Latest Entries »

Elvira’s Delage and Albemarle Street

Among the items that the police catalogued in Elvira’s bathroom (see ) was a business card from J.Smith and Co Motor Agents.  They operated from 28 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, and held the concession for the importation of the French luxury cars, Delage. Given Elvira’s love of her model and her regular scrapes and crashes, she was undoubtedly a very valued customer.

The Delage was a very apt car for Elvira to own. Everything French, to Elvira and many of her set, signified pleasure and panache. Paris, Cannes and Toulon were Elvira’s regular haunts and French style, in shows, fashion or design, was a matter of wonder and worship. The Delage cars were both fast and chic (as well as being reassuringly expensive). The car had come to prominence partly through a 1920s’ motor-racing rivalry with Hispano-Suiza (whose London agents were also in Albemarle Street) and partly through a series of seductive Art Deco adverts in the fashionable magazines of the day


J. Smith and Co. capitalised on this and, being situated where they were, were ideally placed to market the vehicles to Mayfair and Knightsbridge’s wealthy inhabitants. I don’t suppose their turnover was enormous but then it would not need to have been. Exclusivity was part of the charm.

I can’t be absolutely positive of this, but Delage cars do seem to have had a particular appeal for female drivers. Many of the photographs from the 1930s show the car next to a pretty young woman but, unlike the more familiar “cheesecake” models of the 1950s and 1960s, many of these women look as if they might actually own the car. The combination of privilege, social freedom and sexual independence discernible in these images is not , I think, accidental.

In England, some of these associations might be down to a woman whose exploits Elvira (a keen sports fan) would have certainly followed. About the time Elvira purchased her Delage, the Queen of Brooklands was the diminutive Kay Petre, then the best known female racing-driver in the country. In the early thirties, the much-photographed Petre drove a Delage.

Kay Petre (1903-1994)

Here are some more examples. The emphasis is on glamour and modernity in equal measure. The wealthy young woman in a sports car is a key iconic image of the inter-war years and Delage, who essentially fitted racing-car quality engines into luxury bodies, enthusiastically fed, and fed upon, that image.

The gender and class politics of the relationship between women and automobiles in the eras before mass car ownership are complex and fascinating. Machines and technology generally were then, as to a great extent they are now, seen as belonging to the male domain. Women in charge of powerful cars  presented a challenged a whole series of accepted hierarchies. This resulted in some very recognisable “new” stereotypes.On the one hand you have the “masculine women” – figures such as Elvira’s friends Joe Carstairs and Heather Pilkington – then you have the “Iris Storm” characters, whose taming of the “male beast”, the car, symbolised their own (hetero)sexual freedoms but also hinted at voraciousness and promiscuity. Funnily enough, Elvira can make claims to represent aspects of both “tendencies” These and other matters are discussed in two books on the history of women and the motor car

Eat My Dust -Early Women Motorists

The Car and British Society – Class, Gender and Motoring 1896-1939

I ought to mention that one aspect of Delage’s English advertising campaign was that the car was both fast and safe. In Elvira’s case, this obviously fell on deaf ears.

For more on Elvira and cars see and

Albemarle Street has other connections with Elvira, some actual and some coincidental. Staying with the motor trade for a moment, Sir Malcolm Campbell had a car sales venture there in the early 1920s, during which time one of his financial backers was Joe Carstairs.

The nightclub “Uncle’s” was situated in Albemarle Street. Known as “Nunky’s” to the Bright Young People, who  had an annoying fondness for infantilising the language, it was a favourite watering-hole of Charles Graves and he would have doubtless taken Elvira there during their ill-fated engagement.

Uncles Club 1929

An earlier sexual scandal, one which still resonated among Elvira’s friends, had started at the Albemarle club (No.13). This was where the Marquis of Quensberry left his calling card for Oscar Wilde (“the posing somdomite”), thus provoking the libel action which was to destroy Wilde’s career. Other literary connections could be found at Murray’s (No.50), publishers of Lord Byron and later John Betjeman.

Brown’s Hotel is also on the street (No.33). The remarkably unchanged Brown’s was the real-life inspiration for Agatha Christie’s  At Bertram’s Hotel  in which the murderer is a young woman named Elvira. All very psychogeographical, I feel.

Brown’s Hotel

UPDATE I’ve just come across these pictures of Josephine Baker. Baker was an artist much loved by the Bright Young People. Elvira saw her shows in Paris. The cars are, of course, Delages.


To continue from


The third statement taken from other Mews residents was that of William Kiff. He was a chauffeur, who lived next door to Elvira on the same side of the Mews.

” I am a chauffeur and reside at No. 18a Williams Mews. I have lived there for the past two years. Mrs. Barney has resided at 21 Williams Mews for about 18 months. When she first came to live at No. 21 a fair man came with her and as he used to stay the night I concluded that he was living with her. At first I thought it was her husband. I have not seen this man with Mrs. Barney since last October when I came back from my holidays. after that she lived alone for a while but I cannot say how long. I should say it was somewhere about a month and then a man she spoke to as Michael used to stay there with her. It was getting on towards Xmas time when he came. Up to about six weeks ago he lived with Mrs. Barney continuously and then I think he went to the Park Lane Hotel Annexe . During the time the man Michael was living with her, there were frequent quarrels and I heard a high pitched voice shouting, but I did not know what the quarrels were about. All the quarrels were in the early hours of the morning.”

“Between a fortnight and three weeks ago, I heard Mrs.Barney shouting, I thought to myself “another quarrel”, but I did not hear his voice. I got up and went to the window which looks out into the Mews. I heard Mrs. Barney say “If you don’t go, I’ll shoot you, see this baby”. I then heard a shot fired. I was leaning through the window alongside a curtain, I did not open the window. Mrs. Barney’s voice appeared to come from the bedroom. The man Michael was standing by a drain opposite Mrs. Hall’s flat at No.10. I expected to see him fall but he didn’t. As he didn’t fall I concluded that she had fired a dummy bullet as I heard no whistle, or that she had fired in the air.I saw Michael speaking to Mrs. Hall, I did not hear what they said. After speaking to Mrs. Hall michael walked up the Mews towards the entrance. It was all quiet then and I went to bed. I heard footsteps coming up the Mews again and concluded it was him but I did not get up.”

William Mews Today

“Previous to the above incident, about six weeks ago and this time about midnight, I was awakened by Mrs.Barney screaming, and I got up and went to the window. I heard her say “The Police are coming”. I did not see either of them about. I think there was a party on and after the police came I saw some of them, men and women, put into a cab which drove away.

About a week before the tragedy, sometime during the night (I did not get out of bed to look at them) I was awakened by a crowd in the Mews shouting “Here we are darling”, undoubtedly outside No.21 . I laid in bed and later, I don’t know how long, I heard someone say “If you don’t let us in, we’ll go to Lady Mullens”. I did not hear Mrs. Barney or Michael that night.”

“On monday 30th May at about 7pm several cars began to arrive at Mrs. Barney’s flat and about two dozen persons went in. we counted up to sixteen men and then got tired and gave it up. I had to go away at about twenty to eight and returned about 8.15 and the party was still in progress and the cars were still there. The party broke up at nine o’clock, the people left and all was quiet. I did not see Michael and Mrs. Barney go away. I heard nothing more from No.21 until the early hours of the morning. Somewhere about 4 o’clock when I was awakened by Mrs. Barney screaming in No.21. I heard her gabbling away in a high pitched voice. I could not hear what she was saying. I did not hear a man’s voice. I got out of bed, came to the window of the Mews, looked out, but there was nobody about.I went back into the bedroom, did not go to bed. I spoke to my wife and then went back to the window to see if it was going to be quiet and worth going back to bed again.”


Elvira 1932

“It was fairly quiet then, no screaming, I thought the quarrel was over. I went into the kitchen to see the time, it was 20 to 5 by my clock, which is usually five minutes fast. I went back to the bedroom and told my wife I’d make some tea. I then put the kettle on the gas.I then heard a bang, which sounded like a shot, come from No.21, followed by groans and a sort of banging noise, which sounded like someone thumping on the floor, or a door. I spoke to my wife about it. I then came through to the front,opened the window looking out on the Mews and heard some moans. I heard Mrs. Barney, in a high pitched voice, rambling on incoherently. I could not understand what she was saying. whilst the groans were coming from 21 a cab drew up before No.14 and the lady who lives there got out, paid the cabman and went into her flat. This distracted my attention from 21 as I thought when the cab came down the Mews it was something to do with them.”

1932 London Cab

“The noises stopped and I went and made the tea, took some to my wife and as it was no use going back to bed then, I dressed myself and went down the Mews. I walked as far as the kitchen window of 21 thinking to look in and find out what was wrong, but  I heard someone moving about, I think downstairs, so I returned indoors and went upstairs. I had some more tea and then went down and looked through the open window at the front. A car came down the Mews and pulled up outside 21 and a person I guessed to be a doctor got out and went in. I then went down thinking something serious had happened. The doctor was upstairs then. The front door of 21 was closed. I could hear a man talking upstairs. He seemed to be having some trouble with Mrs. Barney, she seemed highly hysterical.”

Elvira 1930

“I heard him say “Good Heavens, control yourself woman, it’s the police you’ll have to speak to.” All I heard of Mrs. barney was her moaning. There was no-one else in the Mews but the doctor’s driver. I got rather cold and I went indoors. I heard the doctor’s car car go out of the Mews, went to the window and saw it return , followed almost immediately by two policemen.

I would like to add that the first time I went down to the Mews on the morning of the tragedy I picked up an iron gas collar and threw it at a cat t the end of the Mews. It hit the iron grating of the dung crate and it may have hit the dustbin. The noise it made might possibly have been mistaken for more shots.”

Michael Scott Stephen

Apart from the  addenda regarding gas collars and cats ( which has an air of the police trying desperately to explain the disparity in the female witnesses’ statements regarding the number of shots fired that night) , this seems to me to be an honest report.

Some points are worth noting.

Sir Patrick Hastings made much at the trial of the fact that Mews residents had not reported earlier incidents of shots being fired, thereby casting doubt on the actuality of such shots. However, nobody ran to the police on the actual night of Michael’s death – mere chauffeurs and their wives did not wish to get involved with the authorities unless absolutely necessary.

Taking the three statements together, the ease with which Hastings was able to deny that Elvira had ever threatened to shoot Michael defies understanding.

On the other hand, there can be no doubt that Elvira was horrified by the incident and talk about delays in both the doctor and the police being called are nonsense.

Everything in these statements point to a singularly dysfunctional relationship – with Elvira reaching for the gun on more than one occasion   – and threatening either suicide or murder depending on the state of the argument. Remember, both Elvira and Michael were always drunk and probably full of cocaine when these late night rows erupted.

Nothing in these accounts justifies a charge of premeditated murder. Very little hints at the likelihood that anyone other than Elvira pulled the trigger.

William Kiff was in his fifties. His father had been a coachman and I assume William had started his career as the same. He had worked in the Hanover Square/ Lowndes Square area for many years. He had two daughters about Elvira’s age. Their lives , I imagine, were somewhat different, and. one hopes, less melodramatic.

Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson

I’ll leave Charlotte Breese’s “Hutch” alone after this post but I do recommend it to anyone interested in the racial and sexual politics of the inter-war years – or anyone who wants to acquaint themselves with one of the true stars of British popular music in the sadly ignored decades preceding the rise of the Beatles. However there is a section on Elvira that is too tantalising to ignore.

“Typical of Hutch’s clients and/or lovers was Elvira Mullens, daughter of Lord and Lady Mullens. Three pianists – Hutch, Billy Milton and Carroll Gibbons – all played at one of her parties, which always featured modish theatricals. Appearing the same night was a close-harmony turn, The Three New Yorkers. Elvira was briefly married to one of them, a Mr.Barney. The marriage ended, and scandal erupted, when Elvira took a lover and shot him dead. Elvira was arrested and confined to the infirmary of Holloway prison, where, to keep up her spirits, she displayed a photograph of Tallulah Bankhead. At the same time, Mr. Barney tried to blackmail her father by threatening to expose details of her private life, including her cocaine habit. In the event, Elvira was acquitted. To celebrate she threw a huge party at the Berkeley. People were horrified and soon afterwards she committed suicide in Paris.”

There are some errors in this account, which is taken largely from Billy Milton’s “Paradise Mislaid” – is is doubtful that it was suicide, for example. However it is the “clients and/or lovers” that makes me wonder. Is this just a general statement about Elvira’s “typicality”  or is something more being implied? Why choose Elvira as an example, anyway?

It is not far-fetched at all to speculate  that Elvira could have had a fling with Hutch. So it seems did half of West End society, male and female. Elvira’s idol Tallulah certainly did and Zena Naylor (a friend of Brenda Dean Paul and Olivia Wyndham, if not Elvira herself) had quite a long-lasting affair with the singer. At one party, Brenda Dean Paul actually won Hutch in an auction. Another ex-Deb, Elizabeth Corbett (nee Sperling) was about the same age as Elvira and said to be the leader of “a smart set”. She gave birth to a child by Hutch in 1930. Hutch’s most famous relationship was with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, a somewhat less than clandestine romance and one which Elvira would have known all about. Edwina was drawing press attention at the same time Elvira was on trial. The People had hinted at an affair between Lady Mountbatten and a “coloured” entertainer. Fortunately for the Mountbattens, they picked on Paul Robeson as the likely candidate and Lord Mountbatten sued and won substantial damages. The unsuccessful defence case was conducted by none other than Sir Patrick Hastings, fresh from his  triumphant handling of Elvira’s murder charge.

Edwina Mountbatten

Although Hutch continued to be a cabaret favourite there was an undoubted behind the scenes campaign against him.After the abdication of friend and enthusiast Edward the Eighth he was rarely heard on the BBC and the Society invitations tailed off. He remained incredibly popular with female audiences throughout the country  and staged a triumphant “Society” comeback as part of the nostalgia for the 20s that hit the upper-classes in the mid-fifties. His last years though were ones of absolute decline and make for very sad and somewhat disquieting reading.

Breese’s commentary on the motivations of those women who threw themselves at Hutch in the golden years, from 1927 to the mid-thirties, rather misses some obvious points, explored at length elsewhere in the book,  but as an analysis of Elvira is worthy of consideration,

“Many of Hutch’s female lovers were rich and had nothing to do, and had little or no self-esteem.Desperate for affection, and attention, they lived in gilded misery, drifting from party to party and, inevitably, attracting men who despised, exploited and discarded them.”

Freda Roberts

About the time that Michael moved into 21William Mews another ill-fated match was taking place in London, this time between the singer Al Bowlly and the night-club hostess Freda Roberts. Al Bowlly was starting to make a name for himself through his recordings with Ray Noble and his work with Roy Fox at the Monseigneur restaurant, a favourite haunt of Elvira’s.

Freda Roberts was working at the Bag O’Nails, 9 Kingly Street, and other clubs. She had a “wild” reputation and, according to one source, was introduced to Bowlly at the Lyons Corner House ( where Hugh Wade ended up most nights). Trumpeter Nat Gonella made the introduction, describing Freda as “the hostess with the mostest”. She was red-haired and beautiful and something of a legend among the dance-band musicians (nearly 60 years later Gonella remembered her as “a really tasty bird”). Bowlly may in fact have already known her from the Bag O’Nails as he preferred the “jazzier” after-hours vibe of the place to the standard West End clubs. Some of the surviving Bright Young Things also found the club to their liking and Anthony Powell included it in his novel “Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant”.

The marriage did not begin auspiciously, as, in an echo of Elvira’s honeymoon, Bowlly found Freda in bed with another man on their wedding night. Within two weeks the relationship was over.

Bowlly went on to become the vocalist of the Dance Band era and a star performer at the Cafe De Paris.He had been sitting in with Ken “Snakehips” Johnson  in the weeks prior to the bombing that killed the bandleader and put the final full stop on that venue’s inter-war reign as the premier meeting place for the upper-class “out on the town”, of whom Elvira had been the most notorious example. Bowlly himself was another Blitz victim when his apartment was also hit shortly afterwards.

Freda’s subsequent career involved a descent into drug addiction and some fame as the media’s “working-class” version of Brenda Dean Paul. Her rueful confessions appeared in the press and in books like J.A. Buckwalter’s sensationalist but once influential “Merchants of Misery” (1956).

There is perhaps a closer connection to Elvira’s world in Freda’s story than simply a metaphorical reminder that not only rich girls strayed from the path of morality and acceptable social behaviour in the 1930s. In Charlotte Bresse’s biography of Hutch, she quotes John Gardiner, a “rich young man” and almost certainly an associate of the “fast set” at the time of the trial. On his, seemingly, nightly round of clubs and restaurants such as Romano’s and the Blue Train, Gardiner accompanies Hutch to the Kind Dragon in Ham Yard – “and from the club next door we used to collect Freda Roberts, a beautiful hostess who married Al Bowlly, the renowned singer, who was bisexual of course.”

The best known club with hostesses in Ham Yard was the Blue Lantern, resident pianist Hugh Wade with members and regulars that included Terence Skeffington-Smythe, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Arthur Jeffress and Elvira Barney.All in all, Freda’s world of night-clubs, drugs, promiscuity and bisexual men does not sound a million miles away from the lifestyle of 21 William Mews.

It is worth noting that the Bag O’Nails was a jazz club in Soho and not to be confused with the pub of the same name near Buckingham Palace. The latter would have been more familiar to many of the male “members” of Elvira’s circle as it was the premier place for the picking up, by rich homosexuals, of Guardsmen, much favoured for their availability and discretion. The Soho Bag O’Nails, a key part of British jazz history, is now best remembered for its sixties’ connection with Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones et al, who probably thought they were pioneers in the fields of excess and decadence but were in fact merely continuing a well-established tradition.



“Mauve” Waterhouse

Charlotte Breese’s  biography of Leslie Hutchinson, “Hutch“, apart from being a moving and rather sad portrayal of the Bright Young Thing’s favourite cabaret performer, is a mine of information and, sometimes slightly scurrilous, revelations about the antics of  the “faster” crowd between the Wars. One anecdote in particular caught my eye.

Hutch 1928

In a section of the book that begins with the statement, “While most of the parties that Hutch attended were fairly decorous, some were scenes of open debauch.”, the following is given as an example –

“The wife of Sir Nicholas Hildersley, Audrey, known as “Mauve”, used to entertain her decadent friends at their home in Swan Walk, Chelsea. While her husband, often with his fellow philatelist George V, worked on his stamp collection in the basement, the guests, stimulated by drink and cocaine at his expense, used to chant “Hey, Hey, Let Nicky Pay!” Hutch and Mauve, armed with a musical saw, used to sing and vigorously enact “Let’s Do It”.”

“Mauve was a vain woman, in a cloud of Turkish cigarettes and Chanel No. 5, who avoided having children for fear of losing her beautiful figure . Although Hutch probably tried various drugs – Billy Milton, a rival pianist, claimed he took cocaine – he did not become dependent on the stimuli of the very fast set, limiting himself to being a lifelong heavy smoker and drinker.”

So, we find another seemingly respectable Chelsea household where drug-taking and sexual shenanigans are the order of the day. As a bonus, we also have a mention of Elvira’s friend, Billy Milton.

Now, I have no wish to contravene the libel laws or to offend anybody related to the Hildersleys  and the story, presumably related by one of that ilk, cannot be independently verified, but it does seem worth pointing out the following facts.

There is no record of anyone called Hildersley residing in Swan Walk in the relevant years (1928-30, I’d guess). However Sir Nicholas Edwin Waterhouse, senior partner in the already powerful accountancy firm Price-Waterhouse, lived at No.2 with his wife Audrey, known as “Mauve” to her friends. Sir Nicholas was a keen philatelist, his book on American postage stamps can still be found. Conspicuously wealthy, the couple were both keen patrons of the arts.

Swan Walk, Chelsea

One artist who benefitted especially from their support was the great “lost Modernist”,  the maverick and irascible Wyndham Lewis. By the late 1920s, having alienated most of literary and artistic London, Lewis was in need of sympathetic patronage. The Waterhouses funded his journal The Enemy and helped him financially during the writing of The Apes of God (a novel which lambasted everyone Lewis knew, thus ensuring his further isolation.)

Wyndham Lewis was connected to Elvira’s world through Marjorie Firminger’s unfortunate infatuation with the artist  (see ). It just possible that Firminger and her friends  met Lewis at Swan Walk. Firminger’s narcotically-inclined co-host at many a Chelsea bash,Olivia Wyndham,was distantly related to Lewis (but then again so was she to almost everybody.)

Audrey Waterhouse was much older than Elvira and I think it is unlikely that they were acquainted. However, if true, the presence of yet another Chelsea residence where cocaine was freely available would not have escaped the notice of the circles Mrs.Barney inhabited. As to Hutch, there might be – according to Charlotte Breese – an even closer connection to Elvira than simply a shared fondness for “decadent” parties – and that will be dealt with shortly.