the health of the nation following the war.


[1] Max Parnet, Woman: Her Health and Beauty (London: John Long, 1919), p. 19

[2] Ibid., p. 15

[3] Ibid., p. 22

[4] Ibid., p. 24

[5] Ibid., p. 27

[6] Ibid., p. 21

[7] Ibid., p. 35

[8] Ibid., pp. 29-30

[9] Ibid., p. 19

[10] Ibid., p. 49

Gracie Fields in Picture Post (1938)

FeaturedGracie Fields in Picture Post (1938)

Gracie Fields was one of Britain’s biggest stars during the interwar period, and she is certainly one of the stars that is best remembered today. With her signature Lancashire accent; dry, witty comedy; and hearty songs, she came to represent a version of Britishness grounded in no-nonsense hard work and companionship. Whilst the music hall stage was her natural home, in the 1930s Fields expanded her reach through appearing in a string of musical comedy films. In these, she generally played a working-class woman with aspirations to perform as a singer. Her characters, often called Grace/Gracie or Sally, met any obstacles with good cheer and eventually achieved their ambitions.

In 1938, Fields was invited to perform for Queen Mary (the late King’s wife and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II) in the Royal Albert Hall. To mark the occasion, Picture Post featured an extensive spread titled ‘A Day With Gracie’.[1] The text and pictures of this article give an insight in how Fields’ celebrity persona was constructed at this stage of her career, when she had become an established star.

Rochdale News | News Headlines | Appeal for Gracie Fields memories for new  biography - Rochdale Online

The article starts with an imaginative recounting of how a six-year old Gracie used to sing on the streets of Rochdale, whilst dreaming of future riches: ‘She thought of the day when she would be a famous actress, with enough money to buy clothes, mansions, motor-cars, and holidays abroad.’[2] The article positions Fields’ working-class and Northern background as a pivotal part of her development as a singer. However, it also states that a desire for material wealth underpinned her ambition.

The article goes on to describe Fields’ first attempts as a singer: supporting an existing music hall act; singing at local competitions and charity events; joining a troupe of ‘Juveniles’ on tour. Throughout these descriptions, the article constantly refers back to Fields’ father’s scepticism of her ambitions, and the need for Fields to bring income into the family. After the failed Juveniles tour, Fields’ mother ‘got Gracie a job as an errand girl to a confectioner.’[3] The article goes into the formative part of Fields’ career in such detail, because it allows the journalist to present Fields as completely determined in her ambition to succeed. Like Fields’ personas in her various films, she was not deterred by setbacks, but instead kept trying to find a way to realise her ambitions.

Initially, this path to success took the form of incredibly hard work: Fields was working shifts in a local mill, going to school, and also attending dance classes in Manchester several times a week.[4] She studied music hall acts and eventually was given another opportunity to perform at a local music hall. Rather ironically, it was not until Archie Pitt, a performer sixteen years her senior, ‘spotted’ her and decided to build his next show around her, that Fields’ career really took off. She married Pitt in 1923, when she was 25 and he 41; the couple divorced in 1939 and the marriage was already very rocky by the time the Picture Post article was published – Pitt does not appear in any of the images accompanying the piece.

Although the article refers to Fields as ‘probably the highest-paid woman in the world’[5] and the ‘Most-interviewed woman in the world’[6] (both unsubstantiated claims), the article is at great pains to stress that Fields is no diva. She finds buying clothes ‘a bore’, likes walking around in old clothes, and is ‘vague’ – a characteristic apparently demonstrated by her tendency to leave half-written letters lying about the house. Although the article originally set up the premise that the young Gracie dreamt of riches, it then takes pains to underline how little the adult Grace is interested in a wealthy lifestyle.

Even more strikingly, the article refers very minimally to Fields’ actual work, despite her enormous success in that area. Instead it focuses a great deal on her work with children. No fewer than 8 out of the 17 photographs that accompany the piece, feature her nephew Michael, who looks about three years old. The captions state that ‘There are almost always children in the house’[7] and ‘Hundreds of children have spent happy afternoons’[8] in Grace’s garden. She also set up a charitable children’s home near Brighton.

What is glaringly absent through the many references to her apparent fondness of children, is any acknowledgement that Fields herself was childless. At the time the article was written she was 40, which is explicitly referred to in the text; the conclusion is quickly drawn that Fields’ childlessness at that age was not wanted. The reality is that Fields’ battled cervical cancer which greatly diminished her ability to get pregnant. Whilst it is understandable that Fields was not keen that her medical history would be known to the public, one wonders how she felt about being presented as such an explicitly maternal figure in this article.

Overall, the Picture Post article is ambiguous in the way it presents Fields. She is both British through and through and someone with international allure and star power. The article devotes considerable attention to her ‘talent, hard work, and personality’[9] and ability to overcome setbacks. At the same time, it frames Archie Pitt as the catalyst of her success. It presents Fields as a rich woman who loves re-modelling her vast house, but also someone who ‘is not interested in money’.[10] It provides an interesting study of how the interwar press attempted to present a successful female star as she moved into middle age.

See Gracie Fields in action in this clip recorded in 1938

[1] ‘A Day With Gracie’, Picture Post, 29 October 1938, pp. 10-16 and 70

[2] Ibid., p. 12

[3] Ibid., p. 14

[4] Ibid., pp. 15-16

[5] Ibid., p. 12

[6] Ibid., p. 15

[7] Ibid., p. 12

[8] Ibid., p. 14

[9] Ibid., p. 70

[10] Ibid.

W. Lusty & Sons Ltd – Furniture Makers

FeaturedW. Lusty & Sons Ltd – Furniture Makers

During the 1930s, London’s suburbs developed and expanded at a rapid pace.[1] The droves of new ‘white-collar’ workers were sold on the promise that they, too, could own their own home and garden. All these new homes needed furniture. Before IKEA, there was W Lusty & Sons, makers of solid-wood furniture for affordable prices.

The workshop of Lusty & Sons was based in Bromley-by-Bow, more specifically just south of Empson Street. The yard bordered on the Limehouse Cut, which allowed for the easy transportation of goods in and out of the premises. Customers were obviously not expected to attend here; instead, the company maintained a showroom in Paul Street (just east of Old Street station). The bulk of Lusty & Sons customers, however, appear to have bought out of their catalogues. The company boasted a UK wide delivery service by goods or even passenger train – the latter if the order was particularly urgent.

Drawing of Lusty & Sons yard in Bromley-by-Bow, as included in 1936 catalogue

To allow for these shipping methods, Lusty & Sons built furniture that was delivered in parts, and could be easily assembled in the home. Dining tables, which in 1936 ranged in price from 7 shilling and 3 pence to £1, 19 shilling and 9 pence, came with detachable legs. The catalogue reassured prospective customers that this novel way of furniture production was not dangerous: ‘Although the legs are detachable, the tables, when fitted together, are perfectly rigid and strong.’[2]

It is not just the affordable prices for the cheaper versions of the furniture that indicate that Lusty & Sons clientele were white-collar workers rather than the leisured classes. The company also provided a number of furniture styles which were explicitly designed to fit into modest houses. The ‘cottage’ dining table range, for example, came with two fold-out leaves.[3] When folded away, the table took up minimal space, and for dinner it could be extended to give everyone a seat at the table. This design has, of course, continued to be a welcome solution to those living in smaller spaces.

Their kitchen furniture catalogue reveals even more strongly that Lusty & Sons furniture was aimed at newly married couples of reasonably modest means, setting up house together. The supply of domestic servants had been steadily shrinking since the Edwardian era: by the 1930s, young women had plenty of other employment options which were more appealing than a life in service.[4] Additionally, the expense of live-in servants was one that newlywed couples were unlikely to be able to afford. Lucky for the inexperienced housewife, then, that Lusty & Sons could supply her with an all-in-one kitchen unit which provided her with all the tools she needed to run her household.

Multi-functional kitchen cabinet sold by Lusty & Sons in 1936

These comprehensive kitchen cabinets again came in a range of prices; the more expensive the model, the more functionality it had. This model, which at £9 was one of the more expensive ones, came with an instructive image which explained to the prospective buyer exactly how to use the unit. The 29 (!) arrows tell the housewife that she should put her large household utensils on top of the cabinet; keep her preserves in the jars in the bottom left cabinet; and put her ‘various kitchen sundries’ in the middle drawer on the bottom right. This particular cabinet comes with a chart of food values built in, and a pocket for household account books: these underline that the housewife’s task is a serious one. The health and economic survival of the household are her responsibility. The porcelain table top extends to a dining table; the catalogue provides a drawing that depicts the white-collar couple harmoniously at breakfast, using the full range of the cabinet’s functions.

Drawing included in catalgue, demonstrating use of cabinet

The Lusty & Sons furniture catalogues shine a light on how the new interwar workers furnished their homes. Like contemporary mass-furniture makers, each piece of Lusty & Sons furniture was available in a wide range of finishes. Customers were able to personalise their furniture to fit their tastes and budgets, thus avoiding the risk of having exactly the same furniture as their neighbours. At the same time, the catalogues instructed customers on how to use the furniture, and by extension, how to manage their households. Far from being a neutral object, the catalogue’s tacit and explicit instructions make visible what was considered an appropriate way of living for white-collar workers in the mid-1930s.


[1] Mark Clapson, Suburban Century: social change and urban growth in England and the United States (Oxford: Berg, 2003), p. 2

[2] ‘W. Lusty & Sons Ltd Catalogue’, 1936, held by Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, LC10550

[3] Ibid.

[4] Miriam Glucksmann, Women Assemble: women workers and the new industries in inter-war Britain (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 52-3

Night Alone (1938)

FeaturedNight Alone (1938)

The 69 comedies produced in Britain in 1938 include two George Formby vehicles (I see Ice! and It’s in the Air), Break the News starring Jack Buchanan and Maurice Chevalier, and the marital comedy Night Alone. With a modest run-time of one hour and 16 minutes, the film nevertheless manages to combine a comedy about misunderstandings between husband and wife with a sub-plot involving the international smuggling of fraudulent banknotes.

By the tail end of the 1930s, the British film industry was steadily producing upwards of 150 films a year, and the majority of them were comedies. Comedy is more culturally specific than crime or melodrama, and cheaper to produce. Despite their increased output, British film studios could not usually hope to compete with high-budget Hollywood productions.

Welsh actor Emlyn Williams (who in the same year starred in the hard-boiled They Drive By Night) plays Charles Seaton, a solicitor who for seven years has been happily married to Barbara (Lesley Brook). Whilst on route to visit Barbara’s sister Vi, and see Vi’s daughter in a school play, Charles is unexpectedly detained by urgent business. This means the couple have to spend a night apart for the first time in seven years: Charles in a hotel and Barbara at Vi’s house. Despite Charles’ best intentions to stay in his room for a quiet night in, when he meets his old friend Tommy, he is persuaded to go to a nightclub in Villiers Street. Vi, at the same time, needles Barbara to the point that she starts doubting Charles’ loyalty.

A fair portion of the film is set in the nightclub that Charles, Tommy and two of Tommy’s friends, Gloria and Celia, visit. By 1938, the perceived threat of nightclubs to society had mellowed to the point that the film can joke about the club’s dubious legal status. When Tommy first tries to persuade Charles that he should come out, Charles tries to get out of it by arguing that he is not a member of the nightclub. ‘All you have to do is put a bob in a slot machine and you’re a member for life!’ scoffs Tommy. Towards the end of the film, when Tommy has to give an account of the party’s movements to a police officer, he immediately gives a fake name and address, on the assumption that he is part of a regular nightclub raid and will be let off with a warning.  

Tommy is presented as a bit dim-witted, but ultimately harmless and fun; he certainly knows how to behave in the nightclub. Charles inability to do the same, and his awkwardness in the pub, is played up for its comedic value. After his initial refusal to dance, he sits at the table with Celia, who appears to be in league with the nightclub staff. She first gestures over the cigarette seller. Charles agrees to buy a cigar, but baulks when he’s told it will cost 10 shillings. He then feels obliged to buy a packet of cigarettes instead, even though that is still overpriced at 4 shillings. Celia then waves the girl who sells chocolates, over. Charles again feels that decency compels him to buy some chocolates for Celia, even though they cost 25s and the girl does not give him any change.

Later in the evening, Charles shares a few dances with Gloria, with whom he gets on much better than with Celia. In his nervousness, Charles keeps drinking until he passes out. The other three manage to get him out of the club and into Gloria’s apartment, which is nearby. Celia and Tommy head out again, and Gloria is about to settle in on the couch when her American boyfriend unexpectedly shows up. He has just arrived by plane from Paris with a suitcase of forged banknotes, and the police are hot on his heels. Gloria and he escape the flat, leaving the drunk Charles snoring on the bed. When the police raid the flat shortly afterwards, they arrest Charles as an accomplice to the smuggling and put him in a cell for the rest of the night. The next morning, Charles has to try his hardest to get back to the hotel before Barbara and Vi come back. He manages to do so with seconds to spare and Barbara believes him when he says he’s not left the hotel all night: marital bliss is restored.

Charles has several dances with Gloria and the pair share light-hearted jokes (sample: Charles: ‘I’m not as young as I look’; Gloria: ‘You don’t look young at all’). It is not until Charles thinks he’s about to be arrested for forgery that he is concerned about Barbara finding out what has happened during the night. Night Alone presents Charles initial devotion to his wife and his quiet life as unnatural and comic. In line with other popular comedies of the time, such as the Aldwych farce A Cuckoo in the Nest, the narrative suggests that there is nothing wrong with spending a night in another woman’s flat, as long as your wife doesn’t find out about it.

Barbara, for her part, is admired by one of the other parents at the school play. Vi encourages her to enjoy a little flirtation on the grounds that Charles is bound to be doing the same. The ‘flirtation’ goes no further than an awkward, stilted conversation between Barbara and the man. Her refusal to engage with the man is part of her virtue as a wife, as is her blind belief that Charles would never do anything untoward. Barbara is constantly compared to Vi, whose cynicism and jokes about sex mark her out as coarse, in the same way Tommy is shown to be unreliable compared to Charles. Vi and Tommy are a lot of fun to watch but Night Alone makes it clear that the reward of a stable marriage with trust and companionship is worth more than short-term fun and entertainment.

Newspaper wars

Although this blog focuses on the period between the First and Second World War, the interwar period was not without its conflicts. One of the social changes which took place in the first half of the 1930s has retrospectively been dubbed the ‘newspaper wars’ which was fought between popular newspaper titles.

A host of daily newspapers aimed at the lower-middle classes were launched in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. The Daily Mail arrived in 1896, followed by the Daily Express in 1900, the Daily Mirror in 1903 and the Daily Herald in 1912. These newspapers represented a completely new type of written press. Existing papers such as The Times and the Daily Telegraph were aimed at upper class, male readers. They contained columns of densely printed text without illustrations. Advertising mostly consisted of personal adverts which took up the entire front page. There were no big headlines, and reporting included lengthy verbatim reports of parliamentary discussions.

The new popular papers founded at the start of the twentieth century disrupted this model. Partially due to educational reform, general literacy levels increased, and there was now room in the market for newspapers aimed at a wider readership. However, whereas broadsheet papers were aimed at men who could afford to spend hours reading a paper over breakfast or in their members club, the new newspapers recognised that their readership likely could only snatch a few minutes at a time to read their paper. Moreover, the newspaper bosses realised that their readership was more interested in snappy articles and the new invention of the ‘human interest’ story than in long and precise reports about complicated subjects.

From the beginning, popular papers therefore printed shorter articles, more images, and more headlines. The Express was the first to adopt an ‘American’ lay-out which meant that it printed news on the front page, as opposed to the ubiquitous personal adverts –  a practice eventually adopted by all national newspapers. These papers generally cost only one pence per issue, to keep them affordable to the working classes and lower-middle classes. This did mean that the papers’ main revenue source was advertising. In order to attract the most lucrative advertising deals, each paper had to ensure its circulation was constantly growing. It was particularly coveted to increase the number of subscribers as they provided a more stable source of income than those who bought a paper only occasionally.

Throughout the Edwardian period and the 1920s the popular papers were able to increase their circulation by targeting people who did not yet subscribe to any paper at all. By the early 1930s, however, market saturation had been reached, and newspapers had to change their tactics. The only way to continue growing their circulation was by actively persuading readers to switch papers. The fight for new subscribers became so heated that this period has later been dubbed the ‘newspaper wars’.

Newspapers used different tactics to persuade more readers to subscribe to them. One was to ensure that they offered a clear political identity. The Daily Herald had been, from its foundation, an outspoken left-wing newspaper, and from 1922 it was formally affiliated with the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the overarching body of trade unions. By 1933 the Herald’s circulation had grown larger than it had ever been, to two million copies a day, and it started to form a real threat to the other popular papers, which had mostly supported a conservative agenda.

The owners of the Daily Mirror, therefore, relaunched the Mirror in 1934 as a left-leaning paper, but without formal affiliation to the TUC. This enabled the Mirror to present itself as the paper of choice for the non-radical, non-unionised working classes. It also differentiated itself clearly from the Mail and Express who continued to support the Conservative party.

Whilst the Express did not differentiate itself through its political stance, it did radically change its layout in 1933, in a bid to attract more readers. A new editorial team introduced clearer headlines and wider spacing, which made the paper easier to read. Their biggest innovation was to no longer print articles strictly across one column, top to bottom. Instead they adopted the ‘jigsaw’ approach which is familiar to newspaper readers today: articles cut across multiple columns and readers read horizontally across rather than only vertically. Up until that point, every national newspaper in Britain had rigidly stuck to printing their articles vertically.

A third tactic employed by newspapers to gain more readers was the liberal use of stunts and insurance schemes. The latter allowed newspaper subscribers to buy insurance through their newspaper, which would then be paid out to their relatives in case of illness, accident or death. Newspapers in turn were able to print stories of how they had helped widows and children of deceased readers which made them seem magnanimous. Insurance schemes were available prior to the newspaper wars, but they did become a feature of the inter-paper competition. Newspaper insurance schemes are a central part of the plot of the 1932 comedy film Let Me Explain, Dear.

Arguably, the Express came out on top after the newspaper wars, as it was the best-selling newspaper in Britain from the mid-1930s until the late 1940s. This was not only due to their improved lay-out, but also due to their policy of adopting an optimistic editorial line, perhaps best summarised in their infamous August 1939 front page headline ‘No War This Year’.[1] This editorial policy set them apart from the Mail, which traditionally took a more alarmist approach. The (falsely) reassuring tone of the Express ultimately resonated more with a reading public that could still vividly remember the last War.


[1] Marianne Hicks, ‘No War This Year: Selkirk Panton and the editorial policy of the Daily Express, 1938–39’, Media History, 2008, 14:2, 167-183