London Life: 1920--1950
Between the 1920s and the early 1950s the publication London Life appeared weekly as a
'glamour' magazine; and through changing fashions always had showgirls or 'bathing belles'
on its covers and similar frivolities in its pages. However, its contents combined a consistent
and respectable variety of topical chat, theatrical and film news and some very mildly
titillating light fiction, articles, cryptic 'agony aunt' advice, cartoons, and astrology. The
readers' letters section grew steadily, seemingly particularly stimulated by the racier
elements of some of the articles and stories.
By present standards topics like Night Attire in Foreign lands or Lady Wrestlers of Olden
Times would be treated in an entirely coy and innocent way, matched by the style of line
and half-tone drawings of very variable quality. In the 1930s some readers began to
illustrate their letters with photographs of their girlfriends variously dressed in rubber capes
and extraordinary footwear, their effect now seeming rather touchingly comic and artless.
Claims for the acceptability of London Life might be supported by its growth to a late
'thirties heyday when occasional 60 page celebratory issues were embellished with tasteful
'Art supplements' which included regular choices from the Royal Academy's summer
exhibition nude studies. About twice a year during this period they produced their massive
120 page 'special issues' jammed with innumerable letters from readers and six to eight
stories as well.
However, at a shilling (5p) a copy, one and sixpence (7.5p) for larger issues, and two and
sixpence (12.5p) for really big ones, it was perhaps rather expensive in comparison with
much more illustrious and better produced contemporaries such as the Strand Magazine,
suggesting a rather dubious circulation, and reputation.
A significant possible indication of social worth, the wartime allocation of paper allowed to
the Strand Magazine was a comparatively luxurious 96 pages in the mid-forties, copious
advertising for tobacco, soap, and many everyday products that had become scarcely
unobtainable for civilian purchase, and a full-colour cover. London Life had been reduced to
an innocuously bland and tiny pamphlet a year or two earlier. All the interesting aspects had
vanished, the stories became much rarer and what was left was mostly hints and tips about
how to make the best of wartime shortages, coupled with some rather unconvincing 'keep
cheerful' type propaganda.
Though London Life survived until the 1950s (just), it might be characterised as a lingering
civilian war-victim bereft of its once robust personality. Its Fleet Street premises had been
destroyed by a direct hit in December 1940, late in the first German air-campaign known as
the Blitz, and all its distinctive hoard of records and back-numbers were lost. From a new
address in the Thames valley it soldiered on, making telling appeals for long-established
readers to contribute old issues to the archives. The magazine had long relied on the re-use
of some material, and its flow of original pieces, particularly art-work declined noticeably.
Only the peculiar vigour of its letter pages flourished anew until near extinction came in the
autumn of 1941.
Sampled over 50 years later, quite the most intriguing and now irrecoverable flavour of
London Life was the regular reference to the attractions of limbless and lame women. At
intervals over several years from 1927, a writer named Wallace Stort contributed lengthy,
sometimes serialised stories whose heroines were always young beautiful spirited creatures
who moved in an implausible theatrical world of limbless girls and their admirers.
A probably less than enthusiastic lady artist provided most of the rather vapid illustrations
of a demi-monde where young women rest contentedly on chaise-longues, their delicately
chaste gowns revealing fewer limbs than even the heroine possesses. She is in every scene,
in and out of the boudoir, resting or sweetly poised on her one dainty leg. Even when she is
obliged to toy with an equally dainty crutch, it leaves her hand invitingly free for dalliance
with a clean-cut (and unimpaired) hero.
The author of these fantasies went on to respond to 'interested readers' by contributing
both articles and letters insistently claiming the authenticity of his stories and his settings,
which 'some years ago on the Continent' had been the background to his own ideal
marriage. It was natural that he could recall it so well because the wife he had met, wooed,
and won there was an irresistibly graceful beauty and he adored her to the ground beneath
her ethereally light little foot. Since then, together they had formed the inspirational nucleus
of a constantly growing circle of exclusively limbless and fascinating young women, all
described in a manner indistinguishable from the Wallace Stort fiction.
Even a reader interested in the subject matter and with a taste for the 1930-ish period
charm might find the stories tiresomely dated and unreal. Yet it certainly appeared that Mr
Stort's work met with lasting demand. One or two of his stories were republished by the
magazine after intervals of many years. Every few weeks letters referring to Wallace Stort's
subject matter appeared in the correspondence pages of London Life, which more commonly
dealt with curious preferences in dress, the finer points of women's mud wrestling, and
blustery rebukes to Mounted Mannequin for her use of spurs.
The word monopede (Later to be resurrected in Penthouse and Forum) may have been
coined in the magazine and it must have been such frankly close interest in the condition
that fostered a regular correspondence, some letters being undoubted pot-boilers, but many
others being surely too naïvely transparent fantasies to be dismissed as direct editorial
Typically the letters purported to be from exuberantly vain 'one-legged girls' eager to
describe their 'slim and gleaming black crutches' and their single 'slender silk-clad' legs, and
'four inch heeled' shoes. Sometimes these imaginative but patchily researched confessions
were accompanied by clumsy 'sketches of myself'. A somewhat more sophisticated regular
correspondent sent supposedly relaxed indoor photographs showing his wife with a pair of
crutches, but when her face was visible never commented on her glum expression. It
strongly suggested the mental and physical demands on the baffled woman posing with one
leg concealed beneath her dress.
Perhaps just once or twice a year would a conceivably genuine letter from a woman, a
husband, or boy-friend discuss such disablement, rather more often the frank confessions of
ineffectually fascinated males, but very rarely indeed a smudgy Kodak Brownie snap showed
a one-legged woman accepting such admiration. One reader's notably affectionate but
matter-of-fact letter described 'a girl-friend of mine who had her leg off six years ago' and
how cheerfully she had agreed to stop and pose for a snapshot astride her bicycle.
His little photo shows an appealing, pleasantly-smiling young woman wearing a 1930s
cardigan and cotton dress, and demonstrating true patience with her gentleman friend. She
held the brakes of her bike, put her foot up on the pedal and made it look no trouble at all
to perch on two wheels and a severely functional wooden leg. (All contributions on the
theme faced the possibility of healthy criticism and it was not uncommon for knowledgeable
correspondents to carp about little technical discrepancies to be spotted in letter from
people who assumed such names as 'One-Shoe-Prue', 'Husband of one leg', and 'Short leg
Sally'. Even the carefree cyclist and her plain spoken admirer were challenged by an envious
enthusiast. He, clearly coveting a girl friend with such physical qualities, could not resist
casting doubt on the depth of her friend's acquaintance with her in writing that she had
NEVER 'been on crutches'.
One or two plaintive letters from men inquired whether there were ladies who found
limbless males especially attractive, but no response emerged. Even a theatrical photograph
of a dapper American singer with a jaunty matched peg-leg strapped over his white stage
suit failed to arouse confessions of fluttered hearts.
One or two of Wallace Stort's novelettes featured a one-legged young man in some
extremely marginal rôle, allowing the contrivance in which the heroine cross-dresses, but
correspondence page students of the writer ignored this seam of development.
Though there were some rare grains of persuasive evidence that real-life limb-deficient
ladies might favour some of their particular admirers, another allied connoisseurship never
did see their ideally endowed women portrayed by a professional writer or artist, nor even
an amateur photographer. Every so often letters describing the special charm of women
who insouciantly glamorised the need to augment a short leg.
An appropriate tradition of craftsmanship and fashion had for centuries raised not only
milkmaids above the farmyard on iron pattens, but ladies strolled the drenched piazzas of
Florence on chopines of elegantly carved wood and coloured leather. But those women who
could afford to disdain the purely functional thick-soled boot and commissioned more
æsthetically refined orthopædic work evidently did not care for wider appreciation of their
It was odd that not one such lady reader was ever persuaded to pose for a London Life-
reading friend. A number of readers enjoying (as their monopede cousins did), suspiciously
jolly and descriptive pen-names, claimed personal experience confirming that a well-shaped
gothic arch of sole and heel made ladies' orthopædic work alluring and pleasurable to wear.
A few drawings of their useful and subtly shaped footwear were attempted by mostly very
amateurish artist-admirers, but, without explanation, the lady owners were never
portrayed, even partially. (Such ladies and their admirers were perhaps more likely to be
brought together by distaste for a long-standing landmark in the advertising pages of the
impeccably gentlemanly Strand Magazine. In a curious parallel to London Life's loyal and
enduringly fetishy advertiser of ladies' shoes in men’s' sizes, Strand carried a comparably
eye-catching little display, a primitively derisive example of knocking copy unchanged for 30
or 40 years. A blotchy old drawing showed a spider's web entangling a jumble of orthopædic
boots and clumsily emphatic letters forming the message 'Thing of the past!! UNSIGHTLY
HIGH BOOTS ABOLISHED.'
The relentless rise of post-Edwardian women's hemlines would eventually expose all but the
most extremely elevated patent extension as a cosmetically formed boot over which a
normal shoe could be fitted. Only unladylike trousers could reliably conceal the appliance.
Glimpses of this commercially inspired repugnance for their cheaper but effective aids must
have offended the sensibilities of generations of lame women and their few and even more
hopelessly shy admirers. Very recently a famously brash television front-person
memorialised a gallant rearguard as 'those little old ladies you used to see with one leg
shorter than the other'. (His comment was inspired by a designer, who like Ms Westwood,
may yet revive the fortunes of artistically heightened footwear.)
It may be that a financially sound backer with unusual tastes served his own special
interests through persistent support for an occasionally seedy old magazine and its more
curious contents, yet it did at least perhaps incidentally reassure some people in their
misfortunes. Its readers lived near the end of an era in which country and Christianity were
still what are known now as valid concepts.
The common sight of war-wounded and undisguisedly disabled people sustained a
perception that was at one sobering and traditionally accepted, that physical misfortune
might lie in wait for everyone. (Some statistically corrected number-crunching has
suggested that 1930s road traffic actually more dangerous to life and limbs than today's
terrifying masses of ram-raiders, and company-car persons crazed by the dull thuds and
bleeps of the in-car stereos and telephones.)
In the later 1940s the Welfare State came into existence. Advertisements for false legs and
cork boots vanished overnight. Did our one-armed postman on his bike, or the one-legged
mother of a successful businessman's large family believe a 'free' artificial limb would
improve their lives? If they foresaw that they might become anachronistic bogey-figures
they did not seem to care very much. Up to that time a sophisticated artificial limb could
cost several months wages, and many people of their generation had learned to appear
almost perfectly comfortable without such things
Some of the more informative letters in London Life had made readers aware of the
financial as well as the everyday technical, physiological, and æsthetic deterrents to
cosmetic limb ownership, but the great majority of people remained no more than passingly
curious about the owner of a pair of crutches or an empty sleeve. Such details would not in
themselves be attributes of either poverty of wilful eccentricity. The everyday sight of a few
such people on buses, in shops, cafés, offices, and theatres was reassurance that
misfortune was manageable and whatever aids were used were not merely socially
acceptable, but deserved considerate respect rather than squeamish avoidance.
Even if sometimes artlessly expressed, the editorial policy of London Life should surely be
allowed the benefit of any doubts about its enlightenment. For the price of a seat at the
pictures a copy might arouse not only discussion of the perfected charms enjoyed by
actresses and film stars, but of the physically imperfect on the bus ride home.
Over fifty years progress some remoter aspects of romance have become clouded, some
subtle liberalities have become lost, and certainly new pruderies have been discovered since
nineteen thirty-something. Seen amid today's commonplacely lascivious entertainments, the
interminable drone of 'caring' chat-shows and the unsociable plague of mass motor culture,
London Life of 50 years ago does look gauche and quaint, yet it gives a tantalisingly distant
reflection of a society that could be generous without being affluent. Unlike today's 'proud'
new self-declared minorities, the lame then had few lobbyists, but could point to a
somewhat confused but regular and truly spontaneous attraction to them expressed in a
quite innocently popular magazine.