Archive for October, 2011

By the time of the shooting Elvira Barney had been living at 21 William Mews for just over a year.She says twelve months in her statement, the neighbours say eighteen –  which is unsurprising; it probably felt even longer to them.

There is no recorded evidence of any trouble for the whole of 1931. However, the car crash in July and an autumn spent in Paris and Cannes, added to what seems a relatively quiet relationship with Mervyn Pearce, would account for that.

Michael Scott Stephen appears on the scene towards the end of the year. My guess is that they became close in Paris. By Christmas  he has pretty well moved in. From this time on, the parties increase in frequency and so do the disturbances. Early in the year, not sure of the date, a neighbour recalls the couple rowing in the street and Elvira hitting Michael.

On Wednesday February 17th, at 10.30 am, the police received a complaint from a Mr.Elverton at No.11 who was fed up of people arriving at Elvira’s late at night, noisily and drunkenly. “Shouting and quarrelling took place and it was impossible for anyone living near to sleep.”  It is worth noting that all of the Mews disturbances are on a weekday, Fridays and Saturdays were probably devoted to grander parties, trips to Paris or sojourns at Elvira’s weekend retreat in Henley. Given that the people who shared the Mews with Elvira were mostly chauffeurs with wives in domestic service and would have all had very early starts to their working day, one can imagine the level of her popularity.

Anyhow, the police were already aware of trouble in  the early hours of Feb 17th, as P.C. Campbell had been summoned from his Knightsbridge beat by a taxi driver who had been told to fetch a policeman. The allegation was that there was a “lunatic” at No.21. The person who sent the taxi-man on this errand was the owner of 21, who gave her name as “Janet Burnett” and was having trouble ejecting four people from her flat,three men and one woman. All four had been drinking and one man was exceedingly drunk. The constable got them to leave. You will have surmised that Janet Burnett was Elvira herself. in the light of future events P.C. Campbell may have wondered about the true identity of the “lunatic” .

Two weeks later, on Thursday March 3rd, at 2am, Elvira again called the police saying that a downstairs window had been smashed and she wished to charge a man with assault and criminal damage. When Sergeant Barnes of Gerald Road arrived, he was told that the man had left in a taxi but Elvira would not name him nor did she wish to pursue the matter.

Barnes noticed red marks on Elvira’s  arms and chest and, at her request, agreed for a Constable to keep an eye on the property in case the man should return. He also thought the window (on the ground floor) had been smashed from the inside.

The next incident, date unknown,,did not involve the police but was when Elvira locked herself in the bedroom and a worried Terence skeffington-Smyth and some others had gone looking for a ladder to check that she was all right. (see ). These events were also recalled by other Mews residents.

On 15th April Elvira rang Gerald Street station  around midnight, to ask them to eject a man from the premises. When the police arrived they found Michael Scott Stephen quite sober but Elvira very drunk. Stephen left without arguing but not before making Elvira promise “not to do anything” . He explained to the officer that this referred to often mention threats of suicide with “a revolver or poison”.

On 19th May, the most serious row yet took place. This was the occasion when Elvira apparently refused to lend Michael money, firstly for himself and then later, when he returned, to pay for his taxi. They fought – Elvira had bruises to her arms and Michael acquired a black eye and a swollen lip.  It is also the occasion when Elvira leant out of the upstairs window and called out, “Laugh, Baby. Laugh for the last time.”. She then fired a revolver – into the street thought one witness, into the air in the flat according to Elvira. It must be noted that Michael, even in these heated circumstances, still seemed more concerned about Elvira shooting herself rather than him.

There was one more disruption to sleep patterns of the Mews residents. Either on the 24th or the 25th a group of late night revellers arrived in a car yelling to be let in and threatening to go round to Elvira’s parents if not allowed access. Elvira ignored them.

Then on the morning of the 31st of May, Michael Scott Stephens died of a single gunshot wound somewhere between the bathroom and the upstairs landing of number 21 – bringing the parties and the scenes of late night chaos to a dramatic end.

Sunday Wilshin

I am still wondering about the identity of the unnamed  woman who Sylvia Coke took to  Elvira’s cocktail part. That she was an actress or somebody of high social status is almost certain. We know that she was a “close.personal friend” of Sylvia’s. This would seem to suggest either Angela Worthington or Barbara Waring (see )

It is probably wishful thinking but there is a remote possibility that Sunday Wilshin could fit the bill. A Forgotten name now, she was a prominent young actress at the time and was part, if not of Elvira’s immediate circle then, of the glamorous world half way between the stage and high society. She had had a much higher profile in 1932 than Worthington or Waring, and therefore would have had greater reason to avoid the unwelcome spotlight that the shooting would have turned on her. She famously features in recent Bright Young reminiscences as simply “a girl called Sunday Wilshin” who was assaulted by Brenda Dean Paul at Arthur Jeffress’   ” Red and White Party”. (see ). This does her something of an injustice.

The oddly named Sunday Wilshin  actually started life with the even unlikelier appellation Sundae Mary Aline Horne-Wilshin . Born in 1905, she was a child actress, appearing regularly in the West End from the age of ten. Throughout the twenties and thirties she was much in demand, both for her good looks and her skills as a character actress. By 1930 she had formed a deep friendship with another beauty, the slightly older Selene Moxon, who for some reason acted under the stage name Cyllene Moxon. Their partnership lasted well into the 1960s.The two were also close to the actress turned author, Noel Streatfield. All three, having shared a dressing-room at the Kingsway theatre during the run of a light comedy called Yoicks (1924), became regular fixtures on the London night-club scene and remained friends for life.

Cyllene Moxon, by Bassano, 1922 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Cyllene Moxon

Noel Streatfield

Noel Streatfield

Wilshin’s connection with  Elvira Barney herself is impossible to prove and may well have been non-existent. Had she not had a clump of her hair pulled out by Brenda Dean Paul I would not even be  speculating about her. If we only knew what the fight was about we might be able to make a few reasonable inferences. Yet,  there are certain traits that she shares with elements of the Mews cocktail crowd. An actress, almost definitely lesbian or bisexual, well known on the night-club and party circuit and with connections to high society (both Lady Violet Paget and Barbara Cartland designed dresses for her), if she didn’t exactly move in the same orbit she would at least have been known to Mrs.Barney.

Sunday Wilshin in a dress designed by Lady Paget

By the 1930s Wilshin was a familiar face on the British screen as well as on stage (she was in Hitchcock’s Champagne in 1928 but her film career only really took off with the advent of talkies). However, like Streatfield, she had ambitions above and beyond looking decorative. In 1938 she turned her attention to radio drama and began a long association with the BBC, working firstly as an actress then as a producer. She is best known for her work with the overseas service, making documentaries and a series of interviews with writers and artists. She replaced George Orwell as the BBC’s specialist on India  and was responsible for the corporation’s output during the sensitive run-up to Independence and Partition. Some of Orwell’s last correspondence is to Wilshin – she was trying to persuade him to contribute a talk on poetry.

Popular with her staff, she was fondly, if a little patronisingly, remembered by Hallam Tennyson (another Indian specialist and an intriguing character in his own right).

“Our boss was the delightfully dotty Sunday Wilshin. Sunday was one of the few women executives I have met who enjoyed her ‘feminine’ qualities and who made use of them in her work “.  He noted her continued preference for a kiss-curl hairstyle and felt she was still a Pre-War starlet at heart.

Apart from her radio work, she wrote books and, with Selene, edited and proof-read the work of others.She also made the occasional foray into television –  presenting “Asian Club” in 1955, surely the first such venture in the West.

Where did her interest in India come from? Funnily enough, this question might lead back to the party-world of the early thirties. By1932  Selene Moxon had tired of the social whirl of London. In July, just as Elvira was winning her case, Selene and Sunday acquired a cottage in Little Saling in Essex. They became became part of the Gurdjieff/Fourth Way study group set up by Maurice Nicholl, two miles away, at Lakes Farm, just north of Braintree. The mysticism and search for spiritual peace that characterised these communities had a particular attraction then, as it did in the 1960s, to those seeking a way out of addiction and many more who were just  no longer fulfilled by the endless round of late-night excesses. Tantalisingly, a year later Denys Skeffington Smyth moved out of Mayfair to Great Bumpstead, less than ten miles away.

Wilshin died in 1991. Although I doubt she has anything more than a tenuous link with the Barney affair, she epitomises the spirit of the age and, as a symbol of female modernity and the struggle for independence and self-determination, she is the equal of many better known young women of her time.I like her and think she is worthy of more biographical research.


One of Sunday’s few fashion gaffes – as “Coal” – designed by Barbara Cartland – and what looks like an early use of the bin liner, to me.

John E. May and Clarence Belisha

Both Hugh Wade and Arthur Jeffress heard about the shooting from a friend who rang them in the early afternoon of the next day. Wade does not name the friend but Jeffress does. He was John E. May (yet another man “of independent means”). He lived at Claridge House, 32 Davies Street. My guess is that it was he who also rang Wade. May must have known either Elvira or Michael Scott Stephen (probably both). He must also have known that Jeffress knew them and it does not seem unlikely that he was aware that Jeffress was with them both on the previous evening. It is also, then, at least possible that he was present himself, either at the cocktail part at William Mews, The Blue Angel or Arthur Jeffress’ late session – maybe all three. Claridge House is no more than a drunken stagger from Jeffress’  Orchard Court residence.

Claridge House, built in the 1920s

I can’t find anything much about John E .May (1909-1964) but he does seem to have travelled about a lot with one Clarence Belisha (1898- 1964). Belisha was a stockbroker who also lived at Claridge House. The two of them are together on passenger lists to Australia and New York in the early 1930s. I think we can reasonably add them both to Jeffress’ circle and possibly Elvira’s as well.

Contemporary reports talk of someone who rang the police on the same day, but who proved reluctant to put in an appearance at Gerald Road police station. Could this have been May?

I was initially hoping that John May would be Jack May, the notorious manager of Murray’s (Beak Street) and other clubs. Jack May was a major supplier of cocaine to the 1920s party set. Sadly, this is not the case.

Murray’s River Club, Maidstone

Elvira’s Statement

Elvira Barney had a reputation for all sorts of things – ebullience ,impulsiveness, arrogance and intemperance, to name a few. However, no-one , friend or foe, ever accused her of absolute consistency. Yet  her statements to the police and her evidence in court are just that , consistent, – there is barely a change in tone or a factual contradiction to be found.

The version of events that she gave to Dr. Durrant -her own GP- when he arrived,  while the body of Michael Scott Stephen was still warm,  is, shorn of the wailing and lamentations, the same as her three police statements, her testimony at the inquest and her response to the prosecution at the trial.  The only piece of additional information the Crown drew from her was the, patently obvious, fact that she and Michael had gone to bed together before the fatal row.That a woman in 1932 should attempt to conceal that fact says something only about societal attitudes rather than Elvira’s duplicity.

Nonetheless there are troubling elements within her testimony, some of which the prosecution might have profitably explored.

Of the three, very similar, police statements, this is the fullest -and to my mind the most telling.

“I am 27  years of age, of no occupation. I have been residing at the above address ( 21 William Mews)  alone for about a year. I am a married woman living apart from my husband – John Barney- who is at present in America. The last I heard of him he was a singer. He left me about 2 and a half years ago- we were married in London in August 1929.

I have been cautioned that I am not obliged to make a statement but I am quite willing to do so.

I have known a man named Michael Scott Stephen of Doubleton House, Penshurst, Kent, for about a year. I was introduced to him through friends.

We were great friends and he used to come and see me from time to time. He had no occupation. He always used to see me home and last night he did so as usual. We had been out to dinner at the Cafe De Paris, Coventry Street, with Arthur Jeffress  (30a Orchard Court, Portland Square). We left him and came home in my car, arriving home at 2am.”

(Note that there is no mention of the Blue Angel)

“Immediately we got home we had a quarrel about a woman he was fond of. He knew I kept a revolver in the house, I have had it for years. I do not know where it came from.  It was kept in various places, last night it was under the cushion of a chair in the bedroom, near the bed. I was afraid of it and used to hide it from time to time.He knew where it was last night.

He took it from under the chair saying, ” I am going to take it away for fear you kill yourself”.

“He went into the room on the left and I ran after him and tried to get it back. There was no struggle in the bedroom, it was outside in the spare room, in the doorway. As we were struggling together – he wanted to take it away and I wanted to get it back, it went off. Our hands were together, his hands and mine, for a few minutes, I did not think anything had happened, it seemed quite all right, I did not think anything serious; he went into the bathroom and half shut the door; he said “Fetch a doctor” , I asked “Do you really mean it?”. I did not have the revolver at this time, I think it had fallen to the ground. I saw he looked ill, however, I rang up a doctor, no one answered. I went upstairs again and saw him sitting on the floor. I was then upset and began to cry. Again rang up the doctor and he said he would come.I went upstairs again. “quickly, why doesn’t the doctor come. I want to tell them what has happened. It was not your fault.” He repeated this over and over again. I tried to cut his tie off. I put a towel on his chest and brought pillows from the bedroom. I again rang the doctor (Dr. Durrant of Lancaster Gate Terrace) they said he was leaving. I again went upstairs and saw he was dead, and just waited. I do not remember what I did afterwards, I was so frantic. I am sure, as far as I know,there was only one shot fired.

Stephen and I have quarrelled before, but not often.”

There is an immediacy about this statement that has the ring of authenticity. It was taken less than twelve hours after the shooting, after all.  However, it also bears the marks of a theatricality that makes me suspicious. The drama, frenetic as it is, is just a little too coherent.

Why was the gun, of which Elvira was so afraid, by the bed? How did Stephen know it was there? The prosecution asked the same questions.

What nobody asked, but which to me seems most problematic , is why a dying man,  who nobody – even his friends -deemed heroic or altruistic in any sense, should be so insistent that a doctor be called urgently, not so much to save his life  but so that he could attest to Elvira’s innocence. I can think of many things that I might yell out , having just been shot, but a desire to put on record the “truth” of the incident would be, I am ashamed to say, fairly low on my list of priorities.

However, that was Elvira’s story and she stuck to it – doggedly, consistently and, as it turned out, successfully.

All of the witness statements in the Barney case, plus interviews with defendants and forensic experts, took place at, or were collated at, Gerald Road Police station.

Because of its situation, in the heart of Belgravia, this was no ordinary “cop shop” and some police historian could do worse than tell its tale. Until it closed in 1993, it probably dealt with more upper-class misdemeanours , misbehaviour and criminality than any station in the country – from Woosterish pranks in the 1920s, through to Victor Hervey, the Marquis of Bristol, and his “Mayfair Mob” in the late 1930s  up to the Lord Lucan case in the 1970s. It also had a particular association with the lost art of Cat-Burglary – legendary names such as Peter Scott, Taters Chatham and Ray “The Cat” Jones were all regular “customers”.

This familiarity with society’s upper-echelons partly explains what seems today to be the undue deference and patience accorded to Elvira, who threatened dire consequences for the officers attempting to arrest her. She slapped one and pointedly  invoked her mother’s name and status to the others. Instead of being hauled off to the station she was allowed to return to Belgrave Square until she was actually charged.A similar reluctance to intervene ,despite numerous complaints about the noise and arguments at 21 William Mews, may be said to have allowed Elvira to believe she could behave pretty much as wildly as she wished.

The flipside of this forelock-tugging was that the Gerald Road interviewers knew how to get their posh clientele to talk. This explains why a set of people, who largely treated the police force with scorn, gave such full and detailed statements. Reluctant to come forward they may have been but, within a few days, a reasonably comprehensive picture of the night of May 30th had been provided to the police by the witnesses  – and Elvira herself.

Gerald Street station was also famous for its floral display. If you want a glimpse of a lost England, check out this British Pathe footage from 1957.