Death in a Taxi

The hansom cab has been a mainstay of the London streets since the 17th century.[1] The black horse-drawn carriages were largely replaced by motorised vehicles by the end of the First World War. The designs of the motorcar taxis were based on the hansom cab that preceded it, which meant that the driver was seated in the open air, or under a canvas roof, and was physically separated from the passengers. This design ensured that the passenger(s) continued to enjoy privacy during their trip and did not have to share it in close proximity to a stranger. It also assuaged any class anxieties about wealthier passengers having to share a space with a driver from a lower socio-economic background.

Taxis occupy a unique position in the transport landscape: they are open to all users who can afford them but provide a private transport experience; they are also essentially urban and predominantly found in big cities. Both these features as well as the separation of passenger and driver all stress the anonymity of the taxi experience. There were no records of who used taxis beyond what a driver could remember of his customers.

It was presumably for these reasons that for some people, the London taxi was the chosen site for murder or suicide. Tabloids reported on a number of such cases in the first half of the 1920s. In November 1923 the Daily Mirror printed the headline ‘Dead Woman in Cab’.[2] The article described that at the end of the afternoon the previous day, a young man had come into a police station in Knightsbridge and said to the officer on duty ‘the woman is in the cab outside’. In the taxi the police found the body of Ethel Howard, with a wound to the throat and a razor lying next to the body.

Daily Mirror, 16 November 1923, p. 2

At first glance this could be a case of either suicide or murder. The man who reported the death remained unnamed in the article but was described as a ‘portrait painter’. This immediately sought to evoke images of bohemia in the newspaper reader’s mind. The romance and mystery of the case was brought crashing down to earth in the follow up article printed the next day, which reported on the magistrate’s inquest on the case.[3]

The ‘portrait painter’ was in fact the 24-year-old butcher’s assistant George William Iggulden. Iggulden and Ethel Howard had been engaged to be married on 16 November. Instead, Iggulden murdered his fiancée the night before the wedding. The Mirror called this ‘the irony of fate’, although the reader may conclude that this was not so much fate as George Iggulden using desperate measures to get out of his commitment. In the taxi, he found a confined space where Ethel would not be able to escape from, and where he was sure not to be interrupted. In this second newspaper article, Iggulden is reported not just to have said ‘the woman is in the cab outside’ but also ‘I did it with a razor’. He was duly remanded to stand trial for murder.

The party who is curiously absent in all this is the taxi driver. The only oblique reference to their presence is in the second article, which described that Iggulden ‘asked to be driven to the nearest police station’ rather than to Chelsea, halfway through the drive. The police are not reported to have spoken to the driver or gotten their statement, and there is no consideration as to what the impact of a murder being committed several feet away from them may have had.

A taxi driver did have a more active role in proceedings in a case in 1925. On 23 April of that year, the Daily Express reported on a ‘Mystery of A Taxicab’.[4] On 21 April, a Sunday, Major Frank Montague Noel Newton had engaged a cab to take him from his club to his hotel. Immediately it is clear to the reader that this passenger is a man of substance, who comfortably moves around the West End. Upon passing the Hotel Metropole (now known as the Corinthia Hotel) just off Trafalgar Square, the driver heard a noise ‘as though someone was knocking on the window with a stick’. The driver was evidentially located outside the cab, with a window separating him and his passenger.

Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 9

The driver didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary when he turned to look through the window, so he drove on to Major Newton’s hotel. Once he arrived there, he engaged the help of the hotel porter to try and rouse Major Newton, who appeared to be asleep. Then the men realised that there was a revolver on the floor of the cab, and that the noise the driver had heard was Major Newton shooting himself.

One must make allowances for the noise cars in the 1920s generated, but it still seems extraordinary that a driver would not identify a shot fired within such close proximity. However, the story repeated itself a year later:

On arriving at Charing Cross Station about midnight on Monday the driver of a taxicab found his fare shot dead. The man hailed the driver on Cromwell Road and nothing occurred during the journey to attract attention. When he did not alight at Charing Cross, the driver got down from his seat and found the man lying dead. A revolver was on the floor.[5]

Evidently, for these men, the mobile and anonymous nature of the taxi provided a suitable space for them to commit suicide. They knew they would not be disturbed for the duration of the trip, and that they would be found by a stranger. The man who was driving to Charing Cross was reported to be a Swede visiting London. Like Major Newton, he did not have a fixed address in the city; the locations of their deaths underscore this sense of fluidity and lack of permanency.

For the drivers, finding a dead body in their vehicle appears to have been something they were expected to handle in the course of their employment. They remain anonymous in the reports, their taxis indistinguishable from the rest of the fleet that swarmed London’s streets. It is this anonymity which made their taxis such appealing sites for illicit and illegal behaviour in interwar London.


[1] George N Georgano, A History of the London Taxicab (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1972), p. 110

[2] ‘Dead Woman in Cab’, Daily Mirror, 16 November 1923, p. 2

[3] ‘Dead Girl in Taxi’, Daily Mirror, 17 November 1923, p. 2

[4] ‘Mystery of a Taxicab’, Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 9

[5] ‘Shot Dead in Taxi’, Daily Mirror, 3 November 1926, p. 2

Downhill (1927)

Downhill (1927)

Before he became (one of) the greatest directors of the 20th century, Alfred Hitchcock started out his film directing career in London in the 1920s. After a few jobs as assistant director, he landed his first gig as principal director on 1923’s The Pleasure Garden. Four years later he made Downhill, a melodrama which has been described as only of interest to Hitchcock ‘completists’. In addition to providing an insight into the development of Hitchcock’s craft, this film also reveals cultural assumptions underpinning interwar London society.

Downhill stars the popular actor and entertainer Ivor Novello (who co-wrote the play on which the film is based) as Roddy Berwick, the son of a wealthy family who excels at his public school and has a glittering future ahead of him. Roddy’s best friend, Tim, comes from a less affluent background. Tim has a liaison with Mabel, who works at the local sweetshop; this affair results in Mabel falling pregnant. Mabel tells the schoolmaster that it’s Roddy, not Tim, who is the father; Roddy promptly gets expelled from school and disowned by his father.

Beginner's Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Downhill (1927) — Talk Film Society
Mabel accuses Roddy

This starts Roddy’s downward trajectory in life. He first works as an actor and marries a glamorous actress who fleeces him for all his money before throwing him over. Roddy moves Paris, where he works as a gigolo. Eventually he ends up very ill in Marseille, where a few sailors manage to take him back to London. At the end of the film Roddy straggles back into his father’s house, to find that his father has found out that it was Tim who made Mabel pregnant, and has been desperate for Roddy to forgive him for his rash decisions. After his travails in the darker side of life, Roddy is restored in his rightful position.

One of the main themes of Downhill, as is clear from the plot description, is intergenerational conflict. When Roddy comes home from school a week early, his father immediately believes that the school must have been right in expelling him, and he does not even wait to hear Roddy’s explanations. The father’s rejection is so definitive that Roddy immediately leaves home and is unable to come back until he is almost at death’s door. Prior to this, the school and headmaster, who took their places as surrogate home environment and father figure, have also rejected Roddy.

The established institutions of society, school and the patriarchal father figure, turn their backs on Roddy. The older male generation here can be interpreted as a proxy for the generation of older politicians who sent off thousands of young British men to the trenches in France and Belgium in 1914. The War is not explicitly mentioned in Downhill, but its themes echo the sentiment that the older generation abandoned and unfairly sacrificed the younger one. When, at the end of the film, Roddy’s father asks Roddy for his forgiveness, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine him as a stand-in for the political establishment, asking the younger generation to forgive them for the War – a request that must, of course, remain limited to the realms of fiction.

The second theme running through Downhill, and this is perhaps one where Hitchcock’s hand is more readily recognised, is that apart from Roddy’s mother, all the women in the film prey on him and exploit him. Roddy’s mother, incidentally, only appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film and is completely irrelevant to the plot – it is only his father’s approval that matters to Roddy. Each stage of Roddy’s downfall is marked by a different woman. First there is Mabel, played by Annette Benson; she is depicted as a pretty one-dimensional ‘loose woman’ with make-up, a short skirt, and an apparently insatiable desire to flirt. She pro-actively asks Tim to come and see her in her shop on Wednesday afternoon. When he brings Roddy along, Mabel appears to consider this an opportunity rather than a barrier.

Silent Era : Home Video Reviews
Mabel flirts with Roddy

As soon as she has figured out that Roddy has more money than Tim, and is unlikely to allow himself to be seduced by her, she apparently hatches her plan. The film leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Mabel is actually pregnant or not (although not sufficient time appears to have passed for her to be sure of it); it is pretty clear she accuses Roddy because she knows she can get more money out of him than out of Tim. Roddy does not dispute the claim out of a sense of honour and loyalty – he knows Tim’s future will be ruined if the truth comes out.

The second woman Roddy meets, and one he falls completely in love with, is the actress Julia Fotheringale. She is already in a relationship with Archie, but her expensive tastes is clothes and luxury goods are starting to become a problem. When Roddy unexpectedly inherits a large sum of money, Julie agrees to marry him. Once she’s spent his fortune, she abandons him again. Both Mabel and Julia are only interested in the money that Roddy can provide them with; they are both shown to be calculating and cold. Once Roddy’s money has completely run out he starts to work as a dancer-for-hire in Paris. His body is now the property, and it is control of the madams who run the nightclub.

1000 Frames of Downhill (1927) - frame 731 - The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki
Roddy as a gigolo in a Parisian nightclub

Downhill’s resolution provides an indication of what the audiences were encouraged to think really mattered: yes, Roddy’s father acknowledges he was wrong, but ultimately Roddy seeks his approval and wants to restore his place in the family unit. Roddy’s sense of honour, which leads him to keep Tim’s secret, is one of the central guiding principles for his behaviour. When he is nearly dying in Marseille, the knowledge that he has kept Tim’s secret for him is a comfort to Roddy. Paris, as usual, is shown to be a den of immorality. Ultimately, values traditionally associated with British upper class men are presented as desirable and admirable.

Downhill is available to view on Youtube.

Julian Swift – The Chronicles of a Gigolo (1929)

Julian Swift – The Chronicles of a Gigolo (1929)

Today I am discussing a rather obscure melodramatic novel from 1929, which has not been re-issued since its first publication. The Chronicles of a Gigolo, written by actor and writer Arthur Applin under the pseudonym Julian Swift, is a roman-à-clef about the seedier side of London’s 1920s nightlife. The protagonist, Percy/Julian, is a gigolo – in interwar London a gigolo was a man whom women could pay to take them to nightclubs, dance with them, and generally entertain them. Undoubtedly that could also lead to paid-for sex, but in the Chronicles, Julian’s evenings with his clients end when he bids them goodnight in the hotel lobby or taxi.

The Chronicles of a Gigolo is a fairly sappy novel with a thin plot. Percy is an orphaned young man in training to become a lawyer, which he does not enjoy. One day he stumbled across the 43 club run by Mrs Meyrick in Gerrard Street.[1] He goes in and enjoys the crowd of professional dancers he finds there. He decides to ditch his legal training and become a gigolo, adopting the name Julian. Initially Julian is very successful; many rich women take him out to high-end clubs and pay him handsomely for his time. Julian falls in love with Babs, a young dancer who wants to go on the revue stage. Julian and Babs spend some months in France, living off his savings. Then Babs gets offered a role in a West End revue and she returns to London. Julian eventually follows her back to England but finds he has lost many of his clients in his absence. His relationship with Babs runs to ground and he struggles to support himself, behaving increasingly erratically. By the end of the novel, Babs has married her producer and has a child with him, whilst Julian has descended into poverty and illness. It is strongly implied he dies at the end of the novel.

Despite the broad-brush arc of a man rising from poverty to riches and then falling back into poverty again, Chronicles of a Gigolo gives a detailed account of the intricacies of London’s nightlife, as it was written by a real-life professional dancer. The book name-checks real-life clubs and places them in a hierarchy. Mrs Meyrick’s 43 club is the one Julian likes the best; he describes it as a “jolly room”.[2] Of the girls in the 43, he says “They looked jolly and laughed just as Mrs Meyrick had done and I soon discovered they were enjoying themselves, and I’d never seen girls enjoying themselves before.”[3] For Julian, the 43 is a democratic space, where everyone can be themselves:

Of course, at Mrs Meyrick’s and places like that, clothes don’t matter because people go mostly for fun and there are often more men than girls, and it’s the men who pay the girls to dance with them so the girls only dance with a boy pro. when they want to enjoy themselves.[4]

The downside of the 43, from a professional point of view, is that he is not able to make any money there. For that, he has to visit the more high-end clubs where his clients want to be seen. He mentions entertaining wives of MPs and aristocratic women. They go, for example, to the Orange-tree club on the Old Brompton Road:

The Orange-tree Club wasn’t a bit like the Forty Three. A long room with lots of pillars and little tables round it where everybody was in evening dress looking respectable and bored.[5]

[The 43] was full and everyone enjoying themselves – not a bit like the Orange-tree. I mean everyone there was very decorous and unnatural as if they were afraid if they let themselves go they would be peculiar, which if course they were.[6]

Yet despite the upper-class clubs being perceived as boring and artificial by Julian, they also hold an appeal for him. This becomes clear when one of his clients asks him to take her to the Kit-Cat Club on the Haymarket:

She suggested I should take her to the Kit-Cat. I did my best to hide my excitement – the Kit-Cat being one of the places I wanted to get into.[7]

This sentence lays bare the peculiar power dynamic between Julian and his clients. They ask him to ‘take them out’; yet he needs their wealth and social standing to be allowed into the venues where they want to go. The Chronicles of a Gigolo pays close attention to the artificiality of dressing up and ‘faking it until you make it’; Julian strongly advocates dressing as if you have money, to attract money. Yet no matter how much he dresses up, a venue such as the Kit-Cat remains too exclusive for him unless he is accompanied by a truly upper-class woman.

Advert for the Kit-Cat Club in Daily Telegraph, 21 December 1927

As the novel progresses, Julian’s career struggles are reflected in the struggles of the nightclubs themselves. Police raids on clubs become more frequent as the narrative progresses. Initially the raids are presented as a rite of passage for the customer and a badge of honour for a club:

Chez Victors Club was the jolliest place. It was getting quite high-class so they raided it. I was there and they took my name and address and I felt important.[8]

If a club has a high-profile clientele they are initially less likely to be raided, as the police and Home Office would not want to cause a big scandal.[9] Later on, rebranding a venue from a nightclub to a restaurant could help keep the police at bay.[10] This tactic, however, spelled bad news for the gigolo, who aimed to keep his entertaining costs as low as possible in order to maximise his profits.

It’s getting more difficult to earn a living as a professional dancer because the restaurants are taking the place of these clubs, and at a restaurant you must eat and drink a lot before you dance.[11]

More time spent eating and drinking meant less time for dancing, and it also required a bigger financial outlay to pay for the inevitable champagne and oysters. When Mrs Meyrick was sent to prison for bribing police officers in 1929, that further hastened the end of the brief golden age of nightclubs and gigolos. For Julian, the Home Office’s drive to close down nightclubs is misplaced: he describes it as “bigotry.”[12] Nevertheless, it is an unstoppable tide.

By the end of the novel, the free-spirited Babs has settled down for a conventional marriage with child; other professional dancers have found steady jobs, for example in Lyons restaurants.[13] Julian is unable and unwilling to trade in the wild democracy of the dancefloor of the 43 for a more respectable life. As the nightclubs disappear from London, so must he; but not before celebrating the brief window of possibility that nightclubs offered to those willing to seek adventure.


[1] For more on Mrs Meyrick and the 43, see Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 210-211

[2] Julian Swift, The Chronicles of a Gigolo (London: T Werner Laurie, 1929), p. 9

[3] Ibid., p. 10

[4] Ibid., p. 20

[5] Ibid., p. 28

[6] Ibid., p. 32

[7] Ibid., p. 34

[8] Ibid., p. 42

[9] Ibid., p. 43

[10] Ibid., p. 78

[11] Ibid. p. 206

[12] Ibid., p. 213

[13] Ibid., p. 242

Tom Walls

Earlier this year this blog had a look at the comedy actor Ralph Lynn. Today we are going to discuss the other half of the ‘Lynn & Walls’ comedy duo: Tom Walls. Walls was born in 1883 and had a prolific career as actor, director and producer of plays and films; followed by a second career as the owner of a race horse stable in Epsom. As a young man, Walls attempted a career as an officer in the Met, but this did not last – allegedly, he spent rather too much time ‘interrogating prostitutes’ on duty.[i]

Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn first worked together on the farce Tons of Money in 1922.[ii] Prior to that time, Walls had been managing and acting in shows in seaside towns. Walls and his business partner Leslie Henson scored a big success with Tons of Money, which started out at the Shaftesbury Theatre but transferred to the Aldwych. Walls would remain at the Aldwych for the remainder of the decade, putting on a series of wildly successful farces with a largely stable cast and crew consisting of Ralph Lynn, Yvonne Arnaud, Mary Brough, and Ben Travers as the writer for most of them.

Whereas Lynn was remembered as the ‘ideal farce actor to work with’[iii], Walls tends to invoke phrases like ‘no shame’; ‘contemptuous’; ‘peculiar’ and ‘a dictator’.[iv] He was also undoubtedly a man with a lot of energy. He acted in a lead part in all of the Aldwych farces, as well as directing them. Walls was also the driving force behind getting the farces translated to film in the 1930s, when he wanted a new challenge. Not having worked in the medium before was no barrier to Walls; he acted as both director and actor from the first Aldwych film, Rookery Nook, in 1930. In total, Walls directed 23 films in the 1930s, and acted in most of those as well as in some other productions.

Most of Walls’ film roles, thankfully, remain available to us today. Due to the long-lasting partnership between Walls, Travers and Lynn; and Walls’ considerable control over the productions, many of the Aldwych farces are written to play to his strengths. Generally, Walls played older men who have charm and wits, against Lynn’s younger, naïve characters. One obituary of Walls described his roles as ‘the dominating man supremely confident in himself’ – probably not too much of a stretch for Walls to play.

Walls’ role as Mr Tutt in A Cup of Kindness is a prime example of this type – Tutt is a patriarch who bosses about his wife, sons, and neighbours – but the role also gives Walls a chance to show off his charms in the scene where Tutt takes the young nurse Tilly  out to a West End Restaurant. Toeing the line of marital fidelity is a recurring theme in the Aldwych farces, as it is in Walls’ later film roles.

In the 1934 film Lady in Danger, Walls directed himself as the lead opposite Yvonne Arnaud. In this comedy, Arnaud plays the unnamed Queen of a (fictional) European micro-state, who has to flee a revolution. Walls is tasked with smuggling her to Britain, whilst Arnaud’s husband the King is staying in Paris. ‘The King is always in Paris’ is used as a knowing short-hand throughout the film to refer to the King’s regular infidelities. Walls’ character Richard is engaged to be married, but that does not stop him from flirting with the Queen.

Unlike in the Aldwych productions, where Walls’ characters flirt but never go any further, Richard and the Queen do share at least a kiss. The film makes is clear that it is permissible for the Queen to engage in this affair because her husband is also unfaithful. It does not deem it necessary to give any justification to Richard; it is a given that he must be able to have a dalliance with another woman before he is married. At the end of the film, the monarchy in the micro-nation is restored and the Queen returns to her husband’s side, and Richard returns to his fiancée, and neither of them face any repercussions. As the film’s director, Walls could ensure that his characters could have their cake and eat it, too. The conventions of farcical comedy allowed him to entertain such potentially transgressive behaviours.

Although his directing career ended with the outbreak of the Second World War, Walls appeared in a dozen or so films in the 1940s. At that stage, however, his main occupation was the breeding and training of race horses in Epsom. He achieved a high point in this career in 1932 when his horse April the Fifth won the Epsom derby – Walls was the only Epsom-based owner to win that derby in the whole of the 20th century. This 1933 Pathé newsreel includes some shots of Walls’ stables and home:

Walls was a very influential and well-known player of the interwar London entertainment industry, with business interests in theatre, cinema and racing. His surviving film performances capture his persuasive charm as well as his dominant personality. That is fame faded after his death in 1949 seems fitting for a man who preferred seizing the day over careful planning.


[i] Ben Travers, A-Sitting on a Gate (London: WH Allen, 1978), p.99

[ii] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[iii] Ibid., 91

[iv] Ibid., pp 89-90

Entertainment venues during the 1939 blackouts

Today we are going to venture to the extremity of the interwar period in Britain – September 1939. Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. In hindsight, this started what is now commonly referred to as the ‘Phoney War’ – a period that lasted until April 1940 during which little actual military action took place. At the time, of course, Londoners weren’t to know that the declaration on 3 September would not lead to immediate hostilities. Accordingly, the city prepared for the worst and much public activity was suspended. As soon as it became clear that the invasion was not imminent, however, restrictions were also loosened again very quickly. After our collective experience of various levels of restrictions and lockdowns over the past 18 months (at the time of writing), this period of rapid closures and re-openings of venues in 1939 resonates.

When reviewing the newspaper coverage of the first weeks of the war, what is striking is the relative prominence articles give to the closure of entertainment venues – specifically cinemas and theatres. On 1 September, the British government implemented formal blackout regulations to obstruct bombing efforts by enemy troops. Next morning’s Daily Mail article described how streetlights, hotels and even Buckingham Palace where thrown into darkness, but tellingly the headline of the piece is ‘London Cinemas, Theatres, Carry On in Dark.’[i] Whilst many cinemas and theatres understandably opted to close completely at night, some businesses attempted to continue business whilst adhering to blackout measures. It is these venues that the Mail celebrates for their determination to continue business as usual despite the circumstances.

On 7 September the Mail followed this up with an article that reassured readers that managers of theatres and cinemas that had been closed for the previous week, were ‘standing by’ in expectation of an imminent return to business as usual.[ii] The message to the reader is clear; no matter what may lie ahead, Londoners should be able to visit the cinema and theatre at night. After only a week of blackout, the entertainment industries were confident that the Government would exempt them from the regulations. As a sector that did not directly support the war effort, this confidence seems remarkable, but it was justified. On 8 September the Government approved that cinemas, theatres and football pitches in ‘safe zones’ could re-open immediately for business.[iii] Cinemas in London’s suburbs followed on 11 September, and Central London cinemas on 15 September.[iv]

For the Mail, it was clear why these spaces should be allowed to operate: they had a ‘job of assisting to maintain a cheerful Britain.’[v] The article presents the night-time entertainment industry as vital for keeping up the morale at the home front. The re-opening was presented as a return to ‘normality’, and a mark of resilience of Britons in the face of grave danger. The news of the first wave of re-opening was considered so welcome that a second article was included in the same issue, which highlighted the scale of the impact of cinema closures in particular. According to the Mail, cinemas served a million customers a week – the real numbers were in fact much higher.[vi]

When central London cinemas and theatres were finally reopened on 15 September it was front page news for the Mail again, and the article immediately listed which films would be showing where. The article ends with the sage reminder that ‘[i]f you do go to the cinema to-night, don’t forget your gas mask.’[vii]  Despite this possible danger, the Mail assumed its readers would rush to visit the cinema, as implied by the listings provided and the considerable coverage the Mail had given the issue over the previous week. Editors understood films to be an important part of their readers’ lives, even in wartime; and encouraged readers to continue with their lives as normal despite the war.

From reading the Mail coverage over these weeks, it appears that there is support for the Government decision to impose the blackout at the start of September, but also that it was considered unnecessary for that blackout to apply to places of entertainment. It was considered imperative for the public’s morale that they should be allowed to go out at night and enjoy themselves, also to show the enemy forces that the British spirit would not be broken.

Of course, entertainment venues were not immune to bomb damage. Once the Blitz started in earnest in autumn 1940, they did become targets – most famously, when the Café de Paris was hit in March 1941 dozens of people died. But during those first months of the Phoney War, entertainment venues were an important symbol of what was considered important to Londoners.


[i] ‘London Cinemas, Theatres, Carry On in Dark.’  Daily Mail, 2 September 1939, p. 10

[ii] ‘Managers ready for the ‘all clear’’, Daily Mail, 7 September 1939, p. 7

[iii] ‘Cinemas, football, start again to-day’, Daily Mail, 9 September 1939, p. 1

[iv] ‘First Two London Theatre Reopen’, Daily Mail, 12 September 1939, p. 5; ‘Cinemas and theatres are open until 10 to-night’, Daily Mail, 15 September 1939, p. 1 and p. 10

[v] ‘Cinemas, football, start again to-day’, Daily Mail, 9 September 1939, p. 1

[vi] ‘3,000 Cinemas Open Today in the “Safe” Areas’, Daily Mail, 9 September 1939, p. 5

[vii] ‘Cinemas and theatres are open until 10 to-night’, Daily Mail, 15 September 1939, p. 1 and p. 10

The Love Test (1935)

Following World War I, the British economy was in crisis, and Britain’s status as a world-leading power was challenged as a result. This decline was also reflected in the nation’s film industry, with British film production grinding almost to a halt in the mid-1920s.[1]The British government decided to intervene in this state of affairs with the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act. This piece of legislation stipulated that a percentage of films distributed and exhibited in Britain had to be made in Britain. The quota was set to gradually increase over the first ten years of the Act’s existence, ensuring that an ever-greater number of British films would be made, distributed and seen by audiences.[2]

The Government decided to implement this quota not only to ensure more jobs in the British film industry, but also because as cultural products, films could reflect appropriately British values to audiences. The popularity of Hollywood films raised fears that British audiences, particularly young people, were being ‘Americanised’. Unfortunately, the implementation of the Cinematograph Films Act did not work out as intended. Hollywood studios moved onto British soil and started producing ‘British’ pictures as cheaply as possible. These films became known as ‘quota quickies’, made on a shoestring budget. Hollywood studios did not want these films to seriously compete with their prestige productions; they simply existed to fulfil the quotas set out by law.[3]

Rather than building a sustainable and influential British film industry, the 1927 Act encouraged the production of a lot of poor-quality films which harmed rather than helped the reputation of British film. The effects of the Act were not all bad; a lot of British film personnel were able to cut their teeth on the sets of quota quickies, which allowed them to get a lot of experience in a short space of time. The scripts of these films were not carefully crafted or edited; the objective was to get something produced as quickly and cheaply as possible. The speed and quantity at which the films were made provides opportunities for these films to reveal the everyday cultural narratives and assumptions circulating in interwar Britain.

Most of these pictures disappeared as quickly as they came; there was little incentive to preserve products generally seen as low-quality. Some, however, remain accessible to us today: for example, The Love Test directed by Michael Powell in 1935. Powell went on to have a long and illustrious career in the British film industry, which may partly explain why The Love Test has been preserved when similar films by other directors were not. He made this film for the British arm of the Fox Film Company. Googie Withers appears in one of her very first screen roles, and the male lead is played by South African actor Louis Hayward who had a reasonably successful career both before and after The Love Test.

It is not just the cast and crew that makes The Love Test more remarkable than most quota quickies. The film’s treatment of gender roles is also one that appears unusual for a 1930s production; although Steve Chibnall points out that none of the contemporary reviews comment on this aspect.[4] The Love Test focuses on the male and female staff of a chemistry lab, who are trying to invent non-flammable celluloid – certainly a product close to the film industry’s heart. Mary, the female lead, is a studious and talented lab worker on track to be promoted to a managerial position. Some of the male staff of the lab, led by the misogynist Thompson, are threatened by her professional success. His solution: one of them must seduce Mary, so that she will be distracted from her work.

Lab worker John (Louis Hayward) takes up the challenge; initially he finds it impossible to get Mary to focus on anything other than her career. She firmly tells him she has ‘eliminated sex.’ However, with the encouragement of her neighbour Kathleen, Mary starts to take an interest in her appearance. About halfway through The Love Test Mary has a make-over montage in the manner used by teen and romance films for decades since. With her new hair, make-up and glamourous clothes, Mary and John’s second date is much more successful. Mary’s new appearance also makes John see her as a real romantic prospect, and he stops trying to distract Mary from her career. Mary’s new appearance, combined with her professional skills, ensure her promotion in the lab. However, it is John who eventually finds the way to make celluloid non-flammable.

In many ways The Love Test offers a strikingly feminist narrative: there is no suggestion in the film that Mary should not be working, that lab work is not appropriate for women, or that she is anything other than excellent at her job. On the other hand, Mary is not able to access a romantic relationship until she changes her appearance and interests to encompass more traditionally ‘feminine’ traits. The film presents her post-metamorphosis appearance as more desirable and aspirational than the version of her that was not interested in clothes, make-up or men. The Love Test balances the acceptance of the inevitable emancipation of young women in interwar Britain with the counter-narrative that being sexually desirable to a man is still the most rewarding achievement.


[1] Steve Chibnall, Quota Quickies: The Birth of the British ‘B’ Film (London: BFI, 2007), p. 1

[2] Laurence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2009), p. 28

[3] Chibnall, Quota Quickies, p. 4

[4] Ibid., p. 226

The Prince of Wales and the interwar craze for Fair Isle jumpers

The Prince of Wales and the interwar craze for Fair Isle jumpers

A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting Shetland, a group of islands approximately 170 kilometres north of mainland Scotland. This northernmost part of the UK has a strong heritage in textile creation, particularly in knitted lace and Fair Isle jumpers. It’s the latter garments this post will discuss, as the interwar period saw this type of knitwear absolutely explode in popularity in England. What I learnt during my visit to the (excellent) Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick was that this sudden popular appeal of Fair Isle knitwear had a big impact on the financial independence of Shetland women.

Fair Isle itself is a small island located to the south of the main Shetland archipelago; in 2020 it had a population of 65 individuals and is only accessible by intermittent ferry and flight services. It is here that a new style of knitting was developed in the 19th century, one characterised by bold use of colour and patterns. The practice was soon adopted across the Shetland islands[1], initially to produce accessories such as caps and stockings. A true Fair Isle garment uses a limited number of colours, usually four or five. Only two colours are used in each row of knitting, which are built up into stars, crosses, zig zags, and other motifs.

The patterns and colours used in Fair Isle knitting make it a time-consuming and expensive way to produce garments. Shetland women (obviously) also produced more standard knitting items such as jumpers and stockings, either for use within their own household or to trade. From the middle of the 19th century until the 1920s, Shetland women were dependent on something called the Truck System, “a trading arrangement which involved payment in kind.” Rather than being able to sell their knitwear to shops and traders for money, instead women were obliged to trade the garments for things like coffee, tea and sugar. Women had little control over how much they would get traded for each garment; and whilst it was no doubt useful to have staple foods for their household, the Truck System meant that women were not able to put aside and save money for longer term investments.

By the end of the First World War, women on Fair Isle and the rest of Shetland had started producing full jumpers in the Fair Isle technique. Then, in a stroke of marketing genius, Shetland hosiery dealer James A Smith gifted a Fair Isle jumper to Edward, Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales was an immensely popular society figure and bona fide style icon.[2] He decided to wear the Fair Isle jumper whilst sitting for a portrait painted by John St. Helier Lander. In line with the increased importance of mass-communication and consumption of this period, the portrait was reproduced by the Illustrated London News.

Suddenly, Fair Isle jumpers were the must-have fashion item for fashion-conscious socialites. Although jumpers had initially only been made for men, parallel developments in women’s fashion that favoured relaxed fits and dropped waistlines meant that soon, women were also keen to have their own Fair Isle jumpers. This craze for genuine Fair Isle products inevitably had consequences for the women making these garments. Where they had previously been dependent on the Shetland merchants and traders to take their stock, now women were able to bypass the Truck System and liaise directly with wealthy English buyers. As these buyers sat outside the local economy, they naturally paid in cash which allowed the Shetland women greater financial independence. Eventually the Truck System collapsed completely by the Second World War.

Of course, buying a handmade Fair Isle garment from Shetland was still prohibitively expensive for most people. Very quickly, the exclusive garment worn by the Prince of Wales spawned mass-produced knitting patterns which allowed amateur knitters to make their own garments at home. These remained popular into the 1940s, and Fair Isle garments more generally have become a wardrobe staple for period dramas set in this period. Fair Isle jumpers and vests have periodically regained popularity ever since, and there continue to be knitwear designers on Shetland who are evolving the style. The original 1920s jumper that started it all has not been forgotten; you can purchase an exact replica of the Prince of Wales’ jumper from various Shetland merchants, such as here and here.


[1] Although to this day, only garments actually produced on the island of Fair Isle can carry the Fair Isle trademark

[2] He popularised amongst other things: a particular type of collar (still known as the Prince of Wales collar); a particular way of tying ones tie; the Prince of Wales check motif and plus-fours trousers

Car ownership and regulation in interwar London

One of the features of the British interwar period is the absolute explosion of car ownership that took place, and the development of ‘car culture’. The number of private (non-commercial) vehicles on the road increased in particular; from 187,000 private cars in 1920 to 1,523,000 by the outbreak of the Second World War, of which around 350,000 drove around London.[1] Not only were there more and more cars on the road; they also were able to reach increasingly high speeds. These two developments led inevitably to one of the greatest traffic concerns of the interwar period: an increase in road traffic accidents leading to casualty or even death.

The rapid increase in the number of privately-owned cars was facilitated by both a reduction the price of cars (and a burgeoning second-hand market), and a general rise in living and income standards for lower-middle-class workers, particularly those in London and the South East.[2] More people were able to put money aside to buy consumer goods, and many more families were able to buy a low-power, low-cost car, or buy a care through a hire-purchase scheme in which one pays in instalments. For those who had moved into one of London’s newly developed suburbs, the car represented the possibility to go on weekend day-trips outside of the city and visit roadhouses. Yet suburban development also increased the chances of accidents, “because of the high number of fast arterial roads built there and the predilection for building housing estates near to these new roads.”[3]

As the number of vehicles on the road increased, so did the number of fatal accidents: from 2386 fatal accidents in England and Wales in 1920, to 5690 fatal accidents in 1935.[4] To put these figures in context: “there were more road fatalities in the three years 1929 to 1931 than there were British soldiers killed in the wars with France between 1793 and 1815.”[5] Naturally, these figures sharpened minds and political will to make roads safer. It seems counter-intuitive, then, that the Government actually decided to abolish maximum speed limits in 1930.[6] As the average car could reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, abandoning speed limits had consequences.[7] The decision was hastily reversed in 1934 in light of the fast-increasing numbers of accidents and casualties.[8]

The reason for the original abolishment of speed limits came down to social class, as so many things in interwar Britain do. Before the First World War, cars were luxury items that were only accessible to a select few. In the Victorian tradition of law making, the upper classes were used to their leisure pursuits to be unregulated.[9] When traffic regulations were adopted, many drivers suddenly found themselves confronted with the law for the first time.[10] To make matters worse, those enforcing the regulations were police officers who were generally working class.[11] Those with political clout and influence found themselves suddenly treated as criminals when they breached traffic regulations, and they were able to build a coalition that successfully lobbied for the removal of the speed limit in 1930.

The 1930 Road Traffic Act did, conversely, introduce additional offences in ‘careless driving’ and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.[12] This subtle shift in legislation meant that rather than allowing blanket prosecution for anyone breaking an (arbitrary) speed limit, only individuals in specific circumstances could be prosecuted. It assumed that most drivers would be responsible enough to stick to a sensible speed limit. The rise in road traffic incidents and casualties following the passing of the Act, however, indicated otherwise. Before long, those lobbying on behalf of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users were able to argue in parliament for the (re)introduction of tighter traffic safety laws.[13]

The big flaw in depending on drivers to be responsible, was that there was no formal system for training or testing drivers. People taught each other how to drive, and there was no agreed quality test that determined what constituted ‘good’ or ‘safe’ driving. The 1934 Road Traffic Act tackled both issues together by not only re-introducing a speed limit (although it was raised from 20 mph to 30 mph[14]) but also introducing a compulsory driving test for everyone who started driving after 1 April 1934. The road infrastructure was also amended with the introduction of pedestrian and pelican crossings.[15] Ford made this reassuring instruction video for budding drivers in 1935, explaining how the driving test worked:

By the end of the interwar period the debates around traffic regulations and car safety had settled down as car ownership had become normalised. Cars were no longer a dangerous and transgressive novelty but rather had been incorporated into the standard and expected middle-class experience. After a period in which various futures for car ownership and regulation appeared possible, the matter solidified into a regulatory framework that is still in use today.


[1] Clive Emsley, ‘’Mother, What Did Policemen Do When There Weren’t Any Motors?’ The Law, the Police and the Regulation of Motor Traffic in England, 1900-1939’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Jun., 1993), 357-381 (p. 358); Michael John Law, 1930s London: The Modern City (Canterbury: Yellowback Press, 2015), p. 62

[2] Michael John Law, ‘‘The car indispensable: the hidden influence of the car in inter-war suburban London’, Journal of Historical Geography, no. 38 (2012), 424-433 (p. 427)

[3] Law, 1930s London, p. 70

[4] Emsley, ‘Mother’, p. 359

[5] P.W.J.Bartrip, ‘Pedestrians, Motorists, and No-Fault Compensation for Road Accidents in 1930s Britain’, The Journal of Legal History, 31:1 (2010), 45-60, p. 47

[6] Ibid.

[7] Law, 1930s London, p. 70

[8] Claire Corbett, Car Crime (Uffculme : Willan 2003), p. 107

[9] Emsley gives the examples of racecourse betting and foxhunting, which were permitted when equivalent pursuits of the working-classes were regulated. The regulation of foxhunting of course remains a live political issue in the 21st century. Emsley, ‘Mother’, pp. 358-360

[10] Corbett, Car Crime, p. 18

[11] Emsley, ‘Mother’, p. 358

[12] Corbett, Car Crime, p. 19

[13] Bartip, ‘Pedestrians’, p. 50

[14] Corbett, Car Crime, p. 19

[15] Bartip, ‘Pedestrians’, p. 48

Brian Aherne

Brian Aherne

Like other actors featured on this blog, Brian Aherne started his career in English film in the 1920s, before moving to Hollywood in the 1930s. Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, he was able to establish a long and successful career in the US, which lasted until the 1960s. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in the 1939 US production Juarez. The seeds of this career were sown in interwar London.

Aherne’s full name was William Brian de Lacy Aherne, which hints at his upper middle-class background. His father was an architect, his mother an actress; Aherne trained in his father’s profession before deciding to follow into his mother’s footsteps instead and pursue acting. He started out on the stage and landed his first film role in 1924, in a supporting role in the no longer extant film The Eleventh Commandments (dir. George A Cooper).

Aherne quickly moved into leading man parts and working with established directors; he was directed by Sinclair Hill in The Squire of Long Hadley and by veteran director Henry Edwards in King of the Castle, both released in 1925. He returned to work with Hill two years later in A Woman Redeemed. However, modern audiences are most likely to have seen Aherne in one of the two silent films he made with Anthony Asquith: Shooting Stars (1928) and Underground (1928). Both have been restored and re-released by the BFI in the last ten years so are readily available to us.

Brian Aherne in 1938

In both films, Aherne plays a good, kind and dependable man who has to endure adversity in his romantic relationships. His even features and a slightly dreamy look in his eyes made him a suitable romantic hero. In Shooting Stars, he plays Julian Gordon, an actor married to actress Mae Feather. Julian and Mae often act together in genre flicks in which he is the hero to her damsel in distress. Off set, however, their relationship is far from happy, and Mae enters into an affair with another actor, the comedian Andy Wilkes.

Mae worries that she will suffer professionally if she were to divorce Julian, so instead she hatches a plan. The couple are recording a western film, and are due to record a scene in which a stooge has to shoot at Julian with a shotgun. Mae secretly puts a live bullet in the gun, hoping that Julian will die and she can pass it off as a freak accident. Of course, the plan goes wrong; the bullet instead hits Andy, who is filming on an adjacent sound stage. Julian realises what Mae was planning and leaves her; her career is destroyed as a result, whilst Julian becomes a successful director.

Much of the joy from viewing Shooting Stars is derived from its tongue-in-cheek knowingness about the film industry, which is perfectly encapsulated by its double-entendre title. Julian’s graduation from actor to director reflects (not very subtly) his journey from a naïve young man to someone who literally calls the shots. Shooting Stars includes a telling scene in which Julian, as yet unaware of Mae’s infidelity, goes to the cinema to watch one of their own films, a typical action flick. He sits among the young boys in the audience and becomes completely engrossed in the fantasy-world in which he is Mae’s hero, saving her from danger. Although Mae is certainly positioned as a cold-hearted, manipulating woman, Aherne’s performance also initially shows Julian as gullible and a bit foolish. By the end of the film, director Julian is hardened and unmoved by Mae’s distress.

Aherne followed Shooting Stars immediately with a lead role in Underground, in which he played London Underground employee Bill. Underground portrays the romantic entanglements between four individuals, and uses the space of a London Underground station to link them together. Bill works as an attendant in the station, helping travellers to find the right trains, making sure they do not fall of the escalator, and answering any queries they may have. He meets Nell when she drops her glove whilst travelling up the escalator. It is love at first sight, but Nell is already being pursued by Bert, a worker at Lott’s power station. Bert in turn has an admirer in the seamstress Kate, who lives in the same boarding house as him.

As soon as Bert realises that Bill is his rival for Nell’s interests, he sends Kate to the underground station; she does as Bert says in the vain hope she will win his affection. Kate manages to lure Bill to an emergency staircase off the main Tube platform, under false pretences. She then waits for the platform to fill up before running out of the staircase and accusing Bill of assaulting her. As planned by Bert, Nell witnesses the incident and she (temporarily) withdraws from Bill as a result. To resolve the misunderstanding and win back Nell, Bill must fight Bert, in this case physically. He succeeds, and the film ends with Nell and Bill united in matrimonial bliss. Like Julian in Shooting Stars, Brian Aherne’s character in Underground starts out as an innocent, but matures through adversity and by tapping in to more traditionally ‘masculine’ behaviours.

After the transition to sound film, Aherne’s last notable British film appearance was his role as Lewis Dodd in the 1933 version of The Constant Nymph (directed by Basil Dean). The 1928 silent film based on the same source material, in which Ivor Novello played Dodd, is the one that is best remembered today. By the time the version with Aherne was released in cinemas, he was already across the Atlantic and appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in Song of Songs (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933). By the time of his death, Aherne was generally remembered as a Hollywood actor first; but as his appearance in two of the best-known British films of the late silent period testifies, he was also a part of the cultural scene in interwar London.