Freeman Wills Crofts – The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

FeaturedFreeman Wills Crofts – The 12.30 from Croydon (1934)

Freeman Wills Crofts today is not one of the more famous writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, he was a prominent and early member of the Detection Club, a select circle of crime authors that included Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers and others. T.S Eliot rated Crofts as ‘the finest detective story writer to have emerged during the Twenties.’[1] An engineer by training, Crofts’ detective stories often include modes of transport which he describes in exact detail. In Mystery in the Channel, published in 1931, two dead bodies are found on a yacht in the English Channel. The eventual unravelling of the case by Crofts’ regular police protagonist, Inspector French, hinges on the exact timings several vessels embarked on their journey, their relative speeds, and the weather conditions.

The title of Inspector French’s 1934 outing, The 12.30 from Croydon, would have immediately communicated to a contemporary audience that airplanes, not boats, were the mode of transport under scrutiny this time. Like Christie’s more famous Death in the Clouds, published the following year, Crofts’ murder victim dies whilst up in the air.

The 12.30 from Croydon opens with a delightful chapter told from the perspective of the murder victim’s ten-year-old granddaughter Ruby, who is terribly excited that she will be flying for the first time. Ruby, her father Peter, her grandfather Andrew, and Andrew’s butler Weatherup are all due to fly to Paris because Ruby’s mother Elsie has been in a traffic accident in the French capital. Crofts’ engineer’s eye for detail is evident in this opening chapter, which describes the Imperial Airways plane the family board:

It was just a huge dragonfly with a specially long head, which projected far forward before the wings like an enormous snout. And those four lumps were its motors, two on each wing, set into the front edge of the wing and each with its great propeller twirling in front of it. And there was its name, painted on its head: H, E, N, G, I, S, T; HENGIST.’[2]

‘Hengist’ was the colloquial name for a real Imperial Airways plane which until 1934 (the year of the book’s publication) flew on the European routes. It was subsequently converted to fly long-distance and as far as Australia, until the plane was destroyed in an accident in 1937. Once up in the air, Ruby and her family are served a ‘four-course lunch followed by coffee, all very nice and comfortably served’.[3] When they land, disaster strikes: Andrew Crowther, Ruby’s grandfather, is found unresponsive and declared dead.

A contemporary photo of the real Hengist plane standing outside Croydon Aerodrome, taken from A Million Miles in the Air,
the memoirs of pilot Gordon P. Olley, published in 1934

After the murder in the opening chapter, Wills Crofts shifts perspective and takes the reader back in time. The 12.30 from Croydon is a ‘psychological crime novel’ – rather than the reader trying to work out who has committed the murder and how, the author takes the reader into the mind of the murderer as he plots out his murder and attempts to escape justice. Andrew Crowther’s murderer, as it turns out, is his nephew Charles Swinburn. Charles is the managing director of the Crowther Electromotor Works, a firm originally set up by Andrew and his business partner Henry Swinburn. Although modest in size, the firm had been flourishing under Andrew’s leadership.

By the early 1930s, however, Charles is finding it impossible to stay afloat in the challenging economic environment following the 1929 Wall Street crash. Having already sunk his personal capital and a bank loan into the business, Charles approaches his uncle for financial help. Andrew, however, is not willing to give more than £1000, when Charles needs at least £6000. Knowing that he is one of the two heirs to Andrew’s estate (alongside Andrew’s daughter Elsie), Charles devises his plan to kill Andrew.

Charles method for murdering Andrew is one also used on occasion in other crime novels of the period. Andrew takes a ‘patent medicine’ against indigestion after lunch each day. Patent medicine were mass-produced pills designed to remedy common ills. Unlike more traditional medicine which was prescribed by a doctor and then mixed up to order by a pharmacist, patent medicines were available in standardized bottles and could be purchased without a doctor’s prescription.

In novels of the 1920s and 1930s they are often treated with disdain and considered to be inferior to the personalised prescriptions that a doctor would give out. However, their wide availability and uniform appearance also made them an ingenious murder weapon. Charles buys a bottle of pills identical to the one Andrew uses, but replaces one of the pills with a pill filled with potassium cyanide, an extremely lethal poison. Like in the Poirot short story ‘Wasps’ Nest’, Charles manages to obtain the poison with the excuse that he needs to eradicate a wasps nest from his garden. When at dinner with Andrew, Charles distracts him and swaps the pill bottles, pocketing Andrew’s bottle and replacing it with the one that contains the one deadly pill. He then books himself onto a Mediterranean cruise to be out of the way when Andrew eventually takes the poisoned pill.

Although the murder plan works and Charles duly inherits half of Andrew’s estate, Charles swiftly finds out that murderers rarely rest easily. First Weatherup reveals that he has seen Charles swap the pill bottles, and starts blackmailing him. Charles swiftly decides to kill Weatherup, too. Then Inspector French arrives and starts asking some awkward questions. The arrest, when it inevitably comes, takes Charles by surprise. It is not until the final chapter of the book that the reader is shown how Inspector French conducted his investigation, and how his powers of deduction led him to correctly identify Charles as the murder. The perfect murder plan conceived by Charles is revealed to have had some rather large holes in it.

Charles is duly condemned to death and executed. There is less moral ambiguity in The 12.30 from Croydon than, for example, Anthony Berkeley’s Malice Aforethought, or even than in Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive. Although Andrew Crowther is not a hugely sympathetic character, there is no doubt to the reader that Charles’ actions are wrong, and that the policing and justice systems will catch up with him and serve him the expected sentence. The book’s reversed structure allows Wills Crofts to reveal Inspector French’s intellect in the final chapter, transmitting the reassuring fiction to the reader that no matter how well one may think they have planned a crime, the men from Scotland Yard will always ensure that justice is dispensed.


[1] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), p. 75

[2] Freeman Wills Crofts, The 12.30 from Croydon (London: British Library, 2016), p. 16

[3] Ibid., p. 19

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Leonard Gribble – The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 119

[5] Ibid., p. 19

[6] Ibid., p. 38

[7] Ibid., p. 171

[8] Ibid., p. 106

Trouble Brewing (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

George subjected to a wrestling match in Trouble Brewing

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

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

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

George under the table in Trouble Brewing

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

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

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

The General Strike of 1926

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Gaunt Stranger (1938)

Featured<strong>The Gaunt Stranger (1938)</strong>

As has been noted previously on this blog, the work of detective fiction writer Edgard Wallace was often used as source material for British interwar films. Wallace was a prolific writer, so despite his early death in 1932, there were plenty of opportunities to translate his work to the screen for years afterwards. One such crime thriller is 1938’s The Gaunt Stranger. What sets this story apart from most British interwar crime fodder is that, very unusually, the criminal escapes the police at the end of the story.

Like so many interwar texts, The Gaunt Stranger existed in multiple formats and under different titles. Wallace originally published the story as a novel in 1925 under the title The Gaunt Stranger. Shortly after its publication, Wallace adapted it for the stage in collaboration with celebrated acter Gerald Du Maurier under the same name. In 1926 Wallace re-published the novel, now titled The Ringer, with some modifications to the text based on the stage production. The Ringer appears to have been put on stage again in 1929, and was also adapted as a film in Britain in 1928, 1931 and 1952. The second of these films was directed by Walter Forde, who in 1938 directed the story again under the auspices of Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios, but this time under the book’s original title.

The story of The Gaunt Stranger is almost as intricate as its production history. Set over a period of only 48 hours, it centres on lawyer-cum-criminal Maurice Meister, who receives warning that he is to be killed on 17 November, in two days’ time, by the notorious criminal ‘The Ringer’. Everyone in England, including Scotland Yard, believed the Ringer to have been killed two years’ previously in Australia. After the Ringer’s apparent death, Meister took in the Ringer’s sister as his secretary. It is insinuated that his relationship with the woman was more than just professional, and she committed suicide on 17 November the previous year. The Ringer appears to have come back from the dead to avenge his sister.

The Scotland Yard team is made up of DI Alan Wembury, Scottish police surgeon Dr Lomond, and Inspector Bliss, who has recently returned from Australia and who was the man who ostensibly killed the Ringer two years previously. Wembury calls in the help of small-time criminal Sam Hackett, who is one of the few men in England who would be able to recognise the Ringer. Wembury also has an admiration for Meister’s current secretary, Mary Lenley, whose brother Johnnie is also a criminal recently released from Dartmoor. Finally, in the course of the investigation the police identify and question Cora Ann, the Ringer’s American wife.

DI Alan Wembury and Mary Lenley in The Gaunt Stranger

With a runtime of only 71 minutes and a comprehensive cast of characters with complicated interrelations, The Gaunt Stranger moves at a rapid pace. Nonetheless, Forde makes effective use of repeated panning shots of empty rooms inside Meister’s house. The film opens with several shots of these empty rooms, ending with a shot of Meister playing his piano. Similar shots are repeated several times during the film, to stress Meister’s solitary living arrangements and highlight his vulnerability. As the 17 November dawns, Scotland Yard effectively imprison Meister in his own house to ensure he stays safe. Little do they know that the danger will not be coming from outside the house.

The closed circle of characters and the physical closure of Meister’s house set The Gaunt Stranger up as a classic murder mystery. What remains unclear until the end, however, is the identity of the Ringer himself. Johnnie, the criminal brother of secretary Mary, is a possible contender. More suspicious is inspector Bliss, who so recently returned from Australia. He acts oddly throughout the film, and seems reluctant to trust Wembury or collaborate fully with the investigation. Wembury does not know Bliss personally, opening up the possibility of him being someone other than who he pretends to be. Cora Ann also behaves oddly, first insisting that her husband is dead, before changing her story and admitting that he is still alive.

Johnnie Lenley and Sam Hackett in The Gaunt Stranger

Meister himself is also anything but a sympathetic character. Like other books of the period, Wallace opted to make his victim an unpleasant character, so that the audience is not too concerned whether the murder is prevented or not. More unusually, however, Wallace also arranged for the Ringer, when his identity is eventually revealed, to make a spectacular escape from the police and the country. Once the Ringer’s identity is confirmed, it is clear to the audience in retrospect that Cora Ann has been playing along with her husband throughout the film. Their escape, which involves piloting a plane from a nearby airfield, was clearly planned in advance.

The Ringer and Cora Ann escape in The Gaunt Stranger

The police in The Gaunt Stranger are depicted as organised and capable. They effectively arrest multiple people throughout the film and are not fooled by Meister’s attempts to come across as a respectable lawyer – they are fully aware of his criminal activities. When Sam Hackett, the criminal informer, attempts to steal some of Meister’s silverware, he is apprehended by a Bobby almost immediately. Johnnie, too, is arrested as soon as he tries to break into a house. The film puts some of the police’s technological infrastructure on display, such as telegrams and cars wired with radios. Nevertheless the Ringer’s unscrupulous nature allows him to escape despite the police’s efforts. The Gaunt Stranger is one of the few British interwar films which entertains the possibility of a fallible police force that can be outwitted by master criminals.

The Gaunt Stranger is available on DVD from Network on Air.

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Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook (1934)

The Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829. From the beginning, its operations were based on ‘uniform patrol of regular beats in full and open public view’ to assuage concerns that any centrally controlled police form would become a state spying apparatus.[1] The introduction of plain-clothes detectives into the force was therefore slow. It was not until 1869 that each division of the Metropolitan Police got its own detectives, and a centralised Criminal Investigation Department (CID) wasn’t formed until 1878.[2]

Once detectives were established as a permanent part of the police force, leaders at the Metropolitan Police and its counterparts across the country and Empire were keen to ensure consistency of practice. To that effect, in 1906 the Crown and Public Prosecutor in Madras published the first English translation of a work by the Austrian Hans Gross.[3] Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter als System der Kriminalistik, or Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook as it became known in England was originally aimed at lawmakers and police officers in colonial areas. A revised edition was published in 1924, and a third edition appeared in 1934. This third edition was edited by Norman Kendal, then Assistant Commissioner for Crime in the Metropolitan Police.

The work, aiming to be ‘a practical textbook of instruction for all engaged in investigating crime’[4], runs to 569 pages. Although police detectives tended to have been slightly better educated than patrolling constables,[5] it seems unlikely that they all read and memorised the detailed instructions of Criminal Investigation. Moreover, the book provided instructions on best practice, but most of its contents were not legally binding. In short, the book likely tells us more about the ideal of police investigation than of its day-to-day reality. Nonetheless, it helps us understand how interwar police officers, magistrates and prosecutors understood crime.

During the interwar period, the police did not just investigate a crime up to the point of charging an individual, but were also responsible for collating evidence for the police courts. This often involved working with experts. No wonder then that nearly 100 pages in the book set out ‘The Expert and how to make use of him (sic)’. Specific items include ‘preservation of parts of a corpse’ and ‘colour-blindness’ (‘more widespread and more important than generally believed’).[6] The section on fingerprints was extensively re-written for the third edition, this area of work ‘having advanced by leaps and bounds even since 1924.’[7]

Beyond the practicalities of running a sound investigation, Criminal Investigation also sets out in detail supposedly common practices of various types of criminal. ‘Wandering Tribes’ receive a chapter all of their own, marking Gypsies and Travellers as particularly likely to engage in criminal behaviour – although it debunks the myth that Gypsies steal children (‘It must also be remembered that gipsies (sic) are very prolific and in consequence have no need to bring up other people’s children’).[8]

Criminals ‘shamming’ various afflictions such as blindness, deafness or even epilepsy was apparently a regular enough occurrence to warrant inclusion here, as were criminal superstitions. The reader is told how fortune tellers who claim to have ‘discovered’ the guilty party through divination, tarot cards, or their intuition can derail an investigation. Women in particular are claimed to put investigators on the wrong foot with their ‘presentiments’.[9] There is no practical advice on how to handle such a situation as an investigator other than, presumably, to roundly ignore any tips received through paranormal means.

The third section of the book deals with the skills investigating officers must possess, such as drawing and modelling of crime scenes; observing footprints; and finding traces of blood. Again there is a suggestion that criminals have their own communal language in a chapter on ciphers, which is given in addition to a short list of criminal slang.

The final section of the book categorises particular offences, including ‘Bodily Injuries and Poisoning’; ‘Theft’; ‘Cheating and Fraud’; ‘Arson’ and ‘Serious Accidents and Boiler Explosions’ (split up between ‘False Theories’ and ‘Admissible Theories’). Murder is not included as a category, as murderers were believed to mostly be ‘crimes of impulse’ and very few serial killers were known (Jack the Ripper being an obvious exception).[10] When speaking of ‘criminals’, police inspectors tended to mean those who were repeat offenders, often sticking to the same type of crime such as burglary.

Criminal Investigation was from the outset designed to be used across the British Empire. However, its origins as a Western European text does make one wonder its usefulness for lawmakers and detectives in, for example, India. There is little to no consideration of cultural differences. The impression created is that criminals, like lawmakers, are a homogenous group who behave the same regardless of their physical location or background. This demonstrates how handbooks like Criminal Investigation fostered the consolidation of the British Empire through their discourse.


[1] Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 56

[2] Haia Shpayer‐Makov, ‘Becoming a Police Detective in Victorian and Edwardian London’, Policing and Society, 14:3, (2004) 250-268, (pp. 251-253)

[3] John Adam and J Collyer Adam, Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook, 3rd edition, edited by Norman Kendal (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1934), p. xii

[4] Ibid., p. xiv

[5] Shpayer-Makov, ‘Becoming a Police Detective’, p. 263

[6] Adam and Adam, Criminal Investigation, p. 125

[7] Ibid., p. xii

[8] Ibid., p. 248

[9] Ibid., p. 262

[10] Frederick Porter Wensley, Forty Years of Scotland Yard (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 [1931]), p. 86

Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

FeaturedLooking on the Bright Side (1932)

By 1932, Gracie Fields was already a huge star. Although she’d only appeared in one film, 1931’s Sally in Our Alley, she had been a major stage star and popular singer since the mid-1920s. After the big success of her first film, it was quickly followed up with a second one which showcases both Field’s singing talent and her comic wit.

In Looking on the Bright Side Fields plays Gracie, first in a series of film roles in which her character have her name, to provide the illusion that she is essentially playing herself. Gracie is a manicurist who lives in a flat in a modern housing estate in London. Her boyfriend, Laurie, is a hairdresser in the same beauty parlour, and lives in a flat opposite Gracie. He is also a budding songwriter who is looking for his big break.

Directors Basil Dean and Graham Cutts make the most of the stage set with its symmetrical staircases running up the front of the building. During the film’s opening, all inhabitants of the estate sing along to Laurie’s newest song in a scene reminiscent of stage musicals. Laurie’s song is the titular ‘Looking on the Bright Side’ which reflects the particular brand of working-class optimism on which much of Fields’ stage persona traded.

Gracie and Laurie in their adjacent flats in Looking on the Bright Side

In the beauty parlour, where Laurie and Gracie work as a team on actress Josie Joy. When the couple tell Josie about Laurie’s new song, she offers to introduce them to her manager, Oscar Schultz. Gracie is sceptical but Laurie enthusiastically jumps at the chance to further his career. When Laurie’s song is a success with Schultz, Laurie gives up his hairdressing job and is swept off his feet by the attentions of Josie Joy.

Laurie doing Miss Josie Joy’s hair in Looking on the Bright Side

Gracie is left behind on the estate. She loses her job when the arrogant Josie Joy comes in for a manicure and Gracie is unable to treat her civilly. After briefly taking a job as a female police officer – a section of the film mostly used to showcase Fields’ comic talent – Laurie sees the error of his ways and he and Gracie reunite for a big singalong at the estate.

Fields’ celebrity persona was inextricably linked with her own, working-class Lancashire roots. She retained her strong northern accent throughout her career, and her films celebrate working-class community over individual fame and riches. The class conflict in Looking on the Bright Side is introduced when Laurie is first invited to play his songs for Oscar Schultz. When Laurie and Gracie arrive at Schultz’ suite at the Dorchester Hotel, a busy cocktail party is in full swing. The women present call each other ‘darling’ and use expressions like ‘it’s a scream!’ – expressions which the down-to-earth Gracie would never use.

After Laurie and Gracie perform their song, Schultz singles out Gracie and tries to persuade her to agree to a role in his next musical production. Although Schultz’ intentions appear to be honourable, his way of cornering Gracie and persuading her to drink another cocktail put her off, and she declines his offer. Laurie, in the meantime, is sitting at the piano surrounded by women and does not want to leave the party with Gracie. Instead he stays out till 3.30am, much to Gracie’s dismay.

Laurie’s dreams to make it big in showbusiness are portrayed as naïve and, to a certain extent, wrong. This is partly because his talent as a songwriter is limited; without Gracie, he struggles to write good songs and eventually Schultz sacks him. Gracie, on the other hand, is genuinely talented but is not interested in pursuing fame. Instead, she prioritises the community of the estate over individual ambition.

The sense of community is not only shown in the estate-wide singalongs that bookend the film, but also in Gracie’s relationship with her neighbour Hetty and Hetty’s young daughter Bettina. No explanation is given for Bettina’s absent father. Hetty works as a police officer and Gracie frequently looks after Bettina when Hetty is on duty. The very warm and natural relationship between Fields and the child actor provides a strong counterpoint to the vacuous lovemaking between Laurie and Miss Joy.

Fields acting with Bettina Montahners in Looking on the Bright Side

The section in which Gracie signs up with the Metropolitan Police has little relevance to the plot. Female police officers were still relatively rare in 1932, and they were certainly not regularly portrayed on screen. Predicably, the rigid enforcement of rules within the corps is used to set up some physical slapstick comedy situations for Fields. Although Fields quickly decides to leave the Police force, it is not the notion of female police officers which is rejected, but rather the idea that Fields herself would be suitable in such a controlled environment.

Looking on the Bright Side takes a reasonably meta approach to the business of song writing and song-selling, as the film itself was clearly a vehicle for selling records and sheet music of the songs it includes. At the same time, it obfuscates its own part in commercial song writing by presenting other careers and industries as more valuable and viable.

Listen to Gracie Fields sing ‘Looking on the Bright Side’
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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