Tag Archive: Alma Rattenbury

For Whom the Cloche Tolls

As Ethel Mannin, rapidly becoming my favourite commentator on the period, states in Young In The Twenties,

“The cloche hat has become almost a symbol of the Twenties; it came down to our brows, almost enveloping us, but it was not unbecoming, I think, and we liked it; it stayed with us a long time; we wore it with our sacks of dresses and with our mannish suits; we wore it in town and in the country, and at tea dances, and in our own homes at luncheon parties.”

Louise Brooks

The cloche hat reigned for about ten years (1923-1933) and is indeed ever present in  contemporary photographs and illustrations . It had been around since 1908, but it was particularly suited to the new lines in clothing and, especially, hairstyles.Noel Coward’s friend Edward Molyneux has as good a claim as any for making it so popular but something about it (brimmed or brimless) so fitted the spirit of the age that every leading fashion designer promoted it.

Monte Carlo 1920s

It is appropriate then that the wittiest and most delightful pastiche of the modes and mores of the 1920s should be entitled “For Whom The Cloche Tolls”.Although regularly reprinted, this charming satire has slipped somewhat from popular consciousness  but I urge you to seek it out. It is a joy to read – witty, occasionally acerbic and superbly camp.

For Whom The Cloche Tolls: A Scrapbook of the Twenties” appeared in 1953. Its author was Angus Wilson, a novelist whose star has rather faded.The early fifties in English Literature were dominated by authors such as William Cooper, John Wain and Kingsley Amis, whose anti-Dandyism and hostility to all things Bright and Young has been well documented (particularly by Martin Green in his much maligned but very rewarding Children of the Sun). Angus Wilson was once grouped together with these writers but his agenda (and aesthetic) differed considerably.

Always essentially a satirist, Wilson, in Cloche, shows himself a master of pure comedy. It is a light-hearted affair, full of in-jokes and innuendo. The narrative is Gay in both senses of the word. The premise is that of a series of reminiscences about a recently deceased, rich, American woman (Maisie) and her adventures in London and Paris in the 1920s, accompanied by her debutante daughter (Bridget) and her epicene son (Tata). Every iconic marker of the period is mentioned – the Blackbirds Revue, Mews Parties, Bohemians and booze, cocktails and cocaine. It is determinedly nostalgic and very funny.

Equally entertaining are the “photographs” that accompany the text. These are, in fact, cartoons/illustration by the French aesthete and collector, Philippe Julian. Whether recording a Mah Jongg game or Josephine Baker at the Bal Negre, they capture the mood perfectly and have a louche decadence to them that gives the book a certain bite.

Philippe Julian is another name that appears to have been largely forgotten. He does have a “cult” following and there is a very good article on him (and Cloche) here

Connoisseur of the Exotic.

Among his many works, he wrote an informative biography of Violet Trefusis and his book on Symbolist artists, Dreamers of Decadence, almost single-handedly reminded British art-lovers of the existence of that movement. If you see a copy, grab hold of it, it is everything you want a book on Art to be.

There is a drawing in For Whom the Cloche Tolls of Edith Thompson in the dock. This accompanies a passage deploring Maisie’s constant pursuit of younger men.  The great trials that I have been posting about are briefly covered in the text, employed to cruel comic effect while indicating their significance as symbols of the times.

“I suppose when one thinks of some of the tragedies that infatuation with younger men brought in those days – those stupid, passionate letters of that poor feather-brained Edith Thompson and later Mrs.Rattenbury (I remember how upset I was to think how easily she might have been one’s own neighbour – shopping at Harrod’s and staying at quite a smart residential hotel with her own chauffeur).And of course Mrs.Barney, who was quite a friend of Maisie’s. (Such different backgrounds, and yet not one of them disreputable. I’m afraid the horror of the First War affected us all a great deal more deeply than we realized.) When, indeed, I think about some of Maisie’s friends, I’m amazed that things did not turn out worse than they did.”

Mrs. Barney

For me, of course, mention of Elvira is a bonus, but the whole book is bursting with apt and amusing references. There are too many highlights to  dwell on but the more literary minded might enjoy the affectionate but barbed pastiches of Huxley, Bennett, Mansfield and Woolf  that appear towards the end.

In 1953, For Whom The Cloche Tolls was reviewed positively by actual veterans of the 1920s such as John Betjeman but I’ll give Cecil Beaton, notoriously begrudging when it came to praise, the last word,

“Mr. Angus Wilson and Mr. Philippe Julian are too young to have experienced the Twenties, but they are both Fetishists immoderately reverencing that remote period. Together they have created an evocative nostalgic scrapbook. Through the wry and malicious memoirs, compiled by her immediate family friends, lovers and gigolos, Mr.Wilson brings back to life the fun-mad, man-mad Maisie, a red-hot grandmother from Texas, who lived in London, took trips to Montmartre and the Riviera, generously pensioned off her lovers sniped from her daughter, and who with her “curious coarse happiness”, animal spirits and “self-generated joi de vivre” was, all agreed, the embodiment of the Naughty Twenties.”

Between the Wars there were a number of high-profile murder trials where the accused was female.What is striking (but perhaps unsurprising)  about the different cases is the fickleness and variety of press and public responses and how much that reaction was influenced by issues to do with contemporary social attitudes, particularly regarding sexual propriety, rather than the crime itself.

Elvira’s case took place within this context and I think there are some useful comparisons to be made, as well as some rather worrying insights into how public perception and the demeanour of the accused affected actual verdicts. Furthermore,  the women at the centre of each “scandal” get mentioned in later accounts – writings about Elvira refer to Madame Fahmy, Edith Thompson’s name is brought up in discussions of Alma Rattenbury – and so forth. Although each set of circumstances was unique, over time a sort of composite picture was drawn of “women who kill”, with great stress on their unconventionality and (supposedly) over-active libidos. I intend to take a brief look at some of the best-remembered, and most pertinent, examples, starting with Edith Thompson.

 Bywaters, Thompson and Edith Thompson

Edith Thompson was executed in 1923 for her role in the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy, stabbed to death by Frederick Bywaters, Edith’s  younger lover. Edith was 30 and Frederick 21 and although she took no part in the killing she was deemed to be equally guilty, largely because of her “influence” over the younger man and because of a series of letters she had written, which were full of fanciful imaginings, sexual references and a recurrent desire to be rid of Mr.Thompson. Most incriminating was an ambiguous remark about  putting ground glass in her husband’s food. Although this was pure fantasy, it proved very damaging at the trial.

Thompson and Bywaters

Some women became tragic heroines, some villainesses.  Edith was constructed, initially anyway, as very much the latter. Both the media and the authorities considered her decidedly odd and a threat to the social order.Imaginative, stylish and intelligent (with a special aptitude for mathematics), she was, in many ways, a not untypical example of a new generation of young women. Like so many already mentioned in this blog, she was very fond of music and the theatre, and had once hoped to be an actress. Instead she found a good job with a London fashion house. In a later time she would have thrived. Unfortunately, her lower-middle class environment (Ilford) wasn’t ready for her – and nor, it would seem was the trial judge  – or the Press.

She had kept her job (as a clothes buyer) after her marriage and had yet to produce children. In fact she had self-aborted on more than one occasion. Almost as scandalous to some, she thoroughly enjoyed the then unusual lifestyle of a professional woman – lunching with clients and making buying trips to Paris. Edith was someone who wanted and felt she merited “something more” out of life.

Her husband, who had presumably been drawn to her by the very qualities he now found irksome, was a stifling influence. Prematurely middle-aged, a bore and something of a bully, he was not exactly a “soul mate”. When she re-met the adventurous and impulsive Bywaters, a Merchant Seaman who had gone to sea at the first opportunity, the resultant affair was highly predictable. The young man she had known as a boy was to provide an excitement her husband could not offer.

Freddie, Edith and Percy

In the dock, Edith unwisely attempted to justify her actions, but succeeded only in appearing “arrogant and flirtatious” . Worryingly, she also showed a  distinct lack of ability to distinguish fact from fiction. She would have done better not to take the stand at all  (her Defence tried to persuade her not to do so) or to have adopted the requisite distraught and overwhelmed aspect that Elvira managed so successfully.

The judge seemed more horrified by adultery than murder and his remarks to the jury showed a bias that was both outrageous and unprofessional. After the inevitable guilty verdict a million plus people signed a  petition calling for a halt to the execution but, incredibly, that was on Bywaters’ behalf not Edith’s.  She was viewed as the instigator and prime mover in the murder.

As is well known, her death was uncommonly messy and obscene and was still being cited in the debates about capital punishment in the 1950s and 1960s.  Partly because of her traumatic end, Edith has, over the year,s been transformed from villain to victim and latterly, in certain quarters, into a proto-feminist icon.

The Thompson-Bywaters case has provided the basis for a number of books. F.Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934) is the best known (semi-) fictional account.  Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse , the first female editor of the classic Notable British Trials series, was shocked and deeply disturbed by the treatment of Thompson. Peepshow captures the claustrophobic suburban world perfectly and paints a sympathetic portrait of  Julia (Edith). It is, I feel, one of the great 1930s novels.The play based on the novel was banned for some years but was eventually produced on the stage by none other than Peter Cotes, whose interest in Elvira was to some extent triggered by his exploration of this earlier murder.

The trial and its aftermath coincided with the boom in Golden Age Detective fiction and some of the writers most associated with that endeavour drew directly from the source. Dorothy Sayers’ (The Documents in the Case 1930) and Francis Iles’ (As For The Woman 1939)  are both thinly-disguised meditations on the affair. Indirectly – thanks to the  suburban setting with much dark passion buried behind a respectable facade –  it undoubtedly acted as inspiration for many other tales.  Even in this century,P.D.James’  The Murder Room (2004) could make profitable use of the tragedy.

Away from the crime genres, in recent years there has been the thoughtful film Another Life (2001) and Jill Dawson’s much-praised Fred and Edie. Non-fictional works have also been plentiful, with Rene Weis’ Criminal Justice being as good as any.

Another Life 2001

Academic interest has lately focussed on Edith’s letters which, it is argued, display a distinct textual modernism. This is not quite as silly as it sounds and, anyway, is one in the eye for T.S.Eliot, who was one of the more strident voices calling for Edith to be hanged. All commentators at least agree on Edith’s own “Modernity” as opposed to the “Tradition” which surrounded her and the case, now viewed as a barbaric miscarriage of justice, remains culturally significant.

Her name crops up repeatedly in general histories of the inter-War years, often in the context of changing attitudes about (and towards) women. I think it is most telling that another figure of some notoriety,club-owner Kate Meyrick. devotes part of her account of her own time in Holloway documenting prisoners’ reminiscences of Edith. This is not to suggest that Edith had already(1932) become a heroic figure but her symbolic value as a marker of generational change and the status of women had been partially recognised.

The official voice of male authority and pre-war morality is best summed up in Filson Young’s closing remarks to the Notable Trials edition on Thompson and Bywaters. This appeared within weeks of the verdict (Young specialised in this, his much read book on the Titanic was published less than a month after it sank) and the contrast with the opinions of Tennyson Jesse, who as stated earlier also wrote for the series, could not be greater.

Filson Young

In an otherwise thoughtful essay on the conflict between emotional desires and social conformity, Young rather closes down the debate by concluding,

“Mr. Justice Shearman frequently referred to Bywaters as “the adulterer,” apparently quite unconscious of the fact that, to people of Bywaters’ generation, educated in the ethics of dear labour and cheap pleasure, of commercial sport and the dancing hall, adultery is merely a quaint ecclesiastical term for what seems to them the great romantic adventure of their lives. Adultery to such people may or may not be “sporting,” but its wrongness is not a matter that would trouble them for a moment. Sinai, for them, is wrapped in impenetrable cloud. And if we are not prepared to adapt the laws of Sinai to the principles of the night club and the thé dansant, I see no other alternative but to educate again our young in the eternal verities on which the law is based.”

Dancing Halls and Night Clubs – it all sounds rather familiar. Throw in a jibe at the “overpaid” workforce and new leisure activities and the generational conflict is complete. This, to the letter, could be the voice of Joynson-Hicks, scourge of the Bright Young People and the great enemy of all things youthful and hedonistic.

“Jix” by William Low 1924

This is not to diminish the horror of murder. Nor am I trying to celebrate the once fashionable concept of “Transgression”. The whole thing was, as my aunt would say, “a bad business”. What it does suggest is that the fascination and fears that surrounded issues of male-female roles and female sexuality in particular were what really lay at the heart of this celebrated trial. The public , like the judge, was more interested in adultery (and the female adulterer)  than the snuffing out of a human life. Something similar will be seen again and again in other “causes celebres” over the next twenty years.

To move from the tragic to the seemingly trivial, forgive me if I point out that, on the night of the murder, the Thompsons had been to the Criterion in Piccadilly to see The Dippers. This was a musical comedy written by farceur Ben Travers. It was his first West End success, featuring music by Ivor Novello and starring Binnie Hale and Hermione Gingold. A more 1920s’ collection of names, I can hardly imagine and I’m sure it was Edith’s rather than  her husband’s choice of show.

Binnie Hale

In 1928 Binnie Hale would perform a song that will forever be associated with the whole era. Its innocence could hardly be less appropriate for the Thompson-Bywaters case and for many other of the less salubrious activities of all the Elvira’s and Alma’s and Edith’s – much as they would probably have adored it. It was, of course, “Spread A Little Happiness“.

Doctors and Patients (1)

The were many perils in pursuing a wild and unconventional lifestyle.Some of these were legal, some medical and some a mixture of both. In all of these matters, sympathetic and/or amenable members of the medical profession were invaluable, if not always reliable, allies.

For those addicted to opiates, a compliant doctor was essential.Several such would be even better. Brenda Dean Paul’s downward spiral can be read off from her many prescriptions – and her misuse and modifying of them. But a co-operative medico could also appear in court for you – arguing for a “rest cure” rather than a custodial sentence (as with Brenda and Elvira’s close friend Leonie Fester). At Alma Rattenbury’s trial in 1935 her doctor managed to dismiss any hint that Alma drank excessively or used drugs, despite what, today, seems very clear evidence to the contrary. Similarly, the police at Elvira’s trial felt that Dr. Durrant was very much acting as a Defence witness and some suspected him of co-creating Elvira’s account of the “accidental” shooting (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/detective-inspector-winter-is-unhappy/ ).Doctors to the well-to-do were, if not quite family friends, then confidants and occasional dinner guests (in Alma and O’Donnell’s case – weekly). This, combined with the rules of patient confidentiality, not to mention financial dependency, ensured that many secrets remained safe.

Many of those secrets were sexual in nature.Questions about contraception or the treatment of venereal disease – both totally taboo as topics for public discussion –  could be raised in the privacy of the consulting room. The private doctor may have disapproved but would usually at least offer advice. Many doctors heard evidence of physical abuse or confessions of infidelity that were otherwise kept hidden.

One thing tested the limits of this relative openness – requests for the termination of an unwanted pregnancy.There were some doctors who were approachable- variously motivated by political views, friendship or just plain greed – but on the whole a rather different system came into play.

Abortion is still a highly controversial issue and the history is too wide in scope for this blog to explore with any adequacy.However, while recognising that this is a subject which affected every tier of society, I feel it deserves a mention in this narrow context for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is as much part of the story of Bright Young culture as drug-use or after-hours clubs. Secondly, it was a dilemma that many (most?) young women who lived the “fast life” had to face at some point. Thirdly, it has, with some notable exceptions, been rather marginalised in histories of the scene (it does not quite fit the care-free, glamorous image). Finally, I think the phenomenon of the “Harley Street Abortionist”, a phrase which occurs repeatedly in the debate running up to the 67 Act, is closely related to the moral and social upheavals of the inter-War years and remains only partially understood.

At one point in Michael Arlen’s Green Hat (1924), the heroine, the iconic Iris Storm, is recuperating in Paris from “septic poising”.The more clued-up female readers would have taken this to refer to the after-effects of an abortion. A year or so later, in the real world, Yvonne Kapp, a twenties regular at the Cave of Harmony, The Blue Lantern and other clubs contracted septicemia after just such an operation.This was no “back-street” affair; it had been carried out by a doctor from within her circle of friends. Kapp was married with one child already and did not want to undergo the procedure but was told by her artist husband that they could not afford a second child. Kapp’s world at the time was one of Chelsea Bohemia and Radical Politics so the episode is a telling mixture of modern mores coupled with old-fashioned male authority.

A more typical incident, one which would have been familiar to quite a few women of Elvira’s acquaintance, concerned Rosamond Lehmann. Again she was pressured by her husband, who comes across not so much as patriarchal but simply barking mad ( he was prepared to let her have the baby as long as she said it was someone else’s). Unlike Kapp she did not know what to do. So she asked her cousin Nina, “a known socialite”, who gave her the name of a Mr.Osborne, a “physiotherapist” with a practice in the West End who sorted the matter (as he had earlier done for the unmarried Nina) for the considerable amount of £100.

Rosamond Lehmann

“Mr.Osborne” was one of what was to become a distinct species – the “Harley Street Abortionist”. Not every one of them worked in that street but all had practices in fashionable areas Their clients were actresses, dancers, night-club hostesses and “fashionable ladies”. They often referred to themselves as “osteopaths”, “physiotherapists” and the fee was generally between £50 and £100. Some wrote a statement confirming that a pregnancy would cause severe psychiatric damage to the patient and got a second doctor to do the same and then a third party would carry out the termination. This conferred a dubious legality on the proceedings. Others simply performed the operation with no questions asked.

It was a lucrative business.  In the early thirties, club hostess Norah Turner (later Lady Docker) got pregnant by her wealthy boyfriend and soon to be firat husband Clement Callingham. A friend at the Cafe De Paris gave her a Harley Street address.She was referred to a dingy surgery in Tooting. In the waiting room she was surprised to recognise all the other women there – either as fellow nightclub dancers and hostesses or regular visitors to the Cafe De Paris.

Lady Docker 1950s

The doctors not only made a lot of money, they wielded considerable power and it is incorrect to think of them as lurking in the shadows, shunned socially. An odd example of this can be found in the unsolved Brighton Trunk Murders of 1934. A prime suspect in the first, still unsolved, murder was Edward Massiah, an abortionist with practices in Brighton and London. When confronted by the police he calmly took a piece of paper and wrote a list of names on it, suggesting that these people would not approve of any further enquiries in his direction.  Such was the prestige and influence of the names on the list that Massiah was not questioned further. At about the same time, in an entirely different context, the irrepressible Nerina Shute became engaged to the distinctly raffish “Charles” even with the knowledge that he had been struck off the medical register for performing an abortion. “Charles” was no stranger to the Bohemian life and took Nerina to a “Chelsea orgy” to demonstrate what her “free love” ideals entailed in practice. (see http://suegeorgewrites.blogspot.com/ )

Nerina Shute and “Charles”

The best known and most intriguing “Harley Street Abortionist” was Edward Charles Sugden.He was usually referred to as “Teddy” and his surgery was in Half Moon Street. His fame/infamy is mostly due to his close involvement with the Profumo/Keeler scandal but he was born in 1902 and was certainly active from the mid-1930s if not before. Depending on which source you go to, he was either a creepy and perverted villain or a progressively minded man with ideas ahead of their time regarding female sexual emancipation. This latter view is a bit hard to take when you discover that his main source of income, apart from actresses and society women, came from the Messina Brothers. The Messinas were the dominant force behind prostitution in London from the late thirties to the mid fifties and Sugden spoke up for them (and the women) in a number of court hearings.

None of this stopped him being a familiar face on the London nightclub scene.The set that included Sugden, Stephen Ward (b 1910) and Hod Dibben (b 1904) were in many ways a continuation of the louche culture of pre-War years but without the arty and Bohemian trappings. Sugden had a weekend party house at Bray, where naturism and orgies were the order of the day – many of the female guests were Sugden’s clients. Viva King states that Elvira had something similar at Henley (or more likely,Taplow )- the “Thameside Riviera” had a wild reputation from the early 20s to the early 60s before the Profumo scandal shifted the landscape. It was Sugden who provided Ward with the Nembutal that he committed suicide with – perhaps in response to the knowledge that if the police didn’t win on the immoral earnings charge they were going to pursue one for procuring abortions which would have caused Sugden no little amount of trouble.

Ward and friends at Cliveden

If this is all starting to sound somewhat flippant, be assured that I am not trying to downplay the heartache and trauma involved in the whole business. Some women lost their lives and others had theirs ruined (it is possible that Brenda Dean Paul’s addiction was triggered by a botched abortion). What I want to state is that abortion was an ever present feature of the world of clubs, theatre and “fast” society (and, lest we forget, of “respectable” society too).The possession of a name of someone who could “help out” was an integral part of surviving in a world before the Pill – and in many instances, long after that.

I will pursue this further with a post on Ethel Mannin and the world around Miles and Joan Malleson – for whom the issue was much more one of sexual politics. For Elvira’s circle it was more the case of a “necessary evil”. Debates over the morality of the whole process are not my concern, but I think the addition of another element of illegality – along with drug use, homosexuality etc. – adds to our awareness of the dislocation between themselves and conventional society that the people into whose lives I am intruding felt.

“29th June 1932


Elvira Dolores Barney


Central Criminal Court


I beg to state that the  above named has been under mental and physical observation since her reception on June 4th. I have already submitted a report on June 8th giving a list of abrasions and bruises which I found on the prisoner after her reception to prison. She is in good health, has not shown any signs of physical illness, she has slept well, shown no symptoms of drug taking, and has increased one and a half pounds in weight since reception.


She has had good health but has had to undergo an operation for middle-ear disease and she met with a serious accident some twelve months ago in which she broke her lower jaw and has since required special treatment for her teeth.


I have examined her on various occasions, she has always conversed rationally, shown no signs of delusions or hallucinations and her conduct has been normal except on one or two occasions when she has shown hysterical manifestations.

I am of the opinion that she is of sound mind and fit to plead the indictment.

I have the honour to be,


your obedient servant

John Hall Morton

Governor and Medical Officer”

Elvira in 1932                                        

There are a number of points worth exploring in this statement. Firstly, there is the denial in the first paragraph of Elvira’s drug-taking. There must have been a line of inquiry that suggested such an involvement, otherwise why mention the issue at all?

Secondly, Elvira’s medical history and the after-effects of the car-crash modify the usual narrative. I am assuming that this was the same incident in Piccadilly when Napper Dean Paul was also injured. Apart from sounding a lot more serious than generally reported, I wonder whether the marked change in Elvira’s appearance in 1931-32 was the result of the crash rather than her life of “debauchery”. It also can’t have had the most calming effect on her already turbulent personality. Of “middle ear disease” I know nothing but it has been linked to mental illness and schizophrenia by some doctors (then and now).

Of Elvira’s present mental condition the letter seems a little complacent. What “hysterical manifestations”? How many – “one or two” hardly smacks of scientific accuracy? I am not implying any sort of cover-up but for a woman about to go on trial for her life the general tone and brevity of the report suprises me a little.

The writer of the report, John Hall Morton, was in charge of Holloway Prison from 1921 until his death, aged 52, in 1935. He was, by the standards of the time, an enlightened governor, famously installing mirrors in the cells  – much to the delight of the female inmates and angry mutterings from the usual press sources. He was also an opponent of capital punishment. This stance, highly unusual in the service, had come about after he had been required to record the horrific state of Edith Thompson’s corpse after she was executed in Holloway in 1923.

Edith Thompson

The Edith Thompson-Freddie Bywaters trial was one of a number of high-level murder trials  that captured the popular imagination between the wars and her cruel sentence (her boyfriend had actually stabbed her husband) has been the basis for novels (A Pin to See The Peepshow) and films (Another Life) ever since. Along with Madame Fahmy, acquitted of shooting her husband at the Savoy Hotel, Edith Thompson’s was the name most often linked with Elvira’s by crime reporters at the time. Fortunately, Elvira had a more competent defence team than Edith.

Morton’s last act as governor/medical officer was to write a report on Alma Rattenbury, the central character in the next great scandal involving sex and murder (and the subject of Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre ). That trial also had an accusation of drug use on the part of the accused but the various doctors, in Alma’s case, found no evidence although in retrospect it looks very likely.Alma’s story is well worth reading alongside Elvira’s, not so much for the “whodunnit” element but for the light they both throw on pre-War attitudes to sexually active women.

Alma Rattenbury

Apart from these high-profile figures the most famous, and very regular, resident of Holloway under Morton’s tenure was someone Elvira would have known well. This was the Queen of London Nightclubs, the legendary Kate Meyrick. However, she deserves a post to herself.

Party at Silver Slipper club celebrating Mrs.Meyrick’s release from Holloway

The police thought they had a pretty watertight case against Elvira Barney. However, she was found not guilty of either murder or manslaughter. The prosecution case had relied on the forensic and ballistic evidence, statements from other Mews residents and, to put it bluntly, common sense.

Sir John Ashley Mullens employed Sir Patrick Hastings, a brilliant and very expensive barrister, to clear his daughter’s name. Hastings made great play of the several discrepancies in the witness statements and reduced their authority to nil. He then laid into the expert witnesses, giving the highly respected Sir Bernard Spilsbury and Robert Churchill a particularly hard time. Having had staunch support from a remarkably steadfast Elvira, he then gave what has come to be seen as one of the classic closing speeches in the history of Great British Murder Trials.

The police were, understandably, aggrieved and Detective Inspector Winter was delegated to report on what had gone wrong. His response was a four page letter which is, to put kindly, rather short on self-criticism.

He agrees that the principal reason for Elvira’s acquittal was the skilful advocacy of Sir Patrick Hastings. He finds no problems with the Mews residents’  accounts of the event but thinks that Hastings cross-examined them “severely”, as indeed he  did. Of the defendant’s “attitude” during her time on the stand, Winter grudgingly comments that it “was well affected and one no doubt intended to invoke sympathy.” There is a hint at contrivance here but if  Elvira’s performance was well rehearsed then it was with someone other than Hastings, who refused to meet her before the trial.

If Winter does concede to any prosecution failings, then it concerns the lack of interest shown in the provenance of the gun and its place at Elvira’s bedside. Why did she have the thing and had she really only fired it once before? Winter feels,rightly, that more should have been made of the simple fact of Elvira, illegally, owning the weapon.

Crowd outside Court

The two remaining  facets of Winter’s report are more controversial. The first hints at perjury and evidence manipulation: the second is simply prejudice.

Winter is  very suspicious of Dr.Durrant, Elvira’s doctor and the first person on the scene after the shooting. Winter accuses Durrant of doing “all in his power to assist Mrs.Barney in making up  the story which he says she told him as to the circumstances leading up to the shooting. ” This is a striking claim and not one that I’ve seen made elsewhere. He adds “it will be remembered he was in the Mews quite a considerable time before the police were sent for.” For good measure, he throws in the opinion that Durrant  when shown the photograph of the body in court stated that it had been moved, thus undermining Spilsbury’s testimony.

Whether Winter had any grounds for these charges I cannot say, but if true they would explain the fact that Elvira’s story changes by not one word throughout the investigation and trial. It was not unknown for family doctors to be overly “loyal” to their richer clientele – Dr. O’Donnell in the Alma Rattenbury trial was certainly more interested in protecting his patient than in telling the truth. Remember, Winter is not trying to prove a case, just summarising what the police thought about it.

The concluding remarks of the Detective Inspector are concerned with Elvira’s lifestyle. His disgust is almost palpable.

“When addressing the Jury the Judge very aptly described Mrs.Barney and the deceased saying that their affection for each other was more of a sexual one than a sincere one and went on to say that that the story as told in court was one which suggested two rather wasted lives.

This was borne out during the course of enquiries for it was learned that not only they, but the clique in which they moved, indulged in almost every sexual vice it is possible to imagine and one can only think that Mrs. Barney is indeed a very fortunate person to be at liberty at the moment.”

So there you have it. A pervert in a clique of perverts and therefore guilty.Why close with this? Apart from the obvious bigotry, it is I think because the Police had been sure that the jury would view Elvira in a very negative light and turn against her. Well, they didn’t – and Detective Winter is left with his moral outrage and his fulminations against “every imaginable vice”.

One might respond by suggesting that if the Police had not been so fascinated by the sex lives of this “clique” and looked closer into Elvira’s psychological background  then they might have presented a case that Sir Patrick Hastings could not have knocked down so easily. As it was, Winter got his wish in the aftermath of the trial. Elvira, having been found innocent of the charge of murder, was found guilty -by the press and hence the public – of the apparently greater crime of immorality.