Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Street Fanfare: The Eventful Life of Cecil John Charles Street

Cecil John Charles Street
Golden Age Mystery's
Master of Murder Means
I unearthed some interesting new information concerning Eileen Waller, the longtime companion and second wife of Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964), one of the three primary subjects of my book Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (the others two are Freeman Wills Crofts and Alfred Walter Stewart, alias J. J. Connington).

First, however, I had better give some background on John Street, for those of you who have not yet read Masters (all too many I am afraid!).

A founding member of the Detection Club, John Street (like Cecil Day Lewis, he didn't like to be called "Cecil") was one of the most prominent English Golden Age mystery writers and perhaps the most prolific true detective writer of all time.

Between 1924 and 1961, Street, primarily under the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton, published over 140 mystery novels, almost all of them tales of detection.

Just as John Dickson Carr was the master of the locked room mystery and Agatha Christie was mystery's mistress of misdirection, John Street was the crime genre's master of murder means, celebrated for his superbly ingenious ways of knocking off murder victims.

Currently Street's books are out of print (and extremely collectible), though I'm hoping they might be reprinted, like J. J. Connington's books, by Orion Books' Murder Room imprint (by the way, I have been asked to write an introduction to the Murder Room's Connington reprint series).

It has long been known that John Street had a military background (he rose to the rank of Major and often was known as "Major Street"), but in actuality his period of military service was confined to a relatively short span of years.

To be sure, John Street's father very much was career military.  John Street was the son of Major General John Alfred Street (1822-1889), a veteran of the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the Crimean War (1853-1856).

I'm guessing that Street was the only Golden Age mystery writer who had a father who fought in the First Opium War! 

John Alfred Street was commissioned as Ensign on November 29, 1839, promoted to Lieutenant on October 5, 1841 and to Captain on January 7, 1848.  In 1842 Street was present at the Battle of Chinkiang and at the landing before Nanking.  See Captain H. G. Hart, The New Army List (London: John Murray, 1848), 108.  In the Crimean War, Street was promoted to Major and then Lieutenant-Colonel.  He was present at the battles of Balaclava, Inkerman and Kinburn.  See H. H. Woollright, History of the Fifty-Seventh (West Middlesex) Regiment of Foot 1755-1881 (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1893), 289.

Battle of Chinkiang

By the 1870s, Street had been promoted to Major General and placed in command over British forces in Ceylon.  Street's first wife had died of dysentery in Ceylon in 1874, but nearing retirement Street in 1881 married Caroline Bill (1846-?), daughter of wealthy landed gentleman Charles Horsfall Bill (1818-1908), owner of the Georgian mansions Storthes Hall (Yorkshire) and The Priory (Gloucestershire), as well as a London townhouse at Great Cumberland Place.

Great Cumberland Place

John Alfred and Caroline Bill Street had one child, a son, Cecil John Charles (named after his father and maternal grandfather), in 1884.  General Street died in 1889 "somewhat suddenly at at his residence" Uplands at Woking, Surrey, when his son, the future author, was but five years old (Charles Horsfall Bill owned yet another house, Firlands, nearby, into which Caroline Bill and her son moved after the General's death).  For further details on all this genealogy see my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery.

Born at Gibraltar, where his father was in service, John Street, the future author, followed in his father's tradition for a time.  He graduated from Wellington College and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1903.  However, Street transferred from the Regular Army into the Special Reserves but three years later, in 1906.  The same year, he took his first wife, Hyacinth Maud Kirwan (1882-1949), a daughter of a Major in the Royal Artillery.
electric street lamp in Lyme Regis, 1909 (

Though possessing ample private means, Street, long fascinated with mechanics and applied science, spent the remaining years before the outbreak of World War One as the Chief Engineer of the Lyme Regis Electric Light & Power Company (see Martin Roundell Greene's Electric Lyme).

In World War One Street served as a Captain with the Royal Artillery.  A Forward Observation Officer, Street saw much action and was wounded three times, receiving the Military Cross in recognition of his service.  From 1918 to 1921 he served in British army intelligence (rising to the rank of Major).

John Street, 1920s
Though Street and his wife had one child, a daughter, the couple seems to have become estranged by the time of World War One and I don't believe they ever lived together again after 1914.  By 1936 (probably a good deal earlier), Street was living with another woman, the aforementioned Eileen Waller.

The Streets, as they were known (John and Eileen lived as a married couple, even though they were not in fact married), were great friends of John Dickson Carr, a new Detection Club colleague of John Street's, and Carr's English wife Clarice.

John and Eileen would live together until John's death in 1964 (they officially married after Maud's death in 1949).

Eileen Waller was a daughter of John Edward Hopkins Waller (1856-1930) and Annette Elizabeth Naude, daughter of Adolph Naude (the Naudes were of French Huguenot extraction).

A son of John Francis Waller, an Irish lawyer, poet and songwriter ("The Spinning Wheel"), J. Edward Waller, as he was known, was a very prominent civil engineer.  His firm, Kincaid, Waller, Manville and Dawson was one of the most notable consulting electrical engineering firms in England.  It was involved in such projects as the building of a tramway system of Buenos Aires and the electrification of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway.

Waller's partner Edward Manville became one of the most noted English industrialists and was later knighted.  Among other things, Manville was one of the most important people in the Daimler Company, serving on the Board of Directors of the British car manufacturer for twenty-eight years.

Trams, Burton upon Trent, 1913 (National Railway Museum)
one of the Kincaid, Waller, Manville and Dawson projects

Having a fuller understanding of the professional background of Eileen Waller's father, I now better comprehend what helped bring John and Eileen together.  The connection between them was, one might say, electric!

Anyone who reads Street's mysteries, particularly the John Rhode books, should notice the author's marked fascination with business and technology.  When you see what Street's professional background was, this is not surprising.

Horace Edmund Waller
But there is yet more connecting John and Eileen.  Eileen Waller had three siblings, one of whom served in the Great War, but, unlike John Street, did not not come out of the conflict alive.  This was Horace Edmund Waller (1891-1915).  Like Street, Waller graduated from Wellington College, as well as Tonbridge School.  After studying engineering at the University of London, he migrated to Canada, where he worked on the hydroelectric installation of the Algoma Central Railway at Steep Hill Falls, Ontario.

At the commencement of the Great War, Waller enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and reached France in December 1914.  Being fluent in French (presumably a linguistic legacy from his mother), Waller was detailed in France to act as an interpreter and guide.

Frequently in the trenches, Waller soon contracted dysentery.  He entered the hospital on February 4, 1915, dying three days later.

A sergeant in his company wrote Waller's parents that Waller was "one of the best little fellows that ever lived [Waller was 5'6"] and one whom I am very proud to have called friend.  He was the most popular man in the company.

The tragedy of war--another point, a poignant one, connecting John and Eileen, though John Street made it through the fiery furnace of combat and went on to achieve comparative fame and fortune as one of the most accomplished Golden Age English mystery writers.

Horace Edmund Waller's name is listed on the
Memorial at Westgate-on-Sea, Kent
where his family lived


  1. Congrats on the intro writing gig for the Connington books! You've earned a place in the Mystery Critics' Hall of Fame with me at least. I am always impressed by the historical and biographical details you dig up on these writers.

  2. Thanks, John, I enjoy doing it! I would have loved to have had some pints at a pub with Major Street. Like John Dickson Carr, I think I would have found him a most excellent drinking companion!