Sunday 22 June 2014

The Incredible Mrs Violet Van Der Elst

Hands up if you've ever heard of Violet Van Der Elst. No, me neither, or at least until earlier this week, when a copy of the luxuriously named Charles Neilson Gattey's biography The Incredible Mrs. Van Der Elst arrived in the shop.

That's quite some cover blurb:

'Back Street Girl to Millionairess, Anti-Hanging Campaigner, Occultist, Business Tycoon, Social Reformer, The Most Colourful Eccentric of the Century.'

(I first read that as 'Occultist Business Tycoon' which is somehow cooler then being separately both an Occultist and a Business Tycoon, but I digress.)

So who was this amazing woman? A quick dip into Gattey's book reveals a driven, if slightly bonkers, lady, who should certainly be better known than she is today.

The daughter of a coal porter and a washerwoman, she made her millions from founding a company that made face creams, beauty lotions, soap and especially 'Shavex', the first shaving cream which did not require a brush... She was apparently especially concerned with the advertising of said products, personally overseeing every detail, Steve Jobs style. So she would have approved/rewritten this:

She poured her money into a vigorous campaign against capital punishment. Here she is being unimpressed with the government's then pro-hanging stance.

She was a regular sight outside courtrooms and prisons, stepping out of her chauffeur-driven Rolls to protest, while the planes she'd hired to pull anti-hanging banners flew overhead. Here she is being arrested.

She also liked buying big houses and filling them full of expensive things. Here she is at her house Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire.

The money didn't last, alas. In the end all the houses and possessions (including a library of over 4000 books, with many rare occult volumes) went. Harlaxton is now, bizarrely enough, the British campus of the University of Evansville, Indiana.

She ran for parliament three times unsuccessfully (an excellent way to spend *lots* of money), and also seemed to be quite good at ending up in court for slander (another efficient way to lose large amounts).

She died, penniless, alone and all-but forgotten, in 1966, the year after capital punishment was abolished in Britain.

Gattey's biography, published in 1972, is scarce enough, but even scarcer are the books Violet herself wrote, published by her own Doge Press (another way to dispense of large amounts etc). First up in 1937 was a campaigning tome, On the Gallows, which had a *fantastic* cover, presumably designed to her exacting brief: 

"I want some gallows, and prison doors, and me in a cape! Oh, and Jesus!"

Gattey hardly mentions it in his book, but Mrs Van Der Elst also wrote horror fiction. Her first collection, also in 1937, was The Torture Chamber and Other Stories. It's a really rare book, the text of which has yet to make its way online (it's still in copyright after all). The only reference I can find to it is this:

"Risibly bad weird fiction, self-published by a notorious British eccentric. Most of these stories were subsequently reissued in several post-World War II paperback collections (also self-published). One of the leading British collectors of the period, R. George Medhurst, found her work to be 'crudely written, [with] a peculiarly adolescent flavor.' That about covers it." - Robert Knowlton.

Here's the cover to one of those post-war paperback collections, also vanishingly scarce. And what a cracker it is:

Hats off to Mrs Van Der Elst, I say. She was a one-off.


  1. ... and the copy of the book has now sold, to a reader of this post. That's the power of the internet, folks!

  2. Fun write-up. I see you posted "Death of the Vampire Baroness." This is my copy. Or, rather, was. I sold it off after I upgraded it to a nicer copy without any stray cover marks. You fail to mention that in the 1940s she printed 8 soft covers in that series, incidentally. I'm assuming the "DEATH" cover was lifted from my website or some other website that copied it. If you go to my The Spectre Library site, click on OTHER LINKS then go to the GALLERY page, you'll see that series mostly featured. I've yet to update the site in a while with the rest of the images.

    1. Thanks for dropping by! The "Death of the Vampire Baroness" cover came from a google image search under her name as I recall, but it's obviously from your scan originally, so thanks! I had a look at your gallery: what wonders! I'd love to see all 8 soft cover covers in one place one day...

  3. Ah yes - I worked for this lady as an art student around 1962 - what an extraordinary 3 weeks that was, living in her 9 room apartment in Knightsbridge with her, overlooking the Horse Guards at the back and Harrods at the front .... something one never forgets - the first of many many extraordinary people I have met in my life!

    1. Blimey! Many thanks for dropping by, if only because I can now claim to be only 2 'removes' from this incredible lady next time I play 6 degrees of separation!

  4. If anyone else has a copy of the biography, I would love to buy or borrow it.

  5. Wow! I just discovered this post after chatting to my mum who worked for Mrs Van Der Elst in the '50s. She was definitely a highly unusual lady and I would love to find a copy of this book (and possibly some of her writings).

    1. Thanks for your post: another person only a remove from the lady herself! Have a look on for the biography: there is currently one solitary copy for sale...

  6. I have volume 2 of her piano compositions which she gave to me when I was a small child. We lived in a flat in her house in Holland Road. I am fascinated to discover her story.

  7. Hello Withnail Books!

    Discovered your most excellent and entertaining blog whilst I was doing some online research into Mrs Van Der Elst and her involvement in the 1936 Charlotte Bryant Execution Case.

    I write a blog on "Hidden History" at and I am currently writing a potted biography of Violet Van Der Elst and a separate feature article on the tragic story of Charlotte Bryant who was hung for allegedly poisoning her husband.

    I discovered the incredible Mrs Van Der Elst not by her rare books or biography but through the first episode of the new BBC series Murder, Mystery & My Family which was shown on 26th Feb 2018 and featured Charlotte Bryant's Son and Grandson.

    I am fascinated by the other replies here from people who knew Mrs Van Der Elst personally - there is only so much info about her online, and sadly buying her rare books or biography is way above my budget as a spare time blog writer in my 50's.

    If anyone has personal stories about Violet Van Der Elst I would love to know more - and if anyone has a copy of On the Gallows or the biography I would love to know more about Mrs Van Der Elst's involvement in the Bryant Case. She set up a fund for orphans of execution victims after Charlotte was hanged and tried to find foster parents for the 5 young Bryant Children.

    As a lover of books and a lifelong WITHNAIL fan - I have added you to my RECOMMENDED BLOGS LIST.

    Chrissy Hamlin

    1. Many thanks for stopping by Chrissy! It's amazing that this 4 year-old post has become one of the main places for info on the amazing Violet. I still regret selling the biography before I had a chance to read it properly!

    2. I recently went to an open day at Harlaxton Manor and was fascinated by the story of Violet Van Der Elst. What a woman, what a fantastically colourful life. I would love to learn more about her.
      As I write this I am watching a programme about Charlotte Bryant, a woman Violet unsuccessfully campaigned to save from being hanged.
      If another copy of Violet's biography comes to light I'd love to buy it.

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