Tag: First World War

Nurse Daniels

On 6 October 1926, a woman went into a cloakroom in Boulogne, France and never came out. She was never seen alive again. Her disappearance captivated the world, and even detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers tried to solve the case.

This is the story of Nurse Daniels.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/nursedaniels. The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

You can donate to the show at shedunnitshow.com/donate and buy books for Caroline to use in the research for future episodes at shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

Other sources and further reading:
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds
The British Newspaper Archive

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/nursedanielstranscript

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See shedunnitshow.com/musiccredits for more details.

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

Nurse Daniels Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the tenth episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: On 6 October 1926, a young woman went into the cloakroom on the quay at Boulogne in France. Her friend was waiting for her outside, expecting her to come out again quickly because they were due to catch the boat back to England in ten minutes’ time. The seconds ticked by, and the boat left, but still the young woman didn’t appear. She was never seen alive again.

Five months later, her body was found several miles away. An umbrella and a syringe of morphine were lying nearby, and it looked as if she had been strangled. No witnesses came forward and the police were baffled. British and French journalists descended on the town, eager to try their hand at investigating this riddle. Among them was a newly-married Dorothy L. Sayers, a detective novelist with a keen interest in the crimes of her day, excited to test out her sleuthing skills on an actual case. But when she got there, she found that not every crime has a neat beginning, an intriguing middle and a satisfying ending. Real life is a whole lot more complicated.

This is the story of Nurse Daniels.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is another instalment in my series about the real life crimes that inspired the writers of classic detective stories. In this episode, we’ll learn about Dorothy L. Sayer’s frustrating adventures in France trying to crack a case that was captivating Britain, and how she managed to weave elements of it into her fiction. But to understand that, we need to go right back to the beginning. Who was Nurse Daniels, and why did her disappearance and death cause such a sensation?


Winifred May Daniels was 21 years old when she disappeared. She was a nurse probationer at a hospital in London, and according to the interviews given by her family after she vanished, she was a happy, cheerful person, who wasn’t prone to getting upset easily. One friend described her as “level-headed and cool, and not in any way hysterical” . She wasn’t famous or notorious, but she did live during interesting times, as the saying goes. Her disappearance caused a stir because of the role she inhabited in society, and her death was a good excuse for people to air a lot of prejudices and assumptions.

May Daniels belonged to the generation of women who grew up in the aftermath of the First World War and were able to take advantage of the progress that came afterwards. The very fact that she was training full time at a hospital even though the war had been over for years tells you something about the kind of person she was. She wanted to qualify and work as a nurse in a professional environment, rather than being the kind of gentlewoman volunteer who might having taken up nursing temporarily during the war. We don’t know anything about May’s romantic life, but she was unmarried and unattached as far as the newspapers could find out. She might well have been one of those “surplus women” supposedly left to fend for herself after thousands of men died in the trenches. You can find out more about that phenomenon and the ways it influenced detective fiction in the very first episode of this podcast.

Another clue to her personality lies in her appearance. The newspapers described Nurse Daniels as having “shingled hair”, which was an important identifier at that time. It means she had her hair bobbed in the modern style, rather than grown out long and arranged in a demure and complicated undo as her Edwardian mother and grandmother might have had. Shingled hair signalled that a woman had better things to do than spend hours fiddling with hair pins. She wanted a style that was comfortable, convenient and fashionable. To a certain kind of more conservative critic, reading this description would have had some negative connotations too, because some perceived the style as racy, since it exposed the back of a woman’s neck. A nurse with shingled hair might be assumed by some unenlightened individuals to be promiscuous or sexually available. This idea became part of the story later on, after the body was found, when people were attempting to find an explanation for how a nice, hardworking English nurse could have ended up strangled and dumped in a field in France. Naturally, the speculation got a bit lurid and out of hand. We’ll come on to that later.

On that day in October, May Daniels and her fellow nurse Celia McCarthy had 12 hours’ leave from work. They decided to take a day trip to France, and took the train to Brighton from London and then the ferry across the channel from there. The two women were close; May’s brother said later that “May simply adored Nurse McCarthy”. An eyewitness reported seeing them on the boat having a great time, laughing and chatting together. They spent the afternoon in Boulogne looking around the shops and having tea, and then just before their boat back to Brighton was due to depart, May said that she wanted to go into the cloakroom quickly for a “wash and brush up”. We know from later reports that May was dressed smartly, in a black coat and a fashionable mauve toque hat with a point at one side — perhaps she was enjoying the rare chance to be out of her nurse’s uniform. While she was in the cloakroom, Celia waited outside, and I think we can assume she would have told her friend to be quick, because they only had a few minutes before their ferry left.

Celia McCarthy waited and waited, the bustle on the quay all around her, watching the door through which her friend had vanished from sight. But May Daniels didn’t return. The boat left, and only one nurse was left behind on the quay.


When you look back on a sequence of events like this, it’s easy to jump between the significant points and ignore the boring periods in between. There aren’t very many historical accounts of the Nurse Daniels case, but those that do exist tend to leap straight from her disappearance on the quay in Boulogne that evening to the discovery of her body five months later. But if you sift through all the newspaper clippings from the days immediately after she vanished, you get a fascinating glimpse into the mundane trivialities of crime and tragedy that detective stories usually leave out altogether.

For instance, although we know with hindsight that it is May Daniels who deserves our sympathy, it’s not as if Celia McCarthy was left in a very safe situation, either. She said in interviews afterwards that as she waited for any sign of her friend, she was completely unsure as to what she should do. It’s not as if you would immediately jump from your friend’s slight delay inside a cloakroom to assuming that she had been abducted or murdered. It would just be a bit unsettling to miss your ferry. McCarthy also didn’t speak much French, so once she was convinced that Daniels was no longer in the cloakroom, she found it very difficult to make enquiries as to whether anyone had seen her friend walking off anywhere. She was just left standing on her own on a dock, with no idea how long she should wait, and no idea where her friend could have got to. The ferry was due to leave around 5pm, and she waited on the dock until 9.30. Alarming, yes, but there was no reason yet to suppose that the story would have such a tragic ending.

One fact that many of the reports focused in on was that it was May Daniels, not Celia McCarthy, who was carrying the pair’s tickets. This suggested that it was unlikely that Daniels’ disappearance was planned, since if she had known she wouldn’t be returning to England with her friend, why keep hold of McCarthy’s ticket and leave her stranded in France? Police and public alike felt that this suggested Daniels had not vanished voluntarily, but had been “enticed away by a plausible stranger”, as one paper put it.

Nurse McCarthy ended up spending the night in the cloakroom before heading to a nearby convent early in the morning — she was a Roman Catholic — for some rest and the facilities to set enquiries in motion. She telegraphed to her sister in London for some money to pay for a return ticket and communicated with the British consul about May’s disappearance. The police tried to trace Daniels, but with little success, and her family offered of a £100 reward for information. But eventually McCarthy had to return to her own job and life back in England, none the wiser about where her friend had ended up. There was a small flurry of interest in the missing nurse in the papers, and some journalists tried to interview McCarthy at the hospital while she was on duty, but aside from the bizarre fact of her friend going into a cloakroom and apparently never coming out again, there was very little for the press to go on.

But then, a French farmer made a very unpleasant discovery. More on that after the break.


And now listeners, a small intermission where I’m going to ask if you’ve got round to signing up to the Shedunnit newsletter yet? It’s the best way to stay up to date with everything I’m doing on the show and find out when a new episode has come out, and means you’ll be the first to know when any of the secret plans I’m hatching at the moment for the future of the podcast actually come to fruition. If that sounds good to you, head to shedunnitshow.com/newsletter. Now, back to the story.


It was almost five months later, on 26 February 1927, when a French farmer called Jean Houchin made his unpleasant discovery. He was walking near a well-known landmark on the outskirts of Boulogne, the Column de Grande Armee, built in the early nineteenth century to honour Napoleon. There are gardens laid out all around the column, and about 100 yards from the landmark he came across the decomposing body of a woman hidden under what the Sunday Post newspaper would later dramatically call “the Bush of Death”.

After the police were called and the scene properly investigated, they found a broken umbrella and a torn handkerchief buried in the sand near the body, and a little further away a small metal box containing a broken hypodermic syringe. This last gave the police and the journalists who began to appear in Boulogne over the next few days their first far-fetched theory: that Nurse Daniels was a secret drug taker, and had given her friend the slip in order to take a dose of something, only to succumb to an overdose. The fact that Daniels had no known history of drug taking, and that it would be very odd to sneak out of a cloakroom and walk a mile and a half just to get a hit, soon quashed this theory, but not before the papers had indulged in some seedy speculation.

May Daniels’ brother went to Boulogne and his identification along with some dental evidence confirmed that the body was indeed that of his sister. The police were able to turn up a few witnesses with a vague memory of seeing a woman who might have looked like Daniels walking in the vicinity of the column, but there was no definitive statement or evidence to explain how she had come to be there and at what point in the previous five months she had met her death. They had not been able to trace her in the time since she disappeared, and it was even harder to do after news of the body’s discovery spread and people suddenly had a voyeuristic desire to be associated with the case.

Even the cause of death was hard to establish, with the medical evidence citing “syncope”, or sudden heart failure, but with no clue as to the underlying cause. There was thought to be some marks of strangulation on the body, but with its advanced state of decomposition, they couldn’t be certain. Neither were any drugs or poisons found in her system, although that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there — a long time had elapsed since her disappearance and many analytical techniques were in their infancy. In short, this was nothing like the miraculously clear-cut post mortem reports you get in books, with time and cause of death neatly delineated for the detective’s convenience. There was little doubt that May Daniels was dead, probably murdered, but beyond that, the trail was cold.


Interest in the Nurse Daniels case ran high in Britain and France over the next few weeks, fuelled by the rewards offered by her family and the fact that the police seemed to make no progress at all towards finding a solution or even a credible witness report. The circumstances were all aligned for maximum public interest: a pretty, modern young woman vanishes in mysterious, impossible seeming circumstances, and then her body is found months later alongside some hints of drug taking or other illegal activity. The lack of proper clues or witness reports left a vacuum in which speculation and outlandish theories could thrive. A lot of these focused on the broken hypodermic syringe, suggesting either that Daniels was a secret drug addict or that she had been doped by a gang of kidnappers, but there was one French police inspector who gave rise to another popular, if unsupported, explanation of events.

He had the turf beneath Daniels’ body analysed, and found a large quantity of blood in it. From this, he decided that she had bled and died at that spot, rather than having been moved there after death, and that most likely she suffered heart failure as a consequence of some operation that was being performed on her. The syringe hinted at medical involvement of some kind, too, lending circumstantial corroboration to this. The police and newspapers were reluctant to actually name the kind of operation that everyone was assuming had taken place — the inspector himself just said that “the act leading to the death of Miss Daniels was an offence against French and English law”.

What he, and everyone else, meant was abortion. A whole new narrative about May Daniels was built up, in which the cheery outing with her friend to Boulogne was actually a front for a desperate woman’s attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy at a time when there were no legal or safe options available to her. In this version, she either disappeared from the cloakroom voluntarily, giving her friend the slip in order to keep her appointment with a backstreet abortion provider, or her friend was helping her, and lied about the disappearance in order to cover up what Daniels was really doing. This latter seems unlikely, though, since surely Celia McCarthy would have had a better story if she’d been able to think about it in advance than just “she went into a cloakroom and never came out”. And then, goes the theory, the operation went wrong somehow and May Daniels died, so didn’t return to rendez-vous with McCarthy and return to England as expected. Those who had done the operation panicked, and dumped the still-bleeding body of Nurse Daniels in a bush on the outskirts of town, and then kept their heads down when the police started asking questions.

This is just about plausible as an explanation, although it falls down a bit when you wonder why they would leave her body badly hidden right by a well-known landmark, and why, if she had died during a medical procedure, it looked as if she had been partly strangled. But the press carried on embellishing this version of events regardless of its implausibilities and contractions. Within a few weeks, the story had advance to the point where Nurse Daniels wasn’t just pregnant, she was carrying the child of a prominent member of the British establishment (not named) who had paid for her to go over to France for the abortion in order that it would be harder to trace back to him than if it took place in London. There was no proof or even indication of this, by the way, but the addition of an aristocratic or political connection did add spice to an already salacious story. It didn’t help investigators get any closer to the truth, though.


Dorothy L. Sayers arrived in Boulogne in mid March 1927. She came with her husband Oswald Atherton Fleming, a Scottish journalist who wrote for the newspapers under the name of Mac Fleming. They had been married just under a year, and although Sayers was still enthusiastic and happy when she wrote about their relationship in letters to others, they had both embarked on the marriage with some baggage and it would become troubled later on. Mac was divorced with two daughters from his previous marriage, and he had a wound from his First World War service that gave him chronic pain and periods of illness. Sayers, meanwhile, had had a prior relationship with a married neighbour that resulted in the birth of her son, John Antony — a secret she kept closely for most of her life. We’ll talk more about this in a future episode, but for now it’s worth knowing that just a few years ago, Sayers had found herself in a not dissimilar situation to the one that had been imagined for May Daniels. Rather than abortion, which she abhorred both on religions and practical fronts, Sayers ended up having the baby and giving him away to be fostered with a cousin. She had hoped that when she married Mac, her son might come and live with them, but it never happened, although he did take Mac’s surname and use the name John Anthony Fleming.

Mac was due to report on the Daniels case, and the News of the World newspaper hit on a cunning idea: since he was a journalist and his wife was a detective novelist, why not pay for the two of them to go over to France and see if they could solve the mystery? Sayers and Fleming accepted — possibly partly because it was a free holiday at a time when money wasn’t exactly plentiful for them, since Sayers worked as an advertising copywriter and Fleming was freelance. They were far from the only special investigators sent by newspapers like this, either: former Scotland Yard man Chief Inspector Gough was hired by the Daily Mail and Netley Lucas, a conman turned crime correspondent was there for the Sunday News. Indeed, the town was crowded with people trying to work out what had happened to Nurse Daniels.

On 20 March, Dorothy wrote to her mother from Boulogne. “We rushed violently over here yesterday afternoon at about half an hour’s notice,” she said. “Mac is investigating the Daniels case and I am fooling about, hoping that an opportunity may present itself to ask leading questions! Anyway it was a very jolly trip over – simply glorious weather, sunshine and the cafes open till 2 in the morning. We rolled into bed about 2.30 and feel all the better for it, in spite of an intensive course of mixed drinks during the evening… of course, the place is swarming with English journalists.”

It seems like the sleuthing pair were having a lovely time, drinking and socialising with the makeshift press pack that had assembled in the town. However, they did also find time to do a bit of investigating, inspecting the mysterious cloakroom and various other key locations, but in the end Sayers had to admit herself stumped — she couldn’t do any better than the police in this instance. She did however find herself inspired by several of the aspects of the Daniels case, and worked quickly to incorporate her fictionalised versions of them in her next novel.


By early 1927, Dorothy Sayers had already published two Peter Wimsey novels — Whose Body? in 1923 and Clouds of Witness in 1926. By the time of the trip to Boulogne to investigate the Nurse Daniels case with Mac she had already written most of her next detective story featuring her monocled aristocratic sleuth. This book was titled Unnatural Death and it would be published later in 1927. Her biographer Barbara Reynolds points out that at the time of the Daniels investigation in March Sayers was still able to insert some new details that draw on her attempts at real-life detection.

That book, which incidentally is one of my own favourite detective novels, features a cloakroom scene very like that which Celia McCarthy experienced that October day on the quay in Boulogne. During the course of a trip to Liverpool, Wimsey’s manservant and detecting assistant Mervyn Bunter is instructed to follow a mysterious unknown woman who they believe might be connected to the case. He trails her successfully to a ladies’ cloakroom where Bunter feels that he, as a man, can’t follow. He waits outside, secure in the knowledge that there is only one exit and he can carry on tracking her after she comes out. He waits for ages and she doesn’t appear, and after getting a hotel employee to check the cloakroom he finds that the woman has somehow vanished.

So far, so similar to what happened with Nurse Daniels. But at that point, Sayers’ imagination takes over, and she invents a solution of her own. The woman in her story is completely aware that she is being followed, and she has come equipped to throw off her pursuer. She cunningly changes her coat and hat in the cloakroom and emerges looking completely different, and is therefore able to walk straight past Bunter without him noticing her, since he didn’t know her personally and was mostly using her outfit to identify her.

Sayers also uses this episode as away of hinting towards the way society looked upon single, so-called “surplus” women at the time — they’re interchangeable, she seems to be saying, and all you really notice about them are their clothes. Elsewhere in the same book she also includes a scene in which a murdered young woman is found under a bush in a semi-public place with various red herrings strewn around. I don’t want to give away anything more, because it’s such a good story, but let’s just say that hypodermic syringes and nurses also feature.

There can be no doubt that Sayers found her brief stint as a real life amateur sleuth very stimulating. And it’s not that surprising: the case of Nurse Daniels reads like the first ten pages of a brilliant detective story. The independent young woman, out for a day’s fun with a friend, goes into a cloakroom and is never seen to come out again. Her body is found months later, with several convenient red herrings nearby. But as Sayers and others found when they tried to work out what happened next, real life doesn’t work out as neatly as the stories we make up for ourselves.

Nobody was ever able to prove how May Daniels got out of that cloakroom without her friend seeing, or what sequence of events lead to her death, or even how she was killed. There’s no satisfying ending where a clever detective brings a wicked villain to justice. A horrible act of violence was committed against a young woman, and nobody was ever punished for it.

The sad reality is that sometimes, you never get to find out whodunnit.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/nursedaniels. There, you can also read a full transcript.

I have to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported the show in the last two weeks — it’s been a really busy time for me, and getting the notifications of your donations and reviews really helped keep me motivated to stay up late and write and record. A few of you pointed out though that the book wishlist link I mentioned last time wasn’t working, so I have now fixed that. If you feel an urgent desire to buy me a mystery story to talk about in a future episode or a magnifying glass that I can brandish while I read, go to shedunnitshow.com/wishlist.

I’ll be back on 6 March with a new episode.


Next time on Shedunnit: The Other Detectives.

I know I said that last time, but this time I really mean it.

Surplus Women

After the First World War, there was a great flowering of female independence as more women chose to live single lives. This change, and the backlash to it, is all there to be found in the murder mysteries of the period, if you just dig a little below the surface. From self-contained, professional women like Mary Whittaker in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death to dear, fluffy Miss Marple, there are a multitude of single women’s lives to discover.
But let’s go back to the beginning. This particular story starts with the surplus women.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/surpluswomen. The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that in your app of choice.

Rosemary Cresswell, senior lecturer in global history at the University of Hull. Follow her on Twitter @RosieCresswell.
Camilla Nelson, associate professor of writing at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
—Helen Parkinson

Further reading:
A field guide to spinsters in English fiction
‘Surplus women’: a legacy of World War One?
Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson.
The Shadow of Marriage by Katherine Holden
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers

NB: Links to Blackwell’s are affiliate links, meaning that the podcast receives a small commission when you purchase a book there (the price remains the same for you). Blackwell’s is a UK independent bookselling chain that ships internationally at no extra charge.

You can find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/surpluswomentranscript.

Surplus Women Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the first episode of Shedunnit.  Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: Every age has had a different way of describing a woman who exists alone, rather than as part of a couple. Today, she might just call herself “single”, but at different times in the past people might have referred to her, often with contempt, as an “old maid”, a “bachelor girl”, a “spinster”, or a “singleton”.

For most of history, this has been considered to be a pitiful state, against the natural order of things, as if a woman without a man — because until the very recent past it would have been thought that it was a man she needed, of course — was somehow incomplete and lesser.

After the First World War, there was a great flowering of female independence as more women chose to live single lives. This change, and the backlash to it, is all there to be found in the murder mysteries of the period, if you just dig a little below the surface. From self-contained, professional women like Mary Whittaker in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death to dear, fluffy Miss Marple, there are a multitude of single women’s lives to discover.

But let’s go back to the beginning. This particular story starts with the surplus women.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

In 1921, the British government published the results of a census. It recorded that there were just over 44 million people in total in the country, an increase of around two million from a decade before, despite the loss of life during the First World War. The figure that attracted the most attention at the time, though, was a striking disparity between the numbers of men and women. For every 1,000 men, there were 1,100 women, or “an excess that amounts to 1,906,284”, as one newspaper put it at the time.

At this point, the First World War had been over for three years. 700,000 British men had been killed. The casualties were disproportionately young, unmarried and from the middle or upper classes. Another 250,000 people in the UK died in the global Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919. In the decades before the 1920s, there had been campaigns luring young unmarried men to emigrate to British colonies like Australia and India with promises of far greater wealth and luxury than could be obtained by staying at home.

Given all of this, it shouldn’t have been very surprising that in 1921 the country contained more women than men. Many women found themselves single either because fiancés and sweethearts had died in the trenches, or just because all the casualties meant that there was no one left in their circle to pair up with. Some characterised these women as ‘imaginary widows’, unmarried yet mourning the husbands they should have had. A socialite named Isie Russell Stephenson, whose husband died in 1918 from his war injuries, recalled many years later how she went to a party in 1919 and thought it was a women-only affair until she spotted a single suit among all the evening frocks. “It was as if ever man you had ever danced with was dead,” she said.

Helen Parkinson’s great aunt, Mary Shallcross, was another woman who lost the man she might have married to the war.

Helen: Certainly not affianced or anything like that but somebody she was fond of, and then that’s it. She led a solitary life other than being ‘aunty’ and things after that.

Caroline: Mary was a factory worker who worked variously in munitions and confectionary plants throughout her life. She never married, or to Helen’s knowledge even came close.

Helen: She was very shy. I would imagine if the pool of available men was much reduced there’d be other people possibly her younger sister, thinking about it, who’d be better at nabbing what was left.

But for all that she’d lost someone important to her, Mary was happy — at least as far as Helen knows she was.

Helen: She was actually she took content in small things. Because my granny certainly ran round my grandad all her life doing exactly what he wanted. So maybe Auntie Mary was quite glad she didn’t have to.

Mary Shallcross was just one of thousands of women who found their circumstances irrevocably altered by the First World War, but refused to give into spinsterhood and despair. Yet even before the 1921 census confirmed Britain’s gender disparity, the plight of those like her had become the focus of much outrage and indignation.

A medical doctor named Murray Leslie had given a widely-reported lecture to the London Institute of Hygiene in February 1920, in which he warned that women would soon be scrapping like cats over “the scared and elusive male”. This in turn would lead to a lowering of moral standards, more infidelity and clandestine sexual relationships — which in his view, would result in a national crisis. Reporting on his talk, a Leeds Mercury newspaper writer linked Britain’s post-war economic depression directly to the terrible behaviour caused by the mere existence of these extra females. “No wonder the value of the pound has become so depreciated abroad,” he mourned.

Of course, women wrote in to these newspapers, often anonymously, to point out that they were, in fact, also human beings with a right to their own lives. In response, men penned opinion pieces proposing solutions to this supposed problem such as increased female emigration, and special care for that scarce commodity, male infants.

Throughout all of this fuss, one phrase was repeated more than any other. Surplus women.

Rosemary: The phrase surplus women came about in the press in the early 1920s in response to the 1921 census.

Caroline: This is Rosemary Cresswell, a senior lecturer in global history at the University of Hull.

It isn’t just as simple as to say that the First World War unbalanced the population, she says.

Rosemary: The trend in there being more women than men in British society goes back to the Victorian and the Edwardian period and some factors around that are emigration to Empire but also that infant mortality was higher amongst boys than amongst girls.

Caroline: The reductive idea that everyone in the nation was supposed to pair off, boy girl, boy girl, is fraught with problems — not least because not everyone is straight. Male homosexuality was a criminal offence at this point in history, although of course gay and lesbian people existed and had relationships in spite of prejudice and the need for secrecy. Part of the reaction against the so-called surplus women is connected to this, as women would often set up house with their female friends, causing alarm among those who hated the idea that they might love each other, rather than a man. We’re going to talk much more detail about how the private lives of queer people find their way into detective stories in a future episode, so listen out for that.

Rosemary Cresswell first started researching the surplus women as part of her work on the Overseas Nursing Association, an agency that recruited British nurses who wanted to work abroad. Large numbers of women were applying to do this in the early 1920s, a trend that could well be a result of so-called surplus women wanting to seek their fortune abroad, as an alternative to remaining in a Britain that regarded them superfluous.

Rosemary: I would think there if they did want to marry and hadn’t found somebody in Britain, there would be this awareness that there’s more men — more choice in Empire. But also I think it is an adventure to go overseas so there’s more to it I think than just seeking marriage. I think it’s about independence, autonomy, a different lifestyle to that which you had had in Britain.

Caroline: During the First World War, the number of women in the workforce had increased by nearly a million. Women had stepped into traditional male roles in factories, on farms, in hospitals, and in offices, and many had found it to their liking. In 1918, British women received partial suffrage for the first time, when the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who met certain minimum property standards. When the war was over and there was pressure to step aside so that returning soldiers could have their jobs back, many women were reluctant to relinquish the independence and autonomy that their new working lives had provided. Being labelled as “surplus” was just an additional insult, along with the lack of equal pay or proper pension provision.

There was an additional incentive for working women to remain single at this time, in the form of what was called a “marriage bar”. Here’s Rosemary Cresswell again:

Rosemary: If you got married and you were a teacher, for example, then you would have to leave your job. This was a trend that started after the first world war, because there were men coming back with demobilisation who needed employment, so there was much more emphasis that women could not work if they got married. So if people wanted a career, if they wanted to be a teacher and become a headteacher, if they wanted to be in nursing and become a matron and progress up, then it could be a choice not to get married and in the civil service it was the same as well. It was legal to do this at that time, to force women to resign their job if they married.

Caroline: In many cases, these marriage bars were informal — just an unspoken understanding that married women wouldn’t work, as opposed to an actual rule or law. It worked though: 90 per cent of women gave up their jobs when they got married. If you were someone who wanted a career, therefore, it was in your interests to remain unattached.

It’s always been the case that women with any degree of power or autonomy become objects to be feared or dismissed as “unnatural”, and the scaremongering in the 1920s around the idea of “surplus women” only exacerbated this existing prejudice. There are plenty of examples from other literature of the time — Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé in the war, wrote a poem titled “The Superfluous Woman”, in which she described them as “ghosts crying down the vistas of the years”. Her friend Winifred Holtby, another post-war single woman with whom Brittain lived, wrote several novels with characters who struggled with the loneliness and futility of their lives. There are loads more works like this too, and together they suggest that Britain was stuffed full of maiden aunts, a tragic lost generation of British womanhood.

This literary stereotype of the spinster is one manifestation of the many ways in which independent women have been stigmatised down the years. Even as society has become more tolerant and fair, that caricature remains.

Camilla: I know that we’ve tried to retrieve spinster as a word to try and sort of flip it on its head but it still it retains that kind of connotation. To me it’s a pernicious kind of a word. . . It’s a word that’s hard to reclaim.

Caroline: This is Camilla Nelson, an associate professor of writing at the University of Notre Dame Australia. She’s made a study of all the ways in which single women are portrayed in literature. And she’s found that some of the most sympathetic and positive versions exist in the detective novels of the 1920s and 30s.

Camilla: What’s wonderful about many of those stories like Miss Marple or Miss Lemon or Miss Climpson is that they’re stories about women who are leading full and satisfying lives, who are working, who aren’t reliant on men, who are characters in novels who aren’t just sort of a satellite of the male character or a conduit to their husband, and who are leading full lives which are separated or divorced from marriage and romance.

Caroline: In her 1927 novel Unnatural Death, Dorothy L Sayers explicitly addresses this notion of the surplus women. In chapter three, which is entitled “A Use for Spinsters”, her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, invites his Scotland Yard chum Inspector Parker to visit a “little flat in Pimlico” with him, where there’s a woman Wimsey wants him to meet. Parker, surely a proxy for the 1920s reader here, immediately jumps to the conclusion that this is Wimsey’s lower-class mistress, housed at a comfortable distance from the luxury of Piccadilly for his lordship’s convenience.

Sayers then pulls the rug out from under us by introducing the woman herself — a single middle aged woman called Miss Climpson, who Wimsey is employing as a kind of private enquiry agent. “She is my ears and tongue and especially my nose,” he declares to his friend. Although Miss Climpson is very smart and sharp, she is very good at giving the impression that she’s merely a gossipy middle aged lady. As a result, if Wimsey sends her in to a delicate situation to ask questions, it doesn’t arouse suspicion the way a man doing the same would. More than that, it’s expected that she will be nosy. He’s taking advantage of the way society looks down on her — it’s like she’s in permanent disguise. For Miss Climpson, being a spinster is a kind of superpower.

Wimsey congratulates himself on having found this “use for spinsters” as stealthy private detectives. The nation should erect a statue to him, he says, with an inscription that reads “To the Man who Made Thousands of Superfluous Women Happy without Injury to their Modesty or Exertion to Himself”. In subsequent Sayers novels like Strong Poison, Miss Climpson appears as the head of a bureau of surplus women, who are deployed by Wimsey in roles like secretaries, companions, nurses and governesses in ways that will help solve his cases.

What makes the novels of Dorothy L Sayers stand out particularly in this regard, I think, is the wide variety of single woman characters she includes in her plots. They’re not just maiden aunts or elderly companions, but academics, nurses, socialites and revolutionaries. Her spinsters are real people, beyond the negative stereotype of a shabby, grumpy old maid.

Of course, the most famous mystery-solving spinster is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Like Miss Climpson, her status as a single woman means that everyone underestimates her, and confidences are shared with her that would never make their way to a male detective’s ears. Here’s Camilla Nelson again:

Camilla: I think that what makes her Miss Marple a stand-out is that she’s pink cardigan on the outside but she’s got a mind like a steel trap and the men in the books around her actually respect her. The policemen defer to her. The policemen can tell that she is a woman who is intelligent, who is rational, who is not hysterical who doesn’t imagine things which makes her an interesting, quite a unique character particularly for that for that period where more usually a spinster character is a prattling character or is a sour or desiccated character.

Caroline: In creating Miss Marple, Christie turned all of the unfavourable assumptions about spinsters on their head. Miss Marple is very nosy and gossipy, and deeply interested in the lives of her servants and everyone in her village. But in these novels that’s a good thing — she cares about people and is empathetic. Again and again in the books, she finds the solution to the puzzle when nobody else does because she pays attention to tiny domestic details like the toppings of a trifle, or how a curtain was hung. Because she’s so involved in the village life of St Mary Mead, there’s not much about human nature that she doesn’t know.

Both Sayers and Christie lived relatively unconventional lives for women of their period. In her 20s, Sayers had affairs with men she didn’t marry, and even had a child out of wedlock. She later married a divorced man and continued to work full time as a copywriter and author. Christie got married to her first husband in 1914, but divorced in 1928 after he was unfaithful to her. She later went travelling in the Middle East on her own, eventually marrying an archeologist who was 14 years younger than her. These experiences made their single women characters more nuanced, Camilla Nelson says.

Camilla: You wonder if the life experience of writers like Christie was divorced or Dorothy Sayers as well for her Miss Climpson and that she married much later in life and of course she worked as an advertising copywriter and you wonder if that struggle of doing a job and living a life and wanting to live a full life really comes through in that fiction. I do think that if Agatha Christie hadn’t divorced that maybe Miss Marple may not have grown in the way that she did.

Caroline: We might like to think that today’s society is free of prejudice towards single women, but it isn’t quite that simple.

Camilla: What’s interesting about some of these characters is that when they’ve been adapted to television recently — Miss Marple, ITV gave her a romantic backstory which I think was was ludicrous because it sort of ruined the character but it’s almost like the way we think about story and plots seems to involve the way you round out a female character seems to be that you marry them or you make them unhappy in love.

Caroline: We might not talk about “surplus women” anymore, but society still struggles sometimes with viewing single women as whole beings, independent and self sufficient. Single friends who have travelled in more remote parts of the world have told me that it’s sometimes easier to wear a fake wedding ring than face endless questions about their lack of a husband. Female celebrities are still asked about their love lives and their children in a way that men rarely are. Unmarried women are still asked by relatives and colleagues when they’re going to ‘settle down’.

Perhaps there are still spinster sleuths among us, even now.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. My thanks to Rosemary Cresswell, Camilla Nelson and Helen Parkinson for their contributions. For more information about the subjects discussed and links to all the books mentioned, visit shedunnitshow.com/surpluswomen, where you can also find a full transcript. If you enjoy the podcast and you’d like to do me a good turn, consider telling a friend who likes mystery stories about it, whether that’s in person or on social media. You could also tell a stranger by leaving a review on iTunes. I’ll be back in two weeks with another episode, so make sure you’re subscribed.

Next time on Shedunnit: Crippen.

Whodunnit? Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of this mini first episode of Shedunnit.  Listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: For a couple of decades between the first and second world wars, something mysterious happened. Many things, actually — there were murders in country houses, on golf courses, in Oxford colleges, on trains, in vicarages, in far flung parts of the globe and quaint English villages. Pistols, daggers, blunt instruments and exotic poisons abounded.

No fictional character was safe.

Because these events were all fictional — the plots of novels that flooded the market in the 1920s and 30s. People couldn’t get enough of all the inventive ways that writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and more could think of for people to die. This period came to be known as the golden age of detective fiction, and for good reason.

If this all sounds very familiar to you, then you’re in the right place. Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

This golden age coincided with the aftermath of the first world war, when more women were starting to achieve the right to vote and the economic freedom to earn their own living. One of them, Agatha Christie, is one of the biggest selling authors ever, with billions of copies bought all over the world. The work of Sayers, Allingham and co is also still very much in print and finding new readers every day. The huge popularity of detective stories enabled these women to work as professional writers in a way that hadn’t really existed in a widespread way before. They weren’t struggling to prove that their work was worthy of being deemed “great literature”, but instead delivering gripping, thrilling entertainment to millions.

And their work is still reaching people — there are so many ardent fans of golden age detective stories all around the world. The books are translated and adapted everywhere, with new TV and film versions appearing all the time.

There are so many different aspects of these books that speak to people, too. During my research for this podcast, I’ve been a few fans to share their reasons for loving these books with me, and I got such a variety of answers. For Maxine, it’s the thrill of the chase.

Maxine: I like golden age detective fiction because I love a good puzzle. Novels such as these always have a fabulous puzzle. you have the clues laid out before you, and I guess if you’re bright enough you can actually work it out ahead of time. Often, I find I just like to get caught up in the story.

Caroline: For Lina, it’s all about what she can learn about the era these books were written in.

Lina: The stories transport you to another age that heralded that heralded the modernity of our today.

Caroline: But then for Sonija, it’s about the contrast with how crime stories are told now.

Sonija: I enjoy the deductions of the detectives, both professional and amateur, without forensics, mobile phones and other modern methods.

Caroline: Kirsty found her love of Miss Marple through a TV adaptation, and learned early on about ageism and how women are too often underestimated.

Kirsty: I grew up watching Joan Hickson on the BBC and I absolutely loved the fact that she was so amazingly intellectual, and yet she was a little old lady, and that was such a marvellous thing for me.

Caroline: For Helen, these stories help her feel connected to people from her past.

Helen: I think really what I enjoy is the recreation of a world. I’m not even sure it’s a world that was a good one, or a safe one, or a fair one, but that’s what attracts me because it puts me back in contact with people who died a long time ago, you know, my older relatives.

Caroline: For Skye, they’re a way of connecting the generations.

Skye: I started reading them because I found them on the shelves of my grandmother’s house in Finland. She was reading them to help her learn English but also because she loved murder mysteries and she imparted that love to me. I just recently read Murder on the Orient Express to my son and he enjoyed that, and now we’re just about to start reading another one so it’s come full circle.

Caroline: The work of these authors — many of whom, like Christie, Sayers and Allingham, were women shaping for themselves what it meant to be a professional writer in their time — was informed by their political and social context, by the real-life cases that they pored over, and by the voracious appetite of the public for yet more puzzles.

But the sheer popularity of these books has to an extent obscured the fascinating stories that lie behind the plots. We all know about Miss Marple’s nosy parker ways, but less about why her status as a spinster makes her so ideally suited to solving crimes. Dorothy L Sayers wasn’t just a mystery author: she was a Sherlock Holmes superfan who worked as an advertising copywriter and created something called “the mustard club”, which was a really early form of successful guerrilla marketing. Agatha Christie was a bestselling author, yes, but she was also an archaeologist and a pioneering surfer.  All of these women had complicated, startling lives that are worth bringing to the fore.

So that’s what I’m going to be doing in this podcast, telling the stories that lurk in the shadows of the famous detective novels. Along the way, we’ll learn all about things like the queer subtext of golden age detective stories, the intersection of feminism and stories of murder, the slow creep of technology into detection and much, much more.

If you’ve ever stayed up late reading under the covers to find out whodunnit, then this podcast is for you. Find us at shedunnitshow.com, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as ShedunnitShow, and in all major podcast apps. Subscribe now so you don’t miss the first episode.


For a couple of decades between the first and second world wars, something mysterious happened. A golden age of detective fiction dawned, and people around the world are still devouring books from this time by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and more.

In this podcast, Caroline Crampton will be unravelling the mysteries behind such classic detective stories, looking at the social, literary and political context in which these writers worked. If you’ve ever stayed up late reading under the covers to find out whodunnit, then this podcast is for you.

Find the show at shedunnitshow.com, on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the first episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

You can find a full transcript of this mini episode at shedunnitshow.com/whodunnittranscript.