Sunday, September 05, 2010

Ella M Scrymsour revisited

Ella Scrymsour has been something of a mystery to researchers for many years. A relatively minor author, her work nevertheless falls into a number of categories where people keenly seek out information: science fiction, horror and crime. As the bulk of her output was romances, often only a single work falls under the microscope, usually her novel A Perfect World. Researchers dig a little, find nothing, and move on.

I took my turn to dig a little last June, figuring any book that John Clute considers "remarkable" was worth a look. I've left the original post up since it shows what hoops you can jump through and still come up with the wrong answer. Some of that hoop-jumping can be found in the piece below as I've retained most of the original text as far as the picture below, after which we switch to new material.

So it is with The Perfect World that we start, and I'm grateful to Ned Brooks for allowing me to reprint a review of the book he wrote for It Goes On The Shelf (July 1995, online here):
I mention this book in connection with The Night Land because they are similar in several ways—both are from the same period, both are utterly humorless, and both make use of the idea of dehydrated water (Hodgson's is a powder that turns to water when the air hits it, while Ms Scrymsour's is a 1-inch cube of what looks like camphor that makes a quart of water when heated).
__The lack of humor makes these books hard to plow through, though The Perfect World is written in conventional English prose and reads far more easily than the obsessively-detailed pseudo-archaic first person narrative of The Night Land. In a way this makes the technical howlers in Ms Scrymsour's book more startling—her prose is conventional, her very British characters are conventional, and yet, in spite of her bizarre imagination, she apparently had a very dim grasp of physical reality.
__The story starts off as a supernatural thriller—our heroes come to a small village to learn the coal-mining business, as their uncle and guardian (who in his spare time is building an airship powered by a mixture of "petrol, radium, and theolin") owns the mine. They apparently set off a local curse (dating from Henry VIII's seizure of the monasteries) that forbids strangers in the village, but the link of this curse to subsequent events is never explained and is soon forgotten when one of them vanishes and the other is lost in a mine cave-in. As soon as the action moves underground, Ms Scrymsour's deficiencies in physics become noticeable—the hero lost in the cave-in finds himself by an underground stream and throws in a piece of coal to see how deep it is! "There was a slight splash, but no sound came to tell him that it had reached the bottom". He eventually comes upon humanoid creatures—"no more than three foot six inches", with purple skin, flaxen hair, and a ten-inch horn in the middle of the forehead. One of these attacks him—"he beat his horn in Alan's face". I find this impossible to visualize.
__The horned purple midgets (the High Priestess has "small and pretty" features, "almost of English mould") turn out to be the descendants of ancient Hebrews swallowed up by the earth for defying Moses (see Numbers 16, v.31); and our heroes (the one who vanished is found by the one lost from the mine—he had been dragged down into the bowels of the earth by an incomprehensible sort of electric rope that the troglodytes have for that purpose), who have had proper classical educations at Queens College, Cambridge, soon learn to speak their corrupted Hebrew. Moses is dated to 1400 BC here, so the people of the underworld have had 3300 years to turn purple and grow horns.
__After further underground adventures our heroes escape to the surface with one of the midgets, who turns to dust as soon as the sunlight strikes her. They find that five years have passed, they have missed WWI, and they are in Australia.
__As with the Curse, the plot now abandons the purple midgets. One of our heroes takes his Australian nurse home as his wife, and they find that the uncle, in his grief at their disappearance, has become a hermit and perfected his 900-foot aluminium aircraft, the Argenta. They take it up for a spin and then the world is destroyed.
__Fortunately, the Argenta is fitted with an optional outer hull that "unfolds and clips into position by means of strong clasps" at the pull of a lever. The space between the hulls is then filled with a "mixture of gases of which ether is the chief component". The ship with our heroes, wife, baby, uncle, and an engineer and a mechanic is hurled into outer space. After a year or so they reach Jupiter, almost dead of hunger and thirst. The mechanic goes out too soon and dies of the sulfurous gases of the upper atmosphere.
__Oddly enough, the basic data on Jupiter is about right—it is five times as far from the Sun as the Earth and our heroes realize that this would give it only 1/25 the solar radiation. The pleasant climate is explained by a crude version of the greenhouse effect. The surface gravity of Jupiter is given as three times Earth normal, and that checks with my reference book as well.
__Jupiter has a planet-wide advanced civilization of humans descended from an Adam and Eve who did not sin and so were never cast out of their garden. Sin, however, is not absent. After a battle with a devil-worshiper for the hand of the princess, our unmarried hero marries her and eventually becomes King of Jupiter and lives happily ever after.
__It would make a great movie...
A brief series about psychic investigator Shiela Crerar appeared in Blue Magazine in 1920 was rediscovered by Jack Adrian and reprinted in 2006.

Nothing is known about Ella M. Scrymsour beyond the information appearing in Who's Who in Literature, which gives her year of birth as 1888, a brief list of books and magazines contributed to—Pearson's Weekly, Novel Magazine, Blue Magazine, Corner Magazine, Lady's Companion, Woman's Companion, etc.—and an address c/o Literary Year Books Press, Ltd., 21 Breeze Hill, Bootle, Lancs., who were the publishers of Who's Who in Literature.

Bizarrely, a small clue to her identity may appear in the Spanish ABC magazine published in Madrid on 22 November 1925—our column header—which translates (roughly) as:
ABC in New York.

The International, founded and directed by Irma Kraft, finishes its inauguration shiningly. For the opening an interesting Chinese atmosphere work was chosen, written by two English. It is called, symbolically, The Bridge of Distances, and is by authors John and Ella Scrymsour.
So we now know that she had a husband called John. Checking for information on this play we find that The International Playhouse was founded by Irma Kraft in 1925 with the object of performing plays from around the world in New York. Kraft travelled around Europe before the first season began on 5 October 1925 buying plays and the 8 June 1925 issue of the New York Times announced that "Tsu Tsan or The Bridge of Distance" was to the International's first offering after an opening at the Morosco Theatre on 28 September). The cast, announced later, was led by Ullrich Haupt, Mary Newcomb, Beryl Mercer, Stephen Wright and Ray Collins.

The Bridge of Distances proved a little controversial as it featured a white woman having an affair with a Chinaman. Ned Brooks, again writing in It Goes On The Shelf (January 2000, online here), describes the novel thus: "This was published 2 years after her The Perfect World, mentioned in a previous issue. The first part of it is a standard racist pulp adventure involving two British rogues stealing a princess and a priceless jewel from a noble Chinese family in 1873—and the second part is theosophy about the karmic consequences of this adventure in 1923. Much better written than The Perfect World, but not as much fun!"

A big clue appears twice in the pages of the New York Times: the paper's "News and Gossip of The Rialto" column on 7 June 1925 notes that "Martin Lewis and Evan Thomas, of London, who aquired the world rights of an Anglo Chinese play by John and Ella Scrymgeour, have sold the American rights to the International Playhouse of New York." The paper's "Theatrical Notes" for 11 September 1925 also gives the authors' names as John and Ella Scrymgeour.

All of which turns out to be a red herring. Thanks to Pippa Rush, her grand-daughter, we now have some hard information. Pippa reveals that Scrymsour was indeed her name, although there is a twist. Her full name was Mrs. Ella M. Scrymsour-Nichol.

Ella was born Ella Mary Campbell Robertson in Battersea, London, on 25 December 1888, the daughter of Archibald (a bank cashier) and his wife Elizabeth (nee Shearim), who had married at St. Stephen, East Twickenham, on 18 September 1887. Archibald was born in Scotland, the son of a farmer, and his wife was born in Chiswick.

Their daughter, Ella, was baptized on 17 March 1889 at St. Stephen. She was soon joined by a younger brother, Allan Ian Peter Campbell Robertson, born on 26 June 1892. The family was then living at 59 St. Johns' Hill Grove, and Allan was baptized at St. Mark, Battersea Rise, in Wandsworth.

Archibald Robertson died young, aged 41 in 1896, and his widow Elizabeth found work as a postmistress and stationer in Hastings All Saints, Sussex. It is said that Ella spent some of her childhood in Oban on the west coast, abandoned by her mother to spinster uncles and aunts while she remained to London with Ella's brother. Ella dedicated 'Neath Burmese Bells to her.

Ella became an actress and, at the age of 22, in 1911, was living with her uncle John William Shearim—a boat builder, as his father was before him—in Staines, Middlesex. It is almost certainly through her acting that she was to meet her future husband

Her husband to be was Charles John Scrymsour Nichol, born at St. John's Lodge, Knaresborough, Yorkshire, on 15 October 1870, the son of the Reverend John George Scrymsour Nichol (b. Hetton, Durham, c.1845) who married Catherine Agnes Fawcett (b. Woodhouse, Leeds, Yorkshire, c.1830), a teacher, in 1870. In 1881 John George was the Rector of Litchfield, Hampshire, and the family were living at  the Rectory with his wife's sisters, Isabella and Edith and three servants.

By 1891 John George had become Rector of Amptill, Bedfordshire, and chaplain at the Cross Hospital, Amptill. He retired as incumbent at Amptill in 1911.

The Reverend Scrymsour Nichol later lived at The Red Cottage, Verulum Road, St. Albans, Herts., where he died on 21 January 1913, aged 68. His wife died three years later, also at St. Albans, aged 85.

Charles John Scrymsour Nichol entered Queens' College, Cambridge in October 1890, achieving a B.A. in 1894 and M.A. in 1898. He was married to Gertrude Jane Kneebone in 1900. Gertrude, born in Bedford in 1872, was the daughter of Frederick (a retired Army Major) and Henrietta Kneebone.

There is some mystery about what happens next. Charles John Scrymsour Nichol took to the stage and began using the name Nicholas Thorpe Mayne. His wife was also an actress and playwright, penning at least one one-act play, Curing Eliza as Gertrude Thorpe-Mayne as well as acting in it as Miss Gertrude Thorpe.

N. Thorpe Mayne is credited with writing A Life's Love Songs, and other poems (London, Francis Griffiths, 1907) and the play Mary of England: A tragedy in four acts (London, Francis Griffiths, 1909). In 1909 he was a founder-member of The Playwrights' Association, originally set up as The Unacted Authors' Association, although I can find nothing more than the initial announcement of their setting up and a mention in the 1910 Stage Year Book, in which N. Thorpe-Mayne was listed as Secretary.

N. Thorpe-Mayne was also credited with the one act play The Love of Leslie Heseltine, performed at the County Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames, on 27 November 1909 and The Raffle-ing of Sherlock Holmes, a one act burlesque first performed as a curtain-raiser to Improper Peter at the Grand Theatre in Fulham on 17 March 1913.

There is also a novel credited to C. A. Scrymsour Nichol entitled The Mystery of the North Pole from the same publisher in 1908. Could this have been written by his mother, Catherine Agnes Scrymsour Nichol?

By the time of the 1911 census, Gertrude (under her married name rather than her nom-de-theatre) was living in Bedford with her family and Nicholas was lodging in Westminster. They must have divorced at some point because, at St. George Hanover Square, in 1916, Nicholas Thorpe Mayne married Ella M. Campbell-Robertson.

In 1920 Nicholas and Ella, now using the stage name Joan Thorpe-Mayne, travelled to Colombo, Sri Lanka, as part of the Warwick Comedy Company where they performed in Shaw's Arms and the Man in 1921.

Ella M. Campbell-Robertson had become Mrs. Ella M. Scrymsour-Nichol and as Mrs. Scrymsour-Nichol she was listed in the telephone directory at Basque Close, Hastlingleigh, near Wye on the north downs of Kent, in 1926-28. In 1928, Charles John Scrymsour Nichol died, aged 57. The couple had one daughter, Joanella Elizabeth Agnes Scrymsour Nichol, born in 1924.

Following her husband's death, Ella moved to Our Lady's Dowry, Benenden, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where she lived between 1932-58. She subsequently moved to Scaleby Shaw, Frant, in East Sussex, 1960-62. She died on 26 May 1962, aged 73, her death registered in Uckfield, Sussex.

Thanks to Pippa and a lot of additional digging around by myself and Jamie Sturgeon, we now have an outline of the life of Ella M. Scrymsour—and it turns out to be a far more interesting story than the bare bones I originally outlined.

The Perfect World. A romance of strange people and strange places. London, E. Nash & Grayson, 1922; New York, Stokes, 1922.
The Bridge of Distances. London, P. Allan & Co., Mar 1924.
'Neath Burmese Bells. London, T. Fisher Unwin, 1925.
Love's Crucifixion (as C. M. Scrymsour). London, Hornsey Journal (My Pocket 124), 1927.
Bungalow Love. London, Hornsey Journal (My Pocket 156), Apr 1928.
When Wings Are Folded. London, Mills & Boon, 1933.
The Girl Who Came Between. London & Dublin, Mellifont Press, 1933.
GayA Good Time Girl. London & Dublin, Mellifont Press, 1934.
Love Untold. London & Dublin, Mellifont Press, 1934.
Love Above All. London & Dublin, Mellifont Press, 1935.
Shiela Crerar, Psychic Investigator, ed. Jack Adrian. Ashcroft, BC, Ash-Tree Press, 2006.

(* My thanks to Ned Brooks for permission to reprint material from It Goes On The Shelf, a full run of which can be found here on the Fanac Fan History Project website.)


  1. Well done - thats quite brilliant. What with a little nudge from me, and you have found out far more than I did about her. Am going to send this post to all my family and see what they have to say. But thank you and well done. Its nice to know that now she is being published again, that her readers will have a bit more accurate information about her, than in the past.
    with blessings, Pippa (the granddaughter !!!!)

    1. Just seen all of this. Fills in some gaps but since she lived such a bohemian lifestyle and married a divorcee I cannot for the life of me get round this catholism stuff. Also it appears Grannie was not up here much. I thought she was born in Scotland !!!! 😊

  2. A review of the play "Uncle Ned" by the Warwick Comedy Company, from the Straits Times of 20 November 1920, page 10, says:

    "Mr. N. Thorpe Mayne gave an able study of the magnate, and Miss Joan Mayne was charming and appealing as Miss Manning."

  3. To read Scrymsour's "Sheila Crerar: Psychic Detective" short stories, see

  4. She does appear to have been quite deeply Catholic and spent much of her time in Benenden raising money for Catholic causes; she even raised money in the 1930s to have a chapel built, her daughter being the first to marry there in 1951.

    I might add that I still cannot find any record that her husband divorced his first wife, and I think it's significant that his marriage to Ella was under his nom de theatre, Nicholas Thorpe Mayne, not his real name.



Click on the above pic to visit our sister site Bear Alley Books