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


Cycling in interwar Britain

Alongside the expansion of London’s public transport network, and the increased popularity of cars, cycling also held an important place in British interwar culture. Although modern ‘safety’ bikes with pneumatic tyres were first mass-produced in the 1880s, the interwar period saw an ever-greater adoption of bikes not only as a means of transport, but also as a vehicle for recreation and sport. Between 1924 and 1937, over 2 million bicycles were manufactured in Britain.[1]

According to social historian Michael John Law, in the interwar period the ‘bicycle was used for short journeys that would today be made by car, for pleasure trips out of the suburbs into the countryside, for cycling club outings and also for quite long distance commuting.’[2] Although cycling may have been challenging in central London due to the large number of motorised vehicles on the narrow roads, those living in the city’s outskirts could comfortable cycle around their neighbourhoods. Bikes were primarily associated with the working classes, as they were relatively cheap to purchase and, unlike cars and motor bikes, did not demand an ongoing supply of fuel.

Beyond the use of bicycles for day-to-day commuting and navigation of the urban environment, many thousands of people joined cycle clubs during the interwar period – an estimated 100,000 people were members of such clubs by the mid-1930s.[3] These clubs were very popular in London as well as the countryside. As early as 1921, a London rally attracted more than a thousand participants.[4]

Bikes also quickly became popular in organised sporting events. One pioneering cyclist, Mabel Hodgson, organised a number of extremely popular rallies in London, as well as a 106-mile race from London to the Sussex coast.[5] In south London, the still operational Herne Hill Velodrome opened in 1891. There exist various ‘Topical Budget’ and British Pathé films from the 1920s which show races at Herne Hill, including one which involved a competition of already old-fashioned Victorian penny farthings.

As well as providing a human interest piece of the cinema newsreel, these films’ intertitles also boast about the modern cameras which enabled the capture of high-speed pursuits on film: ‘you’ve never seen a picture like this – taken with “Topicals” special camera which makes the thrills, thrillier”’

One noteworthy feature of these cycle competitions is that they were open to men as well as women. One Topical Budget film from 1929 shows an all-female race at Herne Hill. The riders clearly go around the track at great speed and one is shown tightening the bolts on her bike; however, the riders’ femininity is underlined by a shot of two competitors powdering their noses and applying lipstick before the start of the race. The threat of women engaging in a leisure pursuit which potentially does not align with gender expectations is diffused by the immediate visual assertion that these women still wear make-up and fashionable outfits. The high-speed cycling on display in this video also required the riders to wear shorts, providing a further visual pleasure to the (male) spectator.

In addition to the increased number of women participating in amateur cycling clubs, the interwar period also saw the emergence of the first professional female cyclists. Sport historian Neil Carter has identified Marguerite Wilson as a pioneer in this respect: Wilson obtained full-time sponsorship in 1939 and in the same year set a record cycling from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland.[6] Typist Billie Dovey, who in 1938 broke the record of most miles cycled in a year (29,603.4) also received professional sponsorship.[7]

Cycling, then, was popular in interwar Britain and London and people participated in it in a variety of ways: as a means of commuting; as a leisure activity; and as a professional sport. Nonetheless, in popular fiction and film of the period cycling is often passed over in favour of more glamorous means of transport such as cars, trains and planes. As a primarily working-class pastime, interwar cycling was not given the same exposure as other recreations, which has exacerbated the possibility for this piece of history to remain overlooked today.

[1] Neil Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson and other ‘hardriding…feminine space eaters’: cycling and modern femininity in interwar Britain’, Sport in History, vol 40, no. 4 (2020), 482-504 (486)

[2] Michael John Law, ‘The car indispensable: the hidden influence of the car in inter-war suburban

London’, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 38 (2012), 424-433 (426)

[3] Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson’, 486

[4] Ibid.

[5] Neil Carter, Cycling and the British: A Modern History (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), p. 156

[6] Carter, ‘Marguerite Wilson’, 482-495

[7] Ibid., 487


Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook (1934)

The Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829. From the beginning, its operations were based on ‘uniform patrol of regular beats in full and open public view’ to assuage concerns that any centrally controlled police form would become a state spying apparatus.[1] The introduction of plain-clothes detectives into the force was therefore slow. It was not until 1869 that each division of the Metropolitan Police got its own detectives, and a centralised Criminal Investigation Department (CID) wasn’t formed until 1878.[2]

Once detectives were established as a permanent part of the police force, leaders at the Metropolitan Police and its counterparts across the country and Empire were keen to ensure consistency of practice. To that effect, in 1906 the Crown and Public Prosecutor in Madras published the first English translation of a work by the Austrian Hans Gross.[3] Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik, or Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook as it became known in England was originally aimed at lawmakers and police officers in colonial areas. A revised edition was published in 1924, and a third edition appeared in 1934. This third edition was edited by Norman Kendal, then Assistant Commissioner for Crime in the Metropolitan Police.

The work, aiming to be ‘a practical textbook of instruction for all engaged in investigating crime’[4], runs to 569 pages. Although police detectives tended to have been slightly better educated than patrolling constables,[5] it seems unlikely that they all read and memorised the detailed instructions of Criminal Investigation. Moreover, the book provided instructions on best practice, but most of its contents were not legally binding. In short, the book likely tells us more about the ideal of police investigation than of its day-to-day reality. Nonetheless, it helps us understand how interwar police officers, magistrates and prosecutors understood crime.

During the interwar period, the police did not just investigate a crime up to the point of charging an individual, but were also responsible for collating evidence for the police courts. This often involved working with experts. No wonder then that nearly 100 pages in the book set out ‘The Expert and how to make use of him (sic)’. Specific items include ‘preservation of parts of a corpse’ and ‘colour-blindness’ (‘more widespread and more important than generally believed’).[6] The section on fingerprints was extensively re-written for the third edition, this area of work ‘having advanced by leaps and bounds even since 1924.’[7]

Beyond the practicalities of running a sound investigation, Criminal Investigation also sets out in detail supposedly common practices of various types of criminal. ‘Wandering Tribes’ receive a chapter all of their own, marking Gypsies and Travellers as particularly likely to engage in criminal behaviour – although it debunks the myth that Gypsies steal children (‘It must also be remembered that gipsies (sic) are very prolific and in consequence have no need to bring up other people’s children’).[8]

Criminals ‘shamming’ various afflictions such as blindness, deafness or even epilepsy was apparently a regular enough occurrence to warrant inclusion here, as were criminal superstitions. The reader is told how fortune tellers who claim to have ‘discovered’ the guilty party through divination, tarot cards, or their intuition can derail an investigation. Women in particular are claimed to put investigators on the wrong foot with their ‘presentiments’.[9] There is no practical advice on how to handle such a situation as an investigator other than, presumably, to roundly ignore any tips received through paranormal means.

The third section of the book deals with the skills investigating officers must possess, such as drawing and modelling of crime scenes; observing footprints; and finding traces of blood. Again there is a suggestion that criminals have their own communal language in a chapter on ciphers, which is given in addition to a short list of criminal slang.

The final section of the book categorises particular offences, including ‘Bodily Injuries and Poisoning’; ‘Theft’; ‘Cheating and Fraud’; ‘Arson’ and ‘Serious Accidents and Boiler Explosions’ (split up between ‘False Theories’ and ‘Admissible Theories’). Murder is not included as a category, as murderers were believed to mostly be ‘crimes of impulse’ and very few serial killers were known (Jack the Ripper being an obvious exception).[10] When speaking of ‘criminals’, police inspectors tended to mean those who were repeat offenders, often sticking to the same type of crime such as burglary.

Criminal Investigation was from the outset designed to be used across the British Empire. However, its origins as a Western European text does make one wonder its usefulness for lawmakers and detectives in, for example, India. There is little to no consideration of cultural differences. The impression created is that criminals, like lawmakers, are a homogenous group who behave the same regardless of their physical location or background. This demonstrates how handbooks like Criminal Investigation fostered the consolidation of the British Empire through their discourse.

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

[2] Haia Shpayer‐Makov, ‘Becoming a Police Detective in Victorian and Edwardian London’, Policing and Society, 14:3, (2004) 250-268, (pp. 251-253)

[3] John Adam and J Collyer Adam, Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook, 3rd edition, edited by Norman Kendal (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1934), p. xii

[4] Ibid., p. xiv

[5] Shpayer-Makov, ‘Becoming a Police Detective’, p. 263

[6] Adam and Adam, Criminal Investigation, p. 125

[7] Ibid., p. xii

[8] Ibid., p. 248

[9] Ibid., p. 262

[10] Frederick Porter Wensley, Forty Years of Scotland Yard (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 [1931]), p. 86



Limehouse is a neighbourhood in London, situated east of the Tower of London at the North bank of the Thames. It is right next to Canary Wharf, which is these days one of London’s financial districts. Limehouse has accordingly gentrified – Google’s description of the area states ‘Limehouse is a regenerated former dockland area where housing in converted warehouses and modern towers lines the Thames and Limehouse Basin, which is also home to a yacht-filled marina. (…) Upscale restaurants and hip cafes sit alongside laid-back global eateries.’

Back in the interwar period, however, Limehouse had very different connotations. As the area housed docks, it had from the mid-19th century been mainly populated by seamen. More specifically, from 1860 onwards Chinese sailors had settled in lodging houses in the area.[1] A similar development occurred in Liverpool, which also had a big and busy port. Unlike the Liverpool ‘Chinatown’, however, Limehouse obtained a cultural significance that far outstripped the mere 5000 Chinese who lived in the area.[2]

The stereotypes and fears around the Chinese inhabitants of Limehouse centred around drugs, gambling, and interracial relationships. Being sailors, most of the Chinese living in Limehouse were single men, who often lived in lodging houses. Those who did decide to settle down often married white women, as there were few Chinese women living in London and they had little means of paying passage for women living in China. At a time when racism was rife and eugenics was still acceptable, the spectre of mixed-race children being raised in Britain was used to cause moral alarm.

Limehouse and the Chinese were also consistently linked to opium and other drugs. In the 19th century, Britain had introduced opium from India into China for financial gain. After millions of Chinese became addicted to the drug, the so-called Opium War took place between Britain and China from 1839 to 1842. So whilst opium came to be seen as a Chinese drug, it had in fact originated from the British empire and planted in China by British officials.

Until the First World War, opium could be fairly easily obtained over the pharmacy counter and it was used as a recreational drug.[3] During the war, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) introduced widespread government powers to clamp down on anything from pub opening hours to press freedom. In the same way that DORA led to the rise of illegal nightclubs in the 1920s, it also facilitated the boom of ‘opium dens’ in Limehouse. Pushing opium use into illegality caused it to be more profitable for traders, and more tempting for users. Alongside opium, the possession and selling of cocaine was also banned in 1921.

The third aspect commonly linked to Chinatown in interwar fictions and reports is gambling. Betting on horse races, greyhound races and football pools was a popular pastime for the British working classes, and card parties often played for substantial amounts of money. The Chinese, however, introduced the casino-style games of Fan Tan and ‘Puck-apu’, a ‘lottery-like gambling game.’ A visit to Limehouse became a great opportunity for West End socialites to go ‘slumming’, partake in recreational drugs, gamble money, and flirt with the possibility of interracial relations.[4]

But beyond the actual activities of Limehouse, which ultimately consisted of a small Chinese community which mostly lived quietly and ‘respectably’, the idea of Limehouse was what really took flight in the interwar period. This started with fictional portrayals of shady Chinese master criminals, most notably Sax Rohmer’s ‘Fu Manchu’. The concept was then borrowed by crime fiction powerhouses Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie.[5]

In Christie’s The Big Four (1927) Hercule Poirot hunts four criminal masterminds who are in league to take over the world order. ‘Number 1’, the ringleader and most dangerous criminal, is the Chinese Li Chang Yen. The Big Four is one of the weaker Poirot novels, pieced together from short stories to fulfil contractual obligations whilst Christie’s first marriage was ending. It is telling that during this time, when Christie did not have the capacity to write a brilliant novel, she fell back on the ‘Chinese mastermind’ stereotype – it had already become an easy shorthand for readers.

Cinema, too, used and abused Limehouse as an atmospheric setting. Possibly the most famous interwar film set in Limehouse is actually an American production, D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms starring Lilian Gish (1919). In Britain, E.A. Dupont’s 1929 film Piccadilly features the Chinese scullery maid Shosho, who works in an expensive nightclub in the West End, but lives in Limehouse with a Chinese companion. As noted above, in reality there were few Chinese women in Limehouse. Shosho (played by Asian American actor Anna Mae Wong) serves to fulfil white male fantasies about ‘Oriental’ women.

Piccadilly’s white male hero, Valentine Wilmott, falls for Shosho, or is seduced by her, depending on your interpretation. The film features extensive scenes of Shosho dancing in revealing outfits with unusual headdresses. She takes Valentine with her to a Limehouse bar, where other patrons use cocaine. Afterwards, Shosho invites Valentine to her house and bed – an invitation which he accepts. Although it was considered deeply inappropriate for a white woman to have a relationship with a Chinese man, Valentine is able to pursue Shosho without consequences. In fact, it is Shosho who ends up dead: she is shot by her Chinese friend Jim, who was secretly in love with her and kills her in a jealous rage. Piccadilly thus ultimately reaffirms stereotypes of Limehouse as a space of criminality and transgression.

During the Second World War the Limehouse docks were subjected to heavy bombing. After the war, London’s Chinese community mostly migrated to the town centre in Soho, which currently remains the city’s ‘Chinatown’. Soho has an enduring mythology of its own, of which Chinatown is a part, but in which it is not prominent. It is in Limehouse and during the interwar period where the stories of London’s Chinese community consolidated into something much bigger than its parts.   

[1] Yat Ming Loo, ‘“Mixed race,” Chinese identity, and intercultural place: Decolonizing urban memories of Limehouse Chinatown in London,’ Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, 2022,  3:1, 23-41 (p. 23)

[2] Annie Lai, Bob Little, Pippa Little, ‘Chinatown Annie: The East End Opium Trade, 1920-1935: The Story of a Woman Opium Dealer’, Oral History Journal, 1986, vol. 14, no. 1, 18-30 (p. 18)

[3] Ibid., p. 21

[4] For more on slumming in London see Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)

[5] John Seed, ‘Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks, 1900-40,’ History Workshop Journal, 2006, 62, p. 58


Notorious interwar murders (part 3)

This blog post is the final of a three-part series on notorious interwar murders. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

After the Thorne case, the 1930s started with two murder cases which were even more sensational. On 8 April 1930 Sidney Fox was executed for a crime which was considered even more heinous than murdering a pregnant woman and destroying her body: he was convicted for murdering his own mother Rosaline.

Matricide is rare in the United Kingdom, and Fox became notorious.[1] Fox was also the first person condemned to death since 1907 who did not appeal his conviction, which seemed to further prove his guilt.[2] However, like the Thorne case, the Fox conviction has continued to spark debate and recent re-examinations conclude that it is possible Rosaline died of an accident.

Fox and Rosaline lived a nomadic existence, travelling from seaside hotel to seaside hotel, and committing thefts and frauds to obtain money. In spring of 1929, under the instructions of Fox, Rosaline took out a life insurance policy that guarded against accidental death. The policy expired at midnight on 23 October. And on 23 October, in a hotel in Margate, Rosaline’s bedroom apparently caught fire at 11.40pm. Rosaline’s body was discovered inside, making Fox eligible for a life insurance pay-out.

The doctor attending the scene considered that Rosaline had died in the fire, and she was buried without further examination. However, Fox’s behaviour on the night, the fact of the life insurance, as well as the forensic evidence in the room led Scotland Yard to conduct further investigations. After Rosaline’s body was exhumed, Sir Bernard Spilsbury (yes, him again) concluded that she had been strangled before the fire had started.

The oratory power of Spilsbury, combined with the emotional horror of alleged matricide, Fox’s criminal past, and his homosexual inclinations, were enough to convince the jury to convict him. Not surprisingly, the Home Secretary did not use his executive powers to commute the sentence.[3] The Home Secretary usually only reprieved condemned prisoners if ‘popular feeling’ was in favour of the prisoner, which in this case it was decidedly not.[4]

The British public had barely recovered from the excitement of the Fox case when yet another murder case grabbed the headlines. Whereas the 1920s had seen husbands poisoning their wives and later, men killing their girlfriends, Alfred Rouse tried to fake his own death by killing another (still unidentified) man and setting his corpse on fire to make it unrecognisable. Contemporary commentators may have argued that the nefarious influence of Hollywood cinema had led to this spectacular crime!

Like Patrick Mahon, Alfred Rouse was a salesman; and like Mahon, Rouse also had many affairs with women and teenage girls which his wife was unaware of. These affairs often led to the women having Rouse’s children. Rouse always pretended he was single, and even went as far as to illegally marry several of his mistresses, to keep up the pretence that he was fully committed to them. Although he made a good salary with his job, it was not sufficient to secretly support these many women and children. Things came to a head in the summer of 1930, when two of Rouse’s longstanding girlfriends were both expecting marriage, and several of his past partners were demanding child support money from him.

Rouse planned his scheme carefully; he took out a life insurance policy in case of death in a car accident. He then found a man in a pub who claimed to be out of work and with no family or other support network, who also was of roughly the same height and build as Rouse. This was the perfect victim for his purposes. Rouse offered the man a lift to the Midlands on the evening of 5 November – Guy Fawkes night in England during which a lot of bonfires are traditionally lighted. Rouse hoped that the bonfires would provide cover for his plan.

It has never been fully clarified what exactly happened in the car, but Rouse got his companion drunk enough that he fell asleep. According to Rouse, he never found out the man’s name or any personal details about him. Rouse parked his car in a ditch off a country lane, doused it in petrol and set it on fire.

It is possible his plan would have worked, had he not been spotted emerging from the lane by two teenage boys who were walking home from the bonfires. Seeing a man in a suit (but without a hat!) clambering out of a ditch in the middle of the night was unusual enough, but when they found a car ablaze a few meters further they naturally warned the local constable.

By the time the fire was put out, the body was horrifically charred and unrecognisable. The car, however, was identified as belonging to Rouse. This was passed on to the newspapers, as well as an urgent call for the man without a hat to report as a witness to the police. Rouse in the meantime met up with one of his mistresses, who showed him the newspaper articles about his car. Although Rouse claimed the car was not his, the woman was sufficiently suspicious to alert the police. Rouse was arrested as he got off a coach at Hammersmith bus station.

At the trial, the jury once again took less than half an hour to find Rouse guilty. During the trial Rouse claimed that the unknown man’s death was accidental, but shortly before his execution he wrote a full confession to the Daily Sketch. The newspapers, which had played a material part in Rouse’s arrest, were also able to benefit from his execution. For a man like Rouse, the newspaper coverage of the case was not just a threat, but also one final opportunity to bolster his ego.

There are (many) more murder cases that could have been included in this series, from those which got ample newspaper coverage to those which were considered not newsworthy. Those which were sensationally described in the press, however, subsequently filtered into contemporary crime fiction and non-fiction books, and from there into that nebulous concept, the ‘public imagination.’ Newspapers were instrumental not only in helping solve the crimes, but also in building up a shared body of knowledge on what it means to commit a British murder.

[1] Playwright and actor Emlyn Williams refers in his autobiography to an acquaintance, whose own claim to fame was that he had known Sidney Fox. Emlyn Williams, Emlyn: A sequel to George (London: Penguin, 1976)

[2] Colin Evans, The Father of Forensics (Thriplow: Icon, 2007), p. 221

[3] ‘Margate Matricide: Death Sentence to Stand’. Evening Post, 7 April 1930. p. 9

[4] Douglas G Browne and E.V. Tullett, Bernard Spilsbury: His Life and His Cases (London: Harrap, 1951), p. 264

Notorious interwar murders (part 2)

FeaturedNotorious interwar murders (part 2)

This blog post is the second of a three-part series on notorious interwar murders. You can read part 1 here and part 3 here.

Whereas high-profile murders at the start of the interwar period fit the stereotype of apparently unassuming, suburban citizens calculatedly removing tiresome spouses, from the mid-1920s the cases that occupied the front pages were decidedly less cozy. In 1924, a case that became known as the ‘Crumbles Murder’, stretched the skills of celebrity pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury as the remains of the victim were so mutilated.

The Crumbles are a stretch of beach east of Eastbourne, where the remains of 38-year-old Emily Kaye were found in a beachside cottage. Kaye had been in an illicit relationship with the charming and handsome, but married, salesman Patrick Mahon. A few months into the affair Kaye became pregnant; Mahon had not told her that he was already married and led her to believe he would marry her. Kaye told her colleagues that she and Mahon would emigrate to South Africa after the wedding; he asked her to take lodgings in a cottage on the Crumbles, in apparent anticipation of their emigration.

It was here that Mahon murdered Kaye, but the exact details of her death were never established. Mahon severed her head and legs and stowed her body in a trunk in a spare room of the cottage. He then went into Eastbourne and picked up another woman, Ethel Duncan, whom he took back to the cottage for the weekend. Duncan was oblivious to the corpse locked away in the spare room. After Duncan left, Mahon destroyed most of Kaye’s body by burning, boiling and pulverising it.

The murder was discovered by a private investigator who had been hired by Mahon’s wife. When Mahon left a bag at the luggage storage in Waterloo station, the private investigator collected this bag and found it contained a bloodied knife. Scotland Yard quickly arrested Mahon and he admitted that Kaye had died, although he framed it as an accident. When Spilsbury and his Home Office colleagues arrived at the cottage, they had great difficulty identifying any of Kaye’s remains. Her skull was never recovered, which led them to assume that the cause of death had been a skull fracture.

After the Crumbles murder Spilsbury developed a ‘murder bag’ for Scotland Yard officers, a standard kit they could use in crime scenes which included ‘rubber gloves, a hand lens, a tape measure, a straightedge ruler, swabs, sample bags, forceps, scissors, a scalpel, and other instruments that may be called for.’[i] Spilsbury had been appalled by the casual conduct of the Scotland Yard detectives at the crime scene.

Patrick Mahon, Sunday Express, 12 March 1933, p. 13

Mahon was found guilty of murder and executed in September 1924. Mahon’s good looks, replicated in newspapers across the country during the investigation and trial, seemed to make his acts even more discordant. When the diaries of ‘nightclub queen’ Kate Meyrick were serialised in the Sunday Express in 1933, they were accompanied by a photo of Mahon who Meyrick claimed visited her club quite often. At the time of his arrest, she wrote ‘He is a very nice good-looking man (…) [his eyes] were not like the eyes of ordinary people; there was something behind them.’[ii] As befitted a notorious murderer, his execution became another part of his myth: there were persistent rumours that he had tried to jump off the scaffold when the trapdoor opened.

The high profile of the Crumbles murder, accompanied as it was by voluminous press reporting, led to other young men adopting Mahon as an inspiration. One of these men was Norman Thorne, a 25-year-old chicken farmer and occasional teacher. Mere months after Mahon’s execution, Thorne killed his own fiancée, Elsie Cameron. Like Mahon, he dismembered and hid Cameron’s body after her death. When she was reported missing, Cameron spoke to the press on his farm, every inch the distressed lover but only standing a few feet away from where Cameron’s body was buried.

Once witnesses came forward who had seen Elsie Cameron very near Thorpe’s farm on the day of her disappearance (even though he had denied seeing her), Thorne quickly became the main suspect.[iii] He admitted that Cameron had visited him on the farm but claimed she had committed suicide whilst he was away in the village. When he came back, he allegedly was so distressed that he did not know what to do with the body and decided to hide it. The newspaper clippings about Mahon and the Crumbles murder that were found amongst his belongings cemented the police’s view that Thorne was in fact guilty of murder.

The Thorne case caused controversy at the time, particularly as the forensic experts in the case disagreed about whether the evidence pointed towards death by hanging or death by strangulation. Sir Bernard Spilsbury was convinced that Thorne was guilty; but another pathologist, Robert Brontë, opined that the evidence pointed to hanging. As if the spectacle of two disagreeing forensic specialists in court was not enough, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle happened to live near to Thorne’s farm. He added his voice to Thorne’s defenders. Nevertheless, a jury found Thorne guilty after less than thirty minutes of deliberation.[iv] Whilst awaiting his execution, Thorne wrote a letter to his father which was subsequently published in the national press. In it, Thorne complained that he has become a victim of Bernard Spilsbury’s outsized influence on courts and juries.

Although Thorne was executed, the disagreement on the forensic evidence paired with Thorne’s own insistence of his innocence led to the continued concerns that the conviction was unsafe. This has continued into the 21st century, with the case being re-examined for the BBC series ‘Murder, Mystery and My Family’ (2019 – with a conclusion that the conviction was safe); and in the national press as well as in academic articles.

[i] Colin Evans, The Father of Forensics (Thriplow: Icon, 2007), pp. 148-149

[ii] ‘The Private Diary of Mrs Meyrick’, Sunday Express, 12 March 1933, p. 13

[iii] Ian Burney and Neil Pemberton, ‘Bruised Witness: Bernard Spilsbury and the Performance of Early Twentieth-Century English Forensic Pathology’, Medical History, vol. 55 (2011), p. 46

[iv] Ibid., p. 55


Notorious interwar murders (part 1)

This blog post is the first of a three-part series on notorious interwar murders. Read part 2 here and part 3 here.

In Decline of the English Murder, written in 1946, George Orwell marks out the period between 1850 and 1925 as a ‘great period in murder.’[1] With ironic nostalgia, he sketches a picture of the ‘perfect murder’ which is committed by a ‘little man of the professional class (…) living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.’ The motive should be extramarital passion, and the murder should be end point of ‘long and terrible wrestles with his conscience.’ The act should be very well planned bar one detail that trips the murderer up; the weapon of choice is poison.[2]

The features of the imaginary murder case described by Orwell were firmly embedded in British interwar culture, and are also echoed in crime fiction of the period. The murder in Malice Aforethought, for example, plays out almost exactly like Orwell’s ideal murder.[3] The cultural stereotype was based on a series of real-life murder cases which were covered by an increasingly sensationalist press. The main popular newspapers each boosted a circulation of over one million throughout the interwar period, and especially in London and the South East of England, the vast majority of people regularly read newspapers.[4] The large numbers of readers, combined with the newspapers’ increased tendency to report in emotive language, ensured that murder cases became collective experiences which became cemented in popular culture.

The first murder case that became a national obsession actually occurred before the First World War: in 1910, Hawley Harvey Crippen was found guilty of the murder of his wife Cora, and executed. Dr Crippen, an American by birth, tried to escape to America by ocean liner. Thanks to the still relatively new telegraph, however, British authorities were warned by the ship’s captain and they managed to arrest Crippen before he could even disembark. Crippen was a doctor, and the murder of Cora had taken place in a suburban house in Holloway – the first elements of the classic story were already there.[5]

Across 1921 and 1922, another case involving a ‘little man of the professional class’ gave newspaper audiences a new story to get their teeth into. Herbert Rowse Armstrong, a solicitor, became known as the ‘Hay Poisoner’ after the village on the Welsh border where Armstrong lived and committed his murders. Armstrong first killed his wife with arsenic; a murder which was initially undetected. Mrs Armstrong’s death was ascribed to natural causes by the family doctor.

However, Armstrong then tried to poison Oswald Martin, another solicitor practicing in Hay. Martin first became sick after eating a scone at Armstrong’s house. Armstrong then sent chocolates to Martin which his wife ate, after which she also became sick. The pair raised their concerns with the Home Office, which after investigation promptly informed Scotland Yard. Armstrong was arrested at the very end of 1921 and appeared before the Magistrate on 2 January 1922. His wife’s body was exhumed on the same day, and Armstrong was convicted of murder and executed on 31 May 1922.

The Hay Poisoner solidified the stereotype of the ‘respectable’ man killing his wife to escape domestic drudgery or to be able to pursue other women. Later in 1922, however, a woman would turn this narrative on its head. Edith Thompson’s behaviour was so far out of the norm that it likely led to her being convicted of a crime in which she took no active part.

Edith Thompson and her husband, Percy, lived in the kind of suburban house that fit right in with the murderous stereotype. Rather than Percy looking to get rid of Edith, however, Edith was the one to strike up an affair with the younger Freddy Bywaters. The couple exchanged many letters during their courtship, in which they described fantasies of killing Percy. Edith destroyed the letters she got from Freddy; but he kept hers. On 3 October 1922, Edith and Percy were walking home late when Freddy suddenly ran up to them, stabbed Percy, and ran off. Although Edith probably did not know about Freddy’s plans to attack Percy, the letters she had written him were enough to get her arrested alongside Freddy.[6]

It was Edith’s behaviour that was on trial, rather than her actual involvement with the murder. Edith had a job, an affair, no children: ‘she smoked, danced, bet on the horses, and read an inordinate amount of books.’[7] In short, she did not conform to the ideal of the quiet suburban housewife. Freddy, on the other hand, was represented in some parts of the press as ‘a kind of hero.’[8] Young, good-looking Freddy fit a stereotype whereas Edith defied conventions. Although on the basis of the police evidence Freddy was definitely guilty and Edith was probably not, both were executed and in popular opinion Edith was considered to be more guilty than Freddy.

The Thompson-Bywaters case inspired several writers of the interwar period to write up fictionalised accounts of the story. Today, historians have used the case to explore gender bias in the British interwar justice system. Although the case was notorious, it did not solidify into one of those classic English murder cases. The method – stabbing – was generally considered ‘un-British’ and the possibility that other suburban women were having affairs and plotting to murder their husbands was too uncomfortable to contemplate.

[1]George Orwell, Decline of the English Murder (London: Penguin, 2009), p. 15

[2] Ibid., pp. 17-18

[3] Francis Iles, Malice Aforethought (London: Gollancz, 1931)

[4] Political and Economic Planning, Report on the British Press: a survey of its current operations and problems with special reference to national newspapers and their part in public affairs (London: PEP, 1938), p. 239

[5] Modern forensic re-investigation of the Crippen case has suggested that his conviction was not safe.

[6] Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (2008), p. 625

[7] Ibid., p. 628

[8] Ibid., p. 641


How to Entertain: A Guide for Hosts and Hostesses (1924)

The interwar period saw great social change: the upper classes were gradually losing their elevated standing whilst at the same time, the middle classes grew both in volume and significance. But upper-class life still had its lustre, and self-help books were a popular means to learn behaviours of other social strata; or at least to have a peek into different lifestyles.

These books, such as 1924’s How to Entertain: A Guide for Hosts and Hostesses, can serve much the same purpose to a modern audience. A guidebook sets out a prescribed and distilled set of behaviours, which are unlikely to have been exhibited as written by the wealthier classes. The book is apparently written for the man or woman who finds themselves in a position of having to ‘entertain’, but has not learnt the rules of entertaining whilst growing up. Probably, the behaviours set out in the book were not even adopted by its readers/students, who may have used the book as inspiration or a reference guide only.

What is left is a volume providing prescriptive detail on how to host a range of entertainments, quite removed from any real-life application of the guidance. The work should not be seen as an accurate reflection of how five o’clock teas or garden parties took place, but rather as an idealised version of how the author (Mary Woodman) wanted the reader to believe such gatherings took place in moneyed households. Like all etiquette books, it serves as much to reaffirm and strengthen social practices as it does to initiate novices into those practices.

The book covers the following possible social functions one may need to host, in this order: dinner parties; luncheon party; five o’clock tea; evening function; wedding; christening; private dance; musical evening; garden party; picnic party; card party; Christmas dinner party; children’s party; week-end visits. The underlying assumption throughout is that hosting happens by married couples only, who own their own home with spare rooms and a sizeable garden, and preferably access to a car. This naturally excluded a large part of British people living in 1924, and any hosting undertaken by this group is disregarded. ‘Hosting’ becomes a formal activity with rules and boundaries, that needs to be studied and learned.

Although the title of the book purports it to be for ‘hosts and hostesses’, the majority of the hosting is presumed to be taken on by the hostess. For example, in the section on the garden party, it states ‘No hostess should attempt a garden party unless the dimensions of her garden are fairly generous and unless there is a lawn big enough for whatever games she decides upon.’[1] Equally, in the section on picnic  parties, it is stated that the hostess ‘must only invite friends with motors, or must be prepared to carry the folk in her [sic] own car, or select a spot easily reached by other means of conveyance.’[2] Despite its title, the book repeatedly reaffirms that social functions are the responsibility of (married) women, who must follow an intricate set of rules to organise them.

No social engagement appears to have had more rules than the formal dinner party, which is given prominence at the book’s opening. This sets it as the gold standard of all social engagements. Right at the start, Woodman warns that ‘The laws of entertaining are sound common-sense laws which have been evolved for the good of all concerned. This being the case, it is highly necessary that they are strictly observed.’[3] Thus advised, the reader takes note that invitations must be sent out at least two weeks in advance;[4] that an even number of men and women should be invited; and that if a single guest cancels, ideally one should then remove or add a guest to retain the gender balance.[5]

When it comes to topics of discussion during the dinner: ‘[s]afe subjects are books, theatres, sports if not taken too far, public men, holidays, and the fashionable doings of the moment. The weather is a poor subject, but it is better than nothing.’[6] In addition to all these niceties, the hostess should serve up an elaborate meal which could include up to nine courses, each with a different type of beverage.[7] Clearly, hosting a party at this scale would be out of the financial reach for most people, and those who could afford it were unlikely to seek recourse to a guidebook to understand how to organise it.

The card party, which had the potential to be a bit sordid, came with strict rules to allow it to be respectable. The first advice is that ‘No hostess would plan a card party unless she had previously attended many similar functions given by her friends. She would then have the opportunity of seeing how things were done in her own particular set.’[8] It is implied that she should find out if her particular set of friends play for money, or not. At an evening card party, at least half the attendees had to be men, to keep things respectable – and the hostess was excluded from the action unless she had to make up a set of four for bridge or whist.[9] In the world of the Guide, a card party was not an opportunity to gamble but rather a staid affair to which even grown-up sons and daughters could be introduced.[10]

How to Entertain: A Guide for Hosts and Hostesses demonstrates the ideal rules of social engagement as presented in 1924. It also shows that there was a market for books explaining how to behave; a reflection of the significant social change that was occurring in Britain at the time. Through social mobility, people were no longer secure in their role in life or the expectations placed upon them. They could turn to books such as this for reassurance or entertainment. The highly prescriptive nature of the book could provide comfort, although it also placed a substantial burden on (married) women by stressing their responsibilities for the social standing of the family.

[1] Mary Woodman, How to Entertain: A Guide for Hosts and Hostesses (London: W. Foulsham & Co Ltd, 1924), p. 57

[2] Ibid., p. 60

[3] Ibid., p. 9

[4] Ibid., p. 10

[5] Ibid., p. 12

[6] Ibid., p. 20

[7] Ibid., p. 25

[8] Ibid., p. 65

[9] Ibid., pp. 65-66

[10] Ibid., p. 66


Careers for Girls (1927)

The interwar decades were a fertile period for non-fiction books that provided advice and guidance on how to self-improve your life. As well as health and fitness books and books on how to take up new hobbies or learn DIY skills, publishers also put out a steady stream of books that purported to help readers establish a new career. In 1927, George Allen & Unwin publishers produced Careers for Girls, a practical guide written by one Eleanor Page.

Careers for Girls was part of a series of self-help books. The book’s opening sentence immediately set out its purpose:

This work has been compiled to assist girls who have to earn a livelihood to choose a sphere of work suited to their individual gifts and temperaments, and by which they may earn a happy and comfortable living; and for the more favoured girls anxious to develop any talent they may be endowed with, so that they may take their rightful place in the scheme of things.

Immediately the book distinguishes between two types of ‘girls’ (really, young women): those who have to earn a living, and those who have some private income to rely on but have a drive to make a contribution to society, based on their skills and talents. Almost all the career paths covered in Careers for Girls are registered professions, which require formal schooling and certification, which in turn require financial investment to pay for classes and examination fees.

Although most of the roles described in Careers for Girls don’t appear to be particularly exclusive to a modern reader, in the interwar period compulsory schooling stopped at 14. Secondary schools charged tuition fees; the only way for a child of a working-class family to attend was through obtaining a scholarship. Only 14% of all teenagers went on to a secondary school; and only a fraction of those went on to University.[1]

Whilst women were allowed to attend university and could now even obtain a degree, the overall proportion of female students remained very low.[2] So when Careers for Girls advised that to become a librarian, you could complete on-the-job training as long as you had a secondary school diploma, this career would not be accessible to 86% of the population.[3] To become a musician was even more difficult: a qualification at either a University or the Royal College of Music/Royal College of Art would be expected.[4] When the book’s opening therefore distinguishes two types of ‘girls’, it wholly ignores the vast majority of young women for which the pursuit of a skilled profession was completely out of reach.

The rest of Careers for Girls is divided up in chapters, each of which covers a different area of work. Teaching and nursing – two roles traditionally associated with women – make an appearance, as do accounting, civil service, journalism, social service and many others. By 1927, Britain suffered from a surplus of women, as the impact of the Great War, and the thousands of young men who had died on the front, continued to be felt.

Guides like Careers for Girls gave young women ideas to an alternative to domestic married life. The pursuit of a career rather than marriage would have been a necessity to many. Tellingly, a number of the advertised professions, such as nursing and teaching, generally came with room and board. These roles provided a solution to the single woman who had no family members with whom she could, or wanted to, live.

Careers for Girls also gives estimated salary expectations for all posts. One of the more lucrative careers included is the top rung of the Civil Service, the “Administrative Class”. In order to obtain a position here, a woman had to meet the standard criteria for all Civil Service positions, namely be a British subject with a British father, unmarried, at least 5 feet tall and of certified good health.[5] “In the highest branch of the Service – the Administrative Class – candidates must be twenty-two to twenty-four years of age. The standard of education for examination is equal to that for a University Degree.” After meeting all these criteria (and remaining single, as the Civil Service operated a Marriage Bar), Careers for Girls stated that a woman could enjoy an annual salary of up to £550. However, in reality, Administrative Class posts in the Civil Service were only theoretically open to women – no women actually penetrated to this level of work.[6]

The jobs that appeared to give the young woman the chance of the highest salary, without requiring extensive or expensive training, were those in the distinctly modern fields of media and advertising. Eleanor Page claims that ‘Good positions, with salaries from £500 to £2,000 a year, are open to the woman advertising expert. (…) a university degree or large amount of capital are not required.’[7] Both marketing and press firms ‘prefer to take girls from school and train them to their own methods’, making formal qualifications a hindrance rather than a help.[8]

Similarly, it is telling which careers appear to be not for ‘girls’: glaringly absent are, for example, doctor or surgeon – although Elizabeth Garrett Anderson qualified as both in 1865. Women can train to become secretaries, but not board members; chief assistant librarian but not head librarian; a staff manager, but not the head of the business. Ultimately, Careers for Girls provided a small sub-section of British women with suggestions for professions that were acceptable for them to pursue within the prevailing social norms of the period. The book likely allowed some women to plan out a career trajectory, but for many more its advice would have been so far removed from their day-to-day experience that it was no help whatsoever.

[1] Deirdre Beddoe, Back to Home and Duty: Women Between the Wars 1918-1939 (London: Pandora, 1989), p. 34

[2] Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five women, freedom and London between the wars (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), pp. 93-94

[3] Eleanor Page, Careers for Girls (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1927), p. 85

[4] Ibid., p. 81

[5] Ibid., p. 38

[6] Beddoe, Back to Home and Duty, p. 83

[7] Page, Careers for Girls, p. 14

[8] Ibid., p. 73 and p. 14