Playboys & Mayfair Men: gender, crime and novel insights into pre-war Britain

Angus McLaren explores a seedy tale from 1930s London.

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In the week before Christmas 1937, a man calling himself Captain Hambro rang Cartier’s. He was staying at the Hyde Park Hotel, he said, and he asked the jewellers to send round some diamond rings so that he might chose one for his fiancée. Half an hour later Cartier’s managing director Etienne Bellenger arrived with nine rings, worth, in total, £16,000 – which was then “approximately sixty-four times a factory worker’s average wage”. Bellenger took them, as directed, up to room 305. There two young men engaged him in conversation until a door communicating with the adjoining room swung open, another man burst through it and began belabouring him with a weighted cosh. Bellenger fought back. By the time he collapsed he had been hit 15 times.

By the next evening four suspects had been arrested. Two months later three of them were found guilty of robbery with violence, and a fourth of conspiracy to steal. They were in their twenties and privately educated. Their fathers were a brigadier-general, a colonel, a businessman who had made a fortune out of the wool trade and a successful City gent. They were dubbed “the Mayfair men”.

They were of a type, wrote an American visitor to London, then to be seen – “sleek and lizardy” – in every bar. With the tastes of rich men but with no reliable income, they were opportunists and swindlers, on the lookout for impressionable heiresses or other ways (gun-running, for instance) of paying for their sharp suits and flash cars. They were disinclined to work: the kind of jobs open to them, as clerks or salesmen, would not have befitted their sense of themselves as belonging to an elite. They lived in hotels whose bills they paid with bad cheques, or rented flats in the smartest streets of London’s West End. They drank all day, in bars and restaurants, often on credit.

By night, they drank some more – at debutantes’ cocktail parties, then nightclubs, then quasi-legal after-hours “bottle-parties”. They were defiant of any disapproving critics. One of the accused, Peter Jenkins, was interviewed for a gossip column when he was 21. Drinking brandy while wearing silk pyjamas and a dressing gown, he told the reporter he was just back from the Riviera, where he had been spending his inheritance like there was no tomorrow. “Call me a Mayfair playboy,” he said.

The Mayfair men’s trial became a public spectacle. James Agate, the distinguished theatre critic, went along and came away “haunted” by the “dreadful jauntiness” of the immaculately dressed defendants, and by the “horrid glamour” that hung about the case. The gutter press was full of it. Newspapers reported that “well-dressed men and women in furs” queued “in the driving sleet of a particularly unpleasant February morning” for seats in the courtroom. In this book Angus McLaren attempts an analysis of the complicated emotions that drew those onlookers, and argues persuasively that in the interwar years such louche young gentlemen “crystallised” a number of widely shared anxieties about shifting social and sexual relations, and about money.

McLaren’s account of the Mayfair men’s crime is muddled. This is partly because each of the accused told a different – self-vindicating – story, and partly because they were all so drunk at the time that they could barely remember what they had done. A more skilled narrator might have overcome these problems, and done more to bring out the four culprits’ distinct personalities, but McLaren is an analyst, not a story-teller.

He examines, with much quoting of statistics, the anomalous position of the Mayfair men in the British social hierarchy. The core of his study, though, is about not class but gender. The Mayfair men’s sartorial elegance seemed to many of their contemporaries to signify something dodgy about their sexual identity. Despite their womanising, they were frequently described as “pansies” or “cissies”. The implication was not so much that they were homosexual, as that in being consumers rather than producers, in pursuing pleasure rather than power, they were contemptible in pretty much the same way as women – in this still profoundly misogynist culture – were considered to be. McLaren quotes testimony by several witnesses called upon to describe the jewel thieves. The word “effeminate” crops up repeatedly. 

It wasn’t just their clothes that seemed unmanly. The Mayfair men’s lifestyle was childish in its irresponsibility and girlish in its pointlessness. The word “playboy” infantilised them. It also suggested that they led more adventurous and pleasurable lives than the routine-driven existence of faithfully married working men. Journalists likened them to American gangsters, or stressed the luxury of the bars and restaurants between which they drifted. Their actually rather desperate existences were made to appear dashing (if deplorable).

Their scams were not really that clever. Peter Jenkins once dabbled in illegal arms-dealing, only to be swindled out of all the money he’d put up. All the same, contemporary press reports presented them as debonair crooks modelled on fictional figures such as EW Hornung’s “amateur cracksman” Raffles. They conformed to a stereotype that predated them by centuries – Osbert Sitwell situated them in “the long line of fops, macaronis, dandies, beaux, dudes, bucks, blades, bloods, swells and mashers”. At the same time they fit neatly with their contemporaries’ taste for languid cynicism – McLaren draws telling comparisons between the lifestyles of the Mayfair men and their fictional equivalents, the smart wastrels imagined by Noël Coward, Patrick Hamilton and Evelyn Waugh. Even PG Wodehouse’s bumbling Bertie Wooster is once mistaken for a burglar: “one of these Mayfair men you read about, I suppose”.

The jewel thieves’ story raises questions beyond social trends. All four were sentenced to imprisonment with “hard labour”. Two of them were also flogged: Robert Harley (the one who had bludgeoned Bellenger) being given 20 lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Judicial corporal punishment would not be formally abolished in the UK until 1948, but sections of the public were already queasy at the thought of state-sanctioned violence. A coroner, reporting in 1934 on a convict who had killed himself rather than endure it, suggested it was “too barbarous in these times”.

Questions were asked in the House of Commons about the Mayfair men’s sentence. George Bernard Shaw wrote about it. A petition signed by criminologists, MPs and clergymen called for the sentence to be commuted. Psychoanalysts drew attention to the existence of flogging-themed pornography and suggested those conservatives who defended the practice might have “impure” motives. The press was divided, but agreed that the Mayfair men’s case was of exceptional interest. As one popular newspaper put it, when a punishment usually meted out to “brutes who only understood the language of pain” was inflicted on “toffs”, people found themselves having to re-examine their opinions.

Another factor linking McLaren’s story with the larger historical narrative is that the Mayfair men were of a type particularly vulnerable to the appeal of fascism. “The playboy of the summer became the dedicated soldier of autumn” wrote Oswald Mosley. He was thinking of himself, but it was true that some of the cadgers and cads of Mayfair sought self-respect in the ranks of his British Union of Fascists. One of the robbers, John Lonsdale, was among them. He and Peter Jenkins sold, or attempted to sell, arms to General Franco’s Spanish Republican Army.

The Mayfair men’s story, writes McLaren, was not “of itself of any great importance”. Robert Graves alluded to it only as an instance of the public’s readiness to let a piece of trivia distract them from the big story of the impending war. But the crime gives McLaren a lens through which to view the milieu, and he succeeds in extracting from a seedy tale some novel insights into the culture of pre-war Britain. 

Playboys & Mayfair Men: Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London
Angus McLaren
Johns Hopkins, 264 pp, £18.50

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special