Forest Gate-born Bryan Forbes recalls his local origins

Monday 31 July 2017

One of Britain's cinematic greats, Bryan Forbes, was born and brought up in Forest Gate, as this site recalled, when it marked his death in 2013 (see here).

He first hit the entertainment headlines as question master for BBC's Junior Brains Trust in the 1950's, was later head of production at EMI, and founder of a film production company, Beaver Films.

It was however, his role as actor in and writer and director of such films as The League of Gentleman, The Railway Children, Whistle Down The Wind, The Stepford Wives and the L-Shaped Room, that he is best remembered.

This article provides a potted biography of him and in particular of his roots in Forest Gate. It relies heavily on his first autobiography: Notes For a Life and his Wikipedia entry (see footnotes for details). He used his autobiography as an aide-memoire to pen an article for the short-lived Forest Gate Times in 2011, which is also quoted, below.

Bryan Forbes' first autobiography,
 upon which much of this
article is based
He was born, John Theobald Clarke on 22 July 1926: "in the sullen aftermath of the General Strike", as he recalled in his autobiography. He had a sister six years his senior and the family lived at 43 Cranmer Road - "destined to be destroyed in the early days of the Blitz" - he told the Forest Gate Times

43 Cranmer Road, today. Forbes
 told the Forest Gate Times that it
 was "destined to be destroyed
 during the Blitz". Hmm ...

His stage name, Bryan Forbes, was chosen at random by the man who gave him his first professional job, as Equity rules at the time required that he could not perform under his birth name, as another actor was already registered under it.

He went to Godwin Elementary School, as it was then called, and later recollected. "That establishment was approached through a long corrugated iron covered way which held more dread than all the tombstones in Wanstead Cemetery (ed: he probably meant Manor Park Cemetery)." 

Godwin school - Forbes' first
After winning a scholarship, he went to the old West Ham Secondary in Tennyson Road, Stratford.

His grandparents lived in Odessa Road, where he went once a week for family tea. Writing of the street and house in the 1930's, he said in Notes for a Life:

This was a dismal thoroughfare, bordering at one end on the London and North Eastern Railway, which ran, below street level behind a blackened wall, topped with jagged bottle glass. ... Pollution being then undiscovered, the belching tank engines were merely an accepted fact of life, menacing every wash-line and delighting only small boys - for to remain fearless on the wooden pedestrian bridge while a train shuddered beneath it was a considered a supreme test. One of the punishments meted out to the bullied (of which he was one) was for the victim's face to be pushed between the wooden floor slats of the bridge while a slow goods train passed jerking and clanging below. Apart from the terror produced by the noise, the sufferer was choked by thick yellow smoke which took minutes to disperse.
He later told the Forest Gate Times, that his grandparents' house was:
A humble house, sandwiched between two other identical houses with front gardens just big enough to take a pram lengthways, separated from the road by a privet hedge, the stems cankered by years of vintage dog pee, the leaves sooted and crisped to the texture of dried holly.
Writing of his own, Forest Gate home during childhood, he said: 
The gentle flow of life in Cranmer Road were seldom disturbed. It was a peaceful neighbourhood with pretensions to what used to be called the 'genteel' : neat, undistinguished but solidly built rows of terraced houses, carefully painted every year on the outside, and the women used to hand striped canvas sun-blinds during the summer months to protect the front doors.
Of Forest Gate, in the 1930's, he wrote:
Forest Gate was a pleasant place to live in those days. Originally a hamlet lying to the north of Upton at the edge of Wanstead Flats, it was as its name denotes, the southern entrance to Epping Forest.
He had this to say about Wanstead Flats:
Cranmer Road bordered on the Flats, the savannah of my formative years which I was forbidden to explore beyond a certain limit and which, in consequence, appeared to me to be as mysterious and boundless as the entire continent.
In reality it was a large area of sparse grassland dotted with irregular plantations of thin trees and some sand hills humped around what I assume must have been a derelict gravel pit.
 It had a pathetic boating lake, like something out of Toy Town, with half a dozen rotting paddle boats for hire, and a small bandstand where, some Sunday evenings, we were taken to hear the music, sitting on hard slatted seats and surrounded by discarded peanut shells. I thought it was one of the most romantic places on earth.
Bandstand on the Flats, a few years
 before Forbes was taken to hear
 music on Sunday evenings
 Running parallel to Cranmer Road", he noted:
were four other roads named after the martyred bishops - Latimer, Lorne, Tylney and Ridley. They were considerably posher than my own, and Lorne was the poshest of the lot.
My dallion days on Wanstead Flats were for the most part totally uncomplicated: it was football in the mud during winter and cricket until the light faded in the summer.
Bryan Forbes had his first - unwanted - sexual encounter on Wanstead Flats, when he was approached by a flasher, who offered him 6 pence if he co-operated. Forbes ran off, cutting his thumb on a broken bottle as he stumbled and later recalled:
The gentleman in the raincoat proved to be an escaped lunatic (it would appear that Forest Gate had more than its fair quota in those days) and apparently, was swiftly apprehended.
The episode was completely erased from my mind until 1969 when I went back to Cranmer Road with a BBC camera team who were shooting a biographical Man Alive programme around me and visiting my childhood haunts to capture celluloid nostalgia. 
Bryan Forbes on a return visit to
 Forest Gate, in the 1950's
I stood again on Wanstead Flats, the limitless vista now reduced to its true scale, shivering in the winter dusk while hoards of turbinated immigrants played hockey in the Giant's Basin - not the canyon I had remembered, but just a slight dip in the arid terrain. It was only then that the memory of the naked man returned, though the physical scar has always whitened the skin beneath my left thumb.
Bryan Forbes recalled fascism in Forest Gate, during the 1930's
Mosley came to Wanstead Flats some Sunday evenings. He came in a sealed truck with a wire cage set into the roof. Surrounded by a black garland of close-cropped, scrubbed and wax-like body guards, he stood within his cage and screeched his British upper-class impersonation of Streicher to an audience that mostly consisted of children, derelicts and policemen.

Oswald Mosley, a visitor to Wanstead
Flats in the '30's - caged in his white van
I remember listening without comprehension (ed: Forbes would have been about 10 at the time). It was merely a strange, but not unwelcome diversion from the sameness of everyday life. I can remember seeing bottles breaking on the white cage close to the thin drawn face of Mosley and hearing his lunatic-amplified voice bouncing back from the houses behind him.
Mounted police waited in the shadows beside the empty bandstand, edging their restless horses forward as the bully boys started on the really important business of the evening. Mosley looked like Mighty Mouse in his mobile cage and departed the scene as battle commenced to spread his gospel to another corner of a foreign field.
His early encounters with the cinema were in Forest Gate
Most of my contemporaries patronised the 'Tuppenny Rush' at the Splendid, alongside Forest Gate railway station. (His Forest Gate Times article embelished this a little: I also haunted the old second hand bookshop close to the cinema. I have no idea how the old bookseller kept his head above water, because he operated on a barter system.) There on a Saturday afternoon, we would rush the doors to tread the threadbare carpets inside that dark and welcoming cave. For three pence you could join the ranks of the elite and sit upstairs in the balcony, a privilege which carried with it the bonus of being able to hurl your ice cream carton on the unruly audience below.
The Splendid cinema - Bryan Forbes'
introduction to his later, illustrious, career
To this day I can recall the agonising delight of those afternoons, the bliss of coming out of the darkness into sunlight and crossing the road to Paterson's (sic) Dolls' Hospital on the bridge, to spend what remained of our pocket-money on a penny bomb. This was a small, but effective device, made of some cheap alloy and shaped like a hand grenade.... There was a satisfying explosion when it fell to earth.

Pattinson's Doll's Hospital, mentioned
 by Bryan Forbes, above - facing Forest
 Gate train station. Note correct spelling
The simplest and most effective ploy at the poor old broken-down Splendid was to raise money to buy one ticket. Once inside, the owner of the ticket would then work his way to the remotest exit, carefully open the door, where his partners in crime would be waiting outside. 
They would dart in like rats and occupy the nearest vacant seats., The aged usherettes were too bored and poorly paid to give chase, but from time to time a new manager (pathetically attired in some second-hand dress suit) would brush the dandruff off his collar and attempt a purge.
But if the Splendid was my village church, the Queen's at the top of Woodgrange Road was my Westminster Abbey. This superior palace, glorifying the Cunnard liner of British cinema architecture, demanded greater respect and the collection started at six pence. It was there on Friday nights, that blissful childhood day of the week, when school can be pushed to the back of your mind, that I became addicted.
The Queen's cinema, Romford Road -
bombed during WW11 - Forbes' "Westminster Abbey"
 His main local enthusiasm, apart from the cinema, seems to have been his membership of the St John's Ambulance cadet force. He wrote:
I joined the St John's Ambulance Cadet Force, since the uniform had more attraction to me than the Boy Scouts. Albert Herbert accompanied me to a series of lectures at Barclay Hall, Green Street ...
On other occasions I did duty with my father at Upton Park. Football crowds seemed just as violent then and I always considered myself lucky to be on the touchline with the police.
An abiding, and unfond, memory of the area, was the railway:
Trains from Forest Gate were appallingly dirty, the third class being little better than upholstered cattle trucks, and it was quite normal to have eight people standing in bleak proximity in each crammed compartment.
His last local connections

He was evacuated for the first time in 1939, but his parents soon brought him home:
It was now, when the war seemed suddenly much closer, that my parents decided I should return to London. I thus went back to Cranmer Road just as the Battle of Britain was beginning, a piece of timing which perhaps perfectly illustrates the most baffling piece of our national character.
My second exodus from London took place in September in September 1940. This time I travelled with the bulk of West Ham Secondary School to Heston in Cornwall.
Bryan Forbes went on to describe life in Cranmer Road during the Blitz. We will draw on these writings in our next article, which will be looking at how three writers described Forest Gate during that period.

And so ended his local association.

Post Forest Gate life

Nanette Newman, Bryan Forbes's
 second wife, who survived him
Bryan Forbes went to Hornchurch Grammar school, after his family left Forest Gate. He then trained, briefly, as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  He did four years of military service in the Intelligence Corps and Combined Forces Entertainment Unit, 

After completing his military service in 1948, he began to act, appearing on stage and playing numerous supporting roles in British films, in particular An Inspector Calls (1954) and The Colditz Story (1955). 

He received his first credit for Second World War film The Cockleshell Heroes (1955), while other early screenplays include I was Monty's Double (1958),and The League of Gentlemen  (1959), his breakthrough. 

In 1959, he formed a production company, Beaver Films, with his frequent collaborator Richard Attenborough.

Forbes's directorial debut came with Whistle Down the Wind (1961), again produced by Attenborough, a critically acclaimed film about three northern children who conceal a criminal in their barn, believing him to be a reincarnated Jesus Christ.

The L-Shaped Room (1962), his next film as director, with Leslie Caron in the female lead, led to her gaining a nomination for an Oscar, and winning the BAFTA and Golden Globe Awards. 

Bryan Forbes at the height of his fame
Forbes wrote and directed Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), and the same year he wrote the third screen adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel Of Human Bondage

In 1969, he was appointed chief of production and managing director of the film studio Associated British (soon to become EMI Films).

Under Forbes's leadership, the studio produced The Railway Children (1970). His tenure though, was short-lived and marked by financial problems and failed projects. Forbes resigned in 1971. 

From the early 1970s, Forbes divided his energies between cinema, television, theatre and writing. 

Forbes returned to Hollywood to direct The Stepford Wives (1975), it featured his wife Nanette Newman and was to become his best-known film. His final film as a screenwriter was Chaplin in 1992.

In 2004, he was made a CBE for his services to the arts. In May 2007, he was the recipient of a BAFTA tribute, celebrating his "outstanding achievement in filmmaking". 

In 1951 he married Irish actress Constance Smith and the couple travelled to Hollywood in the early 1950s. They divorced in 1955. Forbes went on to marry actress Nanette Newman the same year.

Forbes was diagnosed with MS in 1975, however, he revealed in a 2012 interview that it had been a misdiagnosis. He died at his home in Virginia Water, Surrey, on 8 May 2013 at the age of 86, following a long illness.

Footnotes and sources
1. Notes for a Life - Bryan Forbes , Everest Books 1974
2. Wikipedia:
3. Bryan Forbes Remembers Forest Gate, from The Forest Gate Times,  2001

Forest Gate and 20th Century Penny Dreadfuls

Thursday 20 July 2017

This article is the second of two looking at how the Independent Police News covered serious crime in Forest Gate during its existence (1867 - 1938). The paper was a salacious page turner - almost the classic Victorian 'Penny Dreadful' that entranced its readers with its lurid accounts of crimes and sensationalist illustrations of them,  

For a full account of the periodical, see the previous post on the publication, and Forest Gate, including details and illustrations of the first four of 10 cases it covered in illustrative depth, here.

5. Serious attack on a wife and suicide in Forest Gate - 8 April 1905

This is the full report from the IPN from a story which occupied less than half the space of the very graphic illustration accompanying it:
On March 28 a man named Lee, a baker of Oakhurst Road, Forest Gate, attempted to murder his wife and afterwards committed suicide by hanging himself. Mrs Lee was washing up the dinner things, and suddenly felt herself struck heavily on the back of the head and rushed out of the scullery, followed by her husband, who gave her two more blows, before she could get up into the street.
She ran into a neighbour's house with her head streaming with blood. She said that her husband had suddenly attacked her with a chopper and tried to murder her.
Illustration from 8 April 1905
 Illustrated Police News
The police, upon entering the house, found Lee hanging by a clothes line from the banister of the stair-case. He was promptly cut down ... Lee, however was past help, and gave his last breath as the doctor raised his head.
Mr Lee, who was an epileptic, had been in receipt of poor relief, and there is no doubt that want brought on the attack of frenzy in which he attacked his wife with his chopper. He was thirty-one years of age and leaves six children.
The story was accompanied by a grisly and graphic illustration, see above. As with other cases, the IPN reported the drama, with no follow up of the inquest or Coroner's Court proceedings.

6. Ghastly tragedy at Forest Gate: husband returns home to find his daughter murdered and wife injured - 4 February 1911

This story and headline was dramatic enough to produce a centre-fold, double page spread illustration of a story that was only half a column long. It is reproduced in its entirety.
Returning home late in the evening, a Great Eastern Railway employee named Charles Thomson Wilkinson, residing in a self-contained flat of three rooms, at Sherrard Road, Forest Gate, made a tragic discovery.
His suspicion that something untoward had happened were aroused when he found both front and back doors bolted. When, however, he went to the front door a second time, he found to his horror that his wife was lying on a bed in the front room with a wound to her throat.
Illustration from 4 February 1911 Illustrated Police News
In the same room, on another bed was his daughter, Dorothy, who was only sixteen last November. She was the only child, and her mother had always been passionately fond of her. On the distraught husband speaking to his wife, Mary Ann Wilkinson, she replied, so it is alleged: 'Oh, I have killed her.'
Dr Thomson of Romford Road was at once summoned and he found that the skull of the child had been beaten in by the blows of a mallet. The girl was bright and intelligent and rather good looking.
The family had only occupied the house for a few weeks and during part of that time, it is said, Mrs Wilkinson, who was aged fifty-seven, had been away after having been under medical observation at Whipps Cross Infirmary. ...
The wound in the woman's throat was not very serious, and her recovery is probable. She was taken to Whipps Cross Infirmary.
No sounds of blows or any other noise that might have attracted notice was heard by the people living next door on either side.
Much sympathy has been extended to the father who has been an employee of the GER company, as a fitter, for thirty-eight years."
Once more, having given salacious details and provided a gory illustration, the IPN lost interest in the case and did not follow this report up with details of the court case, or its outcome.

7. Forest Gate Horror: man confesses to killing his wife and child - 17 February 1912

Once more, we reproduce the whole of the article that accompanied the illustration.
A double tragedy, the murder by a man of his young wife and little son, was discovered at Forest Gate early on Sunday morning.
Soon after seven o'clock a newsboy, delivering newspapers in Stork Road, a little street not far from Romford Road, saw a man, half dressed, rush from a doorway into the street, screaming for the police and flourishing a hatchet, smeared with blood. Snatching up his papers, the boy took to his heels.
The man was James Limpus, a motor mechanic, thirty-three years old.
Running back to his house in Stork Road, Limpus threw the hatchet from him, and dashed out again, up the road and into the shop of a Mr Fred Pretty, a newsagent of Knox Road, nearby. Here he was detained until the arrival of a constable, who entering the man's house, found lying across the bed, the bodies of Mrs Limpus and her little son, Stanley, aged two and a half years.
Mrs Limpus was unconscious; the little boy was dead. Both were terribly battered about the head, and the woman died before medical help could be obtained.
Illustration from 17 February 1912
Illustrated Police News
Mrs Pretty, in whose shop Limpus gave himself up said that ... her husband had opened the shop 'when suddenly I heard him running upstairs to me saying 'What shall I do?' when the man dressed only in his trousers and shirt and with blood splashes still on his hands, came into the shop, and said to my husband 'I have murdered my wife and boy. Will you come with me?'
He was quite calm; and my husband had little difficulty in coaxing him out of the shop and bolting the door. I tried to blow a police whistle, but my nerve failed me and I could not; so I sent our news boys off in different directions to find policemen. Meanwhile, my son kept watch on the man outside.
Mr Pretty went back into the house with Limpus, and there found the two poor bodies. Besides the little boy was a bag of sweets. ...
When assistance came he (Limpus) submitted without a struggle to being taken to Forest Gate Police Station.
Although a skilled mechanic, Limpus had been out of regular work for some little time. He is believed to have been born in Calcutta, and to have lived some time in India, where most of his relations are.
To neighbours he had often said that if he could get the money to pay his passage back to Calcutta he would be certain of regular work; but his wife had always declined to entertain the idea on account of her child's delicate health.
The bodies of the woman and her boy were taken to Stratford mortuary.
The "drama" of the story merited a whole front page illustration for this relatively brief report. And, once more, there was no follow up in the IPN of the trial or fate of Limpus.

8. West Ham murder: husband's startling confession to a constable - 23 July 1914
Cycling up to West Ham police station, Evan Davies, sixty, a stonemason of Heyworth Road, Forest Gate said to a constable 'Have you heard the news? - you will soon; I have shot my wife!' He produced a magazine pistol and was detailed. Police officers found Mrs Sarah Jane Davies, fifty-eight, lying in the kitchen at her house with a bullet wound in her neck. She was removed to West Ham hospital. X-rays were applied and the bullet located. She died, however, the next day.
When accused came before the magistrates, the evidence showed that the prisoner had been to Canada for some years, and returned in November last.
Lily Janet Davies, his daughter said that when she last visited her parents they were on good terms. Her father had, however, frequently made allegations about his wife. He was a very excitable man.
Illustration from 23 July 1914
Illustrated Police News
Mrs Blanche Dare, the occupier of the lower part of the Davies' house, in evidence, said that after Davies had left his apartment in the morning that she went upstairs and found Mrs Davies lying on the kitchen floor moaning and bleeding from her mouth.
The arresting police constable said that when Davies showed him the pistol, he said 'Be careful, there are some more in there. I meant to pop off four. This has been premeditated for some time.' Davies then appeared to be labouring under great mental stress.
Dr J Youle of West Ham hospital said that the women was admitted in a state of collapse and gradually got worse. At night an operation was performed but the deceased never rallied. The bullet entered the back of her head and cause cerebral hemorrhage, which resulted in death.
Verdict: "Wilful murder". The accused was committed for trial.
Once more, there was no follow up by the IPN, so the outcome of the trial was unknown to its subscribers.

9. Forest Gate crimes - soldier's callous confessions of four hideous murders - 8 May 1919

This is their IPN's account of the Forest Gate murders we have previously covered, here. Their account of them is much more salacious and descriptive than that given in other papers we have seen - and as with all IPN cases, no details were given of the outcome of the trial.

Illustration form 8 May 1919 Illustrated Police News
10. Forest Gate tragedy - domestic quarrel ends in murder and suicide - 18 September 1919

Below we reproduce the entire account from the IPN of this case. It is short, blunt, to the point and  graphic. It has everything a piece of salacious reporting could require, blood, gore, infidelity and painful testimony:
The full story of a double tragedy at Forest Gate was told at West Ham Coroner's Court, when inquests were held on the bodies of William Davey, aged fifty-six, an ex-munitions worker and Lily Allum, aged forty-four. The man and woman were found dead with their throats cut, at a house in Upton Avenue, Forest Gate.
Mr R Davey, brother of the dead man, said that his brother and Mrs Allum lived in rooms in his house. Mrs Allum was a married woman separated from her husband. On Wednesday morning (September 10), when he returned home from work, he, his brother and Mrs Allum and two other lodgers - Mrs Allum's married daughter and son-in-law - sat down together to breakfast.
Illustration from 18 September 1919
 Illustrated Police News
During the meal a slight quarrel occurred between his brother and Mrs Allum and the latter said she was going back to her husband. His brother replied: 'Go, then.' Nothing more was said at the time, but after breakfast, while he was shaving, he heard his brother call out to Mrs Allum to bring him a collar.
She replied: 'All right' and went up to him. A few minutes later he heard a woman cry 'Oh, God'.
'I rushed upstairs' said the witness 'and found my brother kneeling on Mrs Allum on the bed, and I saw that there was a wound in her throat. I carried her downstairs into the hall and ran for a doctor, and when I returned I found my brother lying in the passage with his body towards the door and his throat cut'.
Dr PJ Dufty said that the wounds on Mrs Allum's throat were the results of three separate attacks. On making a post-mortem examination, he found that the covering of the man's brain was adherent, which might indicate some mental malady.
The jury found that Davey murdered Mrs Allum and afterwards committed suicide, whilst temporarily insane.

The Independent Police News, as described in the first part of these two articles, was clearly a publication of its time. It would have played to the Victorian sense of melodrama and survived by lurid accounts and sensationalised images of hideous crimes.

But, changes in technology - newspaper photography and perhaps most of all the movies - whether newscasts, such as Pathe News, or fiction and drama would soon be able to out-do the IPN, in terms of sensation and actuality. The surprise is, perhaps, that the paper managed to last so long - until almost the outbreak of World War 11.

As we have mentioned throughout the two articles, the IPN was clearly more interested in the drama than the outcomes of cases, or justice - so it is very rare that verdicts or sentences are given - just lurid court reports, or police statements.

It is impossible to take any sensible conclusions from the outcomes of just 10 cases, covered in a magazine with its own lurid agenda, but it is clear from the cases covered in these blogs that the overwhelming number of murders and suicides were, in modern parlance, "domestics" and most were explained away, in the IPN reports as being connected either with mental breakdowns, or poverty.


Access to the entire contents of the Independent Police News can be gained via the British Newspaper Archive website, see here 

It is a subscription service, but invaluable to anyone with a serious interest in researching almost any aspect of modern British history. It is continuously expanding its coverage, but currently covers over 760 publications and has 20 million accessible pages - which can be searched via a very powerful search engine. 

A special bit of pleading to them , in exchange for this plug: Please digitise the entire back catalogue of the Stratford Express, ASAP!

Forest Gate, and Victorian Penny Dreadfuls (1)

Tuesday 11 July 2017

The Illustrated Police News was a strange, weekly, newspaper, which lasted from 1867 until 1938, and for a while was described as "the worst newspaper in England". It was nothing to do with the police, officially, instead, it almost epitomised the Victorian "Penny Dreadful", providing lurid copy to a readership with a thirst for scandal and the salacious. 

Despite its title, it never produced a photograph, but relied entirely on graphic and sensational sketches for its illustrations. Equally, regardless of its claim to cover crime and punishment, it was more interested in quoting lurid witness statements at trials and from police interviews, than informing readers of the outcomes of those trials.

Forest Gate crime featured over 100 times during its 70 years of publication, and in 10 cases the crime was spicy enough to merit an illustration.

Divided, chronologically, over two articles, we look at those cases, reproduce the illustrations and provide quotes from the supporting commentary. By modern standards, far from being "Racy" much of the coverage seems rather quaint - perhaps an illustration of how "tame" Victorian tastes for gore were, compared to those of the modern era.

But first, a rather lengthy description of the IPN from the people who should know more than anyone else - the publishers of the British Newspaper Archive. We are grateful to them for the entire contents of this article.

Details of how to access and subscribe to the archive can be found in the footnote to this article.

British Newspaper Archive description

The British Newspaper Archive is packed with weird and wonderful stories of every description. However, of all the historic titles in this collection, no publication reported the bizarre and shocking in quite the same way as the Illustrated Police News.

A typical front page of the
 Illustrated Police News

The Illustrated Police News was one of Britain’s very first tabloids and one of the first periodicals to tap into the British public’s morbid appetite for crime and sensation. The paper was founded in 1843 and was partly inspired by the success of The Illustrated London News.  It was originally priced at one penny and did remarkably well with a weekly circulation of around 175,000 copies, most sold in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
Gruesome and grisly news stories from around the UK

The Illustrated Police News reporters would scour through vast quantities of newsprint from across the Empire, Europe and the United States in order to bring their readers news of the latest assaults, outrages, tragedies and murders. All of which were delightfully described in lurid detail with vivid illustrations to match.
It was considered a workingman’s newspaper and was frequently condemned for appealing to lowbrow tastes yet it was not the stories printed that attracted the most criticism, it was the lewd and graphic illustrations of blood spurting from wounds, women’s faces twisted in terror as they were attacked by cruel husbands and hosts of scantily clad sleepwalkers who always happened to be attractive young ladies.
In fact, an 1886 article found in our (The British Newspaper Archive) collection of historic newspapers reveals that The Illustrated Police News was once voted the ‘worst newspaper in England’ by readers of the Pall Mall Gazette.
 The proprietor, George Purkis claimed to have half a dozen accomplished artists on his permanent staff in London and somewhere between 70 and 100 free-lance artists spread out across the country who provided “the best portraits published by any journal, not excluding The Illustrated London News and The Graphic“.
Accuracy was of high importance and Purkis described how artists would be deployed to the scene of “terrible murder or extraordinary incident” the second news reached the London office.
Purkis appeared unfazed at being voted the worst newspaper in England and “received the verdict of the jury with great good temper, not to say complacency” and answered the complaints made against him.

Chief amongst these was that The Illustrated Police News was “a bad paper, which encourages the commission of crime, and generally tends to the demoralization of the people into whose hands it falls.”
"I acknowledge it to be a sensational newspaper," said Mr Purkis, but he insisted that: "barring the sensational illustrations, there is nothing in the paper to which objection can reasonably be taken."
He argued that rather than glorifying crime, his paper prevented it by warning of its horrors and terrible consequences. He even argues his paper may act "as an encouragement to a good life" and explained how criminals would go to great lengths to prevent their likeness appearing in its pages.
“I know what people say,” concluded Mr. Purkis, ‘but as I replied to a friend who asked me why I did not produce some other paper than the Police News, ‘We can’t all have Timeses and Telegraphs, and if we can’t have the Telegraph or the Times, we must put up with the Police News.'”
 Purkis died of tuberculosis in 1892 but The IPN continued reporting on the strange and grotesque until 1938.

Forest Gate reports 

1. Burglar caught in Forest Gate - 9 September 1882

Henry James Brady was charged with:
Burglariously breaking and entering Lawn House, Sidney Road, Forest Gate and stealing a copper coal scuttle and scoop and a tea caddy and canister.
The occupant was disturbed during the night and called the police who: 
Not knowing how many other persons were behind the door, put his left hand through the partly opened door and with his truncheon struck the man on the head, when he fell to the ground. ... The prisoners hands were tied with a rope.

The illustration from 9 September 1882 edition
Brady was taken to the police station and charged, but having got some tasty morsels of scene of crime activity, the Illustrated Police News lost interest and did not report the outcome of the incident.

2. Attempted murder of a sweetheart - 26 January 1884

On Tuesday night at Forest Lane, Forest Gate a young (21 years) fellow named Reginald Slaughter, living at Channelsea Road Stratford fire two shots out of a five-chambered revolver at a young lady named (Kitty) Pole (20 years) and then a chamber at himself.
The parties, it seems, had been keeping company for about three months, but have had significant quarrels now and again and it is stated that Slaughter had threatened Miss Pole.
The incident took place at 9.30 pm in Albert Square, Forest Lane.
After Slaughter had fired the first two shots, The Illustrated Police News reported: 
(Miss Pole) was not struck, but fell into a fit of hysterics ... Slaughter pointed the revolver at himself, but the bullet went into the air, and just as he was about to fire again, a gentleman named Newton .... (of) Maryland Point ... snatched the revolver from his hand. Slaughter fell on the pavement, insensible.

Illustration from 26 January 1884
Illustrated Police News
The police were called, Slaughter was arrested and taken to West Ham police station.

In giving evidence to the police, Kitty Pole's mother, Catherine, told them:
(Slaughter) has been keeping company with my daughter. He has deceived her so often, and told her such a load of falsehoods, that on my advice she refused to go out with him.
She said that at one time she had told Slaughter "I have an umbrella in my hand, if you molest my daughter, I'll lay this about your head".

The arresting officer, PC Lampard said "I found a photograph of (Kitty Pole) on Slaughter, on which was written 'This young woman is mine. R.S. I am her lover.'".

The divisional police surgeon said when called to examine Slaughter at the police station:
I found him lying apparently insensible, in the reserve room. His appearance was that of a person in a genuine fit. In fact he was shamming. I threatened that I would use the galvanic battery (electric shock treatment) and he got up. He was perfectly sober.
Reginald Slaughter (a failed case of nominative determinism?) was charged with attempted murder and attempted suicide. Once more, having provided some salacious copy, The Illustrated Police News lost interest in the case, and did not report the outcome of the trial.

3. Awful calamity at Forest Gate - fire at a school - 11 January 1890

This was the Illustrated Police News' account of the fire at the Industrial school in Forest Lane, which we have previously covered here and here.
The written account of the fire is quite graphic, and like a modern day tabloid report of a catastrophe, focuses on dramatic witness statements, mainly from the children and staff of the school.

Illustration from 11 January 1890
 Illustrated Police News
The front page illustration, above, was suitably action-packed, and doubtless proved a good selling point for that week's edition of the paper.

Unlike other cases reported by the newspaper, it was actually followed up, two weeks later, with coverage of the inquest and the verdict. This, again, provided the paper with plenty of opportunity for colourful reporting.

4. Fearful domestic tragedy at Upton Park - alleged murder of two children and an attempted suicide - 30 April 1904

This case had everything as far as salacious reporting was concerned, and the illustration of the case covered the whole of the front page of the newspaper.

The story was, indeed a tragedy and concerned William Folkard of 214 Queen's Road, who was accused of murdering two of his four children: Grace, aged eight years and Thomas, aged seven months.

The family occupied the top two floors of the house (of three).
In the front room of the first floor slept Folkard and his wife, the back room was used as the kitchen, while the children's bedroom was the attic.
 Twelve months ago Folkard had the misfortune to lose two of his children, one dying two days after the other. Since then he has been afflicted by bouts of depression and has had, it is said, frequent drinking bouts.

Illustration from 30 April 1904
 Illustrated Police News
Folkard had been absent from his home a week before the killings - hop-picking, he said. When he returned, he cut the throats of the two children and then attempted to cut his own. He was found alive and taken to West Ham hospital.

The police found a note on his body:
Will and Freddy (his two surviving children) will be able to keep their mother in ten years' time. Girls are not much good, but Grace has been a good girls. Tommy is so young (the latter two being those he murdered).
Again, like other IPN dramatic case, having reported the gore, the paper did not follow the case up with details of the trial and its outcome.


Access to the entire contents of the Independent Police News can be gained via the British Newspaper Archive website, see here

It is a subscription service, but invaluable to anyone with a serious interest in researching almost any aspect of modern British history. It is continuously expanding its coverage, but currently covers over 760 publications and has 20 million accessible pages - which can be searched via a very powerful search engine. 

A special bit of pleading to them , in exchange for this plug: Please digitise the entire back catalogue of the Stratford Express, ASAP!

The Forest Gate roots of controversial lesbian author, Mary Renault

Saturday 1 July 2017

This article is published to co-incide with the first Forest Gayte,  the local LGBT Festival, on 1 July 2017.

Mary Renault (1905 - 1983) was a controversial lesbian author who was born in Forest Gate. When she died, she was one of the most popular historical novelists in the English language, with her works translated into every major tongue.

A youthful Mary Renault

According to her major biographer, David Sweetman (see footnote, for details):
She told a good story, with enough adventure to satisfy the common reader, and her fastidious attention to historical detail made classical scholars some of her greatest fans, but it was also true that several of her leading characters were unashamedly homosexual at a time when many of those same readers would, under other circumstances, have considered the subject repellent.
This is her story.

She was born, Mary Challans, in Dacre Lodge, 49 Plashet Road (see photo of the house, today). She was the eldest (of two) daughter of Frank Challans and Mary Clementine Newsome Challans, nee Baxter. Her mother was daughter of a Yorkshire dentist who met the twenty-four year old doctor Frank Challans in 1899, two years her senior. Challans came from Lincolnshire Huguenot stock and trained in medicine at the London hospital, Whitechapel.

Dacre Lodge - 49 Plashet Road, today

Frank's father died when he was a child and his mother, with relatively modest means, was unable to afford to buy him into an expensive, West End, medical partnership. So, after he graduated, he bought a small practice in Forest Gate, in a moderately large Edwardian house. in Plashet Road.

Frank Challans - Mary's father - outside
 the London hospital, where he qualified, a little
 before moving to Dacre Lodge
Back to the biography:
The house, blessed with the rather grand title of Dacre Lodge, was double fronted and, although it did not look large when viewed from the street, it stretched back some distance and had four bedrooms, a reception room and dining room. It also had a consulting room and small dispensary, though in the absence of a proper waiting room patients sat in the dining room until called.
Forest Gate was an area of respectable, modest folk, many of them retired, living in neat, terraced houses, bordering tree-lined roads, though behind this facade was another reality of meaner streets which housed poor Jewish immigrants who eked out a living in the East End rag trade.
Although described at the time as a modest household for a doctor, it was well supplied with staff, which included a "cook general", a housemaid, a" tweeny" (between the stairs maid) for fetching and carrying and a young boy, who worked in the dispensary cleaning bottles and delivering prescriptions. As Mary's birth approached, the family hired a night nurse, who would share Mary's bedroom and look after her during the night.

Mary's mother, Mary Clementine, in old age
In a further description of Mary's home, David Sweetman says:
To the side of the house was a wooden stable, but as they could not afford a horse and carriage, it was always empty and quickly became dilapidated.
Mary was born on 4 September 1905 and christened Eileen Mary - to be affectionately known as Molly. She told her biographer:
If the weather was fine, (I) was allowed to play in Upton Park (ed: she probably meant the very close-by West Ham Park) with its splendid rhododendrons; if not, (I) spent hours at the nursery window watching horse drawn trams rattle down Plashet Road towards the City or trundle back to the Stratford Depot.
Sometimes there was the pungent smell of the manure cart heading towards Aldgate, its driver dozing over the reins, his horse sure of the route. More pleasant was the scent of the elder tree in the back garden, so that ever afterwards the smell of elder blossom brought back memories of (my) childhood.
Mary's parents' marriage was not a happy one, although they maintained a semblance of middle class respectability by being regular attendees at St Peter's CofE church (demolished 1968), on Upton Lane, facing West Ham Park. Molly felt unloved and detached from both of them, which she reflected on greatly in her later life.

The veneer of middle class respectability
 secured by regular attendance at
 St Peter's Upton Cross
She was an imaginative and precocious child and sent to a dame school run, according to the biography, by the Misses Levick in their mother's house about a mile from Dacre Lodge (no further details given, unfortunately). Mrs Levick senior took morning prayers and hymn singing, while her daughters, Edith and Maude supervised classes, with some help from a French woman, always known as "Madaam", who gave elementary French lessons.

Reading, apparently was all that Molly cared for and she escaped to a loft, above the deserted old stable to get away from the rest of the family and consume vast quantities of books.

She had few other outside interests and, when at play, was happiest in the company of young boys. As a result, her family regarded her as being "something of a tomboy".

At the age of eight she announced to her family that she conceived her ambition of becoming a writer. Her first literary effort, a Western that she composed in the family's grocery order book, was abandoned after one chapter. It was at about this age that she began her life-long love of the theatre, through visits to the Stratford Empire.

When German air-raids began to hit East London, in 1917, Molly and her younger sister were sent to Buckinghamshire until the war ended. On her return from there, Molly was promptly despatched to a boarding school in Bristol, for the remainder of her schooling (she was never told why).

She gained a scholarship to study English St Hugh's College, Oxford - then an all women's college -against the wishes of her parents, who stumped up less than a quarter of the costs of educating here there. The rest being contributed by an aunt.

And that was pretty much Mary Challans' last recorded experiences of Forest Gate. 

In 1988, three years after her death, David Sweetman, her biographer, contacted Mary's long time partner Julie Mullard and invited her to accompany him on a visit to places of note from her childhood.  He writes this of Dacre Lodge:
Dacre Lodge, Mary's birthplace in East London had been bought by the local council's immigrant welfare division to use as a refuge for battered Asian wives. The dilapidated stable in whose loft Mary had first begun to write still stood, though not for long, by the look of it.
So - what of the 55 years between Mary Renault's departure from Forest Gate and her death in 1983? For this we are deeply grateful to her Wikipedia entry, here.

She graduated in 1928 and in 1933 she began training as a nurse at the Ratcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. During her training she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse with whom she established a lifelong romantic relationship.
She worked as a nurse while beginning a writing career, treating Dunkirk evacuees in Bristol and working in Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward until 1945.

Mary, as a nurse at the Ratcliffe hospital, Oxford
She published her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939: it has a contemporary setting, like her other early novels, and the novelist Linda Proud has described it as "a strange combination of Platonism and hospital romance" Her novel The Friendly Young Ladies (1943), which is about a lesbian relationship between a writer and a nurse, seems to have been inspired by her own relationship with Mullard.

In 1948, after her novel Return to Night won an MGM prize worth $150,000, Renault and Mullard emigrated to South Africa, where they remained for the rest of their lives. There, according to Proud, they found a community of gay expatriates who had "escaped the repressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain for the comparatively liberal atmosphere of Durban.... Mary and Julie found themselves able to set up home together in this new land without causing the outrage they had sometimes provoked at home.

Mary and Julie on voyage as
 they emigrate to South Africa
However, both Renault and Mullard were critical of the less liberal aspects of their new home, and participated in the Black Sash movement against apartheid in the 1950s.

Mary, wearing the Black Sash
 on an anti-apartheid
 demonstration in 1950's
South Africa
In South Africa Renault was able to write forthrightly about homosexual relationships for the first time. Her sympathetic treatment of love between men won her a wide gay readership, but it also led to rumours that Renault was really a gay man writing under a female pseudonym. Renault found these rumours amusing but also sought to distance herself from being labelled a "gay writer".

Her historical novels are all set in ancient Greece. They include a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great.  The Charioteer (1953), the story of two young gay servicemen in the 1940s who try to model their relationship on the ideals expressed in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, was a warm-up for Renault's historical novels.

By turning away from the twentieth century and focusing on stories about male lovers in the warrior societies of ancient Greece, Renault no longer had to deal with homosexuality and anti-gay prejudice as social "problems". Instead she was free to focus on larger ethical and philosophical concerns while examining the nature of love and leadership.

The Charioteer could not be published in the US until 1959, after the success of The Last of the Wine proved that American readers and critics would accept a serious gay love story.

Book cover of the
Last of the Wine
Although not a classist by training, Renault was admired in her day for her scrupulous recreations of the ancient Greek world. Some of the history presented in her fiction and in her non-fiction work, The Nature of Alexander has been called into question, however. 

Book cover of a novel about
 Alexander the Great
Her novels about Theseus rely on the controversial theories of Robert Graves, and her portrait of Alexander has been criticized as uncritical and romanticized. Renault defended her interpretation of the available sources in author's notes attached to her books.

Though Renault appreciated her gay following, she was uncomfortable with the "gay pride" movement that emerged in the 1970s after the Stonewall Riots. Like Laurie Odell, the protagonist of The Charioteer, she was suspicious of identifying oneself primarily by one's sexual orientation. Late in her life she expressed hostility to the gay rights movement, troubling some of her fans.

David Sweetman remarks in his biography that her novels generally portray mothers in a poor light and that, particularly in her later novels, this is extended to women in general. Her generally negative depiction of women has also been noted by the critic Carolyn Heibrun.

Mary in 1982, a year before her death
Among the honours that Mary Renault received were the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in 1959, the Silver pen award in 1971 and in the year before her death, Honorary Fellowship of St Hugh's College, Oxford.

Footnote. Thanks to the Wikipedia entry (cited above) and David Sweetman's Mary Renault - a biography, published by Chatto and Windus, 1993 for the information upon which this article is based.