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


Agatha Christie and drug dispensing

Agatha Christie is one of the best-selling authors of all time. During the interwar period, she was already an incredibly prolific and popular author and one of the key proponents of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Over the years, Christie became well-known for often using poison as the murder weapon in her stories. Almost always, the poisons she had her murders used were real, and the effects she described were scientifically accurate.[1]

The reason Christie was able to use poison to such effect in her writing was because during the First World War, she had worked as a medical dispenser in a hospital in Devon, mixing drugs as prescribed by the hospital’s doctors. Her training for this role required her to learn all about medicine and poisons, and it was during this same period that she worked on her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (featuring Hercule Poirot and strychnine as the murder weapon). During the Second World War, Christie would once again take up a role as dispenser in a hospital.[2]

Thus, Agatha Christie is probably the best-known dispenser of the First World War, but that it was a growing profession which women were encouraged to join is evidenced by the 1917 book How to become a dispenser: The new profession for women.[3] This slender volume was written by academic and author Emily L.B. Forster, who also penned How to become a woman doctor (1918); Analytical chemistry as a profession for women (1920); and, later, Everybody’s Vegetarian Cookbook (1930). As these titles demonstrate, Forster was clearly passionate about encouraging female participation in the sciences.

How to become a dispenser was written during the First World War, when professional opportunities opened up for women due to the large number of men being called up to the front. This is acknowledged in the book’s opening line: ‘There are few professions in the present day whose doors are not open to women.’[4] Yet for Forster, dispensing has the potential to be a fulfilling lifelong career for women, not just a stop-gap during the war. To that end, she encourages readers to undertake the training and qualifications required to become a dispenser.

As outlined in the book, there were two different possible qualifications an aspiring dispenser could attempt: assistant dispenser, which required six months of training; or pharmacist, which took three years to complete. Agatha Christie completed the shorter qualification to become an assistant dispenser. In a time when ‘patent’ (pre-made and mass produced) medicines were rare and treated with some suspicion, dispensers and pharmacists were a key part of the medical infrastructure and required to mix medications precisely to doctor’s orders. The role required a thorough understanding of botany, chemistry and physiology and a great deal of accuracy, as the difference between a medicine and a poison could be minimal.

Forster encourages student-dispensers to enrol in a pharmaceutical college for six months to learn for the assistant-dispenser qualification. Those wanting to aim for the more comprehensive pharmacist diploma are advised to apprentice themselves to either a chemist or a hospital dispensing department. Assistant dispensers had to be at least 19 to take the exam; pharmacists had to be 21 to qualify. In either case a ‘girl’ had to have completed secondary school at least; that, in addition to the further study required, marked dispensing out as a career for better-off women. (Indeed, Christie came from a fairly upper-class family).

The benefits of the role were clear to Forster, who herself was a career scientist. There was plenty of work in the field, and the role was active: ‘although it is an indoor occupation, it means constantly moving about in the dispensary, and is not so sedentary as most indoor work.’[5] Depending on the position, hours could be fairly regular and when working in a chemist or pharmacist, there would be no need to wear a uniform.[6] Within the dispensary, there was freedom to organise the work to one’s own taste. For the most ambitious women, there was scope to set up their own business, perhaps in partnership with another woman – although readers were warned that in existing chemist shops they would be unlikely to tolerate a woman to be the boss of male dispensers: ‘a woman at the head might not be a recommendation to the aspiring [male] chemist.’[7]

In terms of pay, an assistant dispenser working at a hospital, like Agatha Christie, could expect anything between 30s and £3 a week ‘according to the size of the hospital and the position held by the dispenser.’[8] The downside of working in a hospital was that it would be necessary to cover Sunday and evening shifts in rotation.

The back of the book included adverts for no less than twelve different pharmaceutical colleges, confirming Forster’s opinion that there was plenty of opportunity in this field of work during the First World War. Although Agatha Christie used her experience as a dispenser as fuel for her creative career, for other women becoming a dispenser could be a route into satisfying scientific work which was intellectually challenging, responsible and independent. Scientists like Emily Forster told their readers that it was completely within their abilities to succeed in a career path of their choice. Even after the First World War, books such as these continued to encourage women to participate in the world of work on their own terms.

[1] Carla Valentine, Murder isn’t easy: The forensics of Agatha Christie (London: Sphere, 2021), p. 309

[2] Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie: A very elusive woman (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2022)

[3] Emily L.B. Forster, How to become a dispenser: The new profession for women (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1917)

[4] Ibid., p. 1

[5] Ibid., p. 9

[6] Ibid., p. 42

[7] Ibid., pp. 39-40

[8] Ibid., p. 41

Female aviators in interwar Britain

FeaturedFemale aviators in interwar Britain

With the rise in popularity of civil and commercial aviation in the 1920s and 1930s, which has been covered elsewhere in this blog, there was naturally also an increase in the number of people who got a pilot’s license. What is perhaps more surprising to the casual observer is the number of women who became (amateur) pilots. During a time when women were increasingly able to participate in public life, changing social norms made it more acceptable for women to engage with new modes of mobility.

As with the introduction of cars, learning how to fly was mostly open to women from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. Nonetheless, some women from working- and lower-middle class backgrounds were also able to gain a pilot’s license. Unlike today, the training requirements for new pilots were minimal, with some clocking fewer than 10 hours in the cockpit before deciding to set off on long solo adventures. This, too, lowered the threshold to becoming a pilot, although the other big expense required was of course the purchase of a plane.

The most famous female pilot in interwar Britain was Amy Johnson. ‘Amy, Wonderful Amy’ as the song written in her honour called her, became hugely famous when she flew on her own to Australia in May 1930. The journey took her 19.5 days – it was not an outright record but she was the first female pilot to undertake the route as a solo pilot. Johnson had grown up in a middle-class family, attending university and working as a legal secretary before re-training as an engineer and realising her aviation dreams.[1]

‘Amy Johnson, Queen of the Skies’ newsreel

Also in 1930, Mildred Mary Petre (usually known as Mrs Victor Bruce) completed a solo flight to Tokyo in 25 days. Unlike Johnson, Petre’s passion was not solely for flight – she had previously been a record-breaking motor racer. When she undertook her long-distance flight in 1930 she’d only had 40 hours of flight experience.[2] The feats of female pilots caught the popular imagination in 1930, leading the Daily Mirror to enthuse in a bold headline that 1930 was ‘The most wonderful year in the history for women’ and that the year had seen ‘months of triumph over male rivals in almost every sphere.’[3]

Most female pilots either flew as amateurs for private enjoyment, or sought to gain publicity and income by completing record-breaking flights. The commercial airlines were extremely resistant to hiring female pilots. In 1928, amateur pilot Lady Heath was briefly employed by KLM as a pilot on their Amsterdam to London route, but this did not result in a permanent appointment. Lady Heath had grown up in Ireland where she had obtained a degree in science. During the First World War she served as a despatch rider, and in the 1920s she was a champion javelin thrower and one of the founders of England’s Women’s Amateur Athletics Association. Rather than trying to break distance records, Lady Heath focused on height records in her plane, becoming the first pilot to fly a light plane to an altitude of 16,000ft in 1927, and to 23,000ft the following year.

Mary Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, came to flying later in life. As a young woman in the Victorian era she spent a significant part of her life setting up and managing hospitals. She also trained in jiu-jitsu. The Duchess’s interest in flight came late in her life; she took her first flight from Croydon Airport to Woburn in 1926, when she was 60 years old. In 1929, she conducted a record-breaking flight from Lympne Airport to Karachi (India) and back to Croydon. She completed this round-trip in eight days, in her single-engine Fokker plane which she nicknamed ‘The Spider’. Her trip and return in Croydon were widely reported in the press. The following year, she flew The Spider from Lympne to Cape Town in a record breaking 91 hours and 20 minutes of flight time over 10 days. 

Mary Russell arriving back at Croydon Airport after a record-breaking flight,
The Illustrated London News, 17 August 1929

An example of a female pilot from a less moneyed background is Winifred Spooner, who was born in Woolwich. Spooner was the 16th woman in Britain to gain her pilot’s license when she obtained it in 1927. The following year, she was the first female pilot to participate in the prestigious King’s Cup, a long-distance race over the British Isles that was first established in 1922. At this first attempt at the race, Spooner came third. In 1931, she became the first woman in Britain to make a living as a private pilot, working for Sir William Everard MP. This highlights how for someone with more limited financial means such as Spooner, flying could never just be a hobby but had to constitute a source of income if she was to continue with it.

Winifred Spooner (By The Flight magazine archive from Flightglobal, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link)

Unfortunately, many of these illustrious women had their lives cut tragically short. Amy Johnson disappeared over the North Sea in 1941, age 38. Winifred Spooner caught pneumonia whilst flying and died in 1933, when she was just 32. Mary Russell, although living to the ripe old age of 70, disappeared during a solo flight around her family’s private estate in 1937. Lady Heath developed an alcohol dependency and in 1939 fell from the stairs in a double-decker tram; she later died of her injuries. Notwithstanding the glamourous treatment female pilots received in popular culture, in reality their flying exposed them to significant dangers which were generally not foregrounded in press narratives.

[1] Allain Pelletier, High-Flying Women: A world history of female pilots (Yeovil: Haynes Publishing, 2012), p. 101

[2] Ibid. p. 92

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

Bobbed, shingled or waved: women’s hair in interwar London

FeaturedBobbed, shingled or waved: women’s hair in interwar London

Well-off women in interwar Britain were told that the state of their hair was an important consideration. Throughout the interwar period, different hairstyle trends followed one another and for the fashion-conscious woman, it was easy to be considered completely démodé if sporting the wrong style. Short hairstyles were favoured, which required less daily maintenance and upkeep than the traditional Edwardian long hairstyles. Film stars showed off these new trends to the wider public, enhancing their aspirational qualities.

The bobbed haircut made a big impact in the early 1920s, aided by American film stars such as Clara Bow (the original ‘It girl’) and Louise Brooks.[1] Brooks in particular cut her bob very short. In British film, the bob perhaps most famously appears in 1929s Piccadilly, where Anna Mae Wong’s character Shosho wears her hair in the style. Wong was an American actress, and her character Shosho was Chinese and is constantly ‘othered’ in the film, aligning the bobbed hairstyle with a dangerous exoticism.

Anna Mae Wong as Shosho in Piccadilly

By the mid-1920s, however, the bob had generally been replaced by the ‘shingled’ hairstyle, an even shorter cut that exposed the wearer’s neck. In the 1928 novel Keeping Up Appearances there are frequent reminders that the novel’s heroine, Daisy/Daphne, wears her hair shingled. It would appear to be the perfect hairstyle for a character who is a journalist and a single woman living independently in London, mixing with a ‘fast set’ of drinking friends and trying to find her own way in life. Daisy is frequently asked to write for her newspaper on the ‘Post-War Girl’, a stereotype which she herself embodies and which would commonly be assumed to wear her hair short.[2]

Shingled hair was much more complicated to achieve than a regular bob, and would require the wearer to undergo frequent and extensive treatment in a beauty salon. In interwar London, hairdresser for women often operated as part of a beaty parlour, where customers could also get manicures and other treatments. Whereas the bob had been very achievable for working-class women, shingled hair denoted someone who could spend time and money on its maintenance.

In the 1930s, hairstyles got longer again, and the most important thing to achieve was a ‘wave’. The ‘Marcel wave’, although patented in the 1870s, remained fashionable. It required the application of heated tongs onto a woman’s hair, to set it in long-lasting waves. This operation, which needed to be undertaken in a professional parlour, could be hazardous for the customer. E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady visits a hairdresser for a ‘permanent wave’ in The Provincial Lady Goes Further, which originally appeared in 1932:

Undergo permanent wave, with customary interludes of feeling that nothing on earth can be worth it, and eventual conviction that it was. The hairdresser (…) assures me that I shall not be left alone whilst the heating is on, and adds gravely that no client ever is left alone at that stage – which has a sinister sound, and terrifies me. However, I emerge safely, and my head is also declared to have come up beautifully – which it has.[3]

The Provincial Lady, by the way, always gets her hair done in London, and indeed often resolves to visit the hairdresser immediately upon her arrival in the capital, when she sees that fashions have changed since her last visit.[4] In rural Devon, where she normally resides, hairstyles are evidentially not subject to the whims of fashion, but in the big cities women are expected to keep up with changing expectations.

The beauty parlour appears in some interwar films, most notably Anthony Asquith’s thriller A Cottage on Dartmoor. In this film, the protagonists are Joe, a barber’s assistant, and Sally, a manicurist, who both work in the same salon. Joe is in love with Sally and pursues her doggedly, but Sally does not reciprocate his feelings and is disturbed by Joe’s persistence. When a male customer from the countryside enters the salon, he and Sally fall in love at first sight. Joe’s jealousy leads him to murderous intent. The forced proximity of the trio in the salon, where Joe has to work on his rival’s hair and observe Sally touching the man’s hands as she delivers his manicure, ratchets up the tension.

On a lighter note, the male love interest in the Gracie Fields film Looking on the Bright Side also works as a hairdresser in a beauty parlour. In this film, Fields maximises the comic opportunities of the environment, with water, soap and complicated hairdressing machines all playing a part in a key slapstick scene.

Laurie helps a customer in Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

For women who could not afford to go to the beauty parlour, home treatments such as the heavily-marketed ‘Amami’ shampoo offered a solution. Under the slogan ‘Friday Night is Amami Night’ customers were encouraged to use the brand’s ‘shampoo and set’ products every week, to achieve that elusive ‘wave.’ No matter if you visited a high-end beauty salon, or used at-home products, if you wanted to be a fashion-conscious woman in interwar London you had to spend time, money and effort to ensure that your hair passed muster.

[1] Anna Cottrell, ‘Deathless Blondes and Permanent Waves: Women’s Hairstyles in Interwar Britain’, Literature and History, vol. 25, no. 1 (2016), 22-40, p. 28

[2] Rose Macaulay, Keeping Up Appearances (London: British Library, 2022 [1928]), p. 25

[3] E. M. Delafield, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, (London: Penguin, 2013 [1932]), p. 140

[4] Ibid., p. 228



The interwar period was a time when new and radical beliefs were developed and distributed between like-minded people. Physical health and exercise became increasingly popular for both men and women, as evidenced by the exercise manuals published in the aftermath of the First World War. This was partially a response against the perceived physical deterioration of the nation; during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) ‘between forty and sixty percent of recruits for the British Army were turned down as physically unfit for service.’[1] Prime Minister David Lloyd George famously declared in a speech in 1918 ‘that you cannot maintain an A-1 Empire with a C-3 population.’[2] A-1 and C-3 refer to the British Army’s then classification system for physical fitness, with A-1 being the highest category and C-3 being the lowest.

Yet the interest in physical wellbeing was not only generated from an imperial perspective. Cycling and rambling became popular as accessible ways to explore the countryside. Alongside these mainstream forms of enjoying nature, more niche interests developed. From the mid-1920s, naturism increasingly gained a foothold in Britain. This movement, which promoted nude exercise and movement in nature, drew on ideas originally articulated in Germany’s Freikörperkultur. Naturists promoted the health benefits of open air, sunlight and exercise, often in direct response to the perceived negative health effects of inner-city living. Influential German naturist Hans Surén ‘promoted a moral geography of landscape in which the contemporary city was considered to be an unsuitable environment for humans.’[3]

It is not surprising, then, that one of the first naturist resorts opened just north of London, in Hertfordshire. There, a few miles outside St Albans, the couple Charles and Dorothy Macaski settled at ‘Spielplatz’ in 1927.[4] Spielplatz is German for ‘playground’, the name a reference back to the German origins of the naturism movement. For the first few years the Macaskis used the grounds as a private haven. Then, in 1930, a group of naturists who swam and sunbathed naked in private grounds in Hendon, north-west London, were attacked by outraged locals. The proximity of the ‘Welsh Harp’ reservoir to the rest of the community caused tensions to rise, which spilled out in the populist press. After the ‘Welsh Harp’ incident, the Macaskis received inquiries from individuals who wanted to use their, more secluded and remote, grounds to practice their naturism. For the Macaskis, this meant extra income, and before long Spielplatz developed into a naturist community.[5]

Amateur film footage shot in 1938 shows Spielplatz in full swing. Because it is shot with a personal camera, there is no sound; but the community members attempted to reconstruct a fictional narrative in which an unsuspecting tramp stumbles upon the land and is persuaded to join in the free-flowing fun. Additionally, there are plenty of shots of Spielplatz members pulling silly faces to the camera, demonstrating acrobatic skills, and enjoying various types of exercise. They appear to range between their early 20s and mid-50s, with some couples having their young children with them (rather unexpectedly, some of the toddlers are fully clothed, perhaps against the cold).

The overall impression is of a true playground: the community members are permanently outdoors, enjoying physical activity, picnics, and camaraderie. Exposure to fresh air and sunlight continued to be important tenets of the naturist movement, which is also reflected in the name of its official membership organisation, the National Sun & Air Association. By 1937 it boasts over 2000 members.

Although in Germany, some naturist attach themselves to Nazi ideology which promoted Aryan fitness ideals, in Britain the movement continued to thrive as a progressive, left-of-centre fringe movement.[6] In the Spielplatz footage, although the community members evidently enjoy physical movement and they all appear fit and healthy (albeit some are habitual smokers), there is no sense that exercise is undertaken for the purpose of corporeal enhancement. There are no ‘drills’ or rigid exercises; instead, members appear to favour organic movement and expression such as dance and tumbling.

Spielplatz thrived in the run-up to the Second World War and even benefited from the war, as members increasingly took up permanent residence. During the Blitz, it was safer to be in the Hertfordshire countryside then in London.[7] Once again, there was a health benefit to being out of the city centre, albeit for very different reasons than had been cited in the 1920s. Today, the park continues to operate as a family-friendly naturism club.

Although never more than a fringe movement in interwar Britain, naturism is an example of new social experiments which were launched after the First World War. Like some of the political movements which gained traction in the 1920s, naturism had international roots, and it offered people a way to challenge the status quo and imagine a new way of being in the world.  

[1] J.M. Winter, ‘Military Fitness and Civilian Health in Britain during the First World War’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 15, no 2 (1980), 211-244 (p. 211)

[2] Ibid., p. 212

[3] Nina J. Morris, ‘Naked in nature: naturism, nature and the senses in early 20th century Britain’, Cultural Geographies, vol. 16, no. 3 (2009), 283-308 (p. 286)

[4] Jacob David Santos, ‘To the Frustration of Many a Birdwatcher: The Rise and Development of Naturism in Great Britain’, Unpublished PhD thesis, Providence College (2018), p. 49

[5] Ibid., pp. 50-51

[6] Morris, ‘Naked in nature’, p. 297

[7] Santos, ‘Rise and Development’, p. 64

Out in the London Casino (1938)

FeaturedOut in the London Casino (1938)

Although films of interwar Britain occasionally had interest in illicit gambling activities (for example, this one), and illegal gambling clubs certainly existed in real life, the London Casino was not, in fact, a casino. Originally it opened as the Prince Edward Theatre on Old Compton Street in 1930, with the intention of putting on Ziegfeld Follies-style revues. This, however, proved commercially unsuccessful. According to a 1938 Picture Post article, the theatre then became the regular host of trade shows for talking films, as it was fully wired for sound films.[1] Trade shows allowed cinema managers and buyers from cinema chains to view films before they hit the market, and decide which films to purchase for exhibition in their own cinemas.

Showing trade films was not necessarily a profitable occupation, however, particularly as the theatre was not being used for anything else. Around 1935, therefore, two investors decided to work together to refurbish the theatre to the tune of (then) £25,000.[2] They renamed the venue the London Casino, and came up with a concept which was entirely new for the British capital at that time. All the theatre seats were stripped out and replaced by rows of dinner tables – in the stalls as well as on the dress circles. The seats nearest to the stage were removed entirely to create a dancefloor. Big staircases led down from the circles to this dancefloor. The space below the stage was converted into kitchens. Going forward, Casino guests would be able to ‘eat and drink inside a London theatre a full-size dinner.’

London Casino guests sit in tiered rows of dining tables, as shown in Picture Post

The Casino operated two shifts, one for dinner and one for supper. According to an early advert for the Casino, guests were served a five-course meal during their stay. During the meal, they could watch a show on the stage. After the show and dinner were over, guests could take the dancefloor – as long as they were dressed appropriately. ‘Evening Dress Optional but Essential for Dancing’ states the advert; and the Picture Post article notes that for seats on the balcony you did not have to wear evening dress. The advert suggests that all patrons paid the same price of 15s and 6d during the week and 17s 6d on Saturdays. By the time the Picture Post article was published, however, it was noted that some guests paid only 7s 6d, or less than half price. Presumably these were the balcony seats, right at the top of the theatre, which were ‘viewing only’.

Either way, the London Casino was a high-end night out; guests were only allowed to stay for 3 or 3.5 hours on weekdays, as their ‘slot’ only lasted so long. For comparison, West End cinema seats could only cost 1s 6d during this period, and suburban cinemas would be even cheaper. To spend 15s 6d a head on an evening’s entertainment would have been out of reach for many Londoners. Nonetheless, the Casino boasted of weekly revenues between £6000 and £7000, which would be ‘more money than any other entertainment in London.’[3] Clearly, by the end of the 1930s, there was sufficient disposable income at the top end of British society to sustain an innovative high-end club such as this.

In terms of the shows that patrons were treated to, the ample photography provided with the Picture Post article reveals a heavy reliance on ‘female beauty.’ Indeed, one can presume that the opportunity to publish photographs of scantily clad young women was one of the reasons why the editors of Picture Post decided to publish this article. Through the images in the weekly magazine a whole additional audience, who would not ordinarily be able to visit the Casino in person, were able to enjoy the ‘personal attractions of the dancers and show-girls.’[4]

A dance episode called ‘The Butterfly Hunt’ shows three young, thin, white women; two in bikini tops and gauzy skirts, the third appearing almost nude except for a bra and knickers. Dancer Maurice Brooke performed a stunt which required him to have one woman sitting on his neck and another (again in underwear) being swung round by him. Other scenes included ‘A Slave Market in Algeria’ (female slaves wearing minimal beaded outfits) and ‘The Bird of Night’ (women wearing skin-coloured, skin-tight outfits that make them appear nude). The final page of the article includes a photo of four showgirls backstage playing cards – they wear slinky dressing gowns and show their legs. The caption gives their names, as if to shrink the gap between them and the reader.

Although the Picture Post article exploits the female bodies for the visual pleasure of their readership, the article also cleverly juxtaposes these photos with an equal amount of photographs of audience-members viewing the stage. The article contains six photographs of audience members, most of them medium close-ups showing two or three patrons gazing intently towards what we presume is the stage. There is only one photograph of the guests dancing on the dancefloor after the show. It is implied that passive spectatorship, or ‘ogling’, is the main reason most people visit the Casino. The active participation in the dancing is secondary.

The article’s conclusion confidently states that the Casino ‘appears to have established itself as a permanent feature of London’s night life.’[5] The reality was different. The outbreak of the Second World War put an end to all performances, and by 1942 the theatre was repurposed as an entertainment venue for troops on leave. After the war, the theatre reverted back to being a cinema screening room, this time for ‘Cinerama’ films – films projected across three adjacent screens for a wide-screen effect. In the mid-70s the venue was once again converted back to a theatre, and it has been in business as the Prince Edward Theatre ever since.

[1] ‘A Night Out in London’, Picture Post, 10 December 1938, p. 21

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 24

[4] Ibid., p. 21

[5] Ibid. p. 24