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The Bloomsbury Set's poison stash

Features | By Nicholas Tucker

The late Judith Kerr’s father planned to take poison pills if the Nazis invaded – just like half the Bloomsbury Set, reveals Nicholas Tucker

Recent obituaries of Judith Kerr – author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – touched on the life of her much-loved father, Alfred Kerr (1867-1948).

A German-Jewish theatre critic and satirist hated by the Nazis, he escaped with his family from Germany in 1933. Named in the notorious blacklist as someone the Nazis intended to arrest after their planned British invasion, Kerr in 1940 acquired poison pills for himself and his wife, Julia, from a doctor friend – just in case.

Several obituarists described these as cyanide pills, but potassium cyanide pills were developed by the Allies during the war only – and strictly – for agents working behind enemy lines. When Kerr took his pills to be analysed by a local chemist in 1945, he discovered they were made of chalk.

Judith told me this herself, amused and mischievous as ever. I did two newspaper interviews with her and was her interlocutor at children’s book events. She was without pretension and disarmingly honest: she told me she was glad her family had been hounded out of Germany, as life after that was so much more interesting! An absolute charmer.

Her highly-strung musician mother had often threatened suicide, whether the Nazis came over or not, sometimes vowing to take her children along with her. Responsible doctors would never have allowed a toxic pill anywhere near her. Had such a pill been used other than to escape from the Gestapo, those doctors would have been complicit in a serious crime.

Kerr was one of a number of prominent names justifiably terrified of the possibility of Nazi humiliation and torture.

The Left-wing Jewish publisher Victor Gollancz also obtained a lethal opium pill from his doctor. The writer Harold Nicolson arranged for the postal delivery of morphia tablets from a Swiss doctor he knew with rooms in Mayfair. Nicolson asked his wife Vita Sackville-West to ‘Post me a little parcel’ to his London address. After it arrived, he confided that ‘It all looks very simple.’

Commenting on this later, the novelist Rebecca West wrote, ‘Most of us had taken similar precautions. Personally, I carried some morphia tablets, with the rather vague idea that they might come in handy in an extremity.’

Nancy Mitford, in The Pursuit of Love, published in 1945, reinforces the impression that suicide pills were briefly a common subject for conversation within certain privileged circles. In one chapter, her character Lord Merlin, based on her friend Lord Berners, the eccentric composer, arrives with quite the wrong kind of pills to take ‘when the Germans come’. His friend Davey explains, ‘He’s just got the sort to give to dogs.’ Davey then produces a jewelled box, containing two pills: one white and one black. ‘You take the white one first and then the black one – he really must go to my doctor.’

Frances Partridge, the Bloomsbury diarist, contacted a doctor friend living in Canada with a request for something similar. Previously her husband Ralph had envisaged the couple gassing themselves in their car, but Frances preferred death by drugs. Her friend replied, ‘I can’t prescribe poison, but I can produce a cure,’ suggesting that the family should emigrate to Canada. Frances decided to soldier on, aided by her small son Burgo and his occasional patriotic outbursts (‘I wouldn’t mind giving Hitler an unripe blackberry!’). Abandoning the notion of one killer pill, she described in her diary how, instead, ‘One saved up sleeping pills, looked at them years later and they had melted and were useless.’

Virginia Woolf and her Jewish husband Leonard initially discussed stocking their garage with petrol and then gassing themselves too, should the Germans invade. But following a conversation with Rose Macaulay and Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, the Woolfs came round to the idea of acquiring a lethal sleeping draught. This was duly supplied by Virginia’s brother Adrian Stephen, then working as an army psychoanalyst. But in 1941 the tormented writer was to choose a different way of ending her life, walking into the River Ouse, her overcoat pockets stuffed with stones.

Frances Partridge once wrote in her diary, ‘I feel it would be the greatest possible help to know that we had death in our power.’ Those humane doctors providing what was, in Alfred Kerr’s case, harmless reassurance can hardly be blamed for helping out in such cases.

Had the Nazis actually invaded and this medical bluff was called, the effect on those concerned could have been disastrous for them. But the prospect of mass suicide by leading intellectuals after an invasion – and the calamitous message this would convey – might also have caused misgivings among doctors. And, as with Kerr’s wife, Julia, there was always the risk that such poisons could be misused for different purposes.

In 1948, Julia did help her husband to die with his full consent after he suffered the irreversible effects of a stroke while visiting Germany. She was helped by a journalist who found a doctor willing to prescribe the drugs needed to bring about his swift death. This time, the lethal pills were for real.

How often was this true of other supposed poison pills circulating during the Second World War?

This story was from August 2019 issue. Subscribe Now