From investigation to trial

This is the fourth and final post of this year’s May Murder Month. You can read posts one, two and three elsewhere on the blog.

Most contemporary readers will get their knowledge about interwar murder stories from the realms of fiction – Hercule Poirot gathering together suspects for a drawing room reveal (a device which Agatha Christie actually only used sparingly) or a hard-boiled police officer picking up on a seemingly minute clue that unravels the whole case. Once the murderer is identified, interwar fiction is either silent about what happens next, or the perpetrator is given the opportunity to take the ‘honourable way out’ by committing suicide.[1]

In reality, of course, investigations were conducted by police inspectors. Unlike in modern criminal cases, there was no Crown Prosecution Service in interwar England. Instead, the police both conducted the investigation and prepared the documentation for the criminal trial. The Director of Public Prosecutions was ultimately responsible for bringing the case to trial in the interest of the people. England then, as now, had a two-tier criminal justice system. The magistrate courts were convened locally and dealt with most of the day-to-day criminal offences. Crown courts were reserved for jury trials, which included murder charges.

Before a case could be referred to the crown court, a prima facie case had to be established in the magistrate court that a crime had been committed and it was of a magnitude appropriate to be considered in the crown court. Interwar murder trials were therefore effectively heard twice: once in the magistrate court and then again in the crown court, where the sentencing would take place. It was generally the latter proceedings that drew the attention of the national press. In murder cases, the coroner’s inquest ran in tandem to the magistrate court proceedings. In the interwar period, coroner courts sat with their own juries, who were tasked with determining whether death had occurred naturally, through suicide, accident, or murder. Usually, if foul play was suspected but the police investigation was ongoing, the coroner would suspend the inquest to give the police more time to complete their investigations.

The reading public, then, were experiencing criminal narratives in two different ways. When reading newspapers, the reports mostly focused on the criminal trial, with its rhythm of prosecution, defence, cross-examination, witness statements, a possible statement by the accused, and the judge’s summing up, all cumulating to the jury’s verdict. In crime fiction, the narrative focused on the investigation, with witness statements noted as the investigation developed. Particularly in stories where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth as opposed to a police officer, the formal police and court procedures can be completely outside the scope of the narrative. As crime historian Victoria Stewart has noted: ‘Detective novels tend not to recount the trial of the individual whom the investigator identifies as the guilty party because the watertightness of the investigation itself acts as a substitute for the depiction of the judicial process. An account of the trial would simply reiterate the findings of the investigation that has formed the body of the narrative.’[2]

Other scholars have noted that trial reporting reveals contemporary attitudes to potentially contentious topics such as changing attitudes to gender identity and sexuality.[3] Newspaper historians have also argued that the increased popularity of crime fiction changed crime reporting, with journalists paying more attention to ‘human interest detail’ of the story as opposed to the judicial process. This, in turn, potentially obscured the public’s awareness of legal procedures.[4] Additionally, journalists on occasion played a very active role in gathering evidence that led towards a conviction, for example in the case of Buck Ruxton who murdered his wife and a servant.[5] Conversely, crime fiction novels which had a police inspector as their protagonist, such as the Inspector French novels by Freeman Wills Croft, potentially educated their readership about police procedures in more detail than newspaper reports did.

Whether fictional or factual, murder stories fascinated interwar audiences and allowed them to explore the limits of what was considered acceptable or transgressive behaviour; and how this changed over the course of the two decades. Newspapers and crime novels presented readers with two different lenses through which to consider the criminal justice process, from investigation to trial.

[1] Lord Peter Wimsey’s increasing mental distress at sending murderers to the gallows, which comes to a head at the end of the final Wimsey novel Busman’s Honeymoon, is a notable exception.

[2] Victoria Stewart, Crime Writing in Interwar Britain (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2017), p. 11

[3] Lucy Bland, Modern Women on Trial: sexual transgressions on the age of the flapper (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p. 2

[4] Judith Rowbotham; Kim Stevenson; Samantha Pegg, Crime News in Modern Britain (London: Palgrave, 2013), p. 140

[5] Shani D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide in Interwar Britain: the case of Buck Ruxton’, Women’s History Review, vol. 16, no. 5 (2007), 701-722


Executions in interwar London

Continuing May Murder Month, this week we take a look at the ultimate outcome of a murder case – the execution. Last week’s May Murder Month entry on police memoirs can be found here.

If you were found guilty of murder in interwar Britain, you would automatically be sentenced to death, unless your legal team had managed to convince the jury that you were insane at the time you committed the murder. After the adoption of the Infanticide Act in 1922, women who killed their new-born babies were tried as for manslaughter rather than for murder, meaning they no longer received death sentences. Yet even those found guilty of murder could appeal to the King (via the Home Secretary) for a reprieve. Reprieves were fairly common: in the first half of the 20th century around 40% of convicted male murderers, and an astonishing 90% of convicted women murderers, were granted a reprieve of execution.[1] This usually meant their sentence was commuted to ‘penal servitude for life’.

The period of appeal following a death sentence was usually ‘three Sundays’, meaning that if an appeal or reprieve was not granted, execution usually followed within a month of the trial. Murder trials were much shorter than we are used to today and prisoners were committed to trial much more quickly. This meant that convicted murderers were usually executed within a year of the crime having taken place. In interwar London, condemned prisoners were held in a special ‘condemned cell’ adjacent to the prison gallows. During the 1920s and 1930s, there were never more than 21 executions in a single year across the whole of Britain; and in many years there were fewer than 10.[2] This meant it was extremely unlikely for two convicted murderers to be held at the same prison at the same time, unless they were both convicted for the same murder committed jointly. There was no concept like ‘death row’ as it currently exists in the US, where prisoners can spend years awaiting execution.

Since 1868, executions were no longer held in public but were conducted inside prison walls. In London, there were three prisons in which executions took place until capital punishment was formally abolished in 1969: Pentonville Prison for male prisoners who lived north of the Thames; Wandsworth Prison for male prisoners who lived south of the Thames; and Holloway Prison for female convicts. Gradually, over the course of the first few decades of the 20th century, capital punishment became less ritualistic and more bureaucratic. Until 1902, a black flag was raised over the prison after an execution had taken place. The tolling of a bell during an execution was abolished around the same time.[3] After the end of public executions, journalists were still regularly invited to attend, so that their newspaper reports could serve as a proxy for public scrutiny. The last time a journalist attended an execution was 1934.[4]

The only ritual elements of execution which remained in place is that they usually took place at 9am; and that an execution notice was posted on the prison door immediately after the event. This is depicted, for example, in the 1938 thriller They Drive By Night, where a small crowd of people is shown gathered around the prison entrance. Papers of record, such as The Times, usually posted brief notices of executions as they had taken place. How an actual execution unfolded was usually ‘shrouded in secrecy’, with official statements invariably confirming that nothing unusual had occurred.[5] This vacuum of official information allowed rumours to swirl. After the controversial execution of Edith Thompson it was suggested that ‘her insides had fallen out’ as she dropped through the trap door, suggesting she may have been pregnant at the time of her death. Thompson’s executioner, John Ellis, committed suicide nine years after Thompson’s death, and it was suggested that he had never been able to get over the horror of that particular hanging.

Hanging had been the principal form of execution in Britain for centuries. By the interwar period, the government prided itself on having perfected a highly efficient method, which was considered ‘humane’ because it aimed to be swift and accurate. The objective was to ensure the prisoner’s neck broke immediately, so that he or she did not have to suffer through asphyxiation. Around a decade after the last execution took place in Britain, one of the country’s most famous hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint, published his memoirs. This book finally revealed in detail how executions were conducted, although interwar fiction novels such as Trial and Error had given descriptions of the process decades earlier.

Pierrepoint described in detail how he would arrive at a prison the day before the execution to make his preparations, which included the crucial calculation of ‘the drop’: the length of rope required which depended on the prisoner’s weight and size. For the neck to break at the 4th or 5th vertebrae was considered ideal as it would cause instant death. If the drop was too short, the prisoner could end up suffocating rather than breaking their neck; if it was too long, the worst-case scenario would be that the prisoner was decapitated as they dropped.

Executions were conducted extremely quickly: the execution of Norman Thorne was reported to last no more than ten seconds ‘[f]rom the time that [he] emerged from his cell door until the moment he passed into eternity.’[6] After the execution, the prisoner was left hanging for an hour before being cut down and submitted to a post-mortem, during which a note was made of the exact cause of death and where the neck had broken. An official statement on a pre-prepared template, signed and sealed by a coroner and jury, would confirm the death of the prisoner under the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act. The body would then be buried in a dedicated cemetery inside the prison walls the same day.[7]

Despite the relative rarity of executions in interwar Britain, the state had developed a highly polished routine to ensure that these executions were conducted as efficiently as possible. This efficiency was considered humane, as it would limit the prisoner’s suffering as much as possible. At the same time, however, it also incorporated capital punishment into the bureaucratic machinery of government. Treating capital punishment as a largely administrative process also minimised the scope for challenging its principles, as it was incorporated into the judicial system as ‘business as usual.’ The abolition movement consequently only gained momentum in Britain after the Second World War.

[1] Shani D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide in Interwar Britain: the case of Buck Ruxton’, Women’s History Review, 2007, vol. 16, no. 5, 701-722 (706)

[2] Source: http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/

[3] Lizzie Seal, Capital Punishment in Twentieth-Century Britain: Audience, justice, memory (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 17

[4] Ibid., p. 36

[5] Lizzie Seal, ‘Albert Pierrepoint and the cultural persona of the twentieth-century hangman’, Crime, Media, Culture, 2016, vol. 12, no. 1, 83-100 (86)

[6] Seal, Capital Punishment, p. 41

[7] Albert Pierrepoint, Executioner: Pierrepoint (London: Coronet, 1998 [1974]), p. 175


Coronation of George VI

As the UK prepares for the first coronation since 1953, it is a good opportunity to look back on the only coronation which took place during the interwar period. On 12 May 1937, King George VI was crowned in Westminster Abbey. Initially, it had been planned that the coronation that day would have been of Edward VIII, but after the Abdication Crisis of late 1936, it was decided to use the same date for a different coronation ceremony.

Although the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was famously the first national ‘TV event’ in Britain (there’s even a Dr Who episode about it), new media were also used for the coronation in 1937. The last coronation before this year had been in 1911, when moving image mediums were still in the early stages of development. In that year, silent film footage of the procession was recorded from static cameras, mostly at a remove from the action. By 1937, sound cinema was omnipresent, and making a filmed record of the coronation was an integral part of the day. A film of nearly an hour was recorded, which included many shots taken inside Westminster Abbey during the service. The whole was overlaid with an informative voice-over explaining the action.

Although a large number of people, possibly up to a million, travelled to London to witness the procession, there were many more subjects who would not have been able to see this royal ceremony in person. These were not just in Britain, but across the world. As one local newspaper put it, ‘figuratively waiting upon the Throne and its new King to-day were the 500,000,000 people of the Empire.’[1]

The distribution of the coronation film was one of the key strategies to ensure that these half a billion people could feel a connection with the new monarch. The film was edited and distributed quickly – only two days after the coronation, on Friday 14 May, people in provincial towns such as Gloucester were able to see ‘The Great Coronation Film: The House of Windsor.’ It was advertised as including ‘THE ACTUAL CROWNING CEREMONY IN THE ABBEY’. In the case of Gloucester, it was showing in three different cinemas with each screening it four times a day.[2]

A shortened newsreel version of the footage taken at the coronation

Other mass media were also used to create a sense of a community of subjects. Arguably, the fact that until six months before the coronation no-one had expected this second son to become king, made it likely that most people in the country had only a very limited understanding of who their new King was. Local newspapers printed articles setting out details about the new King and Queen, to inform their readership. The Lancashire-based Nelson Leader told its readers that for the new King, ‘Duty is a quiet passion with him, as it was with his father.’[3] Multiple newspapers assert that the King’s main interests are the nation’s industry and support for young people – both uncontroversial topics. The other key feature that papers highlighted was the domestic bliss of the new royal couple: ‘Ideally happy has been the married life of King George and Queen Elizabeth’; and most articles also describe the couple’s daughters in flattering terms.[4]

The spectre of King Edward VIII is mostly in the background of these reports; but in the Derbyshire Times he is evoked explicitly: ‘King George lacks some of the qualities that inspired high hopes of King Edward VIII – he is more reserved, more conventional, and makes friends less easily – but he has certain qualities that his more brilliant brother lacks: he is steadier, less impulsive, more persevering, and more dutiful.’[5]  And, of course, the new King’s steady family life is infinitely preferable to a King married to an American divorcee, although none of the newspapers make that explicit.

A final strategy employed to create an ‘imagined community’ of subjects around the new King is the issue of special coronation stamps. These went on sale on the day after the coronation, and multiple papers reported that there was a record interest in them. ‘Queues formed at many post offices and for the first time special stamp counters dealt with the rush. Arrangements had been made for the sale of 38 millions.’[6] Stamps, bearing the image of the new monarch and uniquely linked to national identity, are another tactic to reinforce to the audience that they are part of a defined group of royal subjects.

So, beyond the actual coronation ceremony itself in London, which saw ‘[m]ore than 5,669,000 passengers (…) carried by the London Underground Railways during the forty-six hours of continuous service’; ‘200 tons of litter (…) removed from the three miles of the Coronation route and side streets’; and a 6.5 mile procession through Westminster, modern mass media methods were used to ensure that the coronation’s impact reached to all corners of Britain, and beyond that through the Empire.[7] After the unprecedented events of the Abdication, which had the potential to damage the crown, the coronation was used to reinforce the monarchy as a stable and positive influence.

[1] ‘Happy and Glorious’, Lincolnshire Echo, 12 May 1937, p.6

[2] Cinema adverts, Gloucester Citizen, 14 May 1937, p. 11

[3] ‘Long May They Reign!’, Nelson Leader, 14 May 1937, p. 6

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘King George VI and his coronation’, Derbyshire Times, 14 May 1937, p. 30

[6] ‘Rush to buy new stamps’, Daily News, 14 May 1937, p. 8

[7] ‘King and Queen thank the nation,’ Liverpool Echo, 14 May 1937, p. 11; ‘Long May They Reign!’, Nelson Leader, 14 May 1937, p. 6


Short story writing in interwar Britain

Short stories are a relatively niche genre of fiction writing these days. The fiction short story appears to have originated in the 1820s. It is primarily the short stories of famous novelists that have stood the test of time: Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and, on the other side of the pond, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.[i] For the interwar period, literary authors such as James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield may come to mind. Yet the works of Joyce and Mansfield were only read by a limited audience at the time of their publication. They are decidedly ‘highbrow’ authors with no mass-market appeal.

Alongside these literary outputs, thousands of other, now forgotten, short stories were published in interwar Britain. They were found in newspapers, weekly magazines and dedicated publications such as the Strand Magazine. Due to their placement, short story writing was often considered aligned with journalism. Dozens of guide books appeared in the 1920s and 1930s instructing young hopefuls in how to ‘live off the pen’, whether that was through writing news articles; human interest stories; short stories; or novels (or even screenplays for films).

Literary critic Q.D. Leavis let rip against this commercial market of fiction writing in her 1932 polemic Fiction and the Reading Public. She is highly critical of the marketisation of fiction, which in her view sees editors prioritise high circulation figures above all else. ‘The kind of fiction published in this way – the briefest inspection will show that it is all of a kind – is carefully chosen by the editors in accordance with the policy of wat is called ‘Giving the Public what it wants.’’[ii] The result, Leavis argues, is that the public is inundated with ‘fiction that requires the least effort to read and will set the reader up with a comfortable state of mind.’[iii]

Although the tone of Leavis’ book is snobbish in her assumption that the increased commercialisation of literature signals a cultural decline, an inspection of 1920s and 1930s guide books on ‘how to become a writer’ demonstrates that these books did consistently advise to keep the readership in mind when writing short stories. Often, these books break the short story down into constituent elements and tell the aspirant writer how to put together a successful story. They actively warn against individualism or stylistic flourishes in writing. For example, the author of the 1934 book Short Stories and How to Write Them declares: ‘My earnest advice to all at this stage is to study the markets. The stories you find should be your models. Every story should be written with a definite market in view.’[iv] Similarly, The Craft of the Short Story, published two years later, argues that ‘Always remember that your purpose in writing a short story is, or should be, to amuse and entertain.’[v] It is the reader, not the writer, who is the most important part of the equation.

The explosion of print media had made commercial writing an attractive career option for many people. Unlike professions such as medicine or law, you did not need an expensive university education to become a journalist or writer. Indeed, many of the books on the subject argued that all that was needed was a sound grasp of the English language, some stationary supplies and probably a cheap typewriter, and resilience, as the aspiring writer could expect many of their first attempts to be rejected by editors.

One author who made a good living out of the writing of guide books was Michael Joseph, who was also a literary agent and from 1935 a publisher (Michael Joseph continues to exist as an imprint of Penguin). Joseph wrote eight books on the topic of writing and making money, between 1924 and 1931. His prominence in the field is acknowledged by Leavis, who repeatedly uses his books as examples of how writing has become a business. In How to Write a Short Story, Joseph argues that ‘Many writers actually cannot visualise their market when they set to work on a story. Artistically, there is a good deal of justification for this; commercially, it is liable to result in failure to place the MS [manuscript].’[vi] Some of his other books tackle the business side of writing even more explicitly, by listing publications which accept submissions and explaining in detail how one goes about submitting a manuscript.

If the self-study of guidebooks was not enough, the aspiring writer could also enrol into one of dozens of writing schools and correspondence courses that were available in the interwar period. Often these were advertised in short story publications. Professional writers were generally highly sceptical of these ‘schools’ which tended to promise unrealistic returns on investment. Yet some writers set up schools themselves. One of the earliest and most commercially successful was the London School of Journalism, founded by novelist Max Pemberton and still in business today. ‘The Short Story Course’ offered by the School in the 1920s consisted of 12 lessons, each ending with a few exercises which the student could complete and send back to the School to be marked. Lessons include ‘About Plot’ (lesson 2); ‘Heroes and Heroines’ (lesson 4); and ‘Atmosphere’ (lesson 5). Exercises often included copying out examples of existing short stories to study them. The main advice at the end of the course is to ‘work with diligence every day’ and apply oneself, and then success is sure to follow.

All of these courses and books demonstrate that the writing of short stories was big business in interwar Britain, at least for the happy few who were able to claim authority in the field and make a living out of encouraging others to follow the same career path. All of the books highlight resilience and consistency as key to success, but do not mention elements more traditionally linked to artistic endeavours such as inspiration or reflection. Like journalism, which had become increasingly commercialised, short story writing became ‘hack work’ in the interwar period.

[i] All male, of course – not because men are better short story writers but because they have traditionally been more readily classed as ‘great authors’ and have had their oeuvres canonized accordingly.

[ii] Q.D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968 [1932]), p. 27

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Cecil Hunt, Short Stories and How to Write Them (London: George Harrap & Co, 1934), p. 187

[v] Donald McConochie, The Craft of the Short Story (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, 1936), p. 27

[vi] Michael Joseph, How to Write a Short Story (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1925), p. 91

Female aviators in interwar Britain

FeaturedFemale aviators in interwar Britain

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

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

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

‘Amy Johnson, Queen of the Skies’ newsreel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid. p. 92

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

Out in the London Casino (1938)

FeaturedOut in the London Casino (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 24

[4] Ibid., p. 21

[5] Ibid. p. 24


Rose Macaulay – Keeping Up Appearances (1928)

Author and journalist Rose Macaulay has largely receded from the collective memory. Nevertheless, she published 24 novels, three volumes of poetry and 18 works of non-fiction during her lifetime. Born in 1881, her literary career started during the Edwardian period. The interwar decades were prolific for her though: she published 12 novels in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1920s were also the decade in which Macaulay found widespread commercial success for the first time.[1] Some of these interwar works have been republished since their first appearance, including her 1928 work Keeping Up Appearances which was re-issued by the British Library in 2022 as part of their Women Writers series.[2]

Not to be confused with the popular 1990s BBC sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances is about two half-sisters, Daisy and Daphne. Daisy is 30, Daphne is 25. Daisy is awkward in social situations and considers herself a coward; Daphne is cool, confident and ‘good fun’. The girls’ father was an upper-middle class intellectual; Daisy’s mother is a lower-middle class woman from East Sheen who had Daisy as a result of a youthful fling. She has since married a labourer and had three more children, who are now adults. Daisy is embarrassed about her mother, whom she considers uncultured. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, we do not find out anything about Daphne’s mother.

At the opening of the novel both women are on holiday with a middle-class family, the Folyots, to act as au-pairs to the family’s younger children, Cary and Charles. The Folyots also have an adult son, Raymond, who is a biologist. Daisy is hopelessly in love with Raymond, who in turn seems only charmed by the cooler Daphne. Mrs Folyot is involved in myriad political causes, including the sheltering of ‘White’ Russians who fled the country after the bolshevist revolution; and the support of independence and self-governance of such varied groups as Basque Spaniards, Estonians and Indians. Although Mrs Folyot’s activities mostly serve as a (comical) backdrop to the novel’s main activities, they remind the modern reader of the huge political turmoil underway across Europe in the interwar period. They also highlight the longstanding nature of some debates that remain unresolved today: both Catalan and Scottish independence get a name-check.

About one hundred pages into the novel, Macaulay reveals the central deceit which sets Keeping Up Appearances apart from many other novels concerned with the emotional life of 20-something women: Daphne and Daisy are one and the same person. Daphne Daisy Simpson, as is the woman’s full name, considers ‘Daisy’ to be the self she is when she is alone, or with her birth family. Daisy is lower-middle class and has to work hard as a journalist and novelist to make some independent income. Daphne is the funnier, cleverer, and younger persona she has adopted when she is around more sophisticated friends, such as the Folyots.

When Raymond proposes to ‘Daphne’, it sets the two personas on a collision course. Daisy’s family understandably are confused why Daisy does not want to introduce her fiancé to them; Daisy has to work extremely hard to prevent Raymond from seeing her ‘real’ self, which she is sure he will not like. The lies pile up and become impossible to all keep hidden. First Raymond finds out that Daphne works as a journalist and writer, under the pen name Marjorie Wynne. He is puzzled why Daphne has not been open about it, but lets it slide. Then Daisy struggles to continue the pretence that she is interested in Raymond’s work: Daphne has always happily escorted Raymond on endless jaunts around the cold and muddy countryside, but Daisy increasingly snaps at Raymond when she is freezing on a heath. Finally, inevitably, Daisy’s mother and aunt visit the Folyot’s unannounced, and all of Daisy’s lies come out.

The book’s preoccupation with ‘real’ selves versus ‘presented’ selves is cleverly mirrored in its discussion of the popular press. Both Daisy and her half-brother Edward work for the Daily Wire, a fictional popular daily along the lines of the Daily Express. But whilst Edward is a reporter, constantly churning out peppy headlines like ‘West End Flat Mystery Surprise – Dead Girl Sensation – Amazing Revelations’; Daisy as Marjorie Wynne is condemned to the women’s pages.[3] Throughout the book, she is asked to write articles on topics such as ‘can a woman run a baby and a business at the same time’[4], ‘modern married life’[5] and ‘should flappers vote?’[6] When Daisy tries to return a sarcastic article under the latter headline, she is promptly told to rectify it to fit with the newspaper’s expected tone. ‘The remuneration was good, so Daisy (…) wrote the article on these lines.’[7]

It is understood by Daisy throughout, as it would have been by Macaulay herself, that women journalists are almost always pigeonholed into providing content relating to ‘the women question’ only. Whereas Edward is mobile during his working day, dashing to and fro to get interviews and eye-witness accounts, Daisy types all her work in her flat. It is, however, the only way she sees that allows her to make an independent income.

By the end of Keeping Up Appearances, Daisy’s second novel (written under the pseudonym Marjorie Wynne) becomes a modest commercial success. Daisy’s regard for her own writing is extremely low; she considers her novels to be middle-brow at best. However, their commercial success gives her financial independence at the novel’s close.[8] They also give her the tantalising opportunity to shed both Daisy and Daphne and adopt Marjorie Wynne as yet another persona in which to navigate the world.

Although Keeping Up Appearances ends on a happy note of sorts for Daphne Daisy, it makes clear that all people, including men, continue to be trapped between behavioural expectations and their true desires. Throughout the novel Macaulay gives the reader glimpses of the ‘secret life’ of the other characters, including Raymond. Everyone behaves differently when unobserved, and despite the loosening of rigid social conventions after the First World War, there remained plenty of conventions to follow in order to ensure financial and romantic success.

[1] Sarah Lonsdale, Rebel Women Between the Wars (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), p. 45

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

[3] Ibid., p. 49

[4] Ibid., p. 64

[5] Ibid., p. 157

[6] Ibid., p. 137

[7] Ibid., p. 138

[8] Ibid., p. 247

The Monkey Club

FeaturedThe Monkey Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 34

[5] Ibid, pp. 35-6

[6] Ibid., p. 36

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 35

New Year’s Eve 1922

FeaturedNew Year’s Eve 1922

As is tradition on this blog, for the final post of the year we cast our minds back to exactly one hundred years ago and have a look at how New Year’s Eve was celebrated in London that night. After some rain earlier in the day, the evening of Sunday 31 December was cold and a bit windy but dry: no doubt a relief to Londoners keen to let their hair down.[1] According to the Manchester Guardian pre-midnight celebrations were ‘more subdued’ than in previous years owing to 31 December being a Sunday! Due to a special licensing hour dispensation, hotels could stay open till 2am.[2]

Well-heeled Londoners were excited to ring in the new year with elaborate parties in hotels and restaurants. Hotels spared no cost in their interior decoration: the dining room of the Berkeley Hotel ‘was transformed into a lighted vineyard’ and at Claridge’s guests walked through an Italy-inspired landscape.[3] At the Savoy Hotel, a large amount of Christmas crackers were pulled during an ‘elaborate banquet’ – 25,000 crackers according to the Daily Express, but 35,000 according to the Mirror.[4] Some venues put on performances: at the Metropole Hotel midnight was marked by ‘a dainty little girl dressed as Cupid [appearing] from a huge cracker, which was pulled by Father Christmas.’[5] At the Piccadilly Hotel grill room a female singer appeared out of the top of a huge champagne bottle at midnight to sign Auld Lang Syne.[6]

A young woman, representing 1923, banishing old 1922 in an unspecified performance. Image: Daily Mirror, 1 January 1923, front page

For those who could not afford to be in the hotels, the streets of London provided a suitable party venue. The steps of St Paul’s Cathedral were one of the traditional sites of celebration, and crowds started gathering there hours in advance.[7] The Daily Express reporters, always ready with more evocative language then their colleagues at rival papers, described the crowds in the West End as follows:

They were “grown ups” who surged in dense masses through the streets, but the joy of childhood – Christmas party childhood – was rampant. Every one wore a paper hat, and nearly every one was blowing a toy trumpet. Street corners were impromptu ballrooms.[8]

Aside from the evening celebrations, the New Year also meant the publication of the annual honours list, announcing which luminaries had been bestowed honorary titles. In 1923, the prominent and popular Home Office pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, was knighted and could henceforth call himself Sir Bernard Spilsbury.[9]

Cartoon in News of the World of 31 December 1922 reflecting the growing concerns on the dangers of motorized traffic, which would come to a head in the early 1930s.

The beginning of the new year also meant the start of winter sales in all the big department stores. The growing importance of consumerism, and the increase in disposable income, are marked by the prominent articles appearing in the popular press about the sales. ‘Thousands of women will to-day celebrate the coming of 1923 by “raiding” the great London stores in the breathless but happy hunt for bargains’ predicted the Daily Mirror.[10] In an article that essentially sums up the offers at each of the great stores, readers are advised that whilst buying ‘indiscriminately’ is never a good idea, one can’t go wrong with staples such as ‘gloves, shoes, underclothes etc’.[11]

The Sunday papers on 31 December had already carried large adverts for each of the store, preparing shoppers to the bargains that could be had. Like the Daily Mirror article, these were almost exclusively aimed at the female readership. It was clearly understood that shopping in a sale was the kind of frivolous activity that only women would engage in. At Dickins & Jones, a clearance of ‘model gowns’ (ie. those used for display purposes) meant that prices started at 7 ½ guineas – a guinea being 1 pound and 1 shilling.[12] On the same page, competitor Marshall & Snelgrove advertised a fur coat for 89 guineas; it had previously been between 125 and 179 guineas so this discount was indeed a ‘wonderful bargain’ although it was clearly out of reach for the vast majority of the population.[13]

By the time the Evening Standard appeared in the afternoon, it was able to report on the ‘bargain day scenes’ in breathless and rather sexist tones. ‘The occasion had much more significance for the ladies than the mere advent of the New Year, and (…) they stormed the whole of the shopping centres in their myriads.’[14] Some of the items on offer according to this article were velour coats with mole collar and cuff trimmings at 4 ½ guineas, and a knitted woollen gown at 27 shillings and sixpence; clearly the readership of the Evening Standard had less to spend than the readers of the Observer.

Elsewhere, the Evening Standard reported on the continued imprisonment of Edith Thompson and Freddie Bywaters, who would be executed on 9 January for the murder of Edith’s husband. Other papers noted the republic of Ireland’s recent independence, which was officially finalised in December 1922.[15] All was not well in the remainder of the Union either, with Scottish hunger marchers protesting in London on the first day of 1923.[16] Although the New Year’s Eve parties and January sales gathered the most prominent coverage, it is clear that below the celebratory surface troubles were brewing as Britain continued to deal with the fall-out of the Great War.

[1] ‘Week-end Weather’, The Observer, 31 December 1922, p. 14

[2] ‘New Year Revels in London’, Manchester Guardian, 1 January 1923, p. 7

[3] ‘At the Hotels’, Daily Express, 1 January 1923, front page

[4] Ibid.; ‘1923 Danced In by Merry Throngs’, Daily Mirror, 1 January 1923, p. 3

[5] ‘1923 Danced In’, Daily Mirror

[6] ‘New Year Revels in London’, Manchester Guardian

[7] Ibid.

[8] ‘Great Crowds in the Streets’, Daily Express, 1 January 1923, front page

[9] ‘New Years Honours’, Daily Express, 1 January 1923, p. 7

[10] ‘Sales Carnival Begins To-Day’, Daily Mirror, 1 January 1923, p. 2

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Dickins & Jones’ advert, The Observer, 31 December 1922, p. 9

[13] ‘Marshall & Snelgrove’ advert, The Observer, 31 December 1922, p. 9

[14] ‘Bargain Day Scenes,’ Evening Standard, 1 January 1923, front page

[15] ‘Politics at Home and Abroad’, Daily Telegraph, 1 January 1923, p. 4

[16] ‘Hunger Marchers’ Complaints’, Evening Standard, 1 January 1923, p. 8