Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

39. Divorce and murder

In 1922 Filson and Vera had moved with their children from Ebury Street to a larger house at 22 Ladbroke Square, Notting Hill. This was a gloomy mid-Victorian house with a heavy pillared portico, dark inside although it overlooked the gardens of the square and their fine trees. Visitors found the atmosphere reminiscent of a Somerset Maugham story, with a sinister slinky Japanese manservant, and a cat called Tobermory which had one green eye and one gold. (78) Filson, who took pride in knowing Mrs Beeton’s rules for the conduct of servants by heart, could be an excellent host when he felt like it. He had unexceptionable taste in wine – clearly an expensive interest – and he knew how to charm women, though if they were present merely as appendages of men with whom he shared professional interests, he ignored them and ignored Vera too. She first met the BBC’s Chief Engineer Peter Eckersley when Filson brought him home one evening after the two men had been dining together at the St James’s club. Filson was in an unusually cheerful and convivial mood, and going up to her room insisted she put on a dressing gown and come down to be introduced. After the first few minutes the men ignored her, discussing technical matters to do with the BBC while she sat on the rug in front of the fire getting sleepier and sleepier. When Filson brought Reith and Eckersley to dinner together she sat, forgotten, at the head of the table. It was no better when Reith brought his wife, a dour, untidy, unhappy-looking woman in ugly, ill-made tweeds, woollen stockings and hideous shoes. No matter whether they were smart and fashionable or dull, none of Filson’s friends could be bothered with her. She wondered whether she herself might be in some way to blame.(79)

In private his moods swung rapidly between affection and anger, upsetting the children. For Vera, when he was at home there was always the danger he might hit her, and when he was away she knew he might be with other women. Eventually a sympathetic old friend came to the rescue. Clifford Bax was a writer, and brother of the composer Arnold Bax. Where Filson was aggressive, violent and egocentric, Bax was gentle, generous, attentive – and ‘intensely virile’.(80) His first marriage had broken down long before, though his wife refused to divorce him. Though not temperamentally a family man, he was always emotionally involved with one woman or another. It was refreshing for Vera, ignored and abused by Filson, to have a man who thought her fascinating, talented, smart, elegant and mysterious, and who could write of her:


Vain provocative

Heartless, honeyed

Exquisite girl

Are you merely

Something enchanted?

Could we unspell you

What should we find? (81)

But though Filson had other women himself he could not accept that Vera should have other men. So early in 1925 Vera left him, taking their younger son Richard with her. It was agreed that Vera should have custody of Richard, three, while Filson’s sister Isabel (Ben), a professional carer, would for the time being look after five-year-old Billy at her home at Carbis Bay near St Ives in Cornwall. But this arrangement broke down when Filson repeatedly refused to let Billy leave Cornwall to spend time with his mother. In March 1926 she summonsed him for refusing her reasonable access to her child, then 6½. Filson countered by opening divorce proceedings on the grounds of Vera’s adultery with Clifford Bax. Vera retaliated by suing Filson for divorce and accusing him of having sexually abused his stepson Paul North.  The judge, Lord M…, directed that the case should be heard in camera to protect Paul, now twelve or thirteen. Then, about a fortnight before the case was due to open, the name ‘Filson’ made a totally unexpected appearance in the press.

Filson’s mother’s youngest brother Alexander ‘Sandy’ Filson, a keen yachtsman, had succeeded their father in his practice as a Portaferry GP but died, probably of cancer, still under forty in 1883. When his wife Jane (née Warnock, another Portaferry family) died after falling on the ferry slipway and breaking her hip [check] in 1915, the Filson family was extinct in Portaferry despite her parents-in-law having produced eight children and at least thirteen grandchildren. All had either died or left Ireland. Sandy and Jane’s two sons grew up in Portaferry but later headed for India where the elder, James, joined the police and the younger, Alexander Bell Filson (known as Alec), after ‘a disturbed childhood and a chequered career’, lost a leg as a private soldier. Returning to England, Alec found work with a firm of chartered accountants in Cheapside, eventually becoming a partner, but caused a social scandal in the family by marrying a barmaid called Bess. It was a happy marriage, but Bess died of throat cancer in 1925, after which Alec lost his job and partnership in the accountancy firm, remaining an out-of-work single parent at Barnes, with a 17 year-old son at Westminster School and daughters of 14 and 9. There is no evidence that the snobbish Filson had any contact with this family at all, though he must have known of their existence. On the afternoon of Saturday 15 January 1927, Alec’s elder brother James Filson took his own 11 year-old son Andy to watch a rugby international at Twickenham.

As they were returning to London afterwards in a crowded train, Andy read in the Evening Standard that his Uncle Alec had murdered all three of his children and then killed himself. [need the Evg Standard account of Sat 15 Jan 1927 here] His father James was separated from him in the crowded train, so the boy waited until the train reached London, then said, ‘Dad, there’s something about Uncle Alec in the paper.’ ‘Has he got an honour?’ ‘No. Look.’ It had been planned that Andy would go and stay with Alec’s family in a few months’ time. (82)

[This seems to have been an earlier attempt by me to tell the story: had a first cousin, of about his own age, who lived with his family in Barnes, south-west London. Alexander Bell Filson, known as Alec, was a childhood playmate from summer holidays in Portaferry. Alec was practically the same age as Filson and had practically the same name (Filson's full name was Alexander Bell Filson Young; both had been named after their grandfather the first Filson doctor at Portaferry), but they had little else in common and had probably lost contact despite the fact that in recent years both had been living and working in London. Alec's father Alexander (Sandy) had been the second Filson doctor at Portaferry and died of cancer at 38 when Alec was still a small child. After a disturbed childhood, Alec had enlisted as a private soldier and been posted to India where he lost a leg. Settling in London, he had joined a firm of chartered accountants as a temporary clerk and then gradually worked his way up over twenty years to full partnership in the firm. He seems to have been unable to reconcile the working-class and middle-class elements in his background. His relatives were scandalized when he married a barmaid but the marriage proved a happy one and produced three children. Alec prospered sufficiently in his job to be able to send his son to Westminster School. Things began to go wrong in 1925 when he lost his wife to cancer after a long and distressing illness, leaving him a single parent with a 17-year-old public schoolboy son and daughters of 12 and 7. Worried about continuing to be able to educate his children in the station of life to which he felt they must belong, he had recourse to ‘financial irregularities' at work. He was caught and his partnership terminated and he was forced to leave the firm, with no chance of finding similar work anywhere else and no other prospects. Remaining in every other respect a quiet, steady, responsible man devoted to his children and the memory of his wife, one night he shot his children and a little later himself. His son had been about to start a career in the R.A.F. the next day. One of the girls, hearing the shots that killed her brother and sister, had tried to escape, thus forcing her one-legged father to chase her. Alec Filson left a suicide note saying that it had broken his heart to see his wife's home going to rack and ruin. The story was front page fare for the Press.

The Evening News cried:

‘THREE MURDERS BY A FATHER: NOISES HOUSEKEEPER HEARD IN THE NIGHT ... Edgar Allan Poe conceived few stories as strange as that which a woman related to the Mortlake Coroner's Court today', etc. (83)

The inquest found that Alec had committed the murders while of unsound mind.

When this happened, Filson Young was not only preparing for his divorce action, but completing his fourth and last contribution to the ‘Notable Trials' series - the case of the wife-poisoner Herbert Rowse Armstrong - and moving from the imposing if gloomy residence at 22 Ladbroke Square that had witnessed his editorship of the Saturday Review and the collapse of his marriage, to a humbler terraced house at 2 Campden Grove, Kensington. He has left no record of his feelings about his cousin's tragedy, which he no doubt felt could do nothing for his public image. The contested divorce action was heard about a month later. As we have seen, press and public were excluded to protect the children in the case, but Filson and Vera themselves provided a running commentary for their friends, from whom we can reconstruct some sort of picture of what happened. Filson accused Vera of adultery with Bax, while Vera countered that Filson's response to her affair with Bax had been to beat her up and black her eyes while at the same time committing adultery himself with other women. Vera's counsel claimed Filson had knocked Vera downstairs and bribed his servants to spy on her and steal her letters. Clifford Bax, giving evidence, dismissed Filson's claim that infidelity in men was different from infidelity in women as ‘antediluvian'. But this was not all. Vera - put up to it by her female counsel who ‘filled her head with all sorts of ideas', according to Filson - also accused Filson of having sexually abused his stepson Paul North; she was ‘furious' when the judge ruled this evidence inadmissable on the grounds that a man who had fathered two sons could not possibly be homosexual (84). Filson, rejecting Vera's accusation, also blamed her counsel for encouraging her to allege that Filson had taught his little son Billy to masturbate. The court asked Billy's nanny about this but she was unable to answer because she did not understand the word ‘masturbate'. All this was a bit much for the judge, and while a chambermaid was giving a long-winded piece of evidence on Filson's behalf to the effect that Vera and Bax had shared a bedroom at a hotel, the judge's head gradually drooped lower and lower until it rested on the table before him, where it stayed motionless for so long that Filson seriously began to think he might be dead. But when the chambermaid announced, ‘And I found lipstick on Mr Bax's pillow', the judge suddenly sat up and exclaimed, exclaiming ‘Oh, does Mr Bax use lipstick?'

A good deal of Filson's attention at this time was taken up by his affair with the painter Doris (Dod) Procter, and he would drive down to Cornwall each week to spend the weekend with her, At least one of his friends was worried that Vera might find out before the divorce case was over, but Filson sure it would be all right if he was careful (85). He won the case, and thereafter brutally added after Vera's name in his Who's Who entry: ‘whom he divorced 1927'. But at least he admitted she had been his wife, which was more than he had done for Minnie.

Meanwhile Clifford's wife had conveniently - or inconveniently? - died, and in September, a few days after the divorce became absolute, Clifford and Vera were married.

This was another mistake. Domesticity never suited Bax, nor did the rowdy weekly meetings of a ‘Beer and Babble' club Vera founded for 18 to 21-year-olds at their Addison Road house, where the young people rampaged and made fun of their hostess. (86). So long as they were apart their relationship was a positive and life-enhancing experience for both and so it might have continued, in the opinion of their friends, if Filson had not brought things to a head with his ‘antediluvian' intolerance. Bax's friends believed he married Vera more out of a sense of old-fashioned chivalry than anything else, believing it his duty to rescue the woman he loved from the monster whom she had caught ‘having the donkey boy' on their honeymoon in Spain.  It did not take long for Vera and Bax to go their separate ways, and for Vera's  affection for Filson and his for her to return. But it was harder for others. While Filson had still been living with Vera and beating her up, she had showed her bruises to Filson's cousin and early intellectual mentor Edie Bell. Edie took the matter up with Filson who, infuriated by her interference, wrote her letters that, it was said within the family, ‘no gentleman would have written to a lady' (87). Edie's brother Archie (Filson's 1910 host in Trinidad) came to his sister's defence and attacked Filson. This caused Filson's most faithful supporter, his sister Ben, to break off relations with the Bells, while his other sister Janie favoured Vera but remained open to both sides. But all were furious when Filson and Vera rather casually became friends again, because in taking sides the others had said things to one another that they could not easily forgive or forget.

After the divorce Filson took Billy and Vera took Richard - it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that that it might have been important for the brothers to spend time together during their childhood. Meanwhile the disreputable Filson, rather ironically, went on working in one way or another for the puritanical Reith, who in 1929 seems to have engineered the resignation of his faithful lieutenant Peter Eckersley from the BBC for being the innocent party in a divorce case. [But it's not clear exactly why Eckersley lost his job - ask Caversham?]


78  Henry Chisholm (11 March 1976) remembered the manservant, and Elizabeth Dixon (Feb 1976) the cat.

79  [Source? Richard North?]

80  Alec Waugh  My Brother Evelyn and Other Profiles  (1967), 153.

81  Quoted by Alec Waugh in My Brother Evelyn and Other Profiles, 155; Waugh disguised Vera under the name ‘Vera Leslie’, as he admitted in conversation with SM in Feb 1976, also commenting that there is a good deal about Vera in Clifford Bax’s collection of stories Many a Green Isle, written while Bax was in love with her.

82  Alexander Warnock Filson  (1913-1986, better known as ‘Andy’), in conversation with SM, March 1976. Andy Filson worked as an assistant to the left-wing political theorist G.D.H.Cole and unsuccessfully contested the parliamentary seat of Brentford and Chiswick for Labour in 1955; he was director of the Federation of British Film Makers 1957-66. While employed at the British Museum Library he was a colleague of the novelist Angus Wilson, whom he teased for having stolen his name for the family of the cockney animal-keeper ‘Filson’ in his novel The Old Men at the Zoo; Wilson (perhaps unconvincingly) denied the charge. 

83  Evening News, 19 Jan 1927.

84  John R.H.Chisholm in conversation with SM, 11 March 1976.

85  Information about Vera’s counsel, about the nanny who didn’t know the meaning of ‘masturbate’, about the somnolent judge, and about Filson’s weekends with Dod Procter, from Hugh Hynes (in conversation with SM, 4 August 1976). Dr Hynes believed the reason Filson confided in him so freely at the time was simply because he enjoyed the company of younger people.

86  John R.H.Chisholm in conversation with SM, 11 March 1976. John Chisholm, with Clifford Bax and Alec Waugh, was a member of Sit John Squire’s literary cricket team ‘The Invalids’, soon to be made famous in the description of the village cricket match by another playing member, A.G.Macdonell, in his book England Their England (1933).

According to Alec Waugh (in conversation with SM, Feb 1976), Vera’s first husband Stanley North at some point seduced a mistress of her third, Clifford Bax. According to Katharine Graham (in conversation with SM, Aug 1975), it was said of Vera that all her men eventually left her because she insisted on living in such uncomfortable houses.

87 Edie Bell’s great-niece Katharine Graham in conversation with SM, Feb 1976.

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