Obscene postcards, invisible ink, and the arrest of a respectable woman: “The Coleford Sensation”, December 1923

In the days leading up to Christmas in 1923, while many Coleford residents were sending festive cards to their families and friends, one local woman had been posting items of a very different nature. On 13 December, people busy doing their shopping in the Market Place were shocked when Miss Diana Langham, a respectable middle-aged spinster of independent means, was approached by police officers and asked to accompany them to the station. As she was escorted away, she was heard to say, “I know nothing about the postcards”.

On the same day as Langham was arrested, The Citizen reported on the story and gave some details of the reasons for the arrest. It emerged that for some time past, several people in Coleford had been receiving postcards bearing obscene messages and images. The police had been informed and after weeks of investigation, they had called in the help of Scotland Yard, who had sent Detective-Sergeant Giles of the Criminal Investigation Department (Special GPO Branch) to carry out an investigation, alongside the unfortunately named Inspector Bent of the Coleford Police.

No details were given as to how Diana Langham had been identified as being the chief suspect. The Citizen noted that she was fifty years old and a life-long resident of Coleford. She was a regular attendant at church and a member of the local golf club. Her father was the late Mr Goodrich Langham of Highnash, Coleford, who for many years had been a local Crown Official and had been concerned in various mining operations in the Forest of Dean.

Diana Langham appeared at Coleford Police Court on the following day and pleaded not guilty to the charge that “between 12 July 1923 and divers other days between then and 13 December, she had sent certain postal packets which had therein certain words and designs of an indecent character”. Her address was given as Dombey Lodge, High Street, Coleford. The police asked for the accused to be detained in custody so the case against her could be completed. Her lawyer applied for bail to be granted and a butcher and wine and spirit merchant called Mr Highley offered to act as a surety, but when he was asked to pay £200 and also to take responsibility for her until her next appearance in court, he said he would have to consult with his wife. The magistrates decided that it would be best if Langham was remanded in custody for a week. As Gloucester Prison no longer held females, she was taken by train to Cardiff Prison.

The next hearing was held at a Special Court at Coleford on 21 December. The Gloucester Journal, under the headline “The Coleford Sensation”, reported that Langham was wearing a grey dress and a long grey coat, with a black velvet hat and veil. She was charged under Section 63 of the Post Office Act 1908. It was stated in court that if a summary conviction was made by the magistrates, a £10 fine would be the penalty. If it was decided that the case should be sent for trial on an indictment, the sentence would be imprisonment for up to twelve months.

Again, no details were given as to how Diana Langham had been identified as the likely culprit, but it transpired that a “sting” operation had been put in place to establish her guilt beyond doubt. Mr Bishop of the Secretary’s Office of the General Post Office (GPO) gave evidence that on 3 December, he had marked 12 penny stamps and 24 half-penny stamps with “acid in an invisible manner”. He had given the stamps to Miss Fyfe, the Coleford postmistress, with “certain instructions”. She told the sorting clerk to keep the stamps locked up and not to sell them to anyone but the accused. On 7 December, Langham called at Coleford Post Office and bought six penny and twelve half-penny stamps. She bought more two days later.

On 10 December, a postcard addressed to “Charlie Saunders, Bank, Coleford” was found in the Sparrow Hill letter box. The postman who collected it from the box took it to the postmistress, who gave it to D.S. Giles. The invisible ink was then developed and the stamp bore the secret mark previously applied. On 12 December, Giles, who had been watching Langham’s movements, saw her in the street, fidgeting with something in her pocket and looking rather nervous. Giles followed her and when Langham pulled a glove out of the same pocket he glimpsed the top of a postcard. Later he saw her post something in the Sparrow Hill postbox. When the box was emptied, a few letters and one postcard was found. After Diana Langham’s arrest, her house was searched. The police found unused stamps and postcards, a quill pen, and, crucially, a piece of blotting paper on which one of the indecent words used on the postcards was readable.

Charles Lionel Saunders, chief cashier at Lloyds Bank, Coleford, stated that he had received 32 postcards, all but one sent to the bank. His wife had received two. Arthur Stanley Roberts, a photographer of Market Place, Coleford, had received four postcards and a letter. His wife had received 2 postcards. Stanley Porter, auctioneer, and Albert Hunter Powell, insurance agent, had received one card each.

Langham’s solicitor, Mr Lane, said that there appeared to be no question that his client had sent the cards, although neither she nor any of her friends or family could explain why. He asked that the Bench would deal with the case summarily and administer a fine. The shame of being exposed and the ruin of her previously spotless reputation would be the greatest punishment she would endure. It was also likely that the recipients of the cards would take civil proceedings against her for libel. Her married sister, who lived in Somerset, had offered to give her a home and Miss Langham had no intention of ever returning to Coleford. After consulting for several minutes, the Bench decided that the case should be sent to the Gloucestershire Assizes. Mr Lane then asked for his client to be granted bail, as her sister would take responsibility for her. This was granted and some time later, Diana Langham was taken out of a back door to a waiting motor car. Several women shouted “Good luck!” as she was driven away.

Diana Langham pictured in the Daily Mirror, 22 December 1923. Image from British Newspaper Archive

The Gloucestershire Assizes took place in the last week of January 1924. When her trial came on, Diana Langham entered the courtroom wearing the same clothes as at her hearing, but without the veil. She was given a seat in the dock, where she occasionally applied smelling salts to her nose. She had changed her plea to guilty, meaning that the trial did not take as long as it would have done if she had maintained her innocence. The prosecution counsel said that he would not go into details of the contents of the communications and there was no need for the police or any of the witnesses to give evidence.

Mr A.F. Clements appeared for the accused, and said that the whole case had come as a great shock to all of Langham’s family and friends, as she had always borne a blameless character. The only reason he could offer for her inexplicable behaviour was that being the age she was, “she was passing through that period which induces in some women a strange mental and nervous condition”. (In plainer language, she was menopausal.) Miss Langham had pleaded guilty, she was extremely sorry and would never do such a thing again. She had been living with her married sister in Somerset and would make her home there. She would never go back to Coleford.

As Langham had pleaded guilty there was no need for the jury to retire to consider a verdict. She was helped out of her seat by a wardress and a warder and held onto the dock rail to receive sentence. The judge commended her for changing her plea to guilty, thus sparing the witnesses from having to give evidence. The postcards were “full of the most horrible, vulgar coarseness, which must have caused the greatest distress to the men and women who received them, and were an outrage upon the Post Office employees who had to deal with them”. Her actions had been “pure wickedness, and very cruel wickedness, which could not be passed over” and so he sentenced her to six months imprisonment.

Details were not given as to where Diana Langham served her sentence, but afterwards she went to live with her sister and brother-in-law, Lucy and William J. Browning, in Somerset. She died in 1955, aged 82. As she left a will, some information was given in the National Probate Calendars. She had been living at Fernbank, Barrington, Somerset, and died in a hospital in Taunton, on 2 November 1955. Her sister Lucy Browning administered her will, in which she left estate valued at £1168.11s. Presumably she died without ever having revealed why she had sent the postcards, or why she had targeted those particular individuals, especially the poor bank clerk who had received 32 out of 42 of her communications.

Sources:

Newspapers all from British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

Daily Mirror, 22 December 1923

Citizen, 13 Dec, 14 Dec 1923, 28 Jan 1924

Gloucester Journal, 15 Dec, 22 Dec 1923

Other sources from Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk)

England and Wales Register, 1939

England and Wales Births, Marriages and Deaths: Deaths, Oct-Dec 1955

National Probate Calendars

Copyright Jill Evans, 2021

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