The year 2015 brought an end to one of the most enduring major retailers in the history of United States business. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (universally abbreviated to A&P Tea Co) succumbed after a succession of bankruptcy proceedings played out in the early 2010s (bringing an end to 156 years of continuous retailing in the US).
A&P Tea endgame
The beginnings of A&P Tea’s decline in the retail world harks back as far as the 1950s – the source of the downward trend was its inability to maintain parity with competitors who were opening larger supermarkets that, driven by customer demand, were more modern. Partial sell-offs followed in the seventies and eighties. Things didn’t really improve for the grocery ‘Goliath’ despite sporadic and ephemeral upsurges. In 2010 the company filed for bankruptcy, but were only able to hold on till 2015 when A&P again filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this time being permanently wound up.
According to industry analysts A&P’s demise could be attributed to a misguide focus, and to the company’s failure “to evolve with the changing market”…A&P had a tendency to concentrate on “extracting dollars from its vendors instead of selling to its customers”. This exhibited a woeful neglect when it came to improving the customer experience (George Anderson, editor-in-chief of RetailWire).
The company’s woes were exacerbated by a failure to modernise its look…it doggedly kept its grocery lines to the basics and was disinclined to adapt to changing tastes and interests of consumers with their growing preference for organic, healthy and gourmet foods. Meanwhile its competitors like Whole Foods, The Fresh Market and Kroger were stealing a march on the erstwhile market leader.
Humble leather goods origins
Atlantic and Pacific’s company history traces itself back to 1859, founded by George Gilman, as a sideline to his hide and leather importing business. Gilman’s diversification into mail-order tea was so successful that he dropped the leather and Gilman & Co by 1869 had become the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co. A&P Tea’s fortunes rose with the ascent of George Huntington Hartford who assumed control in 1878. George and his sons (affectionately known as “Mr George” and “Mr John”) oversaw the company’s inexorable growth and monopolistic practices.
A&P Tea at its zenith
At its peak in the 1930s (with the Hartford brothers still ensconced at the helm), A&P was by far the largest grocery chain in the US with 15,709 stores in 39 of the 48 states plus parts of Canada. The tea and coffee merchants had already diversified into bakeries and pastry and candy shops, and introduced innovations in food retailing such as pre-packaged meats and food-testing laboratories (pioneers of quality assurance). The Economy Store was another A&P concept: small stores located in secondary streets, away from the main street (comparison with King Kullen), inexpensive “no frills” lines; operated by only one or two staff members; low cost, high volume.
Slow to embrace the supermarket concept
The Hartfords were unimpressed by and reluctant to adopt the model of the supermarket, pioneered by King Kullen and others. Finally in 1936 A&P opened their first supermarket in Braddock, PA. Eventually the company’s supermarkets came to replace the increasing obsolete Economy Stores.
When it came to reading changing consumer preferences after WWII, A&P Tea, as was the case with F.W. Woolworth, was slow to move its stores from the urban centres to the suburbs, thus falling behind rivals like K-Mart, Safeway and Kroger in this respect. From the 1960s on A&P experimented with discount stores A-Mart (folded as its name was too like K-Mart!) and WEO (Warehouse Economy Outlet) with moderate results…A&P sales continued to flatten out, it continue to jettison stores into the 21st century, with its market share haemorrhaging in the fierce onslaught of rising powerhouses such as Walmart.
PostScript: Legacy of the retailing ‘Goliath’
The heights to which Greater Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co rose in its heyday were of Everest proportions. Until 1965 A&P Tea Co was the largest US retailer of any kind…between 1915 and 1975 A&P was the largest food/grocery retailer in the US…until 1982 the company was also America’s largest food manufacturer. According to the Wall Street Journal A&P Tea Co was “as well known as McDonald’s or Google is today” and was lionised in the world of North American retail traders as “Walmart before Walmart”. By the end of the 1920s A&P had become the first retailer to sell US$1 billion worth of goods.
 WI Walsh, The Rise and Decline of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (1986)
 Hayley Fitzpatrick, ‘A&P made one mistake that undermined its business’, Business Insider Australia, 22-Jul-2015, www.businesinsider.com.au
 Marc Levinson, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, (2011)
 A 1946 US Federal Court ruling found the Hartford brothers guilty of illegal restraint of trade by using A&P’s size and market power to keep prices artificially low, ibid.
 ‘The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, Inc’, Encyclopedia.com, www.encyclopedia.com
 ‘A&P: The Early Years’, Groceteria.com, www.grocetaria.com
 Levinson, op.cit.
 ‘The Great Atlantic Pacific Tea Company’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
 Levinson, op.cit.
Last week I received, among the usual array of unsolicited online communications, something from a researcher from the London-based social communications company, Breakthrough Media. The pro forma email said that BM (my abbreviation, not theirs) was casting a new online TV series and were on the lookout for people aged over 50 (that’s me!) to be in the show…apparently they were particularly interested in folk in that demographic “who love to chat, have a laugh and would like to know how to Email, Skype, Facebook, Online Shop, Online Bank, or use the Internet” (capitalisation all hers!).
The message went on to say that they were “also looking for tech savvy friends, family members, or colleagues, who could team up with the Over 50 candidates to be their teaching buddy, during filming” (in August). What they specifically wanted from me was leads on “great potential candidates” for the program. Now, taken on face value, this all sounded innocent, admirable even, very community minded.
I had never heard of “Breakthrough Media”…just another of the new media start-ups in the ever mushrooming world of social networking I supposed, and usually I ignore such online pitches. But somewhat intrigued I decided to try to find out a bit about them. Their website would be a good place to start, I thought❈. It was however unsurprisingly jargon-laden and disappointingly short on substance…the website’s description of what BM was about, went “we design and build award-winning campaigns that tackle some of the world’s toughest social issues, helping our clients counter misinformation, prevent violent extremism, promote democracy and protect the environment”. Full of jargony generalities such as “our strategic thinking and our creativity are joined-up and informed by real-time audience engagement…(and) inspiring positive social change” (www.breakthroughmedia.org). In its job advertisements the company describes itself thus: “Breakthrough is a communications agency and production company. We specialise in conflict resolution, society building and countering violent extremism”. Again, the message resonates with progressive, international goals and desirable outcomes.
I turned to other, independent, commentators and observers of Breakthrough Media…frankly there wasn’t much on the web about the media company, but one fairly thorough dissection of BM’s role and its background was contained in a 2016 report by The Guardian on Britain’s RICU (the Research Information and Communications Unit) [‘Inside Ricu, the shadowy propaganda unit inspired by the cold war’, The Guardian, 03-May-2016, (Ian Cobain, Alice Ross, Rob Evans & Mona Mahmood)]. RICU was created in 2007 as an arm of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OCST) and funded by the Home Office. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue defines RICU’s function as “coordinating government-wide communication activities to counter the appeal of violent extremism while promoting stronger grass-roots inter-community relations [www.counter-extremism.com]. RICU’s work is a key part of Westminster’s anti-radicalisation program, ‘Prevent’.
The relationship between RICU and Breakthrough Media
Where does BM fit into the picture of RICU and its fight against extreme fundamentalism, terrorism and ISIS? The two have a contractual arrangement: RICU pays BM to produce digital materials, films, Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles, YouTube clips, and the like, which promote the UK government’s anti-terrorism policies. The propaganda, emanating from BM on behalf of the Home Office (BM unsurprisingly prefers the term “strategic communications”) is aimed at Muslim communities, the desired outcome being “a reconciled British Muslim identity”. As The Guardian report revealed, BM’s stratagem is to “influence online conversations by being embedded within target communities via a network of moderate organisations that are supportive of its [sic] goals”.
An uncomfortable and problematic relationship?
BM is well remunerated by OCST for its counter-terrorism work (earning a reported £11.8M during 2012-2016), but its role as a conduit for RICU has some disquieting aspects. BM’s contacts with Islamic communities, either directly or through its PR team Horizon Public Relations, is not transparent. BM represents its work to the public without disclosure of its connection to the British government. At least one former government minister has conceded (to The Guardian) that deception in the dissemination of the messages could damage trust between the government and Muslim citizens. Other outspoken critics of this practice include human rights lawyer Imran Khan and the vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations Frances Webber who saw it as giving an appearance that Muslim groups had been co-opted to a government agenda [‘Revealed: UK’s covert propaganda bid to stop Muslims joining Isis’, The Guardian, 03-May-2016, (Ian Cobain et al)].
Advocacy groups and critics of the Home Office policy have complained that RICU/OCST uses the Muslim Civil Society Organisations (MCSO) as mouthpieces for their government counter-narratives, irrespective of whether the MSCO are aware of it or not [‘The Home Office is Creating Mistrust within Muslim Civil Society’, (CAGE, 16-May-2016), www.cage.ngo
The Guardian also showed how RICU (as the paymasters) have an editing role in the finished work of Breakthrough…RICU’s head Richard Chalk is an occasional visitor to BM’s Lambeth office – Chalk can be found at times sitting in the edit suites and monitoring the BM productions. One source of the newspaper indicated whilst Breakthrough projects are not strictly scripted by RICU, they’ll “make it clear that they want a particular form of words to be used at a particular point in a film”⚀.
RICU and BM are also linked in a veil of secrecy in regard to the media, as The Guardian discovered. Neither parties allow their staff to talk to the newspapers about their roles in counter-terrorism. BM cited reasons of ‘confidentiality’ and ‘NFP’ to the The Guardian for its reticence. The paper’s investigative team did unearth the fact that even some of the freelancers employed by Breakthrough to do RICU’s clandestine bidding were unaware of BM’s (covert) connection with the British government.
Given the scale of the threat posed, the majority of Britons would have few qualms about the Home Office using its agencies to engage in “industrial scale propaganda” in a bid to counter ISIS’s propaganda machine and its success in poisoning the minds of some young Muslim Britons [B Hayes & A Qureshi, ‘Going global: the UK’s government’s “CVE” agenda, counter-radicalisation and covert propaganda’, (Open Democracy UK, 04-May-2016), www.opendemocracy.net]. BM have undeniably produced some good work in getting the message across, but where it becomes ethically questionable is when contractors like Breakthrough Media and co-opted NGOs present their counter propaganda whilst in the guise of being “independent, community-based campaigns”, when the reality is that the information they are disseminating to schools, university ‘freshers’ and the like is backed (and guided in most cases) by the government.
❈ a number of the links on the website menu were broken at the time I accessed it…that internet know-how training they were talking about might have come in handy in the BM IT department! ⌖ OCST itself was the successor to IRD (Information Research Department), a top-secret body set up by Britain’s Foreign Office in 1948, during the early dawn of the Cold War, and wound up the same year Elvis died (1977).The Independent has drawn attention to IRD’s questionable record during its existence of disseminating anti-Communist propaganda routinely exaggerating stories of Soviet atrocities and anti-British plots, S Lucas, ‘REAR WINDOW : COLD WAR :The British Ministry of Propaganda’, The Independent, 26-Feb-1995, www.theindependent.co.uk
⚀ The Guardian also disclosed that BM’s founding directors have pre-existing links to the governing Conservative Party
The big players in US supermarkets in 2017 are names like Kroger, Costco and Safeway❈ but long before Costco, Safeway and Walmart existed and whilst Kroger was still a cash-and-carry grocer, there was King Kullen.
The entrepreneur behind the King Kullen story was Michael J Cullen – Cullen was an ex-employee of the Kroger Company (and before that he had worked for the famous Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, better known simply as A & P Tea). The manner by which Cullen came to start up his own supermarket chain is a classic story of turning rejection into a virtue. Cullen was managing a number of small Kroger stores in the late 1920s and identified a raft of improvements to the way Kroger did business that he believed, if implemented, would increase the company’s revenue tenfold. Cullen wrote to the Vice President of Kroger with his suggestions for a new, revolutionary type of dry goods/grocery store. In his letter Cullen envisaged “monstrous stores, size of same to be about forty feet wide and hundred and thirty to a hundred and sixty feet deep…located one to three blocks from the high rent district with plenty of parking space, and same to be operated as a semi-self-service store – twenty percent service and eighty percent self-service”, low prices and cash sales.
Kroger’s VP, whether through indifference, complacency or sheer lack of business nous, did not reply to his branch manager’s suggestions. Cullen, rebuffed but confident in the efficacy of his own store model, resigned from Kroger and set about realising the kind of new revolutionary grocery store he had envisaged. Settling his family in Long Island, Cullen found a vacant warehouse in Jamaica (Queens) with 6,000 square feet of space, which he chose as the optimal retail location. Cullen’s new store, which he dubbed “King Kullen”, opened its doors for business in August 1930.
Billing itself as the “World’s Greatest Price Wrecker”, King Kullen was an instant success in New York with its formula of high volume and low cost…KK’s slogan was “Pile it high, sell it low!” Customers were willing to travel up to 30 miles to the Queens store to cash in on the bargains. The American Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Identified the contribution of King Kullen as “serv(ing) as a catalyst for a new age in food retailing” and the Long Island-based grocery company is widely thought to be the first example of the modern supermarket. King Kullen’s reputation as the prototype form of supermarket (or at the very least a strong candidate for being so) rests in part on the endorsement given it by the Smithsonian Institute…FMI in 1980 with funding from the Heinz Corporation) initiated research by the Smithsonian which concluded that King Kullen met its five-point criteria for a supermarket, viz. it provided separate departments for produce; it offered self-service; it offered discount pricing; it conducted chain marketing; and it dealt in high volume quantities.
Under Cullen’s leadership the supermarket chain grew exponentially…8 stores by 1932 (each new store bigger than the preceding one), 17 stores by 1936 with annual sales of $6 (this despite a climate of economic depression). To match the “belt-tightening” days of the Depression and deliver the lowest possible prices, Cullen took a “no frills” approach to his King Kullen stores – facilities were simple, service was minimal. Unexpectedly though, just as he was about to expand King Kullen nationally and into franchising, Cullen died suddenly in 1936, aged only 52 .
Cullen’s wife and children continued King Kullen after his death. In 1961 it was listed as a public company however the family retained a controlling interest. King Kullen, after going through a static period, not changing with the times, was revamped and modernised from 1969, growing the business to a total of 55 New York stores by 1983.
King Kullen eventually diversified into bakeries, delicatessens, florists, pharmacies and health products, in addition to its staple of produce lines. Today it maintains a modest but healthy market position in New York, operating a chain of supermarkets (around 35 in total) in the Long Island area, concentrated in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
❈ Walmart in groceries and food sales are the overall dominant competitor in the market but its retail outlets tend to be hypermarkets rather than supermarkets
 ‘About King Kullen Supermarkets’, (King Kullen: America’s First Supermarket), www.kingkullen.com
 ‘King Kullen’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
 ‘King Kullen Grocery Co., Inc. History’, (Funding Universe), www.fundinguniverse.com
 D Simionis [Ed], Inventors and Inventions, (2008);
Funding Universe, op.cit.
 King Kullen: America’s First Supermarket, loc.cit.
 ‘Michael J Cullen’, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
 Funding Universe, op.cit.
In an episode of the 2012 series of The Hairy Bikers the English BMW-riding celebrity chefs from “Oop North” do a road trip through the gastronomical delights of America’s Mississippi River Valley. Whilst the two girth-challenged biker-chefs are in Memphis, Tennessee, to check out the local speciality of soul stew and fried chicken, they make a visit to a Piggly Wiggly store, or at least to a replica of the famous original store encapsulated in a local museum, formerly the pink palatial mansion (pictured above) of Piggly Wiggly’s founder.
Piggly Wiggly (established 1916) and its 1930s successor Keedoozle were the brainchild of businessman Clarence Saunders – these stores were thought to represent the first forays into self-service grocery retailing. Prior to Saunders’ innovation, grocery store customers (in a typical corner store) would line up with their grocery lists, the clerk would take their lists in turn and scoot around the store collecting the orders whilst the customers waited. When completed, the clerk would bag all their items, and then go on to the next customer. Saunders’ revolutionary self-serve idea was: customers enter the store through a turnstile, collect a shopping basket which they’d cart round the shelves selecting the items they want and then proceed to the checkout.
For 100% self-service to work, the store’s layout of merchandise had to be completely rearranged. As Ashley Ross put it, “the products had to do the tempting”, the store owner had to draw the shopper’s attention to the merchandise. Candy and impulse items were strategically placed at the checkout where they would be easily noticed. All items in the Piggly Wiggly (PW) store were price-marked for the shopper’s convenience, the clerks no longer required to do the fetching were freed up to keep the shelves stocked with dry goods and to assist customers. Another innovation, the shop attendants were issued with uniforms, as was the use of refrigerated cases. Because PW operated on a high volume/low profit margin, lower costs were passed on to the customers. By drawing customers away from speciality retail stores the prices could be further lowered. PW Saunders’ self-serving store was the “supermarket franchise model” of the future, and as John Stanton (professor of the history of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University, Pennysylvania) noted, the PW merchandise model was basically “the origin of branding”.
Copycats of the self-serve template
Saunders’ self-service stores were an immediate success…by 1922 there were 1,200 stores across 29 US states, 10 years later this number had ballooned out to 2,660 stores. PW’s financial bonanza (over $180m turnover by 1932) spawned numerous imitators in the US retail industry – Handy Andy, Helpy Selfy, Mick-or-Mack, Jitney Jungle – all operating under Saunders’ patent system earning him royalties. Another of the rival chains won no commendations for subtlety or originality in calling its derivative store idea, Hoggly Woogly!
‘Sole Owner of My Name’
Saunders’ substantial wealth derived from PW received a blow when the company’s share price on the New York Stock Exchange bottomed out after a bear raid by market speculators. Consequently Saunders lost $3 million and was forced into bankruptcy in the 1920s❈, ending his involvement with the company. The ‘Piggly Wiggly’ brand still operates with over 600 stores in 17 states, but it has no connection with Saunders’ family or descendants. In 1928 Saunders started up a new grocery chain which he called the Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Stores…the business initially flourished, accumulating 675 stores⚀. However with the onset of the Great Depression it also went into bankruptcy in 1930.
Keedoozle 1.0 and 2.0
The indefatigable Saunders was soon at it again, devising a new take on his idea of a revolutionary grocery enterprise. In 1937 this materialised with Keedoozle – the prototype of an automated store. The name apparently a contraction of “key-does-all”✾…it worked like this, upon entering the store customers received a key which they used to access the merchandise. The complicated sounding process involved taking the items and a ticker tape from glass-enclosed cases (resembling vending machines) to the cashier who inserted the tape into a “translator machine” which had a two-fold action: it triggered electrical impulses which transported the goods down a conveyor belt, and at the same time adding up the customer’s bill. The added benefit for the customer, apart from convenience and speed, Saunders claimed would be 10-15% cheaper prices than Keedoozle’s competitors.
In practice though, things didn’t go to plan. The electrical circuits couldn’t cope with the traffic during peak hours, there were breakdowns (unreliable machinery, high maintenance costs)…and delays (compounded by a tardy conveyor belt system). Customers regularly got someone else’s orders. In all Saunders had three attempts at getting the automated service right. In 1948 he came up with (another) new, ‘improved’ version of Keedoozle…again the re-launch was accompanied by Saunders’ penchant for extravagant claims. Alas, this venture also met the same fate of the earlier projects, eventual bankruptcy.
All of the grocery store projects that Saunders launched went pear-shaped in the end. One last hurray for the grocery pioneer was meant to be his Foodelectric concept. As heralded by Saunders, Foodelectric would take retail automation to another level – the customer would “act as her own cashier”, doing the collecting and wrapping of the purchases herself. According to Saunders, it would “cut overhead expenses and enable a small staff to handle a tremendous volume”. Saunders’ new innovation with Foodelectric was the “shopping brain”, a portable primitive computer which allows the shopper to select and despatch the items, whilst registering the prices on the computer window.
Unfortunately Saunders died in 1953 before he could open the first Foodelectric store. The track records of Piggly Wiggly, Sole Owner Stores and especially Keedoozle were not stellar success stories in the world of retail grocery, the notion of triple-bankruptcy does not connote good business acumen. But Saunders was a visionary thinker-outside-the-box, his concepts and novelties in the field were decades ahead of their time…the Memphis grocer is remembered today for pioneering a nascent sales model of self-service which paved the way for the development of the modern supermarket.
PostScript: Piggly Wiggly or Alpha Beta?
PW’s and Saunders’ claim to being the originator of American self-serve stores could be contested by Alpha Beta a Southern Californian grocery chain which opened its doors in 1914 (two years before PW). Alpha Beta also experimented with self-service – goods in its stores were arranged alphabetically (hence the company’s name). Alpha Beta merged with American Stores in 1961 and by 1973 it could boast to having over 200 supermarkets in California (unlike PW though, AB remained a regional, Californian phenomena). After a further merger with Lucky Stores in 1988 the “Alpha Beta” brand name ceased to exist.
❈ also lost by Saunders due to his financial woes was the Georgian marble “pink palace” mansion, today the Memphis Pink Palace Museum and Planetarium which the Hairy Bikers visited on their American South culinary quest
⚀ Saunders established his own professional (American) football team to promote the new grocery venture, predictably the team was called the “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Tigers”
✾ Saunders seems to contradict this explanation of the name’s origin in the ‘Life’ magazine article cited below
 A Ross, ‘The Surprising Way a Supermarket Changed the World’, Time, 09-Sep-2016, www.time.com
 B Saar, ” ‘Keedoozle’ evolving into swiping”, (The Hawk Eye), 03-Aug-2003, http://sparky.thehawkeye.com
 Ross, loc.cit.
 ‘Piggly Wiggly’, Wikipedia, http://wikipedia.org
 PH Nystrom, Economics of Retailing (1930), cited in ibid.
 ‘Clarence Saunders (Grocer)’, Wikipedia, http://wikipedia.org
 B Cosgrove, ‘We Hardly Knew Ye: Remembering America’s First Automated Grocery Keedoozle’, Time, 25-Aug-2014, www.time.com
 “In five years”, he boldly (and unwisely) asserted in 1948, “there will be a thousand Keedoozles throughout the U.S. selling $5 billion worth of goods” (in reality there was only ever three (Memphis) built between 1937 and 1949!), ‘Saunders is sure Keedoozle will build his third fortune’, Life, 3-Jan-1949; Cosgrove, ibid.
 Life, loc.cit.
 ‘A Quick History of the Supermarket’, Groceteria.com Exploring supermarket history, www.groceteria.com
Where the Gainsborough Pictures/Islington Studios once stood (in Hoxton, North London), today sits blocks of luxury flats built in 2004. As a token gesture the name ‘Gainsborough’ remains on the units’ facade but the only other indicator that it is the site of a former film studio is a 6.5m high courtyard sculpture of Alfred Hitchcock whose first exposure to the movie industry was at Islington … the work of art enigmatically depicting ‘Hitch’ as a gigantic head❈.
In the course of the twentieth century, the site, when it wasn’t a centre of feature film production, had something of a checkered existence. The original building started off as an electrical power station for the East London rail line, circa 1900. When Gainsborough Pictures’ film production ended there around 1949, the premises had a broad range of commercial and community incarnations for the rest of the century, including being a whiskey store, a carpet warehouse and an avant-garde theatre. By the time it was chosen as a site for the apartments that occupy it today, the surviving buildings had taken on a very derelict appearance.
The film company’s story at Hoxton/Islington began just after the Great War when the American movie giant Famous Players-Lasky acquired it in 1919 for its British production arm. Lasky refurbed the run-down power plant, turning it into state-of-the-art film studios. Islington, with the most technical advanced studios in the UK, was also Britain’s most iconic film studios. Features included a scene dock, a large tank for filming underwater scenes and an anti-fog heating system (indispensable for notoriously foggy London). Such super-de luxe facilities earned Islington Studios nicknames like “Hollywood by the Canal” and “Los Islington” .
Cutts and Hitchcock: Islington Silents
Islington Studios commenced making films in 1920 … the creative figure most associated with the studio’s early silent productions was Graham Cutts, who directed a string of 1920s Gainsborough films – of these the most acclaimed were Women to Women (1923) and The Rat (1925). Cutts was mentor to the young Alfred Hitchcock … ‘Hitch’ got his start at Islington as a writer of signs for movies before rising to become the older director’s assistant in several Cutts films. Fellow director AV Bramble went so far to say of Cutts’ directorial contribution, that Gainsborough Pictures “had been built on the back of his work”. The success of The Rat owed much to its star, Ivor Novello, who was a fan magnet (intentionally cast) in the Rudolf Valentino mould. As 1920s Britain’s most popular matinée idol Novello helped lift the profile (and profit sheet) of Gainsborough Studios.
The Balcon years
The American Lasky company didn’t persist with the London venture, selling the studios to ‘kingpin’ British producer Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures◙ in 1924. Balcon continued the Hollywood former owner’s practice of importing US stars (such as Mae Marsh and Dorothy Gish) to bolster Gainsborough’s productions, but he also pursued a strategy aimed at competing with the burgeoning American influence in the British industry after the war. Balcon made deals with US and German film companies to allow Islington to distribute and finance its own films⌑. Balcon nurtured Hitchcock’s development as a film-maker, despatching him to Germany to work as an assistant on a UFA film in Berlin. Hitchcock’s German influence was evident in Gainsborough’s The Lodger (1927), the best example of British expressionism in silent films.
In 1927 Balcon’s company merged Gainsborough with the larger Gaumont-British film co which operated from its Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush (West London). Many Gainsborough Pictures productions were made at Lime Grove (in addition to those made at Islington). Lime Grove Studios produced the ‘quality’ films, whereas the Gainsborough Studio produced mainly ‘B’ movies (especially low-budget crime) and melodramas. The core of Hitchcock’s classic 1930s espionage/mysteries (such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and The 39 Steps) were made by Gaumont at Lime Grove.
Edward Black and the costume melodramas
After Gaumont went into bankruptcy Balcon left Gaumont in 1936 for MGM-British (and later Ealing Studios). Gaumont-British ceased production for several years but Gainsborough was saved by a rescue package put together by CM Woolf and J Arthur Rank (partners of General Film Distributors). From the late thirties producer Edward Black came to Gaumont/Gainsborough and the subsequent type of productions the studios made reflected Black’s “unerring sense of British popular taste”. One of his earliest successes was with Bank Holiday (1938), directed by Carol Reed and Margaret Lockwood, soon to become Britain’s leading screen actress回. Black used ex-Music Hall performers like Will Hays and Arthur Askey for Islington’s light comedies. Gainsborough Pictures also afforded opportunities to the versatile Launder and Gilliat writer-director team to showcase their collaborative skills.
In the war years following, Black combined with screenwriter RJ Minney to produce a series of costume melodramas at Gainsborough, which have been described as being “visually extravagant and morally ambivalent”. Minney and Black also produced comedies and modern-dress melodramas for Gainsborough … the first and most famous of the Studio’s period costume melodramas was The Man in Grey (1943), a box-office winner with an overtly escapist formula to distract people from the tribulations of the world war.
Postwar: Rank and the Boxes
In 1946 the powerful Rank Organisation acquired full control of Gainsborough Pictures, leading to an exodus of its main creative figures, including Black and Minney, and its pre-Rank takeover head of production Maurice Ostrer. J Arthur Rank choose one-time self defined “hack journalist” Sydney Box to head up the Studios’ productions. Box’s collaborators, his wife, writer and director, Muriel and his sister, producer Betty, also came on board. Sydney Box in his time at Gainsborough churned out films at a very steady rate of knots – 36※ all up over three years of managing Gainsborough productions. Under Sydney Box the Studio tackled a mix of genres with a focus on melodramas, thrillers and light comedies.
Gainsborough Pictures in the austere economic climate after the war exhibited an interest in ‘social’ films with a topical appeal. Employing the skills he honed as a documentarist, Sydney also commissioned films which explored a range of issues – no doubt with Muriel’s guiding influence. These included child adoption, juvenile delinquency, displaced persons, leisure pursuits. The light comedies, usually with Betty E Box as producer, remained among the most popular of Gainborough’s offerings, eg, Miranda (1948) (a romantic diversion about a mermaid out of her environment), Holiday Camp (1947) (which spawned a light-hearted series of sequels about the Huggett family – the amusing adventures and misadventures of a typical working class London family in the late 1940s (the workman-like cast included 1960s English pop star Petula Clark).
Gainsborough – closing act
J Arthur Rank permanently shut down production at both Hoxton (Gainsborough) and Shepherd’s Bush (Lime Grove) in 1949, apparently because he was unhappy with the performance of both London studios. All films made by Rank Organisation after 1949 were concentrated at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. The last feature released under the Gainsborough banner was Trio (1950), an anthology film co-directed by the Islington regular Ken Annakin.
PostScript 1: the Gainsborough logo
All Gainsborough films open with the shot of an elegant, feather-hatted woman in Georgian period costume, enclosed within an ornate oval frame. The woman (portrayed by actress Glennis Lorimer) slowly turns and smiles at the camera, an opening feature as visually distinctive as Rank’s iconic strongman banging the gong. The shot of Lorimer was based on the famous 1785 portrait of Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough.
PostScript 2: the studio fire traps of the early ‘talkies’
By the advent of sound pictures Gainsborough’s Islington Studios were certainly among the most technologically advanced in Britain … able to adapt scenes into everything from a mad professor’s lab to a railway station to an 18th century manor house to a mermaid’s lair. But the studios at that time were inherently dangerous places – celluloid was highly inflammable, as was carbon arc lights. Sound-proofing studios usually required covering the entire building with thick blankets, which was virtually tantamount to inviting a fire! The Gainsborough Studios burnt to the ground in 1930, and the same fate befell the studios at Twickenham and Elstree. Such was the sense of threat that some studios maintained their own in-house fire brigades.
❈ there is also a plaque on one of the unit complexes commemorating the film studios
◙ the names ‘Islington’ and ‘Gainsborough’ have tended to be used interchangeably in describing the Poole Street studios ⌑ through the vertical integration of the film biz in the UK and elsewhere, Hollywood was maintaining an economic and cultural dominance of the industry
回 other leading 1940s British stars of Gainsborough pictures included Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert, James Mason and Stewart Granger
※ this in fact was the target J Arthur Rank had set (12 feature films a year) as a condition of Sydney Box’s appointment
 Steve Rose, ‘Where the lady vanished’, The Guardian, (16-Jan-2001), www.theguardian.com
 Gary Chapman, London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio’s Silent Years, (2014); LN Ede, ‘Designing the Silent British Film’, in IQ Hunter, L Porter & J Smith (Eds), Routledge Companion to British Cinema History, (2017)
 Rachel Low, The History of British Film: Vol 1V, 1918-1929, (1997)
 Geoffrey Macnab, Searching for Stars: Stardom and Screen Acting in British Cinema, (2000)
 ‘Gaumont British Picture Corporation Limited’, (The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki), http://the.hitchcock.zone. Often described in the trade as “quota-quickies” (Michael Powell’s term)
 Ede, op.cit.
 B McFarlane (Ed), The Encyclopedia of British Cinema – Fourth Edition, (2016)
 The Boxes started their careers in cinema with Verity Films, making war-time propaganda films and documentaries. Behind-the-camera roles in the industry in those days was very much a “man’s world”, and no easy path to tread for women … especially Muriel (when directing films), Rachel Cooke, ‘Power women of the 1950s: Muriel and Betty Box’, The Guardian, 3-October 2013, www.theguardian.com
 A Spicer, Sydney Box, (2006)
 ‘Gainsborough pictures’, Wikipedia, http://wikipedia.org.
 Rose, loc.cit.; Geoffrey Macnab, ‘The death-trap London studio that time forgot: Gainsborough Studios’, The Independent, 24-Jun-1999, www.independent.co.uk
Progressive advocates and activists for a more just and equal society in the US view the Port Chicago❈ naval disaster and mutiny in July 1944 as a crucible for the cause of civil rights. African-American seamen, the majority still in their teens, revolted against the entrenched discriminatory practices they encountered in the Navy during WWII, and although vilified and punished by White authority at the time, their stand was to be a key factor in the eventual decision to abolish segregation in the US armed forces.
The catalyst for the subsequent ‘mutiny’ (as the Navy and White society generally characterised it – see also the follow up blog) was a catastrophic series of explosions whilst two naval carrier vessels were being loaded at the naval dock with ammunition for transportation to the Pacific theatre of war. The mega-blast killed 320 sailors and civilians (the bulk of the sailors were African-Americans), plus a further 390 personnel were injured❧. It was the worst home front disaster of WWII (the cost included nearly $9.9m worth of damage to dock, ships and buildings). The fireball engulfing the Port could be viewed from miles away, triggering a quake felt as far away as Boulder City, Nevada. Such was the force of the explosion that one 300lb chunk of steel was ‘cannonballed’ a distance of 1.5 miles, landing in the main street of the Port township.
The disproportionate toll of African-American enlisted men in the disaster was the result of the Navy assigning them to the most menial, labouring jobs as stevedores, basically “pack mules” loading the munitions. The Navy made casual racist assumptions about their ‘limited’ vocational capacity, despite the fact that at the Navy boot camp the black sailors had each completed specific training for one or other of the naval rating occupations.
Navy double standards
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Navy treated of the two groups of seamen involved markedly differently – the White officers and sailors were given a 30-day “survivor’s leave”, whereas all the Black sailors (despite being severely shaken and traumatised by the incident) were denied the leave – despite it being standard procedure in such instances. This proved a very sore point for the African-Americans at Port Chicago. African-American seamen enlisted in the US Navy, aside from motives of patriotism, for the promise of recognition as full American citizens – a chance to escape the South’s Jim Crow segregation policies or the North’s institutionalised “second citizenship”. Unfortunately what they found, and Port Chicago was no exception to elsewhere in the military, was that they were still segregated and marginalised, despite the fact they were serving in the defence of their country.
Adding insult to injury: Compensation for African-American victims watered down
That the loss of Black lives in the Port Chicago catastrophe was of diminished importance in American society at the time was even more starkly underlined in the subject of restitution. The Navy asked for $5,000 to be paid to each of the families of the 203 dead African-American sailors. Extraordinarily, after a vigorous and forthright protest from Mississippi Democrat representative, John Rankin (a White Supremacist sympathiser) that the sum be reduced to $2,000, Congress caved in to his pressure and awarded the families $3,000 each … a brazenly unequivocal acknowledgement from the authorities that Black lives in America at the time were not worth as much as White ones!
The Naval Board of Inquiry
The Inquiry into the explosion would give the surviving Black seamen (and the victims’ families) more cause for grievance. The report never established the cause of the disaster❖, but implied that an error by the enlisted men may have led to the explosions. As for the white officers and the base commander, they were all absolved of any blame for what happened. The Naval Board effectively ‘white-washed’ the whole episode, choosing not to cast a critical eye over the glaring pre-conditions that contributed to the disaster. Both training and safety was lax at Port Chicago Naval Magazine. Deeply significantly, the Black assigned stevedores were not given instruction in ammunition loading. Training deficiencies were in fact common at Port Chicago – the White loading officers themselves had only minimal training in supervising enlisted personnel and in handling munitions. As well, the Port’s commander Captain Merrill Kinne himself had no training in the loading of munitions and very little experience in handling them.
Sowing the seeds of catastrophe
Safety requirements were not observed and unsafe practices abounded: there was a complacency about the maintenance of key operational equipment; safety regulations were not widely distributed for the staff to familiarise themselves with. The practice at Port Chicago was to force the stevedores, working around-the-clock, to load the explosive cargos at a pace that would imperil safety – the rate was set at 10 short tons per hatch every hour (higher than commercial stevedores✾). Facility commander Kinne encouraged a climate of competitiveness between the different crews (which they called ‘divisions’) by keeping a tally of each crew’s hourly tonnage on a chalkboard … leading to the junior officers surreptitiously laying bets on which crew would win the “speed loading contests”.
PostScript: Was the explosion a nuclear detonation?
In the early 1980s investigative journalist Peter Vogel postulated the hypothesis that the explosion at Port Chicago was likely to have been a nuclear one. Vogel noted the continued secrecy surrounding the naval base site and pointed to the specific characteristics of the fireball (as described by eyewitness accounts) – a “brilliant flash of white” and the mushrooming effect of the explosion’s dispersion (ie, a Wilson condensation cloud). Vogel also asserted that the force of the actual blast was greater than the reported 1,780 tons of high explosives on board the two Liberty carriers (E.A. Bryan and Quinault).
Whilst Vogel’s theory would hold obvious appeal for conspiracy theorists, it has been not gained traction among historians. Its detractors, especially nuclear historians Badash and Hewlett, point to Vogel’s lack of hard evidence to support his claim, and his inability to explain why the US Government would want to detonate a nuclear device on populated home soil. Badash and Hewlett have noted in particular the absence of any residual radioactivity and resultant harm to the local community – which suggests that only conventional weaponry was involved.
❈ the town of Port Chicago, now called Concord, is located about 30 miles north of San Francisco on the Sacramento River
❧ toll for Black Navy servicemen: 203 dead, 233 injured – representing 15% of all African-American casualties for the entire war
❖ it was a bad time for the Navy, PR wise. Just two months prior to the Port Chicago disaster, another calamitous explosion at West Loch (Pearl Harbour) resulted in the death of 163 seamen and hundreds injured … and like Port Chicago the disaster remained unexplained
✾ the quota set on the main base at Mare Island for instance was only 8.7
 President Truman’s 1948 Executive order officially desegregating the American armed forced, United States of America Congressional Record (106th Congress), Vol 146-Part 4 (April 3, 2000 to April 25, 2000)
 430 miles to the south, ‘Port Chicago Mutiny (1944)’, www.blackpast.org; ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘A Chronology of African American Military Service. From WWI through WWII.’ (U.S. Army, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. History), www.redstone.army.mil/history/integrate/chron36.htm
 RL Allen, The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History, (1989)
 M Moorehead, ‘The Port a Chicago Mutiny’, (Workers World), Feb 1995, www.hartford-hwp.com
 Allen, op.cit.
 The White officers used wilful deception to gain acquiescence, lying to the Black loaders as to the inherent dangers of the work – telling them the ammunition was not live which was catastrophically wrong, I Thompson, ‘Mare Island mutiny court-martial changed Navy racial policies, Daily Republic (Solano County), 23-Feb-2014, www.dailyrepublic.com
 Allen, loc.cit.
 Vogel, P (1982). THE LAST WAVE FROM PORT CHICAGO. The Black Scholar, 13(2/3), 30-47. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41066881
 L Badash & RG Hewlett, cited in ‘Port Chicago disaster’, Wikipedia, op.cit.
On 17th July 1944 a catastrophically massive explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in California resulted in the loss of 320 lives, the majority African-American sailors. Less than four weeks after the worst wartime disaster on American home soil, the Navy, without regard for the sensitivity of the situation, instructed the surviving Black sailors to resume loading munitions onto the USS Sangay standing at the dock. 258 of them refused, contending that the conditions at the dock being still unsafe, and commenced a work stoppage. Threatened with court-martial (and a possible death penalty) 208 of the sailors eventually backed down. The navy authorities subsequently took punitive measures against these seamen (forfeiture of pay, pension entitlements curtailed) and they were eventually returned to service elsewhere.
The remaining 50 were charged by the Navy with mutiny. The defence counsel and the African-American men themselves denied this charge all through the proceedings, arguing that at no time were they attempting to seize control from the frontline commanders or overthrow the authority of the Navy (as argued by the prosecution team), but were refusing to work in what was clearly an unsafe environment, a protest against their being used as “guinea pigs”. As Robert Allen explained, the mutiny charge was levelled against the defendants because the rightful description of what they were doing, striking against deleterious working conditions, only applied to the civilian sphere.
The trial of the “Port Chicago 50”
A court-martial was arraigned to be held on the Navy’s administrative facility at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The conduct of the trial was a travesty of equality before the law for the African-American servicemen involved … the accused black sailors were ridiculed as ‘primitive’ in their intellectual abilities, and “unreliable, emotional, lack(ing) capacity to understand or remember orders or instructions” (as the official ‘Finding of Facts’ stated. The court hearings disintegrated into a shambles at times, eg, the judge fell asleep during the testimonies. After a six-week trial and a deliberation of only 60 minutes, a verdict was reached with unseemly haste – all 50 of the accused were found guilty of mutiny. The 50 convicted seamen were sentenced to between eight and 15 years imprisonment with hard labour as well as being on the receiving end of dishonourable discharges from the Navy.
One keen observer who attended the day-to-day court proceedings was NAACP❈’s Thurgood Marshall (later to become the first African-American judge of the US Supreme Court). Marshall was publicly critical of the trial, announcing: “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy towards Negros. Negroes in the Navy don’t mind loading ammunition. They just want to know why they are the only ones doing the loading!”. In 1945 the NAACP produced a pamphlet entitled ‘Mutiny? The Real Story of How the Navy Branded 50 Fear-shocked Sailors as Mutineers’. Marshall and the NAACP focussed the issue very squarely on the racial dimension … the treatment of the convicted men was symptomatic of a broader pattern of discrimination by the Navy against African-Americans – by mid-1943 there were 100,000 Black men serving in the Navy, but not a single Black officer among them. Marshall organised an appeal on behalf of the 50 prisoners, however in June 1945 the original verdict was reaffirmed by the naval authorities.
Aftermath and consequences of the mutiny trial
The Port Chicago mutiny had an immediate punitive outcome for the 50 Black sailors who were prosecuted, but in the long run it was a Pyrrhic victory for scientific (sic) racists and White supremacists (covert and overt) both inside and outside the military. The whole episode served to raise national consciousness about practices of racial discrimination within the US military forces. And it was to prove a catalyst and inspiration for the postwar Civil Rights movement. For the Navy the ramifications of Port Chicago made itself felt in short time. By the end of the World War the Navy had, in piecemeal fashion, initiated its own reforms of discriminatory practices, anticipating President Truman’s official decreeing of desegregation of the American armed forces – which did not come into law until 1948. With the world war over the Navy found it untenable to justify the continuing incarceration of the Port Chicago 50 … in January 1946 all of the men were released and assigned to other details overseas. Significantly though, none received pardons for their ‘crimes’, the convictions remained on the books.
The Port Chicago episode – a closed book reopened?
As Erika Doss has noted, “for decades the full story of the Port Chicago disaster of July 1944 was declared “classified” information and rendered virtually absent from historical narratives of the “good war”. The egregious treatment of African-American seamen remained an inconvenient chapter in America’s war history, one best forgotten (Port Chicago’s subsequent name change seems intended to support this objective of burying the thorny facts of the episode).
By the 1990s the whole shameful business had started to become more openly addressed … in 1994 a memorial to the Port Chicago 50 was created on the former base’s site. But in the same year these good intentions were turned on their head by a fresh Navy inquiry which found (unbelievably) that race was not a factor in the 1944 court case – a finding that would not be out-of-place in the annals of the “Flat Earth Society”!
A number of the convicted African-Americans then still alive agitated for a just resolution, a reversal of the wrongs perpetrated against them. One of “the 50”, Freddie Meeks was talked into requesting a pardon which was finally granted in 1999 by President Clinton. However five others including Joe Small refused to request the same, steadfastly insisting that as they had committed no criminal act, they was no question of seeking a pardon.
PostScript: High hopes for justice with Obama
The continued denial of justice for the Port Chicago 50 led it to become a cause célèbre in the US. This remains the case in 2017 despite the fact that all of the convicted African-American sailors are now dead. Their relatives were among those calling on the Black president, Barack Obama, to exonerate “the 50” and overturn their verdicts. Disappointingly, Obama’s outgoing powers of presidential pardon, recently enacted, did not include any of the Port Chicago 50 in its number – though this was more to do with the Obama administration’s inability to find a legal mechanism to make this a reality, rather than any lack of will on the part of the president.
❈ National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
 ‘Port Chicago mutiny’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
 Joe Small, one of the survivors of the disaster and labelled as a ‘ringleader’ by the Navy, summed up the position taken by the 50 defendants,
“(we) weren’t trying to shirk work. But to go back to work under the same conditions, with no improvements, no change, the same group of officers…we thought there was a better alternative”, E Doss, “Commemorating the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Disaster of 1944: Remembering the Racial Injustices of the ‘Good War’ in Contemporary America’, American Studies Journal, Number 59 (2015), www.asjournal.org
 B Bergman, “War, ‘mutiny’ and civil rights: Remembering Port Chicago”, Berkeley News, 10-Jul-2014, www.berkeley.edu
 A Gustafson, ‘The Port Chicago Disaster: Race and the Navy in World War II’, (Turnstile Tours), 29-Aug-2014, www.turnstiletours.com
 Bergman, loc.cit.
 Marshall, quoted in NA Hamilton, ‘Rebels and Renegades: A Chronology of Social and Political Dissent in the United States’, (2002)
 Doss, loc.cit.
 US Secretary of the Navy James V Forrestal and Admiral Ernest King, working together, were instrumental in getting the wheels of integration in the Navy going forward, S Sundin, ‘Port Chicago – Desegregation of the US Navy’, (Sarah’s Blog), 28-Jul-2014, www.sarahsundin.com
 Doss, op.cit.
 C Nolte, ‘Clinton Pardons Wartime ‘Mutineer’ / Port Chicago black sailor of 50 in infamous case’, (SFGate), 24-Dec-1999, wwwsfgate.com
 ‘Full list: Obama pardons these 78 people, shortens 153 prisoners’ sentences’, (Pix 11), 19-Dec-2016, www.pix11.com