Winifred Holtby

Featured<strong>Winifred Holtby</strong>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Me Explain, Dear (1932)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Aerodromes in interwar Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., pp. 40-48

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Cinema management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., p. 91

[4] Ibid., p. 83

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

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

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

Featured

Muriel Jaeger – The Question Mark (1926)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., p. 49

[4] Ibid., pp. 91-2

[5] Ibid., p. 171

[6] Ibid., p. 205

Featured

Cycling in interwar Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[3] Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson’, 486

[4] Ibid.

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

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

[7] Ibid., 487

Newspaper wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The control room in Night Mail

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

Postal workers sorting post on the train in Night Mail

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

Map of postal districts in N or NW

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

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

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

Watch N or NW

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

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