A Rochester woman – Britain’s WW2 ‘secret weapon’!

C & Jane

Chrystabel Leighton-Porter of 115 City Way, Rochester,

was the curvaceous model for ‘Jane’ who, during WW2, appeared six days a week in a strip cartoon published in the Daily Mirror. Chrystabel was also the model for the well regarded painting titled ‘Platinum Blonde’ by the Rochester artist Miss Mary White. This painting was included in the exhibition that Evelyn Dunbar curated in her “Blue Gallery” (168 High Street, Rochester) in March 1939. Other local artists also seemed to have commissioned Chrystabel to sit for them. (See Evelyn Dunbar blog for more information.

Jane – A Pin Up at War

War-time Jane, the cartoon character, found herself in various scrapes that often belittled the enemy and almost invariably resulted in her loosing some or all of her clothes. The drawings were very ‘tame’ by today’s standards, but the semi or undressed drawings of Jane in the 1940s and in the easily available press, were very near the edge as to what was acceptable at the time.

The motivation that Jane’s appearance and endeavours engendered in the troops and the public, led to Churchill describing her as our secret weapon against the Germans. There is little doubt that Jane provided a much need morale boost – not just for the young men at the Front, but also for women at home. Jane was not portrayed in a traditional domestic role or in a support role. She was a heroine who led an independent life. She engaged with the ‘enemy’ and always seemed to get the better of them – albeit it at the expensive of her modesty.

Jane Cartoon 2
                                     No one messed with Jane!                                  (Wonder why Norman Pett drew this scene?)

Chrystabel becomes the artist’s model for the Daily Mirror’s Jane.

When Chrystabel started modelling as Jane is far from clear. The circumstances were somewhat intentionally confused by the Daily Mirror who did not want it to be known that Chrystabel undertook nude modelling. The fact that she was married was also a very closely held secret as that could have led to a loss of her fan-base. It is also difficult to work out dates of particular events based on her age cited in press reports, as Chrystabel was never honest about her age.

Some reports say that it was late in December 1939 that Chrystabel was recruited by Norman Pett to be his model for Jane. The story mostly widely accepted is that Chrystabel was ‘spotted’ by Pett on a visit to his old art school at a time when she was modelling for an art class. However it is also reported that the Jane who appeared in the 4 September 1939 edition of the Daily Mirror was modelled for by Chrystabel.

An assortment of reports and events suggest that Chrystabel was probably ‘recruited’ as the model for Jane in 1938. At the time she was probably living in Birmingham as she was able to attend Pett’s studio to model for him. Having posed for a number of sketches she left Birmingham and ‘moved south’. This may have been to Rochester, or nearby, as she had to have been in the area before March 1939 in order to have modelled for Mary White.

A successful career as a Beauty Queen begins at Chatham

During 1939 Chrystabel won the title of “Kent’s Venus” at the Royal Hippodrome (Theatre Royal), Chatham. This may well have been a local heat for a national event, as by August 1939 she had entered a beauty pageant at Wood Green as “Britain’s Venus”. Chrystabel then went on to win the “National Competition for Physical Excellence” that was held at the London Palladium. She won £50 at this competition and was declared “Britain’s Perfect Girl – 1939”. (This competition brought Chrystabel to the attention of theatre impresarios – including the brothers Leslie and Lew Grade. (Apparently this was not just a beauty contest as the press report of the time highlighted that the judging panel included artists, doctors and physical culture experts.)

The winning of this competition and in all probability an established role as ‘Jane’, enabled Chrystabel to move her career into acting – her first love.

According to a City Way resident, Isabelle Diss, who claimed to live opposite, it would appear that it was no secret that Chrystabel was the model for Jane. Although unreferenced and undated the wording suggests the following recollection was recorded after the war but based on more than a short neighbourly acquaintance. It may also be significant that no mention is made of Chrystabel’s husband. As he was in the RAF it is possible that Chrystabel was living alone in City Way.

We lived just across the road then from Chrystabel and we knew exactly who she was. It wasn’t any secret and we all knew her simply as Jane. I don’t think I knew her by anything else. She was a lovely girl though, so ordinary and always very pleasant and chatty. Her undoubted fame never went to her head and I always thought how odd it was that someone in the public eye seemed to live an almost ordinary life in an ordinary house. I always recall, even in war time shortages, how well turned out she always was. I mean, the best and the most stylish clothes and hair always perfect . Not for her the Bisto stained legs with paint-in ‘seams’ that we all had to have, Oh no! She had the real thing, silk as well. She turned more than a few heads, I can tell you, and I was always sure that everyone must know who she was!” (Jane – A Pin Up at War. Andy Saunders. 2004.)

With Chrystabel’s career progressing onto the stage in 1940, I suspect this may have been the time she left Rochester and started travelling with a theatre company. She continued to model for the Jane cartoons up to 1959. This would only have been possible if the storylines for Jane had been drafted in advance. This would have enabled Chrystabel to fit in modelling sessions for Norman Pett at which he could complete a portfolio of sketches which he could use whilst Chrystabel was on tour with theatre companies.

The following provides more detail of the life of Chrystabel Leighton-Porter and the contribution that her alto ego Jane made to the war effort.

Chrystabel Leighton-Porter 1913 – 2000

Chrystabel was born Chrystabel Jane Dewry on 11 April 1913 in Chandlersford, Hampshire. She was the youngest of 11 children – having a twin sister who was slightly older. As a child she attended the Wimbledon Dancing School where her teachers described her as “the perfect girl with perfect manners”. On leaving school she and her twin, Sylvia, moved to London. Here Chrystabel pursued her interest in getting into show-business. Make the most of her looks she undertook life-modelling in order to have an income whilst setting out on developing a career as an actress.

Still in her teens Chrystabel became a model at various London Art Schools, including Westminster, St. Martin’s and The Slade. (The Stage – Thursday 14 December 2000.) (I speculate – around this time Evelyn Dunbar was attending drawing classes in London. Could this have led to the possibility that Evelyn was the conduit that brought Chrystabel to Rochester? Around this time, the 1930s, Rochester had a lively arts community that would been interested in having live models – particularly one that was female.)

In 1934, Chrystabel married Arthur Leighton-Porter at Winchester, a pilot who served in the RAF. The fact that she was married became a secret that was as closely held as the one that we had cracked the Enigma Code! It was not until her death in 2000 that Chrystabel’s martial status and true age became public knowledge.

Marriage
Arthur and Christabel – Married in 1934

By early 1939 it would appear that Chrystabel was living in City Way, Rochester, and based on an account offered by a neighbour was already know to be the model for the Jane strip cartoon. (See above.)

When Jane’s fame began to take off the Daily Mirror created a ‘decent’ back story for Chrystabel. They hid the fact that in life she was a nude model stating that she was working as a telephonist and hotel receptionist when she was discovered by Pett. The Daily Mirror also hid the fact that she was married making it possible to sustain the fantasy that she was everyone’s girlfriend.

Jane Cartoon

‘Discovered’ significant events pertain to Chrystabel’s career.

This is a difficult endeavour. Not only did the Daily Mirror mask aspects of Chrystabel’s background there were many variant stories – often with no providence – that have been reproduced in the printed press as well as on the internet. The following events are believed to be correct although actual dates of the events were not always apparent.

March 1939 a painting titled “Platinum Blonde” by the Rochester artist Miss Mary White was displayed in Evelyn Dunbar’s Blue Galley at 168 High Street, Rochester. The painting was described as being a portrait of a Rochester girl, Chrystabel Leighton-Porter of 115 City Way Rochester. (Chatham News – Friday 24 March 1939.)

July 1939 “Miss Chrystabel Leighton-Porter” appeared in an edition of the Health & Strength magazine, modelling swimsuits. The supporting text stated she was 22 but in 1939 she would have been 26. (It’s interesting to note that even before Jane had acquired the ‘fame’, that came with her wartime exploits, that Chrystabel was using the title of a single woman although she was using her married name. One wonders whether this subterfuge was of the making of the Daily Mirror or Chrystabel herself? She was clearly using beauty pageants to advance her career – but would they have been open, at that time, to married women? Married women were excluded from the Miss Great Britain competition until 2013.)

26 August 1939 Chrystabel appeared in a “Body Beautiful Contest” held at Wood Green, London. She was billed as “Britain’s Venus 1939” a title that she presumably went on to win having been crowned “Kent’s Venus” at the Royal Hippodrome (Theatre Royal), Chatham. (Chatham News – Friday 24 March 1939.)

In 1939 she was acclaimed ‘Britain’s Perfect Girl’ in a beauty pageant at the London Palladium. She was subsequently signed up by the brothers Leslie & Lew Grade, theatrical agents.

Jane – Britain’s Secret weapon according to Winston Churchill.

(Jane’s surname was Gay – a pun apparently on the name Lady Jane Grey.)

Jane was a wartime phenomenon who did much to maintain the morale of Britain’s fighting forces around the world and amongst those left behind on the “Home Front”. This was achieved through the Daily Mirror’s strip cartoon, but also through Chrystabel’s stage shows, and her meeting and entertaining the troops – as the model for Jane.

Jane was drawn by the artist Norman Petts from 1932. All the scenes were drawn using models – wearing the clothing or not, and in the positions depicted in the cartoons. Pett’s wife, Mary, modelled as Jane before the war. Some biographers say she stopped modelling for her husband’s drawings as she was looking aged. Others believe she ‘resigned’ when she was expected to dress and pose in more suggestive positions in line with the Daily Mirror’s desire, in the late 1930s, to make Jane and her exploits more risqué. (I suspect the second explanation is more probable as a skilled artist could have easily disguised the signs of ageing.)

With Pett’s wife no longer willing to pose as Jane, Pett needed to find another model. As detailed above it is thought that he spotted Chrystabel on a modelling assignment although I’ve read a news report that suggested that Chrystabel was selected from a large number of applicants. (Birmingham Mail – 3 April 1945.) Chrystabel was probably recruited late in 1938 and was the model for the Jane in the comic strip that was published the day after war was declared.

Fritzi
Fritzi – posing with Chrystabel / Jane

By 1940 Chrystabel had began to tour in a burlesque stage show based on the comic strip. The Stage recorded that Chrystabel’s act was “one of the best acts of its kind, with plenty of props and costumes to embellish the posing,” adding that her little dachshund Fritzi even had a pose on his own. “Her presentation was invariable enhanced by good offstage script, delivered with aplomb – “as befitted someone whose real name was Chrystabel Leighton-Porter”. (The Stage – 18 November 1993.)

Until 1943 Jane rarely stripped to more than her undergarments, but in June 1944 she made her first fully nude appearance when, getting out of a bath, she lost her towel. (Two accounts I found state that it was a photoshoot of a nude Chrystabel that was published around the time of the D-Day landings. However the wording of both reports were very similar and it could be a repetition of ‘fake news’ as all cross-references point to the image being of Jane.)

A few days after the Normandy landings planes dropped copies of the Daily Mirror near Caen at the Pegasus Bridge, for the troops. (Interview with Chrystabel published in Irish Independent – 1 June 1994.)

Some say that the publication of a ‘naked Jane’ was timed to coincide with the D-Day landings but I suspect this was more by chance than anything else as the editorial decision to publish such an image would have been made in advance and separate from the top-secret planning required to execute the landings.

Whatever the sequence of events, it is said that ‘naked Jane’ inspired the soldiers as they progressed into Europe – after all “Jane had given her all”. Such was Jane’s impact on the morale of the troops one MP in the House of Commons, described the British Army as “Jane’s fighting men”, and the RAF adopted her as their mascot. Jane was such a morale booster that her image was apparently painted onto tanks, lorries and Spitfires. Chrystabel in the interview she gave to the Irish Independent, claimed that the troops were required to scrub the paintings of Jane off their vehicles before they were inspected by Monty. (The Daily Mirror referred to the army as “Jane’s Fighting Men” during the 1946 election when the paper encouraged them to vote for the Socialist – a signifiant change the paper’s political allegiance. (Daily Herald – Wednesday 30 October 1946.))

By 1943 Chrystabel was completely identified with or as Jane. She frequently appeared in stage shows and making charity appearances. Her shows where taken around the country – particularly to towns that were hosting large numbers of servicemen and the local Watch Committee allowed it to be staged. No evidence has been found that her show was brought to Medway. The Daily Mirror never endorsed Chrystabel’s stage shows but as she went from strength to strength so did their circulation figures.

The shows were burlesque in nature and caused the Lord Chamberlain – a role that had responsible for enforcing the censorship laws since 1737 – concerns as the scenes inevitably involved Christabel losing some clothing in a manner that could have caused her to have moved. The Lord Chamberlain was not convinced that Christabel’s hands were large enough to cover her chest as she removed her bikini top.

At this time nudity was accepted on the stage so long as the model did not move. Chrystabel was not happy with this restriction so she used to sit motionless on a sledge that was pulled across the stage by other members of the cast. It is therefore not surprising Christabel’s shows proved very popular with the servicemen home on leave. (It is possible that the ‘exchange’ described above between Jane and the Lord Chamberlain’s representative, was a joke that was included in the stage show and not a conversation that had taken place between them. The Lord Chamberlain’s responsibility for censorship continued until 1968.)

A news report published in April 1945 concerning one of her shows read: “Jane, the popular newspaper cartoon figure appeared in person at the Aston Hippodrome this week, heading a variety show entitled ‘ “Jane’s Back.” “Jane was played by 25 year old Silver Blonde, Chrystabel Leighton-Porter – a role she had played on stage and screen for the past four years.” (Birmingham Mail – 3 April 1945.) (In 1945 Chrystabel would have been 32.)

The appearance of Jane in the press led to a revision of press standards. By successfully challenging the public’s view of what was acceptable the press was able to run campaigns that educated the public on the risks of VD and how to avoid it.

Although there were many nude pictures of Chrystabel available when photos of her were requested a very modest / girl next door picture of her with her dog Fritzi was sent. It was a different matter when pictures of Jane were requested by the War Office. On these occasions more risqué cartoon cards were supplied. Probably on more than one occasion the War Office arranged for submarine captains to be provided with copies of the cartoon strips weeks in advance so their crews didn’t miss out on any crucial developments – as well as I suspect for other reasons!

Chrystabeljane navy

The decline in Jane’s career

With the ending of the war and the resumption of ‘normal relationships’ the public’s interest in Jane declined. Although Chrystabel continued to earn from her alto-ego Jane, Jane’s career in the Mirror ended on 10 October 1959; a decision that warranted coverage on the BBC’s Six o’clock News. Rather than being killed off – as that would have undoubtedly caused public outrage – Jane sailed off to a new life, married to Georgie Porgie, the boyfriend to whom she had remained faithful throughout all her adventures.

After the war Chrystabel continued to star along with her dachshund Fritzi, in films based on Jane’s adventures. They were however low budget B-movies. The 1949 film “The Adventures of Jane” was described by Chrystabel’s husband, Arthur, as “bloody dreadful”; this was a sad indictment of someone whose performance as Jane had otherwise been regarded as classy.

Chrystabel’s last variety appearances were in the early 1960s. After a short sojourn to Bermuda, Chrystabel retired with her husband to Horsham, West Sussex. She died there on 6 December 2000. An obituary of her life was carried in all the major newspapers.

And Finally

As non-PC as Chrystabel’s career had been, and the sexy antics of Jane who she portrayed, there was no doubt in the minds of the veterans that the young women who once lived a while in Rochester, did much to raise and maintain their spirits during some dark, difficult and life-threatening times. There is also much to indicate that Chrystabel was very much in control and in charge of her career.

Despite the contribution she made during the war effort I am not aware of her receiving any recognition – other than perhaps from what she earned. So if anyone has the original or a photo for the ‘Platinum Blonde’ by Mary White, it would be great if it could be shared to celebrate Chrystabel, Jane and a well-regarded local artist.

Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler
9 April 2019