Rasputin saint or sinner – “you judge”

“For more than half a century the world has known Rasputin as the Devil Incarnate, the evil éminence grise of the last of the Tsars, a bearded, lustful, drunken priest who wallowed in fornication, raped girls, women, nuns and was perhaps even the lover to Tsaritsa Alexandra” reads the dust jacket of Rasputin, published in 1972 by Cassell & Company.

Grigori Rasputin was a Russian mystic who was murdered in 1916, aged 47 years, possibly on the tenth attempt. He was born in a Siberian village in 1869 and married in 1886 but got passionate about religion in 1897 and left his village to go on a pilgrimage. For many years after that he lived as a holy wanderer, visiting holy sites in Russia and further afield but returning regularly to his village, his wife and three children.

He met Tsar Nicholas II in 1905 in St Petersburg and either that year or 1906 was praying for the health of Alexei, the son of the Tsar and Alexandra, who suffered from haemophilia. His star rose at court, particularly after September 1915 after Nicholas II went to oversee Russian armies in World War I and Tsaritsa Alexandra and Rasputin were seen as very powerful. Conservative noblemen assassinated Rasputin in December 1916 – he took a lot of effort to kill – and his body thrown into the frozen Neva river.

Separating recorded facts from prejudice

Author R.J. Minney wrote about his research: “I have tried to separate the strong prejudice against Rasputin (so much of which has survived) from the facts available in records that can be examined and analyzed”. The research included two books by Maria Rasputin about her father and family life in Siberia and St Petersburg, and an intimate and frank biography of the last Tsar’s sister, as well as narratives by other women who know Rasputin. He also looked through history books, published collections of letters from Tsaritsa to Tsar and vice versa, and the Tsar’s diary.

R.J. also talked to British diplomats and a member of the intelligence service between 1915 and 1920 and many others.

Grigori Rasputin

“It is not my purpose to prove that Rasputin was a saint or a sinner.. as the story unfolds you will be able to judge which of these alternatives is applicable”.

R.J.’s account is vivid and detailed starting with the description of the Siberian village Pokrovskoe, 200 miles East of the Urals. “Slowly the landscape, frozen white for half the year, with sliver birch tees beautiful by a filigree of snow, begins to awaken”.

Intertwined lives

The personalities and places of the intertwined life of the mystic and his family with the family and friends of Tsar Nicholas II and the Russian aristocracy in the dying days of the Russian empire come alive in R.J.’s telling.

“The bitterly cold winter had brought the temperatures down to 40O below zero. The railways, on which the food supplies depended, were brought to a standstill… Women began to demonstrate on the streets – they had suffered acute privation in the two and half years of war, and most of them had lost a husband, or a father, of heaven knew how many sons” of the gathering storm of the Revolution which started on 8 March 1917.

As R.J. comments: “Whichever way you look at it he was an outstanding figure in modern history, larger than life even in the shadow cast by him across the years.” He dedicated the book to his daughter Primrose, who followed him as a journalist on Essex and then London magazines.

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Charlie Chaplin and South East London

Where in South London was Chaplin born and brought up?

RJ Minney wrote a personal account Chaplin, the Immortal Tramp (published by George Newnes, London, 1954) and said that at that time Chaplin used to give little details of his background, apart from saying he was English and was extremely poor in his childhood.

RJ’s book came out 10 years before Charlie’s own autobiography (see below), which put the record straight on many matters.

According to RJ, although many towns and districts claimed to be Charlie’s birthplace, “It was not Kennington, which has been so widely accepted, not Clapham nor Balham, but Bermondsey”.

Charlie’s ancestry includes French, Jewish and English and he was born 16 April 1889. His father was an singer called Charles Chaplin and his mother a dancer called Hannah Hill, with a stage name of Lily Harley. She already had a three-year-old son Sydney by a previous marriage and Charles senior took Sydney under his wing when he married her on 22 June 1885.

For a more detailed account of his birth, see this useful website, Knowledge of London, which states that Charles senior and Hannah lived at 57 Brandon Street, Walworth.

According to his autobiography, Charlie was born in East Street, close to the Walworth Road (he called it “East Lane” as did many other south Londoners, according to one local writer in her blog). The first three years were better, and Hannah was a well-paid backing singer to famous music hall star Leo Dryden.

The relationship broke down as both parents headed in different directions. Dryden and Hannah then lived together. A son called Wheeler Dryden was born and taken by his father from the mentally ill Hannah aged six months. It would take many years before Charlie and Sydney knew they had a half-brother.

Hannah struggled to support the two boys, often falling sick. Charles senior contributed sometimes but also fell sick and became an alcoholic. The two boys were taken to live with him briefly in Kennington Road in 1898, but eventually he was taken to St Thomas Hospital where he died of cirrhosis on 9 May 1901.

Charlie later pointed out the room to a friend: “Do you see that wind, the third from the end.. That’s the window of the room in which my poor father died. I was only a little kid at the time, but I can never forget that night… I stood under that window all night in the cold and darkness, sobbing my heart out waiting for the news I dreaded to hear”.

As Hannah got sicker, she tried to do sewing from her sick bed and sold all except a mattress which by law they had to keep. Sydney used to collect free soup from a church in Waterloo Road, which the brother ate sitting on the floor with their mother. “They have told me that no soup, not even in the de luxe restaurants of the world, has ever tasted so good”, wrote RJ.

They also told him how laughter abounded in their tiny attic room, and she would tell them of her adventures. Charlie said: “She was the most astounding mimic I ever saw. She would stay by the window for hours, gazing at the street and reproducing with her hands, eyes and expression all that was going on down there, and never stopped”.

Charlie was singing and performing outside South London pubs at age four with his elder brother. On Sunday nights many of the pubs filled with music-hall stars, who praised his performances and gave him money.

The boys performed in the streets of Kennington and Lambeth, and their mother had patched their clothes with her own stage clothes, leading to a lot of teasing from other boys. In 1896 Charlie, Syd and their mum were admitted to the Newington workhouse in Walworth Road, according to a workhouses website.

Charlie was, a well-known worldwide star by his early 20s, carried on the worldwide flood of influence of silent films, which overcame language and other barriers like nothing before it. He called his mother to Hollywood.

RJ was friends with Charlie Chaplin and his brother Sydney in Hollywood. It is likely they were introduced through Wheeler Dryden. RJ became a friend when Wheeler touring India and the Far East as a Vaudeville comedian and he was witness to the marriage of RJ and Edith Fox at St Paul’s Cathedral Calcutta in 1918.

RJ Minney with Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at Hollywood Bowl 1934, from RJ’s book “Hollywood by Starlight”.

Wheeler had learned he was Charlie’s half-brother in 1915. In 1918 he moved to join the Chaplin Brothers in the USA and then worked with them, according to his Wikipedia entry, and they were also united with their mother Hannah.

RJ says his intention in his book was not to write a biography, as there were many, but “a close-up of the man, his outlook, his very complex personality and his artistry.”


Researching Fanny and the Regent of Siam

Detailed research, including visiting many of the places mentioned, and talking to lots of people are hallmarks of the writing style of author RJ Minney. The foreword of his 1962 epic love story, Fanny and the Regent of Siam, outlines the work he did in writing this history book about Thailand.

Fanny was the daughter of British Consul-General Thomas Knox and his Thai wife, Prang Yen, from a leading family. Fanny married one of her father’s friends, Phra (Baron) Preecha Kon la Kam on 11 March 1879, age about 23, but not long after Phra Preecha was arrested and put on trial for allegedly murdering prisoners working at the Kabin gold mine and embezzling large sums of money. Phra Preecha said he was being framed by the Bunnag family.

Fanny Knox

Phra Preecha

Fanny was pregnant with his child, and Knox, Preecha’s father-in-law, tried to intervene with the King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). A story in the New York Times ( “A dark tragedy in Siam” dated 24 February, published 12 April 1880) which reported “Pra Preecha’s trial is admitted by all intelligent persons to have been a complete farce”.

The article claims the real reason for the trial, which ended with his public beheading, was that he had married Fanny. However, eventually Phra Preecha confessed to crimes, perhaps to avoid torture, and was publicly beheaded on 24 November 1879.

Knox did not return as Consul after a visit to England. Fanny also went to England with their child and Phra Preecha’s children from a previous marriage, according to the New York Times.

There are links to the story of Anna Leonowens, the educator who inspired the novel Anna and the King of Siam and musical “The King and I”. Anna’s son, Louis Leonowens, was also in love with Fanny, but instead married her sister Caroline. He was serving as an officer in the Siamese Royal Cavalry, part of the King’s Guard, and later founded a trading company Louis T Leonowens Ltd. which still a major business.

Researching the love story
RJ wrote “This story has been compiled from official documents, private diaries and letters, many talks with those familiar with the incidents and with the people involved or closely related to these families, and also a careful examination of the newspapers of the period in England, France and Bangkok… All the main incidents occurred and are supported by records and in papers.

“I went to Siam and the adjacent countries, visited the towns and villages concerned and was fortunate in having as my guide on all my journeys either direct descendants or very near relatives of the chief persons who figure in this story.”

Dr M Carthew first related the love story of Fanny and Pra Preecha in the autumn of 1930 to W.S. Bristowe in Bangkok, who wrote up notes and gathered more information, which he later gave to RJ and helped his research. RJ consulted 3 large volumes of Foreign Office files and gathered information from family sources from Guatemala to Canada and all over UK, including the Knox family and the diary of Gertrude Bindloss, who was governess to Fanny and Preecha’s children.

Many older residents of Thailand knew Fanny and helped RJ with information and recollections. The grandson of Louis Leonowens sent information from Guatemala, where he lives and staff of the Louis T Leonowens company also gave huge help.

The King of Thailand, HRH Prince Chula, received RJ and talked to him of Kings Mongkut and Chulalangkorn and organized for the Lord Chamberlain to escort RJ through the Royal Palaces and temples to see the scenes. Princesses Chula and Poon and Princes Dhani and HSH Prince Prem also gave information. Suvari Bunnag, direct descendant of the Regent, accompanied him on many of his trips and Amb Manu Amatyakun, great nephew of Pra Preecha, esorted RJ around Prachin district and took him to Government house to introduce him to priests and others who remembered the story. Many others also supplied help.

The end of the story
Fanny returned in 1882 and found her way to Bangkok, via several adventures, including kidnap and rescue. She sought to change the political system and support the reforms of King Chulalalongkorn, later known as Rama the Great, who abolished prostration and then slavery, and created judicial reforms to create fair trials. Her children joined her, and she started helping poor people with problems and living and working in a small room.

Over the years she lived a hard life and people gathering in her room to share problems and organized a party or union to help each other. She raised the money for a promising student, Prosit, to travel to Paris for education.

Age 60, on 17 December 1925 she leant against a wall and was carried home. Later that night she woke, smiled at her children Trakun and Arun holding her hands and died.

In 1927, Thais in Paris met and formed Khana Ratsadon, or the People’s Party. In June 1932 they organized a bloodless coup d’etat. According to the manifesto of the People’s Party, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) on 24 June agreed to limit the powers of the absolute monarchy and created a constitutional monarchy, vesting legislative and executive authority in an elected assembly, while giving equal rights to all Thai citizens.

RJ’s Minney book concludes: “Fanny’s monument… is a living monument, embodied in the free and happy lives of the people of Siam, who she had learned to love deeply.”


Gainsborough Pictures dominates British film with RJ as producer

Author and Hollywood scriptwriter RJ Minney helped dominate the historic British film industry from 1942-1946, working at Gainsborough Pictures with the formidable Ted Black. The two of them made immensely successful costume dramas and helped boost the careers of many successful British film-stars, including James Mason and Margaret Lockwood.

Audrey White, Puffin Asquith and RJ Minney at Pinewood Studios

Gainsborough Pictures was a leading British film company, founded in 1924 and associated with the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation run by Isidore Ostrer and his brothers Maurice and Mark. After Gaumont-British went bankrupt, in 1936 Gainsborough was saved by a rescue package put together by CM Woolf and J. Arthur Rank. Maurice Ostrer gave an increasingly free hand to Edward (Ted) Baker, who had a great sense of the home market, and brought in RJ in 1942 as a key part of the production team.

The Encyclopaedia of British Film entry on the melodrama films, repeated in Screen Online website reads: “These were based on recent popular books by female novelists, foregrounding gypsies, wanton women and lustful aristocrats. They were made into films which mined a rich seam in British popular culture and were visually extravagant and morally ambivalent”. The first big success was The Man in Grey (directed by Leslie Arliss in 1943), an escapist film from wartime woes.

RJ Minney produced other top British films in the most successful period of Gainsborough’s history including Madonna of the Seven Moons (directed by Arthur Crabtree in 1944), The Wicked Lady (directed by Leslie Arliss in 1945), Caravan (directed by Arthur Crabtree, 1946). He also produced the atmospheric A Place of One’s Own (1944) by Osbert Sitwell with settings designed by Rex Whistler. The Gainsborough melodramas had higher gross revenues than top Hollywood films.

The Wicked Lady, starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, broke all box-office records, showing in 9,000 American cinemas and achieving a total audience of 18.4 million. Apparently the low-cut period bodices showed too much cleavage and the film needed reshooting over 9 days of retakes to satisfy US censors. RJ Minney wrote to the Times in July 1947 about the high productivity of British films compared to Hollywood, for example A Place of One’s Own “occupied the studio floor for a bare six weeks”.

According to the Encyclopaedia: “Black and Minney encouraged the careers of a new breed of British stars – Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Stewart Granger, Patricia Roc – who were democratic in their manner, and the female side of the British audience took them to their hearts. Critics and male viewers excoriated the Gainsborough costume melodramas, but for female fans the historical pleasures and sexual mayhem performed an important function.” Other Gainsborough British film stars were Phyllis Calvert, Jean Kent, Dennis Price, Ronald Coleman, Loretta Young and Dulcie Gray.

Ted Black and RJ Minney also produced comedy and modern-dress melodramas, which covered the same themes as the costume dramas. British films Love Story (directed by Leslie Arliss in 1944), and They Were Sisters (directed by Arthur Crabtree in 1945) dealt with desire, anger and sartorial envy, according to the Encyclopaedia.

The golden age unravelled after 1946, with Arthur Rank Organization taking full control and many people leaving including Ted Black and Maurice Ostrer, who were also feuding according to this website. RJ announced in January 1947 that he had resigned. Sidney Box took over as head of Gainsborough on a contract to produce 12 films a year, with his sister Betty Box as head producer. However Gainsborough Pictures was saddled with heavy overheads and closed in 1950.

In 1979 Gainsborough actress Dulcie Gray gave the address at RJ Minney’s memorial service.

Current traces of British film history in London

Gainsborough operated out of Islington Studios in Poole Street, Hoxton, London N1 and at Lime Grove in Shepherd’s Bush, London.

Islington Studios were state-of-the-art in the early 1920s, after US film company Famous Players-Lasky refurbished a former power plan, which it sold to Gainsborough Pictures, owned by Michael Balcon, in 1924. It was nicknamed “Hollywood by the Canal” and “Los Islington” for its deluxe facilities, according to this website. It nurtured many leading film makers, particularly Graham Cutts. Cutts mentored Alfred Hitchcock who started as a writer at Islington before rising to director’s assistant. Actor Ivor Novello also contributed to Gainsborough’s success. Balcon continued to nurture Hitchcock, sending him to Germany to work on a film with German company UFA (Universum-Film). Gaumont made many of Hitchcock’s classic 1930s espionage and mystery films at Lime Grove.

In 1927 Gainsborough merged with Gaumont-British Picture Corporation into a conglomerate with nearly 300 cinemas. Gaumont did higher-budget films and Gainsborough “B” movies and melodramas. When Gaumont-British went bankrupt, Balcon left in 1936 to MGM-British and then Ealing Studios. Ted Black took over production in 1936.

During the war operations were evacuated to Lime Grove since the high chimney at Islington was thought to be at risk from bombing. Film studios were full of flammable materials and frequently burnt, including in 1930 the Islington Studios.

J Arthur Rank closed production at both studios in 1949 to concentrate on Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire.

The BBC took over Lime Grove in 1949 and used it for TV current affairs and live programmes. It became so dilapidated that staff nicknamed it “Slime Grove” and it was closed in 1991. The buildings were demolished and replaced with housing called Gaumont Terrace and Gainsborough Court, according to this interesting website.

Islington studios had various industrial uses and featured two epic Shakespeare productions by Almeida Theatre Company in 2000 and Hitchcock season in 2003. Beautifully designed apartments named Gainsborough Studios were built in 2004 with a 6.5 metre head of Hitchcock in the courtyard.

NOTE: Brian McFarlane (ed), 2016. The Encyclopaedia of British Film: 4th Edition. Oxford University Press. Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Dr Alina Brewda is inspiring holocaust heroine


The story of Dr Alina Brewda, who survived the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz and other concentration camps is shocking, nightmarish, and still inspiring. It’s very well told in the book I shall fear no evil: The story of Dr. Alina Brewda” by RJ Minney.
Alina was born in Warsaw in 1905 (she was ten years younger than RJ), and specialized as gynaecologist and obstetrician. She was determined and independent, and overcame much discrimination both against woman and against Jews to qualify and find a job. She succeeded through for her skill, dedication and care for patients. The book is full of human details, such as both parents having their dental surgeries in the house and the surprise when her father, a socialist, rang the bell for the servant from his study instead of calling her more politely, when they rushed up they found him dead from a heart attack.
Her matter-of-fact voice tells how she and her mother were moved into the Warsaw ghetto, where her mother soon died and Alina continued practising in a hospital there. Its a human story, in the midst of tens of thousands of tragedies. Somehow she evades being taken to the concentration camps several times but chillingly describes the increased suffering and desperation as more Jews were forced into the ghetto, the boundaries were compressed, and there were fewer options for survival or even sleeping space. The book also describes the spirit of resistance, as even in those terrible circumstances, Jews found ways to organize, smuggle in guns and fight back.
Alina was caught in 1943 and taken to Majdanek where she was allowed to work as surgeon. Through huge efforts she obtained a few medical materials and saved lives, including fighting a typhus epidemic. She helped as many as she could, reporting deaths late so the meagre food rations would not be cut for a night or two, performing abortions so pregnant women would be saved from the gas chamber.
She was transferred to Auschwitz where her work to save lives and alleviate suffering continued, despite the terrible and disheartening conditions. Her strength is shown through her matter-of-fact quotes and the tone of the book, which reflects her factual account. A couple of times she reached the antechamber of the gas rooms, but was sent back since there were not enough Jews for the Nazis to turn the gas on, she also survived heart attacks and disease and went back to work. Her focus on helping others and getting on with her calling as physician – as well as much luck and her strong constitution – helped keep her alive. In turn she was a beacon of hope for many.
Alina moved to London and continued working as a gynaecologist and obstetrician and died in 1988, according to this history of Jewish medical resistance in the Holocaust.

From: www.swieccyzydzi.pl/lekarze-getta-warszawskiego
From: www.swieccyzydzi.pl/lekarze-getta-warszawskiego

The book switches to a vivid tone for a few pages when it recounts the 1964 London libel trial (see Wikipedia for references) when Dr Wladislaw Dering OBE sued writer Leon Uris. Alina and Dr Adelaide Hautval was among the witnesses assembled by publisher William Kimber, Uris and their team. Many of the witnesses still had their prisoner number visible and tattooed on their arm, matching the handwritten entries in the log by Dr Dering, and some wept in court when giving evidence of forced sterilizations and other experiments and how that had affected their lives since. The jury awarded Dr Dering a halfpenny in damages, the smallest coin in the realm.
The words of Dr Hautval are also quoted in the book, and stick strongly in my memory as for many others: “Here, we are all under sentence of death. Let us behave like human beings as long as we are alive.”


Violette Szabo museum

The star of RJ Minney’s book and film “Carve Her Name with Pride”, World War II heroine Violette Szabó has a museum.
Violette, born 26 June 1921, was a secret agent working for the Special Operations Executive, taking on special missions behind enemy lines.
She began her second mission the day after D-Day. She was flown to the outskirts of Limoges and began working with Jacques Dufour of the Maquis (resistance) to sabotage German communication and coordinate the Resistance. On 10 June 1944 they were in a car and were stopped by an unexpected German roadblock. A brief gun battle ensued and Violette was captured by the SS and taken to Limoges for interrogation. She spent four days there and was then moved to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris. She was tortured and interrogated but gave nothing away to her German captors.
In August, she was taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she endured hard labour and squalid conditions. In early February 1945 (5 February?) she was executed along with two other female SOE agents, at the age of 23 years. – See more here.
For her bravery she was awarded the George Cross (the first woman to receive the award) and the Croix du Guerre.
Fellow World War Two heroine, Odette Churchill, once said, “she was the bravest of us all.”
Violette was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell in Levallois, Paris. Their daughter Tania was born in June 1942.

Violette Szabo
Violette Szabo

The museum in Herefordshire
Violette’s aunt Rosemary Rigby MBE created the Violette Szabo Museum, which opened its doors in June 2000 after many years of fundraising and collecting artefacts from people who knew Violette or served with her during the war. Virginia McKenna who played Violette in the film “Carve Her Name with Pride”, based on RJ MInney’s book of the same title, attended the first fund-raising event. Violette’s daughter Tania supports the museum to honour her memory and that of her husband Etienne Szabo and so people can learn of their bravery during the war. Leo Marks the writer of Violette’s poem also attended the opening of the museum.
Violette married Etienne Szabó, Adj.-chef of the 13th Demi-Brigade de Légion Étrangère in August 1940. He was a distinguished member of the Légion d’Honneur, Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre with Star and Palm, Colonial Medal. A a career legionnaire and a great leader, he led his men from the front with formidable courage in many battled including in Norway, Bir Hakeim and El Alamein. On 24 October 1942, he was killed leading his men south of El Alamein.

Life stories

The museum features the story and life of Violette Szabó along with life stories of the many resistance workers who sacrificed their lives. VIt also has details of the Ravensbruk concentration camp where Violette and many of her compatriots went after they were captured and a plaque to the bravery of Violette and her friends. It also has 3 versions of the Leo Marks poem “The Love That I Have” – one version alerted the SOE that Violette was being coerced into writing but which version it was is unknown.
The museum also has many amazing photographs that chart Violette’s childhood through to her marriage to Etienne, with many happy family snaps.
The museum is in Herefordshire in the grounds of a small house named Cartref where Violette spent many happy childhood days and also stayed between her missions to France during the war.. The museum opens every Wednesday April through September.

Violette Szabo GC Museum
Tump Lane
Phone: 01981 540 477