Tales of the Riverbank: The Maidenhead Scandal

Once upon a time, the Thames-side town of Maidenhead was an alternative destination to Monte Carlo or Park Lane for wealthy pleasure-seekers. Reggie de Veulle, glimpses of whose character and exploits are visible in the posts below, was said to have attached himself to one such host for a season that came to an abrupt and scandalous end.

According to ‘Reggie Lindsay’, de Veulle’s barely-disguised avatar in the 1912 novel Les Fréquentations de Maurice, the host spent £300 on a ‘chic soirée’ complete with a Gypsy orchestra, Japanese lanterns in the garden, and orchids throughout. As an enthusiastic cross-dresser, he took similar trouble over his outfit, greeting the forty fashionable guests Reggie had invited in a blue chiffon gown with antique lace trimmings and a four-metre train. After supper, he tossed flowers, fruits and coins to the locals who had gathered to listen to the revels. Stones started to fly through the windows and the police intervened; Reggie made his escape by boat.

Reggie admitted his anxiety that his ‘uncle’ Alec would be angry with him over the episode – but he didn’t admit that, as rumour had it, he himself had been in drag. When that came up, he whisked his guests out of the door with uncharacteristic alacrity.

It’s rather satisfying for me to be able to report this after more than twenty years wondering where the tale was hidden; and that it was in the British Library all along. It’s equally pleasing that Reggie claimed the incident had been reported at length, with all the names, in two periodicals. The story is still to be continued.


Curious Friendships With Older Men

Other people’s lawyers just wouldn’t leave Reggie de Veulle alone. ‘I put it to you that while your youth lasted you often made curious friendships with older men?’ insinuated one. Those friendships, he went on, were ‘very remunerative’. Before the Great War, Reggie had received about £2000 from a middle-aged businessman, to clear debts and send him to the United States. He had also been linked with an attempt by a married couple to blackmail the businessman, who they believed had formed a homosexual relationship with their son.

Les Fréquentations de Maurice (see here and here) leaves little doubt about Reggie’s modus operandi, gleefully relating how ‘Reggie Lindsay’ was kept in the style to which he wished to be accustomed by a very wealthy married man from Liverpool, Alec Kemball. (The real-life businessman was from Manchester, which suggests a clef, but he was single and lived with his mother.) Kemball would take Reggie to the finest establishments, keeping him furnished with cigarettes, clothes, flowers and so on. Reggie, never overburdened by shame, referred to him as ‘my uncle from Liverpool’.

Pink Pyjamas With Purple Stripes

The moment we meet Reggie, he slips into something more comfortable. Explaining to his guests that he has a horror of being dressed after closing time, he changes into pink pyjamas with purple stripes and puts powder on his face. He laughs his ‘slightly hysterical’ laugh that shows all his teeth.

Reggie de Veulle’s entrance in Marcel Boulestin’s pseudonymous novel Les Fréquentations de Maurice (lightly disguised in the 1912 edition as ‘Reggie Lindsay’) adds a hint of colour to a subsequent scene, which scandalised court and public alike when it was described in 1919. A hearing that ensued from the death of Reggie’s friend Billie Carleton heard how she, he and several others spent all night smoking opium  in Reggie’s Mayfair flat: the men in the ‘circle of degenerates’ were said to have changed into pyjamas, and the women into chiffon nightdresses. We may be confident that Reggie’s attire outshone the rest.

Celebrity Chef Skewered De Veulle!

Among the awkward questions put to Reggie de Veulle in the wake of the death of his friend Billie Carleton was an inquiry about a certain book recounting his adventures. ‘Were not you present at a party at Maidenhead where men were dressed in women’s clothes, and the party was broken up by the inhabitants?’ asked a lawyer seeking to shift the inquest’s attention away from his own client.

At that point the coroner imposed his ruling that the book was inadmissible evidence; and twenty years back, before the internet, I spent a lot of time not finding out what it was called or who wrote it. Now it just takes three googled words to reveal what the coroner didn’t want to hear:

Puis, voilà-t-il par qu’il s’est mis au balcon aprés souper et a jeté des fleurs, des fruits, des shillings aux gens qui se trouvaient là parce que, naturellement, tout Maidenhead était là à écouter .. C’a été terrible à la fin, on a lancé des pierres dans les fenêtres et la police a dû intervenir …

It’s from Les Fréquentations de Maurice, which appeared in instalments in Akademos, a Parisian arts journal published by Jacques d’Adelsward-Fersen in 1909. The author’s nom de plume was Sydney Place (Sidney in the standalone edition that appeared three years later); in real life he was Marcel Boulestin, who later wrote a book that brought French cooking to British tables, and established an expensive London restaurant on the strength of its success. He is, in fact, the missing link between Reggie de Veulle and the celebrated food writer Elizabeth David.

Boulestin’s Reggie de Vere is strikingly similar to Roy Horniman’s Reggie Vandeleur, another thinly disguised appearance by de Veulle in Edwardian satirical fiction. Although he protested that Boulestin had ‘rather exaggerated’ his adventures, he had been happy enough to provide his acquaintance Don Kimfull with a copy of the book that Kimfull’s attorney tried to use against him in court.

Much of Les Fréquentations is available online in a digitised version of Akademos’s later issues. My favourite bit is where Reggie makes an entrance – ‘vêtu d’une délicieuse flanelle verdâtre à filet bleus’ – at Skindle’s, then the premier restaurant of the river resort along the banks of the Thames at Maidenhead, a convenient train ride from central London. Much later in the century, when it wasn’t quite so dressy, I used to frequent the place myself. Which makes Skindle’s the missing link between Reggie and me.

A Plaque for Billie Carleton

This Wednesday the anniversary of Billie Carleton’s death in 1918 is to be marked by the unveiling of a white plaque on a house in the Bloomsbury street where she was born. Carleton had begun to make a name for herself on the West End stage, rising from the musical comedy chorus – and had got herself a reputation in theatre circles for drugtaking. She was found dead in bed in her Savoy Court flat the day after attending a Victory Ball held to celebrate the end of the fighting in the Great War. Her death thrust fame upon her: she was cast as the female lead in the dope drama whose first act, two years previously, had featured lurid stories of cocaine mania in the West End demi-monde, and had culminated in an edict that made possession of the drug a criminal offence for the first time.

Carleton’s plaque is part of a publicity campaign for The House I Live In, a US documentary that questions the criminal drug prohibition regime established in the early decades of the twentieth century. One of the factors behind the 1916 British ban on cocaine (and opium) possession was Britain’s prior commitment to internationally agreed controls on drugs. As the court proceedings that followed Carleton’s death revealed, these measures were taken in an atmosphere of confusion and misunderstanding about the effects of the drugs in question. Although Billie Carleton probably wasn’t killed by the cocaine she sniffed that night, the coroner’s jury took just fifteen minutes to decide that she did.

It also found that the cocaine was supplied by her friend and dress designer Reggie de Veulle, who as a result found himself in the dock on a manslaughter charge. The judge was in no doubt that de Veulle was guilty, but this time the jury took fifty minutes to find otherwise. In this particular respect Billie Carleton’s tragedy did highlight how drugtaking fits awkwardly into the criminal law. When the jurors looked at Billie and Reggie, they declined to identify the one as a victim and the other as a villain.

Card Indexes, Cocaine and Dark Material

Big thanks to the Wellcome Library’s Ross Macfarlane, a Dope Girls reader, who arranged for me to look at a box of index cards compiled by the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury –  a household name in his day. They summarise his cases, including that of Freda Kempton, a nightclub dancer who killed herself with cocaine ninety years ago. The inquest into her death, featuring evidence from the Chinese restaurateur Brilliant Chang, triggered a media hue and cry about drugs, nightclubs, young women and ‘men of colour’.

I’ve written a guest post about it all, Case notes, coal gas and cocaine, for the Wellcome Library blog.

Seeing and holding the hand-written cards reminded me that historical material is actually material. Recent findings around the Dope Girls story have been extracted from the online data that didn’t even exist in archivists’ imaginations when I originally researched the book. All sorts of details and connections are out there to be made. Over at the Reggie de Veulle blog, for instance, Cliff Mark has turned up a reference to Reggie (as an example of egregious foolishness) by George Bernard Shaw. But the cards, which were only given to the Wellcome Library three years ago, re-awoke the question that always haunts you in the archives: how much more dark material is out there somewhere, off line, on shelves, in forgotten boxes, waiting to be brought into the light?



Ahead Of Her Time

Detail from Russell Patterson’s ‘Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire’ (via Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the reasons why I’m still attached to the stories and scenes in Dope Girls, the pivotal one is the trick of the light through which the past looks intimately familiar and overwhelmingly distant at the same time. That happens unbidden when you encounter the sources, but you have to work to sustain it in text and images. Too many old pictures, and you submit to the faded photo; too little period tone, and you end up making out that people then thought the way they do now.

Russell Patterson’s 1920s picture ‘Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire’ is the kind of image that keeps us poised above both worlds. But it’s not enough to get the coiffure clash that was such a feature of Parade’s End, the BBC adaptation of the Ford Madox Ford novel, out of my head. The conventional scheme of early-20th-century women’s fashion is simple: hair and dresses stayed long till the end of the Great War, then both shortened dramatically in the Aftermath. Bobbed hair and shorter skirts signified young women’s desire for freedom, fun, and a narrowing of the gap between them and men. Yet here we had Sylvia Tietjens flouting convention in her fiery cascade of tresses and a succession of magnificent green and burgundy testaments to post-Edwardian elegance, versus young Miss Wannup with her ardent sense of duty and ideas so advanced that she sported a hairstyle that wasn’t invented till the 1960s. Even so, game, set and costume match to Mrs T.