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

New Year’s Eve 1922

FeaturedNew Year’s Eve 1922

As is tradition on this blog, for the final post of the year we cast our minds back to exactly one hundred years ago and have a look at how New Year’s Eve was celebrated in London that night. After some rain earlier in the day, the evening of Sunday 31 December was cold and a bit windy but dry: no doubt a relief to Londoners keen to let their hair down.[1] According to the Manchester Guardian pre-midnight celebrations were ‘more subdued’ than in previous years owing to 31 December being a Sunday! Due to a special licensing hour dispensation, hotels could stay open till 2am.[2]

Well-heeled Londoners were excited to ring in the new year with elaborate parties in hotels and restaurants. Hotels spared no cost in their interior decoration: the dining room of the Berkeley Hotel ‘was transformed into a lighted vineyard’ and at Claridge’s guests walked through an Italy-inspired landscape.[3] At the Savoy Hotel, a large amount of Christmas crackers were pulled during an ‘elaborate banquet’ – 25,000 crackers according to the Daily Express, but 35,000 according to the Mirror.[4] Some venues put on performances: at the Metropole Hotel midnight was marked by ‘a dainty little girl dressed as Cupid [appearing] from a huge cracker, which was pulled by Father Christmas.’[5] At the Piccadilly Hotel grill room a female singer appeared out of the top of a huge champagne bottle at midnight to sign Auld Lang Syne.[6]

A young woman, representing 1923, banishing old 1922 in an unspecified performance. Image: Daily Mirror, 1 January 1923, front page

For those who could not afford to be in the hotels, the streets of London provided a suitable party venue. The steps of St Paul’s Cathedral were one of the traditional sites of celebration, and crowds started gathering there hours in advance.[7] The Daily Express reporters, always ready with more evocative language then their colleagues at rival papers, described the crowds in the West End as follows:

They were “grown ups” who surged in dense masses through the streets, but the joy of childhood – Christmas party childhood – was rampant. Every one wore a paper hat, and nearly every one was blowing a toy trumpet. Street corners were impromptu ballrooms.[8]

Aside from the evening celebrations, the New Year also meant the publication of the annual honours list, announcing which luminaries had been bestowed honorary titles. In 1923, the prominent and popular Home Office pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, was knighted and could henceforth call himself Sir Bernard Spilsbury.[9]

Cartoon in News of the World of 31 December 1922 reflecting the growing concerns on the dangers of motorized traffic, which would come to a head in the early 1930s.

The beginning of the new year also meant the start of winter sales in all the big department stores. The growing importance of consumerism, and the increase in disposable income, are marked by the prominent articles appearing in the popular press about the sales. ‘Thousands of women will to-day celebrate the coming of 1923 by “raiding” the great London stores in the breathless but happy hunt for bargains’ predicted the Daily Mirror.[10] In an article that essentially sums up the offers at each of the great stores, readers are advised that whilst buying ‘indiscriminately’ is never a good idea, one can’t go wrong with staples such as ‘gloves, shoes, underclothes etc’.[11]

The Sunday papers on 31 December had already carried large adverts for each of the store, preparing shoppers to the bargains that could be had. Like the Daily Mirror article, these were almost exclusively aimed at the female readership. It was clearly understood that shopping in a sale was the kind of frivolous activity that only women would engage in. At Dickins & Jones, a clearance of ‘model gowns’ (ie. those used for display purposes) meant that prices started at 7 ½ guineas – a guinea being 1 pound and 1 shilling.[12] On the same page, competitor Marshall & Snelgrove advertised a fur coat for 89 guineas; it had previously been between 125 and 179 guineas so this discount was indeed a ‘wonderful bargain’ although it was clearly out of reach for the vast majority of the population.[13]

By the time the Evening Standard appeared in the afternoon, it was able to report on the ‘bargain day scenes’ in breathless and rather sexist tones. ‘The occasion had much more significance for the ladies than the mere advent of the New Year, and (…) they stormed the whole of the shopping centres in their myriads.’[14] Some of the items on offer according to this article were velour coats with mole collar and cuff trimmings at 4 ½ guineas, and a knitted woollen gown at 27 shillings and sixpence; clearly the readership of the Evening Standard had less to spend than the readers of the Observer.

Elsewhere, the Evening Standard reported on the continued imprisonment of Edith Thompson and Freddie Bywaters, who would be executed on 9 January for the murder of Edith’s husband. Other papers noted the republic of Ireland’s recent independence, which was officially finalised in December 1922.[15] All was not well in the remainder of the Union either, with Scottish hunger marchers protesting in London on the first day of 1923.[16] Although the New Year’s Eve parties and January sales gathered the most prominent coverage, it is clear that below the celebratory surface troubles were brewing as Britain continued to deal with the fall-out of the Great War.


[1] ‘Week-end Weather’, The Observer, 31 December 1922, p. 14

[2] ‘New Year Revels in London’, Manchester Guardian, 1 January 1923, p. 7

[3] ‘At the Hotels’, Daily Express, 1 January 1923, front page

[4] Ibid.; ‘1923 Danced In by Merry Throngs’, Daily Mirror, 1 January 1923, p. 3

[5] ‘1923 Danced In’, Daily Mirror

[6] ‘New Year Revels in London’, Manchester Guardian

[7] Ibid.

[8] ‘Great Crowds in the Streets’, Daily Express, 1 January 1923, front page

[9] ‘New Years Honours’, Daily Express, 1 January 1923, p. 7

[10] ‘Sales Carnival Begins To-Day’, Daily Mirror, 1 January 1923, p. 2

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Dickins & Jones’ advert, The Observer, 31 December 1922, p. 9

[13] ‘Marshall & Snelgrove’ advert, The Observer, 31 December 1922, p. 9

[14] ‘Bargain Day Scenes,’ Evening Standard, 1 January 1923, front page

[15] ‘Politics at Home and Abroad’, Daily Telegraph, 1 January 1923, p. 4

[16] ‘Hunger Marchers’ Complaints’, Evening Standard, 1 January 1923, p. 8

Radclyffe Hall

FeaturedRadclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall – which, really, was her given name (in full, Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall) – is probably one of interwar Britain’s most famous LGBTQI+ people. She took the name John later in life, but her novels were published under the name ‘Radclyffe Hall’, which is how she remains best known.

Hall’s most famous work is the 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, which was subjected to an obscenity trial in the UK after vigorous campaigning by the Sunday Express. As was fairly common at the time, English copies of the Well of Loneliness were subsequently printed in Paris; increased mobility between the two capitals including via airplanes ensured that some copies of the work continued in circulation in Britain.

Hall was also born in a family of means, with both her parents inheriting money from their parents. Hall’s father set her up with an independent income which allowed Hall to shun the conventional route of work and marriage and allowed her to develop her literary ambitions. She initially published poetry – five volumes between 1906 and 1915. From an early age Hall adopted a masculine style of dress, including wearing trousers, tailored jackets, and hats.

During a part of the 1920s, Hall lived in Kensington with her partner, Una, Lady Troubridge. They were together from 1916 until Hall’s death. London’s somewhat unruly nightlife during the interwar period allowed for the existence of LGBT-friendly spaces. From the mid-1920s Hall started to publish works of fiction. Her third book, Adam’s Breed, which was written in the Kensington flat, became a prize-winning bestseller. The commercial success of Adam’s Breed arguably partially caused the vocal backlash to Hall’s next work, The Well of Loneliness. Had she been less famous, there would have perhaps been less concern about the content of the work.

The plot of The Well of Loneliness centres on Stephen Gordon, an upper-class English woman who considers herself a ‘sexual invert’ (ie. she is a lesbian). The book chronicles Stephen’s childhood, an early love affair with an older woman, Stephen’s career as a novelist in both London and Paris, and her experiences as an ambulance driver in World War One. During the war, she meets and falls in love with fellow ambulance driver Mary, and the pair set up a household together after the war.

Although the book is far from sexually explicit, there is one reference to Stephen and Mary going to bed together; and throughout, Stephen insists that ‘sexual inversion’ is not unnatural. Stephen’s (and by extension, Hall’s) views on lesbianism closely echo those of 19th-century lesbian Anne Lister, by some considered to one of Britain’s first ‘modern lesbians.’

Due to the success of Adam’s Breed, The Well of Loneliness was reviewed by journalists upon its publication; early reviews were measured.[1] However, James Douglas, the editor of the Sunday Express who earlier in the decade had found much fault with convicted murderer Edith Thompson, took it upon himself to publish a front-page take-down of the book on 19 August 1928. His editorial included the statement that ‘he would rather give “a healthy boy or a healthy girl” poison than let them read The Well of Loneliness.’[2]

Hall’s publisher protested that the intervention of the Sunday Express gave the book more publicity and sensationalised it, and many other journalists and writers defended the work. Nevertheless, an obscenity trial started on 9 November 1928 and included expert witness testimony to confirm that one could not ‘become gay’ by reading a book about a gay relationship. The magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, concluded that the novel’s literary merit counted against it: ‘the more palatable the poison the more insidious’.[3] He ordered that all copies of the book were destroyed, and The Well of Loneliness was not published again in Britain until 1959.

Hall attended the trial, although she was not on the stand as the trial was against her publisher rather than herself as a person. Her masculine appearance, widely reported in the press, ‘crystallised a particular vision of the mannish lesbian’ for the remainder of the interwar period.[4] A similar obscenity trial in the US had the opposite outcome to the British one, ‘finding that discussion of homosexuality was not in itself obscene.’ Hall only published one more novel during her lifetime, The Master of the House, which was poorly received. During the 1930s Hall and Troubridge moved out of London to the coastal town of Rye. Hall was diagnosed with cancer during the Second World War and died in 1943. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London, alongside other writers and artists such as George Eliot, Elizabeth Siddal and Anna Mahler.


[1] Christopher Hilliard, ‘“Is It a Book That You Would Even Wish Your Wife or Your Servants to Read?” Obscenity Law and the Politics of Reading in Modern England’, American Historical Review, June 2013, p. 666

[2] Ibid.

[3] Merl Storr, ‘Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness’, review, Sexualities, Vol 6, no. 2, 2003, p. 264

[4] Emma Liggins, Odd Women? Spinsters, lesbians and widows in British women’s fiction, 1850s–1930s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), p. 163

Featured

Winifred Holtby – South Riding (1936)

Journalist, author, feminist and activist Winifred Holtby was a distinctive voice in interwar Britain’s press. In her journalism pieces she often challenged social inequalities and advocated for change. Aside from her journalistic output, Holtby also wrote seven novels. The most famous of these is South Riding, which was published posthumously after Holtby’s death at the age of 37. Vera Brittain, Holtby’s close friend and an accomplished author in her own right, edited the manuscript of South Riding and got it ready for publication.[1] The book met with critical success upon its publication, and was turned into a Victor Saville-directed film in 1938. The story’s enduring resonance is evidenced by the BBC adaptation which appeared as recently as 2011.

The scope and order of South Riding are ambitious: the novel opens with a list of characters no shorter than 6 pages in length. The story is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire. A facsimile of a hand-drawn map by Holtby in the front of the Virago edition of the book shows that she imagined the Riding to be located in the triangle between York, Scarborough and the northern border of Lincolnshire.

South Riding is a novel concerned with local government. Across its 500 or so pages, the novel is divided into eight ‘books’, each named after a sub-committee of South Riding Council. Through ‘Education’; ‘Highways and Bridges’; ‘Public Health’ and others, Holtby weaves a tale of modernity and tradition, and the deep interconnectedness of rural communities.

In a book with such a vast range of characters, the closest thing South Riding has to a protagonist is Miss Sarah Burton, M.A. (Leeds), B.Litt (Oxon), the thirty-something new headmistress of the local girls school, whose return to the county of her upbringing kicks off the book’s narrative. Sarah has decidedly modern ideas about education and life in general. Her modernising spirit runs up against the traditions of the South Riding Aldermen, who sit on the Council and have been used to running things their own way.

These Aldermen also reflect a changing society, however: Anthony Snaith is a rich business owner and Mrs Beddows is the Riding’s first female Alderman. Holtby famously modelled Beddows on her own mother, Alice, who was the first woman Alderman in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Alice Holtby initially opposed the publication of South Riding, worried as she was to the damage it may do to local political relations.

The central relationship in South Riding is between Sarah Burton and Robert Carne, a gentleman farmer who occupies the local ‘Big House’, Maythorpe Hall, with his teenage daughter Midge. In an echo of Victorian Gothic literature, Carne’s wife is alive but insane and permanently locked up in an institution. The prohibitive medical costs for her care have led Carne to the brink of financial destitution. Maythorpe Hall is falling apart around him. Divorce is not an option for him, not because it is legally impossible but because he finds it morally unpardonable.

The emotional and intellectual connection between Sarah and Carne builds up throughout the novel. One of the key scenes of South Riding occurs when the pair find themselves staying over in the same hotel. Under the chapter heading ‘Two in a Hotel Find Themselves Temporarily Insane’, Holtby pens what was a decidedly modern and transgressive scene for mid-1930s Britain. A pleasant dinner turns into a night of dancing, and several drinks build the intimacy between the couple. As the evening draws to a close, Sarah invites Carne to visit her in her bedroom, room number ‘five hundred and seventeen.’[2] For a woman to invite a man to her bedroom was of course already frowned upon, but to do so to a married man broke all the rules of propriety. Equally, Carne’s grateful and enthusiastic response did not match behaviour expected of a gentleman.

Throughout the scene, Sarah remains calm and steadfast. Whilst awaiting Carne’s arrival in her room, she smiles at herself. When he asks her if she is really sure she wants to go ahead with it, she confirms ‘I know now I have never been sure of anything before in my life.’[3] The only reason the relationship does not get consummated is because Carne has an acute attack of a recurring heart problem. This rather disturbs the mood and the couple do not get a chance to be alone again for the night after that. Morally and emotionally, however, both Sarah and Carne were committed to an affair which neither of them believed to be wrong, despite it going against the generally espoused conservative values of the time.

South Riding conveys the effect of modern ideas on a traditional community, both for better and for worse. At the same time, it treats the local community and the Council with a deep respect. Everyone in the South Riding needs one another eventually, and progress, however difficult, does penetrate the region through the diligent work of the local representatives.


[1] Shirley Williams, ‘Preface, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago Press, 2010), p. x

[2] Winifred Holtby, South Riding, p. 367

[3] Ibid., p. 368

Football in interwar Britain

Featured<strong>Football in interwar Britain</strong>

Following on from last week’s post about The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, in the run-up to Qatar 2022 this week we’ll look at football in interwar Britain more generally. Football was invented in England, and it remains the most popular spectator sport in the country today. During the interwar period, the sport itself as well as the spectator culture around it were frequently represented in popular media.

First, the basics. League football was (and is) governed in England by the Football Association (FA), which was formed in 1863. In the 19th century, the FA unified football rules to a single set that applied across the country and started running various leagues including the FA Cup. In 1923 a new dedicated stadium was built at Wembley as part of the Empire Exhibition. The stadium was inaugurated by that year’s FA Cup final.

League matches usually took place on Saturday afternoons, after the 5 ½ workday week was finished. From the start, football had primarily been a working-class sport, with some spectator groups building a reputation for unruliness or even violence. The FA cup was keen to improve football’s image during the interwar period, and argued that playing and watching football increased a sense of community. They even went as far as arguing that football would ‘prove helpful in the present unsettled condition of industrial affairs of the country’ during the 1926 General Strike.[1]

Another aspect of the FA’s attempts to make football more socially acceptable during the interwar period was to attract middle-class spectators. One strategy for lowering the barrier of attendance at games for middle-class spectators was to create segregated pricing: certain sections of seats would be more expensive than others, thus creating an automatic division between middle-class and working-class spectators. This concept was very familiar to anyone travelling by train in interwar Britain, as trains retained first, second and third-class carriages. Cinemas used the same strategy during the 1920s to also increase middle-class attendance and thus become more respectable.

Attendance of women at football matches was also a sure sign of increased respectability. By the time The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was written at the close of the interwar period, it was believable that two young, unmarried women would attend an Arsenal match together. Yet at the start of the interwar period, women’s participation in football had been much more comprehensive. Women had been playing football since the end of the 19th century, but the sport’s popularity increased significantly during the First World War. During the war, many young working-class women worked in munitions factories, which often set up their own football teams to give workers a chance to exercise, let off steam and bond with co-workers.[2]

By the time the war was over, women’s football had become established and also increasingly popular. Its growth as a viable sport was cut short, however, by the FA’s decision to ban women’s teams from playing matches on any FA-affiliated pitches.[3] The decision was allegedly influenced by jealousy at the crowds women’s matches were drawing, and the associated income this represented to women’s clubs. The decision did not completely end women’s football in Britain, as evidenced by this British Pathé clip from 1925 of a match at Herne Hill. It did, however, severely hamper the development of women’s football in Britain.

Off the pitch, thousands of people turned out to watch their favourite team win or lose, each week. Apart from the thrill of the game, spectatorship also brought in additional pleasures. One activity that has been indelibly linked to both football and British culture is betting. As sports historian Mike Huggins has argued: ‘Betting combined excitement, sociability and the prospect of becoming temporarily better off. (…) [A]cross the classes, across the country, and across age and gender, betting was increasingly ubiquitous and socially acceptable’ during the interwar period.[4]

Exactly how socially acceptable betting was is evidenced in the plot of the 1938 film Penny Paradise, starring popular actor Edmund Gwenn. In this film, Gwenn’s character Joe Higgins, a tug-boat driver, believes he has won the ‘penny pools’, a newspaper competition that asks readers to accurately predict the outcomes to all the league’s football matches. Joe gets all the scores right, but he doesn’t realise that his friend Pat forgot to post his scores to the newspaper office on time. The film good-naturedly chronicles Joe’s initial belief that he has become a rich man, and then the subsequent realisation that he has missed out. By the late 1930s, betting constructions like penny pools were evidently so widely understood and accepted that they could form the basis of a gentle comedy film.

Football in interwar Britain then was as pervasive as it today, whether that was as a sport to participate in at an amateur level; a game to watch every Saturday; an activity that allowed you to bet and dream of a better future; or something that you saw on newsreels when you went to the cinema.[5] Like many elements of interwar popular culture, it responded to changing gender roles and class divisions, whilst never losing its ability to draw people together.


[1] Joe Maguire, ‘The Emergence of Football Spectating as a Social Problem 1880 – 1985: A Figurational and Developmental Perspective’, Sociology of Sport Journal, vol. 3, (1986), 217-244 (p. 230)

[2] Lisa Jenkel, ‘The F.A.’s ban of women’s football 1921 in the contemporary press – a historical discourse analysis’, Sport in History, vol. 41, no. 2 (2021), 239-259 (pp. 243-44)

[3] Ibid., p. 240

[4] Mike Huggins, ‘Betting, Sport and the British, 1918-1939’, Journal of Social History, vol. 41, no. 2 (2007), 283-306 (p. 285)

[5] Mike Huggins, ‘‘And Now, Something for the Ladies’: representations of women’s sport in cinema newsreels 1918–1939’, Women’s History Review, vol. 16, no. 5 (2007), 681-700

Featured

Leonard Gribble – The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 119

[5] Ibid., p. 19

[6] Ibid., p. 38

[7] Ibid., p. 171

[8] Ibid., p. 106

Interwar Spooky Stories

FeaturedInterwar Spooky Stories

With Halloween nearly upon us, it is time for a review of spooky short stories written in interwar Britain. Although Halloween was not celebrated in the modern sense during the interwar period, All Hallows Eve was a longstanding feature of the Church calendar, originating out of pagan Samhain celebrations. Short stories were an immensely popular format in the interwar years, with many short stories published in newspapers and dedicated magazines such as Strand Magazine. Many journalists and authors worked in the genre, which could be lucrative.

In recent years, the British Library publishing arm has re-issued many original stories of the 1920s and 1930s in various edited collections. Spooky short stories of the period often crystallise contemporary fears about technology, alienation, and modernity. They can also address social inequalities in a pointed way. For example, F Tennyson Jesse’s story ‘The Railway Carriage’, published in Strand Magazine in 1931, hinges on the third-class railway carriage as a democratic space that forces together people from wildly different backgrounds.[1]

The story’s protagonist, a young woman named Solange, finds the closed nature of the railway carriage oppressive: ‘she would have given a great deal to be out of that little third-class carriage, to be in a modern corridor train, to be – this, above all – away from her travelling companions.’[2] The design of the train means that Solange cannot change carriages whilst the train is in motion, heightening her feeling of being trapped with two unusual companions. Solange ‘had to stay with them whether she would or no. It was really an outrage, she thought to herself, that such a thing as a non-corridor train should still exist.’[3]

Solange is a modern, somewhat entitled young woman, who by the end of the story has to accept that there are things beyond the rational realm and that she cannot always control the world around her in the way she would like. When the train crashes, Tennyson Jesse introduces a supernatural element to the story and meditates on the justness of capital punishment, a practice that was under much debate during the interwar period. Despite the introduction of a possible ghost, the true horror of the story lies in the very real judicial practices of interwar Britain.

Another story which effectively conveys the terror that the proximity of strangers can bring is E.M. Delafield’s ‘They Don’t Wear Labels.’[4] It also demonstrates how the anonymity of the big city can be exploited, and how patriarchal structures can put women in danger. The story’s protagonist is Mrs Fuller, a boarding house keeper, who takes in a couple, Mr and Mrs Peverelli. Mr Peverelli is very charming, but his wife is sickly. From the moment the couple enter the house, Mr Peverelli plays on sexist stereotypes which Mrs Fuller is very happy to accept. He implies that his wife’s ailments are nervous disorders; Mrs Fuller then tells Mrs Peverelli ‘shed’ a good deal to be thankful for, with her husband in a good job, and always ready to do what would please her.’[5]

When Mrs Peverelli tries to tell Mrs fuller that Mr Peverelli is forcing her to eat and drink things against her will, and that she thinks her husband is trying to poison her, Mrs Fuller naturally rubbishes the suggestion. E.M. Delafield neatly demonstrates the pervasive assumptions about domestic violence: ‘If you really believed it, why – you’d left him. It’s surely the very first thing you’d have done’ huffs Mrs Fuller. ‘You don’t understand’, responds Mrs Peverelli. ‘I love him.’[6]

Shortly thereafter, the Peverelli’s move on, the wife looking ‘worse than ever – sallower and more frightened.’ The true horror of Mr Peverelli’s designs is revealed at the close of the story, when Mrs Fuller realises he has ground up a Christmas bauble and fed the powdered glass to his wife.[7] Murder by ground glass was, incidentally, one of the ways in which Edith Thompson suggested murdering her husband in her letters to her lover Freddie Bywaters. E.M. Delafield had followed the Thompson-Bywaters case closely, and is surely referencing it in this story. Mrs Fuller, and the reader, are confronted by their willingness to believe strangers at face value, and to believe men over women. The horror here is not supernatural, but rather the by-product of an inherently unequal society.

A final female-penned, London-based, spooky short story appeared slightly after the interwar period, at the close of the Second World War. In 1945, Elizabeth Bowen published the (very short) story ‘The Demon Lover’.[8] It effectively uses the bombed-out locales of war-torn London. Bowen’s protagonist, Mrs Drover, is checking up on her Kensington house after an extended stay in the country, away from the Blitz.

Things take a dark turn when Mrs Drover discovers a mysterious letter from a past lover, which warns her that today is ‘our anniversary, and the day we said. (…) I shall rely upon you to keep your promise.’[9] It transpires that Mrs Drover had a soldier lover during the First World War, who went missing. In fear of him, she decides to get a taxi as quickly as possible before the man can come to the house and claim her. Yet rather than a means of escape, the taxi becomes her prison, as she realises too late that the man behind the wheel is the very man she is fleeing from.

As in ‘The Railway Track’, in ‘The Demon Lover’ a means of transport traps a woman rather than give her freedom. The latter story also includes ample reflections on ageing and the compromises made by women: marriage, children and a big house in Kensington versus the excitement of a passionate love affair. Like Mrs Peverelli, Mrs Drover ultimately is unable to escape masculine power. The scariest thing for women turns out to be the patriarchy itself.

All of the stories and books mentioned in this post are available to purchase through the British Library online shop.


[1] F Tennyson Jesse, ‘The Railway Track’, in Blood on the Tracks: Railway Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (London: British Library, 2018), pp. 267-286

[2] Ibid., p. 272

[3] Ibid., p. 277

[4] E. M. Delafield, ‘They Don’t Wear Labels’, in Capital Crimes: London Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (London: British Library, 2015), pp. 265-273

[5] Ibid., p. 268

[6] Ibid., p. 270

[7] Ibid., p. 273

[8] Elizabeth Bowen, ‘The Demon Lover’, in Into the London Fog: Eerie Tales from the Weird City, edited by Elizabeth Dearnley (London: British Library, 2020), pp. 81-91

[9] Ibid., p. 85

Winifred Holtby

Featured<strong>Winifred Holtby</strong>

Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) was a Yorkshire writer, journalist and activist who remains primarily remembered for her final, posthumous novel South Riding. She is also frequently linked to her closest friend, writer and journalist Vera Brittain, who penned the influential First World War memoir Testament of Youth. Holtby and Brittain studied together at Oxford’s all-female college, Somerville, and subsequently shared households for most of the remainder of Holtby’s life.

Although Brittain remains the better-known of the pair (arguably partially because her life was not cut short like Holtby’s), Winifred Holtby was more than a friend and companion to Brittain. She had her own strong political and feminist views, which were expressed in her journalism and activism. After a visit to South Africa in 1926, Holtby actively supported the Black South African community for the rest of her life.[1]

Winifred Holtby was born in Rudston, a small Yorkshire village between Hull and Scarborough. She came of age during the First World War and briefly served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) before starting her studies at Somerville in 1919. Here she met Brittain, who was some five years older than her. After the war, Holtby lectured for the League of Nations, the ‘first worldwide intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace.’ She also became involved in the Six Point Group, a feminist collective set up by Lady Rhondda. The latter also co-founded Time and Tide, a feminist interwar publication to which both Holtby and Brittain became regular contributors.[2] (E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady also started as a column in Time and Tide).

Committed feminist as Holtby was, her journalistic writings of the time are striking both because they address some issues that remain unresolved, and because they reveal a sharp sense of humour. The overall tone of Holtby’s writing in this area demonstrates optimism. After the expansion of the vote to all men and women in 1928, interwar feminists seemed to believe that equality between men and women on all fronts was just a matter of time. Nearly a hundred years on, such optimism seems naïve. However, it does mean that Holtby’s writing on inequality remains recognisable and accessible.

In ‘Should a Woman Pay?’, which appeared in the Manchester Guardian in October 1928, she tackles the social dilemma of who should pay the bill when a man and woman go out together. Introducing us to the fictional Jack and Jill, Holtby demonstrates how a clinging to the social custom of the man paying can lead to resentment between modern couples – Jack insists on paying for Jill’s lunch because ‘his masculine honour is affronted’ by the suggestion she pays, or they split the bill. When both return to their respective jobs for the afternoon, they are distracted, make mistakes, and ‘they both hate everything.’

Holtby links this very relatable scenario to ‘the industrial revolution, the introduction of factory labour, the divorce of women from domestic industry’ and the subsequent removal of women from any source of substantial income.[3] A quick internet search reveals that the question ‘Should the woman pay?’ remains unresolved – Harvard Business Review devoted an article to it in April 2021 and a live WikiHow page talks readers through the ‘problem’ (which remains presented in heteronormative terms).

In ‘Counting the Cost’, also published in the Manchester Guardian in the same year, Holtby responds to a letter to the editor submitted by a man who is frustrated that his wife is undertaking too many activities in the community and does not have enough time to manage the household. ‘If I came home from work at six (which I don’t) and had to get my own tea [dinner], things would happen’ fumes the man. Holtby gently pokes fun at the man’s worked-up tone: ‘He really is very cross indeed. He makes you feel that the first of those things which would happen would be a very bad tea. Bad temper never fries good bacon.’[4] She ends the article by acknowledging that whilst some things may be lost when women go out of their home, both economy and society gain much by women actively participating in it.

Holtby herself was one such woman actively participating in public life during the interwar period. Although she never married, she did undertake caring responsibilities for Vera Brittain’s family, whom she lived with for large proportions of her life.[5] Holtby repeatedly referred to herself as ‘50% a politician’ and she tirelessly raised funds to help unionise Black workers in South Africa.[6] Despite only being ‘50% a writer’ in her own perception, Holtby produced seven novels, two volumes of poetry, two short story collections, a play, and four works of non-fiction including a memoir of Virginia Woolf. As a witty and gifted writer and commentator, her work deserves continued recognition.


[1] Testament of a Generation: The journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 21-23

[2] Marion Shaw, ‘Introduction’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. xi

[3] Winifred Holtby, ‘Should a Woman Pay?’, reproduced in Testament of a Generation, pp. 57-60.

[4] Winifred Holtby, ‘Counting the Cost’, reproduced in Testament of a Generation, pp. 54-57

[5] Shirley Williams, ‘Preface’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. ix

[6] Marion Shaw, ‘Introduction’, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago, 2011), p. xii; Testament of a Generation: The journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop (London: Virago, 1985), pp. 22