The Fighting Macks (an extraordinary family of brothers)

Leo McLaglen

Leo McLaglen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged…” is a very well-known quotation.

We can say that there is an acknowledged truth about the British army, which makes plans that seldom work out as intended. Lt.Col. Driscoll always knew what he wanted and was satisfied with the officers he took with him in the 25th (Service) Bn. Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen) to East Africa in April 1915. Events and senior officers in Africa were soon to intervene with his carefully assembled group of officers. His second-in-command, Major Williams, made it no further than Gibraltar before he was invalided home.1 He had obtained a commission for well-known wild-life photographer Cherry Kearton. Kearton had been rejected by both the Army and the Royal Flying Corps and had been working as a War Correspondent in Belgium. Once in East Africa, the R.F.C. decided that they did actually need Kearton’s skills, so Driscoll lost him. Major John Leitch was seconded to the Arab Rifles, with whom he was severely wounded. As the Staff officers realised that the Frontiersmen had specific skills, so they passed them on to other units for special duties. Driscoll was able to commission some men, such as Angus Buchanan, from within his ranks, but he had to accept other officers posted to him, many of them men who Driscoll would never have chosen himself. One example was 2/Lt. Arthur Burlington Green about whom Driscoll commented that “he was devoid of the dignity and soldierly bearing which an officer should possess.” Driscoll was a good judge of character as Burlington Green was later accused of bouncing cheques and had to resign his commission. As soon as he arrived with the battalion he contracted severe malaria and went into hospital.2 Another officer was Capt Charles Bull who had been passed as unfit for general duty in 1915 due to bomb wounds and fit only for light duty at home. In spite of that, some bright spark in the War Office must have thought that East African climate would be good for his health. He was not the type of officer to fit in with the Frontiersmen and, much to the disgust of Driscoll and the surviving officers, Bull was awarded the Military Cross. Because of his health, he saw little action and spent most his time organising the local headquarters.3

We are going to look at an officer, Capt. Leopold McLaglen, who although only seconded to the Frontiersmen while still wearing the cap badge of his parent regiment, was an extraordinary character who lived an extraordinary life, as did most of his seven brothers. He was good friends with another officer seconded to the Frontiersmen, the unusually named Athelstan Popkess, later to become the controversial Chief Constable of Nottingham. Leo McLaglen was the second son of six feet seven inches tall “Bishop” Andrew McLaglen. Every one of the sons was reported to be at least six feet four inches and even the one sister, Lily, was six feet three inches. According to Popkess, Leo was “not far short of seven feet”, although that was an exaggeration, as was the story that all the brothers were at least six feet four inches. Other sources give Leopold’s height as six feet six inches. When the fourth son, Arthur, enlisted in the R.A.S.C., age 26, his height was registered as six feet two and a half inches.. The father had been a missionary in South Africa for the Free Protestant Episcopal Church. Because of the large areas for which they were responsible they often tended on return to England to call themselves “Bishop”. The Bishop was known to the Metropolitan Police and was the subject of a confidential police report as a suspected fraud and numerous complaints had been received respecting his conduct. His name appeared on the cautionary card of the Charity Organisations Society (long before the Charity Commissioners) and his methods of fund-raising were severely criticised in the 29th September 1915 issue of “Truth”.4 The Police were able to confirm that the Bishop did have eight sons serving and there is supposed to have been a recruiting poster made of them as “The Fighting Macks”, one being presented to King George V, although a copy of this has not been traced. The eight “Fighting Macks” were soon reduced to six, as the youngest brothers, Cyril and Kenneth, proved to be well under age. They had taken advantage of their large size for their age, but were soon discharged back to their mother. The two eldest brothers, Fred and Leopold, both served in the Boer War and the most famous son, Hollywood actor Victor McLaglen (1886-1959), keen to follow his brothers to South Africa, signed up in the Irish Guards. Although only fourteen, he also took advantage of his big size to lie about his age. When his father discovered this he secured the boy’s release, but not before the lad had gained considerable boxing skills and the ability to defend himself. The eldest son, Frederick, also served in East Africa in the First War, but on the administrative staff as Acting Captain, where he appears to have contracted severe amoebic dysentery. He was invalided home but died in hospital in May 1917.5

Leo McLaglen

Leo McLaglen

Leopold McLaglen (Sydney Temple Leopold McLaglen) was a rogue and a constant liar. He was also under age when he served in the Boer War. When he married 23 year-old Gladys Rose in June 1905, he claimed to be 21. Gladys had a baby daughter in March 1906, but in April she filed for divorce claiming cruelty. Reading the divorce papers, one gets the impression that Leo had thought he was marrying into money, but found himself supporting a wife and a rather promptly arriving daughter. He denied cruelty, but the divorce was granted on the basis of Leo’s adultery.6 Although his marriage certificate gives his profession as “secretary” he claimed to have set up after the Boer War as an instructor in Jiu Jitsu. He turned up at the end of 1911 in America working in a Milwaukee theatre as a doorman, while claiming to be an expert with sword and bayonet who had boxed against Jack Johnson, although that was actually his brother Victor. Leopold also used the names “Victor Fred”, borrowed from two of his brothers. Victor found out about him and denounced him as an imposter. The brothers fell out and the dispute was apparently never resolved. The British Army seems to have believed in his skills in unarmed combat as he was commissioned as a Lieutenant. In March 1914 he was in Shanghai lecturing on Jiu Jitsu and in 1915 he was in New Zealand instructing soldiers in a new form of bayonet fighting incorporating Jiu Jitsu throws.7 The Army List shows him promoted to Captain in the Middlesex Regt. with seniority from January 1916. No reason has been found for his posting to East Africa, where he found himself attached to the 25thBn Royal Fusiliers (Frontiersmen). He contrived to impress Popkess greatly regarding his skills and strength, claiming that he was the World Jiu Jitsu Champion. Popkess wrote that Leo could:

…tear three packs of playing cards across or bend an inch-thick iron poker and snap it straight again. Before the war, when he was appearing at a music-hall in Johannesburg billed as ‘The Jiu Jitsu King’, the Japanese Jiu Jitsu Champion, Osaka, was appearing at the opposition hall down the street and was offering five sovereigns to anybody who could remain on his feet with him for one minute. McLaglan took up the challenge. Osaka tried to call it off but he was seized by the slack of his pants and was thrown into the big drum of the orchestra.8

This is absolute rubbish. Leopold McLaglen was a consummate showman. In fact he appeared with a wrestler, Van Diggelen, who said that McLaglen had a “magnetic personality” and stupendous aplomb and agreed to act basically as McLaglen’s stooge. They set up a stage act which purported to show that Jiu Jitsu was a self-defence system that would overcome any attack. It was all nonsense, but made a great show until a handy middleweight boxer called Robbie Roberts came on to the stage to challenge “Leopold the Mighty” and gave him a terrible beating and chased him off the stage. There was no mention of any Japanese Jiu Jitsu champion being there.

Also appearing on the stage was McLaglen’s “wife”, known as “The Georgia Magnet” who challenged anyone in the audience to lift her off her feet. In spite of weighing only 110lbs., nobody could lift her.9 In 1924 he again sailed for New Zealand, accompanied by Dr. Eleanor McLaglen. He gives the impression that, similar to many other early Frontiersmen, he was popular with the ladies and acquired a number of “wives” over the years.

When returning to camp one evening with Popkess, a giant S.A. Veterinary Corps officer made unpleasant remarks about these two officers only on attachment to the Frontiersmen. Instead of challenging the South African himself, “Leopold the Mighty” persuaded Popkess to challenge him. Fortunately, Popkess was a very handy boxer and made quick work of the giant South African.10 In 1918 Captain Leopold McLaglen wrote a highly popular book “Jiu-Jitsu: A Manual of the Science.” This can actually be considered as a precursor to W.E. Fairbairn’s system. Although himself not very skilful in action, Leopold had obviously made a considerable study of the subject, although his claims to have defeated many named Japanese Jiu Jitsu champions are probably the false claims of a showman. He also published “Bayonet Fighting for War”, “Infantry Pocket Book, a Concise Guide for Infantry Officers and NCOs” and “Police Jiu Jitsu” Two later books came out around the time of the Second World War, “Capt. Leopold McLaglen’s Modernised Jiu Jitsu Lessons” (1939), and “Unarmed Attack and Defence for Commandos, Home Guards and Civilians” (1943).

By 1937, Leopold was in America and apparently living in Los Angeles on duty as a Royal Naval Reserve officer with the rank of Lieutenant, although the truth about that is somewhat unclear. In October 1937, he found himself in gaol being prosecuted for “subornation of perjury and soliciting a commission of a crime.” Released on bond he was arrested again in March 1938 and charged with attempted extortion. He was charged with demanding $20,000 from Philip Chancellor, a millionaire sportsman. His defence was that he had been employed as a secret agent to spread anti-semitic propaganda and to spy on communists. He said that both British and German consular authorities knew of his espionage and approved.11 Although War Office files show him as Lieutenant McLaglen, he was charged as Captain Leopold McLaglen, a British army officer, and was sentenced to five years in prison. On the intervention of his brother Victor, by then well-known as a Hollywood actor and much respected, this was suspended on the condition that he left America immediately and did not return for at least five years. It appears that Victor was hoping to see the last of his brother. In 1946, Leopold asked the War Office to re-open the case with the Americans and get the conviction reversed. Leopold sent them a long document attempting to prove that he was carrying out espionage on the Japanese on behalf of Britain and that Chancellor had been a German spy. The War Office did not believe him and the Americans said that he had been involved with the American Fascists, the Silver Shirts, and had his headquarters at the Bund, where he frequently spoke for the Bund. This could, of course, have been a cloak for espionage activities but the Americans could find no evidence. In fact: “He led a naval officer into a trap in quest of certain documents that he had told the officer existed and cached away in an office in Hollywood. He then blackmailed the officer and extorted him for this act.”12 They held a report that McLaglen had made efforts to organize a united front of extreme rightist groups. This information, added to his earlier admitted anti-semitism, meant that the War Office dismissed his request. The last mention of Leopold we have found is from 1948, when he was in South Africa looking very ill and accompanied by a doctor. He had lost part of his tongue and claimed to have been captured and tortured by the Japanese. He finally moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where he died. One comment in the War Office file about Leopold was: “The best thing they [the Americans] can say in his favour is that he is probably a little mad.” It is difficult to disagree with this assessment of the strange but fascinating Captain Leopold McLaglen.

Victor McLaglen

Victor McLaglen

In addition to Victor, four other brothers, Arthur, Clifford, Cyril, and Kenneth became actors. Arthur was also a sculptor. Victor is of interest to Frontiersmen and may well have had links. Anyone who has seen black and white John Wayne western films on daytime television will surely have noticed Victor as the grizzled “Irish” Sergeant, although he was in fact of Scottish descent. His reputation was made in the 1920s and 1930s in Hollywood’s “British Empire” films, such as Gunga Din.

Victor McLaglen’s life was greatly influence by, and mirrored, his experiences of the British Empire, an empire he traveled widely and knew well. A Boer War volunteer, potential Canadian homesteader, gold and silver miner in Canada and Australia, farm worker, boxer, wrestler, pearl diver, big game hunter, macho carnival tough guy, music hall performer, World War 1 soldier, Assistant Provost Marshal of Baghdad, and an actor in the early British film industry.13

He was a successful boxer, and the highlight of that part of his career was a match with the legendary Jack Johnson in Vancouver in 1909.

Victor McLaglen

Victor McLaglen (source: imdb)

What has to interest us about Victor is his formation of the California Light Horse cavalry troop. The similarities to the Legion of Frontiersmen are many. Other than the use of light blue for the breeches and a side cap rather than a Stetson, the uniform is markedly similar, even down to the shoulder chains. Membership was originally restricted to Canadian and British ex-servicemen. The Legion had a small unit in California in the first half of the 1920s, but it did not thrive. Victor also assisted in the formation of the British United Services Club of Los Angeles for actors who had served in the British military.

On the screen and off, he loves a uniform. Out in Hollywood he rides at the head of his private cavalry – the California Light Horse Troop – which he has equipped and holds ready for any civic or national emergency.14

The members also met for drinking and socializing, but the feeling was that Victor used his Light Horse as a personal escort to lead parades and for personal appearances. Had he set up a unit of the Frontiersmen for British ex-pats that sort of activity would not have been approved. He would have nothing to do with the right-wing activities of some prominent Hollywood stars, such as John Wayne, and we know he deeply disapproved of brother Leopold’s activities. Was he influenced by the Legion of Frontiersmen? During the 1920s and 1930s the Frontiersmen were well-known throughout much of the English-speaking world and their activities and photographs of them regularly appeared in newspapers. While he was in Canada, the infant Legion was ardently seeking publicity and successfully recruiting, especially in Vancouver. His brother Leopold had served with the Frontiersmen in East Africa and when Victor was A.P.M. at Baghdad he would likely have encountered some New Zealand Frontiersmen. As a Provost he would have had to deal with many drunk and garrulous troops – and Frontiersmen always liked to drink. When Victor arrived in Hollywood in 1924 alone, somewhat lost, and dressed very much as an Englishman, there was one well-known Englishman attempting to make a living there and publicizing himself all he could. That was Roger Pocock, founder of the Legion, and always willing to try to help a fellow Englishman – especially one with a sound military background.

All these possible links to the Frontiersmen are merely circumstantial, but the alternative has to be coincidence, and that is usually the resort of authors of inferior mystery books. Certainly the “Fighting Macks” are deserving of further research so that their complete story can be told.

1 Geoffrey A Pocock: One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen [Phillimore, 2004], 72
2 British National Archives, WO339/104704
3 BNA: WO339/12226. See also: various personal letters from Lt. Col. Driscoll, copies in Legion archives.
4 BNA: HO144/17480
5 BNA: WO374/44874 Victor McLaglen and WO339/44618 Frederick McLaglen
6 BNA: J77/877/6625
7 It is believed there are other references to McLaglen instructing in New Zealand at that time in N.Z. military archives
8 Capt. Athelstan Popkess: Sweat in my Eyes [Edgar Backus, 1952], 125
9 Article in “Dragon Times” magazine referring to this at:
10 Capt. Athelstan Popkess: Sweat in my Eyes [Edgar Backus, 1952], 126
11 BNA: FO371/51701
12 BNA: FO371/51701
13 Richard A Voeltz: Victor McLaglen, the British Empire, and the Hollywood Raj: Myth, Film, and Reality [Journal of Historical Biography Autumn 2010], 39-61
14 Review of 1936 film Professional Soldier in the New York Times, quoted in: Richard A Voeltz: Victor McLaglen, the British Empire, and the Hollywood Raj: Myth, Film, and Reality [Journal of Historical Biography Autumn 2010], 39-61

It will be noted from his books that Leopold McLaglen changed the spelling to McLaglan. For the purposes of this Topic page, his original family spelling of the name has been retained.

There is an interesting two part article on Leopold McLaglen and his alleged skills at Jiu Jitsu by Graham Noble, “Leopold the Great” to be found in the online magazine

The article above was originally published on in October 2013.

© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved.  This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.

About Roger Pocock

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7 Responses to The Fighting Macks (an extraordinary family of brothers)

  1. Ron Flook says:

    I believe your statement that Leopold McLaglen died in Kenya is incorrect. Sydney Temple Leopold McLaglen to give him his full name died in Newton Abbot, Devon in 1951.


    • Roger Pocock says:

      Thank you for your comment. We will have a reply for you from the writer of this article within the next few days.


    • Roger Pocock says:

      Thank you for the information. The claim that he had died in Kenya came from the website of the Bartitsu Society which, as with other links we quote, are often no longer available. This site was quoting in turn from Van Diggelen’s 1955 autobiography “Worthwhile Journey” where he says that McLaglen had visited him in December 1948 “…An invalid, he was accompanied everywhere by his doctor [sic]”. Van Diggelen also wrote that “…McLaglen left for Nairobi where, not long afterwards I heard that he had died”.
      This topic was written six years ago and much as we would wish to update our topics regularly it is difficult to find the time.
      Since then newspaper reports have been made available reporting a case in 1953 in London Law Courts where his wife, Dr. Eleanor McLaglan of New Zealand contested his will leaving his £3500 estate to his “nurse and companion” of eight years Miss Florence Carter McLaglan of Whitstable (Note that his wife and “nurse” both spelled the name with an ‘a’). He had abandoned his wife in 1929 but she continually sent him money, often a regular £16 a month, believing him poor and in need, although she never saw him again. His “nurse” had given up her job and her fiance to look after him, also gave him most of her capital of £1800 and changed her name by deed poll. In spite of his history, the Kenya Government had given him a job at £1400 a year in 1947 or 1948.
      With deep regrets the Judge dismissed the case. According to the report in the Daily Mirror of March 13th 1953 the man was “cruel”, although his “nurse” said he was a “wonderful” man. The Daily Herald of February 20th and March 13th reported the Judge calling him a “wastrel and a scoundrel”. No mention was made of provision for his daughter by his first (legal) wife, who would have been in her mid-forties at the time of his death.


  2. Ron Flook says:

    Than you for the reply and adding some more information about this interesting(?) man. Do you happen to have any information on him being in the RNVR. I came across a S.T.L.McLaglen listed in the Navy List for 1944/45. If him it seem very odd that he left the RAFVR in 1942 due to ill health only to turn up in the Royal Navy. Also there is record in the National Archives of him being involved in a Court Martial in January 1917, do you have any details about that.


    • Roger Pocock says:

      It could well be that his claim to have been working for Intelligence was basically true. He would not have been the only utter rogue and liar to have been recruited. The rank of Lieutenant R.N.V.R. is the equivalent of an army Captain and would have given him official position and pay. He would not have needed to have been posted to a ship. It would also explain why he was given a government job in Kenya after the war.
      You need to visit the National Archives at Kew and view the relevant file FO371/51701 or ask a friend or a researcher to do so and copy for you.
      Bear in mind our story was a brief essay and not a biography. The full story will not emerge until WW2 files are released for public viewing.


  3. Ron Flook says:

    I do not think my reply to the above got posted. However i wonder do you have any information on him being in the RN. There is a record in the Navy List of a S. T. L. McLaglen being with the RNVR in 1944/45.


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