Thursday, 2 October 2014

Withernsea and Wives

‘The Constant Husband’ (1955) stars Rex Harrison as a man who loses his memory in a car accident.  As it gradually returns to him, he realises that he is a serial bigamist who has been leading several lives all at once. It’s a charming film with an excellent cast, and will bring a smile to any wet afternoon.

I found it compelling because this is the film on which Rex Harrison met Kay Kendall.  I’ve had an interest in Kay since I visited her home town of Withernsea last year. The lighthouse there has been converted into a museum, including a large section devoted to Kay’s life and work. One exhibit, the dress that she wore when she married Harrison, leads to a moment of poignancy.  It is a simple cream day dress, now age stained and draped over a mannequin.  It becomes especially sad when you know the story behind the wedding – detailed in her biography “The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall”. Kay embarked on an affair with the married Harrison after this film was made. As the months went by she became more prone to bouts of illness, and was eventually diagnosed with Leukaemia.  This diagnosis was kept from Kay – only Harrison was initially told and he agreed a ‘temporary’ divorce with his wife so that he could marry and take care of Kay until she died.  She passed away in 1959 aged 32.  But as her biography title suggests, she packed a lot into her life and it was interesting to see where it all started – just a few doors down from that lighthouse.

External and internal views of the lighthouse

If you’re ever in East Yorkshire, I’d recommend a visit to Withernsea for this museum alone.  The beach is quite nice – good for combing – but the town itself is a bit depressing and decrepit. It is a fine example of a “Seaside town that they forgot to close down” as Morrissey would put it. It is now mainly amusement arcades and pound shops with the occasional greasy spoon caff thrown in. The one thing that did get properly closed down in Withernsea was the railway line which went to Hull – it fell under the Beeching axe. This probably adds to the sense of isolation that you can feel there, out on a limb next to the North Sea. The top of Withernsea lighthouse is an excellent vantage point for tracing the line of that railway.  You can still make out where the line was in places. That’s how much there is to do there. 

I prefer to do my railway archaeology from my settee while watching a film – where the old system was used as a prop unaware of its future as a historical signpost.   ‘The Constant Husband’ has such an example of what you can find out and the alleys it can lead you down.  It delivered a little railway gem in the form of a left luggage office.  These offices are the plotter’s paradise in Victorian murder mystery stories and they are in fact the scenes of at least two real life body disposals. Both Charing Cross and Brighton left luggage offices were host to murdered womens’ bodies, which were deposited in increasingly malodorous trunks.  The offices’ potential role as an easy method of aiding criminals in their activities is shown in the film.  Harrison’s amnesiac bigamist discovers a ticket in one of his suit pockets for a trunk which has been left at a station.  He has no idea what could be in it, and immediately goes to claim it hoping that it will give some clues to his life before the accident.  After claiming it and taking it to a cheap hotel he opens it to find a series of fake uniforms and links to yet more wives. This character has a series of fake lives, easily tucked away in a left luggage office ready to be revived on the production of a ticket. This film shows how easily the facility was put to illegal use – I wonder just how many suspect trunks and cases sat in our railway stations undetected. No wonder they fell out of favour.

But they haven’t disappeared altogether – some major stations do still have the facility.  However, deposits do now have to go through rigorous checks – mainly instigated by the IRA bombing campaigns of the later 20th century. Apparently too the charges are unsurprisingly extortionate (isn’t everything on the railway these days?).  As with much of the modern system, the romance and mystery has gone, never to return.  Thankfully we have ‘The Constant Husband’ and Kay Kendall to keep our imaginations alive.


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