The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935)

FeaturedThe Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., p. 132

Film Star Cigarette Cards (1934)

FeaturedFilm Star Cigarette Cards (1934)

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

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

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

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

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

Ramon Novarro in the cigarette card album

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

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

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

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

Freeman Wills Crofts – The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

FeaturedFreeman Wills Crofts – The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., p. 19

The Monkey Club

FeaturedThe Monkey Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 34

[5] Ibid, pp. 35-6

[6] Ibid., p. 36

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 35

Dorothy L. Sayers

FeaturedDorothy L. Sayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Wade, Square Haunting, p. 107

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

[5] Ibid., pp. 19-20

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

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

[8] Ibid., p. 410

New Year’s Eve 1922

FeaturedNew Year’s Eve 1922

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] ‘1923 Danced In’, Daily Mirror

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

[7] Ibid.

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

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

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

[11] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

Father Christmases of London

FeaturedFather Christmases of London

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

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

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

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

George Dixon as Father Christmas for Barker’s in Kensington

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

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

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

Charles Mackenzie as Santa for Selfridge’s

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

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

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


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

Featured

Christmas in hard times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Radclyffe Hall

FeaturedRadclyffe Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

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

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