Film Star Cigarette Cards (1934)

FeaturedFilm Star Cigarette Cards (1934)

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

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

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

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

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

Ramon Novarro in the cigarette card album

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

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

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

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

The Monkey Club

FeaturedThe Monkey Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 34

[5] Ibid, pp. 35-6

[6] Ibid., p. 36

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 35

Father Christmases of London

FeaturedFather Christmases of London

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

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

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

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

George Dixon as Father Christmas for Barker’s in Kensington

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

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

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

Charles Mackenzie as Santa for Selfridge’s

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

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

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


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

Featured

Christmas in hard times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

100th Blog Post!

Featured<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.

Football in interwar Britain

Featured<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

The General Strike of 1926

Featured<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

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The Abdication Crisis

As the UK getting used to a new monarch on the throne, let’s cast our minds back to the events of 1936, when an abdication crisis ultimately resulted in the confirmation of Prince Albert, the second son of King George V, as King George VI.

Prior to 1936, and throughout the 1920s, George V’s eldest son Edward, Prince of Wales, was an enormously popular figure. This blog has previously touched on his popularity as a newsreel subject and his ability to kick off new fashion trends. Edward was often seen in London’s nightlife and also travelled a great deal, both for work and for pleasure. He had the reputation of a playboy and remained unmarried in 1936, when he was already 42 years of age. His brother George, by contrast, was a year younger than him but had married at 28 and fathered two children (Elizabeth and Margaret) by the time he was 35.

As is customary in Britain, George V reigned until his death and the eldest child [at the time, the eldest son] is declared monarch immediately afterwards. A formal coronation ceremony follows some months later. When George V passed away in January 1936 after a long period of declining ill-health, Edward was duly proclaimed King. The abdication crisis ensued when, in the autumn of 1936, Edward declared his intention to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson.

Wallis’ nationality was already something that spoke against her in a country that was, at the time, concerned and suspicious of American cultural influences through popular culture. The popularity of Hollywood films and dance bands was blamed for a host of cultural ills. But Wallis’ past relationships were the real obstacle to the match. Edward had first met her as early as 1931 and she did not file for a divorce from Mr Simpson until October 1936, making it abundantly clear that her relationship with Edward had started during her marriage.

Although one of the key reasons that the Church of England was created was famously to allow Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon, divorce was a significant social taboo in interwar Britain. Divorce laws were eased in the 1920s but the social stigma on divorce was still significant – and not helped by the gleeful reporting of high-profile divorce cases in a tabloid press keen to increase its readership. The key objection which Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin therefore proposed against Edward’s marriage to Wallis was that ‘the people’ would not accept her as Queen. After several months of legal tussle between Edward and the government, it became clear that a marriage between Edward and Wallis would not be accepted as long as he was on the throne. In December 1936, Edward formally abdicated and his brother Albert was proclaimed King, styling himself as George VI. Edward was never officially coronated; his coronation had been planned for May 1937; a date eventually used for the coronation of George VI instead.

One of the aspects of the abdication crisis that is difficult for a modern audience to comprehend is how absolutely the British newspapers refused to print anything about it until early December 1936. As this blog has frequently noted, newspapers were extremely popular and influential during the interwar period, and in the mid-1930s popular newspapers in particular were constantly trying to increase their circulation figures. A royal scandal of this magnitude would appear to be excellent content to draw in readers. However, the respect for the monarchy was such that newspaper proprietors, who were fully aware of Edward’s relationship with Wallis, agreed a media blackout.

Such a thing would of course be completely impossible in our current digital media landscape, but even back in 1936 London newsvendors sold international publications, and journalists in other countries had no scruples about reporting the story. American outlets in particular splashed on the story, which from their perspective could be told as a fairy tale of an American commoner falling in love with the (future) King of Britain. The overwhelming power of the British press, however, ensured that its refusal to print the details for months meant that the majority of the British public remained equally unaware. The media blackout during the crisis exemplifies the power of newspaper proprietors during the interwar period, and the very close relationships between the newspapers and the corridors of power – although it must be pointed out that this blackout was voluntary and press-driven, and not imposed by the government or the Royal household.

Shortly after Edward’s abdication, Britain was introduced to Mass Observation, an (eventually) influential research organisation which aimed to understand modern society by asking ‘normal’ people to share their observations on everyday life and historical events.1 After its founding in January 1937, its first published work included a collection of ordinary peoples’ views on the Abdication Crisis. Mass Observation in a way seems to react against the media blackout initially surrounding the abdication. While powerful newspaper proprietors decided to withhold the news from the public, Mass Observation gave the public at large an opportunity to respond to the crisis and give their opinions on it.

The abdication crisis was a pivotal cultural moment in interwar Britain, one that laid bare some of the machinations of the powerful news media and its close links with those in power; but which also facilitated the emergence of a more democratic way of understanding everyday culture. Although Edward’s decision to choose marriage over a royal appointment was a personal one, it had significant social ramifications.

  1. Frank Mort, ‘Love in a Cold Climate: Letters, Public Opinion and Monarchy in the 1936 Abdication Crisis’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 25, no. 1 (2014), p. 32
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Aerodromes in interwar Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., pp. 40-48

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

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

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

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

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