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Review: Secret Ealing by Paul Howard Lang & Dr Jonathan Oates (2021). A guest post by London Historians member Alan Fortune. 

secret ealing coverThis welcome new publication aims “to explore the lesser-known episodes and characters in the history of the borough [Ealing] through the years”, thereby choosing to omit those familiar Ealing stories and characters which are well documented elsewhere. As such it provides some valuable nuggets of information to supplement the contents of works on Ealing’s history already in existence, as well as stories with which tour guides, for example, could amuse and entertain their audiences.

The book’s twelve chapters are based on the following themes: ancient and medieval Ealing, controversies, crime, espionage, crime and TV, WW1, mental health, peopling, politics, scandal, sport, and vanished buildings. The chapters vary both in length and in the quality of their contents, but they are all very well illustrated by excellent photographs, contemporary and otherwise, even if the lack of cross-referencing from text to illustration can be an irritant.
For this review, I will not attempt to provide a comprehensive commentary of the contents of each chapter. Some chapters are rather dry and factual; others are livelier and more discursive. I have chosen to discuss just those parts of the book which most stood out for me.

In the ‘controversies’ chapter, I was astonished to discover that the controversy surrounding the recent landmark court decision to remove anti-abortion protestors from outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Mattock Lane has its roots in the 1930s. At the time there was another controversy about the council’s decision to allow a monthly birth control clinic to be held in Mattock Lane. Not everyone was happy about it even though the clinic was for married women only. However, the council did not yield to the pressure mounted largely by religious groups. Also in the 1930s, religious groups such as the Lords Day Observance Society opposed the opening of cinemas, and even the playing of games in local parks, on Sundays. Again, the pressure groups failed. The results of two separate referendums, held in 1938 and in 1940, were in favour respectively of permitting sports to be played in public parks and the opening of cinemas.

The chapter on crime, despite the inclusion of some uninteresting and tenuous Ealing Jack the Ripper connections, includes gorily fascinating stories about the victims, found in Acton, of the 1960s serial killer known as Jack the Stripper, and about the unsolved murder of management consultant, Diana Maw, found dead outside her flat in Ealing in 1988 with a crossbow bolt in her head. The highlight of the espionage chapter is the story of how Acton public library improved its stock of science books and journals in the late 1960s and was rewarded by a series of suspicious visits from mysterious gentlemen from the Soviet embassy who were especially interested in papers on nuclear physics.

The film and TV chapter has useful information on film locations in the borough, and deals well with the early years of the Ealing Film Studios. Their heyday (1938-65) under Sir Michael Balcon is well documented elsewhere so the authors concentrate on the years immediately following 1907 when William Barker built the studios and made some ground-breaking silent films.

My favourites sections of the later chapters focus on such stories as:

  • how a tank designed by West Ealing factory owner Arthur Nesfield was placed outside Ealing Town Hall and helped to raise about £5,000 for the WW1 effort.
  • how Donald Hume spent two of his later years of incarceration undergoing a rehabilitation programme at St. Bernard’s Hospital in Ealing. Hume had been convicted of the murder of Stan Setty, the wealthy Fitzrovia car dealer whose dismembered body was scattered into the sea near Southend from a light aircraft. His torso was eventually discovered in the Essex Marshes.
  • how and where early twentieth century Welsh, Irish and Scots migrants settled in Ealing. The Welsh settled in Southall in large numbers in the 1920s, and it was amusing to read how a local newspaper (exact source unmentioned, as are so many sources quoted in the book) bemoaned the fact that newly arrived Welsh workers were prepared to work for far lower wages than their local English counterparts, and that ‘the present unparalled invasion is causing intense bitterness and heart burning among local working class men.” The use of the work ‘invasion’ is redolent of the type of loaded language used in the press about more recent immigrant workers before the 2016 Brexit referendum.
  • how Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists, on two occasions in the thirties addressed large crowds in Ealing Town Hall. After subsequently being banned from speaking on council premises, he continued his rabble-rousing at a large rally in West Ealing.

I find it difficult to understand why there is no mention at all of Ealing’s huge contribution to the world of rock and roll. There was the pioneering role of the Ealing Club in the British blues boom of the 1960s, which kick-started the careers of musical legends such the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon and many others. A blue plaque now stands near the location of this club near Ealing Broadway station. Another in Hanwell Broadway commemorates Jim Marshall’s music shop, where he first developed and sold Marshall Amplifiers, now part of the stage furniture at any rock concert the world over. More recently a plaque outside the site of her old school in Northfields honours Dusty Springfield (nee Mary O’Brien), the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is sad that these Ealing ‘secrets’ do not merit a chapter.

The book is in dire need of far more assiduous editing that it appears to have received. The syntax is sometimes mangled and convoluted, which makes accessing the authors’ intended meaning a more laboured process than it should be. One lexical howler made me chuckle. Apparently, wartime tensions led to German residents of Ealing “being interred for fear they might aid the German war effort”. We have all heard of underground movements but this is ridiculous! It is also regrettable that the book has no bibliography or index.

In summary, although the above problems do detract from the book’s impact, it is still a welcome addition to list of publications on Ealing’s history.

Secret Ealing (96 pp) by Paul Howard Lang and Dr Jonathan Oates is published by Amberley Press in paperback with a cover price of £15.99 but available for less.  

Alan Fortune is a qualified London guide, long-standing member of London Historians and founder member of the Ealing and West London Tour Guides


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