ID: LCM_EAB / Elaine Barker

TitleE. Arnot Robertson
AbstractLiterary connections to Mersea

E. Arnot Robertson: Three Came Unarmed

Eileen Arbuthnot Robertson was a novelist, critic and reviewer in the first half of the twentieth century and wrote under the name E Arnot Robertson. As a young woman between the wars she spent a lot of time on Mersea Island where she learned to sail.

Eileen took her first job on the London-based magazine Answers, at the age of 19. She was the daughter of a physician and Surgeon, George Arbuthnot Robertson and his wife, Elsie Margaret née Brune; and was baptised on 18th March 1903 at St Mary's Church, in the parish of Holmwood, Dorking. The family moved to London in 1917.

At the age of 22 Eileen sat anonymously for the painting A Red Haired Girl by James McBey, the famous artist and etcher; the picture, described as taking him 'to a high water mark level', was subsequently hung in the Royal Academy.

To assist Eileen in achieving her literary ambitions, McBey whose paintings include scenes on the Essex and Suffolk coast, lent her his boat for the winter and Eileen became a frequent visitor to Mersea Island.

We owe most of what we know about Eileen's time in Mersea to the Memoirs of Winifred Hone. [E. Arnot Robertson - Winifred Hone Memoirs ]

In 1919, Winifred Hone and her husband Ronnie took over The Victory pub at West Mersea and Eileen was to become one of their customers.

Winifred tells us of Eileen's magnetic personality, how she sparkled in company and had a great sense of humour.

E. Arnot Robertson was little more than a girl when she came to the Island in the early twenties ..... she turned a dinghy into a home by adding a top to it, and had to lie down on her bunk to use her typewriter...

Amusingly, Winifred writes

...she would row in the vicinity of the visiting yacht, drop an oar and appear to be in difficulties, which usually finished in meeting the owner and an invitation to dinner. 

Eileen wrote many novels, of which, it seems the first four were most successful. Her bestselling fourth novel, Ordinary Families, published in 1933, portrayed a middle-class household who shared her own family's passion for sailing; it was adapted as a film by Cecil B. De Mille in 1934. She also contributed articles to Yachting Monthly. Listed below are all her published books.

Cullum (1928) 
Three Came Unarmed (1929) 
Four Frightened People (1931) 
Ordinary Families (1933) 
Thames Portrait (1937)
Summer's Lease (1940)
Mr Cobbett and the Indians (1942)
The Signpost (1943)
Devices and Desires (1954)
Justice of the Heart (1958)
The Spanish Town Papers (edited, 1959)
The Strangers on My Roof (1964)

On 26 February 1927, Eileen married Henry E. Turner (1891-1961) in Kensington; he was secretary-general of the Empire Press Union, later the Commonwealth Press Union and they adopted a son, Gordon Turner, in the late 1930s.

It is the 1929 novel, Three Came Unarmed, which particularly concerns us here since it is based on Mersea Island and the waters off this part of the Essex coast.


The plot concerns two boys and a girl, the teenage children of an English missionary, who have effectively brought themselves up in Borneo since their mother died, learning to live as natives, surviving by hunting and fishing. Following the death of their father they are taken in by relatives in West Mersea. In Borneo the three teenagers had become expert sailors of small craft and once in Mersea they prove equally expert sailing the Essex waters. There is an extended passage about sailing to Lowestoft in a storm clearly written by an experienced and knowledgeable sailor. The fortunes of the three are followed, and throughout the novel Eileen examines the conventions, values and attitudes of middle and working class England, whether in town or country.

She uses satire to great effect examining the values and conventions of English society.

West Mersea divided itself into three sets: shore-folk, sailing people and fishermen. Shore-folk, the self-elect of the neighbourhood, consisted of about a dozen middle-class families, who either lived there or came down every summer... It was very much 'the thing' with them to speak highly of the fisher-folk on account of their invariable politeness... and their honesty and picturesqueness. Those who could afford it, gave large teas once or twice a year to the fishermen's wives, probably prompted by a mixture of goodwill and a vague desire to encourage these exceptional members of the lower classes in their natural attributes of courtesy and integrity, which the shore-folk regarded as in some way a tribute to themselves..... The sailing people made up a weekend fleet... They employed the local fishermen as deckhands in the summer, when trawling is unprofitable, and left the boats in their charge in the winter, to be laid up on the saltings... These sturdy well-set-up smackmen, who followed the calling of their fathers and their fathers' fathers from boyhood came from an aristocracy of their own. Their forebears had lived in the place for many generations.

Among Eileen's other books was the 1937, "Thames Portrait", based on a motor-boat trip from Lechdale in Gloucestershire to Southend, in which she tells stories of the places and people along the Thames. Liberally distributed throughout the book are photographs taken by her husband, Henry. The Turners moved to Heath Street, Hampstead, in 1946 and Henry went on to be knighted in 1951. It seems to have been a very happy marriage and they were passionate sailors, as the sailing background of Eileen's fourth novel Ordinary Families shows.

In the 1940's and '50s Eileen turned to film reviewing and criticism; her work appeared in a number of publications including the Daily Mail and Good Housekeeping. She also appeared on numerous radio broadcasts for the BBC's Home and Light programmes including Woman's Hour and The Critics. She had a reputation for being outspoken and independent and her writing style was sarcastic, strident and provocative with a strong feminist content. She was very outspoken about what she saw as a marked gap between the reality of women's lives and the representations on them on the 'silver screen', most especially in the relationships between the sexes. She wrote

I feel it is high time I was allowed to do something besides looking cute in order to inspire true love of the undying variety in the hero

The banning of Eileen from press screenings of their films by MGM because of her hostile reviews led to a high-profile three-year libel case.

In response to a letter to the BBC from MGM accusing Eileen of being 'completely out of touch with the tastes and entertainment requirements of the picture-going millions', Eileen took the film studio to court for libelling her 'professional competence and imperilling her earnings'; she was initially successful being awarded £1,500 damages in July 1947. However, a year later the ruling was overturned and the Court of Appeal found for MGM. The lawsuit contributed to Eileen losing her job at the BBC but her large legal costs of £8,000 were paid by a fundraising appeal made by 'The Critics' Circle'.

Sadly, Henry Turner's drowning in a boating accident on the Thames in April 1961 precipitated Eileen's suicide five months later at the age of 58.

E. Arnot Robertson 1931.
Photo copyright National Portrait Gallery, obtained under Creative Commons License.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

Read More
Three Came Unarmed by Mafalda Tapp - Mistral Magazine 1990
E. Arnot Robertson, Winifred Hone Memoirs

Other local literary connections
Margery Allingham
Sabine Baring-Gould
John Goodwin alias Sidney David Gowing
Dora McChesney
Alfred Ludgater
21st Century Writers

AuthorElaine Barker
SourceMersea Museum
Related Images:
 E. Arnot Robertson 1931. 
 Photo copyright National Portrait Gallery, obtained under Creative Commons License. 
 See <a href= target=eab></a>  LCM_EAB_001
ImageID:   LCM_EAB_001
Title: E. Arnot Robertson 1931.
Photo copyright National Portrait Gallery, obtained under Creative Commons License.
Source:Mersea Museum