Tag Archive: mews

Elvira’s Reading Matter

During and after the trial various rumours circulated about certain books that were said to be on display at 21 William Mews.

“The library was furnished with publications that could never have passed through His Majesty’s Customs” (McDonald Hastings 1963).There was no library  in the mews. The police blueprint does not even indicate a bookcase. There would have been books around the place and no doubt some may have tended toward the exotic.

First Edition Paris 1922

Elvira liked to portray herself as “Modern”. In the portrait she commissioned Eliot Hodgkin to paint of her, the background is filled with markers of the lifestyle she (or Hodgkin) wished to present to the world. It is a rather hectic collage and includes a saxophone, the hands of a jazz pianist, a rugby football, a lifebuoy (why?) and what looks strangely like a needlework sampler. There are also two books – both beloved icons for the more bookish among the Bright Young People. One is James Joyce’s Ulysses  – still banned but much smuggled into London by channel-hoppers such as Elvira – the other is Ronald Firbank’s “Prancing Nigger”.

Ronald Firbank was the subject of something of a cult among the BYP and writers (and would-be writers) such as Harold Acton, Anthony Powell, Jocelyn Brooke, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh and Brian Howard fell under his spell. His influence with the younger aesthetes was enormous and “Firbankian” came to denote not just a literary style but a whole way of being. Camp,witty, irreverent he was the perfect writer for the social circle Elvira moved in.

Ronald Firbank  (1886-1926)

Were these the books that so scandalised “hardened policemen”?  Quite possibly. If so, were they among Elvira’s favourites as the portrait seems to suggest or were they just chic accessories – proof of Elvira’s self-image as a sophisticate? We cannot know. However, thanks to a careful compilation,by C.I.D. officer John Scurr, of the reading matter stacked up in the bathroom of  21 William Mews we do know something of what Elvira actually did read. The picture that emerges is considerably less high-brow but very illuminating.

Why the police felt the need to make such a catalogue is a little puzzling, but I am very glad they did. What you get is a very instructive snapshot of what one wealthy, young, club-hopping woman  of the era perused while awaiting the next invitation or outing.Yet, I would put money on this being a fairly typical list of periodicals and newspapers and would have been found in many a Chelsea or Mayfair flat.

There are 48 items, mostly magazines with some programmes and the odd letter. There is only one novel, “This Delicate Creature” by Con O’Leary. I know nothing of this work  but the title is, in the circumstances,  more than a little ironic. O’Leary was a reasonably popular author – but no modernist.

The newspapers Elvira read were the Daily Sketch, The Daily Express and The Sunday Express – all very conservative and middle-brow, the Sketch veering towards the “Tabloid” end of the market. She took two illustrated  news weeklies The (National) Graphic and The Bystander.The Graphic  was in its final days and  may have simply been a favourite from younger days in the Mullens household (it was very popular in World War One). The Bystander was reinventing itself as a glossy magazine -with greater concentaration on leisure and fashion. I think the edition in Elvira’s bathroom was this one

which would make sense.

The Bystander lasted until 1940 when it was absorbed into The Tatler, copies of which were also in the pile. It would be surprising if they weren’t – no woman of Elvira’s age and class would want to miss the society news and gossip that journal offered its readers. Equally unsurprising is the presence of the rather more sophisticated Vanity Fair, with its mixture of literary pieces, humour, stylish photography and glossy adverts.

Elvira’s continued interest in the theatre is evidenced by a copy of The Stage. Read widely but specifically aimed at those within the profession, one can imagine Elvira following the careers of many acquaintances with interest – and perhaps some regrets.

There are a few issues of an obscure magazine called The Picture Budget,  which was presumably devoted to cinema. There is no mention of Elvira as a regular movie-goer but it would be odd if she was not.

There are more copies of  “Britannia and Eve” than any other title. This was a popular and stylish woman’s journal, much valued today for its delightful and evocative cover art-work. Here are a few that PC Scurr listed –

There are two American satirical magazines Hullabaloo and Ballyhoo in the collection. These were the forerunners of the likes of Mad magazine and specialised in cartoons and spoof adverts. They would have also been considered quite “racy” for the era. How available they were in England at the time I don’t know – but not very, I suspect

Also a little on the “fast” side was London Life – a magazine devoted to fashion, feature articles and “What’s On” listings. Its notoriety came from the amount of fetishists who  commandeered the letters pages – under the guise of asking for fashion tips. I’m sure Elvira was suitably amused.

Also to be found are copies of The New Yorker  and Cosmopolitan, then still basically a literary magazine. These were classy journals, with nods towards highbrow culture but were also markers of a suave and comfortable lifestyle.

Finally there are two journals I cannot identify – The Courier and The Nightlight.

I will deal with the theatre programmes separately but these magazines and newspapers tell us a lot about Elvira, her interests, her self-image and the sort of world with which she identified. Cultured, hedonistic and consumerist, modern but not avant-garde, a little daring, a strong sense of visual style, little interest in politics or world events (even in 1932) and a general sense that the pursuit of pleasure and fun were what mattered in this life- that is the picture they suggest to me. All of which fits perfectly well with what we know about Mrs.Barney from other sources. I’m sure she was familiar with Firbank and Joyce but I am confident that these periodicals take us closer to  her real enthusiasms and shine a singularly helpful light on a very specific, but not atypical, way of life. Quite by accident, PC Scurr captured a moment of cultural history and I, for one, am very grateful to him.


Some Thoughts on living in a Mews

Since the Press could only make hints and not directly refer to that which both fascinated and (supposedly) appalled its readership about the Barney social circle – this world of bisexuality,promiscuity and narcotic excess- then a whole series of inanimate objects came to be imbued with a wicked and mysterious symbolism. The Mews flat, the specially built bar, cocktails and cocktail parties, unnamed books and paintings – all of these came to serve  as metaphors for rampant decadence.

Today, London Mews apartments, especially those in Chelsea or Knightsbridge, connote wealth and a luxurious lifestyle. The are expensive and eminently respectable. This was not yet the case in the 1930s and,because of the Barney trial, Mews-living retained an air of Bohemian licence for several decades.

21 William Mews

The story of the modern Mews begins with the conversion of stables (traditionally Mews buildings were adjuncts to large urban dwellings built in the C17th or C18th) into garages, as the motor car replaced the horse and carriage. William Mews serviced Lowndes Square. By the time Elvira moved in, half the Mews consisted of garages pure and simple and the rest garages with the chauffeur and family living above. Apart from Elvira, there was just one other middle class resident, a solicitor.

So Elvira’s very address was seen as a statement of de facto Bohemianism. The implications were that Elvira should have, on separating from her husband, returned to the parental home in Belgrave Square.The newspapers made much of the fact that No.21 was “exotically furnished” and even thirty years later Giles Playfair could write, “No doubt, she did want a greater measure of sexual freedom than she could have enjoyed living under the watchful eyes of her parents.”. A mews address, particularly one that was “exotically furnished” meant only one thing – excessive, and possibly illicit, sex.

After the trial the very word  “Mews”  acquired a particular frisson. A favourite  night-club of the time was The Florida (much frequented by Angela Worthington and Sylvia Coke). This venue, with its telephone at every table, was in Bruton Mews, in the heart of Mayfair. That it was tucked away in a Mews, albeit in a most prestigious environment, allowed it to be both “Society” and a little bit risque. Added to this was the presence of black bandleaders such as Ken Johnson (later killed in a bombing raid on Elvira’s favoured eating place,The Cafe De Paris). A Mews address meant excitement, and the promise of pleasures unafforded elsewhere.

Next door to the Florida was The Blue Goose Cocktail Bar, whose manageress Diana Caldwell was to meet Lord Broughton there. Her subsequent marriage to him, and her  involvement in the scandal surrounding the death of Lord Errol in Kenya, before her final transmutation into Lady Delamere, are famously documented in the book White Mischief. Lady Delamere’s time as a cocktail hostess  in a Mews bar was a source of much gossip in London and Nairobi  and shows how weighted the terms “cocktails” and “Mews” had become. Unlike Elvira, Diana outrode her scandal, though she remained a suspect in the shooting of Lord Errol until her death. The Happy Valley set share much in common with Elvira’s circle – drink,drugs,promiscuity (and possibly murder), but I have yet to establish any definite connections.

Diana Caldwell

After World War 2 there was an attempt to stress the normality of Mews life – while attempting to hold on to the sense of freedom and non-conformity hitherto associated with these residences. The most evocative example is in the film Genevieve (1953). The McKims (John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan) are a young, respectable and newly-married couple – perfect examples of 1950s domestic optimism. Yet they are not suburban but Mews-dwellers, idiosyncratic and – within bounds – free spirits. Dinah Sheridan buys aubergines and peppers and their house (actually in Rutland Mews) has modern paintings and a vaguely continental feel. Here, Mews-living is no longer beyond the pale but it still  has an excitement to it.

South Rutland Mews 1953 and 2010

The sleazier image of the Mews persisted however. In The League of Gentlemen (1960), ex-officer and now night-club pianist cum-gigolo, Brian Forbes (a character staight out of The Blue Angel) is suitably callous towards his older mistress. His early morning arrival at their Mews dwelling is redolent in meanings easily recognisable to the followers of the Barney trial. Mews flats were still the site of bad behaviour.

The last great example of the Mews as a place of iniquity arrives courtesy of the Profumo scandal. Stories of a defence minister leaving by the back door minutes before a Russian embassy official arrived at the front , not to mention West Indian drug dealers firing up at the windows, kept the British public enthralled throughout 1963. We are, of course, now talking about 17 Wimpole Mews, home  to Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis  (rent paid by Stephen Ward). Sex,drugs,guns – the upper classes behaving badly –  the ghost of Elvira must have watched with interest.

Wimpole Mews

Just after the Profumo Trial, the archetypal 60s’ adventure series The Avengers commenced its run. It starred Patrick MacNee as John Steed,an establishment figure but also bon viveur and man-of-the-world. Inevitably, he lived in a well-appointed London Mews.

Duchess Mews, home of John Steed

Viva King

My take on the Elvira Barney case changed dramatically after reading Viva King’s fascinating  ( if, in places, unreliable) memoirs.

” One of the quintessential female Bohemians was Viva King, who, when we went around together, would become furious if anyone assumed her to be my mother. An uncommonly beautiful woman before she became stout and puffy, she and her husband Willie, of the British Museum, were more attracted by young gay men than by each other. In later years, one of her most cherished friends was April Ashley, who had emerged as a stunningly glamorous butterfly from the drab chrysalis of a lanky merchant seaman.” Francis King 

Somewhat older than the “Bright Young People” , really a member of Augustus John’s set, she was nonetheless a key figure of the 20s scene both as hostess and party guest. She was a close friend of Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Arthur Jeffress and knew both Elizabeth Ponsonby and Elvira Barney well. Brenda Dean Paul had been her bridesmaid. Despite some patent inaccuracies, her chapter on Elvira is very revealing.


“My friend Georgia Sitwell had, at some period before I was married, introduced me to a schoolfriend of hers called Elvira Mullins”

Georgia Sitwell (née Doble), by Bassano, May 1935 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Georgia Doble (Sitwell)

“Elvira’s father was a stockbroker to the government and they lived in great splendour in Belgrave Square.Not that Iever  saw  much of this splendour as Elvira had a real nostalgie de la  boue, so that her home had a curious atmosphere of gilded misery. She also had that fatal gift to which I have referred, always being “In love, my dear!” – said in a slightly Cockney voice. One of her victims was Charles Graves and Elvira sat out. I forget howmany hours or days, in her car waiting for him to leave his flat in Royal Avenue in Chelsea.When he finally emerged, she took a pot-shot at him with a revolver and happily missed. She drove a large car, the first I had ever seen with chromium and not brass fittings, and we would sometimes gofor a night or two to a cottage that she had near Henley. I would wash up the dirty dishes left in the bath and sweep up mountains of champagne corks – which rather annoyed her as she said that they were souvenirs of gay nights.”

6 Belgrave Square

“Three American singers came over to perform in the Halls, calling themselves the Three New Yorkers and Elvira married the ugliest and fattest of them, called Barney.He treated her very badly and with surprising jealousy and Willie (Viva’s husband) and I were witness to ugly scenes. At last he he took himself back to America and Elvira took to drugs. Drug taking was not then the legally hazardous thing it is now and she would ring me up to ask for my help. I was, of course, unable to assist her. But one day we were all surprised when she was told by a friend that if she took her car to Richmond and at a certain point drove right then left then right again she would find a teashop where, on demand, a waitress wold supply her needs. We were even more surprised to learn that the white powder for which she paid so dearly “Really was, my dear, cocaine.”

“As Willie hated parties, we did not go to her last, attended by so many of our friends, who were later grilled by the police.After the party was over, Elvira waited for her lover to return. when he did appear, out came her revolver and in a rage she fired it, bang,bang,bang! or only one bang!, which killed him.He did not die at once but went into the bathroom to staunch the blood coming from his wound and mouth, emerging after a few minutes to fall dying at her feet. She wisely sent at once for the family doctor and he stayed an hour with her before the police were called.

She was arrested and put in the infirmary of Holloway prison and Sir Patrick Hastings got the brief for defending her on a charge of murder.She was living in a mews flat, and in those days such flats were still mostly inhabited by chauffeurs and their wives over the garages.The statements of these women of the number of bangs that they heard varied considerably,ergo:according to Sir Patrick they were unreliable witnesses and only one bang could have killed the victim in the struggle for the revolver, which went off accidentally. Thus Elvira was acquitted.”

Holloway HMP

“I was upset by this terrible affair, and imagined Elvira to be prostrate after her ordeal and weeks of anxiety on remand in prison.But when I opened my Daily Mirror the next day, there she was with a happy grinning countenance, stepping into her car on the way to the hairdressers.She soon came to see me and said that she had kept a picture of Tallulah Bankhead with her in prison and that looking at it had kept her spirits up.Willie and I did not know what to make of this and I wonder if Tallulah ever later realized that among her other achievements, there had been this help she had been able to give to a suspected murderess.


“Elvira was found dead in her hotel bedroom sometime afterwards and I received a letter from her mother saying she had left me all her pictures and books, but as she had died insolvent they had been in their rights to keep the best of these to pay for her funeral.However I did get the portrait of Elvira that Eliot Hodgkin had painted of her,It was an image of Elvira that she wished to show the world. Elvira was not even her name. She had changed it by deed poll from something far more ordinary (untrue).”

Eliot Hodgkin

Eliot Hodgkin


Cocktails With Elvira

This is an attempt to chronicle my investigation into the issues surrounding the trial for murder of Elvira Barney. The case, a cause celebre in its day, is now largely remembered for two factors only. Firstly, in criminal history, as the victory of a masterful defence speech over the apparently overwhelming evidence for the prosecution – basically Elvira got away with murder thanks to the genius of Patrick Hastings; secondly, as a symbolic final curtain on the era of “The Bright Young Things”. This is most recently stated in D.J.Taylor’s excellent “Bright Young People”. Elvira Barney herself is seen as a peripheral figure. I want to focus on the events surrounding the case, the attendants at the infamous cocktail party that preceded the “murder” and various associative chains that spin out from that party. In doing so I want to shed some light on the extreme fringes of the “Smart Set” of the era and show that the “World of Elvira Barney” was more central to any discussion of the period than has hitherto been thought

On 30th May 1932 at 21, William Mews near Lowndes Square Elvira Barney held a cocktail party.Between 25 and 35 people attended and came and went from 6.30 to 8.30. Because of police records it is possible to identify many of the guests.
Elvira Barney
Michael Scott Stephen
Arthur Jeffress
Hugh Wade
Denys Skeffington Smyth
Sylvia Coke
Brian Howard
Anton Altmann
Irene Mac Brayne
Arthur Streek
Mr. Sherrill
Milton surname unknown
Ruth Baldwin
Olivia Wyndham

I will add profiles of as many of the guests as possible and also some speculations about who else might have been there and the people who probably weren’t there but were thought at the time to have attended.