Today (October 30) in London History – the Music Hall Girl, the German Baron, Sex and Death

A taste of early 20th century London’s tabloid culture. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

We’re going tabloid. Seriously tabloid. Why? Because I’m in the mood, that’s why.

There’s no shortage of serious, big-time, proper October 30 stories around. Seriously big time stories. Just to name a few: Dick Whittington becoming Mayor of London on October 30, 1397. And the fire at the Tower of London – it was a very close call for the Crown Jewels. That was on October 30th, 1841.

And John Logie Baird making the first-ever television transmission of a moving image. That was on October 30th, 1925. And on October 30th, 1957 the passage of the Life Peerages Act, which, for the first time, would allow women to sit in the House of Lords. And Henry VII founding the Yeomen of the Guards – better known as the Beefeaters – on October 30th, 1485.

Yes, the October 30th good stories cup runneth over.

But we’re going to get down and dirty. We’re going to go tabloid.

Now let’s get our checklist out. See how this one rates.

Any story hoping to qualify for tabloid status has to have sex on the table. Well, not literally on the table. Though literally on the table would be looked on favourably of course. 

You can wet your pencil and tick that box.

What else? Well, there has to be cheap glamour. And yes, by all means tick that box too.

And the dramatis personae have to include the rich and famous. If they’re royal or noble or even just aristocratic, well, that’s a double tick. And sure enough, this one’s a double tick.

And you get a tick if exotic and foreign comes into it. Yup, that’s another tick.

And ideally you want it to be set in a famous neighbourhood. Yes, that’s another tick.

And you want passion – double marks for unrequited love. This one’s a double tick.

And if possible, show business. Yes, another tick.

And I’m afraid to make it into the Tabloid A-list you’ve gotta have violence and preferably death. 

You know, if it bleeds it leads. Milquetoast doesn’t make it.

And yes, you can tick that all-important box.

Finally, a bit of drama and mystery is what often separates the champions from the also-rans. And that’s another tick. Every single box. It’s like those gymnastics judges, every single one of them holding up a ten.

Ok. So where are we? What do we have? Well, you know the date. It’s October 30th, 1905. And the place is Russell Square. 69 Russell Square, to be exact. Ok it’s not Belgrave Square but it’s pretty upmarket.

And we’ve got a domestic servant going into the boudoir of her mistress. It’s situated on the ground floor at the back of the house. The housemaid notices that a pane of glass in a window has been broken.

She investigates further. She sees the stockinged foot of a man protruding from behind an upright piano. That does her nut in. The servant bolts, shrieking. Desperate to wake the other inmates in the houses. Ascending the stairs, she hears a pistol shot. Nobody wants to go near the room. The police are summoned. They find the body of a young man. He’s shot himself through the right temple with a small revolver. The gun is still clutched in his hand.

The young man is a German nobleman. Baron Gunther Rau von Holzhauszen. 

Sure enough, he’s been in love with the mistrress of the house ever since he set eyes on her two years ago. Mrs. Monckton, that’s her married name, is famous. She’s better known as Miss Gertie Millar, of the Gaiety Theatre. She was a singer and dancer. Got her start in the music halls of Yorkshire. That’s where she was from. She was a star. A big star. She became one of the most photographed women of the Edwardian period. Had top billing time and again. Starred in hit musical comedy after musical comedy. On the London stage and on Broadway.

One takeaway here is her origins. They were so humble. Her father was a Yorkshire mill worker. Her mother a dressmaker. There was no silver spoon in her mouth. What there was was astonishing beauty. Her parents were probably not plug-ugly but basically, looks-wise, she won the Lottery, she was dealt, at birth, the equivalent of the highest possible bridge hand. And sex attraction and sex appeal – it carries all before it. You got it you can go places with it. Gertie Millar did. She married the composer Lionel Monckton. He wrote the scores of many of the songs and shows that she made famous. When he died she married a Duke. She had, in the words of Alan Dent, a charmed and charming life. She died, a second-time widow, in 1950. The charm finally parted company with her at the end. Incapacitated by illness, she spent her last days with her cat, Wendy, at her home, Orchard Cottage, in Chiddingfold, in Surrey.

Now as for our poor young German nobleman. He’d met Gertie two years previously. And in the words of The Times, “entertained for the actress a boyish infatuation.” 

The Times went on to say, “This Mrs Monckton endeavoured, in a kindly way, to check, and till recently she imagined that her young admirer had seen the folly of the course he was pursuing. 

He hadn’t of course. That’s the power of great beauty, of sexual attraction. On Saturday afternoon, the young German nobleman was in the front row of the stalls during the performance of The Spring Chicken at the Gaiety Theatre. Then in the evening, just as Gertie was going on to the stage a note was handed to her. It had been written on Savoy Hotel notepaper. Love that touch. The note was written by the baron. In the note the baron begged Gertie’s forgiveness for any worry he had caused her and implied that he had come to the end of his tether and that circumstances had combined to crush him. 

And we know the rest. The consensus was the baron, bent upon suicide, made up his mind to pass the last night of his life under the same roof as Gertie. 

Who knows? 

Ok, we’ve had our wallow, done some bottom feeding, indulged our baser instincts, time to come back up, time for a Today in London recommendation. As long as we’re in the Russell Square area, let’s get as far as we can from this country’s tabloid culture, Edwardian or contemporary. Let’s go to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. It’s in Malet Place, just round the corner from Virginia Woolf’s Gordon Square. London doesn’t get much more highbrow – doesn’t get much further from infra dig, from tabloid bad taste than that. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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