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Night Work for ‘Phone Girls (1929)

An ubiquitous feature of books and films in the interwar period is the use of telephones, and therefore the presence of phone exchange operators. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, most phone calls in England were put through manual switchboards, which were owned by the Post Office and were mostly operated by young women. These operators would ask the caller which number they wanted to connect to, and then connect the wires on the switchboard to place the call. Switchboard operating became a ‘female’ job, because, in the words of the Science Museum: ‘The job of a switchboard operator took concentration, good interpersonal skills and quick hands. The Post Office, which ran the telephone service in the UK, soon realised that women and girls were much more skilled and reliable than the messenger boys who had first taken on the job.’

Switchboard operating fell into the same category as other jobs which were presumed to require nimble hands, such as hand-colouring films and working in confectionary and biscuit factories.[1] The operators were usually young because it was still the convention that women gave up paid work upon their marriage. There are plenty of anecdotes about regular callers getting to know ‘their’ switchboard operator. The romantic and dramatic potential of the job was effectively used by Maurice Elvey in his 1932 film The Lodger (The Phantom Fiend) in which a young female operator overhears a murder down the line.

In 1929, switchboard operators found themselves at the heart of a debate in which modernity and progress clashed with perceived notions of the suitability of female labour. The Daily Telegraph ran an article on 6 July of that year headlined ‘Night Work for ‘Phone Girls’ – note both the novelty of shortening the word ‘telephone’ and the referral to working women as ‘girls’, as was common practice. The article reports that the Postmaster General proposed to extend the shifts of female operators from 8pm to 10.30pm or 11pm. This would necessitate the hiring of more operators as an individual’s working hours would not increase, but rather a shift pattern would be introduced.

According to the article, the current convention to end women operator’s days at 8pm was maintained at the recommendation of ‘Parliamentary committees’ which were opposed to the employment of girls late at night. The Postmaster General however was of the opinion ‘that social conditions as they affect the employment of women have so changed in recent years’ that this rule could now be abandoned. The increased mobility of women in the immediate post-War period, as well as better access to public transport, had made women much more mobile after dark, and it was becoming commonplace for women to travel around at night.

Curiously, there is also reference to a ‘medical argument’ against women working at night. Although this argument is not spelled out, on suspects there would be concerns that night-work negatively impacts women’s health and may in turn affect their ability to have children. This argument is countered by the Postmaster General through reference to the extensive work women undertook during the Great War, which did not compromise their health.

So far for the social arguments against women working late at night – but the proposal to extend their shifts in the telephone exchange also touched on a recurring debate about jobs for men versus jobs for women. While the women’s roles were ending at 8pm, the evening shift in the exchanges was undertaken by part-time male operators, whose work was apparently ‘subject to a disproportionate number of complaints’. This appears to be the key reason the Post Office was proposing a change; they wanted to improve the service to their customers.

The part-time nature of these men’s contracts is pivotal: the Post Office stresses that for these men, the ‘post office pay is not intended to form their principal means of livelihood.’ [emphasis mine] If the proposal was for women to replace full-time male breadwinners, there would have been considerable opposition to it, even if it would improve the evening telephone service. During the interwar period, the narrative of the male head of household working to provide for his family was much supported.[2] It was regularly argued that women should not be ‘taking’ any roles that should go to male workers. The careful phrasing of the Postmaster General implies that the loss of labour would not be a hardship to any of these men; but it seems likely that for some of them, at least, the Post Office role was their primary income, and a redundancy would be keenly felt.

As this article demonstrates, an apparently simple desire to improve the telephone service for customers was enmeshed in wider debates and concerns that echoed throughout the interwar period. The attentive and powerful press industry could help or hinder an organisation’s ambitions by being either supportive or obstructive. During this period, heads of organisations such as the Post Office had to be acutely sensitive to the political environment even for innovations which may have appeared as strictly internal affairs.

You can see switchboard operators at work here at the International switchboard in London


[1] Miriam Glucksmann, Women Assemble: Women Workers and the New Industries in Inter-War Britain (London: Routledge, 1990)

[2] Christine Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: Class, Gender, and Nation in Popular Film and Fiction in Interwar Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)

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Glamour Girls

We’re going to have a closer look today at two articles that appeared in early issues of Picture Post. Picture Post was a weekly photojournalism magazine that was launched in Britain in 1938. Its pages contained a huge breath of articles and reportage, which covered topics from word politics to science and nature to fashion and entertainment. Due to the timing of its launch, and the fact that its founder and editor was the Jewish journalist Stefan Lorant, the first issues contain frequent criticism and condemnation of Nazi Germany. This political content was balanced with pieces on ‘lighter’ topics.

In November 1938 and May 1939, Picture Post ran two pieces on ‘Glamour Girls’. Together, these pieces give an insight into the position of young female stage performers in London at the end of the interwar period. By the end of the 1930s, ‘glamour girl’ was the name for the young women who danced on the stage as part of troupes – they were more commonly referred to as ‘chorus girls’ in the earlier part of the interwar period. The adoption of the term ‘glamour girl’ is symptomatic of the continued Americanization of British popular culture throughout the 1920s and 1930s – indeed, one of the Picture Post articles follows an American dance troupe in London.

The row of young, thin, white chorus girls who are all dressed alike and dance in perfect unison was a very recognizable feature of modern urban entertainment during the interwar period. The phenomenon has most famously been critiqued by Siegfried Kracauer in his essay ‘The Mass Ornament’ which originally appeared as a series of articles in the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1927. Kracauer, too, centres his analysis around an American troupe, the Tiller Girls – but British chorus girl troupes quickly sprang up to emulate the American original. Chorus girls appear in myriad British films of this period, from Friday the Thirteenth (1933) to The Show Goes On (1937).

But what of the glamour girl in news reportage? The first Picture Post article under consideration was published in the issue of 22 October 1938 and is entitled ‘A Glamour Girl’s Day’. This piece purports to give insight into the day-to-day life of a group of American dancers who were performing at the Dorchester hotel at that time. Why the show’s impresario, Mr Chester Hale, did not recruit British girls when he had to put on ‘the snappiest cabaret show’ possible, is not made clear. Chester Hale himself appears to have been an American; and it’s implied that American girls are better qualified for ‘snappy’ shows.

The piece both observes the dancers as a foreign species and reassures the readers that they are completely harmless; and it also does not neglect to draw attention to the girls’ physical features. The captions to some of the photos give a good indication of the article’s overall tone:

Hard-working, ambitious, well-educated, carefully chaperoned is the first-class glamour girl of to-day. Wanda Cochran has studied philosophy and public-speaking. Is studying now at the R.A.D.A. (…) Doris Call, a blue-eyed blonde from Virginia, is also studying at the R.A.D.A. She has six sisters, two brothers.

The piece makes much of the fact that the girls are very young – some of them are reported to be only 16. A few have brought their mothers and siblings with them for company; according to one of the mothers, she thinks dancing in a cabaret is much safer for a girl than going to high school (in America). The article runs the reader through a typical day for the troupe during their run at the Dorchester, and repeatedly stresses that the girls engage in wholesome activities such as learning about London and British history; educating their siblings; and improving their dancing and singing skills. It is also emphasised that they usually go home after they finish their shows at 1am – they very much do not go to nightclubs with young men.

Slipped in between the descriptions of the girls’ physiques (average weight 8 st 8 lbs; average height 5 ft 6 in) is the following:

Mr Hale gets a lump sum per week from the Dorchester. Out of that he pays the girls and their fares, and provides the dresses (…) the dresses have run him into a good many hundred pounds. The girls pay their own living expenses. Most of them stay in flats with various accompanying members of their family.

As the dancers have to pay for their own accommodation in central London, as well as their food and regular clothes and expenses, one suspects that they did not actually have any money left over to save. It is also not specified whether the fares for the ‘various accompanying members of their family’ were covered by the Dorchester. What the young women get out of the experience is the ‘glamour’ of their costumes, and the opportunity to learn more about British history and British culture; which covers up a precarious employment position that required them to temporarily relocate; work late hours; and forego traditional schooling.

The conditions of employment also receive attention in the second Picture Post article, printed on 6 May 1939 under the title ‘The Making of a Glamour Girl.’ Although this piece appeared only 6 months after the previous article, the tone differs markedly. The status of the glamour girl appears to have rapidly deteriorated; no longer does the article attempt to stress the career aspirations of glamour girls. Instead, the piece confidently states that ‘Few of them [glamour girls] have any stage ambitions, the majority realise their limitations and are content to be just glamorous.’

Indeed, the low requirements for the role are presented as a selling point:

To be a good Glamour Girl, a girl must possess four qualities. She must have good looks and a figure to match, she must be able to walk gracefully in time to music, she must know how to wear clothes, and she must be tall. No girl who has these attributes need starve or spend her days tapping on a typewriter, stage managers will only be too eager for her services.

The role of the glamour girl (now capitalized) is no longer presented as one that requires hard physical work or any skill, but instead is reduced purely to physical requirements. It is presented as an ideal job for a ‘fun’ girl who wants to make easy money; the jobs are alleged to pay at least £5 a week. The implication that this is a good wage is belied by the statement also included in the article, that many glamour girls work as fashion models and mannequins during the day. The apparent need to work two jobs, alongside the short ‘shelf life’ of the glamour girl (the article estimates the average girl’s stage career to last 3 or 4 years) do not signal this as a financially sound or stable career path. Through these articles, girls and young women were not encouraged to consider long-term benefits of education or jobs that could be done at any age, but instead were directed to consider a job in which one had to work relatively few hours and wear nice clothes, as desirable.

Of course, it would be amiss to imply that these articles were primarily aimed at aspiring glamour girls; both articles were clearly (also) an excuse to print photographs of slender young women in revealing outfits. The 1939 article is accompanied by a dozen photographs, nine of which show the performers in bathing suits or other similarly revealing performance outfits. The 1938 article mostly shows the girls dressed in everyday clothes, but allows the reader a glimpse ‘backstage’ with photos of the girls putting on make-up and putting on their shoes. Both articles present the reader with a fantasy of young, happy, untroubled dancers and only hint at the financial precarity these roles perpetuated.

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The Lodger (1927 and 1932)

This post is the second of a two-part mini series about Marie Belloc Lowndes’ story The Lodger. The first post considers the short story and novel Lowndes wrote. This post discusses two film adaptations of the book made in interwar Britain.

Marie Belloc Lowndes novel The Lodger, which appeared in 1913, was twice adapted for the screen during the British interwar period. The first, silent, adaptation was directed by Hitchcock in 1927; a sound remake directed by Maurice Elvey appeared five years later. Building on last week’s post which considered the differences between the short story version of The Lodger and the novelisation, this post unpicks the differences between the novel and the films.

The main difference between the novel and the screen adaptations is the identity of the Lodger. In the novel, there is no doubt that the lodger, Mr Sleuth, is responsible for a series of murders of women across London. The book’s tension is generated by the concern of Mr Sleuth’s landlady, Mrs Bunting, that the police are going to find out her lodger is a murderer, and how that will impact her own position. In both film versions of the story, the lodger is ultimately revealed to be a ‘good’ character, who is trailing the murderer in an attempt to stop him. Whilst Mrs Bunting in both films is equally as suspicious of her lodger, because he keeps leaving the house on nights that murders are committed, he is ultimately revealed to have honourable reasons for this.

Hitchcock has publicly claimed that this softer ending was foisted on him, and that he preferred the book’s ending. One presumes that the sound remake followed the same template for the sake of appeasing audiences familiar with the first film. Whilst the change makes the story feel a lot less sinister, it also aligns it more with expected film plots in which the main male character is revealed as a hero and suitable love interest for the female character.

This female character, Daisy (Mr Bunting’s daughter), is much more fleshed out in both films than she is in the book. The role is played by June Tripp in the first film, and by Elizabeth Allan in the second film. In the novel, Daisy is only present in the house every now and then, and she only meets Mr Sleuth face to face right at the book’s end. Generally, Daisy comes across as a bit dim and easily led. In a reflection of women’s increased participation in the workforce during the interwar years, Daisy has a job in both films. In the 1927 version, she is a mannequin for clothes – it is a job, but still one in which she is expected to be passive and decorative. In the 1932 film her job has changed to that of a telephone operator; in that capacity she overhears one of the murders as the victim desperately tries to ring for help.

In the films, Daisy plays a much more material part in the story, and her relationship with the Lodger is more substantial. In both films, she meets him at several points throughout the story and is on friendly terms with him. The fact that the lodger is played by film star and heartthrob Ivor Novello in both productions helps to present him as a viable love interest for Daisy. In the 1932 film, Daisy goes so far as to reject her original boyfriend in favour of the lodger. Again, these changes, which introduce a conventional young romance into the story, make the source material conform more closely to cinematic genre conventions.

Daisy’s original boyfriend, Joe Chandler in the book, also transforms between films. In the Hitchcock version, Joe is a police officer tasked with hunting down the murder, as he is in the novel. Like in the novel, Joe is oblivious to the possibility that the lodger is the murderer he is after – although of course unlike in the book, in the film the lodger is revealed to be innocent. Hitchcock also used the motif of the police officer who is blind to the guilt of those closest to him in his 1929 film Blackmail, so he perhaps appreciated the irony Lowndes built into the novel.

For the later film, Joe Chandler became John Martin, who is not a police officer but rather a tabloid reporter. By 1932 tabloid journalists had become much more socially visible as circulation figures of newspapers rapidly increased. In films, journalists were often presented as pseudo-detectives, collaborating with the police to investigate crimes. Perhaps it was felt that to change the Joe/John character from a police officer to a journalist was not too much of a change. John Martin is a ruthless reporter; at the start of the film, when Daisy witnesses a murder across the telephone line, he passes a picture of her on to his news desk without her consent. To her horror, Daisy finds the portrait printed on the paper’s front page the next day. John excuses this behaviour as he considers it his duty to present his bosses with all the scoops he gets. John’s inconsiderate behaviour paves the way for Daisy to ditch him for the lodger at the end of the film.

A final significant change between the novel and the 1932 film, specifically, is the identity of the lodger. In the book, Mr Sleuth is presented as a British gentleman, albeit one with possibly some foreign blood in him. In the Elvey film, the character is called Angeloff, and Novello plays him with a thick Ruritanian accent. The film’s resolution reveals that Angeloff has been on the trail of the murderer for many years, and that they have both travelled from a foreign country to Britain. Whereas the novel codes the criminal as domestic, the film explicitly presents him as a foreigner, who has wreaked havoc in Britain. The audience can rest assured that such horrific crimes would not be committed by a fellow citizen.

The Lodger enjoyed considerable popularity for decades after its release. However, throughout those years the story, which was originally closely modelled on the Jack the Ripper murders, developed to increasingly deviate from the original to reflect the changing times. The main element of the story, however – a man roaming around the streets at night killing young women – sadly remains relatable to audiences even to this day.

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The Lodger (1911 and 1913) – Marie Belloc Lowndes

This post is the first of a two-part mini series about Marie Belloc Lowndes story The Lodger. This first post considers the short story and novel Lowndes wrote. The next post discusses two film adaptations of the book made in interwar Britain.

Today’s post discusses two texts which were written before the Great War, but which had a great cultural impact in interwar Britain due to their popularity. The writer Marie Belloc Lowndes published her short story ‘The Lodger’ in McClure’s Magazine in 1911.[1] She then expanded the story out into a full-length novel which was published by Methuen in 1913.

The Lodger’s main character is Mrs Bunting, a retired domestic servant who lives with her husband just off the Marylebone Road. Mr and Mrs Bunting are very poor at the start of the story, until a mysterious lodger, Mr Sleuth, rents a room with them. Mr Sleuth pays handsomely, but before long Mrs Bunting gets suspicious that he may be responsible for a spate of murders in the capital. Young women are found murdered at night, and these discoveries seem to coincide with Mr Sleuth going for night-time walks.

After a few weeks, Mr Bunting’s daughter Daisy comes to stay with the family, and Mrs Bunting gets increasingly concerned that Mr Sleuth will harm Daisy if he meets her. In the book-length version of the story, there is a fifth character: Joe Chandler, a young and ambitious police officer who is a friend of the family and who is courting Daisy. As the murders start piling up, Joe often pops into the house to give the Buntings updates on the police investigation, but he never once suspects that Mr Sleuth is the killer.

The short story puts the reader in the middle of events, and then relates the arrival of Mr Sleuth into the Bunting’s house through Mrs Bunting’s internal recollections. Daisy visits the house only very briefly in this version of the story. The novelisation presents the action chronologically, and allows much more time for Mrs Bunting’s suspicions and fears to develop. It also expands on Mr Bunting’s thirst for news, which is presented almost as an addiction.

At the start of the book, when the Buntings find themselves in extreme poverty, Mr Bunting is described as buying a paper with one of his last pennies ‘[w]ith an eagerness which was mingled with shame.’[2] Throughout the book he keeps buying papers, rushing out as soon as the newspaper boys come down the street, and sometimes not even waiting to go back inside before reading them. Yet despite Mr Bunting reading every column of newsprint on the case, he does not suspect Mr Sleuth to be the murderer until he physically bumps into him on a late-night stroll and finds his coat covered in blood. In The Lodger, the newspapers sensationalise the case and function as a potentially harmful distraction for the masses, rather than aiding with the resolution of the case.

The police, also, don’t have any grasp on who the murderer may be. This theme is brought out more in the novel rather than the short story. In this expanded version, the character of Joe Chandler frequently provides the Buntings and the readers with updates on the police’s investigation. There are a few moments in the novel where accurate eye-witness accounts of Mr Sleuth are dismissed by the police. When Mrs Bunting attends the inquest of one of the murders, there is one witness who accurately describes Mr Sleuth, but he is ignored. When he tells the coroner that the murderer left the scene carrying a bag such as the one the reader knows Mr Sleuth to possess, ‘not a single reporter at the long, ink-stained table had put down that last remark of Mr. Cannot. In fact, not one of them had heard it.’[3]

When Joe Chandler follows up on a possible sighting of the murderer, ‘on one evening he described at immense length the eccentric-looking gent who had given the barmaid a sovereign, picturing Mr. Sleuth with such awful accuracy that both Bunting and Mrs. Bunting secretly and separately turned sick when they listened to him, he never showed the slightest interest in their lodger.’[4] It is Mrs Bunting, rather than the police or the reporters, who susses out very quickly that it is her lodger who is committing these crimes. Initially, she does not alert the police because her mind refuses to accept her suspicions. Later on, however, her reluctance to alert the police originates from the perceived shame that it will bring on her household. Bunting has the same fears once he gets suspicious about the lodger:

‘But Londoners of Bunting’s class have an uneasy fear of the law. To his mind it would be ruin for him and for his Ellen to be mixed up publicly in such a terrible affair. No one concerned in the business would give them and their future a thought, but it would track them to their dying day, and, above all, it would make it quite impossible for them ever to get again into a good joint situation.’[5]

Instead, Lowndes allows the Buntings to get rid of the lodger without having to report him, in an ending that is near-identical in both the short story and the novel. Daisy ends up staying with the Buntings for her 18th birthday. Mr Sleuth invites her and Mrs Bunting to come to see the waxworks in Madame Tussaud’s. Inside, a private party which includes the Head Commissioner of the Police, is just exiting the building. As they pass the Buntings and Mr Sleuth, the Commissioner is telling his guests that the police know the murderer is someone who previously committed murders elsewhere in Britain, and who had escaped a lunatic asylum just before the London murders started.

The Commissioner makes it clear he would recognise the man if he saw him again; yet when he crosses paths with Mr Sleuth on his way out of Madame Tussaud’s the Commissioner ‘passed by Mr Sleuth unconcernedly, unaware.’[6] The lodger, however, is furious; he believes Mrs Bunting tried to trap him. With an excuse, he hurries out of the Madame Tussaud emergency exit and is never seen by the Buntings again.

The Lodger was clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders which took place in 1888; and whilst its ending echoes the apparent disappearance of Jack the Ripper; and it allows the Buntings to continue their lives in peace, it does leave a murderer out on the streets, ready to strike again. Throughout the story and book, Lowndes spends virtually no time at all discussing the lodger’s victims; her concern is with how the strain of secrets and suspicion affects the Buntings’ marriage. With Mr Sleuth’s exit from the scene (and, in the book, the engagement of Daisy and Joe), their troubles are resolved.

Yet no thought is spared for the women navigating the streets at night. Although the identities of these women are not made explicit, it is suggested by Mrs Bunting that they are not ‘proper’ (in the short story, she refers to one of them as a ‘hussy’, although this reference is removed in the novel[7]). The implication is that respectable people like the Buntings should look out for themselves and do not need to have qualms about protecting those less fortunate. The Lodger provides a female-centred exploration of the strains of retaining respectability at all cost, written at a time when social status was imperative to many people.

The Lodger (novel) can be read for free at Project Gutenberg.


[1] Marie Belloc Lowndes, ‘The Lodger’, reprinted in Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales from the Weird City, ed. Elizabeth Dearnley (London: British Library, 2020), pp. 199-239

[2] Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger, (London: Methuen, 1913), chapter 1, accessed online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2014/2014-h/2014-h.htm

[3] Ibid., chapter 19

[4] Ibid., chapter 24

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lowndes, ‘The Lodger’, p. 237

[7] Lowndes, ‘The Lodger’, p. 215

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Death in a Taxi

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

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

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

Daily Mirror, 16 November 1923, p. 2

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

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

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

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

Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 9

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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The Squeaker (1937)

Today’s post is going to discuss another Edgar Wallace adaptation, as so many of his works were turned into films in interwar Britain. The Squeaker, also known as Murder on Diamond Row in the US, was made in 1937. The novel on which it is based was published ten years’ prior, in 1927. Wallace himself died in 1932 so although he is credited as a co-writer on the film, he had no active involvement in its production.

The Squeaker is directed by William K Howard, and American who came to Britain in 1937 to work for the – then already famous – producer Alexander Korda. The Squeaker was their first collaboration. The American link may be the reason why this film got more exposure in the US than most British interwar products; according to the film’s IMDb page, The Squeaker got broadcast on a number of regional US TV stations in a six-month period in 1948-1949, as part of a syndicated broadcast package.

The story of The Squeaker has all the elements of a British interwar crime story. There are criminals, police officers, journalists, and nightclub performers. Larry Graeme is a small-time jewellery thief. He sells his stolen goods on to a mysterious man known as ‘the Squeaker’. The Squeaker extorts his criminal suppliers; he offers a bad price for their goods but if they refuse him, he betrays them to the police. Larry is in love with the beautiful nightclub performer Tamara. Scotland Yard are after the Squeaker and the hard-drinking, gruff Inspector Barrabal goes undercover to investigate. Barrabal is friends with the journalist Joshua Collie, a crime reporter.

When Larry steals some valuable pearls and refuses to sell them on to the Squeaker, the latter makes sure Larry gets arrested. Larry escapes; the film’s climax takes place at a society party thrown by the affable businessman Sutton. Larry dies at the party; Barrabal gets accused of being the murderer. He however has realised that Sutton is the Squeaker and Larry’s killer, and the film ends in Sutton’s arrest and confession.

Contemporary reviewers have found the original novel uneven, hard to follow and poorly paced. Nevertheless, there have been no fewer than four film adaptations of the story. The first was made in Britain in 1930 and directed by Wallace himself. This version appears to stay close to the source material. A German film was made in the following year; and the Germans had another stab at it in 1963. (The popularity of Edgar Wallace adaptations in Germany is perhaps material for another post.)

The 1937 adaptation under consideration here is the only one who makes changes to the original novel. The biggest change is the addition of Tamara the nightclub dancer, whose character does not appear in either the source material or any of the other adaptations. In the film, Tamara’s nightclub performances are shown several times and at length. The inclusion of female nightclub dancers in films was a common trope in interwar British films, and they gave audiences an opportunity to enjoy the spectacle of the female body.

By introducing a nightclub dancer as a character, The Squeaker also opens up the nightclub space as one of the main sites of action in the film. The fictional club in the film is called the ‘Leopard Club’, and it is presented as a popular and high-end entertainment venue. However, the club is also the space where Larry can meet with Tamara. The film does not show the criminal Larry as being able to navigate any other public space, but in the nightclub he blends in with ease. In fact, the doormen of the club are shown to know Larry and greet him warmly when he arrives. The implication is clear: although the nightclub can be a fun space of entertainment and spectacle, it is also assumed to be a space on the margins of acceptable society, where criminals mix with non-criminal people.

Inspector Barrabal also moves in and out of the nightclub throughout the film, and easily builds rapport with Tamara. He is present at the club at the same time as Larry but makes no moves to arrest him; the nightclub’s status as a space almost outside of conventional frameworks, where everyone can mingle, is further underscored. The film later reveals that the inspector and the criminal know one another pretty well; they are sufficiently close that Barrabal can visit Larry in his apartment. The detective inspector is shown as someone who has to be able to build relationships of trust with anyone, and who plays the ‘long game’ in order to uncover a criminal plot.

Barrabal’s relationship with the journalist Joshua Collie does not quite have the same power dynamic as real-life 1930s journalists would liked audiences to have believed. Whereas real-life reporters liked to present themselves as indispensable to the police, because they could give them tips on live investigations, in The Squeaker the flow of information goes in the other direction.

Collie is unlike most cinematic journalists: rather than the stereotypical hard-nosed, ambitious hack, he is a fairly lazy man who rates his domestic comforts more highly than any professional success. In the film, Collie nearly gets fired by his editor because he is not chasing the Squeaker story as hard as reporters at other newspapers. However, Barrabal feeds him inside information from the investigation which allows Collie to impress his editor and save his job.

The purpose of Collie to Barrabal is not made very clear, yet Collie remains part of the action and is present at the film’s climax when Larry gets killed. There is a sense that by 1937, the crime reporter was considered such a staple part of the detective story that Collie’s character exists almost by default. He is there to complete the set of expected elements in the crime story; but his character is much less heroic or instrumental to the resolution of criminal cases than 1930s journalists liked to imagine themselves.

The 1937 film of The Squeaker does not feel uneven or poorly paced like readers have found the original novel. It is, however, difficult to find anything particularly objectionable in The Squeaker, but equally there are no original elements that make the film memorable.  There is a sense that by the late 1930s, British crime films were becoming so formulaic that filmmakers did not even question whether all the characters and elements were strictly necessary to the plot.

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Autobiography of an interwar journalist

JC (John Clucas) Cannell was a man of two, seemingly completely separate, careers. He was a Fleet Street journalist, but also a magician. In that latter capacity he became vice-president of The Magician’s Club. After his fellow (and more illustrious) Club member Harry Houdini died in 1926, Cannell wrote the book-length The Secrets of Houdini (1931)[1] which painstakingly explains exactly how each of Houdini’s famous tricks worked. In 1935 Cannell collaborated with Quaker Oats to distribute to Quaker customers copies of The Master Book of Magic[2]; again a book which explained how magic tricks worked.

Sources that relate to Cannell’s work as a magician are silent about his other career as a Fleet Street journalist. Yet the books Cannell wrote about magic show his reporting appetite. He was driven to lift the curtain on how magic worked; a stance that his fellow magicians did not necessarily appreciate. Cannell’s instinct to reveal the ‘truth’ to his readers would have served him well as a tabloid journalist in interwar London.

Aside from his books on magic, JC Cannell also wrote an autobiographical account of his work as a reporter: When Fleet Street Calls.[3] This book, which unfortunately has not been reprinted since its first issue, not only gives insight to journalism practices of the period but also to how journalists wanted to present themselves. In the 1930s British tabloid newspapers were in stiff competition with one another, and all tried to increase their circulation.

This decade also saw the launch of the first university-level course on journalism, at King’s College London.[4] There was ongoing public debate about the training and education of journalists. Traditionally most journalists had no formal qualifications but learnt on the job, usually starting out as teenagers on local and provincial papers before making the move to Fleet Street in their 20s. This group of journalists commonly stated that university graduates did not have enough ‘real-life experience’ to be good journalists. The counterargument was that journalists had a duty to explain increasingly complex political, technological and scientific news to their readers; and that without a formal education journalists would not be able to understand the topics they were reporting on.

Cannell’s autobiography is published in the midst of these discussions. In it, he builds a very specific picture of the job and the type of person suited to it. It is an early example of the mythologising of the journalist, that has been expanded on by many subsequent books and films.

For example, Cannell states authoritatively:

“In no profession are contrasts so swift and strange, or is life more full of the unexpected than in that of Fleet Street journalism.”[5]

And

“Because Fleet Street journalism is so unlike every other profession or occupation, the people who follow it are totally different from, may I say, the normal folk.”[6]

His argument is clear: journalism is a very varied job, and not everyone is cut out for it. The role’s fast pace requires stamina and wits. Cannell also implies that whether someone is ‘cut out’ to be a journalist is innate; you either are the right type of person or you are not. A university degree in the subject would not make any difference if you are part of the ‘normal folk’ who are not able to grapple with the challenges of the job.

A bit later on, Cannell addresses the arguments about journalists’ supposed lack of formal education, more head-on:

“There is at least as much culture and accomplishment per head in journalism as in any other of the professions, and the journalist has an additional advantage of more worldly knowledge and shrewdness than the others, apart from, I think I may say, the law.”[7]

The foregrounding here of ‘worldly knowledge and shrewdness’ again plays against the popular stereotype of the educated man as ‘bookish’; it evokes notions of journalists being scrappy and surviving on their wits.

The final part of the above quote concedes some respect only to those enforcing law and order, the most visible exponents of which were police. Cannell considers journalists and police officers as partners, with both groups contributing complimentary skills that allow criminals to be arrested. He describes reporting on a murder story, and going to visit the suspect’s family. Whilst Cannell is in their neighbourhood, he actually spots the main suspect:

“I was bound to inform the police that I had seen the wanted man. (…) The police are well aware that they cannot ignore the Press in their fight against crime, and I know of many cases in which detectives of national repute have asked the opinion of journalists covering a big murder story.”[8]

It is clear that in Cannell’s view journalists, like everyone else, had a duty to respect the rule of law. However, he also makes it clear that in his opinion, the police would not get very far without assistance from journalists. Although it is no doubt true that journalists occasionally provided the police with tips and information, the same happened in the other direction. The police were able to use the press to their advantage when they needed information, such as the description of a suspect, to be distributed quickly. The relationship between police and journalists was more symbiotic than Cannell wants to make it appear. He prefers a more macho representation in which even the police are dependent on the tough journalist to give them clues.

It unfortunately goes almost without saying that Cannell’s ideal, imagined journalist is indisputably male. Although women had worked in British journalism since the Victorian times, and their numbers increased steadily in the run-up to the Second World War, Cannell does not acknowledge their existence at all. Cannell’s description of his job implies that it is unsuitable for women; for example, he boasts that when King George V was seriously ill in 1928, Cannell spent eight nights outside Buckingham Palace, waiting for news.[9] He also describes that journalists can receive a call from their editor any time of the day or night that requires them to stop what they are doing and pursue a story.[10] These working conditions were simply not safe or feasible for women, particularly if they had caring responsibilities.

JC Cannell’s autobiography not only gives insight to the working conditions of tabloid journalists in the interwar period; it also shows how journalists of that period wanted to present the profession. He describes journalism as a challenging job, one that only those with natural aptitude are able to succeed at. Cannell also presents journalism as an essential part of the law enforcement apparatus, to give the profession more legitimacy. When Fleet Street Calls purports to reveal to the reader the inner workings of tabloid journalism, in the same way that Cannell’s magic books revealed the workings of magic tricks. However, in reality the journalism book rather reveals to the reader contemporary attempts to shape the image of journalism in the public imagination.


[1] JC Cannell, The Secrets of Houdini (London: Hutchinson & Son, 1931). The book was re-issued in 1973 by Dover Publications in New York – that version is still readily available for purchase.

[2] JC Cannell, The Master Book of Magic (London: Quaker Oats Ltd, 1935). Second-hand copies of this book are also available online.

[3] JC Cannell, When Fleet Street Calls: being the experiences of a London journalist (London: Jarrolds ltd, 1932)

[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. 14

[5] Cannell, When Fleet Street Calls, p. 92

[6] Ibid., p. 200

[7] Ibid., p. 201

[8] Ibid., p. 177

[9] Ibid., p. 140

[10] Ibid., p. 100

Grace Blackaller

FeaturedGrace Blackaller

Grace Blackaller was born in 1909 and murdered on 9 April 1925. She was a sixteen-year-old amateur dancer who loved going to the cinema. Her murderer was her boyfriend, Ernest Rhodes, aged nineteen. Grace’s murder provided tabloid fodder for about two weeks in April 1925 and has since been completely forgotten.[1] The murder of women by their partners sadly remains so commonplace that it is still treated as ‘normal’. In Grace’s case, newspapers were also quick to suggest her own behaviour was somehow at fault.

The newspaper reports immediately after the murder, which are reasonably sympathetic to Grace, hint at a family set-up that is not straightforward. Grace lived in a lodging in Nevern Square, a few minutes from Earls’ Court tube station; according to her landlady she had lived there for four years so since they age of 12.[2] Her mother, however, lived on Challoner Street, which is on the other side of Warwick Road near West Kensington tube. Both locations are about a 15- minute walk apart.

It was on the corner of Challoner Street that Grace was attacked on that Thursday evening. She managed to get to her mother’s doorstep where ‘Her mother found her on the doorstep of her flat with a wound in her throat. Miss Blackaller could only mumble “a man attacked me” and died in hospital without revealing the secret of her murderer’s identity or any detail of the attack.”[3]

The mystery of the attack was sufficient for a number of tabloids to give the story front-page news, and to include a picture of Grace with the reports as well. Grace’s landlady told the Daily Mirror that Grace was working as a dressmaker and a dance teacher, and although ‘she went out a great deal at night to dances and things’ this was ‘like most girls these days’ and Grace had ‘never seen (…) with a boy.’[4] The Express printed a similar line, that ‘Miss Blackaller was not known to be on friendly terms with any particular man.’[5] In these initial reports, when it is assumed that the attack was conducted by a random stranger, Grace’s behaviour is represented as normal for the period and no moral judgements are made about her.

Grace Blackaller,
Daily Mirror, 11 April 1925, front page

The newspapers only changed their tune about Grace when the story developed further, and a murderer came forward. Press reports no longer presented Grace as a wholesome girl who had fallen victim to a random attack when it became apparent that Grace had been killed by her boyfriend, Ernest. Ernest turned himself in to the police on 11 April, when he read in the newspaper that Grace had died – he claimed that he had thought he only injured her.[6]

According to his account, on the 9th of April the couple went to the Blue Hall Cinema in Ravenscourt Park. They got back to West Kensington at about 11pm, and Ernest walked Grace home. Ernest thought his girlfriend had been stringing him along, and he suspected her of seeing other boys. When she did not take his concerns seriously, he took a razor from his pocket and slashed her throat while they were kissing.

This revelation changed the press’s coverage of the case. Sympathy for the ‘pretty young dancer who was fond of gaiety’ gave way to concerns about young girls’ ‘double lives.’[7]  At the final day of the inquest, the coroner read out a letter he had received from a concerned citizen. According to the coroner, the letter expressed ‘common-sense views,’ including the notion that girl murder victims ‘were forward minxes and made advances to young men, stayed out late at night, frequented cinemas and dance places, and had evidently been allowed to run loose.’[8] Suddenly, the previous reports that Grace’s interests in dancing and cinema were normal for girls her age, were inverted to suggest that the fact that these habits were normal was an indication of a moral and social problem.

The text of the letter was uncritically reprinted in several daily newspapers. The Director of the Liverpool Women’s Patrol stated publicly that she agreed with the letter-writer’s assessment of young girls’ lives.[9] The coroner’s decision to read out this letter during the inquest demonstrates that it was accepted that he would have an opinion on the moral aspects of the case as well as on forensic facts.

The opinion of a single member of the public was presented by the coroner as the belief of the general public, and its subsequent endorsement by the conservative press cemented it as the commonly held view. According to a contemporary journalism trade journal, voicing concerns about the modern girl sold newspapers in the interwar period the way a sensational murder sold them before the First World War. [10] In the reporting on Grace Blakaller, the popular press had managed to combine both ingredients into a successful multi-part story which reaffirmed that it was safer for a woman to stay at home and not have romantic relationships.

To further demonstrate how deeply the narrative that Grace was at fault for her own plight was embedded, these were Ernest Rhodes’ lawyer’s comments when Rhodes was committed for trial: ‘without eliminating the question of provocation, (…) my defence will be – and I shall call on the highest medical evidence to support it – that he [Rhodes] did not know the nature and quality of the act or that, if he did know, he did not know he was doing wrong.’[11]

In other words, the first line of defence was that Grace provoked Ernest, which, it was implied, would diminish his culpability. The second line was that Rhodes did not know that running a razor across someone’s throat could lead to that person dying; and the third line was that Rhodes did not realise that committing an act of violence was wrong. It was this final argument that would be successful; Rhodes was committed to an asylum rather than prison and was released for good behaviour in 1933.

Again, the press reporting partially paved the way for this, as Rhodes was described as ‘a boy with rather a lot of peculiarities’ who was ‘constantly talking about Norman Thorne’ – a young man who had killed his girlfriend in December 1924 and who was awaiting his execution in April 1925.[12] Obsession with a killer was presented as a sign of insanity which, in combination with the narrative that had been constructed around Grace’s ‘provocative’ lifestyle, allowed Rhodes’ legal counsel to mount a successful defence. The daily press was instrumental in influencing the public’s opinion about this case which limited public sympathy for Grace and painted her as culpable for her own murder.


[1] Except by amateur historians and true crime enthusiasts who have pored over the story on internet fora

[2] ‘Murdered Girl: Woman’s Story’, Daily Mirror, 11 April 1925, p. 15

[3] ‘Dance Girl Murdered in London’, Daily Express, 11 April 1925, p. 1

[4] ‘Murdered Girl: Woman’s Story’

[5] ‘Girl Murdered in London’, Daily Express, 11 April 1925, p. 7

[6] ‘Dead Girl Dancer: Story of Youth’s Written Confession’, Daily Mirror, 14 April 1925, p. 2

[7] ‘Murdered Girl: Woman’s Story’; ‘Double-Life Girls’, Daily Express, 23 April 1925, p. 2

[8] ‘Dancing Girl’s Death’, The Times, 23 April 1925, p. 14; ‘Dead Dancer: Boy For Trial’, Daily Mirror, 23 April 1925, p. 21; ‘Double-Life Girls’.

[9] ‘Girls’ Double Lives’, Daily Mirror, 24 April 1925, p. 2

[10] Newspaper World, April 1927, as quoted in Adrian Bingham, Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 48

[11] ‘Dance Girl Drama’, Daily Mirror, 29 April 1925, p. 2

[12] Ibid.