From investigation to trial

This is the fourth and final post of this year’s May Murder Month. You can read posts one, two and three elsewhere on the blog.

Most contemporary readers will get their knowledge about interwar murder stories from the realms of fiction – Hercule Poirot gathering together suspects for a drawing room reveal (a device which Agatha Christie actually only used sparingly) or a hard-boiled police officer picking up on a seemingly minute clue that unravels the whole case. Once the murderer is identified, interwar fiction is either silent about what happens next, or the perpetrator is given the opportunity to take the ‘honourable way out’ by committing suicide.[1]

In reality, of course, investigations were conducted by police inspectors. Unlike in modern criminal cases, there was no Crown Prosecution Service in interwar England. Instead, the police both conducted the investigation and prepared the documentation for the criminal trial. The Director of Public Prosecutions was ultimately responsible for bringing the case to trial in the interest of the people. England then, as now, had a two-tier criminal justice system. The magistrate courts were convened locally and dealt with most of the day-to-day criminal offences. Crown courts were reserved for jury trials, which included murder charges.

Before a case could be referred to the crown court, a prima facie case had to be established in the magistrate court that a crime had been committed and it was of a magnitude appropriate to be considered in the crown court. Interwar murder trials were therefore effectively heard twice: once in the magistrate court and then again in the crown court, where the sentencing would take place. It was generally the latter proceedings that drew the attention of the national press. In murder cases, the coroner’s inquest ran in tandem to the magistrate court proceedings. In the interwar period, coroner courts sat with their own juries, who were tasked with determining whether death had occurred naturally, through suicide, accident, or murder. Usually, if foul play was suspected but the police investigation was ongoing, the coroner would suspend the inquest to give the police more time to complete their investigations.

The reading public, then, were experiencing criminal narratives in two different ways. When reading newspapers, the reports mostly focused on the criminal trial, with its rhythm of prosecution, defence, cross-examination, witness statements, a possible statement by the accused, and the judge’s summing up, all cumulating to the jury’s verdict. In crime fiction, the narrative focused on the investigation, with witness statements noted as the investigation developed. Particularly in stories where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth as opposed to a police officer, the formal police and court procedures can be completely outside the scope of the narrative. As crime historian Victoria Stewart has noted: ‘Detective novels tend not to recount the trial of the individual whom the investigator identifies as the guilty party because the watertightness of the investigation itself acts as a substitute for the depiction of the judicial process. An account of the trial would simply reiterate the findings of the investigation that has formed the body of the narrative.’[2]

Other scholars have noted that trial reporting reveals contemporary attitudes to potentially contentious topics such as changing attitudes to gender identity and sexuality.[3] Newspaper historians have also argued that the increased popularity of crime fiction changed crime reporting, with journalists paying more attention to ‘human interest detail’ of the story as opposed to the judicial process. This, in turn, potentially obscured the public’s awareness of legal procedures.[4] Additionally, journalists on occasion played a very active role in gathering evidence that led towards a conviction, for example in the case of Buck Ruxton who murdered his wife and a servant.[5] Conversely, crime fiction novels which had a police inspector as their protagonist, such as the Inspector French novels by Freeman Wills Croft, potentially educated their readership about police procedures in more detail than newspaper reports did.

Whether fictional or factual, murder stories fascinated interwar audiences and allowed them to explore the limits of what was considered acceptable or transgressive behaviour; and how this changed over the course of the two decades. Newspapers and crime novels presented readers with two different lenses through which to consider the criminal justice process, from investigation to trial.

[1] Lord Peter Wimsey’s increasing mental distress at sending murderers to the gallows, which comes to a head at the end of the final Wimsey novel Busman’s Honeymoon, is a notable exception.

[2] Victoria Stewart, Crime Writing in Interwar Britain (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2017), p. 11

[3] Lucy Bland, Modern Women on Trial: sexual transgressions on the age of the flapper (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p. 2

[4] Judith Rowbotham; Kim Stevenson; Samantha Pegg, Crime News in Modern Britain (London: Palgrave, 2013), p. 140

[5] Shani D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide in Interwar Britain: the case of Buck Ruxton’, Women’s History Review, vol. 16, no. 5 (2007), 701-722


Domestic homicides

This is the third post in a themed series for May Murder Month. You can read previous posts here and here.

A significant proportion of murders committed in the interwar period were committed in the domestic sphere, as they are today. Of the 130 women sentenced to death between 1900 and 1950, 102 had killed a child, usually their own and usually when the child was very young.[1] After the adoption of the 1922 Infanticide Act, women who killed their own children were tried for manslaughter rather than murder, which lessened their sentence.

The other significant group of domestic killings were perpetrated by men killing their wives, girlfriends, or ex-partners. Almost all of the famous murders of the interwar period fall into this category. Scholars have argued that the trial reporting on these ‘domestic homicides’ ‘provided significant moments when fractures in the values and aspirations of (often) respectable private lives were held up for exhaustive public scrutiny.’[2] These murder cases have therefore often been used by historians as vehicles for a wider understanding of private lives and the performance of masculinity and femininity.[3]

When considering homicide data, there are two datasets to work from: the people who were convicted of murder and given a death sentence; and those for whom their sentence was not commuted and who were actually executed. Around 60% of men who were sentenced to death were executed. Out of the 223 executions that took place in the interwar period, 118 (53%) were of individuals who had killed a partner or family member, so involved in a so-called ‘domestic homicide’. In the first year after the Great War, 1920, 21 people were executed – a much higher number than in any of the subsequent years of the interwar period. All 21 individuals were men who had killed their wife, girlfriend or ex-girlfriend. This suggests that the end of the war saw a spike in domestic violence as traumatised men returned from the front to partners who had had a completely different war experience, and indeed may have started relationships with others during the conflict.

Later into the interwar period, even less famous murder trials can reveal much about the private lives of marginalised groups of Londoners, such as those who were not British and those who lived in poverty. In 1934, a Cypriot man killed the landlord of his lodging house over a quarrel about a woman. Georgios Kalli Georgiou had lived with his girlfriend ‘as husband and wife’ in a different lodging house, meaning that they shared a bedroom and bed without being formally married. When they moved into the house run by Thomas James in Torrington Square, Georgios and the woman took separate rooms and she started working as a housekeeper for Thomas James. Georgios quickly became suspicious that his partner had moved her affections to Thomas, and the situation came to a head in a three-way quarrel during which Georgios stabbed Thomas to death. Although Georgios was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, after an appeal the Home Secretary reprieved him and Georgios was held captive in a prison camp on the Isle of Wight for the next nine years, instead.

As this case reveals, interpersonal relationships and living arrangements could be the catalyst for violence. In this instance, however, the foreign identity of the perpetrator, and the relative acceptance of male-on-male violence as a ‘normal’ part of masculine behaviour, likely influenced the Home Office’s decision to grant Georgios a reprieve. In other cases, the perceived social and moral transgressions of perpetrators and/or victims, as revealed during trial hearings, were presented as ‘morality tales’ by the daily press.[4] The famous conviction of Edith Thompson has been covered numerous times in this blog; in 1935 the murder of Francis Rattenbury by his wife’s lover (and the couple’s chauffeur) gave audiences a similar ringside seat to a menage à trois between an older man, a middle-aged wife and a young lover. Although, unlike Edith Thompson, Alma Rattenbury was acquitted of the murder charge brought against her, she committed suicide a few days after her release from prison. The denouement of this case was therefore arguably almost as salacious as that of the Thompson-Bywaters trial some 12 years earlier.

Although domestic homicides constituted a large proportion of the homicides during the interwar period, only cases that were perceived to reveal something that was normally private became established in popular culture. Abusive relationships that escalated to murder rarely became notorious, but cases in which either the woman transgressed her traditional role and enacted violence on a man; or in which relationships were revealed to not be as harmonious as they had appeared, the murders became cemented as morality tales into the popular imagination.

[1] Annette Ballinger, Dead Women Walking: Executed women in England and Wales, 1900-1955 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), p. 1

[2] Shani D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide in Interwar Britain: the case of Buck Ruxton’, Women’s History Review, 2007, vol. 16 no. 5, 701-722 (702)

[3] See D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide’; Julie English Early, ‘A New Man for a New Century: Dr. Crippen and the Principles of Masculinity’ in Disorder in the Court: Trials and Sexual Conflict at the Turn of the Century, ed. by George Robb and Nancy Erber (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), 209-230; Ginger Frost ‘She is but a Woman’: Kitty Byron and the English Edwardian Criminal Justice System’ in Gender & History, 2004, Vol. 16, no. 3, 538-560; Lucy Bland, Modern women on trial: sexual transgression in the age of the flapper (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013)

[4] Bland, Modern women on trial, p. 216


Executions in interwar London

Continuing May Murder Month, this week we take a look at the ultimate outcome of a murder case – the execution. Last week’s May Murder Month entry on police memoirs can be found here.

If you were found guilty of murder in interwar Britain, you would automatically be sentenced to death, unless your legal team had managed to convince the jury that you were insane at the time you committed the murder. After the adoption of the Infanticide Act in 1922, women who killed their new-born babies were tried as for manslaughter rather than for murder, meaning they no longer received death sentences. Yet even those found guilty of murder could appeal to the King (via the Home Secretary) for a reprieve. Reprieves were fairly common: in the first half of the 20th century around 40% of convicted male murderers, and an astonishing 90% of convicted women murderers, were granted a reprieve of execution.[1] This usually meant their sentence was commuted to ‘penal servitude for life’.

The period of appeal following a death sentence was usually ‘three Sundays’, meaning that if an appeal or reprieve was not granted, execution usually followed within a month of the trial. Murder trials were much shorter than we are used to today and prisoners were committed to trial much more quickly. This meant that convicted murderers were usually executed within a year of the crime having taken place. In interwar London, condemned prisoners were held in a special ‘condemned cell’ adjacent to the prison gallows. During the 1920s and 1930s, there were never more than 21 executions in a single year across the whole of Britain; and in many years there were fewer than 10.[2] This meant it was extremely unlikely for two convicted murderers to be held at the same prison at the same time, unless they were both convicted for the same murder committed jointly. There was no concept like ‘death row’ as it currently exists in the US, where prisoners can spend years awaiting execution.

Since 1868, executions were no longer held in public but were conducted inside prison walls. In London, there were three prisons in which executions took place until capital punishment was formally abolished in 1969: Pentonville Prison for male prisoners who lived north of the Thames; Wandsworth Prison for male prisoners who lived south of the Thames; and Holloway Prison for female convicts. Gradually, over the course of the first few decades of the 20th century, capital punishment became less ritualistic and more bureaucratic. Until 1902, a black flag was raised over the prison after an execution had taken place. The tolling of a bell during an execution was abolished around the same time.[3] After the end of public executions, journalists were still regularly invited to attend, so that their newspaper reports could serve as a proxy for public scrutiny. The last time a journalist attended an execution was 1934.[4]

The only ritual elements of execution which remained in place is that they usually took place at 9am; and that an execution notice was posted on the prison door immediately after the event. This is depicted, for example, in the 1938 thriller They Drive By Night, where a small crowd of people is shown gathered around the prison entrance. Papers of record, such as The Times, usually posted brief notices of executions as they had taken place. How an actual execution unfolded was usually ‘shrouded in secrecy’, with official statements invariably confirming that nothing unusual had occurred.[5] This vacuum of official information allowed rumours to swirl. After the controversial execution of Edith Thompson it was suggested that ‘her insides had fallen out’ as she dropped through the trap door, suggesting she may have been pregnant at the time of her death. Thompson’s executioner, John Ellis, committed suicide nine years after Thompson’s death, and it was suggested that he had never been able to get over the horror of that particular hanging.

Hanging had been the principal form of execution in Britain for centuries. By the interwar period, the government prided itself on having perfected a highly efficient method, which was considered ‘humane’ because it aimed to be swift and accurate. The objective was to ensure the prisoner’s neck broke immediately, so that he or she did not have to suffer through asphyxiation. Around a decade after the last execution took place in Britain, one of the country’s most famous hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint, published his memoirs. This book finally revealed in detail how executions were conducted, although interwar fiction novels such as Trial and Error had given descriptions of the process decades earlier.

Pierrepoint described in detail how he would arrive at a prison the day before the execution to make his preparations, which included the crucial calculation of ‘the drop’: the length of rope required which depended on the prisoner’s weight and size. For the neck to break at the 4th or 5th vertebrae was considered ideal as it would cause instant death. If the drop was too short, the prisoner could end up suffocating rather than breaking their neck; if it was too long, the worst-case scenario would be that the prisoner was decapitated as they dropped.

Executions were conducted extremely quickly: the execution of Norman Thorne was reported to last no more than ten seconds ‘[f]rom the time that [he] emerged from his cell door until the moment he passed into eternity.’[6] After the execution, the prisoner was left hanging for an hour before being cut down and submitted to a post-mortem, during which a note was made of the exact cause of death and where the neck had broken. An official statement on a pre-prepared template, signed and sealed by a coroner and jury, would confirm the death of the prisoner under the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act. The body would then be buried in a dedicated cemetery inside the prison walls the same day.[7]

Despite the relative rarity of executions in interwar Britain, the state had developed a highly polished routine to ensure that these executions were conducted as efficiently as possible. This efficiency was considered humane, as it would limit the prisoner’s suffering as much as possible. At the same time, however, it also incorporated capital punishment into the bureaucratic machinery of government. Treating capital punishment as a largely administrative process also minimised the scope for challenging its principles, as it was incorporated into the judicial system as ‘business as usual.’ The abolition movement consequently only gained momentum in Britain after the Second World War.

[1] Shani D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide in Interwar Britain: the case of Buck Ruxton’, Women’s History Review, 2007, vol. 16, no. 5, 701-722 (706)

[2] Source: http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/

[3] Lizzie Seal, Capital Punishment in Twentieth-Century Britain: Audience, justice, memory (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 17

[4] Ibid., p. 36

[5] Lizzie Seal, ‘Albert Pierrepoint and the cultural persona of the twentieth-century hangman’, Crime, Media, Culture, 2016, vol. 12, no. 1, 83-100 (86)

[6] Seal, Capital Punishment, p. 41

[7] Albert Pierrepoint, Executioner: Pierrepoint (London: Coronet, 1998 [1974]), p. 175


Police memoirs

It’s May Murder Month again! Last year I covered a host of infamous interwar murder cases in three posts which you can find here, here and here. This year we’ll take a step back and review some of the institutions and trends connected to interwar homicides.

The Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829 to provide a cohesive policing structure for the entirety of London.[1] Initially the focus of the force was on uniformed bobbies patrolling their respective beats. As Kate Summerscale has demonstrated, in mid-Victorian English society, plain-clothes investigators were treated with suspicion.[2] A permanent Criminal Investigation Department staffed by plain-clothes detectives was not formed until 1878.[3] By the interwar period, the notion of an established ‘Scotland Yard’ detective branch of the Metropolitan Police was still relatively novel, and there had only been a few generations of high-ranking police investigators.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the 1920s and 1930s saw the publication of a host of police memoirs. The establishment of crime detection as an accepted part of police activity coincided with the increased popularity of crime fiction; and a rise in literacy levels across the population. Police historian Paul Lawrence has noted that ‘There was a marked bias towards memoirs written by officers from large urban forces, particularly detectives, although as a rule books written by most types of officer can be found.’[4]

These police memoirs indicate that there was a popular appetite for ‘true crime’ histories as well as crime fiction. They also reveal to us how police officers wanted to position themselves and their work in the public consciousness. Some of the memoirs were written by senior officers who had become personally famous, such as Frederick Porter Wensley who was Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police from 1924 till his retirement in 1929.[5] Others were penned by detectives who reached mid-tier positions and whose names would not be familiar to the wider public.[6] Almost invariably, however, the memoirs primarily deal with murder cases, as these were clearly thought to hold the widest appeal for the readership.

Despite advances in forensic science, such as the use of fingerprinting to identify criminals, several officers insist throughout the interwar period that personal knowledge of habitual criminals is the most effective way of detecting and preventing crime. This is despite there having been some high-profile cases of mistaken identity in the Yard’s recent history.[7] Chief Constable Wensley confidently states early on in his book: ‘The only real method [to detect crime] is to employ detectives who know rogues by direct contact, know their habits, their ways of thought, their motives, and above all, know their friends and associates.’[8] CID Chief Inspector Frederick Sharpe similarly insists that a good detective has to know the local gangs and crooks in order to be able to solve crime.[9] This suggests that senior investigators were reluctant to let go of outdated methods; or that they sought to present a romanticised view of inner-city policing to their readership, favouring personal connections over anonymous forensic methods.

Another feature common across several memoirs is the author relating their start in the field in a particularly rough district of London. Tom Divall, another former head of the CID, started off in Southwark, which he claimed was the part of London that was most infected with vice.[10] Ex-superintendent G.W. Cornish had his start in Whitechapel, which he described as a ‘human rabbit warren’ housing ‘[e]very type of criminal, both men and women, from the meanest sneak thieves and pickpockets to the smart crooks who worked further “up West”.’[11] In all cases, poorer districts of London are described in emotive language, evoking images of dirt, squalor, and neglect. However, areas which were ‘rough’ at the turn of the century are described as much ‘cleaned up’ by the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to the unfailing efforts of the Metropolitan Police.

Unsurprisingly, these memoirs unfailingly present the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard as forces for good, keeping the public safe and apprehending criminals quickly and efficiently. Policing is described as a career which ‘will supply excitement, a good salary, sound companions, a healthy life and plenty of chances to make a mark’, although at this time generally open to men only.[12] Detection had come a long way since the days of Mr Whicher, who was derided in 1860 for his handling of the Road Hill House case but later proven correct in his deductions. By the interwar period, plain-clothes detectives were well-respected and could even be quite glamorous. The stream of police memoirs published in this period both attest to the popularity of real-life detectives and further strengthened their positive position in the public’s imagination.

[1] Except the City of London, which retained (and still retains) its own police force as part of its special administrative duties

[2] Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (London: Bloomsbury, 2008)

[3] Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 56-57

[4] Paul Lawrence, ‘‘Scoundrels and Scallywags, and some honest men….’ Memoirs and the self-image of French and English policemen, c. 1870-1939’ In Comparative Histories of Crime, eds. Barry Godfrey, Clive Emsley, Graeme Dunstall (Uffculme: Willan Publishing, 2003) 125-144 (p. 127)

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

[6] Herbert T. Fitch, Traitors Within: The Adventures of Detective Inspector Herbert T Fitch (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1933)

[7] Colin Beavan, Fingerprints: Murder and the race to uncover the science of identity (London: Fourth Estate, 2003), pp. 147-166

[8] Wensley, Forty Years of Scotland Yard, p. 12

[9] Frederick Sharpe, Sharpe of the Flying Squad (London: John Long, 1938), p. 11

[10] Tom Divall, Scoundrels and Scallywags (And Some Honest Men), (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), pp. 31-32

[11] G.W. Cornish, Cornish of the ‘Yard’: His reminiscences and cases (London: John Lane, 1935), pp. 2-3

[12] Fitch, Traitors Within, p. 249. The first female police inspector in the UK was Florence Mildred White, who rose to this rank in 1930 at Birmingham City Police.


Coronation of George VI

As the UK prepares for the first coronation since 1953, it is a good opportunity to look back on the only coronation which took place during the interwar period. On 12 May 1937, King George VI was crowned in Westminster Abbey. Initially, it had been planned that the coronation that day would have been of Edward VIII, but after the Abdication Crisis of late 1936, it was decided to use the same date for a different coronation ceremony.

Although the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was famously the first national ‘TV event’ in Britain (there’s even a Dr Who episode about it), new media were also used for the coronation in 1937. The last coronation before this year had been in 1911, when moving image mediums were still in the early stages of development. In that year, silent film footage of the procession was recorded from static cameras, mostly at a remove from the action. By 1937, sound cinema was omnipresent, and making a filmed record of the coronation was an integral part of the day. A film of nearly an hour was recorded, which included many shots taken inside Westminster Abbey during the service. The whole was overlaid with an informative voice-over explaining the action.

Although a large number of people, possibly up to a million, travelled to London to witness the procession, there were many more subjects who would not have been able to see this royal ceremony in person. These were not just in Britain, but across the world. As one local newspaper put it, ‘figuratively waiting upon the Throne and its new King to-day were the 500,000,000 people of the Empire.’[1]

The distribution of the coronation film was one of the key strategies to ensure that these half a billion people could feel a connection with the new monarch. The film was edited and distributed quickly – only two days after the coronation, on Friday 14 May, people in provincial towns such as Gloucester were able to see ‘The Great Coronation Film: The House of Windsor.’ It was advertised as including ‘THE ACTUAL CROWNING CEREMONY IN THE ABBEY’. In the case of Gloucester, it was showing in three different cinemas with each screening it four times a day.[2]

A shortened newsreel version of the footage taken at the coronation

Other mass media were also used to create a sense of a community of subjects. Arguably, the fact that until six months before the coronation no-one had expected this second son to become king, made it likely that most people in the country had only a very limited understanding of who their new King was. Local newspapers printed articles setting out details about the new King and Queen, to inform their readership. The Lancashire-based Nelson Leader told its readers that for the new King, ‘Duty is a quiet passion with him, as it was with his father.’[3] Multiple newspapers assert that the King’s main interests are the nation’s industry and support for young people – both uncontroversial topics. The other key feature that papers highlighted was the domestic bliss of the new royal couple: ‘Ideally happy has been the married life of King George and Queen Elizabeth’; and most articles also describe the couple’s daughters in flattering terms.[4]

The spectre of King Edward VIII is mostly in the background of these reports; but in the Derbyshire Times he is evoked explicitly: ‘King George lacks some of the qualities that inspired high hopes of King Edward VIII – he is more reserved, more conventional, and makes friends less easily – but he has certain qualities that his more brilliant brother lacks: he is steadier, less impulsive, more persevering, and more dutiful.’[5]  And, of course, the new King’s steady family life is infinitely preferable to a King married to an American divorcee, although none of the newspapers make that explicit.

A final strategy employed to create an ‘imagined community’ of subjects around the new King is the issue of special coronation stamps. These went on sale on the day after the coronation, and multiple papers reported that there was a record interest in them. ‘Queues formed at many post offices and for the first time special stamp counters dealt with the rush. Arrangements had been made for the sale of 38 millions.’[6] Stamps, bearing the image of the new monarch and uniquely linked to national identity, are another tactic to reinforce to the audience that they are part of a defined group of royal subjects.

So, beyond the actual coronation ceremony itself in London, which saw ‘[m]ore than 5,669,000 passengers (…) carried by the London Underground Railways during the forty-six hours of continuous service’; ‘200 tons of litter (…) removed from the three miles of the Coronation route and side streets’; and a 6.5 mile procession through Westminster, modern mass media methods were used to ensure that the coronation’s impact reached to all corners of Britain, and beyond that through the Empire.[7] After the unprecedented events of the Abdication, which had the potential to damage the crown, the coronation was used to reinforce the monarchy as a stable and positive influence.

[1] ‘Happy and Glorious’, Lincolnshire Echo, 12 May 1937, p.6

[2] Cinema adverts, Gloucester Citizen, 14 May 1937, p. 11

[3] ‘Long May They Reign!’, Nelson Leader, 14 May 1937, p. 6

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘King George VI and his coronation’, Derbyshire Times, 14 May 1937, p. 30

[6] ‘Rush to buy new stamps’, Daily News, 14 May 1937, p. 8

[7] ‘King and Queen thank the nation,’ Liverpool Echo, 14 May 1937, p. 11; ‘Long May They Reign!’, Nelson Leader, 14 May 1937, p. 6


Victor Gollancz

Practically all of the notable interwar people covered by this blog to date have been artists, performers and people whose professions otherwise put them firmly in the limelight. This post covers someone whose job was by definition more ‘back office’, although he was quite adept at publicity: publisher and activist Victor Gollancz.

Anyone with only a passing interest in British interwar literature is sure to come across Gollancz name sooner rather than later. Born in London to Jewish parents in 1893, Oxford-educated Gollancz initially worked as a schoolteacher. After the First World War he worked for a publishing house before setting up his own company, which carried his name, in 1927.

Gollancz connections in the publishing world and his explicit left-wing political stance quickly ensured that he signed a number of high-profile authors, including George Orwell (until around 1937); Daphne du Maurier, Vera Brittain, and Ford Madox Ford. He was also very active in the publishing of crime fiction. Dorothy L. Sayers had initially been signed by the publishing house for which Gollancz worked until 1927. From Strong Poison (1930) onwards, she published all her Wimsey novels with Gollancz.

Anthony Berkeley, who generally published his works with Collins, went to Gollancz for the first two books he wrote under the pseudonym Francis Iles, Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932). It made sense for Berkeley to pick a different publisher for his Francis Iles venture, as he intended to keep his real identity firmly hidden. Under his real name, Berkeley was not associated with Gollancz. According to crime fiction historian Martin Edwards the venture was also beneficial for Gollancz, who was able to use his marketing nous to increase sales when Before the Fact was published: ‘Gollancz seized his chance with gusto. ‘Who is Iles?’ demanded the dust jacket, which listed twenty candidates put forward in ‘the public prints.’’[1]

Victor Gollancz did not just publish crime fiction: he also drew inspiration from the Collins Crime Club, a book club set up in 1930, to co-found the Left Book Club in 1936.[2] Subscribers to the club were sent one book a month, mostly on political topics. At this point, and until 1939, Gollancz was closely aligned with the Communist Party, which influenced the monthly book choices: many were written by members of the Communist Party and the Party vetted the book choices in the early days of the club.

The Club was successful and influential, gaining 40,000 members within its first year. There was also overlap between the club and Gollancz activities in crime fiction publishing: in 1937 the club picked two books written by G.D.H. Cole (one of which co-authored by his wife M.I. Cole). The Coles had been members of the Detection Club of crime fiction writers since its foundation in 1930 and co-wrote detective fiction as well as works of political non-fiction.

Victor Gollancz was also politically active outside of the Left Book Club. In 1934, after the controversial British Union of Fascists rally at Kensington Olympia, during which many members of the public were attacked and beaten up by BUF members, Gollancz published the pamphlet Fascists at Olympia: A record of eye-witnesses and victims. As the title implies, this was a collection of statements of people who had been present in the Hall, which explicitly accused the BUF of unfounded and severe violence. This pamphlet, which was distributed free of charge to raise awareness of the BUFs tactics, was sufficiently influential to spur the BUF to publish their own pamphlet in return, contracting the claims of violence.

During the Second World War, Gollancz was a prominent voice drawing attention to the plight of Jews in Nazi-occupied territories. After the war, he campaigned for humanitarian treatment for German citizens, insisting that they were not responsible for Nazi atrocities. In the 1950s, Gollancz became a prominent campaigner for the abolition of capital punishment in Britain after the controversial execution of Ruth Ellis, a woman who had killed her abusive partner and the last woman to be hanged in Britain. [3] Gollancz lived to see the death penalty suspended in 1965, a legal move which effectively ended capital punishment in Britain although it was not officially abolished until 1969, two years after Gollancz’ death.

Victor Gollancz was an influential figure in interwar Britain, both through his political activities and as a publisher of some of the most successful and popular crime fiction authors of the period. The publishing house bearing his name lives on as an imprint of Orion Publishing Group.

[1] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2015), p. 136

[2] Ibid., p. 310

[3] Lizzie Seal, Capital Punishment in Twentieth-Century Britain: Audience, Justice, Memory (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 24


Short story writing in interwar Britain

Short stories are a relatively niche genre of fiction writing these days. The fiction short story appears to have originated in the 1820s. It is primarily the short stories of famous novelists that have stood the test of time: Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and, on the other side of the pond, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.[i] For the interwar period, literary authors such as James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield may come to mind. Yet the works of Joyce and Mansfield were only read by a limited audience at the time of their publication. They are decidedly ‘highbrow’ authors with no mass-market appeal.

Alongside these literary outputs, thousands of other, now forgotten, short stories were published in interwar Britain. They were found in newspapers, weekly magazines and dedicated publications such as the Strand Magazine. Due to their placement, short story writing was often considered aligned with journalism. Dozens of guide books appeared in the 1920s and 1930s instructing young hopefuls in how to ‘live off the pen’, whether that was through writing news articles; human interest stories; short stories; or novels (or even screenplays for films).

Literary critic Q.D. Leavis let rip against this commercial market of fiction writing in her 1932 polemic Fiction and the Reading Public. She is highly critical of the marketisation of fiction, which in her view sees editors prioritise high circulation figures above all else. ‘The kind of fiction published in this way – the briefest inspection will show that it is all of a kind – is carefully chosen by the editors in accordance with the policy of wat is called ‘Giving the Public what it wants.’’[ii] The result, Leavis argues, is that the public is inundated with ‘fiction that requires the least effort to read and will set the reader up with a comfortable state of mind.’[iii]

Although the tone of Leavis’ book is snobbish in her assumption that the increased commercialisation of literature signals a cultural decline, an inspection of 1920s and 1930s guide books on ‘how to become a writer’ demonstrates that these books did consistently advise to keep the readership in mind when writing short stories. Often, these books break the short story down into constituent elements and tell the aspirant writer how to put together a successful story. They actively warn against individualism or stylistic flourishes in writing. For example, the author of the 1934 book Short Stories and How to Write Them declares: ‘My earnest advice to all at this stage is to study the markets. The stories you find should be your models. Every story should be written with a definite market in view.’[iv] Similarly, The Craft of the Short Story, published two years later, argues that ‘Always remember that your purpose in writing a short story is, or should be, to amuse and entertain.’[v] It is the reader, not the writer, who is the most important part of the equation.

The explosion of print media had made commercial writing an attractive career option for many people. Unlike professions such as medicine or law, you did not need an expensive university education to become a journalist or writer. Indeed, many of the books on the subject argued that all that was needed was a sound grasp of the English language, some stationary supplies and probably a cheap typewriter, and resilience, as the aspiring writer could expect many of their first attempts to be rejected by editors.

One author who made a good living out of the writing of guide books was Michael Joseph, who was also a literary agent and from 1935 a publisher (Michael Joseph continues to exist as an imprint of Penguin). Joseph wrote eight books on the topic of writing and making money, between 1924 and 1931. His prominence in the field is acknowledged by Leavis, who repeatedly uses his books as examples of how writing has become a business. In How to Write a Short Story, Joseph argues that ‘Many writers actually cannot visualise their market when they set to work on a story. Artistically, there is a good deal of justification for this; commercially, it is liable to result in failure to place the MS [manuscript].’[vi] Some of his other books tackle the business side of writing even more explicitly, by listing publications which accept submissions and explaining in detail how one goes about submitting a manuscript.

If the self-study of guidebooks was not enough, the aspiring writer could also enrol into one of dozens of writing schools and correspondence courses that were available in the interwar period. Often these were advertised in short story publications. Professional writers were generally highly sceptical of these ‘schools’ which tended to promise unrealistic returns on investment. Yet some writers set up schools themselves. One of the earliest and most commercially successful was the London School of Journalism, founded by novelist Max Pemberton and still in business today. ‘The Short Story Course’ offered by the School in the 1920s consisted of 12 lessons, each ending with a few exercises which the student could complete and send back to the School to be marked. Lessons include ‘About Plot’ (lesson 2); ‘Heroes and Heroines’ (lesson 4); and ‘Atmosphere’ (lesson 5). Exercises often included copying out examples of existing short stories to study them. The main advice at the end of the course is to ‘work with diligence every day’ and apply oneself, and then success is sure to follow.

All of these courses and books demonstrate that the writing of short stories was big business in interwar Britain, at least for the happy few who were able to claim authority in the field and make a living out of encouraging others to follow the same career path. All of the books highlight resilience and consistency as key to success, but do not mention elements more traditionally linked to artistic endeavours such as inspiration or reflection. Like journalism, which had become increasingly commercialised, short story writing became ‘hack work’ in the interwar period.

[i] All male, of course – not because men are better short story writers but because they have traditionally been more readily classed as ‘great authors’ and have had their oeuvres canonized accordingly.

[ii] Q.D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968 [1932]), p. 27

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Cecil Hunt, Short Stories and How to Write Them (London: George Harrap & Co, 1934), p. 187

[v] Donald McConochie, The Craft of the Short Story (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1936), p. 27

[vi] Michael Joseph, How to Write a Short Story (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1925), p. 91

Britannia of Billingsgate (1933)

FeaturedBritannia of Billingsgate (1933)

Britannia of Billingsgate is a reasonably early sound film which provides a critical commentary on the film industry’s shallowness, whilst simultaneously wanting to present a career on screen as aspirational. The film strikes an awkward balance between promoting traditional British values of community and common sense; and foregrounding the glamour of cinema.

At the opening of the film we are introduced to the Bolton family: Bert Bolton is a porter at Billingsgate fish market, whilst his wife Bessie runs a chip shop adjacent to the market. The couple’s young adult children, Pearl and Fred, are obsessed with movies and motorcycles respectively. The Billingsgate community is shown as a warm, Cockney environment where everyone knows and supports everyone else.

Bessie (Violet Lorraine) singing among her regular customers in Britannia of Billingsgate

An Italian director has picked the market as a location for his latest film. Due to a technical mix-up, the film set’s sound recorders accidentally record Bessie singing in her café. The film’s producers are so impressed with the quality of Bessie’s singing that they track her down and offer her a big contract to star in a musical film. Bessie has no interest in an acting career, but her husband and children all want the money that is attached to the offer. Bessie relents and agrees to star in the new film, which will be called Piccadilly Playground.

Whilst Bessie is working on the film, the family move into a luxurious apartment. Bert, Pearl and Fred all start moving in wealthier circles. Bert drinks heavily and starts gambling; Pearl also gambles and tries to ingratiate herself with her favourite film star. Fred secretly pursues his dreams of becoming a motorbike racer – something Bessie is against as she perceives it to be very dangerous.

Bert (Gordon Harker) enjoying the high life in Britannia of Billingsgate

Bessie is the only one not corrupted by the sudden wealth that has befallen the family. She rejects fancy dinners in favour of fish and chips and visits her old café where she engages in a community sing-a-long with the regulars. In this middle section of the film, Britannia of Billingsgate is clear to show that money is leading Bert, Pearl and Fred astray, most notably in a scene where Bert engages in a game of strip poker with a number of younger women. Bessie’s commitment to her roots and her rejection of luxury are clearly presented as commendable.

On the night of Bessie’s film premiere, both Pearl and Fred pretend to be ill. Pearl wants to secretly sneak into the flat of the film star she so admires, in the hopes that her sudden presence in his bedroom will seduce him. Fred plans to take part in a motorcycle race. Bessie and Bert duly head to the film screening alone. Bessie is convinced Piccadilly Plaground will be a terrible flop. In the meantime, Pearl and Fred conduct their own plans, but they are spotted by one of Bessie’s friends and by her butler.

The premiere of Piccadilly Playground in Britannia of Billingsgate

Bessie’s friend comes into the cinema and alerts Bessie that Pearl has gone to the actor’s apartment. Bessie leaves the film screening halfway to confront Pearl, who by that point has been discovered by the actor (who is disgruntled to find this vapid young woman in his bedroom). After Bessie has given Pearl a literal spanking, the party go to the racetrack to find Fred. Seeing Fred win his race makes Bessie change her mind about racing and she becomes supportive. Meanwhile, Piccadilly Playground has proven to be a huge success and the film producers offer Bessie an even bigger contract. Despite her misgivings about wealth and acting, which she has voiced consistently throughout the story so far, Bessie agrees to make another film. At the end of Britannia of Billingsgate we see that the film producers have replicated Bessie’s old fish and chip shop on set, and she records a scene in which she sings with the guests, just like she was doing in ‘real life.’

Like other films of the period, such as Sally in Our Alley (1932) and Say it with Flowers (1934), Britannia of Billingsgate romanticises working class communities and shows the working-class woman as sensible, down-to-earth, and representing British values. Indeed, the film’s title compares Bessie to Britannia herself. Bessie’s rejection of wealth and the make-believe world of film fits entirely within that worldview. Pearl’s obsession with film, expressed through the avid reading of film magazines, cutting out photos of her favourite film star, and her eventual decision to make herself sexually available to this actor, are presented as both silly and morally wrong.

Yet at the film’s end, Bessie agrees to continue as a film actor, even though she appears to have had very little enjoyment out of the role so far. And while Pearl gets punished for her transgression, Fred’s ambitions as a motorcycle racer are ultimately shown to be commendable, inadvertently demonstrating Bessie’s double standard in her attitude to her daughter and son. Like many other films of the period, Britannia of Billingsgate presents a rags-to-riches story, where an ordinary person is catapulted to national fame and wealth. Although this narrative was very popular with audiences, it stood at odds with a traditional class-based society in which everyone supposedly knew their place and the working-classes were expected to work hard and be satisfied with very little. Ultimately, Britannia of Billingsgate tries to have its cake and eat it too: it allowed viewers to dream of being suddenly discovered and made famous; whilst also reaffirming that ultimately, audiences would be best off in the environments in which they were raised.

Britannia of Billingsgate is available to watch for free on BFI Player (for those based in the UK).


Rose Macaulay – Dangerous Ages (1921)

Prolific interwar author Rose Macaulay won the 1922 Femina-Vie Heureuse Prize for her novel Dangerous Ages. The prize was founded in 1919 as a British counterpart to the French Prix Femina: an annual novel prize awarded by an all-female committee. The winning author was often, but not always, female too. Other illustrious winners include E.M. Forster who was awarded the prize in 1925 for A Passage To India; Radclyffe Hall who won for Adam’s Breed in 1927, and Virginia Woolf who was given the prize in 1928 for To The Lighthouse. The British prize was awarded until 1939; the original French prize is still running today.

Dangerous Ages was Macaulay’s eleventh novel, published when she was forty. Her age when writing the novel is significant, as the work chronicles six female members of the same family, each at a different, but equally ‘dangerous’ age. Grandmamma is eighty-four; her daughter Mrs Hilary is sixty-three; Mrs Hilary’s daughters Neville, Pam and Nan are forty-three; thirty-nine and thirty-three respectively. Finally, Neville’s daughter Gerda is twenty. The novel spends little to no time describing the men of the family; brothers and husbands exist, but are only given cursory mention and their inner lives are not explored in depth. Instead, the work is deeply concerned with the emotional experience of womanhood in early 1920s Britain, and Macaulay appears to take a fairly dim view on this. Almost all the female characters experience a deep emotional lack, brought about by the expectation that their primary role in life is to be a wife and a mother.

Mrs Hilary’s first name is Emily, but she is only called that in the novel by her own mother. At all other points she is ‘Mrs Hilary’, foregrounding the perceived importance of her marital status to herself and her children and grandchildren. Her husband has passed away ten years previously and Mrs Hilary lives with her mother in a seaside town. She is described as being not intelligent and having no hobbies. Grandmamma has settled into a life of little eventfulness, knowing that she is near the end of her time on earth. Nonetheless, she makes a point of always visiting any new babies born in the family. Mrs Hilary, on the other hand, knows she may have several decades more to live, and has no meaningful work to fill it with.

Similarly, Neville at forty-three is casting around for a purpose now that her two children are grown up. We are told that when she was in her early twenties, Neville started medical school, but left the course without qualifying at twenty-two when she met her husband and got married. Now that she is done raising her children, the role of MP’s wife does not seem sufficiently fulfilling for Neville. She determines to return to medical school to finish her studies and qualify. However, Macaulay does not grant Neville a simple triumph. Instead, she finds her studies ‘difficult beyond her imaginings.’[1]

After weeks of studying her brother Jim, who did qualify as a surgeon, quizzes Neville and she realises that she’s not going to be able to reach the required level of academic knowledge after twenty years of not applying her brain with any discipline. When she asks her brother what else she can do to give meaning to her life, he can only suggest that she continues her ‘political work – public speaking, meetings, and so on. Isn’t that enough?’[2] It is clear to the reader that it will not be enough for Neville, who is repeatedly described as having a keen mind.

For Mrs Hilary, temporary salvation of a sort comes from taking a course of psycho-analysis. In this new type of talking therapy, which had recently arrived on British shores, she finds a man who, for two hours every week, has to listen to all of her memories, thoughts and dreams and has to show an interest in them. For a woman like Mrs Hilary, who is endured and indulged by her children but not taken seriously, this therapeutic relationship gives her a sense of importance and purpose, even if she quickly becomes dependent on her therapist.

Nan, Mrs Hilary’s youngest daughter and an author, has spent her thirty-three years to date dating around without making a serious emotional commitment to anyone. One of her admirers is thirty-five year old Barry Briscoe. After years of keeping Barry at arms’ length, Nan realises that she is ready to settle down. She resolves to spend a few weeks in Cornwall finishing her latest book, and then to invite Barry over and let him know that she is ready to commit to him. Unfortunately for Nan, during the weeks she is in Cornwall writing, Barry decides that she is probably never going to agree to marry him and he falls in love with her niece Gerda instead.

Nan has missed her opportunity for conventional happiness and is left travelling abroad and pursuing a very public but rather unhappy affair with a married painter. Gerda, initially absolutely committed to not subjecting to the institution of marriage, is eventually persuaded by Barry to drop her ideals and agree to matrimony. His assurance that ‘Next time we differ I’ll try to be the one to do it [change his mind], I honestly will….’ rings hollow to the reader, who can foresee Gerda walking into a life of compromise and self-neglect like her mother and grandmother before her.

Despite the book’s publication shortly after the Great War, the conflict plays no role in the novel’s plot, beyond a few references to the notion of ‘surplus women.’ There is no sense that these post-war women have greater freedom or opportunities than previous generations: instead, almost all the women in the novel see their lives dictated by the expectations of marriage and motherhood. The exception is thirty-nine year old Pam, who lives with a female friend in a Hoxton flat and does social work. Macaulay allows Pam the final word: ‘Pamela, who seemed lightly, and, as it were, casually, to swing a key to the door against which Neville, among many others, beat’.[3] Pam’s secret is a supreme detachment from the details and emotions of life: ‘I certainly don’t see quite what all the fuss is about…’[4] The choice these 1920s women have, according to Macaulay, is to either remove themselves from life’s passions and emotions; or to live a life of constant frustration.

[1] Rose Macaulay, Dangerous Ages (London: British Library, 2020), p. 39

[2] Ibid., p. 90

[3] Ibid., p. 206

[4] Ibid.