Who is The Crime Gym Mistress?

Article published on April 21, 2017.

Philipa Coughlan has previously guided us through the lives of Rudyard Kipling and DH Lawrence but this time has opted for her first female author – which has become something of an obsession for her!

Val McDermid is a fan. She knew actors John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier and one of her books was adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. In 1990, the Crime Writers’ Association voted her book The Daughter of Time the best crime novel ever written.

Who is this author? Josephine Tey. Who? Yes, like many crime fans I have spoken to they have not heard of her either. Someone in our book club suggested her as an author and I read The Singing Sands. I was hooked! I decided to do my own investigation into Josephine Tey and found a fascinating real life mystery.
Born Elizabeth MacKintosh (known as Beth) on 25th July 1896 in Inverness, this Scottish writer was one of three sisters brought up by Colin and Josephine. As the eldest, Beth did well at school and her chosen career path was teaching physical education – at a time when the career had higher status than we might acknowledge today. Beth studied at Anstey Physical Training College, whose Principal and founder Rhoda Anstey was a feminist, supporter of women’s suffrage and an inspiration to many of her students. Beth’s time at the College coincided with the First World War and with her first love, soldier Gordon Barber, who tragically died alongside many other young men at the Somme.

Beth’s experience as a student also proved a backdrop to Miss Pym Disposes, which amongst Josephine Tey’s crime mystery novels does not involve the police in solving the crime but the narrator, Miss Lucy Pym herself. The plot like so many of hers develops slowly but in immense detail. Ley College is where gymnastic displays, ballet and practical first aid alongside the character of the girls is explored almost forensically. This proves vital when – in one of the last chapters – the death of one of the students proves to be suspicious. Readers are left to determine their own view of the suspects and to whether the ending was deserved. As an ex alumni, Beth as author Josephine Tey, now aged 50 enjoyed a resurgence of popularity especially amongst new young women, particularly the students of Anstey who all craved a signed copy of the book! So how did Beth evolve from a gym teacher to one of the leading names in the Golden Age of Crime in the 1920s and 30s?

Just after Beth’s 27th birthday in June 1923 her mother Josephine died. Colin MacKintosh was devastated. After 29 years of marriage, family and work his life was totally connected to his wife. Immediately after the funeral Beth decided to leave work and keep house for her father.

There was a developing Scottish literary culture which was thriving in Inverness. Beth joined other writers, one of whom, Hugh Patrick Fraser McIntosh (whose name of course was so close to Beth’s) became a close friend. They encouraged each other to write short stories and poetry, sending them off for publication, particularly to the weekly Westminster Gazette. Despite her previous confidence, in this new venture, like so many notable women writers before her, Beth doubted whether a female name would catch the attention of the publishers so she chose a pen-name, Gordon Daviot and so, from 1925 Gordon Daviot was regularly featured in print.

And what of Hugh who played such a vital role in supporting her? Learning from life’s tragedies was part of Beth’s backdrop for writing. Leaving her career in teaching after the deaths of her mother and her first love Gordon Barber there now followed the death of Hugh McIntosh. He had moved to Inverness after being invalided out of the army with tuberculosis. Friendship might have led to romance but once again it led to grief. Beth was never to marry or even it appears to have had a long term serious romantic relationship – writing became her all.

Both Beth’s sisters now lived in London and she still visited them when relieved of caring duties at home. Her writing became impregnated with ‘another lifestyle’ that maybe she craved from Scotland. Her first two full length novels were Kif and The Man in the Queue. Both are full of joyful descriptions of London but where Kif took its subjects as class divisions and the lack of care for former soldiers (giving vent to some of Beth’s political views), The Man in the Queue introduces us to Inspector Alan Grant, who formed the main character in future crime thrillers and a further pen-name for the crime genre as Josephine Tey in memory of her mother.

Meanwhile, as Gordon Daviot, Beth was expanding her writing to stage plays and linking it to her love and thorough background research of history. Her most successful theatre work was Richard of Bordeaux, an innovative play which attracted a lot of critical acclaim. Casting John Gielgud as Richard, not only established his fame but led to a lifetime friendship with Beth. On visits to London by train, Beth transformed from the carer to the famous author feted amongst celebrity theatrical circles. Later her focus combined mystery with history as Inspector Grant lies in his hospital bed unravelling the ‘truth’ behind Richard II and the murder of the Princes in the Tower.

Gielgud was quoted as calling the writing of Beth’s crime thrillers her ‘yearly knitting’, but they became a source of financial independence and established her fame again. She featured in lists alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers as great female crime writers of the time.

Ultimately private, Beth died in 1952 of cancer, which she had probably kept to herself as well. Amongst her papers was found the manuscript for The Singing Sands, (and three other novels) which were printed posthumously. And from the substantial estate in her will, she left a large legacy for the National Trust and a commitment that any future proceeds from her work would also go to that organisation.

If Josephine Tey is new to you too, she is still worth a read.

Philipa Coughlan


The Cruelty of Lambs by Angelena Boden


How do you read your cosy crime? Erin Britton explains…

You may also like