Tag Archive: mews

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.

It is highly unlikely that Elvira gave even a passing thought to Dorothy Hall, mother of a small child and a chauffeur’s wife. Yet, had not Sir Patrick Hastings cast doubt on the accuracy of her evidence, she more than anyone would have been responsible for Elvira’s conviction.Mrs.Hall lived diagonally opposite from Elvira. The distance between the two dwellings was about 50 feet.

The defence went in pretty hard on Mrs.Hall’s statement – though much of the attack now looks like nit-picking  (had she actually called Michael “Chicken”‘? ). However, these uncertainties about the verbatim accuracy of the account seemed to work on the jury and by the time of Sir Patrick Hastings’  slick ruse, which appeared to prove that Elvira was right-handed not left Dorothy Hall’s narrative had lost much of its authority. In particular, Hastings argued persuasively that  the earlier shooting had not happened at all in the way described in the statement.

However, I regard the statement as as trustworthy as anything to do with the case. The behaviour of the participants and their chaotic lifestyle show through vividly and feel right. If there are serious errors, they concern the night of the fatal shooting – the doctor’sand police time of arrival seem all wrong. Also the reference to the ladder incident errs in mistaking the breaking of a window for the sound of gunfire – but she does say “like a gun shot”.

Anyhow, see what you think –

” I am a married woman living at 10 William Mews, with my husband John Charles Hall, a Chauffeur. We have lived here  nine months.In no. 21 lived a woman named Mrs. Barney, she has been there about three years I think. Before living at No.10., my husband and I lived at No.1a which is at the other end of the Mews. When we first arrived at No.10 which is almost opposite  No.21, Mrs. Barney had a man, who I should think lived with her there. He used to go in with her late at night and would be seen again there the following morning. He was with her up to the latter part of last year, when he stopped coming.”

“Shortly, quite a few weeks, a man to whom she spoke as “Michael” went and lived with her. Until a fortnight ago he was there every night.There has been a number of quarrels in the flat between this man and Mrs. Barney and I have often heard her tell him to get out of the place, I don’t know the exact dates or how often. About a fortnight ago, I think it was on a Thursday (19th May) we were awakened. my husband and I, by a taxi-man shouting to Mrs.Barney about some damage done to the cab. I heard her say she was sorry, but we sleep in the back and when I got to the front window Mrs.Barney had gone in and I heard the telephone bell tinkle as if she had been talking on the telephone I heard her mention Michael and say she would not have him in the house again or give him any of his clothes, she would never forgive him and if he came near her she would shoot him. she seemed hysterical and was crying and screaming. When she had gone in (illegible) darkness and I saw her switch on the lights. This would be about three o’clock in the morning.”

“I went back to bed and I heard some shouting again of Mrs.Barney and I went to the front again and Michael was ringing the front door bell at No.21 and a taxi was waiting. She looked out the window on the first floor in front. I heard him ask “Let me have some money, Vera”. She said !Clear away or I shall send for the police.” and he got into the taxi and went off. This was about quarter of an hour after the previous incident. I went back to bed but in about another quarter of an hour I heard her shouting “Will you please go away from my house” and I saw her shut the window as I had gone again to my front window.

He still rang the bell – there were no other people in the Mews. She took no notice and he started to walk away.He got almost opposite my door, she opened the window and screamed “Laugh baby for the last time”. she was right undressed then and I do not think she had anything on. I saw her put her left hand out of the window nearest the landing – she leaned out down to her waist -she had a small bright revolver which she pointed at the man and she fired. She then seemed to slide down inside the room and was looking out the bottom of the window.”

“The man looked up at me and said “I am sorry.” I was cross and said, “Why don’t you clear out the Mews, you are a nuisance.” He said “I’ve been away an hour and am afraid to leave her longer, I don’t mean to do her any harm. I won’t leave her for good as I’m afraid she might commit suicide as she is so hysterical”.I said, “She’ll never do that she is too wicked”. I noticed he ha a black eye (right one I believe) and his face was badly swollen and so was his lips. Mrs. Barney then again looked out of the window but seemed to slide back all of a heap. He said, “Good God, she’s shot” and he ran towards the door.

There was no noise of any shot that would make him believe that. He banged at it shouting “Vera, for God’s sake let me in.” but she took no notice and he walked off and got into a van that was in the Mews and settled down. This was going on till half past five, I went to bed again then. I next saw Michael about a quarter to eleven the same morning when he went to the house and was let in. About half past twelve I saw Mrs. Barney and Michael go out together seemingly quite happy.”

William Mews Today

“I don’t think anything was heard from 21 until the morning of the 31st of May.On monday 30th May about 7 o’clock in the evening people commenced arriving at 21 and continued to arrive till 8pm. There were about 25 of them, the party lated until about 10 o’clock when the last one left. About half past ten Mrs. Barney went off with Michael in her Delage car and nothing more was heard of them until about twenty five past four, when my little girl woke me up and I heard quarrelling. I went to the window and heard her screaming “Get out of my house at once, I hate you. Get out, Get out, I’ll shoot you.” I heard him mumbling something like “I’m going” and then I heard a shot, she screamed immediately in a hysterical manner and I heard him shout as if in pain “Oh Good God what have you done.”

She started screaming again and said “Chicken, Chicken, I’m sorry, Come back to me I’ll do anything you ask me”. This was during about five minutes. Then it was all quiet for about five minutes, then I heard her say “Michael,Michael”. Then all was quiet until the doctor arrived about five to six.

“She was at the door when he arrived and he rushed in. After about three minutes I heard her ask “What’s wrong” and the doctor said “He’s dead” and she again commenced screaming and said “Good God don’t say that I loved him. I adored him.” he told her to keep quiet and  heard him ask “Why did you not send for me before” and I heard her say “I got the operator and he gave me” or “I gave him the wrong number”. She looked out of the window and gave one scream and all was quiet and the doctor looked out of the landing window and spoke quietly to his chauffeur who went for the police.”

I forgot to mention that last Tuesday week I was awakened by my little girl abut three o’clock Tuesday morning and there was shouting in the Mews. I went and looked through the window and heard a bang like a shot from 21. There were three people outside the flat – two men and a woman.The front door was open but seemingly these people could not get in the room upstairs as somebody suggested getting a ladder and whilst they had gone someone came down and shut the door. Michael was not seen on that occasion. I did not see the people come back and all was quiet.

I have read this statement through and it is true”.

The prosecution coupled this statement with that of Kate Stevens but the discrepancy between them served to further muddy the waters. They would have been better advised to go with this one alone. I think it is fair to say that Dorothy Hall’s lowly social status and her evident (and very understandable) dislike of Elvira worked against her. It is worth mentioning that although Elvira was obviously a first-rate nenace at no time did Michael appear to be really afraid for his life. Even so, if even the gist of this account  is largely correct, Elvira was remarkably lucky to get the result that she did.

I will post Kate Stevens statement shortly.

MacDougal Alley

Milwaukee Sentinel June 1 1932

It’s quite remarkable how quickly speculation about the shooting at 21 William Mews hit the news-stands. The above article, from Associated Press, appeared in Milwaukee on the day after the incident and not only fashions a juicy narrative out of what must have been very hastily assembled facts but is already imbued with references to the “decadence” that dominated the coverage of the whole case.

Inaccuracies abound. The “golden-haired” Elvira is a “divorced actress”, which is pushing it a bit, and Michael gains 10 years in age. It is Michael who is reported as having brandished the gun and the police are said to be pursuing a line of “accidental death”, which they most certainly weren’t. He is also reported to have been found lying on a sofa – he was on the landing,

The cocktail party and the Mews life-style are both given starring roles. Naturally, it was “a gay cocktail party” – not meant in the modern sense  – but the following paragraph is the one that caught my eye.

“Meanwhile astonishing stories were heard of parties which were held in the gaily decorated back-alley flat in Williams Mews, the London counterpart of Greenwich Village’s MacDougall Alley in New York.”

Berenice Abbott MacDougal Alley 1936

Now, in no way did William Mews resemble the bohemian heart of Greenwich Village, but the comparison speaks volumes.  “MacDougal Alley” is code for artistic, alternative and avant-garde. It also meant Gay (this time in the modern sense of the term). American readers would have got the inference and would have been quite aware what it was that was “astonishing” about these parties.

So, right from the start, the shooting is almost secondary to the exotic context in which it took place. The 1930s’ press, despite being trapped in a code of censorship, euphemism and innuendo, very quickly made it apparent what sort of world Elvira inhabited. As was to actually happen in due course, the Associated Press prophetically found Elvira innocent of murder but guilty of flouting social conventions.

Incidentally, one of Elvira’s cocktail guests, Olivia Wyndham, who had recently moved to New York was to become a regular visitor to Greenwich Village where she, and her partner Edna Thomas’, friend, the author Nella Larsen, lived. Wyndham and her circle really did embody the  “improper” Bohemia hinted at in the newspaper report.

Vincent La Gambina Life Cafeteria Greenwich Village 1936

In 2001 the 80 year old artist and actress  Tatheena Roberts published a novel about the travails of two young lesbians in pre-war New York. I don’t know if there is any autobiographical element to the story but the book’s title is testimony to the continuing resonance of the address. It was called “MacDougal Alley” .

Cocktail Parties

No phrase so instantly conjures up the  modernity and the anti-Puritanism of the 1920s as “cocktail party”. Even today, albeit massively devalued, the term still carries a certain sense of sophisticated hedonism. Back in 1932, even though the whole country was familiar with the ritual through magazines and the cinema, there was thought to be something slightly wicked and un-English about the whole phenomenon. Newspapers, while carrying adverts for cocktail recipes, tended to pronounce sternly on such parties and the people who attended them.

Stone’s Ginger Wine cashes in on the cocktail craze – late 1920s

Elvira’s front room had a purpose-built, curved cocktail bar in the corner. This was a source of fascination both to the police and the press, so I guess it must have been unusual. Plenty of theatres and clubs were commissioning cocktail bars in this time but domestic homes had not really picked up on the idea  – but then the “Love Hut” was hardly a typical domestic home..However, one of Elvira’s guests on May 30th, Ruth Baldwin, had in fact gone one better and converted her whole living area at 5 Mulberry Walk into a bar.

Alfred Thompson “A Modern Cocktail Bar” Saville Theatre 1931

The rise of the cocktail party is synonymous with the Bright Young People and The Smart Set. Like the sports car, it signified everything that was post-war, modernist, anti-Edwardian and young. The idea was American, emanating from St.Louis in 1917 and the cocktail itself grew in popularity because of the awfulness of much prohibition liquor.In Europe the situation was rather different and the cocktail party took on a set of connotations rooted in the more class-bound cultures of England and France. Its  “American-ness” was important and those who railed against creeping Americanisation cited it, along with jazz and the cinema, as a sign of national decline. However there were other factors that made the cocktail party of particular value in symbolising the upheavals and contradictions in English society in the years after the Armistice..

Most importantly, it was one of many signals of the changing role of women in society.Attractive women drinking (and smoking) is the image that occurs again and again in the many representations of cocktail gatherings. From cartoons, advertising and the cinema  the message is the same – here is something new, exciting but also slightly discomfiting. Although more men than women probably attended such affairs, the iconography is overwhelmingly female . Pubs were still very masculine and rather non-U places – it is telling how little they feature in BYP memoirs. Here, on the other hand, was a space were young women could “let themselves go” in a semi-public arena. It is no coincidence that the defining outfit of the era was Coco Chanel’s cocktail dress.

Coco Chanel Cocktail Dress 1926

The throwing of the first English cocktail party has been variously ascribed to three figures who have already featured in this blog, Beverley Nicholls, C.R.W.Nevinson and Alec Waugh. Waugh’s is the name most usually cited but he himself gave Nevinson the credit. The agreed year is generally 1924.If it was as late as that, then they caught the public imagination remarkably quickly for by 1926 they had become a byword for everything that constituted the generation gap – everything the old disapproved of and the young aspired to.  Cocktail parties changed the cultural landscape. It is even said that the highly mannered (and loud) vocal  intonations of  the likes of Brian Howard and Elizabeth Ponsonby were developed to carry over the noise of the gramophone and the animated chatter of other guests.

By and large, these parties were the province of the rich and the theatrical. Most English people never attended one and most never even tasted a cocktail until the 1960s – but everyone knew about them. They moralised and glamorised, exaggerated and embellished, above all they associated them with the new sexual freedoms – real or imagined.

Hence the delight that the newspapers took in placing Elvira’s party at the very heart of the affair. For who knows what sins a woman a woman who held cocktail parties on a Monday evening, in a house seemingly designed for such a purpose, might commit?

The time allocated to a cocktail party was important – generally between 6pm and 8pm. It was not Afternoon Tea nor was it Formal Dinner.It was not, in fact, formal at all. That was the key. Guests popped in and out, some danced, some just chatted. Above all it was a Prelude to other events – the theatre, a night club or a late party, perhaps all three. In this, Elvira’s gathering, unlike so much in her life, was typical.

Nor were the drinks and food elaborate. Elvira provided gin-based grapefruit cocktails, sherry and, thanks to a quick trip to an off-licence by Michael Stephens and, probably, Ruth Baldwin, some whisky. Sometimes there was caviare or smoked salmon sandwiches, sometimes no food at all. It was the sense of a meeting-point that mattered – remember, Elvira hosted or attended  two or three of these events a week. No formal invitations, a phone call or an verbal invite at the last such bash summoned the guests on May 30th. This combination of exclusivity and relaxed protocol made the cocktail party, to its devotees, such a statement. Everything conspired to say, “this is not how our parents’ did things”.

Claude Flight Cocktail Party 1936

What strikes me as peculiar is how the echoes of that original excitement linger still today. Whether in retro-party form or in cynical cheap drinks promotions, the mere word “cocktail” retains the traces of this original, and long vanished, context. Sadly, no amount of “Happy Hours” or absurdly titled concoctions can hope to emulate the sense of transgression the earlier incarnations embodied. They belonged to a very specific historical moment and remain beyond our grasp.

Detective Inspector Winter in his main statement described 21 William Mews as “prodigally decorated”.  I think this is a delightful phrase, combining a vision of excess with a sense  of  official disapproval.  I had not come across it before but it transpires that it is a quotation.

“The tents of the nobility were prodigally decorated with all kinds of the richest stuffs and dazzled the eye with their magnificence.” Washington Irving Conquest of Granada

How very apt. I’m not sure I’ll ever read a police report in quite the same way from now on. I wonder what Brian Howard would have made of it.