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Notorious interwar murders (part 1)

This blog post is the first of a three-part series on notorious interwar murders. The next part of the series will be published over the next weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid., pp. 17-18

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

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

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

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

[7] Ibid., p. 628

[8] Ibid., p. 641

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Mr Smith Wakes Up (1937)

Although the 1930s are primarily remembered for the rise of right-wing politics across Europe, including the increased popularity of the British Union of Fascists (see blog posts here and here), there were of course also activists on the left of the political spectrum. Although the Labour party served in the opposition rather than the Government from 1931 until the outbreak of the Second World War, the 1930s saw the start of some social reforms, particularly in housing and medical care.

In 1937, the Co-op sponsored a short film designed to encourage viewers to question some of the tenets of capitalism and free markets. This information film, Mr Smith Wakes Up, would have been shown in cinemas as part of a mixed programme of features, newsreels and cartoons. Advertisement films from the period were often also lengthy and designed as mini-narratives, making them quite close in appearance to this short film. Mr Smith Wakes Up, however, does not aim to sell goods but rather to influence people’s political thinking.

In Mr Smith Wakes Up, we are introduced to William and Elizabeth, a middle-aged and fairly wealthy couple who live in a nice suburb in a house called ‘Utopia’. Their house is worth a couple of thousand pounds and all the other people in the area are of the ‘better class’ which William defines as them being ‘mostly on the stock exchange.’ The vast majority of houses sold in 1930s Britain were worth less than a thousand pounds, so it would have been immediately clear to the contemporary viewer that William and Elizabeth are well-off. They also still keep a parlour maid and a cook, despite the ever-increasing servant problem significantly raising the cost of keeping servants.

William and Elizabeth are unexpectedly visited by Mr Smith, a friend of their son who had been to Africa. We never learn Mr Smith’s first name or which part of Africa he is from. By his own accord, he has come to the ‘great civilization’ of Britain to learn how it is set up, so that he can take it back to his tribe which he himself describes as ‘very primitive people’. For the remainder of the film, Mr Smith asks William and Elizabeth about how things like housing, medical care and food distribution are arranged in Britain. William consistently takes the position defending capitalism and the free market, whereas Elizabeth acknowledges that there are problems with wealth distribution in the country.

When discussing housing, for example, Mr Smith asks if all people in England own their own homes. William admits that this is not the case, but that the working classes can live in rental homes on ‘nicely planned’ housing estates. His arguments are accompanied by shots of one such an estate. Elizabeth then points out that there is still a housing shortage and that the new estates may lead people to have long and expensive commutes. She also raises the prospect of slums, which were still commonplace in pre-War British cities. The audience is duly presented with shots of slum housing, followed by images of very skinny children being examined by a doctor, when Elizabeth points out that slum living makes people ill.

Later on in the discussion the three actors discuss food distribution, re-armament and the ‘cost of living’. Wages have risen, but so have the costs of food, housing and heating, meaning many people are still struggling to make ends meet. In phrases that will sound very familiar to viewers in the early 2020s, William argues that people need to economise more, while Elizabeth points out that for large, low-income families there is nothing left to economise on.

Unfortunately, there are no opening credits preserved to the film so it is not possible to identify the actor playing Mr Smith, but it is safe to presume he was either born in Britain or one of Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean. Like American actor and activist Paul Robeson, who was often forced to portray stereotypical African tribesmen, the character of Mr Smith supposedly comes straight from an African rural tribe. At the same time, he also wears a very smart suit and overcoat when arriving at Utopia, and his English is flawless. Although his skin colour causes some consternation when he first arrives at the house, Mr Smith is accepted because he is able to pass as a gentleman, and he does not criticise any aspect of Britain. He even praises the food available in Britain as superior to African food, which stretches credibility.

At the end of the film, Mr Smith states that a nation should give its people food, health and protection. The preceding discussion has made clear to him that Britain is failing to provide this to all its citizens. His voice is accompanied by idyllic scenes of African tribes working and playing together. He argues that African tribes do not go to war as long as there is sufficient food available; and that if they do go to war, their methods of combat are more equal than those of Western nations. Nonetheless, he remains grateful for what William and Elizabeth have ‘taught’ him, and takes his leave.

After he has gone, Elizabeth looks in on the kitchen. Cook is just packing her bag to go home, and decides to take left-over meat to cook for her husband, as otherwise it will only go to waste. Elizabeth indulgently smiles and lets her take the food, and then tells the parlour maid she can go up to bed even though the washing up has not been completed. From her position of privilege, Elizabeth generously allows her staff these luxuries. William sits in the study pondering whether ‘peace and plenty’ are as adequately provided for in Britain as he had assumed. There is no indication, however, that either will take any further-reaching political action as a result of their conversation. Instead, their actions stay on the personal plane.

Despite the leading role of Mr Smith, and the film’s sympathetic portrayal of ‘African’ culture, it is clear that its target audience is white. Contemporary audiences for Mr Smith Wakes Up were unlikely to have recognised themselves in William and Mary – cinema viewing remained largely an activity for the working- and lower-middle classes, who were more likely to already be sympathetic to the left-of-centre views the film espouses. Although the filmmakers may have wanted to encourage people like William and Mary to re-consider their political views, it is doubtful whether many wealthy people would have seen the film or taken any notice of it. Although Mr Smith Wakes Up gives modern audiences insight into the socio-political debates and concerns of the late 1930s, it possibly was not effective in generating political change at the time it was created.

Mr Smith Wakes Up is available to view on YouTube.

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Henry Wade – Heir Presumptive (1935)

In the Golden Age of crime fiction, many authors were tempted by the ‘perfect murder’. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, Lord Peter Wimsey ruefully states that the perfect murder would never be considered a murder, and would therefore necessarily go undetected. In 1936, six writers of the Detection Club each wrote a short story containing the ‘perfect crime’. Each story was then followed by an analysis of a retired CID inspector, who unpicked whether the crime would be detected in real life, or not.[1] The inspector concludes that in each case, the police would eventually identify the killer – not surprisingly, he probably felt that to admit otherwise was to invite readers to have a go at replicating the ‘perfect murder’!

This is how it ends up in most interwar crime stories – no matter how ingenious the plot, usually the killer gets caught and either brought to justice, or given the option to take the ‘honourable way out’ and commit suicide. Not so, however, in Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive. In this inverted murder story, the murder central to the book is judged to be an accident.

Henry Wade was one of the original members of the Detection Club. An ex-soldier, he turned to crime fiction writing after the Great War. Unlike most other crime writers of the period, he was genuinely part of the landed gentry – his real name was Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher.[2] Wade used his insider knowledge of entailed estates to concoct the plot of Heir Presumptive, which features a family tree so intricate that a diagram is provided on the first page of the book (and to which this reader, for one, grateful referred back to multiple times).

The main character of the book is Eustace Hendel, a 35-year-old member of the secondary branch of descendants of the 1st Baron Barradys. The Baron’s title and estate are being passed down the male line and Eustace is far removed from them. He trained as a doctor, but after meeting ‘a rich widow’ who then ‘conveniently died’ (through natural means) Hendel came into an inheritance that allowed him to live as a man of independent means.[3] At the opening of the book, these means have nearly run out, debts are racking up, and Hendel is on the look-out for a way to continue his lifestyle without having to work. He also has a relationship with Jill, an actress who makes it clear that she will not stick around if Eustace can’t afford her.

When Hendel reads in the paper that the son and grandson of the current Baron Barradys have both died in a mysterious swimming accident, he makes sure to attend the funeral, in the hope of mending relationships with his wealthy family. Hendel re-acquaints himself with his cousin David, who is now unexpectedly the next heir to the family name and estate. David’s only son is a 20-year-old invalid who is expected to die soon. However, David is young enough to remarry, and there is a general expectation that he will do so now that he is next in line for the inheritance.

It is at this point that Eustace formulates his plan. After David and his invalid son, he believes he himself is the next male heir. If he kills David and the son dies as expected, then he would become the next Baron, and inherit the sizable estate attached to that title. And even until the current Baron dies, being next in line to inherit would be sufficient to secure loans and favours.

It is clear at this point in the book, about six chapters in, that Eustace Hendel is not a sympathetic character. He is greedy, lazy, and openly contemplating murdering his next of kin for his own benefit. Wade surprises, then, by allowing Hendel to execute the perfect murder. David invites him up to his lodge in Scotland, to go deerstalking. On the final day of the trip, David and Eustace go off without assistance to a remote part of the estate. After Eustace shoots a stag, he asks if he can also be the one to cut its throat to allow it to bleed out quickly. Feigning a slip, Eustace instead plunges the knife into David’s femoral artery.[4] After that, the remote spot and lack of onlookers make it easy for Eustace to ensure David bleeds to death before help can be found.

Although there is of course an investigation by the Scottish authorities, who are presented as more thorough and less obliging than their English counterparts, in the end, they decide not to pursue a criminal investigation. Although Wade allows Eustace to get away with the perfect murder from the perspective of a prosecution, he does not get the enjoy the expected benefits of his deed. The current Baron starts exploring options to cut Eustace out of the line of succession altogether, based on the general unfavourable impression he has of him.

In order to change the line of succession, the Baron needs the agreement of the current heir, David’s sick son Desmond. Eustace starts visiting Desmond and, under increasing pressure of Jill and various moneylenders, starts planning a second murder. Before he has time to execute it, however, Desmond dies. It is here that the reader starts to realise that Wade has been stringing them on all along. Although the focus has been almost exclusively on Eustace Hendel, it turns out he has been nothing but a pawn in someone else’s plan.

All along, the real mastermind has been David’s brother-in-law, lawyer Henry Carr. Henry orchestrated the swimming accident of the original heirs; Henry killed Desmond; and, after offering legal advice to Eustace, Henry frames Eustace for Desmond’s murder and then kills Eustace himself, making it look like a suicide. As if this isn’t enough, Eustace finds out just before he dies that whilst he is due to inherit the title of Baron, the estate and money are not passing through the male line and will instead be inherited by Henry’s wife (who is completely oblivious as to her husband’s murdering schemes).

For the final few pages of the book, after Eustace has died, the perspective switches to that of Henry Carr. We move from a world of country houses and independent incomes to suburbia – Carr travels by Underground to Waterloo as a seasoned commuter. ‘It was past the hour of the daily rush return from work, though the third-class carriages were fairly full; he himself never travelled first-class on ordinary occasions, but this was one on which he thought the luxury was justified.’[5] The motive for his murdering was to allow his wife to move out of the ‘semi-detached villa’ and to be able to afford the school fees for the children – middle-class aspirations if ever there were some.[6]

In the end, then, it is not the lazy, good-for-nothing playboy who is the threat to the upper classes, but rather the ambitious professional man who stops at nothing to give his wife and children a better future. Heir Presumptive is a cynical book, perhaps reflecting Wade’s ‘pessimism about the state of Britain’.[7] Eustace, Henry, even Jill – all are grasping for more than they have, without wanting to work for it. But whilst Eustace manages to orchestrate the perfect murder, he is too naïve to see the trap he walks into himself. Henry Carr, for all his cleverness, also has to reckon with justice – the final line of the book announces that ‘In the hall stood Chief-Inspector Darnell, accompanied by a uniformed police officer.’[8] Ultimately, Wade reassures the reader that no matter how clever the crime, justice will eventually be served.


[1] Published as Six Against the Yard (London: Selwyn & Blount, 1936). See Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), pp. 285-6

[2] Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, p. 194

[3] Henry Wade, Heir Presumptive (London: Remploy, 1980), p. 3

[4] Ibid., p. 77

[5] Ibid., p. 203

[6] Ibid. pp. 203-7

[7] Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, p. 197

[8] Wade, Heir Presumptive, p. 209

Edmund Gwenn

FeaturedEdmund Gwenn

British actor Edmund Gwenn is internationally best-known for his role as Kris Kringle (‘Santa’) in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. This role earned Gwenn his only Oscar win (although he was nominated once more in 1950). Prior to his move to Hollywood at the start of World War II, Gwenn was a prolific stage and screen actor in interwar London. His instantly recognisable demeanour and voice made him a reliable choice for both leading and supporting roles.

Gwenn was born in 1877 and started his acting career on the late-Victorian and Edwardian stage, specialising in supporting roles of plays written by contemporary playwrights such as J.M. Barrie and John Galsworthy. He was a successful stage actor and did not make the transition to film acting until the start of the interwar period, when films were settling into the length and narrative types that we still recognise today.

Gwenn starred in only two feature-length silent films (Unmarried, opposite Gerald du Maurier, in 1920; and The Skin Game in 1921) before giving films a rest again until talkies became the norm in the early 1930s. Gwenn likely recognised that his power as an actor required him to be able to use dialogue as a means of expression. Once sound film work was available, he took to it with a vengeance, making no fewer than 36 films in the 1930s. No mean feat for an actor who was already 53 when the decade started.

In this film work, as in his stage roles, Gwenn continued to be associated with contemporary English writers. His first foray into sound film was a remake of The Skin Game, released ten years after the silent version in 1931. Both films were based on a Galsworthy play; the 1931 version was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.[1] Gwenn stars as Hornblower, a nouveau-riche industrialist who is looking to buy a piece of land from genteel landowner Hillcrist, to build industrial works. The conflict between ‘old England’ which values rural landscape, tranquillity and honour; and the new, industrial outlook which favours trade, progress and money, is at the heart of the film. The emotions between the two men and their families run so high that Hillcrist’s wife decides to reveal a damning secret about Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, as a result of which the young woman commits suicide. Hornblower, crushed with grief, decides to leave the area. Hillcrist’s victory is hollow, however, as he contemplates the moral depths to which his family has stooped to defend their way of life.

Gwenn played a man from a different social background a couple of years later in The Good Companions, a 1933 adaptation of a popular J.B. Priestley novel.[2] This Victor Saville-directed film remains a popular example of a British interwar comedy, and also stars Jessie Matthews and John Gielgud. In The Good Companions, Gwenn plays Jess Oakroyd, a Northern labourer who gets fired for speaking up against a malicious manager. Oakroyd decides to travel ‘south’ in search of work. In the Midlands, he stumbles across a faltering theatre troupe called the Dinky Doos. Simultaneously with Oakroyd’s arrival in the midlands, the film also follows teacher Inigo Jollifant and Miss Elizabeth Trant, who reach the Midlands from the East and West of England respectively. The three travellers join the Dinky Doos and help to make the troupe a success. The Good Companions was well-received by critics, who praised it as a ‘British’ picture at a time when the British film industry had been under considerable domestic pressure to prove it could stand up to the influence of Hollywood.[3]

Gwenn used his non-threatening appearance to great effect in 1936’s Laburnum Grove (directed by Carol Reed), which has been discussed in detail elsewhere in this blog. In this film, Gwenn plays Radfern, a seemingly innocent and typical suburban husband who is secretly involved in an international crime network. The film is, again, based on J.B. Priestley source material. Reed directed Gwenn again in 1938, as the working-class lead of Penny Paradise. This comedy-drama is set in Liverpool, and Gwenn plays Joe Higgins, a tug-boat captain who religiously enters the ‘penny pools’ – a postage betting system in which players try to guess the correct football scores for the entire league. Miraculously, Higgins guesses all the scores correctly, and he believes himself a rich man. However, his friend Pat, who was supposed to have posted in Higgins’ winning score, forgot to post it on time. Higgins gives up his job and throws a large party for the entire community before Pat has the courage to tell him what has happened.

Penny Paradise is a fairly typical 1930s British comedy, with the expected happy ending and moral lessons for the main characters. Gwenn rounded out the decade with a very different part, in what has commonly been called the ‘first Ealing Comedy’. Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Walter Forde, was released in 1939. It follows the plight of a small beer brewery which is up against a big, capitalist brewing corporation. The conviviality of the workers at the small brewery models how Balcon planned to run his new studio. Gwenn plays Edward Ironside, the head of the industrial brewer. The film’s most striking scene (to a modern audience) is a brief shot of Ironside reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In this last role of the decade, just before his move across the Atlantic, Gwenn came full circle with his performance as Hornblower in The Skin Game: that of an industrialist intent on undermining traditional British values. The changes which Britain underwent in the 1930s, however, meant that whilst at the beginning of the 1930s it was the life of the landed gentry that was worth protecting, by the end of the decade it was the working-class community spirit that was held up as the British ideal.

Gwenn continued to act almost up to his death at the age of 81, in 1959. His later roles increasingly included incidental parts in TV series. Whilst his later, American career may have brought him international and lasting fame and recognition, his frequent appearances in British films of the 1930s made him a key contributor to the interwar cultural landscape.


[1] Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace (London: IB Tauris, 2010) p. 316

[2] Laurence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), p. 81

[3] Ibid., p. 123

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E.M. Delafield – Messalina of the Suburbs (1924)

In 1924, six years before she would become a household name with her Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M Delafield penned Messalina of the Suburbs, a fictionalised take on one of the most notorious murder trials of interwar Britain. In December 1922, Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were convicted of the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy. They were both hanged, despite the fact that it was Bywaters who stabbed Percy Thompson, and Edith claimed not to have any knowledge that he would do this. At the time, some newspapers launched a campaign to have Bywaters’ sentence commuted or quashed; as historian Lucy Bland notes drily: ‘No public steps were taken at the time on behalf of Edith.’[1] More recently, the case has been re-assessed in favour of Edith’s innocence; there is even a dedicated website that argues her conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

In Messalina of the Suburbs book, Delafield imagines one version of events that could have led to Edith (Elsie in the book) ending up in an unhappy marriage, with a lover who kills her husband. Against the prevailing attitude of the time, Delafield is surprisingly sympathetic to Elsie, without shying away from her more questionable decisions.

The book starts with Elsie as a teenager, living with her sister in the boarding house run by their mother. Elsie is already aware that men find her attractive; in the book’s opening she agrees to go to the cinema with an (older) male lodger, and does not protest when he kisses her. Delafield describes going to the cinema as a sensual experience for Elsie, foregrounding her sexuality:

To-night, as she entered the hot, dark, enervating atmosphere of the cinema theatre, she thrilled in response to the contrast with the street outside. When she heard the loud, emphasised rhythm of a waltz coming from the piano beneath the screen, little shivers of joy ran through her.[2]

After this escapade with the lodger, Elsie ends up working as a live-in help with a doctor and his wife. Before long, the doctor makes advances to her, which culminates in the pair having sex several times. Needless to say, even describing sexual relations between a married man and a younger woman was daring on the part of Delafield. But the scenes also make clear that the doctor is using Elsie for his gratification, with little regard for her well-being. When the doctor’s wife starts to realise what is going on, it’s Elsie who has to pack her bags.

Her next job is as a clerk in the office of Mr Williams, a lawyer. Initially, Elsie thinks the job will be very boring, but she cheers herself up by dressing up for her first day of work:

Elsie spent the week-end in cutting out and making for herself a blue crepe blouse, which she intended to wear on Monday morning. She also made a pair of black alpaca sleeves, with elastic at the wrist and at the elbow, to be drawn on over the blouse while she was working. She put the sleeves, her shorthand pad and pencil, a powder-puff, mirror, pocket-comb, and a paper-covered novel in a small attaché case on Monday morning, pulled on the rakish black velvet tam-o’-shanter, and went off to Mr. Williams’ office.[3]

This quote captures how Delafield consistently presents Elsie as a slightly childish innocent. Although she is aware of her effect on men, and enjoys physical relations with them, she is hardly a calculating vamp.

At the law office, Williams, too, starts flirting with Elsie, and suggests that she go with him on a weekend to the seaside. At this point, Elsie’s friend Irene advises her that she should hold out, as that will persuade Williams to marry her. Marriage represents safety and stability, and both the doctor and Williams indicate to Elsie that her sexual experience lowers her ‘value’. Elsie manages to persuade Williams to marry her by holding off all his sexual advances. Williams tells her that he respects her propriety – but as soon as they get married he makes it clear that she is now his property and he gets to decide what she does, when, and with whom.

Trapped in this stifling marriage with a man she does not find attractive, Elsie eventually meets ‘Morrison’, a friend of her sister’s. From this point, Messalina of the Suburbs largely follows the real-life narrative of Thompson and Bywaters, including the romantic letters they wrote (she destroyed his letters, he didn’t destroy hers – something that weighed heavily against her during the trial) and the fateful events of the final evening. It is here, at the end of the novel, that Delafield makes her sympathies most clear. There is no doubt at all for the reader that Elsie has no idea that Morrison is going to kill Williams. There is no suggestion that she is the mastermind behind the plan, or that she spurred him on to do it, which were suggestions made during the trial. Instead, Elsie’s naiveté and her repeated abuse by men land her in the dock, where the novel ends.

That Messalina of the Suburbs was somewhat controversial is clear from the reviews it received. It was not reviewed very widely, and mostly in the local papers. The most positive review appeared in the Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer on 16 April 1924:

a powerful psychological reconstruction of the woman in a recent murder case. (…) Miss Delafield does more to make comprehensible the motives of the unhappy and blundering woman than any of the more scientific analyses have succeeded in doing.(…) The story is not pleasant, but it is well told. Miss Delafield knows with incredible intuition the hearts of the lower middle classes’[4] 

The review implies that the writer and readers of the book are of a different species than the ‘lower middle classes’ which populate the novel. Nonetheless, the reviewer appears to grasp and approve of the ultimately sympathetic portrayal at the novel’s core. Other reviewers were not so generous, instead protesting that the novel had no reason to exist. The review in the Westminster Gazette stated

Miss Delafield tells the story very well; but, whether, merely as an exercise in fiction, it was worth telling or not is another matter[5]

and the Birmingham Daily Gazette grumbled that

Whether it was worthwhile thus recalling a sordid tragedy eighteen months afterwards is a little doubtful, but the analysis of indiscipline is very skilful.[6]

Somewhat surprisingly, the most negative review appeared in Common Cause, the newspaper of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies:

the characters in this novel are so unrelievedly sordid that there is little pleasure to be derived from their acquaintance.[7]

Delafield’s psychological analysis did not win her many fans, and her career did not take off until she returned to writing the comic works for which she is now best known. With Messalina of the Suburbs, however, she demonstrated a real sensibility for the complex character of Edith Thompson, and an acute awareness of the structural exploitation young women faced, which could lead to devastating consequences.


[1] Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Jul., 2008), p. 645

[2] E.M. Delafield, Messalina of the Suburbs (London: Hutchinson, 1924), p. 16

[3] Ibid. p. 64

[4] ‘Messalina of the Suburbs’, Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 16 April 1924, p. 4

[5] ‘A Bold, Bad Girl’, Westminster Gazette, 4 June 1924, p. 5

[6] ‘An Ilford Novel’, Birmingham Daily Gazette, 14 April 1924, p. 4

[7] ‘Messalina of the Suburbs’, Common Cause, 16 May 1924, p. 6

W. Lusty & Sons Ltd – Furniture Makers

FeaturedW. Lusty & Sons Ltd – Furniture Makers

During the 1930s, London’s suburbs developed and expanded at a rapid pace.[1] The droves of new ‘white-collar’ workers were sold on the promise that they, too, could own their own home and garden. All these new homes needed furniture. Before IKEA, there was W Lusty & Sons, makers of solid-wood furniture for affordable prices.

The workshop of Lusty & Sons was based in Bromley-by-Bow, more specifically just south of Empson Street. The yard bordered on the Limehouse Cut, which allowed for the easy transportation of goods in and out of the premises. Customers were obviously not expected to attend here; instead, the company maintained a showroom in Paul Street (just east of Old Street station). The bulk of Lusty & Sons customers, however, appear to have bought out of their catalogues. The company boasted a UK wide delivery service by goods or even passenger train – the latter if the order was particularly urgent.

Drawing of Lusty & Sons yard in Bromley-by-Bow, as included in 1936 catalogue

To allow for these shipping methods, Lusty & Sons built furniture that was delivered in parts, and could be easily assembled in the home. Dining tables, which in 1936 ranged in price from 7 shilling and 3 pence to £1, 19 shilling and 9 pence, came with detachable legs. The catalogue reassured prospective customers that this novel way of furniture production was not dangerous: ‘Although the legs are detachable, the tables, when fitted together, are perfectly rigid and strong.’[2]

It is not just the affordable prices for the cheaper versions of the furniture that indicate that Lusty & Sons clientele were white-collar workers rather than the leisured classes. The company also provided a number of furniture styles which were explicitly designed to fit into modest houses. The ‘cottage’ dining table range, for example, came with two fold-out leaves.[3] When folded away, the table took up minimal space, and for dinner it could be extended to give everyone a seat at the table. This design has, of course, continued to be a welcome solution to those living in smaller spaces.

Their kitchen furniture catalogue reveals even more strongly that Lusty & Sons furniture was aimed at newly married couples of reasonably modest means, setting up house together. The supply of domestic servants had been steadily shrinking since the Edwardian era: by the 1930s, young women had plenty of other employment options which were more appealing than a life in service.[4] Additionally, the expense of live-in servants was one that newlywed couples were unlikely to be able to afford. Lucky for the inexperienced housewife, then, that Lusty & Sons could supply her with an all-in-one kitchen unit which provided her with all the tools she needed to run her household.

Multi-functional kitchen cabinet sold by Lusty & Sons in 1936

These comprehensive kitchen cabinets again came in a range of prices; the more expensive the model, the more functionality it had. This model, which at £9 was one of the more expensive ones, came with an instructive image which explained to the prospective buyer exactly how to use the unit. The 29 (!) arrows tell the housewife that she should put her large household utensils on top of the cabinet; keep her preserves in the jars in the bottom left cabinet; and put her ‘various kitchen sundries’ in the middle drawer on the bottom right. This particular cabinet comes with a chart of food values built in, and a pocket for household account books: these underline that the housewife’s task is a serious one. The health and economic survival of the household are her responsibility. The porcelain table top extends to a dining table; the catalogue provides a drawing that depicts the white-collar couple harmoniously at breakfast, using the full range of the cabinet’s functions.

Drawing included in catalgue, demonstrating use of cabinet

The Lusty & Sons furniture catalogues shine a light on how the new interwar workers furnished their homes. Like contemporary mass-furniture makers, each piece of Lusty & Sons furniture was available in a wide range of finishes. Customers were able to personalise their furniture to fit their tastes and budgets, thus avoiding the risk of having exactly the same furniture as their neighbours. At the same time, the catalogues instructed customers on how to use the furniture, and by extension, how to manage their households. Far from being a neutral object, the catalogue’s tacit and explicit instructions make visible what was considered an appropriate way of living for white-collar workers in the mid-1930s.


[1] Mark Clapson, Suburban Century: social change and urban growth in England and the United States (Oxford: Berg, 2003), p. 2

[2] ‘W. Lusty & Sons Ltd Catalogue’, 1936, held by Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, LC10550

[3] Ibid.

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

A Cup of Kindness (1934)

A Cup of Kindness (1934)

Following the blog a few weeks ago about British comedy actor Ralph Lynn, today we will look in more detail at one of the Aldwych film comedies, A Cup of Kindness (1934). This film was based on a stage production which was first performed in 1929. The film uses the location of a fictional London suburb to make fun of class aspirations in interwar Britain.

Advert for A Cup of Kindness at the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street, Daily Sketch, 27 July 1934

A Cup of Kindness is the story of two neighbouring families, the Tutts and the Ramsbottoms. The parents of both families despise one another, but the children, Betty Ramsbottom and Charlie Tutt, are secretly dating and intending to marry. Once they reveal their relationship to their parents, hostilities between the families intensify. Charlie, played by Lynn in his characteristic bumbling way, starts to doubt whether it is such a good idea for him and Betty to marry. After the customary argument between the lovers, they are reconciled at the end of the film, and a truce of sorts develops between both sets of parents.

Although A Cup of Kindness presents itself as a timeless story,[i] both in its opening title and through an odd dream sequence in the second half of the film, where we see the prehistoric Tutt and Ramsbottom ancestors fighting with one another in front of their respective caves, its setting in a suburban development is very specific to the interwar period.

As noted previously on this blog, London’s suburbs expanded rapidly during the interwar period, and along with this stereotypes developed about the aspiring middle classes who lived in the suburbs. A Cup of Kindness, for all its broad comedy, adds further nuance to this stereotype through the subtle signifiers of class difference evident in the Tutts and Ramsbottoms. The modern viewer is required to pay close attention to these signs in order to decode them, but for interwar audiences they were likely much more familiar and easier to interpret.

The film opens with Mr Ramsbottom (Robertson Hare) walking from the train station to his house in the evening. Just before he reaches the family home, he passes the Tutt residence, where Mr Tutt (Tom Walls) is standing outside in the garden. The first signifier of difference is in the men’s dress: Ramsbottom is wearing a regular suit and a bowler hat; Tutt is wearing evening dress. Ramsbottom has clearly come from some sort of clerical job; his dress is the functional uniform of the white-collar worker. Tutt, on the other hand, is dressed for dinner; a custom usually observed by the upper classes. As he is already at home and had time to change, we can infer that he does not need to head the hours of the office worker.

The families’ houses, too, imply difference. The Tutt family home is detached, with a driveway and a portico. The Ramsbottom house on the other hand is semi-detached only, overall smaller in size and with a smaller garden. As the film continues, we find that the Ramsbottoms also have their slightly senile uncle Nicholas living upstairs; and they keep a day-servant as well as a day nurse for Nicholas. The Tutts, on the other hand, have no staff. They have, however, managed to send their son Stanley to Oxford, and are keeping their son Charlie despite him being apparently unable to hold down a job.

The outward signifiers then appear to show that Mr and Mrs Tutt are wealthier and of higher social standing than Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom. There is a line that the latter utters, however, that gives a clue as to what really matters in the social pecking order of suburbia, and it’s not money. During a particularly heated exchange, Mrs Ramsbottom snaps that Mrs Tutt “once was a barmaid.” The implications are clear. Not only are the Tutts not ‘really’ upper class, Mrs Tutt is not even respectably middle class. That one line by Mrs Ramsbottom reveals that in her opinion, its breeding rather than money that determines who comes out on top in the social pecking order.

Yet despite their apparently humble origins, Mr and Mrs Tutt are able to present a wealthy front in the suburban street, by spending their money on just the things that give the impression of riches. This reflects contemporary anxiety about the suburbs, which gave many more people who had previously been unable to enter the housing market, the opportunity to own their own home. This democratisation also facilitated the mixing of people who would previously not have been in each other’s orbit. People moved to the suburbs from all over London and you could end up living next to people were from slightly different socio-economic backgrounds than yourself.

The relationship between Charlie and Betty is an example of this: both sets of parents think that their child can do ‘better’: the Ramsbottoms think Betty should pursue someone more respectable and dependable than Charlie, and the Tutts think Charlie is lowering himself by settling for Betty. Their proximity in the suburban neighbourhood has allowed this pair to get to know one another despite their different family backgrounds. Whereas inner-city areas such as the East End developed an increasingly cohesive common identity between the wars,[ii] the suburbs’ lack of history or character encouraged more prominent attention to the individual or familial identity as opposed to the collective one. A Cup of Kindness demonstrates this tendency towards individual expression through consumer goods and social cues as timeless, when it is in fact specifically rooted in the historical period in which the story was written.

A Cup of Kindness is available on DVD from Network On Air.


[i] Indeed its writer, Ben Travers, referred to it as ‘Romeo and Juliet (…) of the suburbs’; Ben Travers, A-Sitting on a Gate (London: WH Allen, 1972), p. 108

[ii] Benjamin J Lammers, ‘The Birth of the East Ender: Neighborhood and Local Identity in Interwar East London’, Journal of Social History , Winter, 2005, Vol. 39, No. 2, Kith and Kin: Interpersonal Relationships and Cultural Practices (Winter, 2005), pp. 331-344

Roadhouses

One of the lesser-known aspects of interwar Britain was the existence and popularity of roadhouses. A roadhouse was a large-ish venue, often located in the countryside a short driving distance from London. Their primary function was as a bar/pub, but many contained other entertainment spaces such as a dancefloor, a garden, or even a swimming pool.[1]

Cultural historian Michael John Law has done substantial work on roadhouses. He has demonstrated links between the emergence of roadhouses, the expansion of London’s suburbs, and the increase of private car ownership. Roadhouses were usually located alongside new bypasses, making it nigh impossible to access them in any way other than by car. Their location just outside the city allowed for the roadhouses to be bigger than a regular pub. The drive required to reach the roadhouse transformed the visit into an excursion. (It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that driving after drinking alcohol was perfectly legal in Britain until the mid-1960s.)

The interest of the popular media in the roadhouse appears to have peaked in 1932-1933. British Pathé visited a few roadhouses for their newsreels; those showing the ‘Ace of Spades’ near Kingston and the ‘Showboat’ in Maidenhead remain readily available. Both newsreels gratefully and extensively use the visual spectacle of roadhouse guests in swimwear, using the pool facilities. Beyond this focus on the swimming pool, however, both roadhouses are portrayed markedly differently.

The newsreel on the Ace of Spades consciously contrasts the roadhouse with more historical leisure pursuits and implies that the activities in the roadhouse are more energetic and transgressive. It exclusively shows activities taking place at night, including late-night swimming and a trio of singers performing a Duke Ellington song. The newsreel situates the Ace of Spades in the wider narrative of the aftermath of the roaring twenties and the London of the Bright Young Things. It shows the roadhouse as a space where adults can access ever-more exuberant entertainment and enjoy American cultural products.

The film taken at the Showboat, on the other hand, starts off during the day, and shows families with children enjoying the swimming pool. Here the roadhouse appears more like a country club where the community can enjoy its facilities. The evening’s cabaret is fairly staid, including dance performances and a comedian to whom no-one appears to be paying much attention. The Showboat is portrayed as less cosmopolitan and transgressive as the Ace of Spades, and as a less problematic space for Londoners to enjoy.

The links with American culture hinted at in the Ace of Spades newsreel were made much more explicitly in a 1932 Daily Express article entitled ‘Roadhouse Joys of Merrie England.’[2] In a stream of flowery language, the Express reporter describes his experiences in the ‘circle of gaiety that has been built around London.’ Yet the pleasure of the roadhouse cannot be enjoyed without complication for this reporter.

In 1932, some elements of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), originally implemented during World War One, still remained in place. Amongst these were the restrictions on when alcohol could be purchased and consumed; any venue with a license to serve alcohol could only do so until 10pm, or 11pm in London. The roadhouse the journalist visited, however, did not have a license to serve alcohol. Rather, guests were asked to bring their own – and consequently there was no government-imposed closing time.

The reporter writes: ‘So here was the English “speakie”, flavoured with a touch of American slang.’ Really, the link with the speakeasy and the Prohibition is tenuous: there was no outright ban on alcohol in England and, as the roadhouse waiter who is quoted in the article explains, it is perfectly legal for anyone to bring in their own alcohol and consume it. But throughout the article the journalist appears determined to link the roadhouse to Americanisation: he implies that the phenomenon was imported from America and that the ‘spirit of Jazz’ pervaded the place. The overall impression is that the young people frequenting the roadhouses are turning their back on traditional English culture and values; but also that they are having tremendous fun whilst doing so. The article encapsulates a recurrent tension in British interwar reporting where new developments are welcomed and distrusted at the same time.

Roughly a year later, the debate about whether the roadhouses were fun or to be feared, continued. The proprietors of an island in the Thames near Hampton Court, known as the ‘Thames Riviera’, sued the owners of the Reynolds Illustrated News for libel.[3] The paper had printed a series of critical articles about ‘up-river’ nightlife, which the owners of the island argued were without foundation. The contested reports included ‘Scandalous Bathing and Dancing Scenes’; ‘Plea that Mobile Police Should Combat Growing Menace’; and claims that ‘a large number of young ladies [were] running about naked.’ Although the claims were vehemently disputed by the venue proprietors, there was clearly an assumption both in the papers and in court that the reports could be true.

Roadhouses were a brief and now largely forgotten phenomenon in interwar London. They originated at the intersection between urban expansion, a boost in car ownership, an increase in leisure time and disposable income, and a rise of interest in American culture. As with many other interwar developments that were primarily focused on entertainment, roadhouses caused considerable anxiety about the ‘Americanisation’ of Britain and a potential loosening of morals. These anxieties appear to have been articulated more explicitly in the written press, whereas the newsreels leveraged the visual pleasures roadhouses provided to present them primarily as places of innocent, wholesome and British fun.


[1] Michael John Law, ‘Turning night into day: transgression and Americanization at the English inter-war roadhouse’, Journal of Historical Geography, 35 (2009), 473-494

[2] ‘Roadhouse Joys of Merrie England,’ Daily Express, 18 April 1932, p. 11

[3] ‘Night Life up the River’, Daily Express, 3 March 1933, p. 7

Laburnum Grove (1936)

Laburnum Grove was written as a play in 1933, by J.B. Priestley, a prolific writer and dramatist.[1] It was first staged at the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End (which is currently, Covid restrictions permitting, home to the Play That Goes Wrong). Laburnum Grove transferred to Broadway in 1935 and was turned into a feature film a year later by Associated Talking Pictures. The film adaptation was directed by Carol Reed, who had only recently graduated from Assistant Director positions. The play was adapted for the screen by Anthony Kimmins, who later on in the 1930s would repeatedly direct George Formby on screen. The result is one of the few interwar British films that is explicitly situated in London’s suburbs.

In Laburnum Grove, we meet the Radfern family; father, mother, and daughter Elsie. They live in the eponymous street in an unidentified suburban development. The Radferns have got their in-laws staying over, Mr and Mrs Baxley. Elsie has a beau whom she is hoping to marry. Mr Radfern has some vaguely identified clerking job in a company; he appears content with his suburban routine of commuting to work and tending to his vegetable patch in the evening.

Both the Baxley’s and Elsie are keen on more wealth and success, and both ask Mr Radfern to lend them money – as he does not appear to be attached to it. Over dinner, Mr Radfern calmly explains that his suburban life is merely a front and that he is in fact the lynchpin in an international criminal network, through which he makes a fortune. The rest of the film plays on this tension between his identities as unremarkable ‘middle England’ character and his criminal career. Radfern’s family struggle to believe his claims, and the Scotland Yard inspector investigating the criminal network finds it hard to pin anything on the seemingly innocuous Radfern.

Laburnum Grove is effective because it plays on what, by 1936, was already being cemented as stereotype in the British popular imagination: what it means to live in the suburbs. The title of the film refers to the street in which the Radferns live: although it appears to be a specific location, in reality it stands in for any suburban street. A quick Google Maps search suggests that there are numerous Laburnum Grove’s still in London today, for instance in Hounslow, Southall and New Malden – all areas that saw extensive suburban development during the interwar period.

London’s physical environment expanded rapidly during the interwar period; first many soldiers returned from the front which spurred on the (partially successful) Homes Fit For Heroes campaign. Throughout the 1920s the British economy grew, and more Londoners were able to save up disposable income to put towards a house. The economic crisis of the 1930s did not impact the spending power of people in the south-east of England as much as it did the North, but it did make building materials cheaper.[2] Additionally, the replacement of horse-drawn vehicles with motorcars negated the need for growing wheat to feed the horses, which is what most of Middlesex had been taken up with.[3] This created ideal circumstances for private investors to buy up newly available plots of land and fill them up with competitively priced semi-detached houses. Many people were now in a position to buy a sanctuary away from the noise and smoke of the inner city.

With this mass flight to the outskirts of the city also came assumptions and stereotypes about the people who lived in suburbs. Most suburban developments looked very similar to one another, as private investors and contractors wanted to maximise the number of houses for the lowest possible cost. Consequently, the stereotypical suburban worker also became interchangeable in the public’s imagination: an anonymous stream of men all walking to the same train station in the morning, and returning home via the same route at night. So quickly was the notion established that suburbanites were bland and middle-brow that even during the interwar period, some developers started to market their own houses as “away from suburbia” or “non-suburbanised.”[4]

The gardening that Mr Redfern occupies himself with in Laburnum Grove is also stereotypical – as most suburban houses included a garden, gardening became the quintessential leisure pursuit for suburban men in the interwar period.[5] In Laburnum Grove, Redfern uses his gardening activity as a way to covertly meet up with his neighbour, who is also a partner in the criminal enterprise. Because gardening was such a common leisure activity for suburban men, and because it appears unthreatening (or even emasculating), it provides a strong cover for nefarious activities.

Laburnum Grove repeatedly and skilfully plays with the preconceptions audiences have about suburbs and the people who live in them. The perfect ordinariness of Redfern’s life serves to hide the most extraordinary reality, even from his own family. There is an additional meta-textual element to this, also; very few fiction films in interwar Britain were set so explicitly in a suburban environment. The vast majority of films set in London set their action in either the East End or West End, both of which of course had their own stereotypes attached to them. It appears that writers and filmmakers shared the assumption that there was little of interest to be found in suburban life; that it was too ordinary to ask audiences to pay attention to this.

In Laburnum Grove, Priestley masterfully uses and subverts these expectations of suburban life both within the world of the story itself, and between the film text and its audience. Laburnum Grove provides a British counterpart to the more familiar, post-War American depictions of suburbia. Viewing the film in the 21st century highlights how little these depictions and expectations have changed; the film still works and (most of) the jokes still ‘land’. Despite all the changes London has gone through, the notion of what it means to live in a suburb still endures.

Laburnum Grove is available on DVD from Network On Air.


[1] Priestley turned Laburnum Grove into a novel as well, co-written by Ruth Holland

[2] Mark Clapson, Suburban century: social change and urban growth in England and the United States (Oxford: Berg, 2003) p. 2; Stephen Halliday, Underground to everywhere: London’s underground railway in the life of the capital, (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), p. 113

[3] Alan A Jackson, Semi-Detached London: Suburban Development, Life and Transport, 1900-1939 (1st ed 1973; 2nd ed 1991), p. 57

[4] Alan A Jackson, Semi-Detached London, p. 162

[5] Mark Clapson, Suburban Century, p. 68