Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Josephine O’Dare to Chief Inspector George Yandell (6 August 1928). From National Archives: MEPO 3 / 441: Theresa Agnes Skyrme alias Josephine O’Dare and others: forgery and uttering will of Edwin Docker (1923-28) Minute 48a.
In August 1928 Josephine O’Dare sat down to write a letter to George Yandell. There was nothing unusual in this, except O’Dare was writing from Walton Prison in Liverpool, and Yandell was the Metropolitan Police Chief Inspector who had arrested her for forgery and false pretences eighteen months earlier.
O’Dare’s path to Walton had been unlikely, to say the least. Born around 1900, Trixie Skyrme grew up in rural poverty in Hereford. As retold later by journalists, her biography was marked by an unlikely climb from “Pig feeding on a Hereford farm to the glories of Mayfair.” Drawn into petty crime alongside Charles Hellier and Guy Hart, Skyrme, now reincarnated as Josephine O’Dare, moved to London around 1922. Within two years she was at the heart of metropolitan Society. Through elaborate narratives of aristocratic origin she claimed the privileges of elite sociability and secured credit in fashionable West End costumiers. She insinuated herself into networks of female sociability and patronage, and cultivated profitable friendships with prominent men — the owner of Pearson’s Antisceptics, Edwin Docker, an older Birmingham solicitor, and Louis Millett, “ne’er do well son of a General Stores Contractor.” The Earl of March was a “particularly close companion” over the summer of 1925.
The names of O’Dare’s acquaintances suggest the world in which she moved. In January 1926 she accompanied Docker to the exclusive dance celebrating the opening of the British Model House by the Duchess of Portland. Supported by the textile industry, this was a palatial Regent Street showroom for London’s claims to rival Paris as a fashion center, backdrop for a glittering spectacle of Society at play that was filmed by the Gaumont company. Grand public events, intimate social gatherings, and her luxurious Park Street maisonette were an appropriate stage on which O’Dare might perform. The maisonette was expensive — around £530 a year — but she was plausible and charming enough to incur substantial debts on its rent and furnishings. Entertaining lavishly, O’Dare create a raffish cosmopolitan milieu in which, her butler recalled, aristocrats and the nouveau riche rubbed shoulders with “undesirable people who were continually changing their names.”
O’Dare’s fall was as spectacular as her meteoric social rise. Declared bankrupt in July 1926, newspapers watched attentively as the “pretty Society girl” — now desperate for money — was caught up in London’s biggest forgery ring alongside Hellier, her former lover. Rarely out of the news for twelve months, O’Dare was tried at the Old Bailey and imprisoned for forging Docker’s will in summer 1927. This was, journalists suggested, a moment when the lowborn vamp was unmasked and put in their place through the unrelenting scrutiny of the Metropolitan Police, criminal law, and fourth estate. John Bull called this “prick[ing] the bubble of the Mayfair hostess.” Mocking O’Dare’s pretensions and aspirations, they warned journalists not to accept a social climber’s publicity claims at “‘face’ value.”
After a year in prison, when O’Dare sat down to write to Yandell she was preoccupied with the possibility of an early release, and the return of her correspondence and gray squirrel fur coat. The letters were priceless, but she had paid 200 guineas for the coat, and only worn it “about half dozen times.” Drawing attention to the coat’s value, O’Dare suggested how managing her personal affairs provided opportunities to insist on her own respectability. Resentful of the “sycophants with whom I was surrounded before my unfortunate troubles,” she was precise in evoking the “mental suffering I have had to undergo.” Time passed slowly, but O’Dare found Walton physically comfortable, her duties “not very difficult,” and the recreation “interesting.” In the summer she played tennis; “in the winter every Saturday evening we get some excellent concerts and every three months the matron is very kind in giving a most delightful tea party.”
O’Dare suggested that her social status isolated her from the other prisoners.
Here I should find it very lonely excepting for one perfectly nice woman that came up from London with me. The other residents, well! It is somewhat painful to come in contact with them daily. I always try to be polite to everyone here but it is impossible to associate with them the majority appear to be mentally deficient, one day you hear them talking in your magniloquent manner and the next you wonder if you are living in the most dreadful part of Billingsgate for the lewdness of their conversation with each other is fearfully disagreeable.
O’Dare asked Yandell if “there should be some classification in a place of this kind,” and, in so doing, suggested her desire to be distanced from the rough milieu of a women’s prison in a northern port city. Unable to find refined conversation and companionship, O’Dare sought escape:
I spend quite a lot of my recreation time in reading and then I try very hard to forget my surroundings which I think one can often do when interested in a good book. “When I am feeling hopelessly depressed I recall to mind the worlds of Horace Walpole.” “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”
Quoting Walpole’s famous epigram from 1776, O’Dare drew attention to her learning and positioned herself as a woman of “feeling.” Now her thoughts turned wistfully to the rhythms of the fashionable season she had been part of: “I suppose London is rather quiet just at present and people are rushing away to Scotland & the Country.” Dramatizing the emotional costs of prison was instrumental, of course — O’Dare appealed to the “good sympathetic side of [Yandell’s] nature,” and sought his support for her request for a further reduction in sentence. Yet her letter suggests the continued power of her desire for distinction, and the ways in which status claims dismissed as fraudulent took on new life in shaping her sense of self.