Newspaper wars

Although this blog focuses on the period between the First and Second World War, the interwar period was not without its conflicts. One of the social changes which took place in the first half of the 1930s has retrospectively been dubbed the ‘newspaper wars’ which was fought between popular newspaper titles.

A host of daily newspapers aimed at the lower-middle classes were launched in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. The Daily Mail arrived in 1896, followed by the Daily Express in 1900, the Daily Mirror in 1903 and the Daily Herald in 1912. These newspapers represented a completely new type of written press. Existing papers such as The Times and the Daily Telegraph were aimed at upper class, male readers. They contained columns of densely printed text without illustrations. Advertising mostly consisted of personal adverts which took up the entire front page. There were no big headlines, and reporting included lengthy verbatim reports of parliamentary discussions.

The new popular papers founded at the start of the twentieth century disrupted this model. Partially due to educational reform, general literacy levels increased, and there was now room in the market for newspapers aimed at a wider readership. However, whereas broadsheet papers were aimed at men who could afford to spend hours reading a paper over breakfast or in their members club, the new newspapers recognised that their readership likely could only snatch a few minutes at a time to read their paper. Moreover, the newspaper bosses realised that their readership was more interested in snappy articles and the new invention of the ‘human interest’ story than in long and precise reports about complicated subjects.

From the beginning, popular papers therefore printed shorter articles, more images, and more headlines. The Express was the first to adopt an ‘American’ lay-out which meant that it printed news on the front page, as opposed to the ubiquitous personal adverts –  a practice eventually adopted by all national newspapers. These papers generally cost only one pence per issue, to keep them affordable to the working classes and lower-middle classes. This did mean that the papers’ main revenue source was advertising. In order to attract the most lucrative advertising deals, each paper had to ensure its circulation was constantly growing. It was particularly coveted to increase the number of subscribers as they provided a more stable source of income than those who bought a paper only occasionally.

Throughout the Edwardian period and the 1920s the popular papers were able to increase their circulation by targeting people who did not yet subscribe to any paper at all. By the early 1930s, however, market saturation had been reached, and newspapers had to change their tactics. The only way to continue growing their circulation was by actively persuading readers to switch papers. The fight for new subscribers became so heated that this period has later been dubbed the ‘newspaper wars’.

Newspapers used different tactics to persuade more readers to subscribe to them. One was to ensure that they offered a clear political identity. The Daily Herald had been, from its foundation, an outspoken left-wing newspaper, and from 1922 it was formally affiliated with the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the overarching body of trade unions. By 1933 the Herald’s circulation had grown larger than it had ever been, to two million copies a day, and it started to form a real threat to the other popular papers, which had mostly supported a conservative agenda.

The owners of the Daily Mirror, therefore, relaunched the Mirror in 1934 as a left-leaning paper, but without formal affiliation to the TUC. This enabled the Mirror to present itself as the paper of choice for the non-radical, non-unionised working classes. It also differentiated itself clearly from the Mail and Express who continued to support the Conservative party.

Whilst the Express did not differentiate itself through its political stance, it did radically change its layout in 1933, in a bid to attract more readers. A new editorial team introduced clearer headlines and wider spacing, which made the paper easier to read. Their biggest innovation was to no longer print articles strictly across one column, top to bottom. Instead they adopted the ‘jigsaw’ approach which is familiar to newspaper readers today: articles cut across multiple columns and readers read horizontally across rather than only vertically. Up until that point, every national newspaper in Britain had rigidly stuck to printing their articles vertically.

A third tactic employed by newspapers to gain more readers was the liberal use of stunts and insurance schemes. The latter allowed newspaper subscribers to buy insurance through their newspaper, which would then be paid out to their relatives in case of illness, accident or death. Newspapers in turn were able to print stories of how they had helped widows and children of deceased readers which made them seem magnanimous. Insurance schemes were available prior to the newspaper wars, but they did become a feature of the inter-paper competition. Newspaper insurance schemes are a central part of the plot of the 1932 comedy film Let Me Explain, Dear.

Arguably, the Express came out on top after the newspaper wars, as it was the best-selling newspaper in Britain from the mid-1930s until the late 1940s. This was not only due to their improved lay-out, but also due to their policy of adopting an optimistic editorial line, perhaps best summarised in their infamous August 1939 front page headline ‘No War This Year’.[1] This editorial policy set them apart from the Mail, which traditionally took a more alarmist approach. The (falsely) reassuring tone of the Express ultimately resonated more with a reading public that could still vividly remember the last War.


[1] Marianne Hicks, ‘No War This Year: Selkirk Panton and the editorial policy of the Daily Express, 1938–39’, Media History, 2008, 14:2, 167-183

Vita Sackville-West: The Edwardians (1930)

FeaturedVita Sackville-West: The Edwardians (1930)

During the interwar period, Sackville-West was best known as a prolific and celebrated author in her own right. By 1930, when her best-selling novel The Edwardians appeared, Sackville-West had already published more than a dozen other novels, works of poetry, and non-fiction volumes.[1]

The Edwardians was originally published by the Hogarth Press, the publishing house run by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. The book was a huge commercial success: by July 1930, within two months of its publication, Hogarth Press was already advertising that it had sold 20,000 copies. That the book clearly appealed to a working-class audience is evidenced by the popularity of the cheap sixpenny edition, of which 64,000 copies had sold by 1936.[2]

Advert for The Edwardians, Sheffield Independent, 14 July 1930, p. 3

Sackville-West herself was anything but working class. She grew up at Knole, a medieval palace remodelled into the Sackville family seat in the early 17th century (it is currently managed by the National Trust). Vita had many happy memories of her childhood at Knole, and in The Edwardians she created its fictional equivalent in the Chevron estate, seat of the Duke of Chevron. Chevron is the enduring foundation and backdrop throughout the book’s descriptions of upper-class parties and affairs.

The Edwardians’ main character is Sebastian, the young Duke of Chevron. At the opening of the book, in 1905, Sebastian is nineteen. He loves Chevron and being the head of the estate, but is vaguely dissatisfied with the social life of upper-class Edwardian England. Sebastian’s mother, Lucy, is part of the ‘smart set’: ‘They were all people whose names were familiar to every reader of the society titbits in the papers.’[3] Unlike the matriarchs of the Victorian period, Lucy’s friends think of themselves as less worried about decorum and ‘doing the right thing.’ One of the key themes of The Edwardians is how both the upper and the middle classes still put convention and appearance over personal freedom, despite their insistence that they have done away with Victorian primness.

Sebastian has three key relationships in The Edwardians, which are announced by its chapter headings. In 1905, he meets Anquetil, an explorer who is an outsider to Chevron’s smart set. Anquetil invites Sebastian to come away with him for a few years to see something of real life. Sebastian declines, as he has just fallen in love with Lady Roehampton, a 40-something married woman who is a friend of his mother and one of society’s great beauties. Lucy wholeheartedly approves of this affair, seeing it as a healthy rite of passage for a young man to be introduced to sex.

What is not intended, however, is that Lady Roehampton falls in love with Sebastian. When, after a year and a half, her husband finds out about the affair, he states she must move to the country with him and never see Sebastian again. This creates the first big crisis in the book: Sebastian tells Lady Roehampton that she should get a divorce and come away with him: Lady Roehampton, despite her belief that she is much more modern than her Victorian forebears, shrinks from the idea of divorce and dumps Sebastian instead.

Disgusted by the hypocrisy of the upper classes, Sebastian then pursues a middle-class married woman, Teresa. She is dazzled by the riches and ceremony of Chevron, but when Sebastian makes a pass at her at Christmas she is horrified that he would think she would cheat on her husband. Sebastian is now disillusioned with both the ‘smart set’ and the middle-classes. After a brief affair with a bohemian artist, he resigns himself to marrying a plain but proper daughter of a respectable family. Just before he decides to formalise his engagement, Anquetil shows up again. This time, Sebastian gratefully accepts the offer of escape from his cushioned life.

The Edwardians offers a detailed and, one senses, authentic view of upper-class society in the Edwardian period. Readers are entertained with descriptions of sumptuous parties and Downton Abbey-esque descriptions of the servants’ hall. At the same time, Sackville-West is critical of this lifestyle. For example, she repeatedly stresses that Lucy’s friends, despite their power and influence, are not particularly intelligent. When Teresa is invited to Chevron for Christmas and sits with the other ladies after dinner, ‘she was forced to admit that they did not seem to be saying anything worth saying.’[4] Sackville-West also pokes fun at the group’s own special lingo, ‘deevy’ for ‘divine’ and ‘adding an Italian termination to English words’: ‘lovel-are’ for ‘lovely’ and ‘dinn-are’ for ‘dinner’.[5]

Sackville-West’s critique also touches on more substantial matters: when Sebastian decides to give all his staff a raise of five shillings a week after New Year’s, it leads to critical self-reflection on his own part. He notes that the increase would cost him ‘thirteen hundred pounds a year; very little more than his mother would spend on a single ball; a negligible sum in his yearly budget. He felt ashamed.’[6] When at dinner, Lucy tells the other guests of the raise, Sebastian is harshly criticised by the other lords, who say that he has ‘spoiled the market’ for other landowners and that his staff will only ‘expect more’: ‘They all looked at Sebastian as though he had committed a crime.’[7]

Contemporary reviews of The Edwardians mostly did not note the social commentary of the book. Although the Aberdeen Press and Journal review noted that ‘The Mayfair, Belgravia, and country house lot are shown to us as publicly engaged in whitewashing their own and their neighbour’s private lives’[8], other reviews consistently described the book as primarily ‘entertaining.’[9] Several reviews note that whilst the Victorian period had been extensively revisited by historians and novelists, the Edwardian period had received less attention due to it being overshadowed by the war.[10]

The immediate cultural impact of The Edwardians can be seen in a throwaway comment in the Daily Mirror. In a brief article about Ascot fashion, the journalist writes:

On the cover of Miss Sackville-West’s novel “The Edwardians” there is pictured a group of presumably select persons of that period. The “happy few” look now like a number of charwomen out for a beanfeast. And the question is: Will the belle assemblée at Ascot to-day look like that – a ragbag assortment – in fifty years’ time to those who examine our back numbers? Very likely. But was does it matter? They look nice now.[11]

Already, mere weeks after its publication, The Edwardians was referenced as a text with whom all Daily Mirror readers were expected to be familiar. Whether they enjoyed it for its lavish descriptions of upper-class life, or for its social critique, it is undeniable that the book resonated with many interwar readers.


[1] Kate Williams, ‘Introduction’, in Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. xv

[2] Ibid., p. x

[3] Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (London: Vintage, 2016), p. 27

[4] Ibid., p. 193

[5] Ibid., p. 194

[6] Ibid., p. 184

[7] Ibid., p. 205

[8] ‘Book of the Week: A Novel of Edwardian Society’, Aberdeen Press and Journal, 9 June 1930, p. 6

[9] ‘Real Life Raffles’, Daily Mirror, 23 June 1930, p. 20; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[10] ‘Books of the Day’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 5 June 1930, p. 8; ‘Woman in the West’, The Western Morning News and Mercury, 10 July 1930, p. 3

[11] ‘Ascot Fashions’, Daily Mirror, 18 June 1930, p. 9

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Limehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., p. 21

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

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

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Notorious interwar murders (part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Notorious interwar murders (part 2)

FeaturedNotorious interwar murders (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[iv] Ibid., p. 55

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Notorious interwar murders (part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., pp. 17-18

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

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

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

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

[7] Ibid., p. 628

[8] Ibid., p. 641

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Women and Public Transport

Public transport became part of daily life in the 19th century, particularly in urbanised areas. Almost from its inception, women were at risk in public transport spaces, and this risk is still present in the 21st century.[1] It is no surprise then that in London of the interwar period, too, there were countless attacks on women in public transport, ranging from relatively minor aggressions to murder. Newspapers of the period did report on such cases, but with a view to stress the human or sensational element of such cases without addressing any structural issues that may have led to violence against women.

In newspaper reports, attacked passengers were almost always young women travelling alone, and the reports stressed how the seemingly random attacks were carried out by strangers. A typical article appeared in the Daily Mirror in December 1929. It describes how a Miss Organ, who was in her mid-twenties, was “suddenly attacked by a youth who followed her into a compartment” on the suburban train from Bromley to Charing Cross.[2] The isolation of the train compartment meant that Miss Organ was quite seriously hurt, and her attacker managed to escape before other passengers could come to her aid.

Train compartments were designed to be like private domestic spaces, so that passengers would feel at ease in them. But their public accessibility made them dangerous, too.[3] The repeated attention on female victims reinforced the notion that travelling was especially dangerous for women, and implied that they were perhaps better off by avoiding using transport on their own, thus limiting women’s freedom to move around the city.

Earlier in the same decade, the Daily Express reported on a ‘mysterious outrage in a Tube train’.[4] Daisy Tyler, a 16-year-old from Barking, had her plait of hair cut loose in a crowded Underground train. Interestingly the hair wasn’t stolen – it was severed to the point that it was only held together by Miss Tyler’s hairclip, and it was only when the clip was removed that Miss Tyler realised what had happened. A ‘close friend’ confided to the Express that Miss Tyler was particularly distressed ‘as she was going to a dance’ that evening.

The article goes on to speculate that women with ‘golden’ hair may be at particular risk of these (attempted) hair robberies, alleging that several instances of women and girls having their hair forcibly cut off had taken place in recent months. Again in the words of Miss Tyler’s ‘friend’, it was ‘extraordinary’ that no-one in the packed Tube had noticed the attack. Anyone who has ever been harassed on a busy train or bus will note that busy carriages can actually create an environment in which it is easier to harass unnoticed, as the mass of commuters’ bodies can hide a lot of activity from view.

Far worse than the fate of Miss Tyler was that of an unnamed, unidentified girl whose body parts were found in a paper parcel on a train running from Waterloo to Windsor in 1922.[5] A ‘girl’s hand, arm, shinbone and foot’ were found wrapped up ‘on the rack of a third-class compartment’ in this suburban train. The parcel was initially handed in as lost property by an unsuspecting passenger before it was opened up by station staff the next day, and its contents were revealed.

Even in this initial report the Daily Mail reporter manages to hint at the horrors that may have led to the girl’s death. The police surgeon concluded that the body was dismembered ‘in the same way as anatomical specimens in a surgical laboratory’. The man who found the parcel was quick to allege that his fellow passenger, who had been sitting below the parcel for part of the journey, had been reading a book ‘which I believe was a work on surgery’. The mystery man supposedly also had a stethoscope in his attaché case. This fellow traveller may have had nothing to do with the case, but the description provided in the article allows the reader to fantasise about the supposed surgeon’s nefarious deeds. The article ends with a paragraph on a ‘bushel of human bones’ found by Scotland Yard in Hampstead, north London (miles away from Waterloo or Windsor) which included ‘a skull with the top sawn off, proving that it had been used for anatomical purposes.’

Like the article on Miss Tyler’s hair, the Daily Mail report is quick to draw a picture of a nebulous but nonetheless threatening presence in London, which is attacking young women (invariably referred to as ‘girls’). London’s transport network provided rapid connections to increasingly far-flung parts of the city. Whilst public transport provided a great benefit to Londoners wishing to travel from one part of the capital to the other, these swift connections could also allow criminals to quickly move around the city. Young women were increasingly using public transport to navigate to and from work, disrupting expected patterns of behaviour and movement. In the narratives of these newspaper articles, these women can expect to put themselves at risk of attack if they choose to use the public transport network.

You can read more about the representation of London’s transport network in interwar newspapers in my book: Interwar London After Dark in British Popular Culture.


[1] See Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men (London: Vintage, 2020)

[2] ‘Girl Attacked and Robbed in a London Train’, Daily Mirror, 5 December 1929, 3.

[3] Colin Divall, ‘Civilising velocity: Masculinity and the marketing of Britain’s passenger trains, 1921-39’, The Journal of Transport History, 32:2 (2011), 164-191, here 179.

[4] ‘Girl Robbed of Hair’, Daily Express, 20 April 1921, p. 5

[5] ‘Girl’s Limbs in a Parcel,’ Daily Mail, 18 September 1922, p. 7

Murder in Soho (1939)

FeaturedMurder in Soho (1939)

On the eve of the Second World War, Associated British Picture Corporation produced Murder in Soho, a gangster flick starring American actor Jack La Rue (not his real name, obviously). The presence of Italian-American La Rue, with his cleft chin and strong jawline, brings Hollywood glamour to what is otherwise a crime film with an extremely thin plot. Murder in Soho appears to be a solitary British outing for the actor, although he did take the opportunity to get married whilst visiting London for the film’s shooting.

Like the almost contemporaneous They Drive By Night, Murder in Soho works hard to incorporate American slang into its dialogue, presumably to appeal to younger audiences. They Drive By Night, however, was produced by the British arm of American studio Warner Brothers. Murder in Soho comes from a British production company that was Hitchcock’s home for many of his silent films including Blackmail (1929); Murder! (1930)and The Skin Game (1931). Alongside these British thriller/crime films, ABPC (which previously operated as British International Pictures) also produced musical films such as Harmony Heaven (1930) and Over She Goes (1937). They did not have a strong background in producing American-style crime films – and it shows.

The plot of Murder in Soho is extremely thin. La Rue plays nightclub owner Steve Marco, who runs the ‘Cotton Club’ in Soho. He has just hired a new singer for the club, Ruby Lane. Steve is interested in Ruby as he thinks she has ‘class’. He doesn’t know, however, that Ruby is married (but separated from) Steve’s British associate Joe Lane. When Joe betrays Steve and steals £2000 off him, Steve kills Joe. Soon police inspector Hammond comes asking questions. He recruits Ruby to work with him and reveal Steve’s criminal activities. Also in the mix, although largely superfluous to the plot, are a journalist called Roy Barnes who frequently visits the club and falls in love with Ruby; Steve’s ex Myrtle who he has dumped in favour of Ruby; and performing duo ‘Green and Matthews’ who also work at the club.

The ‘Cotton Club’ in Murder in Soho

Murder in Soho contains all the popular elements of a 1930s crime film: a nightclub; an international criminal gang; a singer; a police inspector; a journalist. Yet these elements are not fused together with a compelling plot or livened up by any original ingredient. Indeed, the film’s insistence to try and introduce Americanisms into the narrative detracts even more from the action. Steve and his henchmen speak in thick Italian-American accents. The character ‘Lefty’ in particular, who is the young comedy sidekick, litters his dialogue with references to ‘dames’ and ‘cops’. The name of the club obviously refers to the famous Harlem nightclub – but there were no British Cotton Clubs and the name does not have the resonance in Britain as it would do in the United States. Steve employs Black bartenders in his club – again a practice which was much more common in the States than it was in Britain. Compared to depictions of nightclubs in other British films of the 1930s, the Cotton Club in Murder in Soho feels more like a replica of a Hollywood set than of anything resembling British nightlife.

Gun-toting American gangsters in Murder in Soho

The very opening of Murder in Soho also presents a version of Soho that was much more deliberately criminal and seedy than what is usually presented in British films. Familiar shots of the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus are interspersed with a close-up shot of a roulette table; a shot of an underground dive bar; and a shot of two prostitutes propositioning a man in an alleyway. Unlike the majority of British films of the period, which worked to preserve an image of London and Londoners as ultimately adhering to the law and to a high moral code, Murder in Soho explicitly positions Soho as a criminal space. Granted, the main criminal element in the film is foreign, but Joe Lane is British, as is Myrtle, Steve’s scorned ex who ends up killing him. Soho here is a lot seedier than the Soho portrayed in, for example, Piccadilly (1929).

Rather surprisingly, then, Murder in Soho also contains plenty of comic notes, and a few secondary characters who are only included to provide comedy relief. Most notably, the performing duo Green and Matthews, which weave throughout the narrative. Lola Matthews is portrayed by Googie Withers, who this early on in her career already had made a name for herself as an excellent comic actress. As Lola she patters on non-stop, innocently flirting with every man and completely oblivious that her dance partner Nick Green is besotted with her. A frequent club visitor whose role is simply credited as ‘Drunk’ provides diversion in scenes when he tries to eat with chop sticks or enters the dancefloor for a solo performance. These interludes do undercut the drama and suspense that the film attempts to create at other points.

Murder in Soho is a late-interwar curiosity – a film that tries to appeal to British audiences by inserting American glamour; a film that tries to be both serious and funny at the same time; and that ends up feeling like a painting-by-numbers effort that adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Murder in Soho is available on DVD from Network on Air

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Typist or servant?

The Daily Mirror was originally launched in 1903 as a newspaper specifically for women.[1] Although its original format was a commercial failure, after a re-launch as a picture paper the Mirror continued to cater to female audiences. As well as covering news stories, the paper also contained feature articles on topics of interest to women.

In November 1934, author Ellen Dorothy Abb wrote up a three-column article for the Mirror under the heading ‘Which is better off, typist or servant?’.[2] Alongside adverts for Phillips Rubber Soled Shoes, antiseptic ointment and a Vaseline for children, Abb sets out to convince the reader that a young girl is better off working as a servant than as a typist. Before the First World War, domestic service was one of the few types of employment available to uneducated women. By the mid-1930s, women had a range of other jobs they could choose from, for example in factories or, as Abb suggests, in offices.[3] Nonetheless, about a quarter of working women were domestic servants at the beginning of the 1930s.

The tone of Abb’s article, however, suggests that women needed convincing to enter domestic service. There was certainly a perception that young women, particularly in the cities, were keen to work in offices instead. Abb’s argument is primarily an economic one. Two-and-a-half of the three columns discuss the supposed material advantages of the servant’s job. These mainly concern the savings servants make on not having to pay for rent, transport or food (pre-supposing the servant in question lives with their employers full-time, which was an increasingly rare occurrence). She neglects to mention that unlike typists, servants had no entitlement to National Insurance benefits.

In Abb’s telling, the servant’s life seems almost luxurious compared to that of the typist:

[The servant] eats her excellent meals at leisure and never has to scamp them to catch a train or fit in half an hour’s shopping at lunch hour.[4]

This may well be true, but the prospect of an employer who can ring for you at any time of the day or night, including during mealtimes, is not raised. Nor is the very frequent occurrence of servants being given poorer quality food than their masters, mentioned. When discussing the daily routine, Abb’s juxtaposition of the typist and the servant stretches credulity even more:

[The servant] has none of the tiring morning and evening rush the typist knows, with washing and mending making further inroads into her scanty leisure, even if she has not to start cooking and cleaning when she gets home.[5]

Again, the generally much longer working hours of the servant are ignored, and there is no suggestion why the servant would not be required to do her personal mending after the chores of the house have been completed. In Abb’s telling, however, the servant’s life seems to be one mostly of leisure, whereas the typist is presented as having to work in ‘noisy, dusty, crowded offices, badly ventilated and using artificial light all day.’[6]

Abb then moves to that sleight-of-hand beloved of interwar journalists, and references an anonymous example which the reader is assured refers to a real person. In this case, a 35-year-old typist decided to switch careers to domestic service. Unsurprisingly, this ‘person’ found that they had more money to spare as a domestic, and they were berating themselves for not starting in service earlier as that would have allowed them to have progressed to a more senior position by now.

After setting out the case for the servant’s superior financial and domestic comfort at such lengths, Abb finally turns to the reasons why the majority of young women choose to ‘accept the pinching and scraping that goes with the typist’s life’ – complete freedom during leisure hours, social recognition, and the opportunity to meet friends and potential partners. Being a servant carried a certain social stigma, as Abb concludes that for most girls it would be too shaming to admit to a potential partner if they worked in service.

At the end of the article there is a call to action for the readers, inviting them to write in and give their opinion on the matter. The invitation is specifically to female readers, as the editors want to know ‘Which would you sooner be? If you are one or the other – would you like to change – and why?’ There is no follow-up article but a short notice printed on the following Tuesday that due to the sheer number of responses received, letter writers will not be getting an individual response – a time-honoured convention to give the illusion of popularity without having to provide any evidence for it.[7]

Clearly, the article taps into a wider debate on what constituted an appropriate job for a women. Female typists were a relatively new phenomenon in the 1930s, an evolution of the 1920s flapper which had caused considerable consternation in the British press. Abb and the Daily Mirror carefully calibrated the article to elicit responses from both those who believed women should go into domestic service, and those who thought being a typist was the better option. Ultimately, however, the article sets up an artificial rivalry between two groups of women in order to generate debate. Although the Mirror may be aimed at women and provide articles written by women, it is far from supportive to women.


[1] Adrian Bingham and Martin Conboy, Tabloid Century, (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015), pp. 8-9; Kevin Williams, Get me a murder a day!, 2nd ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2010) p. 55

[2] Ellen Dorothy Abb, ‘Which is better off, typist or servant?’, Daily Mirror, 16 November 1934, p. 12

[3] Miriam Glucksmann, Women Assemble: women workers and the new industries in inter-war Britain (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 52-3 

[4] Abb, ‘Which is better off’, p. 12

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Typist or Servant’, Daily Mirror, 20 November 1934, p. 10