Radclyffe Hall

FeaturedRadclyffe Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

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Winifred Holtby – South Riding (1936)

Journalist, author, feminist and activist Winifred Holtby was a distinctive voice in interwar Britain’s press. In her journalism pieces she often challenged social inequalities and advocated for change. Aside from her journalistic output, Holtby also wrote seven novels. The most famous of these is South Riding, which was published posthumously after Holtby’s death at the age of 37. Vera Brittain, Holtby’s close friend and an accomplished author in her own right, edited the manuscript of South Riding and got it ready for publication.[1] The book met with critical success upon its publication, and was turned into a Victor Saville-directed film in 1938. The story’s enduring resonance is evidenced by the BBC adaptation which appeared as recently as 2011.

The scope and order of South Riding are ambitious: the novel opens with a list of characters no shorter than 6 pages in length. The story is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire. A facsimile of a hand-drawn map by Holtby in the front of the Virago edition of the book shows that she imagined the Riding to be located in the triangle between York, Scarborough and the northern border of Lincolnshire.

South Riding is a novel concerned with local government. Across its 500 or so pages, the novel is divided into eight ‘books’, each named after a sub-committee of South Riding Council. Through ‘Education’; ‘Highways and Bridges’; ‘Public Health’ and others, Holtby weaves a tale of modernity and tradition, and the deep interconnectedness of rural communities.

In a book with such a vast range of characters, the closest thing South Riding has to a protagonist is Miss Sarah Burton, M.A. (Leeds), B.Litt (Oxon), the thirty-something new headmistress of the local girls school, whose return to the county of her upbringing kicks off the book’s narrative. Sarah has decidedly modern ideas about education and life in general. Her modernising spirit runs up against the traditions of the South Riding Aldermen, who sit on the Council and have been used to running things their own way.

These Aldermen also reflect a changing society, however: Anthony Snaith is a rich business owner and Mrs Beddows is the Riding’s first female Alderman. Holtby famously modelled Beddows on her own mother, Alice, who was the first woman Alderman in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Alice Holtby initially opposed the publication of South Riding, worried as she was to the damage it may do to local political relations.

The central relationship in South Riding is between Sarah Burton and Robert Carne, a gentleman farmer who occupies the local ‘Big House’, Maythorpe Hall, with his teenage daughter Midge. In an echo of Victorian Gothic literature, Carne’s wife is alive but insane and permanently locked up in an institution. The prohibitive medical costs for her care have led Carne to the brink of financial destitution. Maythorpe Hall is falling apart around him. Divorce is not an option for him, not because it is legally impossible but because he finds it morally unpardonable.

The emotional and intellectual connection between Sarah and Carne builds up throughout the novel. One of the key scenes of South Riding occurs when the pair find themselves staying over in the same hotel. Under the chapter heading ‘Two in a Hotel Find Themselves Temporarily Insane’, Holtby pens what was a decidedly modern and transgressive scene for mid-1930s Britain. A pleasant dinner turns into a night of dancing, and several drinks build the intimacy between the couple. As the evening draws to a close, Sarah invites Carne to visit her in her bedroom, room number ‘five hundred and seventeen.’[2] For a woman to invite a man to her bedroom was of course already frowned upon, but to do so to a married man broke all the rules of propriety. Equally, Carne’s grateful and enthusiastic response did not match behaviour expected of a gentleman.

Throughout the scene, Sarah remains calm and steadfast. Whilst awaiting Carne’s arrival in her room, she smiles at herself. When he asks her if she is really sure she wants to go ahead with it, she confirms ‘I know now I have never been sure of anything before in my life.’[3] The only reason the relationship does not get consummated is because Carne has an acute attack of a recurring heart problem. This rather disturbs the mood and the couple do not get a chance to be alone again for the night after that. Morally and emotionally, however, both Sarah and Carne were committed to an affair which neither of them believed to be wrong, despite it going against the generally espoused conservative values of the time.

South Riding conveys the effect of modern ideas on a traditional community, both for better and for worse. At the same time, it treats the local community and the Council with a deep respect. Everyone in the South Riding needs one another eventually, and progress, however difficult, does penetrate the region through the diligent work of the local representatives.


[1] Shirley Williams, ‘Preface, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago Press, 2010), p. x

[2] Winifred Holtby, South Riding, p. 367

[3] Ibid., p. 368

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Leonard Gribble – The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

Ahead of the 2022 World Cup starting in Qatar, there will be a couple of weeks of football-related content on the blog. Football was a popular sport for working-class spectators in interwar Britain, alongside (greyhound) racing and motor sports. Some historians even credit the popularity of football with bringing diverse social and ethnic groups togethers as neighbours went to support their local teams.[1] By the end of the interwar period, football clubs at the top end of the league were almost completely populated by professional footballers; but there were also still plenty of amateur clubs which delivered players of a high calibre. League matches were usually played on a Saturday afternoon, as most workers finished their weekly shifts at lunchtime on Saturday.

At the close of the 1930s, the Daily Express decided to capitalise on the increased popularity of professional football by commissioning author Leonard Gribble to write a serialised murder mystery which featured the real-life players and staff of Arsenal Football Club.[2] After serialisation, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was published as a book and a film version was made almost immediately; both appearing shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The plot of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is fairly straightforward: Arsenal play an amateur team, the Trojans. During the match, one of the Trojan players, Doyce, collapses on the field and dies shortly afterwards. Scotland Yard are called in and conclude Doyce was poisoned; Inspector Slade methodically works through the possible suspects until the case is resolved. Although a number of Arsenal players appear as characters in the book (and the Arsenal manager, George Allinson, even got a speaking part in the film adaptation) they are naturally not implicated in the murder or its resolution.

The police investigation concentrates solely on the Trojan players and staff. The conceit of the football game provides the type of ‘closed circle’ which interwar detective fictions liked to use: a very limited number of suspects, a tightly controlled window in which the murder must have taken place; and limited ways in which the weapon could be disposed of.

Aside from the murder story, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery provides the modern reader with plenty of insight into 1930s professional football practices. Gribble was clearly given access to the Arsenal club players and grounds in the writing of the book – the parts of the stadium to which the public do not usually have access are described in detail. The rapid professionalisation of football is reflected in the vigorous training practices of the players: ‘The game to-day is faster than it has ever been (…) Only the fit can survive.’[3] Arsenal also apparently already had a youth academy set up, dubbed a ‘nursery’, to train up promising young players.[4]

When it comes to the game itself, Gribble provides a diagram reflecting the starting positions of both teams. Both Arsenal and Trojans are shown to play with five forwards, three midfielders and two defenders[5]; a formation that was much more common in the early days of professional football than it is today. The author also provides an almost play-by-play account of the match, in sections of the story clearly written with football-mad Daily Express readers in mind.

As well as details about the actual gameplay, Gribble pays substantial attention to convey the culture of football fandom. For example, he spends several pages describing the convivial atmosphere in the streets and train stations around the stadium after the match is over:

‘In the trains the corridors and entrance platforms are choked (…) The air is full of expunged breath, smoke, human smells, and heat. But there is plenty of laughter, plenty of Cockney chaff. Whatever happens, however great the discomfort, the crowd keeps its good-temper. This herded homegoing is just part of the afternoon’s entertainment.’[6]

Needless to say, this ‘entertainment’ is described as an innately masculine past-time. It would not be possible for women to enter this crush of human bodies. When Inspector Slade of Scotland Yard enters the story, he too enters in a social pact with the football players which excludes women. During his investigation, he questions one of the Trojan players, Morring, in front of a woman friend, Jill. Morring implies in guarded language that his fiancée, Pat Laruce, had had an affair with the victim, Doyce. Slade:

‘‘I take it you told him to be careful or next time he’d have more painful reason to regret his – um – interference?’ The two men grinned, while the girl looked from one to the other, wide-eyed, unable to appreciate a humour that was essentially masculine.’[7]

Phrases like this make it clear enough that Gribble was writing for a male audience; he also made the main female character, Pat Laruce, extremely unlikeable. Not only is Pat revealed as having cheated on her fiancé Morring, Gribble also portrays her as an extremely calculating woman who uses fake emotional outbursts to control men’s behaviour. He describes her as follows: ‘The daughter of a chorus girl who had married a publican after burning her fingers with a scion of the aristocracy, she [Pat] had imbibed her mother’s outlook on life.’[8]

Pat works as a model for advertisements; a job that entails her offering up her physical appearance for (male) consumption. Pat’s independence and modernity are unequivocally rejected by Gribble, and presented as intergenerational faults that are passed on from mother to daughter. There are several points in the book at which Pat is described as confused that her emotional manipulations are not working on men as she expects them to. Her friend Jill, by contrast, is presented as pure and innocent (as in the quote above which implies her complete ignorance about sex), and therefore a much more suitable life partner.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery reveals much about the practicalities of professional football in 1930s Britain, as well as delivering a reasonably competent murder mystery story. It also carries its sexist gender views on its sleeve, by using the medium of football to promote a misogynist worldview in which professional sport is equated with male sociability.

The film version of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (starring the real 1939 Arsenal squad) can be viewed for free on YouTube.


[1] Benjamin Lammers, ‘The Birth of the East Ender: Neighborhood and Local Identity in Interwar East London’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 39, No. 2, (2005), pp. 331-344 (pp. 338-9)

[2] Martin Edwards, ‘Introduction’, in Leonard Gribble, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, (London: British Library, 2018), p. 7

[3] Gribble, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, p. 123

[4] Ibid., p. 119

[5] Ibid., p. 19

[6] Ibid., p. 38

[7] Ibid., p. 171

[8] Ibid., p. 106

Trouble Brewing (1939)

Featured<strong><em>Trouble Brewing</em> (1939)</strong>

Lancashire singer and comedian George Formby was an extremely popular entertainer during the interwar period. He had an instantly recognisable brand: catch-phrases such as ‘Turned out nice again!’; songs full of gentle innuendo and always accompanying himself with his banjolele (a cross between a ukulele and a banjo).

Supported by his wife Beryl as his manager, Formby made a series of comedy films in the second half of the 1930s, at the rate of two a year. These were often directed by Anthony Kimmins, a writer and director who also worked with that other Lancashire star, Gracie Fields. Kimmins and Formby’s sixth collaboration was Trouble Brewing, which was released in July 1939 and could serve as an antidote to the ever-increasing concerns about impending war in Europe.

In Trouble Brewing, Formby plays George Gullip, a newspaper printer at a fictional daily tabloid. George wants to be a detective, and has developed a type of ink which is impossible to rub off, to help him take fingerprints. The police are on the track of a gang which is distributing counterfeit money. When George and his friend Bill are duped by the gang, they team up with secretary Mary to unmask the gang once and for all.

George (George Formby), left, and Bill (Gus McNaughton), right, at work in the print room in Trouble Brewing

The film takes its title from the beer brewery which the counterfeiting gang uses as a front for their operations. As is common for these 1930s comedies that are primarily showcases for individual stars, Trouble Brewing consists of a series of set pieces which are only loosely strung together by a plot. George and Bill get duped on the racetrack; their subsequent investigations have them dress up as waiters at a private party; join a wrestling match; break into the police inspector’s home (and accidentally kidnap him); and confront the criminal gang in their brewery. At each stage, the script allows Formby plenty of physical comedy. His scenes with Mary and other female characters are opportunities for George to serenade them with his songs, even if they are more cheeky than romantic.

George subjected to a wrestling match in Trouble Brewing

In Trouble Brewing, the line between journalism and policing is blurred to the point that it almost disappears. When George says to his superiors as the paper that he wants to become a detective, the newspaper proprietor harrumphs that being a journalist is pretty much the same thing. Although in reality, printers and journalists had very distinct professional identities, George moves between the basement print room and the editorial offices with relative ease. Mary, who works as the secretary to the newspaper’s editor, appears to know George and Bill and treats them as her direct colleagues.

The police in Trouble Brewing have been ineffective in rounding up the counterfeiting gang, which has been at work for at least six months at the beginning of the film. Yet the two printers and the secretary manage to close the gang down in a matter of days. There are plenty of other British interwar films in which journalists collaborate closely with the police, but Trouble Brewing takes this a step further by focusing on main characters who are not even actual journalists. At the same time it is tacitly assumed that George wants to get promoted and work as a journalist, which he achieves at the end of the film when both the newspaper proprietor and the police inspector are duly impressed with his work in rounding up the criminal gang.

Trouble Brewing gives Formby plenty of opportunity to exploit the sexual innuendo he was known for, not only in his songs but also in the scene when he and Bill serve as waiters at a private house party. The party is thrown by an opera singer, whom George and Bill suspect may be part of the criminal gang. George has gotten the singer to put her fingerprint on a piece of paper, but she put that piece of paper in the top of her stocking. When the woman sits down to speak to a male guest at her party, George creeps under the table in an attempt to get the paper. The woman naturally assumes that her conversation partner is touching her leg under the table. This joke is repeated three separate times, causing the singer to shout at and slap at the various men she sits down with. For modern spectators, it is perhaps clearer that such a joke primarily works for male viewers; female audience members may find little to laugh at here. This indicates that Formby’s primary appeal was to men, whereas Gracie Fields aimed her jokes and songs at a broader audience.

George under the table in Trouble Brewing

Trouble Brewing ends in the beer brewery where the gang is hiding. Here physical comedy takes over, with actors running up and down stairs, hiding in barrels, and hanging on ropes. The brewery contains several vast vats of beer, which are left uncovered. Bill lands in one and becomes inebriated almost immediately; the same eventually happens with the counterfeiting gang members. The apparently instantaneous effects of alcohol on the men underlines how far the events on screen are removed from reality at this stage of the film. It has developed into slapstick, harking back to earlier cinematic traditions.

Unlike another 1939 film set in a brewery, Cheer Boys Cheer, which makes direct reference to Nazi Germany, Trouble Brewing offered audiences complete escapism. Money laundering and the circulation of counterfeit money were popular tropes in interwar crime fiction, but they were far removed from the real-life horrors of war and fascism. The film expanded on the already-established cinematic narrative that journalists could effectively solve crimes, by presenting three workers as skilled detectives. The film’s happy ending no doubt provided audiences with welcome escapism as the international political situation deteriorated.  

George (George Formby) and Mary (Googie Withers) end up in a beer barrel at the close of Trouble Brewing

Sonnie Hale

FeaturedSonnie Hale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The General Strike of 1926

Featured<strong>The General Strike of 1926</strong>

As industrial strike action continues across Britain for most of the summer and autumn of 2022, many news articles have reached back to the ‘winter of discontent’ –  a period of widespread trade union action in 1978/1979 which eventually led to a Conservative election victory which ushered in Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Far fewer people have made the link with the much more comprehensive strike action which took place nearly 100 years ago, across nine days in May 1926.

The General Strike, as it came to be known, was an expression of working-class discontent that had been steadily building up since the end of the First World War. The war’s devastation, as well as its upheaval of social norms, challenged the British class system. After the war finished, many working-class men who had fought side by side with men of higher social standing were unwilling to accept the pre-war inequalities. On top of that, returning troops faced mass unemployment and a lack of affordable housing. Socialism gained traction in Britain, as well as elsewhere in Europe.[i]

The direct cause of the General Strike was a pay dispute in the coal mining industry. The industry was privatised and to counteract declining profits, coal mine owners reduced wages by over a third in a seven year period. In March 1926, the government supported a recommendation that miners’ pay should be reduced further. In response, the Trade Union Council (TUC), an overarching body of trade unions, called a strike to start on 3 May. All TUC member unions were bound to participate in the strike action, which led to millions of workers stopping work.

From railway workers and bus drivers to newspaper printers and food delivery staff, the strike impacted many essential services in the country. To keep things going, some people in non-unionised sectors ‘volunteered’ to work in roles affected by the strike, driving buses and delivering milk. Upper class families also ‘volunteered’ – wealthy women, for example, helped to serve out food from communal kitchens in Hyde Park. The establishment encouraged reminisces of the war, likening the emergency provisions put in place during the strike to the type of volunteer work many had undertaken during the conflict.

Because the printers’ union participated in the strike, the newspaper industry was severely impacted by the strike. Some papers managed to produce emergency bulletins which were much shorter than regular papers, and printed on a much smaller format. Newspaper proprietors in the 1920s mostly had warm relationships with the Conservative party, allowing the Government to produce the British Gazette, a pro-government publication. The TUC responded by producing their own British Worker, but were unable to match the circulation of the Gazette.

The National Union of Journalists was not TUC-affiliated at the time of the strike. The NUJ leadership badly muddled its response to the TUC’s call for strike action, leaving some NUJ members frustrated by being told they should not join a strike with which they had solidarity; and others annoyed because they felt forced to declare their views on a matter which had, strictly speaking, nothing to do with the NUJ.

The Conservative government, led by Stanley Baldwin, took a hard line against the strikers. In the British Gazette, he likened the strikes to a coup on the government:

Constitutional Government is being attacked. Let all good citizens whose livelihood and labour have thus been put in peril bear with fortitude and patience the hardships with which they have been so suddenly confronted. Stand behind the Government, who are doing their part, confident that you will co-operate in the measures they have undertaken to preserve the liberties and privileges of the people of these islands.

The ‘liberties and privileges’ of the millions of strikers were clearly not under consideration. Contemporary newsreels similarly focused on the efforts of the ‘volunteers’ and the supposed relief of Londoners when the strike was called off after nine days, without showing the various violent clashes between police and strikers which also occurred during the strike period.

The strike was eventually called of on legal grounds – it was determined that only the miner strike was aligned with the 1906 Trade Dispute Act, meaning that all other strikers did not have any legal protection.[ii] Although the miners continued their resistance until the end of 1926, they did not obtain any wage increases.

The following year, Stanley Baldwin passed a new Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act which made it illegal for any unions to strike in sympathy with another union – in future, each union was only allowed to go on strike if the dispute in question directly affected them. According to labour historian Anthony Mason, ‘The defeat which the trade unions suffered at the hands of the Government successfully discredited the idea of widespread industrial action as a method of obtaining the demands of labour. It did much to ensure the relatively quiescent acceptance by Labour of the persistent unemployment of the thirties.’[iii] The impact of the General Strike, then, was felt much beyond the nine days it lasted in May 1926; arguably it has impacted labour relations in Britain into the 21st century.


[i] Dan S. White, ‘Reconsidering European Socialism in the 1920s’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 16, no. 2 (1981), 251-272

[ii] Jessica Brain, ‘The General Strike 1926’, Historic UK, accessed online: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/General-Strike-1926/

[iii] Anthony Mason, ‘The Government and the General Strike, 1926,’ International Review of Social History, Vol. 14, no. 1 (1969), 1-21

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The Abdication Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winifred Holtby

Featured<strong>Winifred Holtby</strong>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Me Explain, Dear (1932)

Featured<strong>Let Me Explain, Dear (1932)</strong>

The introduction of sound film in Britain around 1930 opened up more opportunities for filmmakers to produce comedies based on dialogue rather than slapstick. As London’s theatre sector was thriving, many comic plays transferred over to the silver screen. Popular plays such as Pygmalion were turned into films, and of course a whole series of popular farces performed at the Aldwych theatre were also adapted.

Almost more than any other genre of film, comedy is specific to the time and place in which it was made. An adaptation of a 1915 comedy play made in 1932 is a good example of this. Let Me Explain, Dear was based on the play ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’, the full text of which is available to read online. ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’ was a great success when it was first staged and it ran for the majority of the First World War at the Criterion Theatre, no doubt giving audiences a welcome respite from the war news (the theatre poster available on Wikipedia highlights that the Criterion was ‘built entirely underground’ and therefore safe in case of air raids).

The play was adapted into a film in 1919 by the short-lived Q Film Productions company, and again in 1928 for a larger-scale production starring Betty Balfour as one of the female leads. Let Me Explain, Dear is the first sound film adaptation of the play; all three adaptations are produced in Britain for the domestic market, as they cater to a specific cultural sensibility. ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’ is positioned as a farce, but its comedy is much broader than that of the Aldwych farces that had become so popular by the time Let Me Explain, Dear was released.

The story of the film, which is only slightly evolved from the play, is simple enough. George Hunter is married to Angela, a domineering woman who holds the financial purse strings in the relationship. When George believes Angela to be away from home, he meets Mamie, a glamourous young woman with an undefined job in some sort of performance-related industry. Mamie has borrowed an expensive pearl necklace from a banker boyfriend.

Mamie (Jane Carr) and George (Gene Gerrard) getting cozy in a taxi in Let Me Explain, Dear

The necklace accidentally ends up with George and then Angela. In an attempt to retrieve the necklace or make enough money to buy a replacement, George ropes in the help of his neighbour Merryweather to scam a newspaper insurance scheme. Eventually personal relations, necklaces, and scams get hopelessly tangled up before George ends up reconciled with Angela and Mamie returns to her banker boyfriend.

One of the ways in which the film has updated the original play text is through the inclusion of the apparently newfangled and fictitious concept of the ‘water taxi’. At the opening of the film, George takes a ‘water taxi’, a speedboat across the Thames, because he sees Mamie inside it. Due to George’s clumsiness, the taxi ends up crashing into the side of a much bigger vessel. This accident later forms the basis of George’s attempt to claim insurance money from his newspaper. In the original play, the alleged accident was that of a bus. The inclusion of the water taxi allows for some spectacular shots of the boat speeding across the Thames – and by 1932 buses were much safer than they had been in 1915, perhaps making the idea of a bus accident slightly less believable.

The ‘water taxi’ in action in Let Me Explain, Dear

The fact that George tries to scam money from an insurance scheme run by a popular newspaper also does not appear in the original text. In the play, the insurance scheme is run by the bus company itself – prior to the unification of London Transport in 1933 separate bus companies maintained the various routes across London. By the time Let Me Explain, Dear was made, the ‘newspaper wars’ were in full swing and popular newspapers tried to gain more subscribers in part by offering generous insurance schemes. Let Me Explain, Dear uses this to bring its plot right up to date for contemporary viewers.

Let Me Explain, Dear has the occasional moment of verbal wit that has stood the test of time – when Angela reveals the pearl necklace she has found in George’s overcoat pocket, she snaps ‘What do you say to that?’ George’s friend Merryweather responds: ‘I don’t know, I’ve never talked to one before.’ Mostly, though, the blatant sexism underpinning the entire plot and dialogue alienates the film from modern viewers. The relationship between George and Angela appears to be solely built on mutual distrust and annoyance. When Merryweather asks George how he came to be married to Angela, his response is ‘I just sort of sobered up and there she was.’

Merryweather (Claude Hulbert); Angela (Viola Lyel) and George (Gene Gerrard) in Let Me Explain, Dear

Whereas in the play it is made clear that George is such a bad entrepreneur that his work activities were actively costing the couple money, and that is why Angela has demanded he stop ‘working’, in the film Angela appears to solely want to emasculate George by paying everything for him. George’s quick work to woo Mamie is not judged, and Mamie herself is a cardboard character who prances around in underwear and starts screaming hysterically (and then faints) when she thinks her pearl necklace has been stolen.

Mamie (Jane Carr) relaxing at home in Let Me Explain, Dear

Lead actor Gene Gerrard also co-wrote and co-directed Let Me Explain, Dear; a feat he repeated in the same year with Lucky Girl, another light comedy adapted from a stage play. Alhtough there is not much to recommend Let Me Explain, Dear to modern audiences, it is a necessary reminder of the range and variety of output of the British film industry during the interwar period.

Let Me Explain, Dear is available on DVD from Network Distributing.