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

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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

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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.

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Henry Wade – Heir Presumptive (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 77

[5] Ibid., p. 203

[6] Ibid. pp. 203-7

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

[8] Wade, Heir Presumptive, p. 209

Brooklands

FeaturedBrooklands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Fascination (1931)

FeaturedFascination (1931)

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

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

Madeleine Carroll as Gwenda Farrell in Fascination

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

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

Vera and Larry courting in Fascination

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

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

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

Larry visiting a very modernist optician in Fascination

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

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

Vera warmly says goodbye to Gwenda in Fascination

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

Larry and Vera happily reunited at the end of Fascination

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

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

Pa Puts His Foot Down (1934)

FeaturedPa Puts His Foot Down (1934)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emlyn Williams

FeaturedEmlyn Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., p. 449

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

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

[5] Ibid., 319

Featured

Careers for Girls (1927)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 81

[5] Ibid., p. 38

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

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

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

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

FeaturedThe Divorce of Lady X (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Co-operette (1938)

FeaturedCo-operette (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onion and Carrot emerging for their dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alastair Sim

FeaturedAlastair Sim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Olympia, 7 June 1934

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 14

[7] Ibid. p. 9

[8] Ibid. p. 20

[9] Ibid., p. 37

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

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

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

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Sabotage (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Eve 1921

FeaturedNew Year’s Eve 1921

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid.

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

[8] Ibid.

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

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

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

Edmund Gwenn

FeaturedEdmund Gwenn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., p. 123

Kate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

FeaturedKate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

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

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

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

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

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

Advert in the Daily Express of 4 March 1933

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the Birmingham Daily Gazette grumbled that

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid. p. 64

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

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

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

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

First a Girl (1935)

FeaturedFirst a Girl (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., p. 218

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

Woman: Her Health and Beauty (1919)

FeaturedWoman: Her Health and Beauty (1919)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This patriarchal tone pervades throughout the introduction, which states that

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

And

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., p. 15

[3] Ibid., p. 22

[4] Ibid., p. 24

[5] Ibid., p. 27

[6] Ibid., p. 21

[7] Ibid., p. 35

[8] Ibid., pp. 29-30

[9] Ibid., p. 19

[10] Ibid., p. 49

Gracie Fields in Picture Post (1938)

FeaturedGracie Fields in Picture Post (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Gracie Fields in action in this clip recorded in 1938

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

[2] Ibid., p. 12

[3] Ibid., p. 14

[4] Ibid., pp. 15-16

[5] Ibid., p. 12

[6] Ibid., p. 15

[7] Ibid., p. 12

[8] Ibid., p. 14

[9] Ibid., p. 70

[10] Ibid.

W. Lusty & Sons Ltd – Furniture Makers

FeaturedW. Lusty & Sons Ltd – Furniture Makers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing included in catalgue, demonstrating use of cabinet

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


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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

Night Alone (1938)

FeaturedNight Alone (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy L. Sayers – Murder Must Advertise (1933)

FeaturedDorothy L. Sayers – Murder Must Advertise (1933)

Dorothy L. Sayers is readily regarded as one of the most prominent contributors to the ‘Golden Age of Crime Fiction’: a period that spans nearly all of the interwar period. It marked not only a huge increase in the popularity of crime stories in Britain, but also saw innovations in the genre, for example the unreliable narrator in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and a crime with half a dozen possible solutions in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929).

Sayers’ main contribution to the genre were the eleven novels she wrote around amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey; the debonair younger brother of the Duke of Denver who combines a passion for antiquarian book-collecting with his hobby of crime detection. The first Wimsey novel, Whose Body? appeared in 1922 in the US and in Britain a year later. Sayers’ continued writing Wimsey novels until Busman’s Honeymoon in 1937, after which she turned her attention to writing scholarly works on theology.[1]

The eight Wimsey novel out of a total of eleven, Murder Must Advertise, appeared in 1933. In this book, Wimsey goes undercover to work as a copywriter at a fictional advertising firm, Pym’s Publicity. He is invited to do this by the manager, Mr Pym himself, after a suspicious death on the firm’s premises: one of the staffers has fallen to his death from a spiral staircase. Sayers drew on inspiration from her own time working as a copywriter in the early 1920s for S.H. Benson; the Benson office even had a steep spiral staircase like the one that appears in Murder Must Advertise.[2]

Sayers’ real-life work experience lend the novel’s descriptions of the office life in an advertising firm an authentic air. The novel’s opening sees all the firm’s office staff gathered in the typists’ room, to surreptitiously organise a sweep on the horse races. There are pages of rapid, overlapping dialogue of staff discussing the sweep and the arrival of the new colleague. When they hear one of the managers approach,

‘the scene dislimned as by magic. (…) Mr Willis (…) picked a paper out at random and frowned furiously at it (…) Mr Garrett, unable to get rid of his coffee-cup, smiled vaguely and tried to look as though he had picked it up by accident and didn’t know it was there (…) Miss Rossiter, clutching Mr Armstrong’s carbons in her hand, was able to look businesslike, and did so.’[3]

It is a scene still familiar from modern office-based comedies and dramas such as Mad Men (2007-2015) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Throughout the book, the copywriting staff spend most of their time chatting and trying to come up with new slogans, interspersed with bursts of extreme stress when an advert needs to be reworked close to the printing deadline. A key scene in the novel sees the Morning Star newspaper ring the office at 6.15pm because they have noticed an unintentionally rude image in one of the adverts due to be printed that evening.[4] The resolution to the murder investigation ultimately also lies in the adverts: Wimsey finds out that a drug racket uses advertisements to communicate with one another.

Because of Wimsey’s aristocratic background, he does not normally engage in paid work in any of the books. Alongside the murder mystery, Murder Must Advertise gives the reader the opportunity to glimpse the world of advertising in 1930s Britain. The subject matter gives Sayers’ ample opportunity to poke fun at the public. During his time at Pym’s, Wimsey accidentally comes up with a wildly successful campaign for (fictional) Whifflet cigarettes:

‘It was in that moment, (…) that [Wimsey] conceived that magnificent idea that everybody remembers and talks about today – the scheme that achieved renown as ‘Whiffling Round Britain’ (…) It is not necessary to go into details. You have probably Whiffled yourself.’[5]

Essentially, the campaign is a coupon scheme; coupons collected on cigarette packets could be traded for hotel stays, train tickets, holiday outings et cetera. Sayers’ describes the scheme as growing beyond the initial campaign to

‘Whifflet wedding[s] with Whifflet cake[s] (…) a Whifflet house, whose Wihfflet furniture included a handsome presentation smoking cabinet, free from advertising matter and crammed with unnecessary gadgets. After this, it was only a step to a Whifflet Baby.’[6]

At the time the novel was published, this type of all-encompassing branding had also been embraced by the British Union of Fascists, as discussed in a previous post. Advertising and marketing in general had taken an enormous flight during these decades, in no small part due to the increased circulation of daily newspapers.

Sayers herself is sceptical of the industry – the novel ends with a paragraph of fictional advertising slogans and the closing line ‘Advertise, or go under.’[7] Although Sayers apparently enjoyed her time working at S. H. Benson in 1923,[8] when Murder Must Advertise was published ten years later she appears to have been more critical of the industry. Nonetheless, Murder Must Advertise provides a comic look into what was a growing industry in interwar Britain, written by someone with first-hand knowledge of its operations.

A 1973 TV adaptation of Murder Must Advertise can be found on YouTube.


[1] Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), pp. 329-331

[2] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), p. 13

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (London: New English Library, 2003 [1933]), p. 6

[4] Ibid., pp. 135-145

[5] Ibid., p. 288

[6] Ibid., p. 289

[7] Ibid., p. 388

[8] Wade, Square Haunting, p. 125

Jack Hulbert

FeaturedJack Hulbert

A wildly popular musical comedy star of stage and screen in the 1930s, Jack Hulbert has since been dismissed by some critics as a ‘light entertainer’[1] who ‘can seem tirelessly jaunty company.’[2] During the peak of his film career, Hulbert ranked high in popularity charts. In 1933 he was voted the top British male star in audience questionnaires and 1936 he was the third most popular British star based on domestic box office returns.[3] He starred in fourteen films across the decade.

Jack Hulbert was born in Cambridgeshire in 1892 to a doctor. He studied at Cambridge where he joined the Cambridge Footlights. His brother Claude Hulbert, who was eight years his junior, followed the same trajectory. Both brothers became two of the first Footlights alumni to reach acting success and fame. After Cambridge, Jack Hulbert got a role in a theatre production, playing opposite Cicely Courtneidge. The couple married in 1916 and stayed together for the rest of their lives, often working together on stage and screen.

After completing his war service, Hulbert returned to his career in variety theatre and produced and acted in numerous stage productions across the West End. During the 1920s, British films were still silent and therefore did not provide a suitable medium for comedy stage stars like Hulbert and Courtneidge, who depended on witty dialogue and song-and-dance numbers to win over their audiences. Further, until the adoption of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, very limited numbers of British films were being produced at all.

By the start of the 1930s the couple found themselves in debt due to financial mismanagement. As the British film industry was at the same time transitioning to sound, the time had come for Hulbert and Courtneidge to make the leap to the silver screen. Their first appearance was as themselves in Elstree Calling! (1930). As implied by the title, this film was a series of separate sketches performed by popular entertainers supposedly broadcasting from Elstree studios north of London.

After Elstree Calling! Hulbert moved into narrative fiction films, and increasingly worked separately from Courtneidge. In common with other popular comedy stars of the period, such as George Formby and Gracie Fields, Hulbert usually played characters called Jack. The titles of some of his films, such as Jack’s the Boy (1932), Jack Ahoy (1934), Bulldog Jack (1935) and Jack of All Trades (1936) worked to eliminate the difference between the actor and his characters even further.

Hulbert’s persona was a confident and likeable middle-class charmer who was able to be both comic and romantic.[4] . His films ‘appear to exist primarily for the display of [his] talents as singer, dancer and comedian.’[5] In Jack of All Trades, he plays a likeable chancer who is looking for a job. After striking up an acquaintance with Lionel, a bank clerk (played by Robertson Hare) Jack starts showing up at Lionel’s office and pretend that he works there. His pretence is so successful that he ends up convincing the bank bosses to build an entire new shoe factory. The scenes where Jack and Lionel present their proposal to the Board, all of whom approve the plans because they are too embarrassed to admit that they have no idea what they are being shown, still have the power to resonate with modern audiences. The final third of Jack of All Trades, however, descends into fast-paced slapstick action typical of Hulbert films with a lot of physical comedy.

Hulbert singing ‘Where There’s You, There’s Me’ in Jack of All Trades

A similar tension between narrative and apparently stand-alone action can be found in Bulldog Jack, a film satirising the extremely popular Bulldog Drummond book and film series. Bulldog Drummond was a fictional, highly successful police inspector. At the start of Bulldog Jack, Jack Hulbert’s character accidentally crashes his car into Bulldog Drummond’s, injuring the latter and making him bed-bound. When the young daughter of a jeweller asks for help because her father has fallen victim to a gang of thieves and blackmailers, Drummond asks Jack to pretend to be the famous ‘Bulldog’ and take on the case.

Again, the first section of the film gives plenty of space for comedy and romance, before the action-packed climax set in the London Underground. The criminal gang have set up their headquarters in a disused Underground station, and the gang leader hijacks an Underground train in an attempt to get away. Jack ends up crawling over the top of the train carriages, like a true action hero, to stop the train. Prior to this final chase, Bulldog Jack uses sped-up shots of Jack and his friends chasing the criminals up and down the spiral staircases of the Underground station.

By the mid-1930s the use of sped-up film was quite unusual; it was a device much more often used in the ‘cinema of attractions’ that pre-dated World War One. Jack Hulbert’s films did not fully conform to the conventions of narrative filmmaking. Instead, they applied techniques from earlier film genres and from the variety stage onto the long-form fiction film medium. Although this allowed Hulbert to perform in a similar mode across his stage and film productions, as a result his 1930s film work can jar to modern audiences and make it more challenging to understand Hulbert’s enormous popularity at the time.

Elstree Calling! can be viewed on YouTube.


[1] James Chapman, ‘Celluloid Shockers’, in The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British cinema, 1929-1939, ed. Jeffrey Richards (London: IB Tauris, 1998), p. 91

[2] Brian McFarlane, ‘Jack of All Trades: Robert Stevenson’, in The Unknown 1930s, p. 164

[3] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010) pp. 160-161

[4] McFarlane, ‘Jack of All Trades’, p. 163

[5] Ibid.

Fascism in East London, 1932-1940

FeaturedFascism in East London, 1932-1940

The most notorious expression of anti-Semitic sentiment in interwar Britain was the creation and rise of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) by Oswald Mosley. Mosley founded the BUF in 1932, after first serving as an MP for the Conservative and Labour parties, and standing as an independent MP.[1] The history of the BUF has been extensively researched, and there is a general consensus that the BUF’s most fruitful recruitment ground was London’s East End.[2] The BUF’s popularity and membership fluctuated throughout the 1930s until Mosley was interned in 1940, which effectively ended the BUF’s existence.

Whitechapel and its environs had been the centre of London’s Jewish community from the mid-19th century[3]; when unemployment rates went up in the 1930s, the BUF’s anti-Semitic messages – formally adopted in 1934[4] –  found traction with some East Enders. When the local population struggled to get work, it was all too easy to blame the Jewish immigrants for ‘taking jobs’. Anne Kershen, a historian of the East End, has pointed out that Jews were the largest minority ethnic group in interwar Britain.[5] This, combined with a long history of anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe as a whole, made the Jewish community a much-used scapegoat for any perceived unfairness in society. With anti-Semitism on the rise across the content in the 1930s, in Britain too these sentiments were foregrounded more in the mid-1930s than in previous decades. 

The BUF paid considerable attention to the visual impact of its branding. Apart from the Blackshirt uniforms, which immediately identified BUF members in public, the party also recorded and sold speeches by Mosley and recordings of the Blackshirt Military Band as well as posters, postcards and photo books of Mosley and other BUF leaders.[6] Historian Julie Gottlieb has argued that the party deliberately borrowed from cinematic conventions at their rallies and meetings, which were sometimes held in cinemas. The use of light and sound effects, banners and flags, and choreographed movement all built up to a crescendo when Mosley himself appeared.[7]

The BUF recruited and retained its members primarily through its network of local offices and branches, were members could convene, plan and discuss activities such as rallies and marches. This local, grass-roots organisation meant that there was significant variation of BUF uptake and activity from parish to parish. In the East End, the Bethnal Green branch of the BUF was very successful in drumming up support by offering a cohesive ideological alternative to the local socialist council, which had left residents disillusioned.[8] The BUF also gained traction in Limehouse and Whitechapel.[9]

The organisational structure of the BUF also meant that a member’s involvement with the party was primarily based on local interactions and social activities. In the local headquarters, (male) party members convened to educate themselves, work on party outreach activities and undertake physical exercise classes. Female members had an entirely separate, but similar, experience, with their activities centring on recruiting and training new female members, as well as learning ‘fencing, boxing and first aid’.[10] The BUF’s insistence on physical fitness was part of its racist quest to create ‘New Men’ who would be able to ‘maintain and re-unify’ the British Empire.[11]

Beyond the social activities of the local branch, members could buy the aforementioned party memorabilia as well as party newspapers, cigarettes from the party’s own brand, playing cards, letter heads, et cetera.[12] For the truly committed BUF couple, a fascist wedding may be considered. At these, the groom would typically wear his Blackshirt uniform, whereas the bride could accessorize her dress with Fascist details. At one wedding, the bride cut the cake with an axe rather than a knife.[13] As historian Michael Spurr puts it: Rather than simply voting fascist at elections or proselytising on the streets, members of the BUF became Blackshirts, individuals whose identity and social experience was shaped and defined by this alternate fascist community.’[14]

Herein lies the key to the BUF’s popularity in the East End of the 1930s. The vast amount of social and cultural change which Britain experienced during the interwar period left some groups feeling abandoned. The international political situation was uncertain and a second World War seemed increasingly inevitable. The BUF offered a sense of community and a promise of a Greater Britain – as well as a strong commitment to peace with Hitler. The Party’s savvy marketing strategies amplified its mass appeal; it also frequently recruited teenagers looking for a sense of belonging. Being a BUF member left such an impression that members were able to fondly recall their time with the party, decades later.[15] For them, it was not the party’s political ideas which were of primary importance, but rather its community and the belief that Britain would rise above its difficulties to come out stronger.


[1] Mosley’s Blackshirts: The Inside Story of The British Union of Fascists 1932-1934 (London: Sanctuary Press, 1986), p. v-vii

[2] Thomas P Linehan, East London for Mosley: The British Union of Fascists in East London and South-West Essex, 1933-1940 (London: Frank Cass, 1996), p. 199

[3] Anne Kershen  Strangers, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1666-2000 (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 64

[4] Michael A. Spurr. ‘’Living the Blackshirt Life’: Culture, Community and the British Union of Fascists, 1932-1940’, Contemporary European History, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Aug., 2003), 305-322 (307)

[5] Kershen, Strangers, Aliens and Asians, p. 208

[6] Julie Gottlieb, ‘The Marketing of Megalomania: Celebrity, Consumption and the Development of Political Technology in the British Union of Fascists’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 2006), 35-55 (41-42)

[7] Ibid., 45

[8] John Marriot, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London (Yale: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 306

[9] Ibid.

[10] Spurr, ‘Living the Blackshirt Life’, 315

[11] Liam J. Liburd, ‘Beyond the Pale: Whiteness, Masculinity and Empire in the British Union of Fascists, 1932–1940’, Fascism, 7 (2018), 275-296 (284-285)

[12] Spurr, ‘Living the Blackshirt Life’, 318

[13] Ibid., p. 319

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mosley’s Blackshirts: The Inside Story of The British Union of Fascists 1932-1934 (London: Sanctuary Press, 1986) is a compendium of past BUF members’ memories of the party

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They Drive By Night (1938)

Towards the end of the interwar period, Warner Brothers’ British arm produced the thriller They Drive by Night, directed by Arthur Woods. This should not be confused with the 1940 American film of the same title, starring George Raft and Ida Lupino; although both films make reference to the long-distance lorry driving community, which is what their titles also refer to. Woods was still only in his early thirties when he directed They Drive By Night, but he’d already had a long career in the industry as a director (Radio Parade of 1935; Music Hath Charms) and screenwriter (Red Wagon; I Spy). They Drive By Night is a thriller, different from the majority of Woods’ work which was in musical comedy. Woods died in 1944 in active combat after joining the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The hero of They Drive By Night is ‘Shorty’ Matthews, played by Emlyn Williams. A the start of the film Shorty has just been released from prison, and he goes to look up Alice, an old flame who works as a dance hostess. When he arrives at her lodgings, Alice is dead in her room. Shorty panics and goes on the run, by posing as a long-distance lorry driver. With the help of Molly, one of Alice’s friends and colleagues, he keeps out of the hands of the police and is eventually able to track down Alice’s real killer. The killer is an older man with an obsession for the ‘criminal mind’, who used to often dance with Alice at the dance hall.

Although They Drive By Night is based on a British novel and set in England, the influence of the American producers on the film is marked. It is a prime example of the kind of film that met the criteria of a ‘British’ film under the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, without actually conveying the British cultural values the Act also aimed to promote. For example, the characters use Americanisms and slang throughout the film. When Shorty first gets out of prison, he meets a woman in a bar: she is ostentatiously chewing gum, and her hair is dyed platinum blonde. This was hardly the type of womanhood thought to reflect British values, but Shorty and the barman look after the woman appreciatively.

They Drive By Night’s overall narrative also espoused values that are not typical of British films of the period. The main characters are a convicted criminal and a dance hostess turned lorry girl. As Julia Laite has explored, the lorry driving community caused concern in 1930s Britain as some young women hitched rides from drivers. It was suggested that this type of hitchhiking sometimes involved an exchange of sexual favours, which in turn led to the spread of venereal diseases amongst the lorry driving community.[1] This in turn could lead, it was feared, to unsafe road situations when lorry drivers were ill, thus neatly linking the whole matter to ongoing road safety debates.

In They Drive By Night, however, there is no suggestion that Molly sleeps with the lorry drivers that help her, and the general practice of girls hitching rides is not condemned. When one of them tries to take advantage of her, she fights him off. This driver is presented as a ‘bad sort’ and not representative of the whole lorry driving community – a second driver whom Shorty spends some time with is shown to be faithful to his wife at home. Overall, the lorry driver scene is presented as a more positive male environment than Shorty’s criminal network back in London; but ultimately the film presents a heterosexual coupling as the only truly appropriate outcome for Shorty.

The police play only a minor part in They Drive By Night, and they are not instrumental to the capture of Alice’s killer. Unlike other thrillers of the late 1930s such as The Squeaker or The Dark Eyes of London, the police inspector in They Drive By Night is not one of the protagonists who leads on the resolution of the case. Indeed, they do not feature in the film’s climax, in which Shorty and Molly are at home with the killer and he nearly succeeds in murdering Molly, at all. They Drive By Night skips over the killer’s arrest and trial – the parts of the process in which the police would be involved – straight to the day of his execution.

The police primarily feature as a plot device that gives urgency to Shorty’s actions as the police chase him. Shorty’s criminal record is no impediment to his status as the film’s hero, but throughout the film characters encourage him to ‘go straight’. First the owner of his regular bar tells Shorty not to go back to his old criminal habits. Then Molly’s steadfast support of Shorty whilst he is on the run for the police persuades him to say goodbye to his criminal life for good and turn himself in voluntarily. Only then is he able to outwit the killer and save Molly’s life as a traditional hero would. The eighteen months Shorty has done in prison for his earlier crimes are sufficient to wipe these off his slate and allow him a fresh start; arguably a philosophy more reflective of American culture than British values. Molly, too, is presented as a suitable romantic partner despite her past as a lorry girl and her work as a dance hostess; two roles which were regularly connected with loose morals.

They Drive By Night seems to represent a transitional point in British interwar cinema, where American values had influenced British culture so much that they started to permeate British films. Despite the best efforts of the legislators, they were not able to stem the tide of American cultural influence on the domestic film industry. This influence went beyond hairstyles and mannerisms to a fundamental re-appraisal of morality and social values.

They Drive By Night is available to view on Youtube.


[1] Julia Laite, ‘Immoral Traffic: Mobility, Health, Labor, and the “Lorry Girl” in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies (2013) 52:3, pp. 693-721 (693-4)

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Night Work for ‘Phone Girls (1929)

An ubiquitous feature of books and films in the interwar period is the use of telephones, and therefore the presence of phone exchange operators. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, most phone calls in England were put through manual switchboards, which were owned by the Post Office and were mostly operated by young women. These operators would ask the caller which number they wanted to connect to, and then connect the wires on the switchboard to place the call. Switchboard operating became a ‘female’ job, because, in the words of the Science Museum: ‘The job of a switchboard operator took concentration, good interpersonal skills and quick hands. The Post Office, which ran the telephone service in the UK, soon realised that women and girls were much more skilled and reliable than the messenger boys who had first taken on the job.’

Switchboard operating fell into the same category as other jobs which were presumed to require nimble hands, such as hand-colouring films and working in confectionary and biscuit factories.[1] The operators were usually young because it was still the convention that women gave up paid work upon their marriage. There are plenty of anecdotes about regular callers getting to know ‘their’ switchboard operator. The romantic and dramatic potential of the job was effectively used by Maurice Elvey in his 1932 film The Lodger (The Phantom Fiend) in which a young female operator overhears a murder down the line.

In 1929, switchboard operators found themselves at the heart of a debate in which modernity and progress clashed with perceived notions of the suitability of female labour. The Daily Telegraph ran an article on 6 July of that year headlined ‘Night Work for ‘Phone Girls’ – note both the novelty of shortening the word ‘telephone’ and the referral to working women as ‘girls’, as was common practice. The article reports that the Postmaster General proposed to extend the shifts of female operators from 8pm to 10.30pm or 11pm. This would necessitate the hiring of more operators as an individual’s working hours would not increase, but rather a shift pattern would be introduced.

According to the article, the current convention to end women operator’s days at 8pm was maintained at the recommendation of ‘Parliamentary committees’ which were opposed to the employment of girls late at night. The Postmaster General however was of the opinion ‘that social conditions as they affect the employment of women have so changed in recent years’ that this rule could now be abandoned. The increased mobility of women in the immediate post-War period, as well as better access to public transport, had made women much more mobile after dark, and it was becoming commonplace for women to travel around at night.

Curiously, there is also reference to a ‘medical argument’ against women working at night. Although this argument is not spelled out, on suspects there would be concerns that night-work negatively impacts women’s health and may in turn affect their ability to have children. This argument is countered by the Postmaster General through reference to the extensive work women undertook during the Great War, which did not compromise their health.

So far for the social arguments against women working late at night – but the proposal to extend their shifts in the telephone exchange also touched on a recurring debate about jobs for men versus jobs for women. While the women’s roles were ending at 8pm, the evening shift in the exchanges was undertaken by part-time male operators, whose work was apparently ‘subject to a disproportionate number of complaints’. This appears to be the key reason the Post Office was proposing a change; they wanted to improve the service to their customers.

The part-time nature of these men’s contracts is pivotal: the Post Office stresses that for these men, the ‘post office pay is not intended to form their principal means of livelihood.’ [emphasis mine] If the proposal was for women to replace full-time male breadwinners, there would have been considerable opposition to it, even if it would improve the evening telephone service. During the interwar period, the narrative of the male head of household working to provide for his family was much supported.[2] It was regularly argued that women should not be ‘taking’ any roles that should go to male workers. The careful phrasing of the Postmaster General implies that the loss of labour would not be a hardship to any of these men; but it seems likely that for some of them, at least, the Post Office role was their primary income, and a redundancy would be keenly felt.

As this article demonstrates, an apparently simple desire to improve the telephone service for customers was enmeshed in wider debates and concerns that echoed throughout the interwar period. The attentive and powerful press industry could help or hinder an organisation’s ambitions by being either supportive or obstructive. During this period, heads of organisations such as the Post Office had to be acutely sensitive to the political environment even for innovations which may have appeared as strictly internal affairs.

You can see switchboard operators at work here at the International switchboard in London


[1] Miriam Glucksmann, Women Assemble: Women Workers and the New Industries in Inter-War Britain (London: Routledge, 1990)

[2] Christine Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: Class, Gender, and Nation in Popular Film and Fiction in Interwar Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)

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“The most suppressed novel ever published in England”

When we think of banned books in interwar Britain, it’s likely that two examples spring to mind: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and Radclyffe Halls’ The Well of Loneliness (1928). Lawrence’s book, however, was not actually banned in Britain at the time of its publication. Rather, the book’s frank treatment of extramarital sex meant that Lawrence was not able to find a commercial publisher for it. Instead the book was printed in limited runs for private subscribers; and later, a censored, abridged version of the novel was circulated more widely. Chatterley’s reputation as ‘banned’ actually stems from the 1960 obscenity trial that was started when Penguin decided to print the full, unabridged version of the novel for the mass market.[1] Penguin won the landmark case from the government and the book has been available in its full form ever since.

The Well of Loneliness did get banned, but not until after it was released on the market. The book was published in July 1928; an obscenity trial was convened in November of the same year. The book’s description of lesbian (sexual) relationships was judged obscene and likely to corrupt readers’ minds; it was subsequently withdrawn from the British market but remained available through copies printed in Paris. The novel was re-printed in 1949 without incurring a further trial and it has been in print ever since.

There was, however, a third book at the end of the 1920s which fell victim to an obscenity trial. Unlike the two more famous examples cited above, Norah C James’s novel Sleeveless Errand was suppressed before it was even properly published. The book was printed and distributed to reviewers and bookshops in February 1929. The reviewer of the Morning Post was so alarmed by the novel’s contents, that he alerted the Home Office, who promptly moved to confiscate all distributed copies. The police went as far as visiting reviewers who had received a copy of the book, at home, and demand they hand their copies over.[2] This decisive action meant that not a single copy of the book remained in circulation in Britain when a magistrate officially confirmed its status as ‘obscene’ in March 1929.[3]

Like The Well of Loneliness, Sleeveless Errand was subsequently published in English through a French publishing house; but it has never been re-published by an British press. The copy in the British Library is one of the ‘French’ copies, the preface of which draws parallels with Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, which had been published in 1926 and was not considered obscene despite dealing with similar themes as Sleeveless Errand.

For all the noise around the novel’s supposed obscenity, what exactly is it about its contents that was considered so objectionable? Sleeveless Errand follows Paula and Bill, two young Londoners, over the period of around 36 hours. At the start of the novel, Paula is dumped by her lover Philip. They are not married, but have clearly had regular sex, which the novel does not condemn. After the break-up, Paula goes to a Lyons Corner House where she contemplates suicide. Bill happens to be put on the same table as her; he’s just walked in to his wife and his best friend in bed together, so he is also feeling very depressed.

The pair meet each other in their mutual low moods and Paula takes Bill to some of her regular night haunts, where they meet a group of Paula’s friends who drink and swear liberally. Eventually, Bill stays the night in Paula’s flat and they tell each other about their childhoods. The next morning Paula settles a will and the couple hire a car, with the plan to drive off a cliff near Brighton. On the way south they run into various other delays, which lead them to postpone the suicide until the next morning.

At night in their hotel, Paula gives Bill a firm talking-to and tells him he should go back to his wife and make amends; in Paula’s view, Bill’s wife’s infidelity is not an insurmountable hurdle as he still loves her. Bill agrees to go back and patch up his marriage. The novel ends with Paula driving up to the intended cliff-top and very calmly and deliberately driving the car off the cliff at sunrise.

Newspaper articles reporting on the magistrate court hearing that banned Sleeveless Errand drew attention to the novel’s language: ‘Specifically, the prosecution protested that the book took the name of God or Christ in vain over 60 times, as in the line, “For Christ’s sake give me a drink.”’[4] Ostensibly then, it is the novel’s language that led to its suppression. One may also consider the liberal discussions about sex, including Paula’s explicit affair at the novel’s opening and her views on monogamy: “It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world because a woman has intercourse with a man who’s not her husband.”[5]

Additionally, descriptions of the activities Paula and her friends get up to in nightclubs are decidedly seedy: “By now, nearly all the couples were sitting about the room embracing. Rathbone was what Hudson called “dry cleaning” a large good-looking girl whose name was Letty. She was the Haunt whore.”[6] According to Christine Grandy, heroes in interwar fiction “were distinguished by their fulfilment of the independent male breadwinner role, while the deviancy of the villain’s character lay in his inability or unwillingness to work for his wealth.”[7] None of the characters in Sleeveless Errand come anywhere near this hero template; Paula and her friends all appear to be independently wealthy and happy to drink their days away, and Bill has decided to abandon his breadwinner duties.

But Sleeveless Errand goes one step further. Not only do none of the characters conform to the pervasive discourse present in interwar fiction that presented contributing members of society as ‘good’; it argues that the post-War generation is fundamentally unable to contribute to society and that suicide is the moral choice. Throughout the novel, Paula repeatedly refers to the condition of her generation, those who came of age immediately after the end of the First World War.

[M]y generation of women is rotten to the core. Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless.[8]

This is the horror at the core of Sleeveless Errand. Rather than celebrating the end of the war and the upward mobility allowed by modernity, white-collar jobs, suburbs and automobiles, instead it maintains that the war has ruined the mental health of the young women. Those women, who are pivotal to the continuation of British culture by settling into their roles as wives and mothers, are ‘rotten’ and unable to fulfil their duties to society. Instead, Paula uses that symbol of modernity and progress, the automobile, to engage in the most subversive act of all. It is the rational, considered approach to suicide, which Paula commits to calmly and unwaveringly, that emblematizes the book’s dangerous potential. At a time when suicide was usually recorded as occurring ‘while of unsound mind’, Sleeveless Errand dares to raise the possibility that the act can be a well-thought out, even responsible, choice. Allowing women to entertain that possibility could have affected the foundations of interwar British society beyond repair. Seen in that light, the Home Office’s swift and decisive oppression of the work becomes understandable.


[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 118:3 (2013), 653-678, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/118.3.653

[2] Bill Harrison, ‘Censors, critics, and the suppression of Norah James’s Sleeveless Errand.’ Atenea, 3:1-2 (2013) 23-41 (25)

[3] Ibid., 26

[4] Ibid.

[5] Norah C James, Sleeveless Errand (Paris: Henry Babon & Jack Kahane, 1929), p. 54

[6] Ibid., p. 66

[7] Christine Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: class, gender, and nation in popular film and fiction in interwar Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 3

[8] James, Sleeveless Errand, pp. 204-5

Benita Hume

FeaturedBenita Hume

Benita Hume was born Benita Humm in London in 1906. Although she’s largely forgotten today, and there is little information available about her online, she was an incredibly prolific actress in interwar British films. Like some of the other actors discussed on this blog, she made the move to Hollywood in the mid-1930s. At the eve of World War Two Hume married British-actor-in-America Ronald Colman and she largely retired from acting, meaning that she spent the bulk of her acting career in the British film industry.

Hume started out on the stage but very quickly moved into film, landing her first, small, part in the 1925 Jack Buchanan vehicle The Happy Ending. There followed a tiny uncredited part in Hitchcock’s Easy Virtue. In 1928 Hume starred in The Constant Nymph, an adaptation of an immensely popular interwar novel. This Adrian Brunel-directed drama, with Ivor Novello as the romantic lead, was a box-office success.

Although Hume does not play one of the leading roles, the film definitely raised her credentials. After The Constant Nymph, Hume was never out of work again and usually made around four films a year. Her dark colouring and aristocratic features led her to be cast as the wealthy socialite as much as the love interest; her characters were usually thoroughly modern women. In 1929, she starred opposite Jameson Thomasin the sci-fi film High Treason. Although Hume’s character Evelyn Seymour is romantically involved with Thomas’ character Michael Dean, she still leads a revolution of women against him when she realises his actions may unleash a world war. Evelyn Seymour is not the kind of love interest who defers her judgement to a man.

Later in the same year, Hume played an extremely capable secretary in Géza von Bolváry’s The Wrecker. In this film, the heir to a train company, ‘Lucky’ Doyle, is trying to figure out who is after a series of deadly train crashes. Hume is the company secretary, Mary, who is (of course) also Doyle’s love interest. The film’s climax sees Mary travelling solo on a train that is due to be ‘wrecked’. Doyle manages to prevent the disaster from occurring, after which he and Mary team up to unmask the Wrecker for once and for all.

Hume made the transition sound film apparently without issue. She used her stage career to good advantage: in 1930 she appeared in the original Broadway cast of Symphony in Two Flats, written by and starring Ivor Novello. Novello and Hume also took on the leading roles in the British film adaptation of the same play, which was released in the same year (a separate ‘American’ version of the film was made in which Hume’s role was fulfilled by American actress Jacqueline Logan).

A couple of years later, Hume appeared opposite Leslie Howard in Service for Ladies. Howard at this point had already transitioned his career to Hollywood and was allegedly in Britain for a brief holiday when Alexander Korda persuaded him to spend a few days filming this light-hearted comedy. Here, Hume is not the love interest but rather the wealthy foreign socialite Countess Ricardi, who does her best to seduce Howard’s Max Tracey and distract him from the real object of his affection.

In 1934, Hume played a lead part in the British production Jew Süss, which, unlike the notorious 1940 Nazi-sanctioned film of the same name, was made with a view to be a sympathetic portrayal of the Jewish people. In the same year, she starred opposite Douglas Fairbanks in another Alexander Korda film, The Private Life of Don Juan. It was to be Fairbank’s last film. Korda intended Don Juan to have the same success as his Private Life of Henry VIII which he’d made the year before, but unfortunately Don Juan flopped badly at the box office.

As the 1930s continued, Hume’s portfolio increasingly included American as well as British film productions. In Britain, although she was continually cast as either the female lead or the second most substantial female part, she never really had a career-defining role, nor was she ever nominated for any major prizes. Some of the films she appeared in were cheap productions that are no longer available for viewing, which is no doubt partially why Hume’s name is largely forgotten today. She was, however, a household name in the interwar period, and her considerable acting talent is on display in the range of films in which she took leading parts.

The British 1934 film Jew Süss can be viewed on YouTube.

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The Lodger (1927 and 1932)

This post is the second of a two-part mini series about Marie Belloc Lowndes’ story The Lodger. The first post considers the short story and novel Lowndes wrote. This post discusses two film adaptations of the book made in interwar Britain.

Marie Belloc Lowndes novel The Lodger, which appeared in 1913, was twice adapted for the screen during the British interwar period. The first, silent, adaptation was directed by Hitchcock in 1927; a sound remake directed by Maurice Elvey appeared five years later. Building on last week’s post which considered the differences between the short story version of The Lodger and the novelisation, this post unpicks the differences between the novel and the films.

The main difference between the novel and the screen adaptations is the identity of the Lodger. In the novel, there is no doubt that the lodger, Mr Sleuth, is responsible for a series of murders of women across London. The book’s tension is generated by the concern of Mr Sleuth’s landlady, Mrs Bunting, that the police are going to find out her lodger is a murderer, and how that will impact her own position. In both film versions of the story, the lodger is ultimately revealed to be a ‘good’ character, who is trailing the murderer in an attempt to stop him. Whilst Mrs Bunting in both films is equally as suspicious of her lodger, because he keeps leaving the house on nights that murders are committed, he is ultimately revealed to have honourable reasons for this.

Hitchcock has publicly claimed that this softer ending was foisted on him, and that he preferred the book’s ending. One presumes that the sound remake followed the same template for the sake of appeasing audiences familiar with the first film. Whilst the change makes the story feel a lot less sinister, it also aligns it more with expected film plots in which the main male character is revealed as a hero and suitable love interest for the female character.

This female character, Daisy (Mr Bunting’s daughter), is much more fleshed out in both films than she is in the book. The role is played by June Tripp in the first film, and by Elizabeth Allan in the second film. In the novel, Daisy is only present in the house every now and then, and she only meets Mr Sleuth face to face right at the book’s end. Generally, Daisy comes across as a bit dim and easily led. In a reflection of women’s increased participation in the workforce during the interwar years, Daisy has a job in both films. In the 1927 version, she is a mannequin for clothes – it is a job, but still one in which she is expected to be passive and decorative. In the 1932 film her job has changed to that of a telephone operator; in that capacity she overhears one of the murders as the victim desperately tries to ring for help.

In the films, Daisy plays a much more material part in the story, and her relationship with the Lodger is more substantial. In both films, she meets him at several points throughout the story and is on friendly terms with him. The fact that the lodger is played by film star and heartthrob Ivor Novello in both productions helps to present him as a viable love interest for Daisy. In the 1932 film, Daisy goes so far as to reject her original boyfriend in favour of the lodger. Again, these changes, which introduce a conventional young romance into the story, make the source material conform more closely to cinematic genre conventions.

Daisy’s original boyfriend, Joe Chandler in the book, also transforms between films. In the Hitchcock version, Joe is a police officer tasked with hunting down the murder, as he is in the novel. Like in the novel, Joe is oblivious to the possibility that the lodger is the murderer he is after – although of course unlike in the book, in the film the lodger is revealed to be innocent. Hitchcock also used the motif of the police officer who is blind to the guilt of those closest to him in his 1929 film Blackmail, so he perhaps appreciated the irony Lowndes built into the novel.

For the later film, Joe Chandler became John Martin, who is not a police officer but rather a tabloid reporter. By 1932 tabloid journalists had become much more socially visible as circulation figures of newspapers rapidly increased. In films, journalists were often presented as pseudo-detectives, collaborating with the police to investigate crimes. Perhaps it was felt that to change the Joe/John character from a police officer to a journalist was not too much of a change. John Martin is a ruthless reporter; at the start of the film, when Daisy witnesses a murder across the telephone line, he passes a picture of her on to his news desk without her consent. To her horror, Daisy finds the portrait printed on the paper’s front page the next day. John excuses this behaviour as he considers it his duty to present his bosses with all the scoops he gets. John’s inconsiderate behaviour paves the way for Daisy to ditch him for the lodger at the end of the film.

A final significant change between the novel and the 1932 film, specifically, is the identity of the lodger. In the book, Mr Sleuth is presented as a British gentleman, albeit one with possibly some foreign blood in him. In the Elvey film, the character is called Angeloff, and Novello plays him with a thick Ruritanian accent. The film’s resolution reveals that Angeloff has been on the trail of the murderer for many years, and that they have both travelled from a foreign country to Britain. Whereas the novel codes the criminal as domestic, the film explicitly presents him as a foreigner, who has wreaked havoc in Britain. The audience can rest assured that such horrific crimes would not be committed by a fellow citizen.

The Lodger enjoyed considerable popularity for decades after its release. However, throughout those years the story, which was originally closely modelled on the Jack the Ripper murders, developed to increasingly deviate from the original to reflect the changing times. The main element of the story, however – a man roaming around the streets at night killing young women – sadly remains relatable to audiences even to this day.

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The Lodger (1911 and 1913) – Marie Belloc Lowndes

This post is the first of a two-part mini series about Marie Belloc Lowndes story The Lodger. This first post considers the short story and novel Lowndes wrote. The next post discusses two film adaptations of the book made in interwar Britain.

Today’s post discusses two texts which were written before the Great War, but which had a great cultural impact in interwar Britain due to their popularity. The writer Marie Belloc Lowndes published her short story ‘The Lodger’ in McClure’s Magazine in 1911.[1] She then expanded the story out into a full-length novel which was published by Methuen in 1913.

The Lodger’s main character is Mrs Bunting, a retired domestic servant who lives with her husband just off the Marylebone Road. Mr and Mrs Bunting are very poor at the start of the story, until a mysterious lodger, Mr Sleuth, rents a room with them. Mr Sleuth pays handsomely, but before long Mrs Bunting gets suspicious that he may be responsible for a spate of murders in the capital. Young women are found murdered at night, and these discoveries seem to coincide with Mr Sleuth going for night-time walks.

After a few weeks, Mr Bunting’s daughter Daisy comes to stay with the family, and Mrs Bunting gets increasingly concerned that Mr Sleuth will harm Daisy if he meets her. In the book-length version of the story, there is a fifth character: Joe Chandler, a young and ambitious police officer who is a friend of the family and who is courting Daisy. As the murders start piling up, Joe often pops into the house to give the Buntings updates on the police investigation, but he never once suspects that Mr Sleuth is the killer.

The short story puts the reader in the middle of events, and then relates the arrival of Mr Sleuth into the Bunting’s house through Mrs Bunting’s internal recollections. Daisy visits the house only very briefly in this version of the story. The novelisation presents the action chronologically, and allows much more time for Mrs Bunting’s suspicions and fears to develop. It also expands on Mr Bunting’s thirst for news, which is presented almost as an addiction.

At the start of the book, when the Buntings find themselves in extreme poverty, Mr Bunting is described as buying a paper with one of his last pennies ‘[w]ith an eagerness which was mingled with shame.’[2] Throughout the book he keeps buying papers, rushing out as soon as the newspaper boys come down the street, and sometimes not even waiting to go back inside before reading them. Yet despite Mr Bunting reading every column of newsprint on the case, he does not suspect Mr Sleuth to be the murderer until he physically bumps into him on a late-night stroll and finds his coat covered in blood. In The Lodger, the newspapers sensationalise the case and function as a potentially harmful distraction for the masses, rather than aiding with the resolution of the case.

The police, also, don’t have any grasp on who the murderer may be. This theme is brought out more in the novel rather than the short story. In this expanded version, the character of Joe Chandler frequently provides the Buntings and the readers with updates on the police’s investigation. There are a few moments in the novel where accurate eye-witness accounts of Mr Sleuth are dismissed by the police. When Mrs Bunting attends the inquest of one of the murders, there is one witness who accurately describes Mr Sleuth, but he is ignored. When he tells the coroner that the murderer left the scene carrying a bag such as the one the reader knows Mr Sleuth to possess, ‘not a single reporter at the long, ink-stained table had put down that last remark of Mr. Cannot. In fact, not one of them had heard it.’[3]

When Joe Chandler follows up on a possible sighting of the murderer, ‘on one evening he described at immense length the eccentric-looking gent who had given the barmaid a sovereign, picturing Mr. Sleuth with such awful accuracy that both Bunting and Mrs. Bunting secretly and separately turned sick when they listened to him, he never showed the slightest interest in their lodger.’[4] It is Mrs Bunting, rather than the police or the reporters, who susses out very quickly that it is her lodger who is committing these crimes. Initially, she does not alert the police because her mind refuses to accept her suspicions. Later on, however, her reluctance to alert the police originates from the perceived shame that it will bring on her household. Bunting has the same fears once he gets suspicious about the lodger:

‘But Londoners of Bunting’s class have an uneasy fear of the law. To his mind it would be ruin for him and for his Ellen to be mixed up publicly in such a terrible affair. No one concerned in the business would give them and their future a thought, but it would track them to their dying day, and, above all, it would make it quite impossible for them ever to get again into a good joint situation.’[5]

Instead, Lowndes allows the Buntings to get rid of the lodger without having to report him, in an ending that is near-identical in both the short story and the novel. Daisy ends up staying with the Buntings for her 18th birthday. Mr Sleuth invites her and Mrs Bunting to come to see the waxworks in Madame Tussaud’s. Inside, a private party which includes the Head Commissioner of the Police, is just exiting the building. As they pass the Buntings and Mr Sleuth, the Commissioner is telling his guests that the police know the murderer is someone who previously committed murders elsewhere in Britain, and who had escaped a lunatic asylum just before the London murders started.

The Commissioner makes it clear he would recognise the man if he saw him again; yet when he crosses paths with Mr Sleuth on his way out of Madame Tussaud’s the Commissioner ‘passed by Mr Sleuth unconcernedly, unaware.’[6] The lodger, however, is furious; he believes Mrs Bunting tried to trap him. With an excuse, he hurries out of the Madame Tussaud emergency exit and is never seen by the Buntings again.

The Lodger was clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders which took place in 1888; and whilst its ending echoes the apparent disappearance of Jack the Ripper; and it allows the Buntings to continue their lives in peace, it does leave a murderer out on the streets, ready to strike again. Throughout the story and book, Lowndes spends virtually no time at all discussing the lodger’s victims; her concern is with how the strain of secrets and suspicion affects the Buntings’ marriage. With Mr Sleuth’s exit from the scene (and, in the book, the engagement of Daisy and Joe), their troubles are resolved.

Yet no thought is spared for the women navigating the streets at night. Although the identities of these women are not made explicit, it is suggested by Mrs Bunting that they are not ‘proper’ (in the short story, she refers to one of them as a ‘hussy’, although this reference is removed in the novel[7]). The implication is that respectable people like the Buntings should look out for themselves and do not need to have qualms about protecting those less fortunate. The Lodger provides a female-centred exploration of the strains of retaining respectability at all cost, written at a time when social status was imperative to many people.

The Lodger (novel) can be read for free at Project Gutenberg.


[1] Marie Belloc Lowndes, ‘The Lodger’, reprinted in Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales from the Weird City, ed. Elizabeth Dearnley (London: British Library, 2020), pp. 199-239

[2] Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger, (London: Methuen, 1913), chapter 1, accessed online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2014/2014-h/2014-h.htm

[3] Ibid., chapter 19

[4] Ibid., chapter 24

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lowndes, ‘The Lodger’, p. 237

[7] Lowndes, ‘The Lodger’, p. 215

Ivor Novello

FeaturedIvor Novello

Polymath Ivor Novello, born David Ivor Davies in Wales in 1893, was one of interwar London’s prolific entertainers. Novello was his mother’s maiden name; choosing this as his professional title undoubtedly gave him greater name recognition than his paternal family name. Novello’s first success came as a songwriter during the Great War, with the popular tune ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’.

During the interwar period, Novello was active as a composer, actor, playwright and screenwriter, occasional film producer, and all-round society figure. In 1926 he ran a nightclub together with actor Constance Collier, with whom he also regularly collaborated on creative projects. The club, the 50/50, was temporarily struck off the register of licensed premises after alcohol had allegedly been served after licensed hours.

Besides his collaborations with Constance Collier, Novello’s interwar projects read like a who’s who of creative Britain. He wrote songs for a play penned by P.G. Wodehouse, wrote songs for Jack Buchanan and had an affair with Siegfried Sassoon. His British film debut came in 1923 as the lead in Adrian Brunel’s The Man Without Desire; Novello also co-produced the film with Miles Mander. The Man Without Desire is a romantic historical melodrama set in Italy; it was the first in a series of roles in which Novello played foreigners, often of high birth. His dark features made him equally convincing as British, Mediterranean, or Eastern European.

After The Man Without Desire came The Rat, which proved so popular that it spawned two sequels. This film was based on a play which Novello had co-written with Collier. In The Rat Novello starred as Pierre Boucheron, a dashing figure in the Parisian underworld. His long-time friend Odile is clearly quietly devoted to him, but the Rat is seduced by the wealthy Zelie de Chaumet, before inevitably realising it is Odile who can provide him with true love. Zelie first sees the Rat in an underground dive bar, where he performs a passionate parody of the Apache Dance with a young woman.

The Apache Dance in The Rat exemplifies Novello’s sexual ambiguity on screen. In real life he lived quite openly as a gay man with his lifelong partner Bobbie Andrews. This was possible in the artistic circles in which Novello and Andrews moved, but clearly it was not possible to explicitly depict homosexuality on screen or stage. Instead, Novello is positioned as a romantic hero; sensual rather than virile, and sometimes surprisingly a-sexual.

Ivor Novello portrait

In Hitchcock’s Downhill, for example, Novello’s character Roddy is not seduced by Mabel, despite her best efforts. Whilst Roddy’s friend Tim is wooing Mabel in the back room of the shop in which she works, Roddy is chatting to some small children who have come to buy sweets. When Roddy later in the film marries the actress Julia Fotheringale, the film never shows any physical intimacy between the couple. Unlike many films of the period, Downhill does not end with the establishment of a heterosexual couple, but rather with Roddy’s restoration as the male heir to his family.

Novello collaborated with Hitchcock for a second film in 1927, The Lodger. This film, based on a popular novel by the same name, was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders. Novello reprised his role as ‘the Lodger’ in a 1932 sound film remake, directed by Maurice Elvey. In both versions, Novello’s character courts Daisy, the daughter of his landlord. Daisy already has a suitor, a police officer in the 1927 film and a journalist in the 1932 version. Daisy’s original suitors are men of action, who expect that Daisy will marry them based on their previous courtship. Novello’s character, however, manages to win Daisy over through conversation and emotional sensitivity rather than by displaying any of the more traditionally ‘masculine’ traits.

A year after the first version of The Lodger, Novello starred as Lewis Dodds in one of the multiple adaptations of the bestselling novel The Constant Nymph.1 Here Novello was again directed by his friend Adrian Brunel to play the composer who marries one woman but finds that his wife’s young cousin, whom he has known since she was a child, is more devoted in her affections. Again, Novello’s character is linked in a coupling which cannot fulfil the expected template.

After film transitioned from silent to sound, Novello returned largely to the West End stage as a writer and actor of musical comedies. This may in part have been due to the limitations of his specifically recognisable voice and accent, which made him less convincing in the foreign character roles in which he was regularly cast. Novello’s contribution to the musical genre continues to be remembered in the song writing and composing awards named after him, which were established a few years after his death.

The theatre in the building where Novello kept a flat for most of his adult life was also named after him in 2005. It is situated across the road from the Aldwych Theatre, where Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn first became famous; another one of the countless connections that put Novello at the heart of London’s interwar entertainment industry.

[1] Lawrence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar years, (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), pp. 35-79

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Death in a Taxi

The hansom cab has been a mainstay of the London streets since the 17th century.[1] The black horse-drawn carriages were largely replaced by motorised vehicles by the end of the First World War. The designs of the motorcar taxis were based on the hansom cab that preceded it, which meant that the driver was seated in the open air, or under a canvas roof, and was physically separated from the passengers. This design ensured that the passenger(s) continued to enjoy privacy during their trip and did not have to share it in close proximity to a stranger. It also assuaged any class anxieties about wealthier passengers having to share a space with a driver from a lower socio-economic background.

Taxis occupy a unique position in the transport landscape: they are open to all users who can afford them but provide a private transport experience; they are also essentially urban and predominantly found in big cities. Both these features as well as the separation of passenger and driver all stress the anonymity of the taxi experience. There were no records of who used taxis beyond what a driver could remember of his customers.

It was presumably for these reasons that for some people, the London taxi was the chosen site for murder or suicide. Tabloids reported on a number of such cases in the first half of the 1920s. In November 1923 the Daily Mirror printed the headline ‘Dead Woman in Cab’.[2] The article described that at the end of the afternoon the previous day, a young man had come into a police station in Knightsbridge and said to the officer on duty ‘the woman is in the cab outside’. In the taxi the police found the body of Ethel Howard, with a wound to the throat and a razor lying next to the body.

Daily Mirror, 16 November 1923, p. 2

At first glance this could be a case of either suicide or murder. The man who reported the death remained unnamed in the article but was described as a ‘portrait painter’. This immediately sought to evoke images of bohemia in the newspaper reader’s mind. The romance and mystery of the case was brought crashing down to earth in the follow up article printed the next day, which reported on the magistrate’s inquest on the case.[3]

The ‘portrait painter’ was in fact the 24-year-old butcher’s assistant George William Iggulden. Iggulden and Ethel Howard had been engaged to be married on 16 November. Instead, Iggulden murdered his fiancée the night before the wedding. The Mirror called this ‘the irony of fate’, although the reader may conclude that this was not so much fate as George Iggulden using desperate measures to get out of his commitment. In the taxi, he found a confined space where Ethel would not be able to escape from, and where he was sure not to be interrupted. In this second newspaper article, Iggulden is reported not just to have said ‘the woman is in the cab outside’ but also ‘I did it with a razor’. He was duly remanded to stand trial for murder.

The party who is curiously absent in all this is the taxi driver. The only oblique reference to their presence is in the second article, which described that Iggulden ‘asked to be driven to the nearest police station’ rather than to Chelsea, halfway through the drive. The police are not reported to have spoken to the driver or gotten their statement, and there is no consideration as to what the impact of a murder being committed several feet away from them may have had.

A taxi driver did have a more active role in proceedings in a case in 1925. On 23 April of that year, the Daily Express reported on a ‘Mystery of A Taxicab’.[4] On 21 April, a Sunday, Major Frank Montague Noel Newton had engaged a cab to take him from his club to his hotel. Immediately it is clear to the reader that this passenger is a man of substance, who comfortably moves around the West End. Upon passing the Hotel Metropole (now known as the Corinthia Hotel) just off Trafalgar Square, the driver heard a noise ‘as though someone was knocking on the window with a stick’. The driver was evidentially located outside the cab, with a window separating him and his passenger.

Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 9

The driver didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary when he turned to look through the window, so he drove on to Major Newton’s hotel. Once he arrived there, he engaged the help of the hotel porter to try and rouse Major Newton, who appeared to be asleep. Then the men realised that there was a revolver on the floor of the cab, and that the noise the driver had heard was Major Newton shooting himself.

One must make allowances for the noise cars in the 1920s generated, but it still seems extraordinary that a driver would not identify a shot fired within such close proximity. However, the story repeated itself a year later:

On arriving at Charing Cross Station about midnight on Monday the driver of a taxicab found his fare shot dead. The man hailed the driver on Cromwell Road and nothing occurred during the journey to attract attention. When he did not alight at Charing Cross, the driver got down from his seat and found the man lying dead. A revolver was on the floor.[5]

Evidently, for these men, the mobile and anonymous nature of the taxi provided a suitable space for them to commit suicide. They knew they would not be disturbed for the duration of the trip, and that they would be found by a stranger. The man who was driving to Charing Cross was reported to be a Swede visiting London. Like Major Newton, he did not have a fixed address in the city; the locations of their deaths underscore this sense of fluidity and lack of permanency.

For the drivers, finding a dead body in their vehicle appears to have been something they were expected to handle in the course of their employment. They remain anonymous in the reports, their taxis indistinguishable from the rest of the fleet that swarmed London’s streets. It is this anonymity which made their taxis such appealing sites for illicit and illegal behaviour in interwar London.


[1] George N Georgano, A History of the London Taxicab (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1972), p. 110

[2] ‘Dead Woman in Cab’, Daily Mirror, 16 November 1923, p. 2

[3] ‘Dead Girl in Taxi’, Daily Mirror, 17 November 1923, p. 2

[4] ‘Mystery of a Taxicab’, Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 9

[5] ‘Shot Dead in Taxi’, Daily Mirror, 3 November 1926, p. 2

Downhill (1927)

FeaturedDownhill (1927)

Before he became (one of) the greatest directors of the 20th century, Alfred Hitchcock started out his film directing career in London in the 1920s. After a few jobs as assistant director, he landed his first gig as principal director on 1923’s The Pleasure Garden. Four years later he made Downhill, a melodrama which has been described as only of interest to Hitchcock ‘completists’. In addition to providing an insight into the development of Hitchcock’s craft, this film also reveals cultural assumptions underpinning interwar London society.

Downhill stars the popular actor and entertainer Ivor Novello (who co-wrote the play on which the film is based) as Roddy Berwick, the son of a wealthy family who excels at his public school and has a glittering future ahead of him. Roddy’s best friend, Tim, comes from a less affluent background. Tim has a liaison with Mabel, who works at the local sweetshop; this affair results in Mabel falling pregnant. Mabel tells the schoolmaster that it’s Roddy, not Tim, who is the father; Roddy promptly gets expelled from school and disowned by his father.

Beginner's Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Downhill (1927) — Talk Film Society
Mabel accuses Roddy

This starts Roddy’s downward trajectory in life. He first works as an actor and marries a glamorous actress who fleeces him for all his money before throwing him over. Roddy moves Paris, where he works as a gigolo. Eventually he ends up very ill in Marseille, where a few sailors manage to take him back to London. At the end of the film Roddy straggles back into his father’s house, to find that his father has found out that it was Tim who made Mabel pregnant, and has been desperate for Roddy to forgive him for his rash decisions. After his travails in the darker side of life, Roddy is restored in his rightful position.

One of the main themes of Downhill, as is clear from the plot description, is intergenerational conflict. When Roddy comes home from school a week early, his father immediately believes that the school must have been right in expelling him, and he does not even wait to hear Roddy’s explanations. The father’s rejection is so definitive that Roddy immediately leaves home and is unable to come back until he is almost at death’s door. Prior to this, the school and headmaster, who took their places as surrogate home environment and father figure, have also rejected Roddy.

The established institutions of society, school and the patriarchal father figure, turn their backs on Roddy. The older male generation here can be interpreted as a proxy for the generation of older politicians who sent off thousands of young British men to the trenches in France and Belgium in 1914. The War is not explicitly mentioned in Downhill, but its themes echo the sentiment that the older generation abandoned and unfairly sacrificed the younger one. When, at the end of the film, Roddy’s father asks Roddy for his forgiveness, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine him as a stand-in for the political establishment, asking the younger generation to forgive them for the War – a request that must, of course, remain limited to the realms of fiction.

The second theme running through Downhill, and this is perhaps one where Hitchcock’s hand is more readily recognised, is that apart from Roddy’s mother, all the women in the film prey on him and exploit him. Roddy’s mother, incidentally, only appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film and is completely irrelevant to the plot – it is only his father’s approval that matters to Roddy. Each stage of Roddy’s downfall is marked by a different woman. First there is Mabel, played by Annette Benson; she is depicted as a pretty one-dimensional ‘loose woman’ with make-up, a short skirt, and an apparently insatiable desire to flirt. She pro-actively asks Tim to come and see her in her shop on Wednesday afternoon. When he brings Roddy along, Mabel appears to consider this an opportunity rather than a barrier.

Silent Era : Home Video Reviews
Mabel flirts with Roddy

As soon as she has figured out that Roddy has more money than Tim, and is unlikely to allow himself to be seduced by her, she apparently hatches her plan. The film leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Mabel is actually pregnant or not (although not sufficient time appears to have passed for her to be sure of it); it is pretty clear she accuses Roddy because she knows she can get more money out of him than out of Tim. Roddy does not dispute the claim out of a sense of honour and loyalty – he knows Tim’s future will be ruined if the truth comes out.

The second woman Roddy meets, and one he falls completely in love with, is the actress Julia Fotheringale. She is already in a relationship with Archie, but her expensive tastes is clothes and luxury goods are starting to become a problem. When Roddy unexpectedly inherits a large sum of money, Julie agrees to marry him. Once she’s spent his fortune, she abandons him again. Both Mabel and Julia are only interested in the money that Roddy can provide them with; they are both shown to be calculating and cold. Once Roddy’s money has completely run out he starts to work as a dancer-for-hire in Paris. His body is now the property, and it is control of the madams who run the nightclub.

1000 Frames of Downhill (1927) - frame 731 - The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki
Roddy as a gigolo in a Parisian nightclub

Downhill’s resolution provides an indication of what the audiences were encouraged to think really mattered: yes, Roddy’s father acknowledges he was wrong, but ultimately Roddy seeks his approval and wants to restore his place in the family unit. Roddy’s sense of honour, which leads him to keep Tim’s secret, is one of the central guiding principles for his behaviour. When he is nearly dying in Marseille, the knowledge that he has kept Tim’s secret for him is a comfort to Roddy. Paris, as usual, is shown to be a den of immorality. Ultimately, values traditionally associated with British upper class men are presented as desirable and admirable.

Downhill is available to view on Youtube.

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Tom Walls

Earlier this year this blog had a look at the comedy actor Ralph Lynn. Today we are going to discuss the other half of the ‘Lynn & Walls’ comedy duo: Tom Walls. Walls was born in 1883 and had a prolific career as actor, director and producer of plays and films; followed by a second career as the owner of a race horse stable in Epsom. As a young man, Walls attempted a career as an officer in the Met, but this did not last – allegedly, he spent rather too much time ‘interrogating prostitutes’ on duty.[i]

Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn first worked together on the farce Tons of Money in 1922.[ii] Prior to that time, Walls had been managing and acting in shows in seaside towns. Walls and his business partner Leslie Henson scored a big success with Tons of Money, which started out at the Shaftesbury Theatre but transferred to the Aldwych. Walls would remain at the Aldwych for the remainder of the decade, putting on a series of wildly successful farces with a largely stable cast and crew consisting of Ralph Lynn, Yvonne Arnaud, Mary Brough, and Ben Travers as the writer for most of them.

Whereas Lynn was remembered as the ‘ideal farce actor to work with’[iii], Walls tends to invoke phrases like ‘no shame’; ‘contemptuous’; ‘peculiar’ and ‘a dictator’.[iv] He was also undoubtedly a man with a lot of energy. He acted in a lead part in all of the Aldwych farces, as well as directing them. Walls was also the driving force behind getting the farces translated to film in the 1930s, when he wanted a new challenge. Not having worked in the medium before was no barrier to Walls; he acted as both director and actor from the first Aldwych film, Rookery Nook, in 1930. In total, Walls directed 23 films in the 1930s, and acted in most of those as well as in some other productions.

Most of Walls’ film roles, thankfully, remain available to us today. Due to the long-lasting partnership between Walls, Travers and Lynn; and Walls’ considerable control over the productions, many of the Aldwych farces are written to play to his strengths. Generally, Walls played older men who have charm and wits, against Lynn’s younger, naïve characters. One obituary of Walls described his roles as ‘the dominating man supremely confident in himself’ – probably not too much of a stretch for Walls to play.

Walls’ role as Mr Tutt in A Cup of Kindness is a prime example of this type – Tutt is a patriarch who bosses about his wife, sons, and neighbours – but the role also gives Walls a chance to show off his charms in the scene where Tutt takes the young nurse Tilly  out to a West End Restaurant. Toeing the line of marital fidelity is a recurring theme in the Aldwych farces, as it is in Walls’ later film roles.

In the 1934 film Lady in Danger, Walls directed himself as the lead opposite Yvonne Arnaud. In this comedy, Arnaud plays the unnamed Queen of a (fictional) European micro-state, who has to flee a revolution. Walls is tasked with smuggling her to Britain, whilst Arnaud’s husband the King is staying in Paris. ‘The King is always in Paris’ is used as a knowing short-hand throughout the film to refer to the King’s regular infidelities. Walls’ character Richard is engaged to be married, but that does not stop him from flirting with the Queen.

Unlike in the Aldwych productions, where Walls’ characters flirt but never go any further, Richard and the Queen do share at least a kiss. The film makes is clear that it is permissible for the Queen to engage in this affair because her husband is also unfaithful. It does not deem it necessary to give any justification to Richard; it is a given that he must be able to have a dalliance with another woman before he is married. At the end of the film, the monarchy in the micro-nation is restored and the Queen returns to her husband’s side, and Richard returns to his fiancée, and neither of them face any repercussions. As the film’s director, Walls could ensure that his characters could have their cake and eat it, too. The conventions of farcical comedy allowed him to entertain such potentially transgressive behaviours.

Although his directing career ended with the outbreak of the Second World War, Walls appeared in a dozen or so films in the 1940s. At that stage, however, his main occupation was the breeding and training of race horses in Epsom. He achieved a high point in this career in 1932 when his horse April the Fifth won the Epsom derby – Walls was the only Epsom-based owner to win that derby in the whole of the 20th century. This 1933 Pathé newsreel includes some shots of Walls’ stables and home:

Walls was a very influential and well-known player of the interwar London entertainment industry, with business interests in theatre, cinema and racing. His surviving film performances capture his persuasive charm as well as his dominant personality. That is fame faded after his death in 1949 seems fitting for a man who preferred seizing the day over careful planning.


[i] Ben Travers, A-Sitting on a Gate (London: WH Allen, 1978), p.99

[ii] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[iii] Ibid., 91

[iv] Ibid., pp 89-90