100th Blog Post!

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

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

Basics

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

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

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

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

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

Most popular posts

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

Other evergreen posts are:

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

Hidden gems

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readership

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

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

Winifred Holtby – South Riding (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., p. 368

Football in interwar Britain

<strong>Football in interwar Britain</strong>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., p. 240

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

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

Leonard Gribble – The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 119

[5] Ibid., p. 19

[6] Ibid., p. 38

[7] Ibid., p. 171

[8] Ibid., p. 106

Trouble Brewing (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

George subjected to a wrestling match in Trouble Brewing

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

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

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

George under the table in Trouble Brewing

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

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

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

Interwar Spooky Stories

Interwar Spooky Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., p. 272

[3] Ibid., p. 277

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

[5] Ibid., p. 268

[6] Ibid., p. 270

[7] Ibid., p. 273

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

[9] Ibid., p. 85

Sonnie Hale

Sonnie Hale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The General Strike of 1926

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Gaunt Stranger (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

DI Alan Wembury and Mary Lenley in The Gaunt Stranger

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

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

Johnnie Lenley and Sam Hackett in The Gaunt Stranger

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

The Ringer and Cora Ann escape in The Gaunt Stranger

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

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