Noel Pemberton Billing

Noel Pemberton Billing



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Noel Pemberton Billing, the youngest child of Charles Eardley Billing, a Birmingham iron-founder, and his wife, Annie Emilia Claridge, was born in Hampstead on 31st January 1881. He was educated at Hampstead High School but at the age of thirteen he stowed away on a ship bound for Delagoa Bay.

While in Durban he did a succession of menial jobs before joining the Natal Mounted Police. From 1899 to 1901 he fought in the Boer War. In 1903 he finally returned to England, and Lilian Maud Schweitzer. The couple had no children.

Billing was an early advocate of air power and published and edited Aerocraft. According to his biographer, Geoffrey Russell Searle: "In 1908 he designed and tested, on his own airstrip in Fambridge, Essex, three light monoplanes, two of which left the ground. Billing then threw himself into land speculation, writing, yacht broking, and ship-running. By 1913 he had amassed enough capital to found a yard on Southampton Water, where he pioneered the construction of flying boats (supermarines). With characteristic bravado he had meantime obtained a pilot's certificate after only four hours two minutes in the air."

Billing's Supermarine Aircraft Company was not very successful and on the outbreak of the First World War he joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Billing claimed that in November 1914, he played a prominent role in the planning of the first bombing raid on Germany when it was decided to attack the large Zeppelin base at Friedrichshafen. However, James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002) has argued: "Billing claimed... to have risen to the rank of Squadron Commander. Later, official sources would claim that Billing had spent only 12 months in the RNAS, had never flown on a raid or in the face of the enemy, and never rose beyond Flight Lieutenant."

Billing left the RNAS and began a campaign against the way the air war was being conducted. Despite the fact that his wife was half-German, he constantly advocated the deportation of aliens in case they were spying on the country. Billing, who drove a lemon-yellow Rolls Royce, dressed in unusual clothes, including long pointed collars without a tie, and openly expressed a preference for "fast aircraft, fast speed-boats, fast cars and fast women".

In 1916 Billing, despite the support of Horatio Bottomley and Hannen Swaffer, was an unsuccessful independent candidate at Mile End by-election in January 1916. Two months later he tried again at the East Hertfordshire by-election. According to his biographer "the tall, monocled, and debonair Billing drew large enthusiastic crowds to his meetings." This time he was successful and he became a member of the House of Commons.

Billing now founded a journal called The Imperialist that was part-funded by Lord Beaverbrook. His biographer, Geoffrey Russell Searle, has pointed out that "Billing campaigned for a unified air service, helped force the government to establish an air inquiry, and advocated reprisal raids against German cities. He also became adept at exploiting a variety of popular discontents."

The journal also claimed the existence of a secret society called the Unseen Hand. As Ernest Sackville Turner, the author of Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: "One of the great delusions of the war was that there existed an Unseen (or Hidden, or Invisible) Hand, a pro-German influence which perennially strove to paralyse the nation's will and to set its most heroic efforts at naught... As defeat seemed to loom, as French military morale broke and Russia made her separate peace, more and more were ready to believe that the Unseen Hand stood for a confederacy of evil men, taking their orders from Berlin, dedicated to the downfall of Britain by subversion of the military, the Cabinet, the Civil Service and the City; and working not only through spiritualists, whores and homosexuals."

Billing now joined forces with Lord Northcliffe (the owner of The Times, The Daily Mail and London Evening News), Lord Beaverbrook (The Daily Express), Leo Maxse (the editor of The National Review), the journalist, Arnold Henry White (the author of The Hidden Hand), Ellis Powell (the editor of the Financial News), Horatio Bottomley (the editor of John Bull) and the former soldier, Harold S. Spencer, to claim that the Unseen Hand were working behind the scenes to obtain a peace agreement with Germany.

Billing was a strong opponent of the Russian Revolution and feared that the Bolsheviks would try to persuade influential people in Britain to seek a peace deal. He argued that money from Germany and Russia was being used to fund the peace movement. These people were part of what became known as Boloism (Paul Marie Bolo was a German spy who was executed by the French during the First World War). According to Billing and other supporters of the Hidden Hand theory, Boloism was the distribution or receipt of funds calculated to assist the act of treason.

In December 1917, Billing published an article in The Imperialist by Arnold Henry White that argued that Germany was under the control of homosexuals (White called them urnings): "Espionage is punished by death at the Tower of London, but there is a form of invasion which is as deadly as espionage: the systematic seduction of young British soldiers by the German urnings and their agents... Failure to intern all Germans is due to the invisible hand that protects urnings of enemy race... When the blond beast is an urning, he commands the urnings in other lands. They are moles. They burrow. They plot. They are hardest at work when they are most silent." It was true that there was a great increase in cases of sodomy coming before the British courts but the main reason for this was the large numbers of young men being herded together under wartime conditions.

Relying on information supplied by Harold S. Spencer, Billing published an article in The Imperialist on 26th January, 1918, revealing the existence of a Black Book: "There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute."

Billing claimed the book listed the names of 47,000 British sexual perverts, mostly in high places, being blackmailed by the German Secret Service. He added: "It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty's Household follow each other with no order of precedence." Billing went onto argue that "the thought that 47,000 English men and women are held in enemy bondage through fear calls all clean spirits to mortal combat".

In February, 1918, Billing changed the name of The Imperialist to The Vigilante. Soon afterwards it published an article that argued that the Unseen Hand was involved in a plot to spread venereal disease: "The German, through his efficient and clever agent, the Ashkenazim, has complete control of the White Slave Traffic. Germany has found that diseased women cause more casualties than bullets. Controlled by their Jew-agents, Germany maintains in Britain a self-supporting - even profit-making - army of prostitutes which put more men out of action than does their army of soldiers."

Later that month it was announced by theatrical producer, Jack Grein, that Maud Allan would give two private performances of Oscar Wildes's Salomé in April. It had to be a private showing because the play had long been banned by the Lord Chamberlain as being blasphemous. Billing had heard rumours Allan was a lesbian and was having an affair with Margot Asquith, the wife of Herbert Asquith, the former prime minister. He also believed that Allan and the Asquiths were all members of the Unseen Hand.

On 16th February, 1918, the front page of The Vigilante had a headline, "The Cult of the Clitoris". This was followed by the paragraph: "To be a member of Maud Allan's private performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000."

As soon as Allan became aware of the article she put the matter into the hands of her solicitor. In March 1918, Allan commenced criminal proceedings for obscene, criminal and defamatory libel. During this period Billing was approached by Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times. He was concerned about the decision by David Lloyd George to begin peace negotiations with the German foreign minister. According to James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002): "Talk of peace outraged the Generals, who found allies in the British far right. Repington suggested that Billing get his trial postponed and use the mythical Black Book to smear senior politicians and inflame anti-alien feeling in the Commons. By this logic, the current peace talks would be ruined and Lloyd George's authority undermined."

Toni Bentley has argued in her book, Sisters of Salome (2002) that the government hired Eileen Villiers-Stuart to compromise Billing: "Lloyd George and his advisers hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail. Eileen Villiers-Stuart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She was an attractive, twenty-five-year-old bigamist, and her lunch with the Independent M.P. was all too successful. By the end of the afternoon, mesmerized by him, she flipped her allegiance, slept with him, and divulged the Liberals' conspiracy to blackmail him. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover's libel case."

This view is supported by Michael Kettle, the author of Salome's Last Veil : The Libel Case of the Century (1977): "Eileen, though previously mistress to Asquith's former Chief Whip, was not acting for the Liberal Party machine (still run by Asquith), but for Lloyd George and Conservative Central Office - in fact, for the Coalition Government. Tory Central Office, it is known, hated Billing; and both Bonar Law, leader of the Tory party, and Lloyd George were later to be closely involved in secret machinations for Billing's final downfall - which was rather different than the one originally planned for him."

The libel case opened at the Old Bailey in May, 1918. Billing chose to conduct his own defence, in order to provide the opportunity to make the case against the government and the so-called Unseen Hand group. The prosecution was led by Ellis Hume-Williams and Travers Humphreys and the case was heard in front of Chief Justice Charles Darling.

Billing's first witness was Eileen Villiers-Stuart. She explained that she had been shown the Black Book by two politicians since killed in action in the First World War. As Christopher Andrew has pointed out in Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers-Stuart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception." During the cross-examination Villiers-Stuart claimed that the names of Herbert Asquith, Margot Asquith and Richard Haldane were in the Black Book. Judge Charles Darling now ordered her to leave the witness-box. She retaliated by saying that Darling's name was also in the book.

The next witness was Harold S. Spencer. He claimed that he had seen the Black Book while looking through the private papers of Prince William of Wied of Albania in 1914. Spencer claimed that Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII, was a member of the Unseen Hand and has visited Holland as a go-between in supposed peace talks with Germany.

The prosecuting counsel, Travers Humphreys, asked Spencer what he meant when he said during cross-examination that "Maud Allan was administering the cult.... Will you tell the court exactly what you meant by that?" He replied: "Any performance of a play which has been described by competent critics as an essay in lust, madness and sadism, and is given and attracts people to it at from five guineas to ten guineas a seat, must bring people who have more money than brains; must bring people who are seeking unusual excitement, erotic excitement; and to gather these people together in a room, under the auspices of a naturalised alien (Jack Grein), would open these people to possible German blackmail, and that their names, or anything that transpires, might find their way into German hands, and these people would be blackmailed by the Germans; and it was to prevent this that the article was written."

Spencer then went onto to explain what he meant by the "Cult of the Clitoris". In reply to Travers Humphreys: "In order to show that a cult exists in this country who would gather together to witness a lewd performance for amusement during wartime on the Sabbath... The Cult of the Clitoris meant a cult that would gather together to see a representation of a diseased mad girl." Billing joined in the attack on Maud Allan: "Such a play.... is one that is calculated to deprave, one that is calculated to do more harm, not only to young men and young women, but to all who see it, by undermining them, even more than the German army itself."

On 4th June, 1918, Billing was acquitted of all charges. As James Hayward has pointed out: "Hardly ever had a verdict been received in the Central Criminal Court with such unequivocal public approval. The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stewart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers."

Cynthia Asquith wrote in her diary: "One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points." Basil Thomson, who was head of Special Branch, an in a position to know that Eileen Villiers-Stuart and Harold S. Spencer had lied in court, wrote in his diary, "Every-one concerned appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were."

Although membership of Vigilante Society grew dramatically after the trial, victory proved short-lived. The sinking of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle on 28th June, 1918, with the loss of 234 lives, brought an end to peace negotiations. By September it became clear that Germany was beaten and Billing's claims about the Unseen Hand created little fear in the population.

Billing retained his seat at the 1918 General Election but with the end of the First World War he was seen as an irrelevance. His reputation was severely damaged when Eileen Villiers-Stuart admitted that the evidence she had given in the Maud Allan trial was entirely fictitious, and that she had rehearsed it with Billing and Harold S. Knowing that he faced defeat in the next election he retired in 1921 claiming he was too ill to continue.

In 1928 he had a play, High Treason, performed at the Strand Theatre. It was a science-fiction drama about pacifism set in a future 1950, when a "United States of Europe" comes into conflict with the "Empire of the Atlantic States". In 1929 Maurice Elvey made a film of the play. Both were unsuccessful and Billing devoted the rest of his life trying to make a living out of his inventions. This included a miniature camera, a two-sided stove, and a gramophone. It is claimed that he had taken out 500 patents during his life-time.

At the start of the Second World War Billing produced a design for a pilotless flying bomb; the British authorities turned it down. He attacked the government for the way they were fighting the war. In 1941 he stood as an independent candidate in four by-elections, but each time he was defeated.

Noel Pemberton Billing died on 11 November 1948 on his motor yacht Commodore, Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex.

There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute....

It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty's Household follow each other with no order of precedence.... Tthe thought that 47,000 English men and women are held in enemy bondage through fear calls all clean spirits to mortal combat".

Lloyd George and his advisers hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail.

Eileen Villiers-Stuart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover's libel case, asserting that, through her previous political associations, she had actually seen the notorious Black Book.

Miss Allan and her producer, Mr J. T. Grein, took offence and brought an action for criminal libel. The case opened on 29 May 1918 at the Old Bailey before Acting Lord Chief Justice Darling, whose own suspicions of Germany bordered on paranoia. The prosecution was led by Mr (later Sir Ellis) Hume-Williams KC, assisted by Mr (later Mr Justice) Travers Humphreys and Mr Valetta. Pemberton Billing conducted his own defence alone, but had the support of enthusiastic crowds outside the court, a crowded gallery, and a remarkable series of witnesses who spoke with feeling on either sexual perversion or German espionage or both. His first witness was Mrs Eileen Villiers Stuart, an attractive young woman who, a few months later, was to be sent to prison in the same court for bigamy. Mrs Villiers Stuart explained that she had been shown the Black Book of the German Secret Service by two politicians since killed in action. Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers Stuart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception. Her life, she added, had recently been threatened in connection with the case. When Mr Justice Darling intervened at this point to reprove the defendant for his line of questioning, Pemberton Billing moved quickly and dramatically to the counter-attack.

"Is Mr Justice Darling's name in that book?" he asked the witness.

"It is," replied Mrs Villiers Stuart, "and that book can be produced."

Darling was understandably bemused. "It can be produced?" he queried.

"It can be produced," declared the witness. "It will have to be produced from Germany, it can be and it shall be. Mr Justice Darling, we have got to win this war, and while you sit there we will never win it. My men are fighting, other people's men are fighting."

The dramatic quality of Pemberton Billing's cross-examination was well sustained. "Is Mrs Asquith's name in the book?" he asked the witness.

"It is in the book."

"Is Mr Asquith's name in the book?"

"It is."

"Is Lord Haldane's name in the book?" "It is in the book."

Darling had had enough. "Leave the box," he told the witness.

"You daren't hear me!" shouted Mrs Villiers Stuart.

To his later regret Darling relented and allowed Pemberton Billing to continue his bizarre cross-examination. Before long, however, he found himself assailed by both defendant and witness and brought the cross-examination to a close.

The next witness was a Captain Spencer who claimed to have been shown the Black Book by a German prince and gave some further details of its contents. During cross-examination Mr Hume-Williams KC enquired as to his mental stability. Captain Spencer retaliated by asking whether Mr Hume-Williams was working for the Germans. He was followed into the witness box by a doctor, a surgeon, a literary critic and a cleric who testified to the depravity of Salome. Then came Pemberton Billing's star witness, Oscar Wilde's disaffected former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who complained of being "bullied and brow-beaten" by both Darling and Hume-Williams.

The final witness was Mrs Villiers Stuart, whose second appearance was as sensational as her first. "Did you take any steps," asked Pemberton Billing, "to put this knowledge (of the German Black Book) before any public person in this country?"

"I did."

"Was he a prominent public man?"

"You may ask his name," Darling told Pemberton Billing.

"Mr Hume-Williams!" replied Mrs Villiers Stuart, pointing dramatically at the leading counsel for the prosecution. After cross-examination by Hume-Williams' colleague, Travers Humphreys, Pemberton Billing began a re-examination. Uproar followed. Hume-Williams called Pemberton Billing a liar. Pemberton Billing threatened to thrash Hume-Williams.

In his final address Pemberton Billing won the hearts of the jury by denouncing the "mysterious influence which seems to prevent a Britisher getting a square deal". Hume-Williams made a less successful defence of Darling's reputation. "It has recently pleased the King", he reminded the jury, "to make him a member of the Privy Council." "I wish you would not allude to that", said Darling, "because privy counsellors are particularly mentioned among the 47,000."

In the course of his summing-up Darling lost most of what control he still exercised over the proceedings. Lord Alfred Douglas intervened to call him "a damned liar", stormed out of the court, and then returned to ask if he might collect his hat. A series of spectators were ejected and Darling finished his address amid scenes of chaotic farce. The jury returned after an hour and a half to find Pemberton Billing not guilty. Tumultuous cheering filled the court and was echoed by the enormous throng outside. Pemberton Billing emerged to a hero's welcome. The case remains mercifully unique in the history of the British courts.

After a bickering match with the judge, Billing sprang his first mine by shouting at Mrs Villiers-Stuart, "Is Mr Justice Darling's name in the book?" and the witness replied, "It is." Three similar questions elicited that the names of Asquith, his wife and Haldane were in its pages. Captain Spencer also named a famous name; referring to supposed peace talks with Germany, he said that Mrs George Keppel, one-time mistress of Edward VII, had visited Holland as a go-between. The allegation was flatly denied by Mrs Keppel, but she was not allowed to make her rebuttal in court. Billing's defiance of the judge was flagitious; after evidence about a homosexual brothel in London he shouted, "It will take more than you to protect these people, my Lord." Among witnesses who made fools of themselves was the fashionable priest, Father Bernard Vaughan, who knew not the first thing about the laws of evidence and shook Billing by the hand as he left the box; and Dr John Clarke, who said the play Salome should be stored in a museum of sexual pathology and "even then it might corrupt medical students". Throughout the hearing the gallery were on Billing's side, accepting him on his own valuation as the only man who dared to bring the country's secret enemies into the open. They also enjoyed the way he made the law look silly and spoiled the judge's jokes. (These were, in any event, lamentable. When a witness spoke of someone "talking the language of sodomy", the judge said, "I suppose you found it interesting, as the language of Sodom was a dead language, to find it being talked.")

If Billing was a tool in a generals' plot to unseat Lloyd George and to foul any chances of peace (as Michael Kettle argues), the secret was well kept. For six days the court was in a state of hysteria, with more neurotic balderdash talked to the reported inch than seems conceivable. During those six days a ferocious drive by the Germans on Paris was held and blunted by the British Army; what nobody knew then was that this German failure presaged the end of the war. On the sixth day the judge, having allowed any number of questions about the Black Book, said in his summing up that it had nothing to do with the case. The jury returned a verdict for Billing, sparking off chaotic jubilation in court.

The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stuart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers. Even had Billing been convicted he would have still succeeded in his political object. In the event, although some editors berated Billing for his methods, the ends were generally seen to justify the means, and to represent a famous victory for patriotism, morality and the common man.

One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points. The fantastic foulness of the insinuations that Neil Primrose and Evelyn de Rothschild were murdered from the rear makes one sick. How miserably conducted a case, both by that contemptible Darling and Hume Williams! Darling insisted on having the case out of rotation.


NOEL PEMBERTON-BILLING

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Noel Pemberton Billing - History

Eardley Delauny Billing was born in 1873 in Kensington, London, the son of Charles Eardley Billing, a Birmingham iron-founder, and his wife, Annie Emilia Claridge, and the elder brother of Noel Pemberton Billing .

The Billing tractor biplane was constructed at Brooklands during 1911 using the wings of the Voisin pusher of C.A. Moreing. The engine was a 40 h.p. ENV Type D. It was originally flown with an uncovered fuselage but fabric was added later. Billing was, at that time, in charge of the Lane Gliding School at Brooklands and for a brief period at the begining of 1912 was in charge of the Deperdussin School at Brooklands.

The machine was in use from May 1911 to the end of the season, becoming nicknamed the 'Oozley Bird'. Eardley and his wife Ada also ran the Bluebird restaurant at Brooklands until its closure at the outbreak of war. Billing had previously made a ground trainer, the Eardley Billing Oscillator, at Brooklands which was exhibited at the Stanley Show in November 1910.

The Billing biplane was crashed on 4 October 1911 by N.S. Percival , who rebuilt it as the Percival Parseval I at the end of 1911.

Eardley Billing died in Colchester in December 1915.

  1. British Aircraft Before The Great War, Michael H. Goodall and Albert E. Tagg (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001)

LGBTQ+ history: Maud Allan and ‘unnatural practices among women’

Photograph of Maud Allan dressed as ‘Salome’, 1910. Reference: COPY 1/550/190.

Maud Allan was a much-celebrated dancer on the West End stage in the early 20th century. She captivated audiences all around Europe with her confident and alluring performances. So, how did she become involved in one of the most sensational trials of the 20th century?

It’s a complex tale, involving accusations of treason, a libel case and unabashed female sexuality. This case has been the subject of many historical studies: within queer history circles it is well known. 2 However, this episode remains relatively unknown outside of academic circles, despite the records from the trial being openly accessible at The National Archives.

The wider context of the trial is also particularly relevant. Social attitudes against same-sex relationships, female sexual expression, and foreigners – heightened by public paranoia during the First World War – meant that many people saw those outside of the norms as threats to the security of the nation. As much as being a compelling story in itself, this trial is a window into the tensions and politics of the era.

The performer – Maud Allan

Allan was born Ulla Maude Durrant in Canada in around 1873. In her early 20s she had travelled to Europe to escape her dark family history: her brother had been the culprit behind a shocking double murder in San Francisco. Allan studied piano in Berlin, before taking to the stage as a dancer and impressively turning her fortunes around.

By 1906 she was attracting audiences in Vienna with a version of ‘Salome’, based on Oscar Wilde’s controversial play. Salome was a biblical figure, who was said to have danced before Herod with the head of John the Baptist on a silver plate. In Wilde’s version, Salome kisses John’s severed head, making her the ultimate symbol of a dangerous and lascivious woman. Allan quickly became renowned for her seductive interpretation of the famous Dance of the Seven Veils, for which she made her own revealing costumes. 3

The Palace Theatre (known at the time of this photo in 1891 as the Royal English Opera House), Cambridge Circus, London. Reference: COPY 1/406/467.

This was the first mistake Allan made: playing a sexually confident woman on the stage. The second was being associated with ‘posing sodomite’ Oscar Wilde, whose trial for gross indecency in 1895 lingered within public memory. There were also strict rules at this time about religious depictions on stage, let alone ones as controversial as this.

Allan’s performances toured Europe and beyond, ending up with a very successful run at the Palace Theatre in London from 1908. By 1918 she reprised this role, working with the Dutch theatre impresario J T Grein. 4 He had a transformative influence on London’s West End, including founding the Independent Theatre Society, which inventively avoided the censor by holding ‘private’ performances paid for by subscription. 5

Grein had his own problematic connections in this era – he had particularly championed works from the continent. He founded the German Theatre in London Programme in 1900, which did him no favours in the anti-German climate of the First World War.

Allan agreed again to the role, this time excited by the prospect of a speaking part. This was not for a public performance, however, but rather a provate, unlicensed one. To be an audience member of Allan’s private performance of Salome, spectators had to apply to a Miss Valettea of 9 Duke Street Adelphi W6. This was a way of escaping the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain, who had banned Oscar Wilde’s works in the aftermath of his trial. 6

The following advertisement was to be found printed in the Sunday Times, on 10 February 1918:

OSCAR WILDE’S SALOME
MAUD ALLAN in private performances by
J. T. GREIN’s INDEPENDENT THEATRE,
April next. 7

It was this advertisement that prompted an initial backlash.

The Member of Parliament – Noel Pemberton-Billing

Noel Pemberton-Billing was a British inventor, writer and Member of Parliament. 8 Pemberton-Billing was notoriously right-wing, which was illustrated through his establishment of the Vigilante Society during the First World War. The newspaper of the organisation, ‘The Vigilante’, stated that it was, ‘founded in the interest in purity of public life.’ (HO 45/22797)

It was in the pages of this newspaper that the allegedly libellous content was published. The paragraph was printed under the sensational headline, ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’.

Extract from the Central Criminal Court Indictments, 1918 23 April. Reference: CRIM 4/1398

Pemberton-Billing used his paper to critique Allan’s upcoming performance in Salome. He essentially implied that Allan was a lesbian, a member of a ‘cult’ of women who loved women. While relationships between women were never illegal, unlike homosexual acts between men, it was nevertheless socially unacceptable and attracted controversy. Even more shockingly, Pemberton-Billing accused Allan of having an affair with Margaret Asquith, the former Prime Minister’s wife.

Photograph of Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister, Mrs Asquith and Miss Elizabeth Asquith, 1910. Reference: COPY 1/552/184.

Pemberton-Billing speculated that Allan’s private performances of Salome would attract a number of high-profile homosexuals, who he believed were named in a ‘Black Book’. The 47,000 individuals said to be included in this Black Book were believed to be being blackmailed by the German government.

The wider context of the trial is particularly relevant. At the height of the First World War, society was looking for scapegoats. As a seemingly-lascivious woman, of foreign descent, who had studied music in Germany, Allan was a logical target. One of the concerns from Pemberton-Billing was that people engaging in same sex relationships would be vulnerable to bribery and, in times of war, he saw this as a weakness to the county. Despite being heavily referenced in the trial, the Black Book has never been found.

These accusations threatened to have a serious effect on Allan’s career. She took Pemberton-Billing to court.

The Trial – The King v Noel Pemberton-Billing

The trial ran over six days. The National Archives holds the associated court records, Home Office files and correspondence around unlicensed plays in his era. One such Home Office file contains correspondence about such private performances (1918-1949, HO 45/22797): in this document is a copy of ‘The Vigilante’ newspaper from June 1918, with a full – albeit biased – report of the trial. This contains Pemberton-Billing’s defence to the accusation of libel. He made the trial even more of a spectacle by defending himself. He claimed that he did not know what the phrase ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’ meant – and the fact that Allan did proved her guilt.

When being questioned about the libellous phrase, Allan said: ‘Now, gentlemen, I am not going to soil my tongue with any more description of what those words mean.’ (HO 45/22797) The trial papers describe Wilde as ‘a moral pervert’, with the play further defined as ‘an open representation of degenerate sexual lust, sexual crime, and unnatural passions, and an evil and mischievous travesty of a biblical story.’ (CRIM 4/1398)

Front page of The Vigilante newspaper, June 1918. Reference: HO 45/22797.

Allan, meanwhile, admitted that she knew little about Salome, but (somewhat unwisely) told the court that she regarded Wilde as ‘a great artiste’. (HO 45/22797)

Rather than focusing on the libel accusation, the judge seemed more concerned that the uncensored play had got on the stage at all. In his closing statement the judge noted that the costume Allan wore for her performance, was ‘in fact, …worse than nothing’. (HO 45/22797) Despite being the plaintiff, Allan herself was seemingly on trial.

Home Office papers also picked up on the revelation that Pemberton-Billing’s wife was of part German descent. This is interesting and ironic, in light of his prolific war-time propaganda and feeding of anti-German sentiment. (HO 144/1498/364780)

A section of the report of the trial from The Vigilante newspaper, June 1918. Reference: HO 45/22797

The verdict

Ultimately the jury found Pemberton-Billing not guilty, at which there was said to be a great outburst of cheering in the gallery. In his closing statement, the judge spent a great deal of time detailing how the play was clearly not appropriate for either public or private performances. Salome, Wilde and Allan were publically scrutinised, while Pemberton-Billing had been vindicated.

The wider significance of this can be seen in letters sent to the Home Office and in the Cabinet papers at the time. Speculation in government was evident. What would this trial do to the visibility of lesbianism? Was it counterproductive for Pemberton-Billing, given his conservative nature, to essentially give publicity to a ‘cult’ of women loving women? Reverend Francis Knight wrote to the Home Office during the trial expressing concern. He suggested that it would be wise for the magistrates to dismiss it, ‘rather than give any more publicity to the case – in the interest of this Country and our Allies’, before it was ‘too late’ (HO 144/1498/364780).

Despite Allan’s strenuous denial of Pemberton-Billing’s accusations, it is interesting to note that Margaret Asquith paid for her apartment overlooking Regent’s Park, until Herbert Asquith’s death in the late 1920s. Furthermore, it was in this apartment that Allan lived with Verna Aldrich, her secretary and lover. 9

Baptist College (previously known as Holford House), Regents Park, London NW, where Allan lived with Verna Aldrich in the West Wing exterior views of building and grounds. Dated 1937. Reference: CRES 35/3368. Letter concerning the lease and maintenance of the much neglected West Wing apartment, where Allan lived with Verna Aldrich. Reference: WORK 16/1192.

At the heart of the case was anxiety about lesbian relationships and the profile that this trial might give to such relationships between women. In the years after the trial, this is emphasised in Cabinet discussions. In 1921 a bill to criminalise lesbian relationships was passed in the Commons, intended ‘to make gross indecency between females a criminal offence.’ (CAB 24/131/61). The major backlash to the passing of this legislation was the fear that criminalising same-sex relationships between women would lead to greater visibility of lesbians – and, therefore, an increase in their number.

Cases such as Maud Allan’s, and the sensation it caused, had contributed to this heightened fear of the ‘cult of the clitoris’.


Noel Pemberton Billing found not guilty at Old Bailey

London, 5 June 1918 - One of the most extraordinary cases ever tried in a British law court has come to a close.

Noel Pemberton Billing, MP, has been found not guilty of criminal libel against actress Maud Allan. The charge stemmed from a paragraph published in Billing's Vigilante newspaper, which made reference to a performance of Oscar Wilde&rsquos play Salome, in which Allan was to star.

Maud Allan, in costume as Salomé in Oscar Wilde's play of the same name (Image: New York Public Library)

Billing claimed that the performance was aimed specifically at a morally corrupt subset - numbering 47,000 people - of British society. Billing further claimed that the names of the members of this immoral group have been compiled into a list by German authorities, who have been using this information as leverage against them in an attempt to demoralise the British public and thereby weaken the war effort.

Speaking in the aftermath of the verdict, Mr Justice Darling remarked that the case had arisen entirely from the production of the play, which has been banned from being performed in public, but was able to be produced privately.

The verdict was met with cheers from the crowded public gallery inside the Old Bailey and from the crowds that had gathered outside the building.

On receiving the judgement, Hume Williams, KC, intimated that two further indictments &ndash one of which was for obscene libel &ndash would not be proceeded with.

[Editor's note: This is an article from Century Ireland, a fortnightly online newspaper, written from the perspective of a journalist 100 years ago, based on news reports of the time.]

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From Graces Guide

Noel Pemberton Billing (1880-1948)

1881 January 31st. Born in Hampstead, the youngest child of Charles Eardley Billing, a Birmingham iron-founder, and his wife, Annie Emilia Claridge.

Educated at the high school, Hampstead

Educated at Cumming's College, outside Boulogne

Educated at Westcliff College, Ramsgate

Educated at Craven College, Highgate

1881 Living at 6 College Villas Road, Hampstead: Charles E. Billing (age 40 born Birmingham), Gas Stove Manufacturer employing 1 man and 8 boys. With his wife Annie A. Billing (age 35 born Coventry) and their children Eardley D. Billing (age 7 born London), Mabel B. Billing (age 6 born London), Hilda W. Billing (age 4 born London), Claribel M. Billing (age 3 born London), Adeline A. Billing (age 1 born London), and Noel P. Billing (age born London). Five servants. Ώ]

1891 Living at 100 Abbey Road, Hampstead: Charles Eardley Billing (age 50 born Birmingham), Gas Stove and (?) Burner Manufacturer. With his wife Annie Amelia Billing (age 45 born Coventry) and their children Eardley Delorney Billing (age 17 born South Kensington), Mabel Barrow Billing (age 16 born South Kensington), Hilda Westley Billing (age 14 born South Hampstead), Noel Pemberton Billing (age 10 born South Hampstead), and Mary Claribel Belling (age 13 born South Hampstead). Also two boarders. Three servants. ΐ]

1894 Stowed away on a ship bound for Delagoa Bay. In Durban he drifted into a succession of menial jobs before joining the Natal mounted police.

1899-1901 Fought in the South African War.

1903 Married Lilian Maud (d. 1923), daughter of Theodore Henry Schweitzer, of Bristol. There were no children.

1908-10 Edited the new journal Aerocraft

1908 Designed and tested, on his own airstrip in Fambridge, Essex, three light monoplanes, two of which left the ground.

1911 Living at 3 Essex Court, Temple, EC: Noel Pemberton Billing (age 30 born Hampstead), Student of Law. With his wife (married seven years) Lilian Maud Pemberton Billing (age 40 born Clifton, Bristol). Α]

Billing then entered into land speculation, writing, yacht broking, and ship-running.

By 1913 he had amassed enough capital to found a yard on Southampton Water, where he pioneered the construction of flying boats (supermarines).

1914 Commodore Murray Sueter selected the 'strange, unscrupulous, buccaneering, reckless polymath' Noel Pemberton Billing to plan and execute a raid on German Zeppelin hangars at Friedrichshafen. He was granted a temporary commission as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service. The remarkable tale of his involvement is told in 'The Flatpack Bombers' Β]

1916 As a squadron commander, he retired in frustration in order to publicize his complaints about the way the war in the air was being conducted.

1918 Sued for criminal libel by the dancer Maud Allan

At the start of the Second World War Billing produced a design for a pilotless flying bomb the British authorities turned it down.

1948 November 11th. Died on his motor yacht Commodore, The Quay, Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex.

See Wikipedia entry for information on the more bizarre aspects of Billing's life.


British RFC Supermarine Nighthawk

The British RFC Supermarine Nighthawk, an anti-Zeppelin night fighter, used a trainable nose-mounted searchlight, a 1½-pounder (37 mm) Davis gun mounted above the top wing with 20 shells, and two .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis guns. Power for the searchlight was provided by an independent gasoline engine-driven generator set made by ABC Motors, possibly the first instance of a recognizable airborne auxiliary power unit hybrid.

A searchlight was mounted in the Nighthawk’s nose to help the gunners aim at night (as its name implies, the Nighthawk was designed as a night-fighter), and the aircraft reputedly carried 1016 kg (2240 lb) of fuel for its two 100-hp Anzani engines – enough for it to remain in the air for up to 18 hours while loitering at speeds as slow as 35 mph (56 kph).

Noel Pemberton Billing set up a company, Pemberton-Billing Ltd, in 1913 to produce seagoing aircraft. Its telegraphic address, used for sending telegrams and cables to the company, was Supermarine, Southampton. It produced a couple of prototypes using quadruplane designs to shoot down zeppelins the Supermarine P.B.29 and the Supermarine Nighthawk. The aircraft were fitted with the recoilless Davis gun and the Nighthawk had a separate powerplant to power a searchlight. Upon election as an MP in 1916 Pemberton-Billing sold the company to his factory manager and longtime associate Hubert Scott-Paine who renamed the company Supermarine Aviation Works Ltd. The company became famous for its successes in the Schneider Trophy for seaplanes, especially the three wins in a row of 1927, 1929 and 1931.

The P. B. 29E “Battle Plane”

A large quadruplane with a biplane tailplane and three rudders, the P. B. 29E was powered by a pair of 90 h. p. Austro-Daimler engines driving four-bladed pusher propellers. The rear fuselage was of triangular cross-section and had a two-wheel undercarriage with two small nosewheels on outriggers. Above the fuselage, between the third and top wing, was an enclosed position for a gunner armed with a Lewis machine-gun. There were two cockpits, one forward of the wing leading edge, the other just abaft the trailing edge and fitted with intercom and dual control.

After completion the P. B. 29E was delivered to the RNAS station at Chingford in Essex by lorry and was tested by Flt Lt Sidney Pickles on January 1, 1916. A test report was prepared by Flight Commander G. H. Dyott at Messrs Hewlett & Blondeau’s Works, Leagrave, Bedfordshire, and sent to Wg Cdr Lambe at RNAS Dover. The report, which is published here for the first time, ran as follows:

“Following your instructions I proceeded to Chingford on Saturday, January 15 [1916], and examined the new PB quadruplane. Fortunately it was being tried out on the grounds, so I had an opportunity to watch the initial trials.

“The general outline offends one’s sense of mechanical proportion in that the weights are not concentrated near the centre but distributed vertically as well as longitudinally, the former being a most undesirable characteristic. The centre of thrust of the propellers does not lay along the centre of head resistance this would cause difficulties in the longitudinal balance, which, coupled with this heavy weight in the top plane, might prove a very serious factor in rough weather or extreme positions such as diving at a sharp angle.

“Much larger elevators should be necessary. This was confirmed by Pickles when he made his short hop. Also larger surface for the planes will probably be essential if much fore-and-aft stability is required. A large-area monoplane tail would be better than a small biplane tail of the same area. The ailerons and rudder controls appear quite satisfactory.

“The actual details of construction are very rough indeed, but that is not a serious fault which would affect the machine as an experiment. Structurally I think it is weak in some directions, such, for instance, as the fore-and-aft bracing of the wings to the fuselage. The fuselage is of triangular section which does not give much rigidity and the weights are too far back to give good balance with the passenger in his seat.

“The wing section is rather flat underneath and follows the usual Royal Aircraft Factory outline. With a full load on board, I don’t think the speed is over 60 m. p. h. [97km/h], so when all is said and done, even if it could fly for 10hr on end, it would never cover a great distance. However speed is not everything and the machine should not be condemned on that score. I think results will show that the very large speed variation will not be realised in practice.

“The Third Sea Lord [Rear Admiral Frederick Tudor] was an interested spectator and afterwards enquired of Pickles how the machine handled in the air. `Beautifully, the best machine I ever flew’ was the reply. `Change the elevators and she will be absolutely IT’. Statements such as these are apt to be misleading and do a lot of harm unless received by people like the DAS, who has the happy faculty of listening to opinions and drawing his own conclusions.

“The results of this very brief test were received with the greatest satisfaction and on the strength of it I understand much larger work is to be put in hand. Flight Commander FitchNoyes told me that, as a result, the new `Super Battle Plane’ would be started at once. On enquiries as to what it was like, he told me it had five or six planes, three or four fuselages and weighed about 20 tons [20,320kg]. It would seem rather odd to jump to such sizes when no moderately large machine had yet proved itself to be of any value.

“Personally I was not so enthusiastic as the other observers, for I did not consider such a test capable of demonstrating anything at all, except showing very pronounced errors in the design. If difficulties arise, it will be found in the longitudinal balance when the top tank is full and the top passenger seat occupied.

“On looking at the general construction and outline, I would say that Mr Pemberton Billing had very little to do with it, and my impression is that certain people at the Admiralty were anxious to try out such a type of multiplane and did not want to shoulder the responsibility for another failure as in the case of the [Blackburn] Sparrow, their idea being to get some constructor to work in conjunction with them, and who would get the blame if it was not a success.”

“I should not herald it as a great success . . .” The report continues: “In conclusion, I must say that it is an interesting effort in spite of its bad proportions and no doubt some good information will result from it. Having made a short hop, I should not herald it as a great success and we must wait to see its performance in the air before saying very much further.

“In general, multiplanes have great advantages as regards speed and weight-lifting so the more authentic information we can get in this direction the better. I would like to see the top plane removed altogether and the tank and passenger seat accommodated in a larger and better proportioned fuselage. In this way, the pilot and rear passenger could remain where they are and the additional observer placed in front of the planes. In its present state I think it is too small to permit the observer crawling up in to the top plane seat without affecting the equilibrium of the machine.”

It is believed that it was also test flown by Flight Commander John Seddon. It was never flown operationally, as it was written off in an accident at Chingford later in 1916 and returned to Woolston. Despite Dyott’s rather critical report, it was considered worthy of development and the Supermarine Aviation Works Ltd (as the company was now called) was given an order to build two more heavily-armed machines, to be known as the P. B. 31E. It would appear that the fuselage of the P. B. 29E was scrapped, but that its wings and tailplane (or parts thereof) were incorporated in the first of the new machines, for which the Admiralty issued contract CP 130778/16 on November 24, 1916.

The Nighthawk

It would seem that a development of the P. B. 29E, the “Super Battle Plane”, had been schemed even before it had flown, as Capt K. E. Kennedy RFC, in a lengthy report on the testing of the Davis non-recoil gun dated December 31, 1915, refers to the “P. B. 31” as prospectively being fitted with several Davis guns.

The P. B. 31E was completed in November 1916 and delivered to Design Flight, Eastchurch, in the first week of December it was test flown by Clifford B. Prodger in February 1917. The Nighthawk When it finally emerged, the new quadruplane, now known as the Supermarine Nighthawk, was a much more substantial aeroplane with a pugnacious look. The wings were a similar version of those used on the P. B. 29E and the tailplane structure was virtually the same but with two rudders. The fuselage was of square cross-section. The gunner’s enclosure was larger and located on top of the fuselage it had provision for one or more two-pounder Davis guns at the front and Lewis gun(s) on a Scarff mounting at the back.

The extended nose of the fuselage had a Scarff mounting for a Lewis gun. In front of this was a trainable nose-mounted searchlight powered by an independent 5 h. p. ABC engine-driven generator. The first pilot sat in a fully glazed enclosure just forward of the leading edge of the wings and the second pilot sat behind him. The twin 100 h. p. Anzani engines were fitted to the second wing and drove four-bladed propellers.

Although touted as being able to reach 60 mph (121 km/h), the P. B. 31E prototype only managed 60 mph (97 km/h) at 6,500 ft (1,981 m) and took an hour to climb to 10,000 ft (3,048 m), which was totally inadequate for intercepting Zeppelins.

By the time the Nighthawk was delivered it was realised that small single- or two-seat fighters armed with incendiary ammunition could successfully destroy Zeppelins (and later, Gotha bombers) when aided by searchlights and supported by anti-aircraft artillery. Pemberton Billing’s ambitious plans were shelved.

The P. B. 31E, untried in war, was scrapped on March 3, 1917, never having had the opportunity to test Pemberton Billing’s theories of defence against night bombers, which he would revisit two decades later in the early days of the next major European conflict. Pemberton-Billing promised that he would fly over the East End to drop a vote of thanks to the people when they elected him. The East-Enders saved him the trouble by choosing someone else for their Member of Parliament.


CELEBRATING A STEAM PUNK ZEPPELIN BUSTER PART 1

THE 1917 P.B. 31E Nighthawk was Supermarine Aircraft’s first design, an utterly bizarre steam punk Zeppelin buster, from this English firm destined, two decades later, to produce the legendary Spitfire. In fact, Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell had a hand in elements of the P.B. 31E.

Today in Part 1, we’ll look at the Nighthawk in its flawed World War I reality tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll continue with WWI and then let the P.B. 31E perform, albeit only virtually, in today’s world of GMax and Microsoft Flight Simulator.

My modeling of Pemberton Billing’s Nighthawk, using Gmax for Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Noel Pemberton Billing. The Nighthawk’s P.B. designation comes from Noel Pemberton Billing, English eccentric who has already made appearances here at SimanaitisSays for a variety of reasons.

Noel Pemberton Billing, aka Pemberton-Billing, 1881–1948, British aviator, aviation entrepreneur, inventor, publisher, Member of Parliament, and conspiracy theorist.

Pemberton Billing started his own aircraft company in 1914. His P.B. 7 was, literally, a flying boat: a cabin cruiser with detachable wings and tail. Though highly touted, with several on order, no P.B.7 ever flew. World War I intervened.

The Zeppelin Terror. On January 19, 1915, a German dirigible dropped bombs on the seaside towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. On the night of May 31, 1915, another Zeppelin bombed London. Seven people died and 35 were injured. The Zeppelin Terror had begun.

Eight years before, H.G. Wells’ book The War in the Air predicted New Yorkers being terrorized by Zeppelins. In 1915, Pemberton Billing attempted to devise a defense against this terror: a Zeppelin Buster, of sorts. The P.B. 29E was a bizarre aeroplane with a stacking of four wings, a quadruplane.

The P.B. 29E prototype proved cumbersome in flight, potentially useless in Zeppelin-busting, and crashed in early 1916. Its 1917 P.B. 31E successor was another quadruplane, even more bizarre than the P.B. 29E.

The Supermarine P.B. 31E Nighthawk. Image from Plane Encyclopedia.

Why a Quadruplane? Predating the H.P.E.R. (Hollywood Producers’ Elephant Rule: “If one elephant is good, a thousand elephants must be a thousand times better….”), Pemberton Billing reasoned that if triplanes seemed to fly better than biplanes, then why not a four-wing craft?

Both of his quadruplane designs had modestly swept-back wings of different lengths. The P.B. 31E’s topmost wing was its largest, with a span of 60 ft. (By comparison, the nimble Sopwith Camel fighter plane’s span was 28 ft.) The P.B. 31E’s tail surfaces were multi-planed as well, both horizontally and vertically.

Impressive Firepower. The P.B. 31E’s mission as Zeppelin Buster was to cruise aloft in extended stints at night and attack any Zeppelin encountered. It carried Lewis machine guns, front and rear, the sort arming WWI fighters. These were manned by two gunners, one perched in the nose of the craft, the other covering the rear from a turret atop the cabin. The turret also had a Davis recoilless rifle with considerably more firepower than the Lewis armament. (The Lewis machine guns were .303s (7.7 mm) the David was a “one-and-a-half pounder” (about 37 mm).

Davis Recoilless Action. A 37-mm firearm generates considerable kick, quite enough to damage the fragile airframes of early aircraft. The Davis offered recoil-free operation through clever physics: It was essentially two rifles mounted opposite each other. When the business end fired its 37-mm shell, the opposing end simultaneously fired an equivalent mass of lead pellets.

The result was recoilless action, though I’ve got to wonder whether that hapless gunner up top was ever nearby. Or did he get to crawl forward and fire the Davis?


The Cult of the Camera: Noel Pemberton Billing and the Compass

I have less of the fetishist enthusiasm in photography than many. I own no dun-coloured waistcoat with thirty pockets, for example, and I find that I cannot concentrate through (let alone contribute to) even the first bars of any conversation about anti-aliasing filters. I’ve never been a photographer I am disbarred from the whole freemasonry of gear.

Yet that fetishism exists. Here’s a little gadget which I’d like to hold in my hands. I’d like it on my mantel. I might even put it in my pocket and rub it surreptitiously, like a worry stone or a rosary …

I’ve succumbed, you see — most unusually for me — to a photographic object. I want to own one. And it comes as the pivot to a whole group of stories.

These pictures, harvested online, are of something called a Compass Camera. The pictures come from many sources, and I’m grateful to all of them, but I want to send you to just one among them. The site http://www.submin.com not only contains many detailed comparisons of different models of Compass, but also a substantial number of manuals, promotional material and so on, reproduced page by page in their entirety, an invaluable guide to the machine itself and the context in which it was offered.

The Compass is tiny – less than 3 inches square, and barely more than an inch deep when closed. It dates from 1937. It’s so intricate that it had to be manufactured by a Swiss watch maker, LeCoultre. As a feature on it in Camera magazine in 1965 put it, the Compass was ‘everything but a success.’ Part of its problem was simply the price: at launch, it cost £30, compared to the Leica selling at £15.

Compass advertising in Amateur Photographer, 1939, reproduced in Cyclope 52, 2000

Another difficulty would have been its phenomenal fiddliness. It looks like a fantasy of what a spy camera might be, yet you’d have to wonder what kind of spying would offer the leisure to manipulate quite so many tiny dials and switches to operate the thing. It takes 35mm film – perfectly standard stuff, you’d think, ideal for spying. Except not quite. It takes individual sheets of 35mm film, pre-backed on light-tight paper, which are loaded like the single plates of much larger, heavier (and acknowledgedly slow) cameras. A later modification allowed use of a roll of film, but even that was hardly convenient, as it was limited to six exposures. Yet some 4000 of these things were made some of the design ideas it encompassed are still in use. It was brilliant, it worked, and it’s beautiful.

Compass in the Hand, from Amateur Photographer, 1943

Compass Camera. Designed by Noel Pemberton Billing in England. Made by LeCoultre & Cie. in Switzerland

The Compass was the design of a man called Noel Pemberton Billing, about whom fact and false fact swirl. If this little camera is beautiful, his more abstract ideas were vile.

Michael Pritchard, in whose History of Photography in 50 Cameras I first met Billing, calls him mildly enough “a true English eccentric”. The historian G. R. Searle (who also wrote Billing’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography) was more outspoken. As quoted by Lucy Bland (in Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper), he called Billing “the most conspicuous and dangerous of all the war-time jingo demagogues”.

Billing was an engineer and designer, principally in aviation. He held hundreds of patents, including many to do with cameras, but stretching beyond them as far as a simple package for safety razor blades. He designed improvements to the gramophone player, too. Philip Hoare, in an essay called I Love a Man in Uniform: the Dandy Esprit de Corps, calls Billing “an Edwardian Lothario, the inventor of the seaplane”.

“Like the prewar ‘nut’, but decidedly more virile,” he goes on, “this dandy autofact’s accessory was the car: Billing drove a lemon yellow Rolls Royce and other, futuristic motors of his own invention commentators noted that he dressed in ‘unusual clothes,’ especially long collared shirts worn ‘without the usual accompaniment of a necktie’.”

Hoare tells us – with a picture from his own collection to back it up – that Billing “had a ledge of flesh inserted in his cheek to keep his monocle in place”.

Had Billing stuck to aviation, he might have been a solid success. He was in it from the very first, experimenting with gliders almost as soon as he came back (in 1903) from a youthful fugue to South Africa. (He had joined the South African police and seems to have served for a while in the Second Boer War.) Billing opened in 1908 what was probably the first airfield in England, on a marsh in Essex. It was overtaken by Goodwood as the centre for pioneering flight. He started an early aviation magazine, Aerocraft in 1909. He raced cars (and also steam yachts). He tinkered. He had money, and he also made some. In 1913, he made a £500 bet with the aircraft engineer Frederick Handley Page that he could get his flying licence from scratch in twelve hours of flying. He had probably been practising for months or years before that he was that kind of man.

But he won his bet, and the winnings (a very substantial sum at the time) allowed him to invest in his very own aircraft factory. He put it on the Solent, on the River Itchen, in fact, because he wanted to specialise in seaplanes. He designed original configurations of aircraft, including one with four stacked wings. He was interested in planes to hunt down Zeppelins, he thought about planes which could land on water and ditch their wings to become lifeboats for damaged ships. None of this was nonsense: the whole industry was full of trial-and-error, chimera-chasing, making-do. It was wartime, and aviation was an industry whose boundaries nobody knew. Pemberton Billing got close but never quite got the cigar. When the government effectively bought out his plant, it survived by repairing planes damaged in the appalling carnage of the time. Never mind the enemy, these things fell out of the sky with alarming frequency and terrifying consequences. He was really close, though. The telegraphic name of the Pemberton-Billing company, chosen by Billing as the superior opposite of submarine, was ‘Supermarine’, which became the company name and which would echo in aviation glory as the maker of the Spitfire – but only after he had sold his share.

Pemberton-Billing PB1, as exhibited at the Olympia Aero Show, London, March 1914. One 50hp Gnome seven cylinder rotary engine. Span 30ft. Length approx 27ft. Maximum speed 50mph.

Billing retired from the Royal Naval Air Service after serving only briefly. He wanted to make a name in politics.

The issue of Flight (“official organ of the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom”) of January 13th 1916 contains the announcement of Billing’s convenient eleventh-hour promotion to Temporary Squadron Commander at the same time as the notice of his resignation from the Service. The issue runs what is in effect a campaign manifesto for Billing, including a front-page editorial, a full-page portrait, and a long and frankly hagiographic profile.

“His object is to become the advocate in Parliament for the very extended air policy which has been so strongly urged in the past in ‘Flight’…From his knowledge of aviation he is not likely to be led astray by a lot of flap-doodle statements emanating from those who have some axe to grind of their own.”

Pemberton-Billing as a Lobbyist for Aviation

Tellingly, Billing is described as standing for parliament ‘at the request of an influential committee’.

In other words, he was backed as a lobbyist. He was eventually elected, in Hertfordshire. Partly because he was loud and a showman, and partly because the arguments for increased air power were in fact sensible at a time of appalling slaughter on the ground, he acquired a certain populist renown.

Then things went from the zany Buster Keaton world of early aviation to something a great deal nastier.

With the financial backing of Lord Beaverbrook, Billing opened a journal called The Imperialist (renamed in early 1918, in case anyone had any doubts of its methods, The Vigilante). Openly anti-Semitic and homophobic, this looked for people to blame for the way the war was going. Billing was persuaded that a secret German campaign called The Unseen Hand was sapping the British will to fight. And what was The Unseen Hand? Networks of prostitutes, deliberately infecting our boys.

“The German, through his efficient and clever agent, the Ashkenazim, has complete control of the White Slave Traffic. Germany has found that diseased women cause more casualties than bullets. Controlled by their Jew-agents, Germany maintains in Britain a self-supporting – even profit-making – army of prostitutes which put more men out of action than does their army of soldiers.”

In December 1917, Billing ran an article by the virulently anti-Semitic Arnold Henry White saying that Germany had a network of homosexual agents (he used the word urnings) on the same kind of mission.

“Espionage is punished by death at the Tower of London, but there is a form of invasion which is as deadly as espionage: the systematic seduction of young British soldiers by the German urnings and their agents… Failure to intern all Germans is due to the invisible hand that protects urnings of enemy race… When the blond beast is an urning, he commands the urnings in other lands. They are moles. They burrow. They plot. They are hardest at work when they are most silent. Britain is only safe when her statesmen are family men.”

Then a Black Book appeared (although mysteriously, its appearance seemed always just around the corner). The book was in the hands of a German aristocrat, briefly king of Albania. Then it was in the Home Office Such a one had seen it but couldn’t produce it just now. The Black Book was supposed to be

“a book compiled by the Secret Service from the reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past 20 years, agents so vile and spreading debauchery of such a lasciviousness as only German minds could conceive and German bodies execute…. for the propagation of evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia…. the names of 47,000 English men and women…. Privy Counsellors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors and members of His Majesty’s household follow each other with no order of precedence…. Wives of men in supreme positions were entangled…. In lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were betrayed.”

This kind of stuff was barely coded at all. Readers would have recognised, I think, in the “wives of men in supreme positions” an allusion to Margot Asquith, wife of the recently unseated Prime Minister, and a constant lightning-rod for gossip and slander. The reference to ‘dancing girls’ would certainly have suggested Maud Allan, the most famous dancing girl of the time. The vision was clear – if clearly mad. There were 47,000 high-placed names, all homosexual, all capable of being blackmailed by Germany.

On it went. The kind of stuff that only a semi-hysterical population can take seriously. But the war looked very hard to win, to say the least. Passchendaele had petered out only recently – the ‘end’ of the battle is usually given as November 1917. In the face of consistently dreadful war news, hysteria was more understandable – and more exploitable – than at more stable times.

Billing went further and further. He claimed that Jews in government were conspiring in treason to lose the war he fomented a series of attacks on Jewish businesses or even on those of people with German-sounding names – all very nasty, and an obvious prefiguring of the habits of British fascists to come.

No need to be a psychologist to see that Billing was a fantasist, or even to suspect that he may have had some trouble dealing with an element of homosexuality of his own. He was certainly an extremist of the right-wing, of the kind that is violently anti-everything. The cast of characters that whirled around him is ‘colourful’ but also included deeply dangerous people. Lord Beaverbrook I’ve mentioned as one of his sponsors. He was the man of whom Evelyn Waugh said “Of course I believe in the devil. How else could I explain Lord Beaverbrook?”. Billing was involved with Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times (and later the Morning Post), a sinister military figure openly contemptuous of politicians and privily plotting against them when their views on strategy differed from his own. Billing employed on The Imperialist the certifiably mad American Harold Spencer (discharged from the British Army for paranoid delusional insanity), the author of a shrilly anti-Semitic book published in 1918 under the title Democracy or Shylocracy.

In early 1918, a private performance was planned of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. It had to be private because the theatre in England was carefully censored (as it remained well into the 1960s). Salome was to be played by Maud Allan, the American actress. The Vigilante published (under the screaming title The Cult of the Clitoris) a hysterical claim that the thousand people due to attend the performance would all also appear in the Black Book. Maud Allan sued Pemberton Billing for criminal libel for suggesting that she was a lesbian. The trial was a sensation: mud of every kind was flung. The court became the perfect launchpad for Pemberton Billing to air his conspiracy theories. A succession of witnesses made spectacular allegations. Dr. Cook, tuberculosis officer for Lambeth, gave evidence to the effect that everybody concerned in the production must have perverted minds, be sadists and sodomists.

Maud Allan as Salome – Photo Reutlinger

As always around Billing, the cast of characters was gaudy. Ms. Allan was herself a sensation. She was a huge star, having long been performing as a dancer to big audiences in London in costumes quite amazingly revealing for the date but she was also revealed to be the sister of a man executed in California in 1898 for the lurid murder of two women. Oscar Wilde’s former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, now a vehement homophobe, gave evidence, as did an extraordinary woman called Eileen Villiers-Stuart.

“Lloyd George and his advisers,” according to Toni Bentley in Sisters of Salome, “hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail. Eileen Villiers-Stuart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She was an attractive, twenty-five-year-old bigamist, and her lunch with the Independent M.P. was all too successful. By the end of the afternoon, mesmerized by him, she flipped her allegiance, slept with him, and divulged the Liberals’ conspiracy to blackmail him. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover’s libel case.”

Gaudy is the word. These people didn’t care too much about telling the truth. Spencer and Villiers-Stuart both later admitted to having lied in court. The judge, Charles Darling, a very senior figure, barely kept control of the trial, but in June 1918 Pemberton Billing was acquitted of all charges of libel. For a few days there was uproar it seemed a vindication of his preposterous views. The fascination of the case has not diminished over time. It is, for example, one of the events rumbling in the background of The Eye in the Door, the second of Pat Barker’s novels in the Regeneration trilogy. No doubt you could make a movie of the life of Noel Pemberton Billing.

The uproar got Billing re-elected to Parliament, but as the credibility of his witnesses became harder to maintain, and as the victory in the war removed the primary cause of the public hysteria in which Billing’s theories had found their ground, he gained little traction from the case. He retired from politics in 1921.

One of the points of the Compass is that it was meant to be a complete camera system: everything you might need was designed into the little block of machined aluminium, including filters and other such elements normally carried separately. Even the tripod was beautifully designed and made for it. A swivelling connector between camera and tripod was built in to allow matched pairs of stereoscopic pictures to be made without effort. Another connector with five notches allowed perfectly aligned panoramas. There were choices of methods of focus, careful exposure ratios (calculated in Compass Units, which were engraved on the machine). It even had a spirit level built in. If you really were in a hurry, there was a SNAP setting in the middle of the shutter speeds (although even getting to that was fiddly).

It was maybe too perfect. Small wonder it was made by a watchmaker. It had some 250 parts. To take a picture with such a thing involved daintiness and precision at the expense of convenience. Pemberton Billing designed another camera in 1946 – the Phantom, which never went into production. It was Michael Pritchard, then at Christie’s, who was responsible for the sale of the prototype in 2001. It was estimated at £8,000-12,000 and sold for £146,750 – smashing the auction record for cameras at the time. Pemberton Billing should have stuck to what he knew he was a really good designer.


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