Whoever’s heard of Brenda Mee? I hadn’t until I came across this image, which gave me waves of nostalgia. It’s such a time-capsule image – her demure look, the bowler-hatted, be-suited pedestrian, the vintage car. And she turns out to be Miss Great Britain 1953.
It’s a classic case of what, for me, makes collecting photos so compelling. You see an image and want to find out the story behind it. Before long, you’re pursuing all sorts of lines of inquiry and making all sorts of discoveries. In this case, the lady herself, the times in which she lived, the news media in which the photo appeared, the guy who snapped the photo, and the world of beauty contests and the holiday camps, which hosted many of them.
The subject – Brenda Mee
The image is published in Picture Post to illustrate an article about The Beauty Contest Business. But for the scoop on Brenda Mee, look no further than the Sunday 30 August 1953 edition of London’s Weekly Dispatch:
A LOVELY girl stepped off the train at Euston Station one day last week. In her handbag was a cheque for £1,000. In her luggage was a magnificent silver bowl. In her eyes was the sparkle and delight of a girl who had just won the Sunday Dispatch-Morecambe National Bathing Beauty Contest. Brenda Mee, a 20-year-old blonde who was born at Derby but lives at South Kensington, is a photographers’ model and mannequin. She was chosen as the 1953 winner from among 40 finalists from all over Britain at Morecambe last week.
“What am I going to do with the money?” said Brenda. “First I shall go on a mild shopping spree and buy some clothes. Then I shall bank the rest of the money and think about it.”
Television newsreel as well as Movietone, Gaumont-British, Universal, Pathé, and Paramount news reels recorded her success at Morecambe. “I hope my newsreel and television showing is good,” says Brenda. “I would like to have a film test. It is one of my ambitions to get into films.” … In October Brenda will be “Miss Great Britain” in the “Miss World” contest in London.
The Miss World title and film-star ambition will prove a step too far. Still, Brenda Mee is currently sharing a cosy little basement flat in Drayton Gardens, South Kensington with Marlene Dee, 1951’s Miss Great Britain. How many hopeful Romeos must be beating their way that front door?
Our Brenda has come a long way in a short time. She’s first mentioned in the Saturday 15 April 1950 edition of the Derby Daily Telegraph, which announces that she’s just won the Derby finals of the nationwide contest to find Britain’s “Neptune’s Daughter.” The pageant is named after the Esther Williams film of the same name that’s just been released in the UK:
Sponsored by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Ltd., and the Associated British Cinemas, Ltd., in conjunction with a firm of American soft-drink manufacturers, the prizes for the winner of the national contest include a two-week trip to Hollywood, with air transport, perfume, wardrobe and even luggage cases provided free of charge.
The article also reveals (can you believe it?) that she’s living with her parents at 11 Swinburne Street, Derby, a modest Victorian semi. During 1951 she gains more experience but limited success as a beauty contestant before making her breakthrough in 1952.
1953 will prove to be her glory year though she will continue as a beauty contestant and model for a while longer. She will even appear as a lovely on a TV quiz show. Then she disappears from view, except for a brief mention in the Thursday, 5 June 1958 edition of the Birmingham Daily Post, where we learn that she “has brought with her on a visit to England, from her home in Melbourne, her three-month-old son Lloyd Anthony, who will be christened in August at Derby, where Miss Mee formerly lived.” Her husband is Mr. Ludwig Berger, an Australian company director. And that’s that.
This year, 1953, the big event in London and the UK is the coronation of Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. Also in the news are Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who become the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. And Ian Fleming publishes his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. For the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus, some of the most welcome news may be that the rationing of sugar and sweets are coming to an end (food rationing won’t end completely until next year) and the emergence of the pneumatic Sabrina.
The news media and photojournalism
Although 1953 is the year that the House of Lords votes in favour of commercial television, only about one in three households have a TV and there’s only the one TV channel. Forget daytime TV – that’s decades away (27 October 1986 to be precise). Children’s programmes begin late afternoon followed by “Toddler’s Truce,” a TV blackout from 18:00 to 19:00 so that parents can put their children to bed before prime-time television kicks in. It’s a classic case of Auntie’s (as the BBC is affectionately known) paternalism!
So the main sources of news are newspapers, magazines, radio (wireless in the lingo of the day) and newsreels. Newsreels are short documentary films, containing both news stories and items of topical interest. They are shown in cinemas before the film the audience has come to see. And in the fifties, people do flock to the cinema.
The leading British news magazine is Picture Post (LIFE magazine is its US equivalent). As well as providing insights into the big social and political issues of the time, it covers many aspects of day-to-day life – from Life in the Gorbals to The Beauty Contest Business.
At the peak of its popularity in the 1940s, Picture Post is read by almost half the UK population, making it the window on the world for “the man on the street.” But a combination of the left-leaning views of its editors and the growth of TV ownership will bring about the magazine’s decline and, in 1957, its ultimate demise.
One of the things that’s remarkable about Picture Post is its pioneering approach to photojournalism. It pairs its writers and photographers and sends them out to work together as colleagues rather than as competitors. The result more often than not is a combination of words and pictures that creates compelling, immersive stories. The contributing photographers include Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy and Thurston Hopkins. They are in certain respects the British equivalents of the French humanist photographers who roamed Paris after World War II.
According to David Mitchell, writing in The Guardian:
Stefan Lorant, first editor of Picture Post and pioneer of photo-journalism, had an unusual interviewing technique: “A photographer would come to me and I would say, ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’. If he did not know of him, I would realise he had no intellectual background. If he was ignorant of Shakespeare or Mahler – out! Never mind what his pictures were like.” Thurston Hopkins would have passed such a cultural inquisition with flying colours.
Thurston Hopkins is born in 1913 and grows up in Sussex, the son of middle-class parents (his father is a prolific author and enthusiastic ghost hunter). On leaving school he heads for Brighton College of Art to study graphic art. During his time there, he teaches himself photography.
This turns out to be a smart move because the career he envisaged – as a commercial illustrator – fails to take off. During the 1930s newspapers and magazines are switching from illustration to photography, and Thurston follows suit, joining the PhotoPress Agency.
After a stint in the RAF Photographic Unit during World War II, he takes a break, hitchhiking around Europe with his camera. On his return to England, he joins Camera Press (a new agency) but soon decides the place he’d really like to work is Picture Post.
So he creates a dummy issue of the magazine, composed entirely of his own features, and persuades the proprietors to take him on as a freelancer and then, in 1950, as a full-time employee. His most celebrated features include cats of London, children playing on city streets (making the case for dedicated playgrounds) and the Liverpool slums.
When Picture Post shuts its doors for the last time, Thurston will become a successful advertising photographer, working in his studio in Chiswick, west London, and will take up teaching at the Guildford School of Art. In retirement, he will return to painting and live to age 100, survived by his wife Grace, also a photographer, and their two children.
Beauty contests have a long history – it’s possible to trace them back to the Middle Ages. But the birth of the version we recognize today dates from 1921, according to the Pageant Center’s The History of Pageants. That’s the year when Atlantic City hotel proprietors come up with a ruse to tempt tourists to stick around after Labor Day. They organize a “pageant” that includes a “National Beauty Tournament” to choose “the most beautiful bathing beauty in America.”
The branding is a masterstroke. Take a bow, Herb Test, a local newsman, who comes up with a killer name: “Let’s call her Miss America!” Eastern newspaper editors are invited to run photo contests to pick winners to represent their communities, and eight finalists compete for the honour to be the first Miss America.
After a promising start, the pageant goes offline for four years following the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. But by the mid-1930s it has come roaring back and, surprise, surprise, attracted the attention of Hollywood studio bosses such as Howard Hughes. Winners of the new, optional talent competition can now expect invitations for screen tests – but they’d better beware of the starlet’s dilemma. A few beauty pageant contestants, Dorothy Lamour a notable case in point, go on to become movie stars.
The Miss America pageant continues through World War II and in 1948, to the outrage of the photographers, Bebe Shopp becomes the first competition winner to be crowned in a gown rather than a swimsuit.
In 1951, we come full circle back to Great Britain. The first Miss World Pageant is held to promote none other than the Festival of Britain. It’s the brainchild of Eric Morley, who happens to be involved with the Mecca Dance Halls that host many of the country’s beauty contests. Sadly, Marlene Dee, Miss Great Britain that year, loses out to Miss Sweden, Kiki Haakonson.
Picture Post’s take on The Beauty Contest Business appears in the 7 November 1953 edition. It is written in a nicely trenchant style by Robert Muller with photos by Thurston Hopkins. Here’s an extract:
Who, you may well ask, pays for these beauty feasts, what do they get out of it, and who wants them anyway? Catch-phrases from pseudo-psychological treatises on the subject (“sublimated virgin worship,” etc.) don’t tell the whole story, for the big beauty contests are run by hard-headed businessmen. It cost Mecca Dancing, Ltd., more than £3,000 to find ‘Miss World,’ and thereby harvest a bushel of publicity. Even if the newspapers ignore Mecca when printing news and pictures of the girls, Morley of Mecca assures us that he possesses “ways and means of telling the country that these wonderful girls everybody is reading about are here because Mecca put them there.”
But Mecca is only an incidental link in a world-wide network of beauty contest sponsors. In most countries the big national beauty competitions are organised by newspapers and magazines as a circulation stunt. The newspapers link up with commercial firms, who offer facilities and pay costs, in the hope of publicising their goods. Beauty winners have thus become a new travelling publicity medium. Travel agents, fashion houses, bathing-suit manufacturers, motion-picture firms adorn beauty queens with their goods, decorate them with their messages. …
The girls themselves, probably unaware that they are exploited as mobile billboards for commercial concerns, are flattered and lulled by the fuss and adoration in which the competitions bathe them, and the models among them – and most beauty queens are models – appreciate the value of a better-class title. An important beauty title is to a model what a university degree is to a young professional man. Even a Miss Liechtenstein would find her services in increased demand, her fees rising. And the girls with film aspirations know that the uphill road to stardom without talent is usually paved with beauty crowns. Finally, a contest as big as the election of ‘Miss World’ carries with it prizes up to £500, for the duration of the contest all expenses are paid, fashion houses occasionally supply dresses, and firms like Mecca pay each girl £1 a day pocket money during the week in which the contest takes place.
But few of the girls give a thought to the back-stage commercial activity that buzzes around their exploits. Some of them are shrewd business-women, but the majority ride a vanity-driven coach, which, they hope, will one day pull up at a film studio, where a Prince Charming producer will offer them stardom and happiness.
Want to know more about Brenda Mee, her life and times?
Pretty much the only place to find out more about Brenda Mee is at The British Newspaper Archive, for which you’ll need a subscription.
If you’re wondering about Britain in the 1950s, there’s a brief and entertaining overview at Retrowow. For something a bit more substantial, check out the series of articles at Historic UK’s Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. And for a year-by-year listing of key events, go to Wikipedia, starting at 1950.
Learning On Screen has a history of the British newsreels, while you can watch a selection of examples at British Pathé’s 1950s Britain page. Photoworks provides an introduction to The Picture Post Photographers, which also touches on the history of the publication itself. For more about Thurston Hopkins and Picture Post – see The Guardian obituary and Getty Images’ Picture Post Collection.
The place to find out more about beauty contests is Pageant Center. For the specialist and researcher, there’s also Records of Miss Great Britain at Archives Hub, where there may just be further photos or material about Brenda Mee herself.