Violette Cordery: ‘The Queen of Motoring’

Violette Cordery (1900-1983, often shortened to Violet) was the daughter of Henry Cordery of Cobham, a tobacconist, and his second-wife, Berthe Petit. She had three sisters, an older half-sister called Leslie who married the noted car manufacturer Noel Macklin, and younger sisters Evelyn, who raced alongside Violette in the late-1920s, and Marise. She was described as a shy and unassuming girl with a matter-of-fact manner.

Violette took up driving when she was eighteen and in June 1920 she competed in the first Ladies’ race at the Brooklands racetrack and won. She drove a 10 horse-power Eric Campbell racing car and averaged 50mph. The following June she raced a Silver Hawk at Brooklands and came first; she went on to win another race a few months later. These achievements made her the first woman to hold any official records at Brooklands.

In the Eric Campbell car she drove in the first Ladies race at Brooklands, June 1920

In January 1921 Violette made her first attempt at a time-trial record. Endurance driving was aimed at breaking records and fuelling the craze for progress and speed, as well as demonstrating the prowess of specific cars and manufacturers. Records were judged against a range of criteria, either the time taken to cover a specific distance (e.g the 200-mile record), the distance covered in a specific time (e.g. the four-hour record), or the average speed across a specific distance (e.g. 70 mph across 5,000 miles.)

May 1921

For the 1921 attempt, Violette was part of the two-person team that broke several records for the 1,500cc class: the 200 mile record (3 hours and 10 minutes), the four hour record (covering  just over 244 miles), and the 250-mile record (just over 4 hours and 5 minutes.) She was noted to be the first female driver to compete in such a record attempt. This is debatable, but she was certainly one of the earliest.

There are no further reports of her racing until May 1922 when she used her earlier experience of long-distance track driving to take part in a cross-country time-trial.  Driving a B.S.A. 10 horse-power car she competed in a Scottish six-day trial over 1,040 miles of rough roads and steep hills, under particularly bad weather conditions. She was the only woman driver to not lose any marks and was awarded a gold medal.

After another gap of several years, in July 1925 Violette won the half-mile sprint race at Brooklands against nine competitors, all of whom were men. She raced in the Invicta car which was been designed by Noel Macklin, her brother-in law. She would continue to race and compete in time and reliability trials in Invicta cars over the years. It seems likely that Macklin saw an opportunity to have a young woman publicise the car which was being promoted as a powerful but easy car to drive.

Violette at the wheel of the Invicta car that broke the records at Monza (see below) 

Violette’s first big motoring achievement came in March 1926 when she captained the long-distance team that broke thirty-three world records over 11 and a half days of non-stop driving on the world-famous Monza track just outside Milan. The records included the 10,000 mile, 15,000 km and 25,000 km. The latter was achieved by driving at an average speed of 89.7 kph. They drove a standard touring four-seater, six-cylinder Invicta.

During the attempt they also became the first team to drive 10,000 miles in 10,000 minutes. The team drove non-stop with 2.5 minute breaks every three hours; Violette was the only woman in the team and often drove for twice as long as her male teammates. Her demonstration of grit and tenacity captured the hearts of by the Italians who came to watch the first female racer on the world-famous track and the achievement was widely reported in Britain. On her return to London Violette was almost buried beneath a flurry of bouquets.

Violet Cordery, centre, in London after breaking records on the Monza track

After a short-period of rest at home with her family in Cobham, Violette looked for her next big challenge. In the meantime she competed in a number of other races, including the one-mile challenge on the Southport sands which she won.

After winning the one-mile race on the Southport sands

On 5 July 1926 she began an attempt to break the 5,000 mile record, choosing the Montlhery track in France for the attempt and driving a 19 horse-power Invicta car. Over the course of four days she smashed the record, driving at an average of 70.5 mph, and broke five other long-distance world records along the way. During the endeavour Violette made sure to promote the Invicta car, reminding the press that these feats were not being done in a racing car designed for track-driving, but in a standard British touring car intended for ordinary road-driving.

After achieving the new record, Violette announced that she had enjoyed the whole event apart from the hour and a half when a thunderstorm raged above the course: ‘I am terrified of lighting, more terrified of it than anything else in the world, and as I clung to the wheel and hurtled round the track at 80mph I was in a perfect funk.’

The significance of her achievements in the motoring world were recognised in October 1926 when Violette was awarded the Dewar Trophy by the Technical Committee of the RAC in response to her success in France. The Trophy was awarded to the most meritorious performance in a certified trial carried out under the club’s observation. Violette was the first woman to win the trophy and the fact that it was not awarded every year, but only on occasions when the RAC felt the accolade had been earned, gave it added prestige.

For the rest of that year Violette continued to race, taking part in less high-profile speed trials and short races at Brooklands, Southport and elsewhere. She won sixteen firsts, six seconds and one third. In a column for the Daily Express on 22 Oct 1926 she wrote: ‘there will soon be scarcely an able-bodied woman or girl who cannot drive and generally manage a motor car.’

At home in Cobham with her dog, Gin, 1926

Having already achieved so much in the record-books, Violette looked for a new type of motoring challenge and in January 1927, whilst recovering from a bad case of paratyphoid fever, she announced that she was resolved to be the first woman to drive a car around the world. She wanted to prove that women could be pioneers in long-distance travel, and also to demonstrate the reliability of British cars.

Violette was to be accompanied by her long-term mechanic, Ernest Hatcher, a close-friend, Eleanor Simpson, who was a trained nurse, and an RAC official to observe each stage of the trip. Just two days prior to departure, Violette had an arm in a sling as a result of her earlier illness but was determined to continue. Once again she drove an Invictus six-cylinder touring car, but it had a special robust chassis built for the trip. It was also adapted to allow the seats to fold down to create beds for the two women when a hotel was not an option and a tent attached to the side of the car for the two men to sleep under if required.

Violette (r) and Eleanor Simpson before setting of on their world tour

Each passenger was allowed no more than 20lbs of luggage and Violet was confident she would be able to fit ‘four sets of everything’ into her allocation. This included five evening dresses and four hats. The car carried a plaque of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, and they wore sprigs of white heather for good luck as they departed. As Violette and the team left her Cobham home she waved goodbye to her dog, Gin, and shouted to him that she was ‘just going for a ride.’

On 17 March they arrived in Bombay, by May they had crossed Australia and by the start of July the team had reached Quebec. In Melbourne Violette was given two mongooses which she carried in a cage across Australia with the aim of bringing them back to England.

Violette behind the wheel as the Invicta car sits stuck in mud
The team take tea by the road ‘somewhere in the East’

On 17 July the team arrived back at Southampton, Violette described the trip as ‘one long, glorious thrill.’ The following day they were given a grand reception at the Hyde Park Hotel where Lord Dewar, Sir Arthur Stanley (Chairman of the RAC) and Sir Charles Wakefield (whose company produced motorcar lubricant) praised her achievement. In a speech commending her achievement, Lord Dewar touched on the increase in women’s sporting achievements and joked: ‘The hand that rocks the cradle, will soon rock the ship of State.’ The Invicta car was put on display in Selfridge’s in the Artist’s Materials Department for the public to view.

Sir Charles Wakefield, Sir Arthur Stanley, Violette, and Lord Dewar at the welcome home party

In the late 1920s Violette and her younger sisters, Evelyn and Marise, were living with their mother at The Cottage, Fairmile just outside Cobham in Surrey. By the summer of 1929 she was ready to take on another time-trial and set her sights on driving 30,000 miles in 30,000 minutes to establish a new world-record. Her younger sister Evelyn would assist with part of the driving; she was reported to be eighteen but was likely nineteen by the time the trial took place.

Violet showing Evelyn how to tune-up a car, in preparation for their Brooklands 1929 record-attempt

The endeavour took place over two months, starting in late June and finishing on 19th August. Each day of driving started at 8am and finished at 8pm; reports vary as to whether Evelyn did half of the driving or significantly less than that. It was said that their daily distance was the equivalent to driving from London to Scotland and they circled the Brooklands track over 10,000 times.

The sisters after setting the 30,000-mile record

Violette once again drove an Invicta car, and the RAC officiated. Their record over 30,000 miles at an average of 61.57mph was still a world record in 1933. Footage from the event show Evelyn to be more confident and comfortable in front of the camera, Violette never appears to have been interested in the publicity other than for the recognition of her sporting achievements.

In October 1929 Violette was again awarded the Dewar trophy, this time for the Brooklands time-trial. She was the only person to have won the trophy twice in the history of the prestigious award.

Having also begun to show an interest in flying in the late 1920s, Violette had met John Stuart Hindmarsh whilst learning to fly. John was a fellow racing enthusiast, a pilot and a Lieutenant in the Royal Tank Corps. They married on 15th September 1931 in a quiet ceremony at Stoke d’Abernon church. Violette wore a simple gown in china-blue with the skirt tucked below the waist and full flares to the ankles. The outfit was paired with a matching felt hat and she carried sheaf of pink roses. They honeymooned in the South of France and in July 1932 had a daughter, Susan, who would later marry the racing driver Roy Salvadori. Their second daughter, Sally, was born in September 1935.

When she was engaged, Violette had told reporters she said she would ‘definitely’ give up racing when she married and her racing career does appear to have stopped, although she took part in the occasional rally. In 1933 she drove as part the winning team in an all-night Scottish rally.

Evelyn met her future husband, Lt. H.W. Newell of the Royal Queen’s Regiment, on a liner sailing to Kenya in May 1930. He was aide-de-camp to the Governor of Kenya and the couple married in December 1931 in Nairobi.

In June 1935 Violette’s husband, John, won the 24-hour endurance Grand Prix at Le Mans, the following year he was one of John Cobb’s team of four who went to Salt Lake City to attempt twenty of the world’s top motoring records. Tragically, on 7 September 1938 John was killed in a plane accident whist working as one of the chief test pilots at Hawker’s aircraft factory. It was reported his Hawker Hurricane hurtled down in a 400-mile-an-hour straight nose-dive, crashed in front of an empty house and exploded.

I was unable to discover anything further about Violette’s life after the the loss of her husband. She died at her home 13 Broom Hall, Oxshott, Surrey, on 30 December 1983.



Some images © Illustrated London News / Mary Evans

Betty and Beth: The Dodge Sisters

In the unfinished musical ‘The March of Time’, photographed by George Hurrell, 1930

Betty Jane and Beth (sometimes known as Dora) were born in San Francisco around 1909-1910; they are sometimes presented as twins but it seems most probable they were just sisters. At 5ft 4in and with jet-black hair, they were keen dancers from a young age and Beth was said to be so good at whistling that she performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, aged nine. Aged fourteen, they were spotted dancing and offered a booking in a variety show that was travelling along the Pacific Coast. They went on to perform in New York in a production of ‘Suzanne’ where Julian Wylie saw them and offered them a contract to dance in London.

They arrived in London in 1926 to perform in ‘Turned Up’ at the New Oxford Theatre; for extra publicity Wylie offered £20 to the first person who could find a way to tell them apart. They also appeared in C.B. Cochran’s ‘Supper Time’ revue at the Trocadero Grill Rooms with costumes designed by Doris Zinkeisen.

They often performed in costumes resembling birds and made appearances at various other cabaret venues during their time in London. In July 1926 they were dancing at the riverside cabaret ‘Palm Beach’ on Taggs Island in the Thames near Hampton Court, as seen in one of the gallery images below. This was followed by a short programme at the Coliseum before they left for Berlin later that summer. Some reports state that they travelled to Berlin as their mother lived there and had become unwell.

Performing in Berlin, c.1927

After appearing briefly in a few German films and a tour of American theatres, they returned to London in 1927 to dance in ‘Oh Kay!’ at His Majesty’s Theatre. The musical was by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse with music by George and Ira Gershwin and had originally opened in Broadway before transferring to London.

By 1928 the sisters were the stars of the La Grande Folie at the Folies Bergere and after a successful run in Paris they returned to America in Spring 1930. After Beth’s brief marriage to Clarence Stroud, another twin-performer, the sisters returned to dancing and had a radio show. Despite some renewed popularity, they filed for bankruptcy in 1931.

There is certainly more to be discovered about the sisters but, for now, here is a gallery of some highlights from their career.

Performing at the Palm Beach cabaret on Tagg’s Island
Caricature by E.S. Hynes 1926



Some images © Illustrated London News / Mary Evans

Lady Constance Stewart-Richardson: ‘A girl entirely out of the common’

Lady Constance was a striking, flamboyant woman who was well-known in Britain and America for her career as a barefoot classical dancer, an unheard of profession for a titled woman. Her revealing dance costumes caused uproar and she espoused unconventional views on children’s education. Also applauded for her sporting prowess and adventurous travels, she was widely admired and held in high regard by those who knew her. As one newspaper commented, she was ‘a girl entirely out of the common.’

By H. Walter Barnett, c.1899

Constance was born in 1882 into Scottish aristocracy as the grand-daughter of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland. Her parents were Francis Mackenzie, 2nd Earl of Cromartie and Lillian (née Bosville-Macdonald), Countess of Cromartie. She had one older sister, Sibel, who also loved dancing. Their father died in 1893, leaving her mother and uncle as guardians to the sisters.

Sibel, Constance’s sister, by H. Walter Barnett, 1902

As there were no male heirs to the Earldom, the title went into abeyance, until 1895 when it was awarded to Sibel who became a Countess in her own right. This decision was followed by a court case disputing whether the inheritance that had been left by the Duke of Sutherland to the Earl of Cromartie (Constance’s father) with the aim of being passed onto his own heirs should be split between the two sisters or given solely to Sibel. The court decided in favour of Sibel. The case was appealed in the House of Lords in May 1896 and the Lords reversed the judgement, ruling that the sisters were to share their father’s estate.

By H. Walter Barnett, c.1902

In January 1896, aged fourteen, Constance left Scotland for a tour of the Continent with her sister and mother. In the summer of 1899, on return from several years at a Belgian finishing school, she entered ‘society’ and began attending key events in the Scottish and London social diary. In May 1900 she was presented at the royal court by her aunt, the Duchess of Sutherland. She wore an embroidered white tulle gown, trimmed with ribbon, with a train of mousseline satin which had a large chiffon bow in one corner and a spray of white roses. She carried a sheaf of white lilies tied with a pale green ribbon. Throughout the early 1900s she often attended society events with her aunt, the Duchess of Sutherland. In 1901 she travelled on the Duke’s yacht, ‘Catania’, to Paris and Venice.

Sporting Ladies 

As well as attending the parties and charity events that came with her social position, Constance was an example of a new trend of high-born ladies showing great accomplishment at sports. She was a champion swimmer, a skilled rider, an expert shot, and a keen traveller. She could also play the bagpipes well, a nod to her family’s strong Scottish connection.

Photographed by H. Walter Barnett, c.1908

She was often described as a contrast to her smaller, more ‘delicate’ sister, with one description noting she was ‘tall and well built…[with] the grace born of exercise and perfect health.’ When in Scotland, she favoured wearing her own version of the traditional costume, consisting of a short kilt in checked tweed, green hose, buckled brogues, a green vest over a rose-pink shirt, the Mackenzie tartan, and a Glengarry bonnet with ribbons hanging over the shoulder. She caused controversy in the late 1900s when seen riding in London wearing ‘black leather leggings’ covered by a long black overcoat; at this point there was a growing fashion amongst society women to ride ‘astride’ instead of side-saddle.

In 1899, aged seventeen, Constance  won her first swimming medal, when she won the Ladies’ Challenge Shield for excellence in swimming at the London Bath Club. Throughout the early 1900s she swam and taught at the Club where Princess Mary, daughter of the Prince of Wales (later King George V), and Iris and Felicity Tree, daughters of Herbert Beerbohm Tree, also learnt to swim. She went on to win the Ladies’ Challenge Shield the following two years. ‘Tatler’ magazine wrote that it would ‘be hard to find a prettier sight than when, dressed in her green swimming maillot and tartan waist ribbon, she passes along the line of swinging rings which are suspended above the water.’

Constance the Cowboy

Throughout her life Constance made several trips to America. During her first trip in 1902 she hunted alligators, played golf in Chicago and stayed with Lord Minto, the Governor of Canada. Whilst in New York she reportedly walked ten to twelve miles each morning, through Central Park and Harlem, and would spend an hour fencing and boxing after breakfast and then take another walk before lunch. An American article announced: ‘She is English to the core, and has startled New York society. She rides astride, fences, dances, talks, sings, plays, and is an athlete. She attended a recital given by William C. Whitney in his New York home. Upon this occasion Lady Constance electrified the guests by performing a Highland sword dance….There seems to be nothing that this versatile young woman cannot do well.’ Towards the end of her trip, she was thrown from her horse in South Carolina and was knocked unconscious but recovered soon after.

Reproduced on the front page of ‘The Sketch’ magazine, 9 March 1910 in her costume for the Chelsea Arts Club Ball

The following year she returned to Texas for a hunting trip where she was accompanied by the famous hunter ‘Buffalo Bill.’ She caused a stir by riding in men’s overalls and it was claimed that she won the hearts of all the cowboys she came across. The portrait to the right shows Constance in a cowboy costume for the 1910 Chelsea Arts Club Ball, perhaps yearning to re-live her cowboy experience.

In the early 1900s Constance travelled alone and with friends to Egypt, Somaliland and India, causing a degree of scandal wherever she went. In Cairo the newspaper said she ‘caused a sensation by her appearance at a masked ball in the Gezireh Palace in bare feet and legs, from the knees down…Her costume…was as handsome as it was scant.’

Marriage to a young army officer

Edward Austin Stewart-Richardson

On 19 April 1904, aged twenty-three, she quietly married Sir Edward Austin Stewart-Richardson of Perthshire, a young army officer and a fellow Scot. The previous May, newspapers had reported her engagement to a Captain Fitzgerald, a young officer in the Royal Lancers, and as late as January 1904 the two were still attending society events together. But by April 1904 her attentions must have been drawn elsewhere, and a quick wedding to Edward took place instead. One paper suggested she had met Edward in Bombay on the way back from her 1903 travels to Somaliland. Edward had joined the army in 1890 and had went on to fight in the South African War and serve as ADC to the Governor of Queensland.

The wedding was a last-minute affair, with guests invited by telegram. Constance wore a biscuit-coloured cashmere gown, with a lace Victorian collar, large drooping sleeves, and a grey velvet belt which was repeated as the edging on the skirt. She accompanied the look with a large white felt hat with royal blue feather, and a white boa.

Photographed by Lallie Charles, this portrait appeared on the front page of ‘The Bystander’ shortly after her marriage

After the ceremony they travelled by carriage to the Cromartie family home, Tarbat House, in Ross-shire. Her popularity amongst locals was demonstrated by the crowds that lined the route and, as a gesture of thanks, the couple held a grand party for the the tenants on the estate and those from the nearby villages.  Together the couple had two sons, Ian and Torquil. It seems to have been a happy marriage and Edward was not deterred by his wife’s eccentricities. When not travelling, they split their time between Pitfour Castle in Scotland and a house on Charles Street in Mayfair.

Scandal of the barefoot aristocrat  

Photographed by Lallie Charles, c.1910

Up until 1909 there are few reports of Constance dancing other than referencing her skills at the traditional Highland dances. However, in 1908 there was much talk of her performance of a ‘Salome’ dance before the King at a private social event.  At the end of the dance she sank to her knees and said, in the manner of the Salome,: ‘Sir, give me the head of Sir Ernest Cassel.’ Cassel was the King’s financial advisor, and although unpopular generally, was favoured by the King.

She seems to have occasionally danced at other private society events, but the first reports of her public ‘barefoot, classical’ dancing were in February 1909 when she danced at Sherry’s restaurant in New York. Presumably she felt it safer to make her foray into public performing outside Britain to begin with. It was certainly still considered fairly scandalous in America, so much so that Constance felt the need to ask the ‘Daily Mail’ to correct the ‘distorted notions of the character of her performance circulated by the American press.’ There was much interest in the event in the British press, with a mixture of shock and pride at the reaction Constance had caused in America. In March 1909 two photographs of her barefoot and in the ‘Grecian’ costume that she had worn in America featured on the front page of the society magazine ‘The Sketch’.

Photographed by Bain News Services wearing the costume she wore when dancing in America, 1909

On returning to London, Constance offered to dance at a charity event being held at the Royal Opera House in London in aid of the Girls’ Realm Guild. She was perhaps seeking to capitalise on the publicity and attention she had received, or simply to stoke the controversy. Soon after the performance, it was announced that she had come to an arrangement with Alfred Butt, manager of the Palace music hall, to perform for to the paying public for one month in January 1910. She was reported to receive a salary of £1,000 a week, which she said would be used for charitable causes. She was to perform ‘a series of classical dances, and will introduce musical compositions for this purpose which have not hitherto been interpreted by dancing. In all her dances she will appear alone…and in all will wear a costume of a Greek style.’ She featured on the covers of two of the leading society magazines in the costume she was to wear.

The run at the Palace Theatre, although controversial, was considered a success, and she featured heavily in the press at the time. Her dancing was compared to the daring dances by Maud Allan, Isadora Duncan and Gertrude Hoffman. She wore a flimsy, almost transparent costume which one reported said would be ‘tolerated if worn by a professional dancer’ but not by a woman of title.

Leaving the Palace Theatre after a performance, January 1910

‘The audience was silent until she had finished the last dance and then broke into thunderous applause.’ There were reports in American papers that, in reaction to her scandalous dancing at the Palace Theatre, the King had ordered that her name be struck from the court lists. There is no mention of this in any British papers so it is likely a fabricated story.

A few months later, in May 1910, she travelled to Paris to dance at the Alhambra for a month-long programme. In early 1913 she was dancing in Vienna in a drama called ‘Judith’ at the People’s Opera House where she ‘electrified Vienna.’ Off the back of these successes, Constance was invited to dance on a New York music-hall stage in June 1913, with a salary of around $1,000 a week. The engagement was at the Victoria music-hall on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, which was owned by Oscar Hammerstein, and the dancing took place on the roof-garden. She arrived in New York with her pet monkey, several snakes, and 40 pieces of luggage including a head-dress she had bought in Egypt. On the journey over onboard the ‘Olympic’ ocean-liner, she reportedly won a swimming contest against the actress Constance Collier who was also on board.

Dancing on the rooftop garden, New York, June 1913. Photographed by Bain News Services

She followed the New York performances with a tour of America alongside Gertrude Hoffmann and Mme. Polaire. During the tour she collapsed on stage during a performance at the Court Square Theatre in Springfield, Massachusetts. The audience reportedly thought it was part of the show and applauded.

On her return she announced she was seeking simplicity, perhaps suffering from exhaustion from the whirlwind tour. To demonstrate this she set out from the Savoy Hotel, London, to tour the country by horse and caravan. But she soon returned to  dancing and in October 1913 she set off on a world dancing tour. There is little noted about this tour so it may not have materialised. By early 1914 she was back dancing in America.

At the start of the Great War Constance’s husband Edward re-joined the 1st Battalion, Black Watch (Royal Highlanders). He was one of the early casualties of the war, dying on 28th November 1914 from wounds inflicted at the Battle of Ypres. Their son Ian inherited the baronetcy. Both sons would go on to serve in WWII: Ian gained the rank of Major and fought in Africa and Italy, and Torquil served as a Captain with the Royal Artillery Territorial Service and received the Military Cross.

Constance continued to perform throughout the duration of the war, throwing herself into performances in London and around the country. In 1915 she appeared at the Empire in London in The Wilderness, a Greek ballad-dance with words by Sturge Moore and music by Gustave Ferrari. She starred as a faun alongside Robert Roberty and the part of God Pan was played by Chief Kawbawgam who claimed to be descended from a ‘Red Indian tribe’. In one scene the two fauns fight at the top of a mountain and the first faun hurls the second down the mountainside.

Constance’s only noticeable contribution to the war-effort was a series of exercises she proposed to improve the health of women working in factories:


The dancing muse 

During this period a number of artists found inspiration in Constance. In 1914 the sculptor Prince Paul Troubetzkoy modelled a bronze sculpture on her and when describing Constance he observed: ‘it is rare that such exuberant vitality is combined with such perfect lines and grace of movement.’

Two years later, in 1916, the noted photographer Arnold Genthe published a lavish book titled The Book of the Dance. Bound in rich blue buckram the book contained 93 full-page photographs and was intended to show ‘some of the phrases of modern dance tendencies that could be recorded in a pictorially interesting manner.’ It was a record of a moment in dance history. It featured three photographs of Constance dancing (I believe taken in 1913), as well as photographs of Maud Allan, Anna Pavlova, Lillian Emerson, and others. One reviewer said that Genthe had ‘done something close to the impossible. He has caught with splendid intuition, the sharply exotic and obviously dramatic quality of Ruth St. Denis; the slender and supple virtuosity of Anna Pavlova…the almost harsh vigor of Lady Constance Stewart Richardson…’

In 1917 Nina Hamnett painted Constance and she later recalled: ‘she was a most charming and interesting woman and my dreary existence was cheered up by her company… She had a marvellous figure and danced with not much more on than a tiger skin…neither of us had any money or, at least, very little and we ate often at a little restaurant in Soho where we got credit. I painted a portrait of Constance. She had a red turban on and a black robe, rather like a burnous that the Arabs wear. It was a good painting and bought by Sir Michael Sadler. I sent it to the National Portrait Society and it was accepted. On the day of the private view, Constance and I went. The place was full of all kinds of grand people. They all flocked to my portrait, expecting to see an almost nude woman. They were bitterly disappointed, and Constance and I laughed.’


The education of children

For Constance, one of the reasons for taking up professional dancing was in the hope of raising enough money to start a small school to educate a few young boys from infancy at their home in Scotland. She had a keen interest in methods of educating children, believing in the importance of the Greek ideal of a perfect harmony of body and mind.

An illustration from ‘Dancing, Beauty, and Games’

Many of her theories were contained within her 1913 publication Dancing, Beauty and Games. She advocated that children should have as much exercise and freedom as they wanted: ‘for children the most natural [exercises] are the best – running, jumping, climbing, swimming, dancing and playing at ball –watched by a person who really understands the human body and who will correct little faults as they occur.’ She also felt that children should not be made to wear clothes. Reactions to her theories were generally negative; an American newspaper’s full-page article on the subject led with the headline: ‘With such a mother – what will finally become of Lady Constance Richardson’s unfortunate children – their father dead and their eccentric mother bringing them up in a strange, impossible way.’

Photographed at her Chelsea studio, 1917

Constance stuck by her teachings, and argued that she would not want her sons to become great professional figures but would prefer they had a simple future. Although some of her educational ideas were relatively forward-thinking she appeared to have an obsession with beauty, claiming: ‘I let [my children] look at picture books only after I have gone carefully through them and scissored every picture that shows the human figure other than perfect.’

In August 1921 Constance married Dennis Leckie Matthew, a wealthy bachelor. For the ceremony she wore a striking sand-coloured velvet gown ‘cut on Moorish lines’, with brown sandals and brown silk stockings. A sage-green burnous-cloak  was draped over the gown and a peacock-blue silk scarf wrapped around her head like a turban, and wound under her chin.

I have been unable to find any details of Constance’s life after her second-marriage; it seems possible she moved abroad for some years. She died aged fifty in November 1932, it was reported that she’d been living in Italy shortly prior to returning to London.

Photographed by Dorothy Hickling, 1912



Some images © Illustrated London News / Mary Evans

Paddy Naismith: the vindication of the woman driver

Paddy in her flying kit at Reading Aero-Club, June 1934

‘I am convinced that the modern girl has every bit as much stamina as the modern man.’ – 25 June 1930

Paddy Naismith was a stage and screen actress, a racing driver, a Labour party office holder and campaigner, a pilot, and Britain’s first air-hostess. Of Irish-Scottish parentage, she had a striking appearance with her red hair complemented by the green leather jacket and green overalls she wore when racing.

Continue reading “Paddy Naismith: the vindication of the woman driver”

The Sisters G: part two

The sisters with French dancer Mlle. Floryane on the cover of 'Paris Plaisirs', July 1927
The sisters with French dancer Mlle. Floryane on the cover of ‘Paris Plaisirs’, July 1927

As I was researching for my previous post on the Sisters G, I came across so many wonderful images that I’ve decided to do a second post to showcase some of those that didn’t make it into the blog. They’re roughly in chronological order.

Continue reading “The Sisters G: part two”

The Scintillating Sisters G: stars of the 1920s

Sisters G 9
The Sisters G photographed by Dorothy Wilding in London in the 1920s – the image was titled ‘Butterflies’

The dancing sisters Eleanor (b.1909) and Karla (b.1910) Gutöhrlein/Gutchrlein (sometimes written as Carla and Eleaner) were often confused with the Dolly Sisters throughout their careers and they worked hard to create an enigma around their background.

Continue reading “The Scintillating Sisters G: stars of the 1920s”

Lady Richmond Brown: Adventurer, Archaeologist and Angler

Mabs photographed by the Bassano studio in 1913 (© NPG, London)

For the next post in my series of explorers and adventurers I knew I wanted to write about one of the many intrepid women from the early 20th century who set off into the unknown. This was a period when women were offered more freedom in life, especially those from the upper classes with independent wealth. Newspapers and society magazines were fascinated by the tales of women who left behind the comforts of their life in England to travel the world, sometimes to places few Westerners had been before. As strong-willed, independent women they do not always come across as the most likeable but I can’t help but admire their tenacity and spiritedness. Continue reading “Lady Richmond Brown: Adventurer, Archaeologist and Angler”

Marjorie Foster: prize-winning rifle shot and poultry farmer

Marjorie photographed by the Bassano studio, March 1938 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)
Marjorie photographed by the Bassano studio in London, March 1938 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

Marjorie Elaine Foster (1893-1974) began shooting at the age of eight at her home in Surrey, England. In the mid-1920s she decided to pursue the sport more seriously and joined the South London Rifle Club, which was the only club that accepted women at that time. The first record of her competing is in 1926 where she performed well for someone new to the competitive world of rifle-shooting.

The pinnacle of her sporting career was in 1930 when she beat over 1,000 competitors to became the first woman ever to win the prestigious King’s Prize at the National Rifle Championships at Bisley. The competition, which began in 1860, was open to all past and present members of the Armed Forces. Marjorie was eligible to compete because she volunteered as a driver with the Women’s Legion. Continue reading “Marjorie Foster: prize-winning rifle shot and poultry farmer”

Ivy Shilling in portraits

This series of photographs of Australian dancing sensation (and surfer) Ivy Shilling follows on from the main blog as a means of showing some of the other lovely photographs that appeared i the illustrated press at the time. If you missed the main blog you can have a read here.

Ivy Sketch
Ivy photographed by Elwin Neame for ‘The Tatler’, 20 December 1916. The caption describes her as ‘one of the most vivacious musical-comedy actresses in London at the moment and a graceful dancer.’

Continue reading “Ivy Shilling in portraits”

Ivy Shilling: the dancer who surfed

In a post inspired loosely by Christmas I thought I’d lead with these beautiful portraits of the Australian dancer Ivy Shilling, photographed by Foulsham & Banfield early in her career. She is seen here in the role of Lady Rosemary Beaulieu in The Miller’s Daughter, the Christmas production at the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester in 1915 – one hundred years ago this month.

Ivy Shilling - Sketch - 29.12.15 p.283
Ivy in ‘The Miller’s Daughter’ by Foulsham & Banfield, Christmas 1915.

Continue reading “Ivy Shilling: the dancer who surfed”

Angus Buchanan: Beyond the Frontiers of Civilisation

Angus Buchanan, by T.A. Glover, 1922. Image courtesy of the NPG, London.

I’ve always been interested in explorers and travellers and the first half of the 20th century was ripe with men and women willing to set off into the unknown. Being an adventurer in this period required a confidence and brashness often associated with those from the upper-classes, and the money needed to finance expensive travels meant that many who took on such endeavours either had family money or were financed by wealthy men.

Continue reading “Angus Buchanan: Beyond the Frontiers of Civilisation”