A 1930s marriage of convenience

On 20th May 1936, what we would now call a sham marriage, or a marriage of convenience, took place at the office of Solihull’s Superintendent Registrar, which was then situated above shops on the corner of Warwick Road and Poplar Road in Solihull.

The groom was a gay writer living in Dorridge and the bride was a German-Jewish actress. The reason for the marriage was simply to enable the bride to obtain British citizenship. The couple hadn’t met each other before their wedding day and couldn’t actually speak the same language. They remained married for the rest of their lives although they never lived together.

John Frederick Norman Hampson Simpson was born on 26th March 1901 in Handsworth, Birmingham. He was the fifth child of  Mercer Hampson Simpson and his wife, Kathleen (formerly Leery).

Studio photograph of Johin Hampson SImpson
John Hampson Simpson by Howard Coster, 1935
© National Portrait Gallery, London (ref NPG x20880)

The family’s wealth was derived from the family brewing business of Moore and Simpson, which collapsed in 1907. The family then moved to Leicester in reduced circumstances. John appears not to have attended secondary school owing to poor health.

In 1915 John Simpson started work in a munitions factory, followed by several years working in hotels and public houses in Nottingham, Liverpool, London, and Derby. He also served a term of imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs for stealing books.

In 1925, he was employed by William and Priscilla Wilson of Four Ashes, Dorridge, to act as an attendant/companion to their son, John Ronald Simpson (1905-1971), known as Ronald, who had Down’s Syndrome.

John Simpson began writing under the name John Hampson, although he was unable to find a publisher for his first book because of its explicit treatment of the author’s homosexuality.

His second book, Saturday Night at the Greyhound, was his first to be published and became an immediate critical and commercial success when it was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press  in 1931.

He became a leading figure in the Birmingham Group of writers, which met at a pub in Birmingham city centre. Sometimes, the meetings would be attended by W. H. Auden, who was also gay and who had entered into a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann, the daughter of writer Thomas Mann, in 1935.

It was Auden who suggested that his friend, John Simpson, marry Erika Mann’s friend, Therese Gift (stage name Therese Giehse) who was under threat of persecution for her anti-Nazi activities. Apparently, Auden paid all the expenses involved.

Therese Giehse (Therese Gift), via Wikimedia Commons

At 9am on Wednesday 20th May 1936, the bride and the four prominent literary figures of the time who were to witness the marriage – W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Walter Allen and Reginald Smith – met under the clock at Birmingham’s Snow Hill Station.

They caught the train to Solihull, where they were met by a nervous bridegroom brandishing an enormous bunch of flowers. Apparently, John was terrified of being seen by friends of his employers, who knew nothing of his intended marriage.

W. H. Auden, who had lived in Solihull for a few years as a child, took charge of the situation and demanded that the porters find the bridal party a taxi. Walter Allen noted that the journey was something of an anti-climax, with the register office being not more than 100 yards from the station!

Auden took on the role of interpreter at the marriage ceremony, and also gave away the bride. After the ceremony, declaring that he needed a drink, he led the group across the road to the Barley Mow public house and ordered large brandies all round.

Asking the barmaid if there was a piano, Auden was startled when she admitted that there was but that he couldn’t play it. Outraged, he asked “Who is to stop me?” and was answered with “It’s Mr… He’s dead. He’s in there!”

coffin on billiard table
“There’s a coffin on the billiard table!”
© Kate SN

At this, Auden led the wedding party into the billiard room where they were confronted with the sight of a coffin lying on the billiard table!

Returning to the lounge, Auden ordered another round of double brandies for the group before they left to catch the train back to Birmingham.  Wystan bought them first class tickets to Snow Hill, from where they took a taxi to the Burlington Restaurant. After their meal, the newly-married couple spent their “honeymoon” at the Futurist Cinema in John Bright Street. John then caught the 6:30pm train back to Dorridge, clutching a bottle of Scotch pressed upon him by his new wife just as the train was about to depart.

Therese returned to Switzerland, where she had moved after the Nazi rise to power. From 1938 to 1945 she worked at the Zürich Schauspielhaus, being referred to by Bertolt Brecht as Europe’s greatest actress. She returned to Germany and died in Munich in 1975.

John’s friend, fellow writer Walter Allen, described the marriage as “very happy“, noting that “Husband and wife saw each other only rarely and during the war years not at all for Therese was in Switzerland.” We’re advised by a son of a friend of the Wilson family that letters between the couple testify to the fact that they remained in contact and the July 1939 Visitors’ Book from Four Ashes bears Therese’s signature (the book is apparently held at the University of Reading Special Collections).

John remained working for the Wilson family at Four Ashes until 1955, writing documentaries for the BBC during the Second World War. He must have eventually told the family about his marriage, as he is listed as married on the 1939 Register.

Mrs Wilson died at Four Ashes in 1944 and, after Mr Wilson’s death in 1955, their two children, Margery and Ronald, both unmarried, moved to 80 Widney Manor Road, Solihull where Margery cared for her brother. It seems that John Simpson moved with the family, and he died in Solihull Hospital in 1955. Margery Ward Wilson died in Solihull 1967, whilst her brother, Ronald, died in 1971. Some of John Hampson Simpson’s papers are held at the University of Reading Special Collections.

We know the details of the wedding day because one of the witnesses, Walter Allen (1911-1995), told the story in his autobiography, As I walked out down New Grub Street: memoirs of a writing life, which is available at The Core Library, Solihull

Further Reading

John Hampson – blog post by Mike Johnston

Four Ashes, Dorridge: a writer and a refugee – Our Warwickshire blog post by Beck Hemsley and Ruth Long

If you have any further information, please let us know.

Heritage & Local Studies Librarian

Cartoons courtesy of Kate S-N

© Solihull Council, 2020.
You are welcome to link to this article, but if you wish to reproduce more than a short extract, please email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk

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