Georgie Shaw, the Parkway pioneer
In the latest in his series about eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to the dramatist and champion of ladies’ public conveniences, George Bernard Shaw
02 March, 2019 — By Neil Titley
George Bernard Shaw as seen by Max Beerbohm
THERE can be few Camden Borough councillors who have also won a Nobel Prize and a Hollywood Oscar, but Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) achieved just that.
It would be typical of Shaw’s character that he was probably just as proud of the success of his 1902 campaign to install the first London women’s lavatory in Parkway, Camden Town.
At a time when such conveniences were bitterly opposed as being an insult to feminine decorum, he proved to be a pioneer of common sense.
Shaw became an unlikely Vestryman (Councillor) of St Pancras in 1897 while he was living at 29 Fitzroy Square. He must have made an equally eccentric neighbour. He described one incident when he returned home in the early hours after attending a new show by a dancer called Vittorio de Vincenti.
Inspired by the performance, Shaw tried to copy the complicated pirouettes while dancing along the pavement round the Fitzroy Square railings. He claimed that first a passing constable and then a police inspector were fascinated enough to try it themselves.
“We were subsequently joined by an early postman and by a milkman who unfortunately broke his leg and had to be carried to hospital by the other three.”
Born into a genteel but impoverished Dublin family, Shaw described Ireland as “an island entirely surrounded by footlights”.
“I showed my appreciation of my native land in the usual Irish way by getting out of it as soon as I possibly could”.
In 1876 he moved to London to work successively as a newspaper critic on art, music, and drama. It was this latter role that led to his phenomenally successful career as a dramatist. Over his long lifetime he wrote over 60 plays, including the classic Saint Joan (which prompted the Nobel Prize) and Pygmalion (later adapted as the musical My Fair Lady), the film of which delivered the Academy Award.
Having remained a virgin until the age of 29, he avoided marriage for the next 14 years: “Real married life is too often the story of the youth and the maiden who pluck a flower from the mountainside and bring down an avalanche on their shoulders.”
He added:”‘The fickleness of the women I have loved is only equalled by the infernal constancy of the women who have loved me.”
However in 1899, he met and married Charlotte Payne-Townshend – “my green-eyed Irish millionairess” – soon afterwards leaving London to spend the rest of their lives in the village of Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire. According to Shaw, despite sharing a harmonious domesticity, by mutual agreement they never actually made love.
If he was an unlikely town councillor, he was not a particularly convincing rustic either, opposed as he was to most bucolic pursuits. When asked by a bluff country squire: “I suppose you’re one of those chappies who are against killing for pleasure, eh?” Shaw genially shook his head:
“Oh, no, no, not at all. It all depends on who you kill.”
As a convinced socialist, Shaw often courted controversy. At the start of the First World War, he launched an attack on the pro-conflict propagandists in a pamphlet called Common Sense about the War.
“Any person who has persuaded himself that of two custom houses a few hundred yards apart, one is full of murderers and villains and the other of angels and heroes, clearly ought to be in Broadmoor Asylum and not editing a newspaper.”
In the fierce patriotism of 1914, his was a lone and unpopular voice.
Even more dangerously, his anger at what he saw as capitalism disguising itself as fake democracy saw him flirting closely with the dictators of the 1930s.
Although rejecting Nazism (he espoused racial equality and inter-marriage, and despised anti-semitism), he generally approved of Soviet Communism.
This approbation was not returned – after meeting him in 1931, Josef Stalin shuddered and said that Shaw was “an awful man”.
Back in England, he was attacked for being “all head and no heart”, with Max Beerbohm describing him as “the best brain in England but no beauty except that of an engine”; while Oscar Wilde said that “humour gleams from him as wintry sunlight on a bare, harsh landscape”.
However, on occasion, Shaw was capable of a sparkling riposte.
The distinctively obese film director Alfred Hitchcock once visited the house at Ayot. After glancing at Shaw’s tall, bony frame, Hitchcock laughed and said: “One look at you, Mr Shaw, and I know there is a famine in the land!”
Shaw, without missing a beat, retorted: “And one look at you, Mr Hitchcock, and I know who caused it!”
In 1950 and by now one of the most famous people on earth, Shaw fell while pruning an apple tree at Ayot and died aged 94. In an atmosphere of world loss, the Indian government adjourned a Cabinet meeting, the Soviet Union expressed condolences, and the theatres of Broadway dimmed their lights in honour of his memory.
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk