The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935)

FeaturedThe Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935)

Although rather awkwardly titled and largely forgotten today, the 1935 film The Passing of the Third Floor Back was very popular in Britain upon its release. It draws together two features of the interwar British film industry that have been discussed across various previous posts on this blog. Like, for example, Pygmalion and The Lodger it is based on existing source material. In this instance, this was a short story and play both written by popular writer Jerome K. Jerome before the First World War. The film also draws on high-profile European talent in its director, Berthold Viertel, and its star, Conrad Veidt. This highlights the ongoing international nature of the British film industry between the wars.

Conrad Veidt was a hugely popular and famous German actor with a long career in silent cinema, most notably with lead roles in such classics as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Anders als die Anderen (1919), the latter being a landmark of LGBTQ+ silent cinema. In 1933, Veidt left Germany in light of Hitler’s recent assumption of power; as well as him having politically opposing views to the nazi’s, Veidt’s wife was Jewish.[1] Veidt established himself in Britain and made twelve films for British studios until the outbreak of the Second World War. Film historian Sue Harper considers The Passing of the Third Floor Back ‘the apotheosis of [Veidt’s] acting career.’[2]

The film’s director, Berthold Viertel, was an Austrian émigré filmmaker and friend of Veidt’s. After making The Passing of the Third Floor Back, Viertel only made one more film, 1936’s Rhodes of Africa. Like Veidt, Viertel’s political sympathies were left-of-centre, which comes through clearly in their version of The Passing of the Third Floor Back. The short story and play on which the film were based did not foreground class issues in the same way, indicating that these were specifically scripted in for the film. Incidentally, the script of the film was co-written by Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and frequent scriptwriter.

The film’s rather awkward title refers to the room Conrad Veidt’s character, an unnamed Stranger, takes in the boarding house of Mrs Sharpe. At the opening of the film, we see Stasia, the young housemaid, try and grow a flower in the house’s kitchen. She gets scolded by the stern Mrs Sharpe, and frequent allusions are made by both Mrs Sharpe and the other boarding house guests to Stasia’s background as a young ‘delinquent’. Then the Stranger arrives at the door, asking for a room. Mrs Sharpe leads him up to the back of the top floor, presenting him with a tiny room overlooking rooftops. Although Mrs Sharpe is expecting the Stranger to haggle and argue, he instead compliments the room and placidly accepts her terms.

The rest of the film takes place over three days only. On the evening of the Stranger’s arrival, two of the other boarders are due to get engaged. Young and pretty Vivian is entering into this engagement with the odious Mr Wright because it will save her family from financial ruin. In reality, Vivian is in love with a young architect who also lives in the house. During evening dinner, the Stranger stares intently at Vivian, and she decides not to go through with the engagement. Throughout the rest of the evening, the Stranger keeps using this ‘mesmerising’ stare to mentally force people to act in accordance with their true desires. Another boarder, keen to amuse everyone with superficial show tunes on the piano, is convinced to play classical music instead. A conversation the Stranger has with the architect leads the latter to admit that he too is in love with Vivian.

Conrad Veidt as the Stranger, using his ‘mesmerising’ power

The next day is a Bank Holiday Monday, and the Stranger generously offers to take the whole boarding house party out on a steamer to Margate. Mrs Sharpe allows Stasia to come along, and for the first time the servant girl is accepted as a full member of the house party. On the boat, everyone enjoys themselves. The Stranger has a conversation with Miss Kite, one of the lodgers who is ‘the wrong side of thirty’ and very insecure about her looks. When Stasia falls off the steamer, Miss Kite jumps into the water without hesitation to save her. Her conversation with the Stranger has (temporarily) allowed her to stop worrying about her appearance. Miss Kite’s heroic deed earns her the appreciation of the pianist.

Stasia moments before she falls off the steamer in The Passing of the Third Floor Back

Although everyone seems improved by the Stranger’s gentle attentions and insistence on good manners, one man is not impressed. Wright, who got spurned by Vivian, is a rich man who profits off slum housing. Having lost Vivian, he makes it clear to the Stranger that evening that he will do everything he can to swing the pendulum of change the other way. He explicitly addresses how the Stranger has influenced everyone to ‘do good’, and how he will remind everyone of their baser emotions. Indeed, the next morning, Wright’s influence leads to quarrels and frustrations across the house. People appear to have forgotten what kindness and politeness can do to make everyone’s life more pleasant.

Wright confronts the Stranger in The Passing of the Third Floor Back

At the end of that day, a burglar kills Wright. Initially, the house blame Stasia; then the Stranger. Their mob mentality, once its revealed they were wrongfully accusing their peers, provides a wake-up call to the Stranger’s kindness. He leaves the house, satisfied that he has now made a lasting impact on the lodgers’ worldviews.

Throughout, the Stranger is quite clearly analogous to a Christ-like figure, advocating kindness in every action. Wright appears to be set up as a sort of Lucifer, and the discussion between Wright and the Stranger tantalisingly suggests that Wright ‘recognises’ the Stranger and the two have been at odds before. Yet the film grounds these Christian analogies in practical class-based discussions, particularly by making Wright a profiteering landlord. Although the religious undertones make The Passing of the Third Floor Back a somewhat dated and unfamiliar viewing experience for modern audiences, its social commentary (unfortunately) still feels very relevant.

The Passing of the Third Floor Back can be viewed on YouTube; the short story on which the film is based can be read here.


[1] Sue Harper, ‘Thinking Forward and Up: The British films of Conrad Veidt’, in The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British cinema, 1929-1939, ed. Jeffrey Richards (London: IB Tauris, 2000), 121-137 (p. 122)

[2] Ibid., p. 132

Film Star Cigarette Cards (1934)

FeaturedFilm Star Cigarette Cards (1934)

A recent trip to an antique shop delivered a great find: a complete album of film star cigarette cards, collected and collated some time in early 1934. Cigarette brands regularly put out series of cigarette cards, which young people could collect and paste into dedicated albums. In 1934, John Player & Sons, a branch of the Imperial Tobacco Company, published a 50-card series of portrait drawings of film stars. The reverse of each card had some information about the actor. All cards could be pasted into an album; the information that appeared on the reverse of each card was reprinted on the album pages.

My copy was put together by John MacLaren, who lived in Addison Gardens (between Shepherd’s Bush and Kensington Olympia) in West London. We can assume that John was a big film fan as the album is complete, all the cards are inserted into the album neatly, and he handled the album carefully. Nearly 90 years after its composition, it is still in excellent shape with very little wear and tear. The album reveals aspects of 1930s British film fan culture to us: which stars were included, what biographical information was included on them, and which stars were left out?

The first thing to note is that this album is all about the ‘film stars’: there is virtually no mention of directors or producers anywhere in the album. An exception is the entry given for Greta Garbo, which notes that producer Joseph Stiller, upon being given a Hollywood contract, took Garbo ‘along with him’ to the US. The entry for Jessie Matthews, however, makes no mention of Victor Saville, even though she had regularly worked with him by 1934. Similarly, under Marlene Dietrich’s picture there is no mention of Joseph von Sternberg, even though the pair had successfully collaborated several times at this point. Film fan culture in the interwar period was all about the ‘stars’ which appeared on the screen: although retrospectively directors like Hitchcock, Korda and Asquith are recognised as masters of the form, in the interwar period audiences would have been unlikely to seek out a film on the strength of its director alone.

The focus on ‘stars’ rather than ‘actors’ also means that the album mostly contains young, good-looking actors, although a few British ‘character actors’ are included. There are 30 female actors and 20 male actors included; although images of female stars were generally considered more commercially attractive, the album shows that male actors were by no means unimportant and could have considerable ‘sex-appeal’.

Some of the text descriptions, particularly those of male actors, include their height. This was clearly deemed to be important information for the film fan. The description of Johnny Weissmuller thus reads ‘The Olympic Swimming Champion, who stands 6 feet 3 inches in height, made his screen début in short sports films, and because of his magnificent physique was given the title role in Tarzan the Ape Man.’ Even if one had never seen a Johnny Weissmuller film, this description is graphic enough to let the imagination run wild. The drawing of actor Ramon Novarro (5 feet 10 inches) shows him in a vest top which he is tugging slightly to reveal his chest. His Mexican heritage no doubt played a part in this exoticized depiction: virtually all other male stars are shown wearing a suit.

Ramon Novarro in the cigarette card album

Out of the 50 actors included in the album, 29 are American, 11 are British, and the remaining 10 are from other countries – mainly European, but it also includes two Mexicans, a Canadian, and one star born in China to white expat parents (Sari Maritza ‘Her father was English, her mother Viennese’). ‘Talkie’ films were well-established by 1934, and the album shows that although the transition from silent to sound film had limited the international opportunities for non-native English speakers, it had not completely removed them. The aforementioned Garbo and Dietrich were celebrated for their European appearance and demeanour – and both had a powerful male industry figure supporting them. The range of actors included in the album also shows the popularity of Hollywood films in Britain, despite the British government’s attempts to boost the domestic film industry. American stars continued to exert their influence over British fans.

Johnny Weissmuller appearing alongside Mexican actor Raquel Torres and
British actor, producer and race-horse owner Tom Walls

Another reason for the popularity of film stars can be found in many of the narratives that accompany the pictures. Although they are only a short paragraph each, a significant number of them present the careers of film stars as being reached almost by accident. American star Jack Holt, for example, is described as having been ‘in turn a civil engineer, a prospector, a mail carrier in Alaska, a cow-puncher [a cowboy], and finally an actor.’ Madeleine Carroll first worked as a school teacher before taking to the stage; Frederic March was a bank clerk; and Robert Montgomery worked ‘in a mill, then on an oil tanker, and finally became prop man in a touring company.’ The implication is that it is possible to move from a blue-collar or white-collar job into film stardom, and that such a move may be open to the film fan collecting the cigarette cards. This reiteration of the humble origins of many stars, and the supposed open entry to film acting, was an important part of the film industry’s myth-making that constantly held out the possibility to fans that they too could join their favourite stars on the silver screen.

We have no way of knowing whether John Maclaren, the owner of this particular album, had any aspirations to become an actor. Nonetheless, the survival of this album and the care John took in pasting in the cards demonstrates how important film fandom was for him, as it was for thousands of other (young) people in Britain at the time. The cigarette cards gave film fans another accessible way to connect with their favourite actors, in addition to going to the cinema and reading fan magazines. It stands as a testament to (commercial) fan culture in interwar Britain.

Freeman Wills Crofts – The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

FeaturedFreeman Wills Crofts – The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

Freeman Wills Crofts today is not one of the more famous writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, he was a prominent and early member of the Detection Club, a select circle of crime authors that included Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers and others. T.S Eliot rated Crofts as ‘the finest detective story writer to have emerged during the Twenties.’[1] An engineer by training, Crofts’ detective stories often include modes of transport which he describes in exact detail. In Mystery in the Channel, published in 1931, two dead bodies are found on a yacht in the English Channel. The eventual unravelling of the case by Crofts’ regular police protagonist, Inspector French, hinges on the exact timings several vessels embarked on their journey, their relative speeds, and the weather conditions.

The title of Inspector French’s 1934 outing, The 12.30 from Croydon, would have immediately communicated to a contemporary audience that airplanes, not boats, were the mode of transport under scrutiny this time. Like Christie’s more famous Death in the Clouds, published the following year, Crofts’ murder victim dies whilst up in the air.

The 12.30 from Croydon opens with a delightful chapter told from the perspective of the murder victim’s ten-year-old granddaughter Ruby, who is terribly excited that she will be flying for the first time. Ruby, her father Peter, her grandfather Andrew, and Andrew’s butler Weatherup are all due to fly to Paris because Ruby’s mother Elsie has been in a traffic accident in the French capital. Crofts’ engineer’s eye for detail is evident in this opening chapter, which describes the Imperial Airways plane the family board:

It was just a huge dragonfly with a specially long head, which projected far forward before the wings like an enormous snout. And those four lumps were its motors, two on each wing, set into the front edge of the wing and each with its great propeller twirling in front of it. And there was its name, painted on its head: H, E, N, G, I, S, T; HENGIST.’[2]

‘Hengist’ was the colloquial name for a real Imperial Airways plane which until 1934 (the year of the book’s publication) flew on the European routes. It was subsequently converted to fly long-distance and as far as Australia, until the plane was destroyed in an accident in 1937. Once up in the air, Ruby and her family are served a ‘four-course lunch followed by coffee, all very nice and comfortably served’.[3] When they land, disaster strikes: Andrew Crowther, Ruby’s grandfather, is found unresponsive and declared dead.

A contemporary photo of the real Hengist plane standing outside Croydon Aerodrome, taken from A Million Miles in the Air,
the memoirs of pilot Gordon P. Olley, published in 1934

After the murder in the opening chapter, Wills Crofts shifts perspective and takes the reader back in time. The 12.30 from Croydon is a ‘psychological crime novel’ – rather than the reader trying to work out who has committed the murder and how, the author takes the reader into the mind of the murderer as he plots out his murder and attempts to escape justice. Andrew Crowther’s murderer, as it turns out, is his nephew Charles Swinburn. Charles is the managing director of the Crowther Electromotor Works, a firm originally set up by Andrew and his business partner Henry Swinburn. Although modest in size, the firm had been flourishing under Andrew’s leadership.

By the early 1930s, however, Charles is finding it impossible to stay afloat in the challenging economic environment following the 1929 Wall Street crash. Having already sunk his personal capital and a bank loan into the business, Charles approaches his uncle for financial help. Andrew, however, is not willing to give more than £1000, when Charles needs at least £6000. Knowing that he is one of the two heirs to Andrew’s estate (alongside Andrew’s daughter Elsie), Charles devises his plan to kill Andrew.

Charles method for murdering Andrew is one also used on occasion in other crime novels of the period. Andrew takes a ‘patent medicine’ against indigestion after lunch each day. Patent medicine were mass-produced pills designed to remedy common ills. Unlike more traditional medicine which was prescribed by a doctor and then mixed up to order by a pharmacist, patent medicines were available in standardized bottles and could be purchased without a doctor’s prescription.

In novels of the 1920s and 1930s they are often treated with disdain and considered to be inferior to the personalised prescriptions that a doctor would give out. However, their wide availability and uniform appearance also made them an ingenious murder weapon. Charles buys a bottle of pills identical to the one Andrew uses, but replaces one of the pills with a pill filled with potassium cyanide, an extremely lethal poison. Like in the Poirot short story ‘Wasps’ Nest’, Charles manages to obtain the poison with the excuse that he needs to eradicate a wasps nest from his garden. When at dinner with Andrew, Charles distracts him and swaps the pill bottles, pocketing Andrew’s bottle and replacing it with the one that contains the one deadly pill. He then books himself onto a Mediterranean cruise to be out of the way when Andrew eventually takes the poisoned pill.

Although the murder plan works and Charles duly inherits half of Andrew’s estate, Charles swiftly finds out that murderers rarely rest easily. First Weatherup reveals that he has seen Charles swap the pill bottles, and starts blackmailing him. Charles swiftly decides to kill Weatherup, too. Then Inspector French arrives and starts asking some awkward questions. The arrest, when it inevitably comes, takes Charles by surprise. It is not until the final chapter of the book that the reader is shown how Inspector French conducted his investigation, and how his powers of deduction led him to correctly identify Charles as the murder. The perfect murder plan conceived by Charles is revealed to have had some rather large holes in it.

Charles is duly condemned to death and executed. There is less moral ambiguity in The 12.30 from Croydon than, for example, Anthony Berkeley’s Malice Aforethought, or even than in Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive. Although Andrew Crowther is not a hugely sympathetic character, there is no doubt to the reader that Charles’ actions are wrong, and that the policing and justice systems will catch up with him and serve him the expected sentence. The book’s reversed structure allows Wills Crofts to reveal Inspector French’s intellect in the final chapter, transmitting the reassuring fiction to the reader that no matter how well one may think they have planned a crime, the men from Scotland Yard will always ensure that justice is dispensed.


[1] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), p. 75

[2] Freeman Wills Crofts, The 12.30 from Croydon (London: British Library, 2016), p. 16

[3] Ibid., p. 19

The Monkey Club

FeaturedThe Monkey Club

Picture Post, the left-wing photojournalism magazine launched in October 1938, has a proud track record of political journalism, including comprehensive reporting on the plight of Jewish people under Nazi rule. In amongst this serious political reportage, however, the weekly magazine also provided plenty of lighter content, such as an article in an early issue about the so-called ‘Monkey Club’, a club where ‘debutantes learn to be housewives.’

The five-page spread appeared in the issue of 10 December 1938, early on in the Post’s existence. The Monkey Club was a slightly odd hybrid between a member’s club and an educational establishment. One would become a member either by being put forward by two existing members, or by serving probation – by 1938 there were apparently eighty members in total. The club had been founded in 1923 and lasted at least until the early 1950s. According to the Club’s founder, Marion Ellison, she wanted to ‘supply a social and educational club for society girls, who at eighteen may not wish to enter a University, but who do not want to idle away their days.’[1]

Debutantes were daughters of prominent families who were presented at Court during their first ‘season’ and subsequently attended the annual round of balls and parties. The ‘season’ was a long-established London tradition and once upon a time the primary way for young wealthy people to meet their marriage partners. By the late 1930s, however, social change had been such that debutantes could not necessarily expect the same lives as their mothers and grandmothers, and some of them undoubtedly also wished to have a profession.

The Monkey Club’s varied offering demonstrates the transitional space in which it operated. It offered residential lodgings for about 30 of its members, providing young women who wanted to live independently a more socially elevated alternative to lodging in a Bloomsbury boarding house.[2] The club also provided five main strands of educational activity: ‘General Education, Music, Secretarial Training, Domestic Science, and Dressmaking.’[3] The five categories had different purposes, depending on what the debutante needed.

Should she need to learn a job to earn her own living, clearly the secretarial training would be very useful. It is a sign of significant social change that a sizeable sub-section of the Club membership was ‘training for careers’ – even a generation earlier the notion of a debutante taking a secretarial course would have raised eyebrows.[4] But by the late 1930s, ‘debs’ could not necessarily expect to marry into wealth and live out the rest of their days as matriarchs. Secretarial work, on the other hand, was in constant and increasing demand and provided a respectable route into paid employment for young women, at least until such a moment that they got married.

The ‘Domestic Science’ training, which Picture Post called ‘probably the highlight of the club’, also demonstrates how society had changed.[5] Although the debutantes come from wealthy families, they can clearly no longer expect to run households with a lot of staff. The Monkeys are not taught how to manage servants, but rather how to undertake household tasks themselves. From ironing shirts to cleaning windows, the Monkeys are given instructions on how to undertake each part of household management. ‘Every debutante wants to be a good housewife’ enthuses the Post.[6]

The club building even contains a complete flat, where members who are about to get married take ‘Bride’s Course’. The flat gives them a trial at running a complete household, including planning and executing dinner parties. Says the Post: ‘The “Bride’s Course” is no romantic interlude. The brides are thoroughly prepared to cope with all emergencies, even to leaky pipes and broken armchairs.’[7] Clearly, most of the debutantes were expecting to be quite hands-on in their household management after marriage, reflecting the replacement of servants with labour-saving devices as the job market changed. Another area for change was that of childrearing. Like with the household, debutantes would be expected to be hands-on in the raising of their children. To that end, the Monkey Club had a ‘perfect 7lbs “baby” with moveable head and limbs’ – a realistic model which the club members were taught to bathe and dress in the ‘correct’ way.[8]

Other parts of the ‘educational’ curriculum serve to a more traditional conception of a debutante’s life. The music and art education mostly built on what club members had learnt at the inevitable ‘finishing school abroad’: in-depth teaching on music history and theory to allow members to ‘know how to listen and enjoy good music.’[9] Also popular are classes on ‘dancing, stage technique and elocution’ – skills that have less practical use and are more designed to enhance the pupil’s appearance and effectiveness at social engagements.

The Monkey Club clearly fulfilled a function during a time of significant social change. As class barriers were broken down, the old system of sending debutantes to finishing schools and expect almost everyone else to either be a housewife or learn a trade no longer worked. In this ambiguous space, the Monkey Club bridged the old and the new, providing debutantes with a familiar space from which they could navigate their own way through a changing society.


[1] ‘This is the Monkey Club’, Picture Post, 10 December 1938, p. 33

[2] Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei (eds), Living with Strangers: Bedsits and Boarding Houses in Modern British Life, Literature and Film (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)

[3] ‘This is the Monkey Club’, Picture Post, 10 December 1938, p. 33

[4] Ibid., p. 34

[5] Ibid, pp. 35-6

[6] Ibid., p. 36

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 35

Dorothy L. Sayers

FeaturedDorothy L. Sayers

Agatha Christie is undoubtedly the most famous author of the ‘Golden Age of Crime Fiction’ (or indeed the most famous crime author of all time). She did not stand alone, however, but rather was part of a closely connected network of crime writers who worked in Britain and the rest of the Empire between the two wars. Some of the more illustrious authors organised themselves in the Detection Club, a group which was founded in the 1930s and still exists today. One of the founding members of the Detection Club was Dorothy L. Sayers, another female crime fiction writer who obtained widespread recognition during the 1920s and 1930s.

Sayers was born in 1893 in Oxford to a well-to-do couple; her father was a reverend and chaplain to Christ Church Cathedral in the city. Sayers herself studied at Somerville, the all-female College of the University of Oxford. She was there from 1912 to 1915, leaving before the arrival of Vera Brittain and, later, Winifred Holtby.[1] At Sommerville Sayers would also meet Muriel Jaeger, who eventually established her own literary career. Sayers would later draw heavily on her experiences at Somerville for the crime novel Gaudy Night, which appeared in 1935.[2]

After completing her degree, Sayers moved to London and briefly took up a teaching post: teaching was one of the career paths young women were strongly encouraged to enter into, with its associations of helping, caring and other supposedly typical feminine traits.[3] After the teaching stint, she briefly returned to Oxford and then travelled to France, only to eventually return again to London and take up a job as a copywriter.[4] She never lost sight of her literary ambitions and some time in 1920 she started to come up with the amateur detective who would become her most famous character: Lord Peter Wimsey.

Eventually, Sayers published eleven Wimsey novels as well as a series of short stories in which he featured. It can be argued that in Wimsey, Sayers created an ideal man, and part of the fun of the Wimsey stories lies in the interplay between their plots and Sayers’ private life. Wimsey is an aristocrat, the second son of the Dowager Duchess of Denver. He has a private income, a very steady butler named Bunter, an MA from Oxford and an interest in collecting rare books. He also appears to work for the British government on occasion, as he is sent across Europe to undertake diplomatic missions to try and avoid war. He is close friends with detective Charles Parker of the Metropolitan Police, who later in the series marries Wimsey’s sister. Wimsey’s intellect, financial independence, links with the police and elevated status in society make him the ideal amateur sleuth, as he has the means and ability to enter almost any situation.

In Strong Poison, the fifth Wimsey novel, Sayers started to really draw on her own life for the book’s plot. Although all the Wimsey novels contain intricately plotted crime puzzles which adhere to the rules of ‘fair play’, its in the interpersonal relationships of the characters where the clues are to Sayers’ private life. In the early 1920s, Sayers had a relationship with fellow writer John Cournos, which came to an end when Cournos wanted to sleep together outside of the marriage, which Sayers did not want.[5] In Strong Poison, Sayers introduces Harriet Vane, a clear alter-ego for herself. Vane is a crime fiction author who is on trial for the murder of her partner; in this fictional relationship the question of sex outside of marriage was also paramount. The victim in Strong Poison is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Cournos, and Sayers no doubt got great satisfaction from giving the character an extremely painful death from arsenic poisoning.

Wimsey falls in love with Harriet Vane in Strong Poison, and throughout the remainder of the Wimsey series their relationship takes on increased importance until, in the aforementioned Gaudy Night, Harriet feels that Peter is ready to enter into marriage on equal terms. In Sayers’ real life, no such happy ending was forthcoming. Shortly after the end of her relationship with Cournos, she met Bill White, a man who later turned out to be already married. By the time Sayers found that out, however, she had already agreed to a sexual relationship with him and she found herself pregnant in 1923. Sayers never even told her parents about her pregnancy, so convinced was she that they would not be able to accept it. Amazingly, though, Bill White’s wife came to her aid. Sayers gave birth to her son, John Anthony, in complete secret during a brief leave of absence from her copywriting job. Bill White’s wife, Beatrice, made arrangements for the birth. John Anthony grew up in a foster home run by Sayers’ cousin; during her lifetime Sayers only revealed his existence to five people and never told her parents they had a grandchild.[6]  

Aside from the Wimsey novels and stories, Sayers was a prolific reviewer of crime fiction and also contributed to several volumes written by a group of Detection Club members. The last full Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, appeared in 1937. After this, Sayers mostly turned her attention to religious work, such as a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. [7] She remained a key member of the Detection Club until her death in 1957.[8] Her books remain in print and have been adapted for the screen several times.


[1] Francesca Wade, Square Haunting (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), pp. 96-101

[2] Mo Moulton, The Mutual Admiration Society: ow Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (New York: Basic Books, 2019)

[3] Wade, Square Haunting, p. 107

[4] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), p. 18

[5] Ibid., pp. 19-20

[6] Wade, Square Haunting, pp. 128-132

[7] Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, p. 404

[8] Ibid., p. 410

New Year’s Eve 1922

FeaturedNew Year’s Eve 1922

As is tradition on this blog, for the final post of the year we cast our minds back to exactly one hundred years ago and have a look at how New Year’s Eve was celebrated in London that night. After some rain earlier in the day, the evening of Sunday 31 December was cold and a bit windy but dry: no doubt a relief to Londoners keen to let their hair down.[1] According to the Manchester Guardian pre-midnight celebrations were ‘more subdued’ than in previous years owing to 31 December being a Sunday! Due to a special licensing hour dispensation, hotels could stay open till 2am.[2]

Well-heeled Londoners were excited to ring in the new year with elaborate parties in hotels and restaurants. Hotels spared no cost in their interior decoration: the dining room of the Berkeley Hotel ‘was transformed into a lighted vineyard’ and at Claridge’s guests walked through an Italy-inspired landscape.[3] At the Savoy Hotel, a large amount of Christmas crackers were pulled during an ‘elaborate banquet’ – 25,000 crackers according to the Daily Express, but 35,000 according to the Mirror.[4] Some venues put on performances: at the Metropole Hotel midnight was marked by ‘a dainty little girl dressed as Cupid [appearing] from a huge cracker, which was pulled by Father Christmas.’[5] At the Piccadilly Hotel grill room a female singer appeared out of the top of a huge champagne bottle at midnight to sign Auld Lang Syne.[6]

A young woman, representing 1923, banishing old 1922 in an unspecified performance. Image: Daily Mirror, 1 January 1923, front page

For those who could not afford to be in the hotels, the streets of London provided a suitable party venue. The steps of St Paul’s Cathedral were one of the traditional sites of celebration, and crowds started gathering there hours in advance.[7] The Daily Express reporters, always ready with more evocative language then their colleagues at rival papers, described the crowds in the West End as follows:

They were “grown ups” who surged in dense masses through the streets, but the joy of childhood – Christmas party childhood – was rampant. Every one wore a paper hat, and nearly every one was blowing a toy trumpet. Street corners were impromptu ballrooms.[8]

Aside from the evening celebrations, the New Year also meant the publication of the annual honours list, announcing which luminaries had been bestowed honorary titles. In 1923, the prominent and popular Home Office pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, was knighted and could henceforth call himself Sir Bernard Spilsbury.[9]

Cartoon in News of the World of 31 December 1922 reflecting the growing concerns on the dangers of motorized traffic, which would come to a head in the early 1930s.

The beginning of the new year also meant the start of winter sales in all the big department stores. The growing importance of consumerism, and the increase in disposable income, are marked by the prominent articles appearing in the popular press about the sales. ‘Thousands of women will to-day celebrate the coming of 1923 by “raiding” the great London stores in the breathless but happy hunt for bargains’ predicted the Daily Mirror.[10] In an article that essentially sums up the offers at each of the great stores, readers are advised that whilst buying ‘indiscriminately’ is never a good idea, one can’t go wrong with staples such as ‘gloves, shoes, underclothes etc’.[11]

The Sunday papers on 31 December had already carried large adverts for each of the store, preparing shoppers to the bargains that could be had. Like the Daily Mirror article, these were almost exclusively aimed at the female readership. It was clearly understood that shopping in a sale was the kind of frivolous activity that only women would engage in. At Dickins & Jones, a clearance of ‘model gowns’ (ie. those used for display purposes) meant that prices started at 7 ½ guineas – a guinea being 1 pound and 1 shilling.[12] On the same page, competitor Marshall & Snelgrove advertised a fur coat for 89 guineas; it had previously been between 125 and 179 guineas so this discount was indeed a ‘wonderful bargain’ although it was clearly out of reach for the vast majority of the population.[13]

By the time the Evening Standard appeared in the afternoon, it was able to report on the ‘bargain day scenes’ in breathless and rather sexist tones. ‘The occasion had much more significance for the ladies than the mere advent of the New Year, and (…) they stormed the whole of the shopping centres in their myriads.’[14] Some of the items on offer according to this article were velour coats with mole collar and cuff trimmings at 4 ½ guineas, and a knitted woollen gown at 27 shillings and sixpence; clearly the readership of the Evening Standard had less to spend than the readers of the Observer.

Elsewhere, the Evening Standard reported on the continued imprisonment of Edith Thompson and Freddie Bywaters, who would be executed on 9 January for the murder of Edith’s husband. Other papers noted the republic of Ireland’s recent independence, which was officially finalised in December 1922.[15] All was not well in the remainder of the Union either, with Scottish hunger marchers protesting in London on the first day of 1923.[16] Although the New Year’s Eve parties and January sales gathered the most prominent coverage, it is clear that below the celebratory surface troubles were brewing as Britain continued to deal with the fall-out of the Great War.


[1] ‘Week-end Weather’, The Observer, 31 December 1922, p. 14

[2] ‘New Year Revels in London’, Manchester Guardian, 1 January 1923, p. 7

[3] ‘At the Hotels’, Daily Express, 1 January 1923, front page

[4] Ibid.; ‘1923 Danced In by Merry Throngs’, Daily Mirror, 1 January 1923, p. 3

[5] ‘1923 Danced In’, Daily Mirror

[6] ‘New Year Revels in London’, Manchester Guardian

[7] Ibid.

[8] ‘Great Crowds in the Streets’, Daily Express, 1 January 1923, front page

[9] ‘New Years Honours’, Daily Express, 1 January 1923, p. 7

[10] ‘Sales Carnival Begins To-Day’, Daily Mirror, 1 January 1923, p. 2

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Dickins & Jones’ advert, The Observer, 31 December 1922, p. 9

[13] ‘Marshall & Snelgrove’ advert, The Observer, 31 December 1922, p. 9

[14] ‘Bargain Day Scenes,’ Evening Standard, 1 January 1923, front page

[15] ‘Politics at Home and Abroad’, Daily Telegraph, 1 January 1923, p. 4

[16] ‘Hunger Marchers’ Complaints’, Evening Standard, 1 January 1923, p. 8

Father Christmases of London

FeaturedFather Christmases of London

After last week’s slightly political piece, this week we’re launching into proper festive content. Again we’re turning our attention to Picture Post, the weekly photojournalism magazine launched in October 1938. In it’s first December, Picture Post ran an article on the ‘Father Christmases of London.’ The reportage gives an insight in this enduring seasonal job and the backgrounds of the men who took it on.

The piece appeared in the Picture Post of 17 December 1938 and ran across four pages. It is an article of two parts; the bottom third of the pages is taken up by an article setting out the cultural and historical background of Santa Claus in detail. It recalls the original Catholic Saint Nicholas, and how the worship of this saint diverged across different countries over time. It notes that ‘Protestantism has rooted out St. Nicholas Day from the English ecclesiastical calendar’[1] but that Santa Claus got imported back from the US after the tradition was started there by Dutch settlers. The article even covers localised European customs such as the Krampus, the origin of Christmas trees and of Santa Claus’s traditional dress.

Alongside this thorough exploration of the origins of Santa Claus, Picture Post presents portraits of ten men who are playing Santa across various department stores in London in the winter of 1938. Each man is shown both in their Santa outfit, and as their ‘normal selves’. The article shows how important and well-known the tradition of live Santa’s was to London’s luxury shopping market.

The background of these men puts them in one of two camps: half of them work or have worked in the department stores in which they act as Santa; the other half are actors, models or other types of entertainers. In the case of the first group, playing Santa appears to be a nice break from their day job for the month of December, after which they move back to their regular duties in January. George Dixon, for example, ordinarily worked in the wallpaper department at Barker’s, a large department store in Kensington. He had acted as the store’s Santa every year since his appointment as salesperson. It is likely Dixon was chosen for the role because he had a background as an actor in travelling troops.

George Dixon as Father Christmas for Barker’s in Kensington

Henry Tapsell, who acted as Santa in the Thomas Wallis department store in Holborn, did not have an acting background. He was a porter in the furniture department of the shop, a job which appears to have been one in a line of various manual labour roles. He started playing Father Christmas at the tender age of 26, finding it ‘a pleasant relaxation after shifting furniture for eleven months.’ At the other end of the age range, Alfred Hibbard, who played Santa in the Clapham store of Arding & Hobbs, was already retired. Prior to his retirement he worked in the shop as a porter. He took up the Father Christmas role after his retirement, probably to supplement his pension payments. Harrods’ Santa was also a member of staff: Herbert Heslam, who had worked in the calico, cotton and rayon department for twelve years.

It obviously made financial sense for some department stores to use existing staff for this December engagement. These men were often long-term employees so proven to be reliable, and apparently they could be spared on the shop floor despite a likely Christmas rush. Their regular roles demonstrate that department stores regularly employed male staff, but that they were often placed in furniture and home furnishing departments which required more heavy lifting and manual handling.

Other shops went down a different route, hiring freelance actors and models for this seasonal employment. Selfridge’s, for example, opted in 1938 to hire actor and model Charles Mackenzie. Mackenzie, an Australian who had made it over to Britain after fighting as an Anzac in the First World War, estimated he had appeared in up to 200 feature films. Sydney Kempster, who played Santa at Gamage’s department store in Holborn, was also a film extra. Although he was less prolific, he had some high-profile credits to his name such as a small role in Victor Saville’s Sailing Along and the ensemble film O-Kay for Sound. According to the article, ‘in the old days of silent films’, Kempster also ran a cinema.

Charles Mackenzie as Santa for Selfridge’s

A similarly enterprising attitude was taken by Stanley Ross, who played Father Christmas at Whiteley’s in Bayswater. Prior to the First World War Ross was a producer of silent films, producing two films with the famous actor Lupino Lane. Ross also acted in films. The most varied showman playing Santa in 1938 was Hamilton Harvey, who took up the red mantle for Derry & Tom’s in Kensington. Harvey was a conjuror, ventriloquist, musician and composer with his own music hall act. According to the Picture Post article he played eight different instruments – it is not recorded whether he incorporated any of them in his Santa Claus act.

This Father Christmas article is typical of the things Picture Post printed in its early years. It combines fairly in-depth historical detail with contemporary reportage on a human interest topic. One can imagine the editorial pitch meeting in which a reporter suggests finding out who is behind the fake moustaches and beards of London’s Santa’s. The 1930s still saw a high number of large department stores in the capital, each willing to invest in a real, permanent Father Christmas for December to draw in the crowds.

At the same time the men taking up the elaborate robes in these opulent surroundings were largely of working-class backgrounds. For some, playing the role was a welcome break from a physically demanding job on the shop floor. For others, it represented a quasi-steady gig in an uncertain free-lance career in the developing entertainment industry. The Picture Post article not only gives an insight into Christmas traditions of the late 1930s, but also into consumer culture and working conditions of the time.


[1] ‘These are the Father Christmases of London’, Picture Post, 17 December 1938, pp. 34-37

Featured

Christmas in hard times

I was looking over copies of Picture Post magazine in the hope of finding some nice Christmas-related content to write about. I did find something fun, which I’ll expand on in next week’s blog post, but during my search I also came across an opinion piece which seemed to speak in some way to the climate in which we are celebrating Christmas in 2022.

Picture Post was founded in October 1938 as a weekly news photography magazine. Each issue contained mostly short articles accompanied by extensive photo reportages. The types of items covered ranged from science and biology (the development of a kangaroo embryo) to international politics and society and celebrity news (like the article on Gracie Fields I’ve written about before). Each week there was also an opinion piece by Edward Hulton, the publisher of Picture Post.

Within a year of it’s launch, Britain was at war. During December 1939, the editors of Picture Post attempted to strike a balance between delivering war news – such as a weekly recap of developments – with the kind of feel-good content the magazine was also associated with. On 9 December 1939 Hulton used his regular page to encourage readers to ‘Spend at Christmas!’.[1] Readers would be helping the war effort, he argues, not by saving their money but rather by spending it freely to boost the economy. Additionally, going all-out at Christmas would ‘not only [be] an escape from the horrors of war, but [also] a remembrance of nobler ideals.’[2]

The main area in which money should be spent, according to Hulton, was women’s fashion. In this ‘silk stockings economics’ model, people spend on consumer goods that require rapid replacement (although under our current fast fashion model, the rapidity with which silk stockings wore out in the 1930s is probably relative). This, in turn, generates economic activity which is good for the country as a whole. Additionally, retaining a focus on the production of fashion at a national level would, Hulton argued, allow Britain to collaborate at an economic level with France. Paris was still the undisputed fashion capital of the western world, and ‘[t]here is no reason why London and Paris should not go hand in hand as arbiters of style.’[3]

Conscious that his male readership may find all this concern about women’s fashion to be a tad frivolous, Hulton hastens to add, almost as an afterthought, that the British motoring industry should continue to export to raise funds for the production and purchase of armaments. But for Hulton, celebrating Christmas and buying luxury goods is a matter of principle, too. He ends his article with the following bold statement:

And if we are merry at Christmas, we shall be showing the Nazis that we are winning the war of nerves, and maintaining the gallant spirit which has overcome adversities which are no novelty to this very windswept isle.[4]

The idea of British pluck is here repurposed to make it a moral obligation for people to celebrate Christmas as normally as possible, despite the country being in a state of war. Granted, December 1939 was in the middle of the ‘Phoney War’ during which there was limited fighting and the anticipated air raids on British cities had not yet materialised.

Hulton turns national pride into a capitalist function, arguing that to spend money on perishable and luxury goods demonstrates a commitment to British values in the face of Nazism. It should be noted that Hulton, and the editorial staff of Picture Post, were politically left-wing and continually highlighted the plight of Jewish people and refugees throughout the Second World War. His reference to the ‘gallant spirit’ of the British was not one that was specifically linked to one political party over the other.

In 2022, millions of people in Britain are facing economic hardship in the run-up to Christmas, often unable to afford basic necessities such as food and fuel. Average spend on Christmas gifts is expected to drop across almost all categories, particularly more expensive goods such as electronics and clothing. Although there is a foreign ruler whose criminal actions have impacted on the economy, much of the current situation is created by successive British governments.

The argument that people should carry on as normal in the face of adversity as an act of national defiance certainly does not hold any weight in the current context. Equally, encouragement to spend on consumer goods to boost the economy, which may have had more resonance during more recent economic crises, become irrelevant when people have no additional money to spend. Consumers no longer have the ability to boost the domestic economy, leaving us to face a Christmas worse than one that took place during the Second World War.


[1] Edward Hulton, ‘Spend at Christmas!’, Picture Post, 9 December 1939, p. 45

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Radclyffe Hall

FeaturedRadclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall – which, really, was her given name (in full, Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall) – is probably one of interwar Britain’s most famous LGBTQI+ people. She took the name John later in life, but her novels were published under the name ‘Radclyffe Hall’, which is how she remains best known.

Hall’s most famous work is the 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, which was subjected to an obscenity trial in the UK after vigorous campaigning by the Sunday Express. As was fairly common at the time, English copies of the Well of Loneliness were subsequently printed in Paris; increased mobility between the two capitals including via airplanes ensured that some copies of the work continued in circulation in Britain.

Hall was also born in a family of means, with both her parents inheriting money from their parents. Hall’s father set her up with an independent income which allowed Hall to shun the conventional route of work and marriage and allowed her to develop her literary ambitions. She initially published poetry – five volumes between 1906 and 1915. From an early age Hall adopted a masculine style of dress, including wearing trousers, tailored jackets, and hats.

During a part of the 1920s, Hall lived in Kensington with her partner, Una, Lady Troubridge. They were together from 1916 until Hall’s death. London’s somewhat unruly nightlife during the interwar period allowed for the existence of LGBT-friendly spaces. From the mid-1920s Hall started to publish works of fiction. Her third book, Adam’s Breed, which was written in the Kensington flat, became a prize-winning bestseller. The commercial success of Adam’s Breed arguably partially caused the vocal backlash to Hall’s next work, The Well of Loneliness. Had she been less famous, there would have perhaps been less concern about the content of the work.

The plot of The Well of Loneliness centres on Stephen Gordon, an upper-class English woman who considers herself a ‘sexual invert’ (ie. she is a lesbian). The book chronicles Stephen’s childhood, an early love affair with an older woman, Stephen’s career as a novelist in both London and Paris, and her experiences as an ambulance driver in World War One. During the war, she meets and falls in love with fellow ambulance driver Mary, and the pair set up a household together after the war.

Although the book is far from sexually explicit, there is one reference to Stephen and Mary going to bed together; and throughout, Stephen insists that ‘sexual inversion’ is not unnatural. Stephen’s (and by extension, Hall’s) views on lesbianism closely echo those of 19th-century lesbian Anne Lister, by some considered to one of Britain’s first ‘modern lesbians.’

Due to the success of Adam’s Breed, The Well of Loneliness was reviewed by journalists upon its publication; early reviews were measured.[1] However, James Douglas, the editor of the Sunday Express who earlier in the decade had found much fault with convicted murderer Edith Thompson, took it upon himself to publish a front-page take-down of the book on 19 August 1928. His editorial included the statement that ‘he would rather give “a healthy boy or a healthy girl” poison than let them read The Well of Loneliness.’[2]

Hall’s publisher protested that the intervention of the Sunday Express gave the book more publicity and sensationalised it, and many other journalists and writers defended the work. Nevertheless, an obscenity trial started on 9 November 1928 and included expert witness testimony to confirm that one could not ‘become gay’ by reading a book about a gay relationship. The magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, concluded that the novel’s literary merit counted against it: ‘the more palatable the poison the more insidious’.[3] He ordered that all copies of the book were destroyed, and The Well of Loneliness was not published again in Britain until 1959.

Hall attended the trial, although she was not on the stand as the trial was against her publisher rather than herself as a person. Her masculine appearance, widely reported in the press, ‘crystallised a particular vision of the mannish lesbian’ for the remainder of the interwar period.[4] A similar obscenity trial in the US had the opposite outcome to the British one, ‘finding that discussion of homosexuality was not in itself obscene.’ Hall only published one more novel during her lifetime, The Master of the House, which was poorly received. During the 1930s Hall and Troubridge moved out of London to the coastal town of Rye. Hall was diagnosed with cancer during the Second World War and died in 1943. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London, alongside other writers and artists such as George Eliot, Elizabeth Siddal and Anna Mahler.


[1] Christopher Hilliard, ‘“Is It a Book That You Would Even Wish Your Wife or Your Servants to Read?” Obscenity Law and the Politics of Reading in Modern England’, American Historical Review, June 2013, p. 666

[2] Ibid.

[3] Merl Storr, ‘Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness’, review, Sexualities, Vol 6, no. 2, 2003, p. 264

[4] Emma Liggins, Odd Women? Spinsters, lesbians and widows in British women’s fiction, 1850s–1930s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), p. 163

100th Blog Post!

Featured<strong>100th Blog Post!</strong>

A special edition of the blog this week, as we have reached 100 posts! Here’s a look behind the scenes.

Basics

A new blog post appears every Wednesday, at 9.30am UK time.

On average, blog posts are about 1,050 words long. This means that there are now over 100,000 words written on this blog!

There are currently five different categories of posts: Fiction; Film; Newspapers; People; and Everything Else. Some posts are in more than one category if they cross over.

Film is by far the biggest category, betraying both my background in that subject and my commitment from the start of the blog to regularly highlight underappreciated British interwar films. Fiction is so far the smallest category, but it’s catching up rapidly.

There are also tags at the bottom of each post, which allow for more fine-grained categorisation. The most commonly used tags are Women; Journalism; and Police. Do use the tags to easily find more blogs about a particular topic.

Most popular posts

In the past two years(ish) of running this blog, one post has received way more attention than any others. The most popular post by a long way is Friday Night is Amami Night – this was one of the first blogs to appear and it remains consistently popular with readers.

Other evergreen posts are:

Car ownership and regulation in interwar London
W. Lusty & Sons Ltd – Furniture Makers; and
The Prince of Wales and the interwar craze for Fair Isle jumpers

Hidden gems

With a new post coming out every week, naturally some get more attention than others. Here are some posts that you may have missed:

Woman: Her Health and Beauty (1919): a deep dive through an early interwar exercise book for women. I try my best to include items and texts from the early interwar period (pre-1925) to give a rounded view of the period.

Mr Smith Wakes Up (1937): a short film addressing racism and colonial attitudes in interwar Britain. It’s definitely reflective of the period and not perfect by a long shot, but it’s also an all-too rare example of Black Britons being given a voice on screen in the 1930s.

1927: More Women Die Young: A good example of the mad populist newspaper articles that were absolutely everywhere during the 1920s and 1930s (and still are today, of course). The Daily Mail argued that being single as a woman would drastically shorten your lifespan.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Downhill (1927): One of the earlier films of one of the best-known film directors of the 20th century. Welsh heartthrob Ivor Novello stars as a young man whose life is ruined after taking responsibility for an unwanted pregnancy that he did not cause.

The Love Test (1935): One of my all-time favourite interwar films. Set in a chemical lab, it showcases (competent!) female scientists.

Readership

Predictably, the vast majority of the blog’s readers are based in the UK. This is followed by some distance by readers from the US, the Netherlands, Canada and China. However, I’m very pleased to say there are also readers in Vanuatu, Peru, Slovakia, Uruguay, Trinidad & Tobago, Pakistan, American Samoa, Taiwan, Denmark and many, many more. In fact, there have so far been readers of over 60 countries and territories!

I’m delighted that the blog has such a far reach, which is increasing week by week. I hope that it contributes in some way to make 1920s and 1930s British history more accessible to anyone with an interest in the topic.

Featured

Winifred Holtby – South Riding (1936)

Journalist, author, feminist and activist Winifred Holtby was a distinctive voice in interwar Britain’s press. In her journalism pieces she often challenged social inequalities and advocated for change. Aside from her journalistic output, Holtby also wrote seven novels. The most famous of these is South Riding, which was published posthumously after Holtby’s death at the age of 37. Vera Brittain, Holtby’s close friend and an accomplished author in her own right, edited the manuscript of South Riding and got it ready for publication.[1] The book met with critical success upon its publication, and was turned into a Victor Saville-directed film in 1938. The story’s enduring resonance is evidenced by the BBC adaptation which appeared as recently as 2011.

The scope and order of South Riding are ambitious: the novel opens with a list of characters no shorter than 6 pages in length. The story is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire. A facsimile of a hand-drawn map by Holtby in the front of the Virago edition of the book shows that she imagined the Riding to be located in the triangle between York, Scarborough and the northern border of Lincolnshire.

South Riding is a novel concerned with local government. Across its 500 or so pages, the novel is divided into eight ‘books’, each named after a sub-committee of South Riding Council. Through ‘Education’; ‘Highways and Bridges’; ‘Public Health’ and others, Holtby weaves a tale of modernity and tradition, and the deep interconnectedness of rural communities.

In a book with such a vast range of characters, the closest thing South Riding has to a protagonist is Miss Sarah Burton, M.A. (Leeds), B.Litt (Oxon), the thirty-something new headmistress of the local girls school, whose return to the county of her upbringing kicks off the book’s narrative. Sarah has decidedly modern ideas about education and life in general. Her modernising spirit runs up against the traditions of the South Riding Aldermen, who sit on the Council and have been used to running things their own way.

These Aldermen also reflect a changing society, however: Anthony Snaith is a rich business owner and Mrs Beddows is the Riding’s first female Alderman. Holtby famously modelled Beddows on her own mother, Alice, who was the first woman Alderman in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Alice Holtby initially opposed the publication of South Riding, worried as she was to the damage it may do to local political relations.

The central relationship in South Riding is between Sarah Burton and Robert Carne, a gentleman farmer who occupies the local ‘Big House’, Maythorpe Hall, with his teenage daughter Midge. In an echo of Victorian Gothic literature, Carne’s wife is alive but insane and permanently locked up in an institution. The prohibitive medical costs for her care have led Carne to the brink of financial destitution. Maythorpe Hall is falling apart around him. Divorce is not an option for him, not because it is legally impossible but because he finds it morally unpardonable.

The emotional and intellectual connection between Sarah and Carne builds up throughout the novel. One of the key scenes of South Riding occurs when the pair find themselves staying over in the same hotel. Under the chapter heading ‘Two in a Hotel Find Themselves Temporarily Insane’, Holtby pens what was a decidedly modern and transgressive scene for mid-1930s Britain. A pleasant dinner turns into a night of dancing, and several drinks build the intimacy between the couple. As the evening draws to a close, Sarah invites Carne to visit her in her bedroom, room number ‘five hundred and seventeen.’[2] For a woman to invite a man to her bedroom was of course already frowned upon, but to do so to a married man broke all the rules of propriety. Equally, Carne’s grateful and enthusiastic response did not match behaviour expected of a gentleman.

Throughout the scene, Sarah remains calm and steadfast. Whilst awaiting Carne’s arrival in her room, she smiles at herself. When he asks her if she is really sure she wants to go ahead with it, she confirms ‘I know now I have never been sure of anything before in my life.’[3] The only reason the relationship does not get consummated is because Carne has an acute attack of a recurring heart problem. This rather disturbs the mood and the couple do not get a chance to be alone again for the night after that. Morally and emotionally, however, both Sarah and Carne were committed to an affair which neither of them believed to be wrong, despite it going against the generally espoused conservative values of the time.

South Riding conveys the effect of modern ideas on a traditional community, both for better and for worse. At the same time, it treats the local community and the Council with a deep respect. Everyone in the South Riding needs one another eventually, and progress, however difficult, does penetrate the region through the diligent work of the local representatives.


[1] Shirley Williams, ‘Preface, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago Press, 2010), p. x

[2] Winifred Holtby, South Riding, p. 367

[3] Ibid., p. 368

Football in interwar Britain

Featured<strong>Football in interwar Britain</strong>

Following on from last week’s post about The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, in the run-up to Qatar 2022 this week we’ll look at football in interwar Britain more generally. Football was invented in England, and it remains the most popular spectator sport in the country today. During the interwar period, the sport itself as well as the spectator culture around it were frequently represented in popular media.

First, the basics. League football was (and is) governed in England by the Football Association (FA), which was formed in 1863. In the 19th century, the FA unified football rules to a single set that applied across the country and started running various leagues including the FA Cup. In 1923 a new dedicated stadium was built at Wembley as part of the Empire Exhibition. The stadium was inaugurated by that year’s FA Cup final.

League matches usually took place on Saturday afternoons, after the 5 ½ workday week was finished. From the start, football had primarily been a working-class sport, with some spectator groups building a reputation for unruliness or even violence. The FA cup was keen to improve football’s image during the interwar period, and argued that playing and watching football increased a sense of community. They even went as far as arguing that football would ‘prove helpful in the present unsettled condition of industrial affairs of the country’ during the 1926 General Strike.[1]

Another aspect of the FA’s attempts to make football more socially acceptable during the interwar period was to attract middle-class spectators. One strategy for lowering the barrier of attendance at games for middle-class spectators was to create segregated pricing: certain sections of seats would be more expensive than others, thus creating an automatic division between middle-class and working-class spectators. This concept was very familiar to anyone travelling by train in interwar Britain, as trains retained first, second and third-class carriages. Cinemas used the same strategy during the 1920s to also increase middle-class attendance and thus become more respectable.

Attendance of women at football matches was also a sure sign of increased respectability. By the time The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was written at the close of the interwar period, it was believable that two young, unmarried women would attend an Arsenal match together. Yet at the start of the interwar period, women’s participation in football had been much more comprehensive. Women had been playing football since the end of the 19th century, but the sport’s popularity increased significantly during the First World War. During the war, many young working-class women worked in munitions factories, which often set up their own football teams to give workers a chance to exercise, let off steam and bond with co-workers.[2]

By the time the war was over, women’s football had become established and also increasingly popular. Its growth as a viable sport was cut short, however, by the FA’s decision to ban women’s teams from playing matches on any FA-affiliated pitches.[3] The decision was allegedly influenced by jealousy at the crowds women’s matches were drawing, and the associated income this represented to women’s clubs. The decision did not completely end women’s football in Britain, as evidenced by this British Pathé clip from 1925 of a match at Herne Hill. It did, however, severely hamper the development of women’s football in Britain.

Off the pitch, thousands of people turned out to watch their favourite team win or lose, each week. Apart from the thrill of the game, spectatorship also brought in additional pleasures. One activity that has been indelibly linked to both football and British culture is betting. As sports historian Mike Huggins has argued: ‘Betting combined excitement, sociability and the prospect of becoming temporarily better off. (…) [A]cross the classes, across the country, and across age and gender, betting was increasingly ubiquitous and socially acceptable’ during the interwar period.[4]

Exactly how socially acceptable betting was is evidenced in the plot of the 1938 film Penny Paradise, starring popular actor Edmund Gwenn. In this film, Gwenn’s character Joe Higgins, a tug-boat driver, believes he has won the ‘penny pools’, a newspaper competition that asks readers to accurately predict the outcomes to all the league’s football matches. Joe gets all the scores right, but he doesn’t realise that his friend Pat forgot to post his scores to the newspaper office on time. The film good-naturedly chronicles Joe’s initial belief that he has become a rich man, and then the subsequent realisation that he has missed out. By the late 1930s, betting constructions like penny pools were evidently so widely understood and accepted that they could form the basis of a gentle comedy film.

Football in interwar Britain then was as pervasive as it today, whether that was as a sport to participate in at an amateur level; a game to watch every Saturday; an activity that allowed you to bet and dream of a better future; or something that you saw on newsreels when you went to the cinema.[5] Like many elements of interwar popular culture, it responded to changing gender roles and class divisions, whilst never losing its ability to draw people together.


[1] Joe Maguire, ‘The Emergence of Football Spectating as a Social Problem 1880 – 1985: A Figurational and Developmental Perspective’, Sociology of Sport Journal, vol. 3, (1986), 217-244 (p. 230)

[2] Lisa Jenkel, ‘The F.A.’s ban of women’s football 1921 in the contemporary press – a historical discourse analysis’, Sport in History, vol. 41, no. 2 (2021), 239-259 (pp. 243-44)

[3] Ibid., p. 240

[4] Mike Huggins, ‘Betting, Sport and the British, 1918-1939’, Journal of Social History, vol. 41, no. 2 (2007), 283-306 (p. 285)

[5] Mike Huggins, ‘‘And Now, Something for the Ladies’: representations of women’s sport in cinema newsreels 1918–1939’, Women’s History Review, vol. 16, no. 5 (2007), 681-700

Featured

Leonard Gribble – The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

Ahead of the 2022 World Cup starting in Qatar, there will be a couple of weeks of football-related content on the blog. Football was a popular sport for working-class spectators in interwar Britain, alongside (greyhound) racing and motor sports. Some historians even credit the popularity of football with bringing diverse social and ethnic groups togethers as neighbours went to support their local teams.[1] By the end of the interwar period, football clubs at the top end of the league were almost completely populated by professional footballers; but there were also still plenty of amateur clubs which delivered players of a high calibre. League matches were usually played on a Saturday afternoon, as most workers finished their weekly shifts at lunchtime on Saturday.

At the close of the 1930s, the Daily Express decided to capitalise on the increased popularity of professional football by commissioning author Leonard Gribble to write a serialised murder mystery which featured the real-life players and staff of Arsenal Football Club.[2] After serialisation, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was published as a book and a film version was made almost immediately; both appearing shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The plot of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is fairly straightforward: Arsenal play an amateur team, the Trojans. During the match, one of the Trojan players, Doyce, collapses on the field and dies shortly afterwards. Scotland Yard are called in and conclude Doyce was poisoned; Inspector Slade methodically works through the possible suspects until the case is resolved. Although a number of Arsenal players appear as characters in the book (and the Arsenal manager, George Allinson, even got a speaking part in the film adaptation) they are naturally not implicated in the murder or its resolution.

The police investigation concentrates solely on the Trojan players and staff. The conceit of the football game provides the type of ‘closed circle’ which interwar detective fictions liked to use: a very limited number of suspects, a tightly controlled window in which the murder must have taken place; and limited ways in which the weapon could be disposed of.

Aside from the murder story, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery provides the modern reader with plenty of insight into 1930s professional football practices. Gribble was clearly given access to the Arsenal club players and grounds in the writing of the book – the parts of the stadium to which the public do not usually have access are described in detail. The rapid professionalisation of football is reflected in the vigorous training practices of the players: ‘The game to-day is faster than it has ever been (…) Only the fit can survive.’[3] Arsenal also apparently already had a youth academy set up, dubbed a ‘nursery’, to train up promising young players.[4]

When it comes to the game itself, Gribble provides a diagram reflecting the starting positions of both teams. Both Arsenal and Trojans are shown to play with five forwards, three midfielders and two defenders[5]; a formation that was much more common in the early days of professional football than it is today. The author also provides an almost play-by-play account of the match, in sections of the story clearly written with football-mad Daily Express readers in mind.

As well as details about the actual gameplay, Gribble pays substantial attention to convey the culture of football fandom. For example, he spends several pages describing the convivial atmosphere in the streets and train stations around the stadium after the match is over:

‘In the trains the corridors and entrance platforms are choked (…) The air is full of expunged breath, smoke, human smells, and heat. But there is plenty of laughter, plenty of Cockney chaff. Whatever happens, however great the discomfort, the crowd keeps its good-temper. This herded homegoing is just part of the afternoon’s entertainment.’[6]

Needless to say, this ‘entertainment’ is described as an innately masculine past-time. It would not be possible for women to enter this crush of human bodies. When Inspector Slade of Scotland Yard enters the story, he too enters in a social pact with the football players which excludes women. During his investigation, he questions one of the Trojan players, Morring, in front of a woman friend, Jill. Morring implies in guarded language that his fiancée, Pat Laruce, had had an affair with the victim, Doyce. Slade:

‘‘I take it you told him to be careful or next time he’d have more painful reason to regret his – um – interference?’ The two men grinned, while the girl looked from one to the other, wide-eyed, unable to appreciate a humour that was essentially masculine.’[7]

Phrases like this make it clear enough that Gribble was writing for a male audience; he also made the main female character, Pat Laruce, extremely unlikeable. Not only is Pat revealed as having cheated on her fiancé Morring, Gribble also portrays her as an extremely calculating woman who uses fake emotional outbursts to control men’s behaviour. He describes her as follows: ‘The daughter of a chorus girl who had married a publican after burning her fingers with a scion of the aristocracy, she [Pat] had imbibed her mother’s outlook on life.’[8]

Pat works as a model for advertisements; a job that entails her offering up her physical appearance for (male) consumption. Pat’s independence and modernity are unequivocally rejected by Gribble, and presented as intergenerational faults that are passed on from mother to daughter. There are several points in the book at which Pat is described as confused that her emotional manipulations are not working on men as she expects them to. Her friend Jill, by contrast, is presented as pure and innocent (as in the quote above which implies her complete ignorance about sex), and therefore a much more suitable life partner.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery reveals much about the practicalities of professional football in 1930s Britain, as well as delivering a reasonably competent murder mystery story. It also carries its sexist gender views on its sleeve, by using the medium of football to promote a misogynist worldview in which professional sport is equated with male sociability.

The film version of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (starring the real 1939 Arsenal squad) can be viewed for free on YouTube.


[1] Benjamin Lammers, ‘The Birth of the East Ender: Neighborhood and Local Identity in Interwar East London’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 39, No. 2, (2005), pp. 331-344 (pp. 338-9)

[2] Martin Edwards, ‘Introduction’, in Leonard Gribble, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, (London: British Library, 2018), p. 7

[3] Gribble, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, p. 123

[4] Ibid., p. 119

[5] Ibid., p. 19

[6] Ibid., p. 38

[7] Ibid., p. 171

[8] Ibid., p. 106

Trouble Brewing (1939)

Featured<strong><em>Trouble Brewing</em> (1939)</strong>

Lancashire singer and comedian George Formby was an extremely popular entertainer during the interwar period. He had an instantly recognisable brand: catch-phrases such as ‘Turned out nice again!’; songs full of gentle innuendo and always accompanying himself with his banjolele (a cross between a ukulele and a banjo).

Supported by his wife Beryl as his manager, Formby made a series of comedy films in the second half of the 1930s, at the rate of two a year. These were often directed by Anthony Kimmins, a writer and director who also worked with that other Lancashire star, Gracie Fields. Kimmins and Formby’s sixth collaboration was Trouble Brewing, which was released in July 1939 and could serve as an antidote to the ever-increasing concerns about impending war in Europe.

In Trouble Brewing, Formby plays George Gullip, a newspaper printer at a fictional daily tabloid. George wants to be a detective, and has developed a type of ink which is impossible to rub off, to help him take fingerprints. The police are on the track of a gang which is distributing counterfeit money. When George and his friend Bill are duped by the gang, they team up with secretary Mary to unmask the gang once and for all.

George (George Formby), left, and Bill (Gus McNaughton), right, at work in the print room in Trouble Brewing

The film takes its title from the beer brewery which the counterfeiting gang uses as a front for their operations. As is common for these 1930s comedies that are primarily showcases for individual stars, Trouble Brewing consists of a series of set pieces which are only loosely strung together by a plot. George and Bill get duped on the racetrack; their subsequent investigations have them dress up as waiters at a private party; join a wrestling match; break into the police inspector’s home (and accidentally kidnap him); and confront the criminal gang in their brewery. At each stage, the script allows Formby plenty of physical comedy. His scenes with Mary and other female characters are opportunities for George to serenade them with his songs, even if they are more cheeky than romantic.

George subjected to a wrestling match in Trouble Brewing

In Trouble Brewing, the line between journalism and policing is blurred to the point that it almost disappears. When George says to his superiors as the paper that he wants to become a detective, the newspaper proprietor harrumphs that being a journalist is pretty much the same thing. Although in reality, printers and journalists had very distinct professional identities, George moves between the basement print room and the editorial offices with relative ease. Mary, who works as the secretary to the newspaper’s editor, appears to know George and Bill and treats them as her direct colleagues.

The police in Trouble Brewing have been ineffective in rounding up the counterfeiting gang, which has been at work for at least six months at the beginning of the film. Yet the two printers and the secretary manage to close the gang down in a matter of days. There are plenty of other British interwar films in which journalists collaborate closely with the police, but Trouble Brewing takes this a step further by focusing on main characters who are not even actual journalists. At the same time it is tacitly assumed that George wants to get promoted and work as a journalist, which he achieves at the end of the film when both the newspaper proprietor and the police inspector are duly impressed with his work in rounding up the criminal gang.

Trouble Brewing gives Formby plenty of opportunity to exploit the sexual innuendo he was known for, not only in his songs but also in the scene when he and Bill serve as waiters at a private house party. The party is thrown by an opera singer, whom George and Bill suspect may be part of the criminal gang. George has gotten the singer to put her fingerprint on a piece of paper, but she put that piece of paper in the top of her stocking. When the woman sits down to speak to a male guest at her party, George creeps under the table in an attempt to get the paper. The woman naturally assumes that her conversation partner is touching her leg under the table. This joke is repeated three separate times, causing the singer to shout at and slap at the various men she sits down with. For modern spectators, it is perhaps clearer that such a joke primarily works for male viewers; female audience members may find little to laugh at here. This indicates that Formby’s primary appeal was to men, whereas Gracie Fields aimed her jokes and songs at a broader audience.

George under the table in Trouble Brewing

Trouble Brewing ends in the beer brewery where the gang is hiding. Here physical comedy takes over, with actors running up and down stairs, hiding in barrels, and hanging on ropes. The brewery contains several vast vats of beer, which are left uncovered. Bill lands in one and becomes inebriated almost immediately; the same eventually happens with the counterfeiting gang members. The apparently instantaneous effects of alcohol on the men underlines how far the events on screen are removed from reality at this stage of the film. It has developed into slapstick, harking back to earlier cinematic traditions.

Unlike another 1939 film set in a brewery, Cheer Boys Cheer, which makes direct reference to Nazi Germany, Trouble Brewing offered audiences complete escapism. Money laundering and the circulation of counterfeit money were popular tropes in interwar crime fiction, but they were far removed from the real-life horrors of war and fascism. The film expanded on the already-established cinematic narrative that journalists could effectively solve crimes, by presenting three workers as skilled detectives. The film’s happy ending no doubt provided audiences with welcome escapism as the international political situation deteriorated.  

George (George Formby) and Mary (Googie Withers) end up in a beer barrel at the close of Trouble Brewing

Interwar Spooky Stories

FeaturedInterwar Spooky Stories

With Halloween nearly upon us, it is time for a review of spooky short stories written in interwar Britain. Although Halloween was not celebrated in the modern sense during the interwar period, All Hallows Eve was a longstanding feature of the Church calendar, originating out of pagan Samhain celebrations. Short stories were an immensely popular format in the interwar years, with many short stories published in newspapers and dedicated magazines such as Strand Magazine. Many journalists and authors worked in the genre, which could be lucrative.

In recent years, the British Library publishing arm has re-issued many original stories of the 1920s and 1930s in various edited collections. Spooky short stories of the period often crystallise contemporary fears about technology, alienation, and modernity. They can also address social inequalities in a pointed way. For example, F Tennyson Jesse’s story ‘The Railway Carriage’, published in Strand Magazine in 1931, hinges on the third-class railway carriage as a democratic space that forces together people from wildly different backgrounds.[1]

The story’s protagonist, a young woman named Solange, finds the closed nature of the railway carriage oppressive: ‘she would have given a great deal to be out of that little third-class carriage, to be in a modern corridor train, to be – this, above all – away from her travelling companions.’[2] The design of the train means that Solange cannot change carriages whilst the train is in motion, heightening her feeling of being trapped with two unusual companions. Solange ‘had to stay with them whether she would or no. It was really an outrage, she thought to herself, that such a thing as a non-corridor train should still exist.’[3]

Solange is a modern, somewhat entitled young woman, who by the end of the story has to accept that there are things beyond the rational realm and that she cannot always control the world around her in the way she would like. When the train crashes, Tennyson Jesse introduces a supernatural element to the story and meditates on the justness of capital punishment, a practice that was under much debate during the interwar period. Despite the introduction of a possible ghost, the true horror of the story lies in the very real judicial practices of interwar Britain.

Another story which effectively conveys the terror that the proximity of strangers can bring is E.M. Delafield’s ‘They Don’t Wear Labels.’[4] It also demonstrates how the anonymity of the big city can be exploited, and how patriarchal structures can put women in danger. The story’s protagonist is Mrs Fuller, a boarding house keeper, who takes in a couple, Mr and Mrs Peverelli. Mr Peverelli is very charming, but his wife is sickly. From the moment the couple enter the house, Mr Peverelli plays on sexist stereotypes which Mrs Fuller is very happy to accept. He implies that his wife’s ailments are nervous disorders; Mrs Fuller then tells Mrs Peverelli ‘shed’ a good deal to be thankful for, with her husband in a good job, and always ready to do what would please her.’[5]

When Mrs Peverelli tries to tell Mrs fuller that Mr Peverelli is forcing her to eat and drink things against her will, and that she thinks her husband is trying to poison her, Mrs Fuller naturally rubbishes the suggestion. E.M. Delafield neatly demonstrates the pervasive assumptions about domestic violence: ‘If you really believed it, why – you’d left him. It’s surely the very first thing you’d have done’ huffs Mrs Fuller. ‘You don’t understand’, responds Mrs Peverelli. ‘I love him.’[6]

Shortly thereafter, the Peverelli’s move on, the wife looking ‘worse than ever – sallower and more frightened.’ The true horror of Mr Peverelli’s designs is revealed at the close of the story, when Mrs Fuller realises he has ground up a Christmas bauble and fed the powdered glass to his wife.[7] Murder by ground glass was, incidentally, one of the ways in which Edith Thompson suggested murdering her husband in her letters to her lover Freddie Bywaters. E.M. Delafield had followed the Thompson-Bywaters case closely, and is surely referencing it in this story. Mrs Fuller, and the reader, are confronted by their willingness to believe strangers at face value, and to believe men over women. The horror here is not supernatural, but rather the by-product of an inherently unequal society.

A final female-penned, London-based, spooky short story appeared slightly after the interwar period, at the close of the Second World War. In 1945, Elizabeth Bowen published the (very short) story ‘The Demon Lover’.[8] It effectively uses the bombed-out locales of war-torn London. Bowen’s protagonist, Mrs Drover, is checking up on her Kensington house after an extended stay in the country, away from the Blitz.

Things take a dark turn when Mrs Drover discovers a mysterious letter from a past lover, which warns her that today is ‘our anniversary, and the day we said. (…) I shall rely upon you to keep your promise.’[9] It transpires that Mrs Drover had a soldier lover during the First World War, who went missing. In fear of him, she decides to get a taxi as quickly as possible before the man can come to the house and claim her. Yet rather than a means of escape, the taxi becomes her prison, as she realises too late that the man behind the wheel is the very man she is fleeing from.

As in ‘The Railway Track’, in ‘The Demon Lover’ a means of transport traps a woman rather than give her freedom. The latter story also includes ample reflections on ageing and the compromises made by women: marriage, children and a big house in Kensington versus the excitement of a passionate love affair. Like Mrs Peverelli, Mrs Drover ultimately is unable to escape masculine power. The scariest thing for women turns out to be the patriarchy itself.

All of the stories and books mentioned in this post are available to purchase through the British Library online shop.


[1] F Tennyson Jesse, ‘The Railway Track’, in Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (London: British Library, 2018), pp. 267-286

[2] Ibid., p. 272

[3] Ibid., p. 277

[4] E. M. Delafield, ‘They Don’t Wear Labels’, in Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (London: British Library, 2015), pp. 265-273

[5] Ibid., p. 268

[6] Ibid., p. 270

[7] Ibid., p. 273

[8] Elizabeth Bowen, ‘The Demon Lover’, in Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales from the Weird City, edited by Elizabeth Dearnley (London: British Library, 2020), pp. 81-91

[9] Ibid., p. 85

Sonnie Hale

FeaturedSonnie Hale

Sonnie Hale was born John Robert Hale-Munro in London in 1902. His father, Robert, was also an actor. After an education at the Roman Catholic Beaumont College, Hale turned to a career in show business. During the interwar years, he was one of the most recognisable comedy stars in British film, often co-starring with Jessie Matthews, who would become his wife in 1931.

Like other interwar comedy stars, such as Gracie Fields, Hale’s career in the 1920s was based on the stage. His brand of comedy was mainly verbal – Hale was great at the quick repartee. The silent films made during this decade demanded a different, more physical type of comedy. During the 1920s, therefore, Hale appeared in revues which allowed him to perfect his singing and dancing skills. Once sound film became an established medium in Britain in the early 1930s, Hale combined his theatre work with film appearances.

Musical comedy was a popular film genre in 1930s Britain, and Hale packed his schedule with film roles in the first half of the decade. He starred in two films each in 1932 and 1933, a whopping four films in 1934, and three in 1935. He then appeared in one film each in 1936, 1938 and 1939. His acting output slowed down in the second half of the decade because he had at that point also turned his hand to writing and directing, directing three films across 1937 and 1938.

Hale’s first feature film role was a leading part opposite star Jack Hulbert. In the musical comedy Happy Ever After, Hulbert and Hale star as two window cleaners, both named Willie, who try and help a young starlet who is hoping to break into Hollywood. Hale’s time on the stage had evidently given him good connections with stars such as Hulbert and Hulbert’s wife Cicely Courtneidge, who also starred in the film.

From 1933, Hale started appearing in films with Jessie Matthews, by that point his real-life wife. From 1926 to 1930 Hale had been married to actress Evelyn Lay. Matthews had been married to her first husband for the same period. The relationship between Matthews and Hale started when he was still married to Lay, and caused much publicity and controversy at the time. Matthews was cited as co-respondent in Hale’s divorce case against Lay and Matthews’ letters to him were read out in court. The press, naturally, lapped it up, and the judge saw it fit to make comments about Matthews’ conduct.

Public sympathy was with Lay, but Hale and Matthews proved to be a successful professional as well as personal couple, and the public did not reject their collaborations. They appeared together in the ensemble piece Friday the Thirteenth (Hale as a comic bus conductor, Matthews as a chorus girl) and Hale played a supporting role in the Matthews’ star vehicles Evergreen, First a Girl and It’s Love Again, all directed by Victor Saville.

In none of these films, however, does Hale play the love interest to Matthews; he lacked the traditional good looks that 1930s British cinema demanded for the part of the romantic lead. Instead, Hale is the funny, supportive sidekick to either Matthews herself, or to the male lead. In It’s Love Again, for example, he plays Freddie Rathbone, who helps his friend and gossip journalist Peter Carlton come up with his gossip column every day. When Peter’s job is on the line, the pair come up with a fictional society figure, Mrs Smythe-Smythe, about whom Peter can make up the most outrageous stories and thus scoop his rivals at other papers. Hale plays Rathbone as a bit of a waster, who mainly enjoys going to society parties for the free food and wine. He is also, however, loyal to Peter and supportive of Peter’s attempt to impress the aspiring actress Elaine Bradford, played by Matthews.

After It’s Love Again, Hale took over from Saville as director. He directed Matthews in three films: Head over Heels, Gangway and Sailing Along. All three are less accomplished than Saville’s turns directing Matthews, and Hale gave up directing after 1938.

He did not, however, give up acting. His next role after It’s Love Again was a move away from musical comedy. Hale starred as petty criminal Sam Hackett in the Edgar Wallace crime thriller The Gaunt Stranger. Although Hale’s performance still has comic touches to it, the film’s overall tone is much darker than his previous work. It was only a brief foray into a different genre – by 1939 Hale was back to comedy, in the Walter Forde-directed Let’s Be Famous.

The Second World War caused a hiatus in Hale’s film career, although he was able to pick up his stage career which had languished for most of the 1930s. He briefly returned to film and TV films in the second half of the 1940s – by now divorced from Matthews and married to his third wife, Mary Kelsey. Towards the end of his life, he wrote the comedy play The French Mistress which was a success in the West End and made into a film in 1960. Hale died in London in 1959.

The General Strike of 1926

Featured<strong>The General Strike of 1926</strong>

As industrial strike action continues across Britain for most of the summer and autumn of 2022, many news articles have reached back to the ‘winter of discontent’ –  a period of widespread trade union action in 1978/1979 which eventually led to a Conservative election victory which ushered in Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Far fewer people have made the link with the much more comprehensive strike action which took place nearly 100 years ago, across nine days in May 1926.

The General Strike, as it came to be known, was an expression of working-class discontent that had been steadily building up since the end of the First World War. The war’s devastation, as well as its upheaval of social norms, challenged the British class system. After the war finished, many working-class men who had fought side by side with men of higher social standing were unwilling to accept the pre-war inequalities. On top of that, returning troops faced mass unemployment and a lack of affordable housing. Socialism gained traction in Britain, as well as elsewhere in Europe.[i]

The direct cause of the General Strike was a pay dispute in the coal mining industry. The industry was privatised and to counteract declining profits, coal mine owners reduced wages by over a third in a seven year period. In March 1926, the government supported a recommendation that miners’ pay should be reduced further. In response, the Trade Union Council (TUC), an overarching body of trade unions, called a strike to start on 3 May. All TUC member unions were bound to participate in the strike action, which led to millions of workers stopping work.

From railway workers and bus drivers to newspaper printers and food delivery staff, the strike impacted many essential services in the country. To keep things going, some people in non-unionised sectors ‘volunteered’ to work in roles affected by the strike, driving buses and delivering milk. Upper class families also ‘volunteered’ – wealthy women, for example, helped to serve out food from communal kitchens in Hyde Park. The establishment encouraged reminisces of the war, likening the emergency provisions put in place during the strike to the type of volunteer work many had undertaken during the conflict.

Because the printers’ union participated in the strike, the newspaper industry was severely impacted by the strike. Some papers managed to produce emergency bulletins which were much shorter than regular papers, and printed on a much smaller format. Newspaper proprietors in the 1920s mostly had warm relationships with the Conservative party, allowing the Government to produce the British Gazette, a pro-government publication. The TUC responded by producing their own British Worker, but were unable to match the circulation of the Gazette.

The National Union of Journalists was not TUC-affiliated at the time of the strike. The NUJ leadership badly muddled its response to the TUC’s call for strike action, leaving some NUJ members frustrated by being told they should not join a strike with which they had solidarity; and others annoyed because they felt forced to declare their views on a matter which had, strictly speaking, nothing to do with the NUJ.

The Conservative government, led by Stanley Baldwin, took a hard line against the strikers. In the British Gazette, he likened the strikes to a coup on the government:

Constitutional Government is being attacked. Let all good citizens whose livelihood and labour have thus been put in peril bear with fortitude and patience the hardships with which they have been so suddenly confronted. Stand behind the Government, who are doing their part, confident that you will co-operate in the measures they have undertaken to preserve the liberties and privileges of the people of these islands.

The ‘liberties and privileges’ of the millions of strikers were clearly not under consideration. Contemporary newsreels similarly focused on the efforts of the ‘volunteers’ and the supposed relief of Londoners when the strike was called off after nine days, without showing the various violent clashes between police and strikers which also occurred during the strike period.

The strike was eventually called of on legal grounds – it was determined that only the miner strike was aligned with the 1906 Trade Dispute Act, meaning that all other strikers did not have any legal protection.[ii] Although the miners continued their resistance until the end of 1926, they did not obtain any wage increases.

The following year, Stanley Baldwin passed a new Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act which made it illegal for any unions to strike in sympathy with another union – in future, each union was only allowed to go on strike if the dispute in question directly affected them. According to labour historian Anthony Mason, ‘The defeat which the trade unions suffered at the hands of the Government successfully discredited the idea of widespread industrial action as a method of obtaining the demands of labour. It did much to ensure the relatively quiescent acceptance by Labour of the persistent unemployment of the thirties.’[iii] The impact of the General Strike, then, was felt much beyond the nine days it lasted in May 1926; arguably it has impacted labour relations in Britain into the 21st century.


[i] Dan S. White, ‘Reconsidering European Socialism in the 1920s’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 16, no. 2 (1981), 251-272

[ii] Jessica Brain, ‘The General Strike 1926’, Historic UK, accessed online: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/General-Strike-1926/

[iii] Anthony Mason, ‘The Government and the General Strike, 1926,’ International Review of Social History, Vol. 14, no. 1 (1969), 1-21

The Gaunt Stranger (1938)

Featured<strong>The Gaunt Stranger (1938)</strong>

As has been noted previously on this blog, the work of detective fiction writer Edgard Wallace was often used as source material for British interwar films. Wallace was a prolific writer, so despite his early death in 1932, there were plenty of opportunities to translate his work to the screen for years afterwards. One such crime thriller is 1938’s The Gaunt Stranger. What sets this story apart from most British interwar crime fodder is that, very unusually, the criminal escapes the police at the end of the story.

Like so many interwar texts, The Gaunt Stranger existed in multiple formats and under different titles. Wallace originally published the story as a novel in 1925 under the title The Gaunt Stranger. Shortly after its publication, Wallace adapted it for the stage in collaboration with celebrated acter Gerald Du Maurier under the same name. In 1926 Wallace re-published the novel, now titled The Ringer, with some modifications to the text based on the stage production. The Ringer appears to have been put on stage again in 1929, and was also adapted as a film in Britain in 1928, 1931 and 1952. The second of these films was directed by Walter Forde, who in 1938 directed the story again under the auspices of Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios, but this time under the book’s original title.

The story of The Gaunt Stranger is almost as intricate as its production history. Set over a period of only 48 hours, it centres on lawyer-cum-criminal Maurice Meister, who receives warning that he is to be killed on 17 November, in two days’ time, by the notorious criminal ‘The Ringer’. Everyone in England, including Scotland Yard, believed the Ringer to have been killed two years’ previously in Australia. After the Ringer’s apparent death, Meister took in the Ringer’s sister as his secretary. It is insinuated that his relationship with the woman was more than just professional, and she committed suicide on 17 November the previous year. The Ringer appears to have come back from the dead to avenge his sister.

The Scotland Yard team is made up of DI Alan Wembury, Scottish police surgeon Dr Lomond, and Inspector Bliss, who has recently returned from Australia and who was the man who ostensibly killed the Ringer two years previously. Wembury calls in the help of small-time criminal Sam Hackett, who is one of the few men in England who would be able to recognise the Ringer. Wembury also has an admiration for Meister’s current secretary, Mary Lenley, whose brother Johnnie is also a criminal recently released from Dartmoor. Finally, in the course of the investigation the police identify and question Cora Ann, the Ringer’s American wife.

DI Alan Wembury and Mary Lenley in The Gaunt Stranger

With a runtime of only 71 minutes and a comprehensive cast of characters with complicated interrelations, The Gaunt Stranger moves at a rapid pace. Nonetheless, Forde makes effective use of repeated panning shots of empty rooms inside Meister’s house. The film opens with several shots of these empty rooms, ending with a shot of Meister playing his piano. Similar shots are repeated several times during the film, to stress Meister’s solitary living arrangements and highlight his vulnerability. As the 17 November dawns, Scotland Yard effectively imprison Meister in his own house to ensure he stays safe. Little do they know that the danger will not be coming from outside the house.

The closed circle of characters and the physical closure of Meister’s house set The Gaunt Stranger up as a classic murder mystery. What remains unclear until the end, however, is the identity of the Ringer himself. Johnnie, the criminal brother of secretary Mary, is a possible contender. More suspicious is inspector Bliss, who so recently returned from Australia. He acts oddly throughout the film, and seems reluctant to trust Wembury or collaborate fully with the investigation. Wembury does not know Bliss personally, opening up the possibility of him being someone other than who he pretends to be. Cora Ann also behaves oddly, first insisting that her husband is dead, before changing her story and admitting that he is still alive.

Johnnie Lenley and Sam Hackett in The Gaunt Stranger

Meister himself is also anything but a sympathetic character. Like other books of the period, Wallace opted to make his victim an unpleasant character, so that the audience is not too concerned whether the murder is prevented or not. More unusually, however, Wallace also arranged for the Ringer, when his identity is eventually revealed, to make a spectacular escape from the police and the country. Once the Ringer’s identity is confirmed, it is clear to the audience in retrospect that Cora Ann has been playing along with her husband throughout the film. Their escape, which involves piloting a plane from a nearby airfield, was clearly planned in advance.

The Ringer and Cora Ann escape in The Gaunt Stranger

The police in The Gaunt Stranger are depicted as organised and capable. They effectively arrest multiple people throughout the film and are not fooled by Meister’s attempts to come across as a respectable lawyer – they are fully aware of his criminal activities. When Sam Hackett, the criminal informer, attempts to steal some of Meister’s silverware, he is apprehended by a Bobby almost immediately. Johnnie, too, is arrested as soon as he tries to break into a house. The film puts some of the police’s technological infrastructure on display, such as telegrams and cars wired with radios. Nevertheless the Ringer’s unscrupulous nature allows him to escape despite the police’s efforts. The Gaunt Stranger is one of the few British interwar films which entertains the possibility of a fallible police force that can be outwitted by master criminals.

The Gaunt Stranger is available on DVD from Network on Air.

Featured

The Abdication Crisis

As the UK getting used to a new monarch on the throne, let’s cast our minds back to the events of 1936, when an abdication crisis ultimately resulted in the confirmation of Prince Albert, the second son of King George V, as King George VI.

Prior to 1936, and throughout the 1920s, George V’s eldest son Edward, Prince of Wales, was an enormously popular figure. This blog has previously touched on his popularity as a newsreel subject and his ability to kick off new fashion trends. Edward was often seen in London’s nightlife and also travelled a great deal, both for work and for pleasure. He had the reputation of a playboy and remained unmarried in 1936, when he was already 42 years of age. His brother George, by contrast, was a year younger than him but had married at 28 and fathered two children (Elizabeth and Margaret) by the time he was 35.

As is customary in Britain, George V reigned until his death and the eldest child [at the time, the eldest son] is declared monarch immediately afterwards. A formal coronation ceremony follows some months later. When George V passed away in January 1936 after a long period of declining ill-health, Edward was duly proclaimed King. The abdication crisis ensued when, in the autumn of 1936, Edward declared his intention to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson.

Wallis’ nationality was already something that spoke against her in a country that was, at the time, concerned and suspicious of American cultural influences through popular culture. The popularity of Hollywood films and dance bands was blamed for a host of cultural ills. But Wallis’ past relationships were the real obstacle to the match. Edward had first met her as early as 1931 and she did not file for a divorce from Mr Simpson until October 1936, making it abundantly clear that her relationship with Edward had started during her marriage.

Although one of the key reasons that the Church of England was created was famously to allow Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon, divorce was a significant social taboo in interwar Britain. Divorce laws were eased in the 1920s but the social stigma on divorce was still significant – and not helped by the gleeful reporting of high-profile divorce cases in a tabloid press keen to increase its readership. The key objection which Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin therefore proposed against Edward’s marriage to Wallis was that ‘the people’ would not accept her as Queen. After several months of legal tussle between Edward and the government, it became clear that a marriage between Edward and Wallis would not be accepted as long as he was on the throne. In December 1936, Edward formally abdicated and his brother Albert was proclaimed King, styling himself as George VI. Edward was never officially coronated; his coronation had been planned for May 1937; a date eventually used for the coronation of George VI instead.

One of the aspects of the abdication crisis that is difficult for a modern audience to comprehend is how absolutely the British newspapers refused to print anything about it until early December 1936. As this blog has frequently noted, newspapers were extremely popular and influential during the interwar period, and in the mid-1930s popular newspapers in particular were constantly trying to increase their circulation figures. A royal scandal of this magnitude would appear to be excellent content to draw in readers. However, the respect for the monarchy was such that newspaper proprietors, who were fully aware of Edward’s relationship with Wallis, agreed a media blackout.

Such a thing would of course be completely impossible in our current digital media landscape, but even back in 1936 London newsvendors sold international publications, and journalists in other countries had no scruples about reporting the story. American outlets in particular splashed on the story, which from their perspective could be told as a fairy tale of an American commoner falling in love with the (future) King of Britain. The overwhelming power of the British press, however, ensured that its refusal to print the details for months meant that the majority of the British public remained equally unaware. The media blackout during the crisis exemplifies the power of newspaper proprietors during the interwar period, and the very close relationships between the newspapers and the corridors of power – although it must be pointed out that this blackout was voluntary and press-driven, and not imposed by the government or the Royal household.

Shortly after Edward’s abdication, Britain was introduced to Mass Observation, an (eventually) influential research organisation which aimed to understand modern society by asking ‘normal’ people to share their observations on everyday life and historical events.1 After its founding in January 1937, its first published work included a collection of ordinary peoples’ views on the Abdication Crisis. Mass Observation in a way seems to react against the media blackout initially surrounding the abdication. While powerful newspaper proprietors decided to withhold the news from the public, Mass Observation gave the public at large an opportunity to respond to the crisis and give their opinions on it.

The abdication crisis was a pivotal cultural moment in interwar Britain, one that laid bare some of the machinations of the powerful news media and its close links with those in power; but which also facilitated the emergence of a more democratic way of understanding everyday culture. Although Edward’s decision to choose marriage over a royal appointment was a personal one, it had significant social ramifications.

  1. Frank Mort, ‘Love in a Cold Climate: Letters, Public Opinion and Monarchy in the 1936 Abdication Crisis’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 25, no. 1 (2014), p. 32

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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 1922 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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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