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David Low and the 1936 Abdication Crisis

by Dr Tim Benson

‘There were many subjects upon which the touch of the cartoonist was pronounced deplorable. Royalty or the institution of Monarchy, for example.’ (Low)

In the autumn of 1936 there were increasing rumours within the Establishment over Edward VIII’s romance with the twice-married American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British public knew nothing of the relationship. Lord Beaverbrook, along with other newspaper proprietors, had agreed, in what became a conspiracy of silence, to play down the affair and not to publish anything that would alert the public to the royal romance. Subsequently, the staff at Express Newspapers, were told by their respective editors not to mention or imply anything in their articles, or in David Low’s case his cartoons in the Evening Standard, in relation to the affair. For example, the Daily Express went so far as to remove Mrs Simpson from a photograph showing her standing alongside Edward VIII on board the Royal Yacht. Even readers of American newspapers and magazines, who bought them at local bookstalls, and not directly by mail from America, were surprised to find passages relating to the romance cut out of some issues with scissors. There was, therefore, absolutely no likelihood, even with the then unique ‘complete freedom’ clause in Low’s contract, that he would have been allowed to depict the King and Mrs Simpson as a subject for his cartoons during this period.

It was correctly assumed in America, where the general public were fully informed about the romance, that the British Press, unlike that of their own, had been subjected to a highly competent form of self-censorship. Beaverbrook blatantly admitted to having played a primary role in persuading Fleet Street to keep silent. When questioned on his role in suppressing the news, Beaverbrook, who at the time of the crisis was in direct contact with the King, said in a similar vein to his response to Churchill about not interfering with Low in 1940:

‘I know nothing about any censorship. I know nothing about Mrs Simpson.’

On 13th October 1936 the King himself got in touch with Beaverbrook directly and asked him if he would help suppress the news that Mrs Simpson’s divorce hearing had been fixed for 27th October at the Ipswich assizes. Beaverbrook immediately got in contact with other newspaper proprietors such as Lord Rothermere and Sir Walter Layton who all acquiesced to the King’s wishes. Thus, following the King’s intervention, ‘Mrs Simpson’s divorce received only brief formal reports’ in the Evening Standard and ‘went through unnoticed by the public’. Unfortunately, there were no cartoons from Low as the romance reached its crisis point, as he had gone on a trip to both North and South America and was away from the Evening Standard from 5th September till 12th November 1936. However, in his autobiography, written twenty years later, he gave the misleading impression that he had ignored the crisis, and had instead concentrated on events taking place abroad:

‘...I ought to have been stimulated when there arose in 1936 the domestic crisis which culminated in the abdication of King Edward the Eighth. But in the intervening few years I had become too deeply interested in the development of affairs abroad to find this crisis inspiring.’

Allowing for the possibility of hindsight or forgetfulness on Low’s part writing about the event twenty years later, such a quotation could be conceived as an attempt to save face over his lack of independence during the abdication crisis. For Low was reported to have actually said during the trip that he ‘deplored the fact that he cannot thrust his rapier-like pen into some cartoons on the subject’, even though we know he later said he had no interest in the subject. If Low was uninterested in the crisis, why was he later to draw, in the week the abdication took place, a cartoon which depicted him locked in a steam-room being told that he would not be let out until he promised not ‘to do any cartoon about the crisis’? The contradictory nature of what Low said at the time and what he wrote later in his autobiography possibly explains why he tried to cover up in his autobiography the lack of complete independence which he always insisted he had had.
Low was probably in the know about the romance well before he left for America, and of course when he arrived there, especially in New York, it was the subject on everyone’s lips. Consequently, at nearly every interview he was asked his opinion on the romance. Even though Low later said in his autobiography that he had been uninterested in the whole affair, he seemed very keen to talk about it. According to the Nation, Low ‘delighted his American interviewers by plunging of his own accord into the Simpson affair’. Low’s prediction, which proved to be wholly wrong, was that the King would get away with marrying Mrs Simpson without having to give up his throne. He also, astonishingly, predicted that the marriage would be politically acceptable to the British Government! According to the New York Herald -Tribune:

‘...Low said that King Edward had always been a “fairy tale character” and “any kind of romance will be popular.” There is, he said, “a section of the aristocracy which has always regarded the King as its own property, and will object to the marriage, but I think when the King does decide to marry Mrs Simpson it will be popularly approved, not only romantically but politically. The fait accompli is everything, and England wants a Queen”.’

As Low returned from the United States, Beaverbrook left for New York on 14th November, hoping to go from there to Arizona so as to find relief from his asthma. Two days later, the King went to see Baldwin, and brought the crisis to a head by telling the latter that he intended to marry Mrs Simpson. Baldwin was firm in his conviction that if the King did so he must abdicate. According to Beaverbrook, the King had intended to ‘barter the threat of abdication against government acknowledgement of the morganatic marriage’. After his abdication, the King was heard to say to a personal friend: ‘I always thought I could get away with a morganatic marriage’.

By forcing the issue, and making Baldwin contact the Dominion Governments for their opinion on a morganatic marriage, the King literally sealed his own fate by putting himself in a corner. When the answer came back unanimously that this would be unacceptable, Edward’s bluff had been called. The only options open to him now were either to abdicate or abandon his plans to marry Mrs Simpson. Beaverbrook left for England on 20th November at the King’s request, having just arrived in New York. By the time he arrived back in Southampton on 26th November, the King had already made up his mind to abdicate. Beaverbrook pleaded with the King to delay his decision; saying that the situation could yet still be saved. When the story finally broke, Express Newspapers were to remain stubbornly optimistic right up to the time the abdication actually took place. The King, much to Beaverbrook’s continued astonishment, had no wish to either delay or create a constitutional crisis as his heart was firmly set on marrying Mrs Simpson. As Beaverbrook said to Churchill: ‘Our cock won’t fight.’
The mounting crisis was brought out into the open when on 1st December the Bishop of Bradford openly criticised the King over ‘his need of Divine grace’. The following day ‘the flood of publicity broke in London’ and the crisis became public news. Beaverbrook, forever the opportunist, felt that Baldwin and his Government could still be embarrassed and possibly politically damaged if it could be shown that the Prime Minister was forcing the King off the throne. He thus threw the weight of his newspapers, together with that of Rothermere’s, behind the King. It would be to no avail as Baldwin had the full support of the Cabinet, as well as the majority of the Commons, the Dominions, The Times and the Telegraph and the majority of the other national and provincial newspapers. Public opinion, which initially showed sympathy for the King, quickly came to see the Beaverbrook campaign on Edward’s behalf as ‘mischievous and irresponsible anti-Baldwinism’.
The Rothermere and Beaverbrook papers took every opportunity to suggest that the Prime Minister was using rush coercive tactics to get Edward off the throne. On 4th December, Bruce Lockhart thought that Beaverbrook had finally seen his chance ‘of using the King issue to beat Baldwin with. We are becoming more Royal than the Royalists’. Beaverbrook’s attacks on Baldwin were seen by other newspapers as grossly offensive: The Daily Telegraph in its leader on 12th December wrote:

‘Unhappily these days saw a recrudescence in the organs controlled by Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook of that personal propaganda against the Prime Minister which has failed in the past on political issues and was revived in the infinitely delicate matter of the Throne. Charges of “indecent haste”, of rushing the King into a decision, of pressing him to abdicate, and of “coercive propaganda” to that end were recklessly made.’

Under such circumstances, could Low really have been expected to follow an independent line, even if he had wished to? In fact, at the first opportunity to draw a cartoon following the disclosures in the press, Low may have produced ‘THE WALLACE COLLECTION’. This cartoon, apart from appearing to be in bad taste according to the traditions of the time, made fun of both the King and Mrs Simpson, thus going totally against the Beaverbrook line. Low’s daughter, Dr Rachael Whear, felt that such a cartoon ‘would have been considered extremely bad taste at the time, much more shocking than it would be now’. Blanche Dugdale, the niece of Arthur Balfour, was informed of the cartoon by her brother, Lt. Col. Oswald Balfour. She wrote in her diary on 15th December 1936:

‘Oswald told me Low had done a cartoon which was thought a bit too much, so it never appeared. Three portraits of men, hanging on a wall – Mr Spencer, Mr Simpson and HM Edward VIII. Labelled “THE WALLACE COLLECTION”!!’

The cartoon was not published. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of the actual artwork. Consequently, there are those who feel that the cartoon was never in fact drawn. Rachael Whear, after reading the above extract from Dugdale’s diaries, felt that her father did not do ‘gag cartoons’ such as this would have been. She also felt that her father would have ‘considered it especially vulgar to portray a woman in this way’. Michael Brander, an historian who knew both Oswald and Blanche Dugdale and their relationship to each other, believes that Oswald most likely ‘invented the entire story and took great pleasure in pulling Baffy’s leg on the subject. He would also have much enjoyed the fact that she had included it in her ‘Diaries’.’ Brander therefore puts the origins of the cartoon down to ‘Oswald’s somewhat mischievous imagination.’

On the other hand, there appears to be sufficient circumstantial evidence to make one believe that the cartoon did actually exist. Firstly, Oswald Balfour, according to his sister’s diaries, appears to have had close contact with Beaverbrook and the Evening Standard hierarchy. According to Brander, Oswald frequented the same gentlemen’s clubs as Michael Wardell, the Evening Standard’s Manager, and therefore possibly got the story off him. Secondly, it was reported in a magazine, five months later, that a Low cartoon on the abdication had been refused publication. This surely must refer to the cartoon in question. According to Cavalcade, in which the comment appeared:
‘Low is allowed to take his own line in politics, often goes against the Standard’s Conservative policy, but there are limits and some of his cartoons - one of them on the abdication - were killed.’

Finally, if one studies the Evening Standard during the week the abdication story broke, one notices that only three Low cartoons appear, instead of the customary four. In fact, prior to that, the last time that only three cartoons appeared was two weeks earlier, when on 24th November the cartoon ‘THE JAW IS THE JAW OF MUSSO. BUT-’ was refused publication. A Low cartoon on foreign affairs appears on Wednesday 2nd December, the day the relationship was first reported in the newspapers. ‘THE WALLACE COLLECTION’ would therefore have most likely been drawn for Friday 4th December, as Low’s cartoons at that time ran Monday Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and no cartoon appeared either on the Thursday or Friday of that week.

With the Evening Standard editorial stating firmly on 4th December that ‘the country unitedly deplores abdication as a solution’ Low was not allowed to contradict the line the paper followed. Knowing that he had to tow the line or face the embarrassment of further cartoons being refused publication, he seems to have accepted Beaverbrook’s theories on Baldwin with two damning cartoons. However, according to Low’s autobiography:

‘My contribution to the matter was only three or four cartoons about Baldwin’s rebuff to cupid, a midnight scene of mysterious figures getting away with the throne, crown and sceptre, and a romantic piece celebrating a new addition to the world’s great love stories.’

No mention of ‘THE WALLACE COLLECTION’ is made, although he does refer to doing three or four cartoons on the crisis. We can account for only three. Neither of Low’s ‘Topical Budgets’ on 5th or 12th December made any reference whatsoever to the royal romance or the abdication, which probably in itself shows a high degree of self-censorship, or alternatively, self restraint on Low’s part. If he includes ‘THE WALLACE COLLECTION’ in his list of cartoons on the abdication, then it must be the fourth one. He also, in error, makes references to two cartoons which were one and the same. Thus ‘Baldwin’s rebuff to cupid’ and ‘the world’s great love stories’ both refer to ‘ROMANCE COMES TO DOWNING STREET’ which was published on 8th December. This cartoon which most probably follows directly on from the one refused publication is certainly anti-Baldwin. The Prime Minister appears as a Victorian, no doubt emphasising Victorian values and a prudish and hence reactionary attitude towards the royal romance. As can be seen, he is unable to understand the romantic nature of the moment. Even Cupid fails to fan a little bit of passion into him.
The other anti-Baldwin cartoon appeared on 11th December, the day after the abdication. Entitled ‘SECRETLY, IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT’ Low intended to show how the King had been railroaded off the throne by Baldwin, who pictured here with faceless members of the Establishment, secretly carries away the King’s throne and crown, while public opinion is not allowed to voice its opinion on the matter. The cartoon is pure propaganda. Low knew perfectly well that it was the press barons and not Baldwin who had for so long kept the public ignorant of the developing crisis until it was too late to have done anything about it. Kenneth Baker, in his book of cartoons on the Monarchy, holds that this Low cartoon reflected ‘the view of his proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, that the establishment, led by Baldwin, had knocked the King off the throne against the wishes of the country’. The Times believed it was certainly wide of the mark:

‘This paper, which closely reflects Lord Beaverbrook’s mind, printed on Friday night a cartoon by Low entitled “SECRETLY, IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT.” It represented the transfer of the Throne and Crown by a procession of silk-hatted morning- coated figures… It will be a misfortune if this cartoon is reproduced abroad for it utterly misrepresents the action of the Prime Minister and the response to it of public opinion. I am astounded that Lord Beaverbrook, if he saw the cartoon, allowed such a dastardly attack. Such a silly one too. How can the abdication be said to have been carried out secretly in the dead of night?’

Compare ‘SECRETLY, IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT’ with Strube’s ‘“GOD SAVE THE KING”’ which appeared in the Daily Express on the day after Low’s cartoon. Unlike Low, Strube has not attempted to make mischief. In contrast, he puts across a positive image that the Monarchy remains undamaged by the abdication and that the public, including Edward, now Prince Edward, show their support for the new reign of George VI. The Labour MP, Ellen Wilkinson, was one of many who appreciated the tone of Strube’s cartoon, as she mentioned in a personal letter to the cartoonist:

‘I sat through all the blah in the House of Commons thoroughly sick of the whole show, and feeling that Edward was a bit of a damned fool anyway. Your cartoon simply got under my skin. It was the one human decent thing that said all there was to be said. I hope he saw it.’

Low would no doubt have found Strube’s sentiments in ‘“GOD SAVE THE KING”’ anathema, and was surprised at how the general public could switch its allegiance so quickly:

‘There was for me some personal disillusionment. I had not so far lost my overseas simplicity as to doubt that ‘Our Smiling Prince’ really had had the affection of the populace. I was slightly shocked to find it was only skin-deep. There was something revolting in the revelation of insincerity about “demonstrations of love” for royal individuals which could be turned on and off like water from a tap, according to an official steer.’

It appeared that unlike Strube, Low did not reflect public opinion in this matter. Instead, he showed total empathy with Beaverbrook in his attacks on Baldwin as the guilty party. In his book The Abdication of King Edward VIII which was published in 1966, two years after his death, Beaverbrook claimed that cartoons such as the two Low ones just described had been highly effective in undermining Baldwin’s honest-broker image.

Low produced three cartoons in the week of the abdication, two of which have just been discussed. The other, which has already been touched upon, was published between the dates of the first two on 9th December. ‘DIFFICULT DAYS FOR LOW’ has Low locked in a steam bath by Beaverbrook, whose newspaper has the headline ‘restraint is ababdication.jpegsolutely necessary’. Beaverbrook had also ‘issued instructions that no cartoons on personalities involved should be published’, except of course for the Prime Minister. This cartoon may be about the crisis, but it is plainly a tease on Beaverbrook and an admission that thelatter had attempted to constrain him. In this cartoon, just as in the Daily Express headline, Low restrains from relating specifically to the Monarchy.

Thus it seems that Low’s cartoons were only acceptable if they were anti-Baldwin. This is blatant censorship by the Evening Standard on one of the great issues of the 1930s, and gives little credence to Low’s independence. It was not the case either that all cartoonists were restricted in this way on other British newspapers or magazines. James Friell, at the Daily Worker, and Bernard Partridge and Ernest H. Shepherd, at Punch, were three good examples of cartoonists who put across their own feelings on the abdication in their cartoons at the time. Why would someone like Low imply in a cartoon that restraints had been put on him during the crisis, when he was supposed to have complete freedom anyway? If ‘THE WALLACE COLLECTION’ did exist, then it is possible that ‘DIFFICULT DAYS FOR LOW’ was a response to that, in a way only Beaverbrook and the management of the Evening Standard would have understood.