Dorothy L. Sayers

FeaturedDorothy L. Sayers

Agatha Christie is undoubtedly the most famous author of the ‘Golden Age of Crime Fiction’ (or indeed the most famous crime author of all time). She did not stand alone, however, but rather was part of a closely connected network of crime writers who worked in Britain and the rest of the Empire between the two wars. Some of the more illustrious authors organised themselves in the Detection Club, a group which was founded in the 1930s and still exists today. One of the founding members of the Detection Club was Dorothy L. Sayers, another female crime fiction writer who obtained widespread recognition during the 1920s and 1930s.

Sayers was born in 1893 in Oxford to a well-to-do couple; her father was a reverend and chaplain to Christ Church Cathedral in the city. Sayers herself studied at Somerville, the all-female College of the University of Oxford. She was there from 1912 to 1915, leaving before the arrival of Vera Brittain and, later, Winifred Holtby.[1] At Sommerville Sayers would also meet Muriel Jaeger, who eventually established her own literary career. Sayers would later draw heavily on her experiences at Somerville for the crime novel Gaudy Night, which appeared in 1935.[2]

After completing her degree, Sayers moved to London and briefly took up a teaching post: teaching was one of the career paths young women were strongly encouraged to enter into, with its associations of helping, caring and other supposedly typical feminine traits.[3] After the teaching stint, she briefly returned to Oxford and then travelled to France, only to eventually return again to London and take up a job as a copywriter.[4] She never lost sight of her literary ambitions and some time in 1920 she started to come up with the amateur detective who would become her most famous character: Lord Peter Wimsey.

Eventually, Sayers published eleven Wimsey novels as well as a series of short stories in which he featured. It can be argued that in Wimsey, Sayers created an ideal man, and part of the fun of the Wimsey stories lies in the interplay between their plots and Sayers’ private life. Wimsey is an aristocrat, the second son of the Dowager Duchess of Denver. He has a private income, a very steady butler named Bunter, an MA from Oxford and an interest in collecting rare books. He also appears to work for the British government on occasion, as he is sent across Europe to undertake diplomatic missions to try and avoid war. He is close friends with detective Charles Parker of the Metropolitan Police, who later in the series marries Wimsey’s sister. Wimsey’s intellect, financial independence, links with the police and elevated status in society make him the ideal amateur sleuth, as he has the means and ability to enter almost any situation.

In Strong Poison, the fifth Wimsey novel, Sayers started to really draw on her own life for the book’s plot. Although all the Wimsey novels contain intricately plotted crime puzzles which adhere to the rules of ‘fair play’, its in the interpersonal relationships of the characters where the clues are to Sayers’ private life. In the early 1920s, Sayers had a relationship with fellow writer John Cournos, which came to an end when Cournos wanted to sleep together outside of the marriage, which Sayers did not want.[5] In Strong Poison, Sayers introduces Harriet Vane, a clear alter-ego for herself. Vane is a crime fiction author who is on trial for the murder of her partner; in this fictional relationship the question of sex outside of marriage was also paramount. The victim in Strong Poison is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Cournos, and Sayers no doubt got great satisfaction from giving the character an extremely painful death from arsenic poisoning.

Wimsey falls in love with Harriet Vane in Strong Poison, and throughout the remainder of the Wimsey series their relationship takes on increased importance until, in the aforementioned Gaudy Night, Harriet feels that Peter is ready to enter into marriage on equal terms. In Sayers’ real life, no such happy ending was forthcoming. Shortly after the end of her relationship with Cournos, she met Bill White, a man who later turned out to be already married. By the time Sayers found that out, however, she had already agreed to a sexual relationship with him and she found herself pregnant in 1923. Sayers never even told her parents about her pregnancy, so convinced was she that they would not be able to accept it. Amazingly, though, Bill White’s wife came to her aid. Sayers gave birth to her son, John Anthony, in complete secret during a brief leave of absence from her copywriting job. Bill White’s wife, Beatrice, made arrangements for the birth. John Anthony grew up in a foster home run by Sayers’ cousin; during her lifetime Sayers only revealed his existence to five people and never told her parents they had a grandchild.[6]  

Aside from the Wimsey novels and stories, Sayers was a prolific reviewer of crime fiction and also contributed to several volumes written by a group of Detection Club members. The last full Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, appeared in 1937. After this, Sayers mostly turned her attention to religious work, such as a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. [7] She remained a key member of the Detection Club until her death in 1957.[8] Her books remain in print and have been adapted for the screen several times.


[1] Francesca Wade, Square Haunting (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), pp. 96-101

[2] Mo Moulton, The Mutual Admiration Society: ow Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (New York: Basic Books, 2019)

[3] Wade, Square Haunting, p. 107

[4] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), p. 18

[5] Ibid., pp. 19-20

[6] Wade, Square Haunting, pp. 128-132

[7] Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, p. 404

[8] Ibid., p. 410

Radclyffe Hall

FeaturedRadclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall – which, really, was her given name (in full, Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall) – is probably one of interwar Britain’s most famous LGBTQI+ people. She took the name John later in life, but her novels were published under the name ‘Radclyffe Hall’, which is how she remains best known.

Hall’s most famous work is the 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, which was subjected to an obscenity trial in the UK after vigorous campaigning by the Sunday Express. As was fairly common at the time, English copies of the Well of Loneliness were subsequently printed in Paris; increased mobility between the two capitals including via airplanes ensured that some copies of the work continued in circulation in Britain.

Hall was also born in a family of means, with both her parents inheriting money from their parents. Hall’s father set her up with an independent income which allowed Hall to shun the conventional route of work and marriage and allowed her to develop her literary ambitions. She initially published poetry – five volumes between 1906 and 1915. From an early age Hall adopted a masculine style of dress, including wearing trousers, tailored jackets, and hats.

During a part of the 1920s, Hall lived in Kensington with her partner, Una, Lady Troubridge. They were together from 1916 until Hall’s death. London’s somewhat unruly nightlife during the interwar period allowed for the existence of LGBT-friendly spaces. From the mid-1920s Hall started to publish works of fiction. Her third book, Adam’s Breed, which was written in the Kensington flat, became a prize-winning bestseller. The commercial success of Adam’s Breed arguably partially caused the vocal backlash to Hall’s next work, The Well of Loneliness. Had she been less famous, there would have perhaps been less concern about the content of the work.

The plot of The Well of Loneliness centres on Stephen Gordon, an upper-class English woman who considers herself a ‘sexual invert’ (ie. she is a lesbian). The book chronicles Stephen’s childhood, an early love affair with an older woman, Stephen’s career as a novelist in both London and Paris, and her experiences as an ambulance driver in World War One. During the war, she meets and falls in love with fellow ambulance driver Mary, and the pair set up a household together after the war.

Although the book is far from sexually explicit, there is one reference to Stephen and Mary going to bed together; and throughout, Stephen insists that ‘sexual inversion’ is not unnatural. Stephen’s (and by extension, Hall’s) views on lesbianism closely echo those of 19th-century lesbian Anne Lister, by some considered to one of Britain’s first ‘modern lesbians.’

Due to the success of Adam’s Breed, The Well of Loneliness was reviewed by journalists upon its publication; early reviews were measured.[1] However, James Douglas, the editor of the Sunday Express who earlier in the decade had found much fault with convicted murderer Edith Thompson, took it upon himself to publish a front-page take-down of the book on 19 August 1928. His editorial included the statement that ‘he would rather give “a healthy boy or a healthy girl” poison than let them read The Well of Loneliness.’[2]

Hall’s publisher protested that the intervention of the Sunday Express gave the book more publicity and sensationalised it, and many other journalists and writers defended the work. Nevertheless, an obscenity trial started on 9 November 1928 and included expert witness testimony to confirm that one could not ‘become gay’ by reading a book about a gay relationship. The magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, concluded that the novel’s literary merit counted against it: ‘the more palatable the poison the more insidious’.[3] He ordered that all copies of the book were destroyed, and The Well of Loneliness was not published again in Britain until 1959.

Hall attended the trial, although she was not on the stand as the trial was against her publisher rather than herself as a person. Her masculine appearance, widely reported in the press, ‘crystallised a particular vision of the mannish lesbian’ for the remainder of the interwar period.[4] A similar obscenity trial in the US had the opposite outcome to the British one, ‘finding that discussion of homosexuality was not in itself obscene.’ Hall only published one more novel during her lifetime, The Master of the House, which was poorly received. During the 1930s Hall and Troubridge moved out of London to the coastal town of Rye. Hall was diagnosed with cancer during the Second World War and died in 1943. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London, alongside other writers and artists such as George Eliot, Elizabeth Siddal and Anna Mahler.


[1] Christopher Hilliard, ‘“Is It a Book That You Would Even Wish Your Wife or Your Servants to Read?” Obscenity Law and the Politics of Reading in Modern England’, American Historical Review, June 2013, p. 666

[2] Ibid.

[3] Merl Storr, ‘Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness’, review, Sexualities, Vol 6, no. 2, 2003, p. 264

[4] Emma Liggins, Odd Women? Spinsters, lesbians and widows in British women’s fiction, 1850s–1930s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), p. 163

Sonnie Hale

FeaturedSonnie Hale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winifred Holtby

Featured<strong>Winifred Holtby</strong>

Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) was a Yorkshire writer, journalist and activist who remains primarily remembered for her final, posthumous novel South Riding. She is also frequently linked to her closest friend, writer and journalist Vera Brittain, who penned the influential First World War memoir Testament of Youth. Holtby and Brittain studied together at Oxford’s all-female college, Somerville, and subsequently shared households for most of the remainder of Holtby’s life.

Although Brittain remains the better-known of the pair (arguably partially because her life was not cut short like Holtby’s), Winifred Holtby was more than a friend and companion to Brittain. She had her own strong political and feminist views, which were expressed in her journalism and activism. After a visit to South Africa in 1926, Holtby actively supported the Black South African community for the rest of her life.[1]

Winifred Holtby was born in Rudston, a small Yorkshire village between Hull and Scarborough. She came of age during the First World War and briefly served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) before starting her studies at Somerville in 1919. Here she met Brittain, who was some five years older than her. After the war, Holtby lectured for the League of Nations, the ‘first worldwide intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace.’ She also became involved in the Six Point Group, a feminist collective set up by Lady Rhondda. The latter also co-founded Time and Tide, a feminist interwar publication to which both Holtby and Brittain became regular contributors.[2] (E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady also started as a column in Time and Tide).

Committed feminist as Holtby was, her journalistic writings of the time are striking both because they address some issues that remain unresolved, and because they reveal a sharp sense of humour. The overall tone of Holtby’s writing in this area demonstrates optimism. After the expansion of the vote to all men and women in 1928, interwar feminists seemed to believe that equality between men and women on all fronts was just a matter of time. Nearly a hundred years on, such optimism seems naïve. However, it does mean that Holtby’s writing on inequality remains recognisable and accessible.

In ‘Should a Woman Pay?’, which appeared in the Manchester Guardian in October 1928, she tackles the social dilemma of who should pay the bill when a man and woman go out together. Introducing us to the fictional Jack and Jill, Holtby demonstrates how a clinging to the social custom of the man paying can lead to resentment between modern couples – Jack insists on paying for Jill’s lunch because ‘his masculine honour is affronted’ by the suggestion she pays, or they split the bill. When both return to their respective jobs for the afternoon, they are distracted, make mistakes, and ‘they both hate everything.’

Holtby links this very relatable scenario to ‘the industrial revolution, the introduction of factory labour, the divorce of women from domestic industry’ and the subsequent removal of women from any source of substantial income.[3] A quick internet search reveals that the question ‘Should the woman pay?’ remains unresolved – Harvard Business Review devoted an article to it in April 2021 and a live WikiHow page talks readers through the ‘problem’ (which remains presented in heteronormative terms).

In ‘Counting the Cost’, also published in the Manchester Guardian in the same year, Holtby responds to a letter to the editor submitted by a man who is frustrated that his wife is undertaking too many activities in the community and does not have enough time to manage the household. ‘If I came home from work at six (which I don’t) and had to get my own tea [dinner], things would happen’ fumes the man. Holtby gently pokes fun at the man’s worked-up tone: ‘He really is very cross indeed. He makes you feel that the first of those things which would happen would be a very bad tea. Bad temper never fries good bacon.’[4] She ends the article by acknowledging that whilst some things may be lost when women go out of their home, both economy and society gain much by women actively participating in it.

Holtby herself was one such woman actively participating in public life during the interwar period. Although she never married, she did undertake caring responsibilities for Vera Brittain’s family, whom she lived with for large proportions of her life.[5] Holtby repeatedly referred to herself as ‘50% a politician’ and she tirelessly raised funds to help unionise Black workers in South Africa.[6] Despite only being ‘50% a writer’ in her own perception, Holtby produced seven novels, two volumes of poetry, two short story collections, a play, and four works of non-fiction including a memoir of Virginia Woolf. As a witty and gifted writer and commentator, her work deserves continued recognition.


[1] Testament of a Generation: The journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 21-23

[2] Marion Shaw, ‘Introduction’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. xi

[3] Winifred Holtby, ‘Should a Woman Pay?’, reproduced in Testament of a Generation, pp. 57-60.

[4] Winifred Holtby, ‘Counting the Cost’, reproduced in Testament of a Generation, pp. 54-57

[5] Shirley Williams, ‘Preface’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. ix

[6] Marion Shaw, ‘Introduction’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. xii; Testament of a Generation: The journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 22

Paul Robeson

FeaturedPaul Robeson

Paul Robeson was born in 1898 in New Jersey. He became an actor, singer, activist and athlete, and was one of the very few prominent black actors to appear in British interwar films. Robeson lived with his wife in London between 1928 and 1939, during which period he studied Swahili and phonetics at SOAS, University of London. In London he appeared on the West End stage as Othello (1930) – the first black man to play the role on the West End stage in a hundred years.

Robeson was a popular actor and singer, and a well-known figure in London society. When, in 1929, he and his wife were denied entry to the Savoy grill room due to their skin colour, the matter was reported in the national press. The Savoy, however, flat-out refused to admit that it operated a colour bar and provided no explanation why the Robeson’s were refused entry.

On British film sets, Robeson also encountered racial prejudices. After appearing alongside his wife Eslanda in the art-house Borderline (1930), Robeson’s first commercial role in British film was 1935’s Sanders of the Rivers, directed by Zoltan Korda. The film was based on a selection of short stories by Edgar Wallace, published in 1911. The Edwardian context in which the source material was written was scarcely updated for the film. Sanders, played by Leslie Banks, is a colonial administrator in Nigeria. He is presented as firm but just, and has a paternalistic attitude towards the tribes which live in ‘his’ part of the Empire. Robeson plays Bosambo, a trusted native who provides Sanders with intelligence. When warring breaks out between the tribes, Basambo helps Sanders restore the peace.

Significant parts of the film were shot on location, which the marketing material claimed lent an air of authenticity to the plot. However, as one viewer has commented, the film appears to have been shot in East Africa rather than Nigeria or elsewhere in West Africa – to the untrained, white, British viewer these two disparate regions apparently looked the same. The film features several African tribes in crowd scenes and performing rituals. Rather than providing an ethnographic account of indigenous culture, these scenes show ‘wild’ Africa as the white colonial gaze imagined it to be.

Robeson distanced himself from the film after it appeared, on the grounds of its sympathetic portrayal of colonialism. Yet he continued to find himself in the bind that the only roles offered to him as a black man were those which also included racist or patronising depictions of African culture. In his next British film, Song of Freedom (1936), Robeson plays a dock worker, Johnny Zinga, who has a powerful voice. This film, at least, allows Robeson to show off his considerable singing talent.

Johnny is catapulted to fame after he is heard singing in his local pub, in the predictable ‘rags to riches’ success story that so many British films of the period included. But Johnny does not simply get famous: he is also discovered to be the rightful king to an African island. Johnny travels to the island and tries to rule it as best as he can, but eventually decides to return home to his old life in the London docks. Life on the (fictitious) African island is depicted as primitive, with Robeson once more asked to don ‘traditional’ native dress for these scenes. It was no doubt titillating to white audiences to see the chest of the 6”3’ Robeson on display for their consumption. Additionally, the suggestion that the one black dockworker in London is also a member of a royal family further undermines the perceived differences between African culture, with its supposed multitude of royal families, and the British Empire, over which one monarch reigns supreme.

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)

The following year, Robeson was once again cast in an adaptation of a popular fiction, this time the Victorian novel King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. The novel appeared in 1886 and was one of the first British novels to be set in Africa. In the film, explorer and adventurist Allan Quartermain agrees to help a young Irish woman whose father has gone off into the African wilderness to find the fabled King Solomon’s diamond mines. Robeson plays Umbopa, a native guide to the party.

When Quartermain, Umbopa and the others get captured by a native tribe ruled by the despotic Twala and the witch-doctor Gagool, Umbopa reveals that he is in fact the legitimate heir to the tribe’s throne. Eventually, Quartermain and Umbopa manage to persuade the tribe to overthrow Twala and the party find the entrance to King’s Solomon’s mine, which turns out to exist. They find the missing father inside the mine and manage to escape before the mine is destroyed.

The portrayal of the native tribe in King Solomon’s Mines leans heavily on depictions of mystical rituals and supposed witchcraft. At the same time, their leader is styled a ‘king’ and the title appears hereditary in the manner of European monarchies. Umbopa is, in contrast, calm, educated and righteous. He is, however, treated as exceptional among his peers, a fact further underlined by his royal heritage. The overall depiction of indigenous African tribes in the film leans heavily on stereotypes of barbarianism and primitivism.

Robeson returned to the US at the outbreak of World War Two. His increasingly radical left-wing political views put him under government scrutiny, and he was denied a passport for several years, effectively trapping him in the US. Although he continued to record songs, Robeson stopped acting after 1942. Although he was a high-profile star during the 1930s, the racism pervasive in British society pigeonholed him into roles where he had to repeatedly act out white fantasies of indigenous cultures; and play characters who unquestioningly submitted to white colonial rule.

Emlyn Williams

Emlyn Williams

George Emlyn Williams was born in the tiny Welsh village of Pen-y-ffordd in 1905. As a Welshman with dark colouring and an unusual name, Williams appeared very different from popular interwar actors such as Laurence Olivier and Brian Aherne, both of whom performed in West End theatre at the same time. Unlike that other famous Welshman of the period, Ivor Novello, Williams steered clear of musical theatre and nightclubs in favour of writing and performing in plays exploring murder and criminal psychology.

After attending grammar school and undertaking some schooling in France on a scholarship, Williams won a scholarship to Oxford, where he became involved with the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS). Williams was supposed to graduate in 1926, but instead of studying for his exams he wrote a play, Full Moon, which was put on at the Oxford Playhouse under the management of J.B. Fagan. Williams decided to move to London without completing his degree when Fagan offered him a small walk-on part in the production And So To Bed, in which Edmund Gwenn and Yvonne Arnaud appeared as the principal players.[1]

This modest role marked the start of a long West End career, in which Williams combined acting with writing and directing, regularly casting himself as the lead for his own productions. In his autobiography, Williams presents the years from 1926 to 1935 as ones in which he finds his feet both professionally and in his personal life. After numerous failures and some mild successes, the book ends with the first West End performance of his play Night Must Fall, which Williams credits as his ‘first solid success’[2] – it ran for a year and a half before transferring to Broadway for another 64 performances.

Night Must Fall is based on a notorious murder case of the interwar period, the ‘Crumbles Murder’ case of 1924. Patrick Mahon, a charming Richmond-based salesman, struck up an extramarital affair with typist Emily Kaye. Kaye fell pregnant, and Mahon led her to believe that they would travel to South Africa to start a new life together. Instead, he murdered her in a cottage on the Sussex coast and dismembered and destroyed her body so thoroughly that very little of it was found during the police investigation. What particularly spoke to the public’s imagination is that, less than 48 hours after the murder, Mahon picked up another woman and spent a few days at the cottage with her, whilst Kaye’s partly-dismembered body was in the next room.[3]

Williams combined this story with the equally notorious murder perpetrated by Sidney Fox, who in 1929 killed his own mother by strangling her and subsequently set her hotel room on fire to cover his tracks. In Night Must Fall, Dan, a charming man (modelled on Patrick Mahon) strikes up a friendship with a rich but cranky old lady and her niece Olivia. Whilst the niece suspects that Dan is a murderer, she still falls in love with him and helps him stay out of the hands of the police. Eventually, Dan murders the old lady and steals her money – although Olivia wants to help Dan escape, the play ends with him being arrested.

In his autobiography, Williams states that he had initially been interested in adapting the story of Fritz Haarman, a German serial killer who murdered at least 27 boys and young men in Hanover, in 1924. Williams was bisexual and identified with Haarman’s young victims: poor or homeless men, in some instances selling sex for money, lured back to Haarman’s flat with promises of food and shelter. ‘Yes, it could have happened to me’, acknowledges Williams. Although the story is clearly close to his heart, British theatre censorship laws absolutely precluded the depiction of a homosexual, paedophilic murderer.[4]

Alongside this career as theatre author and actor exploring the darker side of life, Williams also appeared in films. One of his first appearances was as the comic best friend to the protagonist in the Oxford comedy Men of Tomorrow (1932). Although the film was a commercial failure, it did bring Williams exposure and he was voted the most popular British actor by the readers of Film Weekly, ahead of Leslie Howard and Jack Hulbert.[5] This in turn landed Williams with a contract at Gaumont-British, where he wrote as well as acted. His first gig with them was writing the dialogue, and starring in, Friday the Thirteenth (1933). He subsequently worked on the Jessie Matthews vehicle Evergreen and supplied dialogue for the 1934 Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Although his contract with Gaumont was not renewed beyond 1935, Williams stayed active in film for the remainder of the interwar period, and beyond. As well as adapting Night Must Fall for the screen, he also acted in a range of genres such as the comedy Night Alone and the thriller They Drive By Night (both 1938). In 1936, he was cast as Caligula in Joseph von Sternberg’s unfinished I, Claudius, opposite other such greats at Charles Laughton, Flora Robson, and Merle Oberon.

Later in his career, Williams toured with an innovative one-man theatre show called Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens, in which he delivered parts of Dickens’ novels in a manner similar to how Dickens himself toured in the 19th century. He remained interested in murder, and wrote a book about the Moors murders in 1968. Williams continued to be active as a writer and actor until close to his death in 1987.


[1] Emlyn Williams, Emlyn: A sequel to George (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 13

[2] Ibid., p. 449

[3] Colin Evans, The father of forensics: the groundbreaking cases of Sir Bernard Spilsbury and the beginnings of modern CSI (Thriplow: Icon, 2007), pp. 140-147

[4] Williams, Emlyn, pp. 213-221

[5] Ibid., 319

Alastair Sim

Alastair Sim

Alastair Sim was born in 1900 in Edinburgh. After an aborted university education and active duty during the Great War, he trained as an elocution teacher and took up a lectureship in that subject at the University of Edinburgh in 1925. Elocution and drama teaching was his route into an acting career, of which his parents were not supportive. In 1930 Sim moved down to London, where his acting career took off.

After several years of stage roles, Sim made his film debut in 1935, with no fewer than five film credits to his name in that year alone. All were mostly low-budget comedies or crime films, in which Sim played smaller parts. Throughout his career he mostly played supporting roles, with the notable exception of Scrooge (1951) in which he played the titular character. It’s still considered one of the best portrayals of Scrooge on film.

As the 1930s continued, Sim got more substantial film roles in higher-profile films. His lanky frame (he was just over 6 feet tall) and distinctive voice made him instantly recognisable to audiences. In 1936 Sim starred opposite George Formby in the Monty Banks-directed Keep Your Seats, Please!. In the same year he was also directed by Monty Banks in the comedy The Man in the Mirror, although his name was misspelt as Alistair in the film’s credits.

In 1937-38, Sim starred opposite Jessie Matthews three times, in Gangway (1937); Sailing Along (1938) and Climbing High (1938). In Gangway, Matthews plays a journalist who gets caught up in a trans-Atlantic criminal plot. Sim is Detective Taggett, who is attempting to arrest the criminals. In Sailing Along, Matthews plays a precocious young woman and aspiring dancer who is brought up on a tug-boat. Sim here is the supporting character Sylvester, a confused and slightly simple-minded man who helps Matthews in her career aspirations. By the time of Climbing High, Sim was sufficiently famous that his name was included on the film’s poster. He again plays a supporting comedy relief character in this film.

Sim was only seven years older than Matthews, but in none of the three films is there the slightest inkling that he may be a suitable romantic partner for her characters. In fact, throughout the films Sim made in the interwar period, he plays characters who don’t have any romantic entanglements with co-stars. This was no doubt partly to do with his appearance, which did not meet conventional beauty standards of the period. Even in his thirties, he looked older than his years, and appeared somewhat ageless. His persistent casting in comedy roles further diminished his romantic appeal.

It is surprising, then, that in the 1937 crime film The Squeaker, Alistair Sim plays a character who has a settled domestic life, just when you least expect it. In The Squeaker Sim is Joshua Collie, a crime reporter for a popular newspaper. Journalists featured regularly in British interwar films, and were usually portrayed on the move, gathering news on the street; or pushing against deadlines in the newspaper offices.

Collie, on the other hand, is shown inside his comfortable living room, where he smokes a pipe after dinner like a suburban family man. He is not particularly interested in chasing down news, even though his friend, Scotland Yard inspector Barrabal, is feeding him plenty of information about the big criminal case he is working on. Collie reluctantly follows Barrabal’s leads only when his editor threatens to sack him for neglecting his duties. Alastair Sim played against the expected stereotype of the crime reporter, by making Collie a bit lazy and committed to his creature comforts. This enabled him to position himself again as a comedy character, even in a serious crime film which was based on a hard-boiled Edgar Wallace novel.

At the tail end of the interwar period Sim starred opposite Gordon Harker, another prolific interwar actor of comedy roles, in Inspector Hornleigh (1939). Sim played Sergeant Bingham, assistant to Harker in the titular role of Hornleigh. The pair are asked to investigate a murder in this comedy. The film was successful enough to spawn two sequels: Inspector Hornleigh on Holiday (also 1939) and Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1941).

Sim’s acting career lasted until his death in 1976. In the 1950s, as well as his interpretation of Scrooge, Sim also starred as the headmistress in the original St Trinian’s films, The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954); and Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957). Although his most commercially successful roles date from the second half of his career, he built up his screen persona and fame throughout the interwar period.

Edmund Gwenn

Edmund Gwenn

British actor Edmund Gwenn is internationally best-known for his role as Kris Kringle (‘Santa’) in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. This role earned Gwenn his only Oscar win (although he was nominated once more in 1950). Prior to his move to Hollywood at the start of World War II, Gwenn was a prolific stage and screen actor in interwar London. His instantly recognisable demeanour and voice made him a reliable choice for both leading and supporting roles.

Gwenn was born in 1877 and started his acting career on the late-Victorian and Edwardian stage, specialising in supporting roles of plays written by contemporary playwrights such as J.M. Barrie and John Galsworthy. He was a successful stage actor and did not make the transition to film acting until the start of the interwar period, when films were settling into the length and narrative types that we still recognise today.

Gwenn starred in only two feature-length silent films (Unmarried, opposite Gerald du Maurier, in 1920; and The Skin Game in 1921) before giving films a rest again until talkies became the norm in the early 1930s. Gwenn likely recognised that his power as an actor required him to be able to use dialogue as a means of expression. Once sound film work was available, he took to it with a vengeance, making no fewer than 36 films in the 1930s. No mean feat for an actor who was already 53 when the decade started.

In this film work, as in his stage roles, Gwenn continued to be associated with contemporary English writers. His first foray into sound film was a remake of The Skin Game, released ten years after the silent version in 1931. Both films were based on a Galsworthy play; the 1931 version was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.[1] Gwenn stars as Hornblower, a nouveau-riche industrialist who is looking to buy a piece of land from genteel landowner Hillcrist, to build industrial works. The conflict between ‘old England’ which values rural landscape, tranquillity and honour; and the new, industrial outlook which favours trade, progress and money, is at the heart of the film. The emotions between the two men and their families run so high that Hillcrist’s wife decides to reveal a damning secret about Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, as a result of which the young woman commits suicide. Hornblower, crushed with grief, decides to leave the area. Hillcrist’s victory is hollow, however, as he contemplates the moral depths to which his family has stooped to defend their way of life.

Gwenn played a man from a different social background a couple of years later in The Good Companions, a 1933 adaptation of a popular J.B. Priestley novel.[2] This Victor Saville-directed film remains a popular example of a British interwar comedy, and also stars Jessie Matthews and John Gielgud. In The Good Companions, Gwenn plays Jess Oakroyd, a Northern labourer who gets fired for speaking up against a malicious manager. Oakroyd decides to travel ‘south’ in search of work. In the Midlands, he stumbles across a faltering theatre troupe called the Dinky Doos. Simultaneously with Oakroyd’s arrival in the midlands, the film also follows teacher Inigo Jollifant and Miss Elizabeth Trant, who reach the Midlands from the East and West of England respectively. The three travellers join the Dinky Doos and help to make the troupe a success. The Good Companions was well-received by critics, who praised it as a ‘British’ picture at a time when the British film industry had been under considerable domestic pressure to prove it could stand up to the influence of Hollywood.[3]

Gwenn used his non-threatening appearance to great effect in 1936’s Laburnum Grove (directed by Carol Reed), which has been discussed in detail elsewhere in this blog. In this film, Gwenn plays Radfern, a seemingly innocent and typical suburban husband who is secretly involved in an international crime network. The film is, again, based on J.B. Priestley source material. Reed directed Gwenn again in 1938, as the working-class lead of Penny Paradise. This comedy-drama is set in Liverpool, and Gwenn plays Joe Higgins, a tug-boat captain who religiously enters the ‘penny pools’ – a postage betting system in which players try to guess the correct football scores for the entire league. Miraculously, Higgins guesses all the scores correctly, and he believes himself a rich man. However, his friend Pat, who was supposed to have posted in Higgins’ winning score, forgot to post it on time. Higgins gives up his job and throws a large party for the entire community before Pat has the courage to tell him what has happened.

Penny Paradise is a fairly typical 1930s British comedy, with the expected happy ending and moral lessons for the main characters. Gwenn rounded out the decade with a very different part, in what has commonly been called the ‘first Ealing Comedy’. Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Walter Forde, was released in 1939. It follows the plight of a small beer brewery which is up against a big, capitalist brewing corporation. The conviviality of the workers at the small brewery models how Balcon planned to run his new studio. Gwenn plays Edward Ironside, the head of the industrial brewer. The film’s most striking scene (to a modern audience) is a brief shot of Ironside reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In this last role of the decade, just before his move across the Atlantic, Gwenn came full circle with his performance as Hornblower in The Skin Game: that of an industrialist intent on undermining traditional British values. The changes which Britain underwent in the 1930s, however, meant that whilst at the beginning of the 1930s it was the life of the landed gentry that was worth protecting, by the end of the decade it was the working-class community spirit that was held up as the British ideal.

Gwenn continued to act almost up to his death at the age of 81, in 1959. His later roles increasingly included incidental parts in TV series. Whilst his later, American career may have brought him international and lasting fame and recognition, his frequent appearances in British films of the 1930s made him a key contributor to the interwar cultural landscape.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace (London: IB Tauris, 2010) p. 316

[2] Laurence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), p. 81

[3] Ibid., p. 123

Kate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

Kate Meyrick’s Private Diaries

Kate Meyrick was known as the ‘Nightclub Queen’ in interwar London. She ran a string of nightclubs, of which the ‘43’ in Gerrard Street was the best-known. Nightclubs operated on the edge of the law – a club in itself was not an illegal space, but if alcohol was sold outside of hours permitted by the club’s license, the club owner could face hefty fines or even prison time. Additionally, clubs were supposed to only be open to members, who paid yearly subscriptions and were known to be of good character. In practice, Meyrick and other club owners generally allowed guests to become ‘members’ upon arrival.

Kate Meyrick made substantial money from her nightclub ventures, although they also cost her a lot to maintain. Her career effectively ended when it was revealed in 1929 that she had been bribing Police Sergeant George Goddard.[1] Goddard would tip Meyrick off if any of her clubs were likely to get raided, so that she could make sure no illegal activity was taking place in them.[2] Both Goddard and Meyrick were convicted – the latter to fifteen months’ hard labour which negatively impacted her health.

Throughout Meyrick’s career as a nightclub owner, she had become a well-known public figure, recognizable from press reports to those who would never get close to setting a foot in her clubs. After her death in 1933, publisher John Long published her memoirs, The Secrets of the 43.[3] Extracts from her ‘private diaries’ were subsequently serialised in the Sunday Express. These posthumous publications show how Meyrick’s family worked to shape her public image from convicted criminal to caring mother.

Meyrick had eight children, and professed that her main goal in entering the nightclub business was to give her family financial support. Many of her children entered her business as managers and staff in her ever-expanding network of clubs. Although Meyrick did not leave her children much capital when she passed, she had been able to secure advantageous marriages for most of them. Mary, one of Meyrick’s eldest daughters, married the Earl of Kinnoull. It was with his introduction that Meyrick’s diaries were published in the Sunday Express, giving them an aura of respectability.

In his introduction, the Earl calls his mother-in-law a ‘remarkable’ and ‘dynamic’ woman who hoped to give her children ‘brilliant chances she had been so determined they should enjoy.’[4] Her decision to start selling alcohol illegally is framed as the only option she had to make money for her children, as well as a result of her ‘impulsive nature’. The subsequent move through periods of financial success followed by raids, fines and prison sentences is related as ‘the slow slipping of the power of wealth from her fingers, her powerlessness to help her children as she longed to do.’

Advert in the Daily Express of 4 March 1933

The diary serialisation was advertised by the Sunday Express with reference to the notorious criminals Meyrick had hosted in her clubs, consciously tightening the public’s association between nightclubs and serious crime. If we accept the printed diaries as accurate copies of what Meyrick recorded, she herself was also eager to align herself and her clubs with notorious criminal cases. She describes that Ronald True, who was convicted of the murder of Gertrude Young, was in the ‘43’ the night before his arrest:

Have just seen the account of the arrest of Ronald True for the murder of Gertrude Young. He was in the 43 last night. Wonder if I am psychic? I went downstairs at 4 a.m. to stop the band, and ask them to come up to the first floor. When I went upstairs I felt I must turn round. When I did turn I found Ronald True gazing at me with murder in his eyes. (…) I suppose I ought to have warned somebody. But who?[5]

True was arrested on 9 March 1922 and was therefore in the club on 8 March – Gertrude Young had been murdered on 6 March, so any warning Meyrick could have given would not have saved her life. The ‘murder’ in True’s eyes was presumably imagined by Meyrick after she heard of his arrest.

This didn’t dissuade Meyrick from believing in her psychic abilities. She raises the topic again when she describes allegedly greeting Patrick Mahon in one of her clubs, shortly before he is arrested for the ‘Crumbles murder’; one of the more graphic murders to take place in England in the 1920s.

He [Mahon] was only in last week. How dreadful to think I shook hands with a murderer. (…) I am sure I am psychic. Just as in the case of Ronald True, Mahon’s eyes impressed me. They were not like the eyes of ordinary people: there was something behind them.[6]

Through the publication of Meyrick’s autobiography and diaries, her family were able to exercise control over her public image, which in turn affected their own reputations. By downplaying the illegal activities in which Meyrick had participated and foregrounding her commitment to her children, the Earl of Kinnoull was presenting his mother-in-law as a courageous and hardworking woman. He also profited from her by selling her diary to a newspaper. The Sunday Express, in the meantime, milked Meyrick’s proximity to notoriety to boost its own circulation. After her death, Meyrick’s own words became a tool for others to use.


[1] Heather Shore, ‘Constable dances with instructress’: the police and the Queen of Nightclubs in inter-war London’, Social History, (2013) Vol. 38, No. 2, 183–202, p. 199

[2] Clive Emsley, ‘Sergeant Goddard: the story of a rotten apple or a diseased orchard?’ In: Srebnik, Amy Gilman and Levy, Rene eds. Crime and culture: an historical perspective. Advances in Criminology (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005), pp. 85–104

[3] Kate Meyrick, The Secrets of the 43 (London: John Long, 1933)

[4] Earl of Kinnoull, ‘The Things She Could Never Tell’, Sunday Express, 25 February 1933, p. 9

[5] ‘Sergeant Goddard’s First Raid’, Sunday Express, 5 March 1933, p. 13

[6] ‘Valentino – Mahon – Kreuger – and Jimmy White’, Sunday Express, 12 March 1933, p. 13