10 January 2008

Is This Sinead Acheson (1891–1973)?

For someone who was evidently renowned as a socialite and an extroverted supporter of left-wing causes, Sinead Acheson – usually known as Ach to her friends – has left a very thin trace of her existence. She was writer Lionel Britton's companion for several decades, and worked to keep his name in the public eye when he began to fall out of favour. What she did for a living, though, is something of a mystery. There is some evidence that she was involved in the legal profession, although she also advertised her services as a Swedish remedial face masseuse: she was trained by Constance Walton and worked at Bertha Hammond, 16 Old Bond Street, London W. 1.

Around the late 1920s, when she met Lionel Britton, she lived at 20 Ducane Close, London W. 12, when she was involved in administrative work on a voluntary basis for Left Theatre. She later lived at an appartment at 4 Essex Court, Middle Temple, E. C. 4. More bizarrely, she is said to have been the keeper of the keys to Churchill's most secret files during World War II , and to have been given the appartment in recognition of her services. This, however, contradicts statements in Dr Josephine Butler's autobiographical Churchill's Secret Agent (Ashbury: Blaketon–Hall, 1983; repr. as Cyanide in My Shoe (Cheltenham: This England, 1991)), which claims that Butler was the only female member of Churchill's 'Secret Circle'. But, as Robert Hughes notes in a post here, her death certificate reveals that for some reason she went under another name: Violet Victoria Jeanette Acheson.

Lionel Britton and Surrealism

Below is a photo from Roger Horrocks's Len Lye: A Biography (Auckland: University of Auckland, 2001). The occasion was the private showing of Eisenstein's banned film Battleship Potemkin at the Film Guild of London (where Britton was Chair). Eisenstein himself was present, wearing a policeman's helmet in the photo, which Lionel Britton rests a hand on, his other holding a phone. Also of interest is the presence of the former Dadaist Hans Richter, and Mark Segal pretending to play warming pan. But the importance of the shot to this blog is the younger woman in the photo, because it is more than probable that it is rare sighting of Ach:

(Many thanks to Roger Horrocks for permisssion to use the photo, and to Rone Waugh for providing me with some of the information here.)


Roger Horrocks said...

Hi Tony
I was interested in your link to my book on Len Lye. (Incidently, you are welcome to use the photo directly if you like. Do you have a copy of the book?) Have you published on Lionel Britton yet? If so, I'd be interested in the details. As for the photo, I don't know about Sinead, but Lye remembered the occasion as linked with a film-making workshop that Eisenstein and Richter were running that week. Was the Potemkin screening a related event?
Best wishes, Roger Horrocks

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Hi Roger

Thanks for the post. I don’t yet have a copy of your book, but I shall get one, and many thanks for allowing me to use the photo. At the moment I still have more information to collect on Britton for the book, although the PhD (which mainly deals with Britton’s place in the working-class fiction canon) is available from the British Library. I don’t have Ronald Bergan’s biography of Eisenstein to hand, but I seem to remember that it mentioned that Richter had a studio in London. I think that this studio may have been the Film Guild of London, which was in a room at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, where Britton was Chair and his friend Herbert Marshall the Secretary. (It’s mentioned several times in various copies of Close Up, but the few films the Guild made were largely critically unsuccessful, and the whole experiment was very badly organised.) I wonder if the ‘film-making workshop’ was at the Guild? I don’t know where Marshall was in all this, but it was through Eisenstein’s visit to London that he met Marshall and a few years later went to Russia as his student. I’ve never seen a photo of Marshall, but the rather stern man right at the back of the photo and who doesn’t appear to be named is perhaps to old - Marshall was several years younger than Britton.

Best wishes

Tony Shaw

Snatch51 said...

We can be reasonably sure that Sinead Acheson was born in Ireland on March 20th 1891, and died in St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, on March 29th 1973.
What we cannot be at all sure about is her real name, as she is one of the few people not only to use two identities, but according to the GRO Index, to die twice at once!
Besides under Sinead Acheson, her death is separately recorded under Violet Victoria Jeanette Acheson.
Robert Hughes

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Many thanks for this informaation, Robert. Unfortunately, though, there's very little information around on either of these people!


Martin Kingston said...

Sinead Acheson (originally Violet Acheson) was my great-aunt, and I would love to hear more stories about her - we have a few in the family and they provide us with affectionate entertainment. I met her when I was 10, and was impressed by her red wig and the cigarettes she smoked in a long cigarette holder. My older sister says she helped her a lot when she arrived in London as a student. Contact me at martin.mccloghry@gmail.com

Martin Kingston said...

Sinead Acheson was my great-aunt and we have some amusing family stories about her. She was something in the Board of Trade in the '45 Labour government and was a Fabian. She changed her name from Violet when young as a statement of Irish nationalism - I think she was a Free Stater when young Martin.mccloghry@gmail.com

Matt McCloghry said...


Martin is correct. She was also my great aunt as Martin is my cousin. My father, Thomas McCloghry, researched and compiled a fairly detailed family history. Violet's sister was Hilda Sarah Shaw Acheson, my grandmother. Interesting that the Shaw name appears there. Contact me for more details: mmccloghry@yahoo.com.
Cheers, Matt McCloghry

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Hi Mark and Martin

Many thanks for the comments, and apologies to Martin for my incompetence. April 2014 feels like a very long time ago, part of the reason being that we were in the throes of moving from Nottingham to Manchester at the time, so Martin's comments are only dimly registering at the moment. Fishing into my email history I seem (judging from the title of my email) to have sent the same one twice - but to the wrong address! That would explain my not receiving a reply, although I don't recall receiving the usual bounce either. (I enclose the original email anyway.)

I'd love to know if you can provide me with any more information about Sinead Acheson, any at all although I'm obviously very interested in an accurate description of her relationship with Britton: I know she willed everything to him, but he was dead by then in any case! Correspondence between the two is very coy, although she once calls him 'darling', and Britton (half in jest I think) tells her she can share a single bed with him in Russia if the local police allow it. A long letter about him locking himself out of her place in London wearing only her underpants (while she was with the Home Guard in the Blackpool area) is hilarious but too complicated to go into now. (Believe me, I'm not making any of this up.)

Shaw is a very common name and as far as I know there's no relationship, which I think is a pity!



PS Do you think that is her in the photo?