The Talking Mongoose Case of 1936 was an action for slander brought by one Richard Stanton Lambert against a certain Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Cecil Bingham Levita, a case which very natually featured an alleged talking mongoose named Gef.
The story began with a former piano salesman named James T. Irving who had taken up farming at Cashen's Gap on the Isle of Man where he lived with his wife and daughter Voirrey. In September 1931, or so it was said, the family began hearing 'animal noises' from behind the wood panelling in the house. This naturally kept them awake at night and so James Irving tried his best to trap or poison whatever was making these noises. Having failed to do so the family then became so impressed by the beast's repertoire of sounds that they decided to train the creature to repeat other animal noises. They eventually trained the creature to repeat the appropriate animal noise simply by announcing the name of the animal, and so proceeded to train the creature to repeat nursery rhymes, after which the creature began speaking to them.
The creature informed them that his name was Jeff or Gef, that he had been born at Delhi, India in 1852, and that he was "a little clever, extra clever mongoose" and the "eighth wonder of the world". (Which he would have been as an eighty year-old mongoose.) The family subsequently formed the view that Gef had always been able to speak and had previously been winding them up, but nevertheless became great friends with him. They fed him on such delicacies as bacon, sausages, bananas, and chocolate, whilst in return Gef caught rabbits which he deposited on the doorstep. Gef subsequently displayed knowledge of Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Welsh, took trips to the local village, and gave indications that he was clairvoyant. Although he rarely made an appearance when Mr Irving was present, he was more forthcoming when Mrs Irving and young Voirrey were about. He would permit them to stroke him and apparently liked to dance to gramophone records.
Both the Daily Mail and the Daily Sketch sent reporters to investigate the "man weasel"; although neither caught sight of Gef. The reporter from the Sketch did however have the privilege of hearing Gef speak, but suspected that the daughter was the culprit. Gef's existence also came to the attention of one Harry Price (1881-1948), a noted psychic investigator and ghost-hunter of the time. He began corresponding with James Irving in 1932 and even received a sample of Gef's fur. Price had the sample examined. It turned out to be dog hair, identical to that of the family's sheepdog, Mona.
Eventually Price decided to pay a visit to the Isle of Man in 1935 and took with him a friend named Rex Lambert to act as a witness to any paranormal activity that might or might not transpire. Sadly Gef failed to put in a single appearance whilst Price and Lambert were present at Cashen's Gap, it being later made known that Gef had not wanted to reveal himself because Lambert was a "doubter". Irving subsequently sought to make amends by sending Price a set of Gef's paw prints set in plasticise which turned out to be 'unidentifiable', whilst Gef also dictated a detailed description of himself, which enabled a drawing of him to be made.
Back on the mainland the story excited another wave of interest, as Price recounted the tale for the BBC which was broadcast on the 12th October 1935, whilst both Price and Lambert co-authored an entire book on the phenomenon entitled, The Haunting of Cashen's Gap: A Modern 'Miracle' Investigated (Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1936)
Lambert v Levita
Harry Price's companion and co-author, Richard Stanton 'Rex' Lambert (1894-1981) was a classical scholar and journalist, who was also the editor of The Listener, a journal published by the BBC, and a member of the governing body of the British Film Institute. Amongst his fellow governors was Florence Woodruff, who was better known as the Lady Levita, being the wife of one Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Cecil Bingham Levita (1867-1953).
At the time the British Film Institute (BFI) was a government funded body principally engaged in the "object of choosing ... films of an educational and moral tendency which were suitable for exhibition to young people". There was however a Mr Brown who had recently been placed in charge of a more commercial subsidiary project. It seemed that Lambert disapproved of such commercialisation, and particularly disapproved of Mr Brown, whom he suspected of certain financial irregularities. As a result of Lambert's attentions, Brown was forced to take a month's leave and subsequently resigned, much to the annoyance of the Lady Levita, who rather approved of Brown's venture and therefore took against Lambert.
As previously mentioned her husband was Cecil Bingham Levita, who had previously enjoyed a distinguished military career in the Royal Horse Artillery, being given charge of the battery that delivered the salute at Queen Victoria's funeral, but had more recently ventured into politics becoming a member of the London County Council and serving as the council's chairman in 1928-1929. He was therefore possessed of a certain amount of influence (or at least believed that he did) and on the 7th February 1936 he had lunch with one William Ewart Gladstone Murray, the assistant controller of programmes at the BBC.
Over lunch Levita offered the opinion that Mr Lambert had fallen under the influence of Harry Price and developed an unhealthy belief in the occult. He also claimed that Lambert had moved house three times because he feared that he was being pursued by the "evil eye", and expressed the view that anyone who believed in a talking mongoose was unfit to be the governor of the British Film Institute, and the BBC should take steps to remove him forthwith. Since Levita tapped his forehead as he referred to Lambert, the substance of his message was clear.
Now as it happened Lambert sat on the board of the BFI as the nominee of the British Institute of Adult Education, and therefore had nothing to do with his employment by the BBC, but Gladstone Murray was nevertheless "shocked" by the suggestion, and informed Lambert of what had been said. There followed the usual exchange of solicitors letters between Lambert and Levita, with the result that Lambert issued a writ for defamation.
The case opened at the King's Bench Division of the High Court on the 4th November 1936 before Justice Swift and a special jury. Naturally Levita denied that he had in any way slandered Lambert and entered the usual multi-layered defence which claimed that he hadn't uttered the words complained of, and that even if he had they weren't capable of being defamatory, and even if they were he pled privilege (it was a private conversation), and justification (they were true).
As far as the plaintiff was concerned, he was able to demonstrate that there was no substance to Levita's allegations. He didn't actually believe that there really was a talking mongoose for one thing; he just couldn't work out how or why anyone would wish to invent such a creature. Justice Swift very plainly made up his mind, and the jury found for Lambert and awarded him damages of £7,500 and costs, the equivalent of an amount in excess of £350,000 in 2009 terms, and therefore a significant amount of money.
Lambert was back in court later that month together with this co-author Price, this time in Chancery as they sued Allied Newspapers Ltd for infringement of copyright. Given the publicity given to the talking mongoose, Allied Newspapers, as publishers of the Sunday Chronicle had arranged to publish extracts from The Haunting of Cashen's Gap and had acquired the serialisation rights from the publishers Methuen. The authors duly sought an injunction to prevent publication of any further extracts.
Quite how Allied Newspapers could have infringed their copyright was unclear, but the real issue was that Lambert had contributed the chapter in which he had speculated about the possible explanations for the talking mongoose. However since he did not wish to run the risk of libelling the Irvings, or to offend the hospitality that they had shown him whilst he was in the Isle of Man, he had neglected to reach the obvious and most likely conclusion. Now, in the cold light of day, he feared he would be ridiculed for this omission. (Price himself was rather less circumspect in his judgement, in his Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter also published in 1936 he referred to those who actually believed the story of Gef as "rather credulous people".)
As it was the plaintiffs reached an agreement with Allied Newspapers. The Sunday Chronicle agreed to publish a statement to the effect that the authors themselves had not authorised the serialisation, and would in future restrict itself to publishing extracts from the book unadorned with any journalistic comment.
The Stamp Report
When Cecil Levita served on the London County Council, one of his fellow councillors was one Ronald Collet Norman, who had since been appointed as the Chairman of the BBC. Levita therefore had friends in high places within the BBC, and it was 'R.C.' that duly raised the matter of the impending action for slander at a meeting of the BBC Governors. Concerns were expressed regarding how the court case might reflect badly on the BBC, and it was concluded that it would be best if Lambert abandoned the case.
John Reith, the Director-General of the BBC, therefore agreed to pass a "stern warning" down the management chain. As a result, Lambert's immediate boss Stephen Tallents, who was head of Public Relations at the BBC had a meeting with Lambert on the 6th March 1936, during which he sought to persuade him to abandon his action against Levita, warning him that should he persist there was a "serious danger that he might prejudice his position with the corporation". The idea that someone might be threatened with the loss of their employment for seeking to defend themselves in a court of law offended the British sense of fair play, and was said to be the main reason why the jury's award of damages was so high.
After all this came out during the court case, questions were raised in Parliament. The Labour MP and future Chancellor,
Stafford Cripps was suitably aghast and claimed that the Lambert case was a "grave scandal", being simply yet another example of the dictatorial way in which John Reith ran the BBC. (Staff were regularly dismissed or demoted for divorcing their partners, depending on their degree of perceived culpability,) The New Statesman complained that Broadcasting House was being run "on semi-military lines". The BBC was naturally upset at all this criticism and felt that since it had not being a party to the case of Lambert v Levita, it had been given no opportunity to put its side of the story. The BBC therefore persuaded the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to launch an inquiry, and on the 11th November 1936 Josiah Stamp was appointed to head the investigation.
The Stamp Report of December 1936 naturally concluded that the BBC had not done anything wrong, and whilst the actions of certain executives might not have been wise they had not acted dishonestly. It did however suggest that the BBC should consider adopting the same kind of personnel policies as existed in the Civil Service.
In 1937 the Irving family sold Cashen's Gap. They must have taken Gef with them, as the new owner failed to notice the presence of any mongoose, talking or otherwise. Rex Lambert left for Canada shortly before the outbreak of World War II to take up a post with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and remained there until his death. Cecil Levita and his wife maintained a suitably lower public profile after their court case, whilst Harry Price continued his investigations into the paranormal. He amassed a large collection of material which he bequeathed to the University of London on his death and the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature remains part of the Senate House Library to this day.
The BBC took notice of the Stamp Report and introduced such things as salary grades, a formal job interview and selection process, and formal terms and conditions of employment for its staff. And all because of a talking mongoose.
- David Wilby, Lambert v Levita 1936
- GEF — the Talking Mongoose (Investigator 122, 2008 September)
- 'The Talking Mongoose' by Harry Price featuring extracts from Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter
- Lambert v Levita, Law Report, Nov 6; The Times Saturday, Nov 07, 1936
- Book on 'talking mongoose': authors seek injunction; The Times, Wednesday, Nov 11, 1936
- Book on 'talking mongoose': action setled; The Times, Saturday, Nov 14, 1936