Domestic homicides

This is the third post in a themed series for May Murder Month. You can read previous posts here and here.

A significant proportion of murders committed in the interwar period were committed in the domestic sphere, as they are today. Of the 130 women sentenced to death between 1900 and 1950, 102 had killed a child, usually their own and usually when the child was very young.[1] After the adoption of the 1922 Infanticide Act, women who killed their own children were tried for manslaughter rather than murder, which lessened their sentence.

The other significant group of domestic killings were perpetrated by men killing their wives, girlfriends, or ex-partners. Almost all of the famous murders of the interwar period fall into this category. Scholars have argued that the trial reporting on these ‘domestic homicides’ ‘provided significant moments when fractures in the values and aspirations of (often) respectable private lives were held up for exhaustive public scrutiny.’[2] These murder cases have therefore often been used by historians as vehicles for a wider understanding of private lives and the performance of masculinity and femininity.[3]

When considering homicide data, there are two datasets to work from: the people who were convicted of murder and given a death sentence; and those for whom their sentence was not commuted and who were actually executed. Around 60% of men who were sentenced to death were executed. Out of the 223 executions that took place in the interwar period, 118 (53%) were of individuals who had killed a partner or family member, so involved in a so-called ‘domestic homicide’. In the first year after the Great War, 1920, 21 people were executed – a much higher number than in any of the subsequent years of the interwar period. All 21 individuals were men who had killed their wife, girlfriend or ex-girlfriend. This suggests that the end of the war saw a spike in domestic violence as traumatised men returned from the front to partners who had had a completely different war experience, and indeed may have started relationships with others during the conflict.

Later into the interwar period, even less famous murder trials can reveal much about the private lives of marginalised groups of Londoners, such as those who were not British and those who lived in poverty. In 1934, a Cypriot man killed the landlord of his lodging house over a quarrel about a woman. Georgios Kalli Georgiou had lived with his girlfriend ‘as husband and wife’ in a different lodging house, meaning that they shared a bedroom and bed without being formally married. When they moved into the house run by Thomas James in Torrington Square, Georgios and the woman took separate rooms and she started working as a housekeeper for Thomas James. Georgios quickly became suspicious that his partner had moved her affections to Thomas, and the situation came to a head in a three-way quarrel during which Georgios stabbed Thomas to death. Although Georgios was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, after an appeal the Home Secretary reprieved him and Georgios was held captive in a prison camp on the Isle of Wight for the next nine years, instead.

As this case reveals, interpersonal relationships and living arrangements could be the catalyst for violence. In this instance, however, the foreign identity of the perpetrator, and the relative acceptance of male-on-male violence as a ‘normal’ part of masculine behaviour, likely influenced the Home Office’s decision to grant Georgios a reprieve. In other cases, the perceived social and moral transgressions of perpetrators and/or victims, as revealed during trial hearings, were presented as ‘morality tales’ by the daily press.[4] The famous conviction of Edith Thompson has been covered numerous times in this blog; in 1935 the murder of Francis Rattenbury by his wife’s lover (and the couple’s chauffeur) gave audiences a similar ringside seat to a menage à trois between an older man, a middle-aged wife and a young lover. Although, unlike Edith Thompson, Alma Rattenbury was acquitted of the murder charge brought against her, she committed suicide a few days after her release from prison. The denouement of this case was therefore arguably almost as salacious as that of the Thompson-Bywaters trial some 12 years earlier.

Although domestic homicides constituted a large proportion of the homicides during the interwar period, only cases that were perceived to reveal something that was normally private became established in popular culture. Abusive relationships that escalated to murder rarely became notorious, but cases in which either the woman transgressed her traditional role and enacted violence on a man; or in which relationships were revealed to not be as harmonious as they had appeared, the murders became cemented as morality tales into the popular imagination.

[1] Annette Ballinger, Dead Women Walking: Executed women in England and Wales, 1900-1955 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), p. 1

[2] Shani D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide in Interwar Britain: the case of Buck Ruxton’, Women’s History Review, 2007, vol. 16 no. 5, 701-722 (702)

[3] See D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide’; Julie English Early, ‘A New Man for a New Century: Dr. Crippen and the Principles of Masculinity’ in Disorder in the Court: Trials and Sexual Conflict at the Turn of the Century, ed. by George Robb and Nancy Erber (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), 209-230; Ginger Frost ‘She is but a Woman’: Kitty Byron and the English Edwardian Criminal Justice System’ in Gender & History, 2004, Vol. 16, no. 3, 538-560; Lucy Bland, Modern women on trial: sexual transgression in the age of the flapper (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013)

[4] Bland, Modern women on trial, p. 216

Britannia of Billingsgate (1933)

FeaturedBritannia of Billingsgate (1933)

Britannia of Billingsgate is a reasonably early sound film which provides a critical commentary on the film industry’s shallowness, whilst simultaneously wanting to present a career on screen as aspirational. The film strikes an awkward balance between promoting traditional British values of community and common sense; and foregrounding the glamour of cinema.

At the opening of the film we are introduced to the Bolton family: Bert Bolton is a porter at Billingsgate fish market, whilst his wife Bessie runs a chip shop adjacent to the market. The couple’s young adult children, Pearl and Fred, are obsessed with movies and motorcycles respectively. The Billingsgate community is shown as a warm, Cockney environment where everyone knows and supports everyone else.

Bessie (Violet Lorraine) singing among her regular customers in Britannia of Billingsgate

An Italian director has picked the market as a location for his latest film. Due to a technical mix-up, the film set’s sound recorders accidentally record Bessie singing in her café. The film’s producers are so impressed with the quality of Bessie’s singing that they track her down and offer her a big contract to star in a musical film. Bessie has no interest in an acting career, but her husband and children all want the money that is attached to the offer. Bessie relents and agrees to star in the new film, which will be called Piccadilly Playground.

Whilst Bessie is working on the film, the family move into a luxurious apartment. Bert, Pearl and Fred all start moving in wealthier circles. Bert drinks heavily and starts gambling; Pearl also gambles and tries to ingratiate herself with her favourite film star. Fred secretly pursues his dreams of becoming a motorbike racer – something Bessie is against as she perceives it to be very dangerous.

Bert (Gordon Harker) enjoying the high life in Britannia of Billingsgate

Bessie is the only one not corrupted by the sudden wealth that has befallen the family. She rejects fancy dinners in favour of fish and chips and visits her old café where she engages in a community sing-a-long with the regulars. In this middle section of the film, Britannia of Billingsgate is clear to show that money is leading Bert, Pearl and Fred astray, most notably in a scene where Bert engages in a game of strip poker with a number of younger women. Bessie’s commitment to her roots and her rejection of luxury are clearly presented as commendable.

On the night of Bessie’s film premiere, both Pearl and Fred pretend to be ill. Pearl wants to secretly sneak into the flat of the film star she so admires, in the hopes that her sudden presence in his bedroom will seduce him. Fred plans to take part in a motorcycle race. Bessie and Bert duly head to the film screening alone. Bessie is convinced Piccadilly Plaground will be a terrible flop. In the meantime, Pearl and Fred conduct their own plans, but they are spotted by one of Bessie’s friends and by her butler.

The premiere of Piccadilly Playground in Britannia of Billingsgate

Bessie’s friend comes into the cinema and alerts Bessie that Pearl has gone to the actor’s apartment. Bessie leaves the film screening halfway to confront Pearl, who by that point has been discovered by the actor (who is disgruntled to find this vapid young woman in his bedroom). After Bessie has given Pearl a literal spanking, the party go to the racetrack to find Fred. Seeing Fred win his race makes Bessie change her mind about racing and she becomes supportive. Meanwhile, Piccadilly Playground has proven to be a huge success and the film producers offer Bessie an even bigger contract. Despite her misgivings about wealth and acting, which she has voiced consistently throughout the story so far, Bessie agrees to make another film. At the end of Britannia of Billingsgate we see that the film producers have replicated Bessie’s old fish and chip shop on set, and she records a scene in which she sings with the guests, just like she was doing in ‘real life.’

Like other films of the period, such as Sally in Our Alley (1932) and Say it with Flowers (1934), Britannia of Billingsgate romanticises working class communities and shows the working-class woman as sensible, down-to-earth, and representing British values. Indeed, the film’s title compares Bessie to Britannia herself. Bessie’s rejection of wealth and the make-believe world of film fits entirely within that worldview. Pearl’s obsession with film, expressed through the avid reading of film magazines, cutting out photos of her favourite film star, and her eventual decision to make herself sexually available to this actor, are presented as both silly and morally wrong.

Yet at the film’s end, Bessie agrees to continue as a film actor, even though she appears to have had very little enjoyment out of the role so far. And while Pearl gets punished for her transgression, Fred’s ambitions as a motorcycle racer are ultimately shown to be commendable, inadvertently demonstrating Bessie’s double standard in her attitude to her daughter and son. Like many other films of the period, Britannia of Billingsgate presents a rags-to-riches story, where an ordinary person is catapulted to national fame and wealth. Although this narrative was very popular with audiences, it stood at odds with a traditional class-based society in which everyone supposedly knew their place and the working-classes were expected to work hard and be satisfied with very little. Ultimately, Britannia of Billingsgate tries to have its cake and eat it too: it allowed viewers to dream of being suddenly discovered and made famous; whilst also reaffirming that ultimately, audiences would be best off in the environments in which they were raised.

Britannia of Billingsgate is available to watch for free on BFI Player (for those based in the UK).


Rose Macaulay – Dangerous Ages (1921)

Prolific interwar author Rose Macaulay won the 1922 Femina-Vie Heureuse Prize for her novel Dangerous Ages. The prize was founded in 1919 as a British counterpart to the French Prix Femina: an annual novel prize awarded by an all-female committee. The winning author was often, but not always, female too. Other illustrious winners include E.M. Forster who was awarded the prize in 1925 for A Passage To India; Radclyffe Hall who won for Adam’s Breed in 1927, and Virginia Woolf who was given the prize in 1928 for To The Lighthouse. The British prize was awarded until 1939; the original French prize is still running today.

Dangerous Ages was Macaulay’s eleventh novel, published when she was forty. Her age when writing the novel is significant, as the work chronicles six female members of the same family, each at a different, but equally ‘dangerous’ age. Grandmamma is eighty-four; her daughter Mrs Hilary is sixty-three; Mrs Hilary’s daughters Neville, Pam and Nan are forty-three; thirty-nine and thirty-three respectively. Finally, Neville’s daughter Gerda is twenty. The novel spends little to no time describing the men of the family; brothers and husbands exist, but are only given cursory mention and their inner lives are not explored in depth. Instead, the work is deeply concerned with the emotional experience of womanhood in early 1920s Britain, and Macaulay appears to take a fairly dim view on this. Almost all the female characters experience a deep emotional lack, brought about by the expectation that their primary role in life is to be a wife and a mother.

Mrs Hilary’s first name is Emily, but she is only called that in the novel by her own mother. At all other points she is ‘Mrs Hilary’, foregrounding the perceived importance of her marital status to herself and her children and grandchildren. Her husband has passed away ten years previously and Mrs Hilary lives with her mother in a seaside town. She is described as being not intelligent and having no hobbies. Grandmamma has settled into a life of little eventfulness, knowing that she is near the end of her time on earth. Nonetheless, she makes a point of always visiting any new babies born in the family. Mrs Hilary, on the other hand, knows she may have several decades more to live, and has no meaningful work to fill it with.

Similarly, Neville at forty-three is casting around for a purpose now that her two children are grown up. We are told that when she was in her early twenties, Neville started medical school, but left the course without qualifying at twenty-two when she met her husband and got married. Now that she is done raising her children, the role of MP’s wife does not seem sufficiently fulfilling for Neville. She determines to return to medical school to finish her studies and qualify. However, Macaulay does not grant Neville a simple triumph. Instead, she finds her studies ‘difficult beyond her imaginings.’[1]

After weeks of studying her brother Jim, who did qualify as a surgeon, quizzes Neville and she realises that she’s not going to be able to reach the required level of academic knowledge after twenty years of not applying her brain with any discipline. When she asks her brother what else she can do to give meaning to her life, he can only suggest that she continues her ‘political work – public speaking, meetings, and so on. Isn’t that enough?’[2] It is clear to the reader that it will not be enough for Neville, who is repeatedly described as having a keen mind.

For Mrs Hilary, temporary salvation of a sort comes from taking a course of psycho-analysis. In this new type of talking therapy, which had recently arrived on British shores, she finds a man who, for two hours every week, has to listen to all of her memories, thoughts and dreams and has to show an interest in them. For a woman like Mrs Hilary, who is endured and indulged by her children but not taken seriously, this therapeutic relationship gives her a sense of importance and purpose, even if she quickly becomes dependent on her therapist.

Nan, Mrs Hilary’s youngest daughter and an author, has spent her thirty-three years to date dating around without making a serious emotional commitment to anyone. One of her admirers is thirty-five year old Barry Briscoe. After years of keeping Barry at arms’ length, Nan realises that she is ready to settle down. She resolves to spend a few weeks in Cornwall finishing her latest book, and then to invite Barry over and let him know that she is ready to commit to him. Unfortunately for Nan, during the weeks she is in Cornwall writing, Barry decides that she is probably never going to agree to marry him and he falls in love with her niece Gerda instead.

Nan has missed her opportunity for conventional happiness and is left travelling abroad and pursuing a very public but rather unhappy affair with a married painter. Gerda, initially absolutely committed to not subjecting to the institution of marriage, is eventually persuaded by Barry to drop her ideals and agree to matrimony. His assurance that ‘Next time we differ I’ll try to be the one to do it [change his mind], I honestly will….’ rings hollow to the reader, who can foresee Gerda walking into a life of compromise and self-neglect like her mother and grandmother before her.

Despite the book’s publication shortly after the Great War, the conflict plays no role in the novel’s plot, beyond a few references to the notion of ‘surplus women.’ There is no sense that these post-war women have greater freedom or opportunities than previous generations: instead, almost all the women in the novel see their lives dictated by the expectations of marriage and motherhood. The exception is thirty-nine year old Pam, who lives with a female friend in a Hoxton flat and does social work. Macaulay allows Pam the final word: ‘Pamela, who seemed lightly, and, as it were, casually, to swing a key to the door against which Neville, among many others, beat’.[3] Pam’s secret is a supreme detachment from the details and emotions of life: ‘I certainly don’t see quite what all the fuss is about…’[4] The choice these 1920s women have, according to Macaulay, is to either remove themselves from life’s passions and emotions; or to live a life of constant frustration.

[1] Rose Macaulay, Dangerous Ages (London: British Library, 2020), p. 39

[2] Ibid., p. 90

[3] Ibid., p. 206

[4] Ibid.


Agatha Christie and drug dispensing

Agatha Christie is one of the best-selling authors of all time. During the interwar period, she was already an incredibly prolific and popular author and one of the key proponents of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Over the years, Christie became well-known for often using poison as the murder weapon in her stories. Almost always, the poisons she had her murders used were real, and the effects she described were scientifically accurate.[1]

The reason Christie was able to use poison to such effect in her writing was because during the First World War, she had worked as a medical dispenser in a hospital in Devon, mixing drugs as prescribed by the hospital’s doctors. Her training for this role required her to learn all about medicine and poisons, and it was during this same period that she worked on her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (featuring Hercule Poirot and strychnine as the murder weapon). During the Second World War, Christie would once again take up a role as dispenser in a hospital.[2]

Thus, Agatha Christie is probably the best-known dispenser of the First World War, but that it was a growing profession which women were encouraged to join is evidenced by the 1917 book How to become a dispenser: The new profession for women.[3] This slender volume was written by academic and author Emily L.B. Forster, who also penned How to become a woman doctor (1918); Analytical chemistry as a profession for women (1920); and, later, Everybody’s Vegetarian Cookbook (1930). As these titles demonstrate, Forster was clearly passionate about encouraging female participation in the sciences.

How to become a dispenser was written during the First World War, when professional opportunities opened up for women due to the large number of men being called up to the front. This is acknowledged in the book’s opening line: ‘There are few professions in the present day whose doors are not open to women.’[4] Yet for Forster, dispensing has the potential to be a fulfilling lifelong career for women, not just a stop-gap during the war. To that end, she encourages readers to undertake the training and qualifications required to become a dispenser.

As outlined in the book, there were two different possible qualifications an aspiring dispenser could attempt: assistant dispenser, which required six months of training; or pharmacist, which took three years to complete. Agatha Christie completed the shorter qualification to become an assistant dispenser. In a time when ‘patent’ (pre-made and mass produced) medicines were rare and treated with some suspicion, dispensers and pharmacists were a key part of the medical infrastructure and required to mix medications precisely to doctor’s orders. The role required a thorough understanding of botany, chemistry and physiology and a great deal of accuracy, as the difference between a medicine and a poison could be minimal.

Forster encourages student-dispensers to enrol in a pharmaceutical college for six months to learn for the assistant-dispenser qualification. Those wanting to aim for the more comprehensive pharmacist diploma are advised to apprentice themselves to either a chemist or a hospital dispensing department. Assistant dispensers had to be at least 19 to take the exam; pharmacists had to be 21 to qualify. In either case a ‘girl’ had to have completed secondary school at least; that, in addition to the further study required, marked dispensing out as a career for better-off women. (Indeed, Christie came from a fairly upper-class family).

The benefits of the role were clear to Forster, who herself was a career scientist. There was plenty of work in the field, and the role was active: ‘although it is an indoor occupation, it means constantly moving about in the dispensary, and is not so sedentary as most indoor work.’[5] Depending on the position, hours could be fairly regular and when working in a chemist or pharmacist, there would be no need to wear a uniform.[6] Within the dispensary, there was freedom to organise the work to one’s own taste. For the most ambitious women, there was scope to set up their own business, perhaps in partnership with another woman – although readers were warned that in existing chemist shops they would be unlikely to tolerate a woman to be the boss of male dispensers: ‘a woman at the head might not be a recommendation to the aspiring [male] chemist.’[7]

In terms of pay, an assistant dispenser working at a hospital, like Agatha Christie, could expect anything between 30s and £3 a week ‘according to the size of the hospital and the position held by the dispenser.’[8] The downside of working in a hospital was that it would be necessary to cover Sunday and evening shifts in rotation.

The back of the book included adverts for no less than twelve different pharmaceutical colleges, confirming Forster’s opinion that there was plenty of opportunity in this field of work during the First World War. Although Agatha Christie used her experience as a dispenser as fuel for her creative career, for other women becoming a dispenser could be a route into satisfying scientific work which was intellectually challenging, responsible and independent. Scientists like Emily Forster told their readers that it was completely within their abilities to succeed in a career path of their choice. Even after the First World War, books such as these continued to encourage women to participate in the world of work on their own terms.

[1] Carla Valentine, Murder isn’t easy: The forensics of Agatha Christie (London: Sphere, 2021), p. 309

[2] Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie: A very elusive woman (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2022)

[3] Emily L.B. Forster, How to become a dispenser: The new profession for women (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1917)

[4] Ibid., p. 1

[5] Ibid., p. 9

[6] Ibid., p. 42

[7] Ibid., pp. 39-40

[8] Ibid., p. 41

Female aviators in interwar Britain

FeaturedFemale aviators in interwar Britain

With the rise in popularity of civil and commercial aviation in the 1920s and 1930s, which has been covered elsewhere in this blog, there was naturally also an increase in the number of people who got a pilot’s license. What is perhaps more surprising to the casual observer is the number of women who became (amateur) pilots. During a time when women were increasingly able to participate in public life, changing social norms made it more acceptable for women to engage with new modes of mobility.

As with the introduction of cars, learning how to fly was mostly open to women from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. Nonetheless, some women from working- and lower-middle class backgrounds were also able to gain a pilot’s license. Unlike today, the training requirements for new pilots were minimal, with some clocking fewer than 10 hours in the cockpit before deciding to set off on long solo adventures. This, too, lowered the threshold to becoming a pilot, although the other big expense required was of course the purchase of a plane.

The most famous female pilot in interwar Britain was Amy Johnson. ‘Amy, Wonderful Amy’ as the song written in her honour called her, became hugely famous when she flew on her own to Australia in May 1930. The journey took her 19.5 days – it was not an outright record but she was the first female pilot to undertake the route as a solo pilot. Johnson had grown up in a middle-class family, attending university and working as a legal secretary before re-training as an engineer and realising her aviation dreams.[1]

‘Amy Johnson, Queen of the Skies’ newsreel

Also in 1930, Mildred Mary Petre (usually known as Mrs Victor Bruce) completed a solo flight to Tokyo in 25 days. Unlike Johnson, Petre’s passion was not solely for flight – she had previously been a record-breaking motor racer. When she undertook her long-distance flight in 1930 she’d only had 40 hours of flight experience.[2] The feats of female pilots caught the popular imagination in 1930, leading the Daily Mirror to enthuse in a bold headline that 1930 was ‘The most wonderful year in the history for women’ and that the year had seen ‘months of triumph over male rivals in almost every sphere.’[3]

Most female pilots either flew as amateurs for private enjoyment, or sought to gain publicity and income by completing record-breaking flights. The commercial airlines were extremely resistant to hiring female pilots. In 1928, amateur pilot Lady Heath was briefly employed by KLM as a pilot on their Amsterdam to London route, but this did not result in a permanent appointment. Lady Heath had grown up in Ireland where she had obtained a degree in science. During the First World War she served as a despatch rider, and in the 1920s she was a champion javelin thrower and one of the founders of England’s Women’s Amateur Athletics Association. Rather than trying to break distance records, Lady Heath focused on height records in her plane, becoming the first pilot to fly a light plane to an altitude of 16,000ft in 1927, and to 23,000ft the following year.

Mary Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, came to flying later in life. As a young woman in the Victorian era she spent a significant part of her life setting up and managing hospitals. She also trained in jiu-jitsu. The Duchess’s interest in flight came late in her life; she took her first flight from Croydon Airport to Woburn in 1926, when she was 60 years old. In 1929, she conducted a record-breaking flight from Lympne Airport to Karachi (India) and back to Croydon. She completed this round-trip in eight days, in her single-engine Fokker plane which she nicknamed ‘The Spider’. Her trip and return in Croydon were widely reported in the press. The following year, she flew The Spider from Lympne to Cape Town in a record breaking 91 hours and 20 minutes of flight time over 10 days. 

Mary Russell arriving back at Croydon Airport after a record-breaking flight,
The Illustrated London News, 17 August 1929

An example of a female pilot from a less moneyed background is Winifred Spooner, who was born in Woolwich. Spooner was the 16th woman in Britain to gain her pilot’s license when she obtained it in 1927. The following year, she was the first female pilot to participate in the prestigious King’s Cup, a long-distance race over the British Isles that was first established in 1922. At this first attempt at the race, Spooner came third. In 1931, she became the first woman in Britain to make a living as a private pilot, working for Sir William Everard MP. This highlights how for someone with more limited financial means such as Spooner, flying could never just be a hobby but had to constitute a source of income if she was to continue with it.

Winifred Spooner (By The Flight magazine archive from Flightglobal, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link)

Unfortunately, many of these illustrious women had their lives cut tragically short. Amy Johnson disappeared over the North Sea in 1941, age 38. Winifred Spooner caught pneumonia whilst flying and died in 1933, when she was just 32. Mary Russell, although living to the ripe old age of 70, disappeared during a solo flight around her family’s private estate in 1937. Lady Heath developed an alcohol dependency and in 1939 fell from the stairs in a double-decker tram; she later died of her injuries. Notwithstanding the glamourous treatment female pilots received in popular culture, in reality their flying exposed them to significant dangers which were generally not foregrounded in press narratives.

[1] Allain Pelletier, High-Flying Women: A world history of female pilots (Yeovil: Haynes Publishing, 2012), p. 101

[2] Ibid. p. 92

[3] ‘1930 the most wonderful year in history for women’, Daily Mirror, 29 December 1930, p. 3

Bobbed, shingled or waved: women’s hair in interwar London

FeaturedBobbed, shingled or waved: women’s hair in interwar London

Well-off women in interwar Britain were told that the state of their hair was an important consideration. Throughout the interwar period, different hairstyle trends followed one another and for the fashion-conscious woman, it was easy to be considered completely démodé if sporting the wrong style. Short hairstyles were favoured, which required less daily maintenance and upkeep than the traditional Edwardian long hairstyles. Film stars showed off these new trends to the wider public, enhancing their aspirational qualities.

The bobbed haircut made a big impact in the early 1920s, aided by American film stars such as Clara Bow (the original ‘It girl’) and Louise Brooks.[1] Brooks in particular cut her bob very short. In British film, the bob perhaps most famously appears in 1929s Piccadilly, where Anna Mae Wong’s character Shosho wears her hair in the style. Wong was an American actress, and her character Shosho was Chinese and is constantly ‘othered’ in the film, aligning the bobbed hairstyle with a dangerous exoticism.

Anna Mae Wong as Shosho in Piccadilly

By the mid-1920s, however, the bob had generally been replaced by the ‘shingled’ hairstyle, an even shorter cut that exposed the wearer’s neck. In the 1928 novel Keeping Up Appearances there are frequent reminders that the novel’s heroine, Daisy/Daphne, wears her hair shingled. It would appear to be the perfect hairstyle for a character who is a journalist and a single woman living independently in London, mixing with a ‘fast set’ of drinking friends and trying to find her own way in life. Daisy is frequently asked to write for her newspaper on the ‘Post-War Girl’, a stereotype which she herself embodies and which would commonly be assumed to wear her hair short.[2]

Shingled hair was much more complicated to achieve than a regular bob, and would require the wearer to undergo frequent and extensive treatment in a beauty salon. In interwar London, hairdresser for women often operated as part of a beaty parlour, where customers could also get manicures and other treatments. Whereas the bob had been very achievable for working-class women, shingled hair denoted someone who could spend time and money on its maintenance.

In the 1930s, hairstyles got longer again, and the most important thing to achieve was a ‘wave’. The ‘Marcel wave’, although patented in the 1870s, remained fashionable. It required the application of heated tongs onto a woman’s hair, to set it in long-lasting waves. This operation, which needed to be undertaken in a professional parlour, could be hazardous for the customer. E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady visits a hairdresser for a ‘permanent wave’ in The Provincial Lady Goes Further, which originally appeared in 1932:

Undergo permanent wave, with customary interludes of feeling that nothing on earth can be worth it, and eventual conviction that it was. The hairdresser (…) assures me that I shall not be left alone whilst the heating is on, and adds gravely that no client ever is left alone at that stage – which has a sinister sound, and terrifies me. However, I emerge safely, and my head is also declared to have come up beautifully – which it has.[3]

The Provincial Lady, by the way, always gets her hair done in London, and indeed often resolves to visit the hairdresser immediately upon her arrival in the capital, when she sees that fashions have changed since her last visit.[4] In rural Devon, where she normally resides, hairstyles are evidentially not subject to the whims of fashion, but in the big cities women are expected to keep up with changing expectations.

The beauty parlour appears in some interwar films, most notably Anthony Asquith’s thriller A Cottage on Dartmoor. In this film, the protagonists are Joe, a barber’s assistant, and Sally, a manicurist, who both work in the same salon. Joe is in love with Sally and pursues her doggedly, but Sally does not reciprocate his feelings and is disturbed by Joe’s persistence. When a male customer from the countryside enters the salon, he and Sally fall in love at first sight. Joe’s jealousy leads him to murderous intent. The forced proximity of the trio in the salon, where Joe has to work on his rival’s hair and observe Sally touching the man’s hands as she delivers his manicure, ratchets up the tension.

On a lighter note, the male love interest in the Gracie Fields film Looking on the Bright Side also works as a hairdresser in a beauty parlour. In this film, Fields maximises the comic opportunities of the environment, with water, soap and complicated hairdressing machines all playing a part in a key slapstick scene.

Laurie helps a customer in Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

For women who could not afford to go to the beauty parlour, home treatments such as the heavily-marketed ‘Amami’ shampoo offered a solution. Under the slogan ‘Friday Night is Amami Night’ customers were encouraged to use the brand’s ‘shampoo and set’ products every week, to achieve that elusive ‘wave.’ No matter if you visited a high-end beauty salon, or used at-home products, if you wanted to be a fashion-conscious woman in interwar London you had to spend time, money and effort to ensure that your hair passed muster.

[1] Anna Cottrell, ‘Deathless Blondes and Permanent Waves: Women’s Hairstyles in Interwar Britain’, Literature and History, vol. 25, no. 1 (2016), 22-40, p. 28

[2] Rose Macaulay, Keeping Up Appearances (London: British Library, 2022 [1928]), p. 25

[3] E. M. Delafield, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, (London: Penguin, 2013 [1932]), p. 140

[4] Ibid., p. 228


Rose Macaulay – Keeping Up Appearances (1928)

Author and journalist Rose Macaulay has largely receded from the collective memory. Nevertheless, she published 24 novels, three volumes of poetry and 18 works of non-fiction during her lifetime. Born in 1881, her literary career started during the Edwardian period. The interwar decades were prolific for her though: she published 12 novels in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1920s were also the decade in which Macaulay found widespread commercial success for the first time.[1] Some of these interwar works have been republished since their first appearance, including her 1928 work Keeping Up Appearances which was re-issued by the British Library in 2022 as part of their Women Writers series.[2]

Not to be confused with the popular 1990s BBC sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances is about two half-sisters, Daisy and Daphne. Daisy is 30, Daphne is 25. Daisy is awkward in social situations and considers herself a coward; Daphne is cool, confident and ‘good fun’. The girls’ father was an upper-middle class intellectual; Daisy’s mother is a lower-middle class woman from East Sheen who had Daisy as a result of a youthful fling. She has since married a labourer and had three more children, who are now adults. Daisy is embarrassed about her mother, whom she considers uncultured. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, we do not find out anything about Daphne’s mother.

At the opening of the novel both women are on holiday with a middle-class family, the Folyots, to act as au-pairs to the family’s younger children, Cary and Charles. The Folyots also have an adult son, Raymond, who is a biologist. Daisy is hopelessly in love with Raymond, who in turn seems only charmed by the cooler Daphne. Mrs Folyot is involved in myriad political causes, including the sheltering of ‘White’ Russians who fled the country after the bolshevist revolution; and the support of independence and self-governance of such varied groups as Basque Spaniards, Estonians and Indians. Although Mrs Folyot’s activities mostly serve as a (comical) backdrop to the novel’s main activities, they remind the modern reader of the huge political turmoil underway across Europe in the interwar period. They also highlight the longstanding nature of some debates that remain unresolved today: both Catalan and Scottish independence get a name-check.

About one hundred pages into the novel, Macaulay reveals the central deceit which sets Keeping Up Appearances apart from many other novels concerned with the emotional life of 20-something women: Daphne and Daisy are one and the same person. Daphne Daisy Simpson, as is the woman’s full name, considers ‘Daisy’ to be the self she is when she is alone, or with her birth family. Daisy is lower-middle class and has to work hard as a journalist and novelist to make some independent income. Daphne is the funnier, cleverer, and younger persona she has adopted when she is around more sophisticated friends, such as the Folyots.

When Raymond proposes to ‘Daphne’, it sets the two personas on a collision course. Daisy’s family understandably are confused why Daisy does not want to introduce her fiancé to them; Daisy has to work extremely hard to prevent Raymond from seeing her ‘real’ self, which she is sure he will not like. The lies pile up and become impossible to all keep hidden. First Raymond finds out that Daphne works as a journalist and writer, under the pen name Marjorie Wynne. He is puzzled why Daphne has not been open about it, but lets it slide. Then Daisy struggles to continue the pretence that she is interested in Raymond’s work: Daphne has always happily escorted Raymond on endless jaunts around the cold and muddy countryside, but Daisy increasingly snaps at Raymond when she is freezing on a heath. Finally, inevitably, Daisy’s mother and aunt visit the Folyot’s unannounced, and all of Daisy’s lies come out.

The book’s preoccupation with ‘real’ selves versus ‘presented’ selves is cleverly mirrored in its discussion of the popular press. Both Daisy and her half-brother Edward work for the Daily Wire, a fictional popular daily along the lines of the Daily Express. But whilst Edward is a reporter, constantly churning out peppy headlines like ‘West End Flat Mystery Surprise – Dead Girl Sensation – Amazing Revelations’; Daisy as Marjorie Wynne is condemned to the women’s pages.[3] Throughout the book, she is asked to write articles on topics such as ‘can a woman run a baby and a business at the same time’[4], ‘modern married life’[5] and ‘should flappers vote?’[6] When Daisy tries to return a sarcastic article under the latter headline, she is promptly told to rectify it to fit with the newspaper’s expected tone. ‘The remuneration was good, so Daisy (…) wrote the article on these lines.’[7]

It is understood by Daisy throughout, as it would have been by Macaulay herself, that women journalists are almost always pigeonholed into providing content relating to ‘the women question’ only. Whereas Edward is mobile during his working day, dashing to and fro to get interviews and eye-witness accounts, Daisy types all her work in her flat. It is, however, the only way she sees that allows her to make an independent income.

By the end of Keeping Up Appearances, Daisy’s second novel (written under the pseudonym Marjorie Wynne) becomes a modest commercial success. Daisy’s regard for her own writing is extremely low; she considers her novels to be middle-brow at best. However, their commercial success gives her financial independence at the novel’s close.[8] They also give her the tantalising opportunity to shed both Daisy and Daphne and adopt Marjorie Wynne as yet another persona in which to navigate the world.

Although Keeping Up Appearances ends on a happy note of sorts for Daphne Daisy, it makes clear that all people, including men, continue to be trapped between behavioural expectations and their true desires. Throughout the novel Macaulay gives the reader glimpses of the ‘secret life’ of the other characters, including Raymond. Everyone behaves differently when unobserved, and despite the loosening of rigid social conventions after the First World War, there remained plenty of conventions to follow in order to ensure financial and romantic success.

[1] Sarah Lonsdale, Rebel Women Between the Wars (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), p. 45

[2] Rose Macaulay, Keeping Up Appearances (London: British Library, 2022)

[3] Ibid., p. 49

[4] Ibid., p. 64

[5] Ibid., p. 157

[6] Ibid., p. 137

[7] Ibid., p. 138

[8] Ibid., p. 247

The Monkey Club

FeaturedThe Monkey Club

Picture Post, the left-wing photojournalism magazine launched in October 1938, has a proud track record of political journalism, including comprehensive reporting on the plight of Jewish people under Nazi rule. In amongst this serious political reportage, however, the weekly magazine also provided plenty of lighter content, such as an article in an early issue about the so-called ‘Monkey Club’, a club where ‘debutantes learn to be housewives.’

The five-page spread appeared in the issue of 10 December 1938, early on in the Post’s existence. The Monkey Club was a slightly odd hybrid between a member’s club and an educational establishment. One would become a member either by being put forward by two existing members, or by serving probation – by 1938 there were apparently eighty members in total. The club had been founded in 1923 and lasted at least until the early 1950s. According to the Club’s founder, Marion Ellison, she wanted to ‘supply a social and educational club for society girls, who at eighteen may not wish to enter a University, but who do not want to idle away their days.’[1]

Debutantes were daughters of prominent families who were presented at Court during their first ‘season’ and subsequently attended the annual round of balls and parties. The ‘season’ was a long-established London tradition and once upon a time the primary way for young wealthy people to meet their marriage partners. By the late 1930s, however, social change had been such that debutantes could not necessarily expect the same lives as their mothers and grandmothers, and some of them undoubtedly also wished to have a profession.

The Monkey Club’s varied offering demonstrates the transitional space in which it operated. It offered residential lodgings for about 30 of its members, providing young women who wanted to live independently a more socially elevated alternative to lodging in a Bloomsbury boarding house.[2] The club also provided five main strands of educational activity: ‘General Education, Music, Secretarial Training, Domestic Science, and Dressmaking.’[3] The five categories had different purposes, depending on what the debutante needed.

Should she need to learn a job to earn her own living, clearly the secretarial training would be very useful. It is a sign of significant social change that a sizeable sub-section of the Club membership was ‘training for careers’ – even a generation earlier the notion of a debutante taking a secretarial course would have raised eyebrows.[4] But by the late 1930s, ‘debs’ could not necessarily expect to marry into wealth and live out the rest of their days as matriarchs. Secretarial work, on the other hand, was in constant and increasing demand and provided a respectable route into paid employment for young women, at least until such a moment that they got married.

The ‘Domestic Science’ training, which Picture Post called ‘probably the highlight of the club’, also demonstrates how society had changed.[5] Although the debutantes come from wealthy families, they can clearly no longer expect to run households with a lot of staff. The Monkeys are not taught how to manage servants, but rather how to undertake household tasks themselves. From ironing shirts to cleaning windows, the Monkeys are given instructions on how to undertake each part of household management. ‘Every debutante wants to be a good housewife’ enthuses the Post.[6]

The club building even contains a complete flat, where members who are about to get married take ‘Bride’s Course’. The flat gives them a trial at running a complete household, including planning and executing dinner parties. Says the Post: ‘The “Bride’s Course” is no romantic interlude. The brides are thoroughly prepared to cope with all emergencies, even to leaky pipes and broken armchairs.’[7] Clearly, most of the debutantes were expecting to be quite hands-on in their household management after marriage, reflecting the replacement of servants with labour-saving devices as the job market changed. Another area for change was that of childrearing. Like with the household, debutantes would be expected to be hands-on in the raising of their children. To that end, the Monkey Club had a ‘perfect 7lbs “baby” with moveable head and limbs’ – a realistic model which the club members were taught to bathe and dress in the ‘correct’ way.[8]

Other parts of the ‘educational’ curriculum serve to a more traditional conception of a debutante’s life. The music and art education mostly built on what club members had learnt at the inevitable ‘finishing school abroad’: in-depth teaching on music history and theory to allow members to ‘know how to listen and enjoy good music.’[9] Also popular are classes on ‘dancing, stage technique and elocution’ – skills that have less practical use and are more designed to enhance the pupil’s appearance and effectiveness at social engagements.

The Monkey Club clearly fulfilled a function during a time of significant social change. As class barriers were broken down, the old system of sending debutantes to finishing schools and expect almost everyone else to either be a housewife or learn a trade no longer worked. In this ambiguous space, the Monkey Club bridged the old and the new, providing debutantes with a familiar space from which they could navigate their own way through a changing society.

[1] ‘This is the Monkey Club’, Picture Post, 10 December 1938, p. 33

[2] Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei (eds), Living with Strangers: Bedsits and Boarding Houses in Modern British Life, Literature and Film (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018)

[3] ‘This is the Monkey Club’, Picture Post, 10 December 1938, p. 33

[4] Ibid., p. 34

[5] Ibid, pp. 35-6

[6] Ibid., p. 36

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 35

Dorothy L. Sayers

FeaturedDorothy L. Sayers

Agatha Christie is undoubtedly the most famous author of the ‘Golden Age of Crime Fiction’ (or indeed the most famous crime author of all time). She did not stand alone, however, but rather was part of a closely connected network of crime writers who worked in Britain and the rest of the Empire between the two wars. Some of the more illustrious authors organised themselves in the Detection Club, a group which was founded in the 1930s and still exists today. One of the founding members of the Detection Club was Dorothy L. Sayers, another female crime fiction writer who obtained widespread recognition during the 1920s and 1930s.

Sayers was born in 1893 in Oxford to a well-to-do couple; her father was a reverend and chaplain to Christ Church Cathedral in the city. Sayers herself studied at Somerville, the all-female College of the University of Oxford. She was there from 1912 to 1915, leaving before the arrival of Vera Brittain and, later, Winifred Holtby.[1] At Sommerville Sayers would also meet Muriel Jaeger, who eventually established her own literary career. Sayers would later draw heavily on her experiences at Somerville for the crime novel Gaudy Night, which appeared in 1935.[2]

After completing her degree, Sayers moved to London and briefly took up a teaching post: teaching was one of the career paths young women were strongly encouraged to enter into, with its associations of helping, caring and other supposedly typical feminine traits.[3] After the teaching stint, she briefly returned to Oxford and then travelled to France, only to eventually return again to London and take up a job as a copywriter.[4] She never lost sight of her literary ambitions and some time in 1920 she started to come up with the amateur detective who would become her most famous character: Lord Peter Wimsey.

Eventually, Sayers published eleven Wimsey novels as well as a series of short stories in which he featured. It can be argued that in Wimsey, Sayers created an ideal man, and part of the fun of the Wimsey stories lies in the interplay between their plots and Sayers’ private life. Wimsey is an aristocrat, the second son of the Dowager Duchess of Denver. He has a private income, a very steady butler named Bunter, an MA from Oxford and an interest in collecting rare books. He also appears to work for the British government on occasion, as he is sent across Europe to undertake diplomatic missions to try and avoid war. He is close friends with detective Charles Parker of the Metropolitan Police, who later in the series marries Wimsey’s sister. Wimsey’s intellect, financial independence, links with the police and elevated status in society make him the ideal amateur sleuth, as he has the means and ability to enter almost any situation.

In Strong Poison, the fifth Wimsey novel, Sayers started to really draw on her own life for the book’s plot. Although all the Wimsey novels contain intricately plotted crime puzzles which adhere to the rules of ‘fair play’, its in the interpersonal relationships of the characters where the clues are to Sayers’ private life. In the early 1920s, Sayers had a relationship with fellow writer John Cournos, which came to an end when Cournos wanted to sleep together outside of the marriage, which Sayers did not want.[5] In Strong Poison, Sayers introduces Harriet Vane, a clear alter-ego for herself. Vane is a crime fiction author who is on trial for the murder of her partner; in this fictional relationship the question of sex outside of marriage was also paramount. The victim in Strong Poison is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Cournos, and Sayers no doubt got great satisfaction from giving the character an extremely painful death from arsenic poisoning.

Wimsey falls in love with Harriet Vane in Strong Poison, and throughout the remainder of the Wimsey series their relationship takes on increased importance until, in the aforementioned Gaudy Night, Harriet feels that Peter is ready to enter into marriage on equal terms. In Sayers’ real life, no such happy ending was forthcoming. Shortly after the end of her relationship with Cournos, she met Bill White, a man who later turned out to be already married. By the time Sayers found that out, however, she had already agreed to a sexual relationship with him and she found herself pregnant in 1923. Sayers never even told her parents about her pregnancy, so convinced was she that they would not be able to accept it. Amazingly, though, Bill White’s wife came to her aid. Sayers gave birth to her son, John Anthony, in complete secret during a brief leave of absence from her copywriting job. Bill White’s wife, Beatrice, made arrangements for the birth. John Anthony grew up in a foster home run by Sayers’ cousin; during her lifetime Sayers only revealed his existence to five people and never told her parents they had a grandchild.[6]  

Aside from the Wimsey novels and stories, Sayers was a prolific reviewer of crime fiction and also contributed to several volumes written by a group of Detection Club members. The last full Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, appeared in 1937. After this, Sayers mostly turned her attention to religious work, such as a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. [7] She remained a key member of the Detection Club until her death in 1957.[8] Her books remain in print and have been adapted for the screen several times.

[1] Francesca Wade, Square Haunting (London: Faber & Faber, 2020), pp. 96-101

[2] Mo Moulton, The Mutual Admiration Society: ow Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (New York: Basic Books, 2019)

[3] Wade, Square Haunting, p. 107

[4] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, (London: Collins Crime Club, 2016), p. 18

[5] Ibid., pp. 19-20

[6] Wade, Square Haunting, pp. 128-132

[7] Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, p. 404

[8] Ibid., p. 410