The Calm Before the Storm


Beechgrove, the Logue family house in Sydenham

The 1930s proved to be the most tumultuous decade of the twentieth century. The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 had brought the Roaring Twenties to a shuddering halt, ushering in the Great Depression, which led to untold economic misery across the world. It also helped the rise of Adolf Hitler, who became German chancellor in January 1933, setting off the chain of events that were to lead to the outbreak of the Second World War six years later.

For the Duke, however, the first six years of the decade, at least, were a time of peace and calm. ‘It was almost the last span of untroubled peace that he was to know,’ wrote his official biographer, ‘and one in which a felicitous balance seemed to have been struck between his arduous duties as a servant of the State and his happy existence as a husband and father.’52

Gradually, though, the Duke was being required to play a part in the functioning of the Crown. As well as serving as a Counsellor of State during his father’s illness, he had represented him in October 1928 at the funeral in Denmark of Marie Dagmar, the Dowager Empress of Russia, and at the marriage in March the following year of his cousin, Crown Prince Olav of Norway. The same month he was also appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Other duties, and inevitably more speech-making, were to follow.

There were changes, too, on the domestic front: on 21 August 1930, his second daughter, Margaret Rose, was born, and in September the following year the King gave him and the Duchess the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park as their country home.

As they grew up, the two princesses were rapidly turning into media stars. Newspapers and magazines on both side of the Atlantic were keen to publish stories and photographs of them – and did so, often with the encouragement of the royal family themselves, who realized their publicity value. Extraordinarily, the third birthday of baby ‘Lilibet’, as Elizabeth was known in the family, was considered an important enough occasion to earn her a place on the cover of Time magazine on 21 April 1929 – even though her father, at that stage, was not even heir to the throne.

In the meantime, Logue’s personal circumstances were also changing. In 1932 he and Myrtle left Bolton Gardens and moved to the lofty heights of Sydenham Hill, an area largely comprising Victorian villas with generous gardens, offering glorious views towards the city. Their house, ‘Beechgrove’, at 111 Sydenham Hill, was a sprawling if somewhat shabby three-storey detached property with twenty-five rooms, dating back to the 1860s. It was a few streets away from the Crystal Palace, the giant cast-iron and glass building built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, which had been erected in Hyde Park but moved to south-east London after the exhibition ended. When the Crystal Palace fell victim to a spectacular blaze in November 1936, drawing crowds a hundred thousand strong, Logue and Myrtle had a ringside seat.

By this time, Laurie was a strapping young man in his late-twenties, almost six feet tall and with an athletic stature he had inherited from his mother. He had gone off to Nottingham to learn the catering business with Messrs Lyons. His brother Valentine was studying medicine at St George’s Hospital, which in those days was situated at Hyde Park Corner, while Antony, the youngest, was attending Dulwich College, a mile and a half or so away. The house needed several servants to run, but all the extra space came in useful because the family took in lodgers to boost their income.

To Myrtle’s delight, it also had about five acres of garden, including avenues of rhododendrons and a stretch of woodland at the end which, if the rumours were true, had been used to bury the dead during the time of the Great Plague. There was a tennis court, too. As a reminder of home, she succeeded in growing Australian gum and wattle there, although inside the greenhouse rather than outside in the cool London climate.

By this time, Logue’s relationship with the Duke was provoking mixed emotions. Like any teacher, he must have felt pride in what he had achieved – yet the more progress his royal pupil made, the less his own services were needed. He nevertheless maintained his contacts with the Duke, writing to him regularly and continuing to send him congratulations and the birthday book. Letters written to him by the Duke, coupled with drafts of those he wrote, were all faithfully glued into his scrapbook.

On 8 March 1929, for example, Logue wrote to the Duke enquiring about how well his speeches were going. ‘It is the time when I send a little enquiry to all my patients just to know how they are performing and to ask if speech is quite satisfactory and giving no trouble,’ he wrote. ‘As I have always treated you just as any other patient I hope you will not mind my enquiry.’ Five days later, the Duke wrote back to say that despite the house being full of flu, ‘on the few occasions of public speaking all has gone well’.53

That September, the Duke wrote to Logue from Glamis Castle, responding to his letter of congratulation on the birth of Princess Margaret Rose. ‘We had a long time to wait but everything went off successfully,’ he wrote. ‘My youngest daughter is going on very well and she has got a good pair of lungs. My wife is wonderfully well, so I have had no worry on that side. My speech has been quite all right and the worry did not effect [sic] it at all.’ Then, that December there were the usual royal birthday thanks for ‘the little “booook”, which is perfect in every way and takes up no room in the pocket’.

The Duke’s aides, too, were also taking a great interest in Logue’s work with him, as an illuminating handwritten letter from Patrick Hodgson, the Duke’s private secretary, sent on 8 May 1930, reveals:

Dear Logue,

If you can persuade the Duke to try to talk to people more when he goes to functions you will be doing a great service. He is alright at dinner but when people are brought up and introduced to him he has a way of shaking hands, but remaining absolutely mute. I think it is entirely due to shyness, but it makes a bad impression on strangers. I know he funks going up to people and then finding he can’t get his words out; but if you can make him believe that it is good for him to make the effort, it would be a real help, because he will have a lot of that sort of thing to do this summer.

Logue’s actual meetings with the Duke were becoming rarer, though – despite his attempts, through his letters, to encourage his royal patient to find time for a consultation. Although they met in March 1932, it would be another two years before they would do so again.

‘You must be wondering what has become of me,’ wrote the Duke on 16 June 1932, from Rest Harrow, Sandwich, Kent, where he and the family had gone to relax for a week. ‘You remember me telling you I was feeling unwell and tired in March. I saw a doctor who told me my inside had dropped down and that the lower muscles were weak and so of course I was ill. Now with massage and a belt I am getting better, but it will take time to get perfectly well again. I used to complain to you about my breathing “too low down”, as I called it, as those muscles were weak, my diaphragm felt as if there was nothing to hold. Now the breathing is much easier with the aid of the belt, and I talk much better with very little effort.’

The Duke ended his letter by promising to come and see Logue again soon, although he warned he was busy and it might be some time before it was possible. In fact, the visit did not happen that year or the next – largely because of the Duke’s growing confidence in his ability to speak in public, which meant such sessions were not necessary.

That September the Duke reflected on the huge progress he had made since those early consultations with Logue. He continued to have qualms about speaking in public, doing so slowly and deliberately, ‘but nothing happens actually during a speech to make me worry any more’. The hesitations were also fewer: Logue advised him to stop pausing between individual words and to pause instead between groups of them.

The Depression was beginning to bite: by the end of 1930 unemployment in Britain had more than doubled from 1 million to 2.5 million – equivalent to a fifth of the insured workforce. Even the royal family felt the need to be seen to make sacrifices (although largely symbolic ones). One of the King’s first acts after Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour leader, formed his National Government in August 1931, was to take a £50,000 reduction in the Civil List so long as the emergency lasted. For his part, the Duke gave up hunting and his stable. ‘It has come as a great shock to me that with the economy cuts I have had to make, my hunting should have been one of the things I must do without,’ he wrote to Ronald Tree, master of the Pytchley Hounds, in Northamptonshire, where he had been hunting for the previous two seasons while renting Naseby House.54 ‘And I must sell my horses too. This is the worst part of it all, and the parting with them will be terrible.’

Those such as Logue who had to work for a living were suffering even more. As everyone tightened their belts, the services he provided would be among the first things on which people would cut back. Although Logue was careful not to be seen to be trading on his royal connection, it must have helped him keep his head above water at such a difficult time. The Duke, ever grateful for what Logue had done for him, made a point of recommending him to his friends.

The coverage Logue received in the Sunday Express in December 1928 also appears to have been good for business, as he mentioned in a letter to the Duke the following February. ‘Since Xmas I have received over 100 letters from people all over the world asking me to take them as patients,’ he wrote. ‘Some of the letters are very humorous, but all are pathetic.’55 Despite this boost, by 1932, the economic downturn was taking its toll, as he wrote to the Duke that January. ‘It has been a very hard year for me, as so many people have lost their job.’

Logue, meanwhile, was planning to set up a new clinic, which he told the Duke about in his annual birthday letter in December 1932. Bertie appeared suitably enthusiastic: ‘I have been so interested to hear of your new venture with the clinic,’ he wrote back on the 22nd. ‘I am sure you are right in striking out on your own and feel that so many people know about you now as being the only lasting cure for speech defects. I often tell people about you and give them your address when asked.’ The Duke ended his letter with the phrase, ‘hoping to see you soon’.

The meeting didn’t happen and in May 1934 Logue wrote again, bemoaning the lack of contact, although at the same time praising the Duke on how much his voice was improving. A week later, the Duke responded. ‘I am sorry I have not seen you for so long (2 years as you say), but I have very seldom felt that I have needed the help that you can give me,’ he wrote. ‘This I know is what you want me to feel but at the same time it feels ungrateful of me not to have been to see you.’ He went on: ‘My belt has done wonders to me in the last two years, and now at last I have had it cut down to a level below the diaphragm, which enables me to breathe without the former support.’56

Although busy, the Duke promised to come and see him soon. ‘Have you still got your room in Harley Street as I could still run up those stairs, I think,’ he wrote.

They did finally get together in 1934 – but again it was a one-off meeting.

Logue, meanwhile, was continuing to emerge from the shadows. Following Darbyshire’s book, an article appeared about him in the News Chronicle on 4 December 1930, in its column ‘The Diary of a Man about Town’. Its pseudonymous author, who signed himself Quex, was impressed by the youthfulness of the man who had just celebrated his fifty-third birthday. ‘His blue eyes have the flash of youth,’ he wrote. ‘His hair is crisp and upstanding. He has the schoolboy’s complexion, hardly a line on his face, and with the glow that is more English than Australian.’

‘Well,’ Logue replied. ‘I admit I can still run a mile, though I’m not keen on doing it; and you know you can keep young in spirit if you make friends and keep them.’

Reflecting on his career, he noted: ‘What really is extraordinary is the number of people who never really hear their own voices. I have tried half a dozen people on the gramophone. They talk into the receiver, and when the voices are reproduced, it is surprising how many are unable to pick out the particular record they have themselves made. No doubt with the average person, the visual memory is more strongly developed than the aural.’

Curiously, Logue claimed his powers of observation were such that, even if he was out of earshot, he could look at a group of people and pick out which one of them was suffering from a speech defect – ‘Providing they act in a normal way, do not sit still and avoid making their normal gestures.’

Logue outlined his theories in more detail in an article in the Daily Express on 22 March 1932. Headlined ‘Your Voice May be Your Fortune’, it was one of a series of ‘Health and Home Talks’. No mention was made of his professional relationship with the Duke, but it is fair to assume readers would have been aware of it. ‘The greatest fault of modern speech is the rate at which it is used,’ Logue wrote.

There is a mistaken idea that ‘hustle’ implies achievement, whereas it really means a wrong use of energy and is an enemy of beauty.

The English voice is one of the finest in the world but its effect is often spoiled by wrong production. Only a minimum of people realise what an asset it may be. Was it not Gladstone who said, ‘Time and money spent in improving the voice pay a larger interest than any other investment’. This is a strong statement, but I agree with it.

Few people know their own voices because it is difficult to ‘hear’ oneself. Therefore I advise all who can manage it to hear their own voices reproduced. People are usually surprised when they do this, so seldom do they know how they sound. Speech defects are among the evils of civilisation; they are almost unknown among native races. Nerves account for much of the trouble. The voice is a sure indication, not only of personality, but of physical condition. I have studied voices all my life and can tell a person’s physical peculiarities by hearing their speech, even if I am in another room.

Every patient requires slightly different handling and a study of each individual’s psychology is necessary. Conditions that will give one man sufficient confidence to overcome a defect will actually set up a similar defect in another.

I once had two brothers as patients. One spoke easily when with his family but could not speak to strangers. The other was fluent with strangers but the reverse with friends or relations. Both were cured but by different methods, although the defects treated were almost identical. Men have almost the monopoly of speech defects. The proportions are one woman to a hundred men.

When a woman has a defect it is usually a bad one, but, she nearly always has success if she decides to overcome it. I think this is due to her power of concentration, which, I always hold, is greater than that of a man.

Stammering is one of the commonest speech defects, and one which can nearly always be cured. In fact, except in rare cases of physical malformation, most speech defects can be overcome provided the will is present in the patient. Without that will to get better, treatment is hopeless. I have had patients to whom I have had to say: ‘I can do nothing for you,’ [but] given the co-operation of the patient, even extreme cases of aphonia (complete loss of voice) are treatable.

As part of his goal of bringing greater respectability to his profession, Logue also succeeded in setting up the British Society of Speech Therapists in 1935. The Duke was among those whom he told. Logue sent him a copy of the Society’s inaugural newsletter. The Duke wrote back, suitably enthusiastic, on 24 July 1935. ‘I am so glad to hear you have been able to get your dream in material form at last and do hope it will be a success,’ he wrote.

The Society’s stated aim was ‘to establish the profession of speech therapy on a satisfactory basis in this country and overseas, and to up and maintain suitable standards of professional conduct, consistent with a close relationship with the medical profession’. Many of its members, like Logue, were teachers with experience as private practitioners; some were on the staff of hospitals. Later, the Society was to set up a National Hospital School of Speech Therapy where, after a two-year course in which they studied a range of subjects including phonetics, anatomy, paediatrics, orthodontics and diseases of the ear, nose and throat, students qualified as Medical Auxiliaries (Speech Therapists).

Inevitably, given the sheer number of people with stammers (and the desperation of many to find a cure), the area was an attractive one to quacks keen to cash in. The Society’s executive council was especially alarmed in the summer of 1936 by the activities of a certain Ramon H. Wings, a self-styled ‘specialist in the German method of the treatment of stammering and stuttering’, who placed huge advertisements in Tube stations, on hoardings and in the public press, promising free lectures and advice. Wings’s lectures drew audiences of up to a thousand people in search of a quick guaranteed cure for their trouble.

Once the patients had been lured in, they would be given a free personal consultation, at which they would be offered a course of ten lessons for a fee of ten guineas. They would then be divided into groups of twenty to a hundred people, and after a few sessions the best of them would themselves become teachers, and in some cases actually stage big public meetings of their own, producing a kind of snowball effect. After the ten lessons, Wings himself would move on to another city and start the whole process again. All in all, the whole thing was a rather lucrative venture.

The members of the executive were angered by Wings’s promises of a quick cure, which they felt aroused unrealistic hopes in patients. Admittedly, such group sessions with a charismatic leader could, through a process of mass suggestion, lead to a marked improvement in ‘certain neurotic cases’ – during which the glowing testimonials for future advertisements were secured. But such improvements were only temporary. Conditions such as stammering, stuttering, lisping, cleft palate and retarded speech could only be treated over time and on a one-to-one basis. Their concern was clearly not just about their patients; they were equally worried by the effect of such unfair competition on their own members who, as members of the Society, were barred from taking out advertising in any form and obtained their patients on the basis of referrals from the medical profession.

In a letter to the Under-Secretary of State in the Aliens Department, dated 2 October 1936, the Society demanded action against Wings. ‘Mr. Wings is making from£5,000– £10,000 a year, and the majority of that comes from exploiting credulous and ignorant people,’ they claimed. ‘Unless something is done, and done quickly, to stop this unfair competition, and the snowball method of increasing the number of so-called Specialists giving free lectures, followed by courses of treatment, our British Speech Therapists will find themselves left with only their hospital and gratuitous work, and little else. Patients who have once been disillusioned over a reputed cure, generally take years before they will again trust themselves to anyone, in an endeavour to cure their defect.’ It is not clear whether any action was taken.

In December of that year the Duke wrote again to Logue after he praised a speech he had made. ‘On the whole I am very pleased with the continued progress,’ the Duke said. ‘I take a lot of trouble over practising my speeches, I still have to change words occasionally. I am losing that “sense of fear” gradually, very gradually sometimes. It depends so much on how I am feeling and on what subject I am to speak.’

With the Duke making such progress Logue, now aged fifty-five, may have been reconciled to the fact that their work together was largely over. He would have been wrong. The Duke’s life was about to change for ever – and with it Logue’s.

Ever since George V’s illness in 1928, there had been concerns about his health; a renewal of his bronchial trouble in February 1935 necessitated a period of recuperation at Eastbourne. The King recovered sufficiently to take full part in celebrations of his Silver Jubilee that May, when he appears to have been genuinely surprised at the enthusiastic welcome he was given by the crowds. ‘I’d no idea they felt like that about me,’ he said, on returning from a drive through the East End of London. ‘I am beginning to think they must like me for myself.’57 When he appeared at Spithead that July to review the Fleet, many onlookers were convinced that he would go on to reign for several more years.

Any improvement was relative, however. The King, who had just celebrated his seventieth birthday, was ailing, and after he returned from Balmoral that autumn, those closest to him noticed a serious deterioration in his health. The death of his younger sister, Princess Victoria, early in the morning of 3 December, came as a tremendous blow and for once his overwhelming sense of public duty faltered – he cancelled the State Opening of Parliament. He went to Sandringham that Christmas for the usual celebrations and made his broadcast to the Empire, but listeners could detect the deterioration in his health.

On the evening of 15 January 1936 the King took to his bedroom at Sandringham, complaining of a cold; he would never again leave the room alive. He became gradually weaker, drifting in and out of consciousness. ‘I feel rotten,’ he wrote in the last recorded entry in his diary. On the evening of the 20th his doctors, led by Lord Dawson of Penn, issued a bulletin with the words that were to become famous: ‘The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close.’

That close came at 11.55 p.m., scarcely an hour and a half later – hastened along by Dawson, who admitted in medical notes (which were made public only half a century later) to have administered a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine. This, it seems, was in part to prevent further suffering for the patient and strain on the family, but also to ensure the death could be announced in the morning edition of The Times rather than ‘the less appropriate evening journals’. The newspaper, apparently advised to hold its edition by Dawson’s wife in London, whom the doctor had tipped off by telephone, duly obliged. ‘A Peaceful Ending at Midnight’ was its headline the next morning.

The Duke was grief stricken. The consequences for his own life were also dramatic. Although he was carrying out his fair share of royal duties, he had hitherto remained largely in the background. With his elder brother’s accession to the throne as Edward VIII, Bertie was elevated to become heir presumptive, which meant he had to take over many of the activities Edward had hitherto carried out. ‘All we at 145, Piccadilly knew in the schoolroom was that all of a sudden we saw much less of handsome golden-headed Uncle David,’ wrote Marion ‘Crawfie’ Crawford, the children’s nanny. ‘There were fewer occasions when he dropped in for a romp with his nieces.’

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