Hilda Leyel (1880-1957)

Born: Hilda Winifred Ivy Wauton; Also known as Mrs C.F. Leyel; Mrs Carl Leyel

Sector: Retail

What, or rather, who connects wounded war veterans, the cookery writer Elizabeth David and the now-defunct high-street chain, Culpepers? The answer is Hilda Leyel. A smart, dynamic and charming woman, her influence can still be felt in many ways but because she worked over an extended period of time across three not-obviously connected fields – fund-raising, herbalism and cookery – it is seldom that the full picture of what she achieved is seen.

Hilda Leyel (1880-1957)
Hilda Leyel, c. 1920
Courtesy of the Herb Society

Hilda was born on 6th December 1880 to Elizabeth and Edward Wauton. Her father was a school-master at Uppingham for nearly thirty years and Hilda was informally educated there. She started to study medicine but quickly abandoned this for the stage, becoming an actress and joining Frank Benson’s company. It was through Frank Benson that she met her husband, Carl Leyel, a theatrical manager, and they married on 9th July 1900 at St Martin’s in the Fields. Their first son, Carl, was born in September 1900 and Christopher followed six years later in June 1906.

Early fund-raising campaigns
Hilda stopped acting after her marriage but she became steadily more involved in theatre-related campaigns. She was a member of the Actresses Franchise League and, for a period, the honorary treasurer. In late 1908, Carl co-founded the Theatre Organisation Society together with the actor and later manager Nigel Playfair. The intent was to broaden the range of plays performed in towns around the country, particularly smaller towns like Winchester, Malvern and Canterbury. Hilda was the organising secretary. She was also involved in the drive to create a Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre, organising a fund-raising performance of ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ in July 1910. Through these activities she honed her event management skills and built a strong network.

Musicians' section of the Actresses Franchise League - Coronation Procession 1911.
Coronation Procession, 1911: Hilda is holding the banner fifth from left.

In late 1911, Hilda organised her first major charity ball, the Arabian Nights Ball at the Opera House, Covent Garden. It was a high profile event, arranged by the Foreign Press Association to fund pensions for foreign journalists in the UK and had the support of the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith and his wife, Margot, who was on the organising committee. ‘It is doubtful whether any previous occasion equalled for sheer beauty the scene at Covent Garden… The promoters of the ball, especially Mrs Carl Leyel, the organising secretary, have cause to congratulate themselves on the success of their undertaking’, wrote one journalist after the successful event. More jobs quickly followed: a series of balls as part of ‘Shakespeare’s England’ at Earl’s Court, another fund-raising effort for the Memorial National Theatre; two more Arabian Nights Ball for the Foreign Press Association (one of which she attended dressed as an Egyptian Mummy); and a ball in the Selfridges Roof Garden to raise money for the French Red Cross in May 1913, which included “the formal launching of the tango in an English ball-room”. This kick-started the tango craze in the UK and within a few months, Hilda was organising Thé Dansant Clubs at the Ritz, Claridges and the Carlton.

Given her network and her skill, it is not surprising that Hilda pops up on the organising committee for the third Three Arts Club Ball in January 1914 at Covent Garden, along with the actor-manager Lena Ashwell. Lena was one of eight members to form a Futurist group ‘the ladies wearing different coloured hair – blue green, bright cherry or white.. – with enormous feathers standing up in front from a fillet of gold – and patchwork dresses, with bright green ruffles round the bare neck, arms and ankles.’ Hilda and Carl went in matching Louis XVI pierrot costumes. On the 1st April, Hilda was back in Covent Garden again, this time for an All Fool’s Ball she had arranged as part of the St John’s Wood Art Club’s carnival, full of jesters, clowns, mad hatters and March hares. Two months later it was the Amazing Midnight Ball at the Savoy that was attracting all the headlines, a fundraiser for the National Institute for the Blind. This time the purchase of a ticket for the ball and the champagne supper also gave guests the chance of winning a new Daimler, among many other prizes.

When war broke out in 1914, Hilda became more deeply involved with Lena Ashwell’s war-time initiatives. “With the courage of an Arctic explorer Mrs Leyel couples a persistence which most of us have lost at the age of five and pursues her way with ruthless cheerfulness..”, Lena later wrote. Hilda organised a fundraiser lunch for over 1,000 people at the Savoy for the Three Arts Women’s Employment Fund in July 1915, where Louise Jopling was among the table hosts, which was repeated the following year. One regular collaborator was Elizabeth Asquith, the prime minister’s daughter, with whom Hilda ran a shop to raise funds for the Red Cross selling donated silverware.

Hilda was also the driving force behind the three-day Petticoat Fair at the Royal Albert Hall in December 1917, happily wading into the grey areas in the 19th century laws on betting and gambling. ‘A lottery is illegal’ wrote Lena Ashwell in her autobiography, ‘and yet by any other name might smell as sweet, so Mrs C.F. Leyel arranged a “Tombola”.. ‘I don’t consider it is really gambling’ said one hopeful ticket-buyer ‘because if I don’t win two acres of land in the Chiltern Hills..why at least my 5 shillings will go to help the concerts for the dear boys out at the front.’ This one event raised over 30% of the total funds needed to support Lena Ashwell’s concert parties for the duration of the war.

The Golden Ballot
As the war dragged on, servicemen were returning to the U.K. seriously injured and in need of both specialised treatment and adjusted living arrangements. In November 1919, newspapers started carrying advertisements for a Golden Ballot ‘to help found settlements for disabled sailors and soldiers’. The first prize was £2,500, second prize was ‘the lease of a London house or £1,000), third prize was a car.. A ticket cost 5 shillings. ‘Buy all your friends a ticket for Christmas’ said one in The Times. Some were deeply unimpressed: Francis Morris, a member of the Charity Organization Society (now Family Action), wrote to the paper urging ‘those of your readers who recognize that charity has a sober, serious purpose, and that self-denial is its very essence, to discountenance new and undignified methods of appealing and to lend their support to established agencies..which base their claims not upon meretricious allurements, but upon proved utility.’ Hilda was quick to make her response:

“While [the Golden Ballot] does not compete for the large sums given to charity by the minority of the serious-minded public, it appeals successfully to the masses who have not yet acquired the subscription habit, but can afford a 5s donation. Dullness is not an essential ingredient of dignity… Some charities can afford to “build up a body of regular subscribers” in a normal, that means leisurely, way, but the object of the “Golden Ballot” is to raise a capital fund for founding a sanatorium and training colony for victims of the war suffering from tuberculosis. If the stately methods preferred by Mr. Morris had been adopted in this case, most of the patients would have become incurable, and many of them would have been dead, long before the necessary money had been raised.”

Her clearly-written letter also directly addresses the need to change fund-raising methods in response to the ‘general social and economic upheaval’ caused by the war, broadening the fund-raising base and creating ways of engaging beyond those traditionally engaged in old forms of direct appeals, who have been ‘bled to death’.

Mr Morris and the Charitable Organization Society might not have liked what Hilda was doing but she was incredibly successful. While heads were being scratched as to whether or not what she was doing was strictly legal, the money poured in. On 26th March 1920, it was announced that the target of £250,000 (equivalent to c.£11m now) had already been reached, so the Ballot was closing a month early. The money paid for 300 acres of land adjoining the Preston Hall estate in Aylesford, Kent, a sanatorium to house 350 sailors and soldiers and a trust to provide ongoing support. The management of the site was taken over by the British Legion in 1925 and it remained a medical facility until 2014.

‘What a score for Mrs Leyel..so amazingly clever to find a way through the Lottery Act and come out triumphantly the other side,’ said Tatler in March 1920. Pathé News showed footage of Hilda, as Fairy Godmother, handing out prizes to The Lucky Ones. But in April, Hilda was in court, on the basis that the distribution of the prizes was clearly based on chance rather than any aspect of skill and therefore she had broken the law. The magistrate was clearly in a quandry so, watched by Margot Asquith and her daughter, fined Hilda £40 and considered the matter closed.

Still from Pathé News showing Hilda handing out prizes from the Golden Ballot

Encouraged by the success and undeterred by the fine, Hilda was back in 1921 with ‘A Different Golden Ballot’ in 1921 where this time the possible prizes included a plane (or £500) and ‘complete furnishing for a five room flat’ as well as the first prize of £2,500 cash. Beneficiaries included the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, the Westfield War Memorial Village in Lancaster and the Papworth Trust in Cambridgeshire. This time entrants also had to choose their ideal Cabinet of 16 from a list of 100, which in theory introduced a skill component. In December 1921, Hilda was back in court. Defended by Douglas Hogg, the case dragged on into February 1922. Hilda denied that she had tried to frame the scheme to look as much like a gamble as she could without breaking the law . The jury ‘after about a minute’s consultation and without leaving the box’ returned a not guilty verdict and this ‘exceedingly ingenious person’ was acquitted. The ballot continued, another £100,000 was raised, and once more Hilda was able to play the role of A Modern Fairy Godmother. There was a final Golden Ballot in November 1922 with the same beneficiaries. At Westfield, the money enabled the construction of 22 houses, streets and infrastructure. A block of four cottages was called ‘Leyel Terrace’ in Hilda’s honour.

Twelve years later in 1934, a new Betting and Lotteries Act was brought into law, which clarified the remit for lotteries with a legitimate charitable purpose and laid the foundations for today’s National Lottery.

The Gentle Art of Cookery
Hilda is reputed to have hosted brilliant dinners and in 1925 she collaborated with another writer, Olga Hartley (1892-1963), on a recipe book, ‘The Gentle Art of Cookery’. It staked its claim to innovation in the very first line of the introduction: ‘There are seven ways in which this cookery book differs from all others’.. Among them was the decision to arrange the recipes under principal ingredient, encouraging householders to shop first, buy whatever was cheap and plentiful and then look at some ideas for what to make. There were recipes children could make themselves, recipes using flowers including cowslip pudding and compôte of roses and a chapter clearly inspired by Hilda’s pre-war events experience on ‘Arabian Nights Cookery’, introducing ingredients found in the markets of Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey. It flew the flag for vegetarianism: ‘there are a great many recipes for cooking vegetables and fruit, because the tendency of to-day is to eat less meat.’ ‘Many of the recipes are quite practical for the ordinary housewife, though we must confess, the bulk of them are novel and cosmopolitan’, said one review. With its erratic inclusion of quantities and little guidance on how many people recipes were designed to feed, it was also ‘a book for the experienced cook with a flair for experiment.’ Hilda and Olga collaborated again on ‘The Food of the Future’ in 1926 and Hilda’s solo writing included ‘Cakes of England’, ‘The Perfect Picnic’, ‘Picnics for Motorists’, ‘Meals on a Tray’ and ‘Puddings etc’.

‘The Gentle Art of Cookery’ was an important influence on Elizabeth David (1913-1992), ‘Britain’s greatest food writer’, who was given a copy by her mother on her 21st birthday. She wrote an article on Hilda for the Spectator in 1963 and adopted many of her conventions, such as concluding books with a chapter on what sorts of ingredients to stock and where to source them. In the introduction to one of her own books, ‘Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen’ (1970), David wondered ‘if I would ever have learned to cook at all if I had been given a routine Mrs Beeton to learn from, instead of the romantic Mrs Leyel with her rather wild, imagination-catching recipes’. She went on to say: ‘When I first had Mrs Leyel’s book nothing and nobody on earth could have sold me an English rice pudding, but a rice cream made with lemon and almonds and served in a silver dish, well, that gave one something to think about…’ David later wrote an introduction to a re-issue of Hilda and Olga’s influential work in 1983.

Commercialising herbalism
In Hilda’s writing on food, her deep interest in herbs is evident and she first wrote about this in 1926, in the ‘The Magic of Herbs: a modern book of secrets’, which sought to compile in one place a history of the use of herbs in medicine and pharmacy. Once again, ‘The Arabian Nights’ featured. ‘There are enough recipes for cosmetics, perfumes, hair-lotions, toilet waters, sleeping draughts and love potions to keep any English housewife busy for the rest of her days’, said The Sketch.

The following year, she established the Society of Herbalists, now called the Herb Society, and found a commercial outlet for her inventiveness with her first Culpeper store at 10 Baker Street.

The first Culpeper shop, opened on Baker Street in 1927.
The first Culpeper shop

A second one soon followed at 21 Bruton Street, W1 and gradually the network grew. There is relatively little on record about the Culpeper business but there were about ten shops by the time war broke out again in 1939, located in spa towns like Harrogate and Bath. It was not all plain sailing – Hilda was back in court in 1934, this time on charges relating to the information given on customs declarations – but she had support from her younger son, Christopher. (Her older son had died in the USA in 1933).

In around 1937, Christopher helped her set up a factory near Broad Campden in Gloucestershire, where he was living, as was Hilda’s cookery-book collaborator, Olga Hartley. The factory made herbal products for the Culpeper shops using German equipment and production methods, which soon made sourcing spare parts very difficult. During the Second World War the Culpeper Biochemical Company made health foods, medicines and drugs for the R.A.F. from locally-grown fruit, vegetables and herbs, as well as a wide range of juices: blackcurrant, cabbage, carrot, coltsfoot, comfrey, cowslip, dandelion, garlic, horsetail, leek, lettuce, marshmallow, nettle, parsley, spinach and watercress.

In 1941 Hilda had to marshal her allies to head off the threat to herbalists posed by the Pharmacy and Medicines Bill, which threatened to deprive them of their right to sell herbal medicines, shifting all the power to pharmacists. Viscount Plumer (1890-1944), who had benefited himself from herbal remedies following his own injuries in the First World War, was persuaded give a rare speech in the House of Lords. This resulted in crucial amendments being made to the Bill and Hilda dedicated her 1949 book on herbs, ‘Hearts-ease’, to him in recognition of the role he had played in retaining for herbalists ‘privileges bestowed by Henry VIII’.

Hilda later in her life, date not known

As well as running her business and the Society of Herbalists, Hilda continued to write on herbs well into the 1950s, with other titles including: ‘Herbal Delights’ (1937); ‘Compassionate Herbs’ (1946), dedicated ‘to all those who have been wounded or whose health has been injured in this war; ‘Elixirs of Life (1948); ‘Green Medicine’ (1952) , dedicated to Sir Albert Howard, a key figure in the early organic farming movement with whom Hilda campaigned against synthetic fertilisers; and ‘Cinquefoil: Herbs to Quicken the Five Senses’ (1957). She also collaborated with Maud Grieve (1858-1941, editing the ‘A Modern Herbal’ in 1931, a dictionary running to over 1,000 pages and still in print today.

Hilda died on 15th April, 1957. Her important and extensive library, with many volumes dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, was dispersed by a sale at Sotheby’s in 1958. In five days between April and June, nearly 1,000 were auctioned, fetching the equivalent of over £500,000. She left a huge vacuum at Culpeper’s which limped on without her and was back to two shops when it was bought by James Goldsmith and Ian Thomas in 1972, to be taken on by Ian Thomas on his own from 1978. By 1998, the business was firmly out of the red, with nineteen shops in the UK, four in Japan and two in Malaysia but in 2011 it went into administration and disappeared from the high street.

Hilda Leyel was clearly a woman who successfully combined creativity with commerciality and was not afraid to challenge the status quo. With her views on organic farming and vegetarianism, she would have been at home in today’s world. Although Culpeper’s is no more, the Herb Society lives on. Several of her cookery books have been re-issued by Penguin in recent years and her books on herbs are still in print. But it is in the millions of pounds that are raised for charitable causes every year through the National Lottery that she has probably had the most enduring and significant, if unacknowledged, impact on British lives.

The Heritage Lottery recently funded a project to document the contribution of women, including Hilda, to the creation of the Westfield village. I would like to thank Dr Martin Purdy, who led this project, for providing most of photographs shown here.

Sources include: Weston-super-Mare Gazette and General Advertiser, 27/10/1909; The Era 9/7/1910; Daily Mirror 1/11/1911; The Queen 23/12/1911; The Westminster Gazette 27/6/1913; Pall Mall Gazette 22/1/1914; The Tatler 8/4/1914; Illustrated London News 16/5/1914; The Stage 8/7/1915; Woman’s Dreadnought 22/1/1916; Weekly Dispatch 2/12/1917; Sunday Mirror 16/11/1919; The Times 28/2/1920; 1/3/1920; 20/3/1920; 26/3/1920; The Tatler 24/3/1920; The Times 7/2/1922; The Lancashire Daily Post 20/11/1924; Common Cause 4/12/1925; The Sketch 17/11/1926

‘Myself a Player’ by Lena Ashwell (1936)

‘Elizabeth David: A Biography’ by Lisa Chaney (1998); ‘Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David’ by Artemis Cooper (1999)

Interview with Ian Thomas by Jennifer Jacobs in The New Straits Times, 29/7/1998

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