Joan Dowling

Laindon's tragic child star

Joan with Joan Collins
Harry & Joan in "Hue & Cry"
Joan as Grena in "Murder without a Crime"
Joan in "star mode"

Laindon had two famous Joan’s, who were close contemporaries. Joan Sims of “Carry on” fame, and Joan Dowling child star of “Hue and Cry”, the first of the Ealing comedies. She went on to star in numerous plays, pantomimes and about 20 films, before tragedy struck at the age of 26.

Joan Dowling was the illegitimate daughter of Vera Martin of Upton Park. When the unmarried Vera became pregnant, she was sent to her maternal grandmother, who had lived in Laindon since the early 1920s.

Joan was born on the 8th January 1928 at the house called Carlyle. Which is one of the turreted bungalows in the High Road North. During this time she had her first taste of “stardom” by winning a talent show at a circus in Laindon.  As far as I have been able to ascertain, she lived there until she was 7 or 8, at which time she moved to Uxbridge.

 She had a passion for acting, although she was never formally trained, and took roles in small plays, pantomimes and other productions whenever she could. At the age of 14, she approached a London acting agency and was given her first ‘proper’ part in a small production (title unknown). Her major acting debut came when producer Anthony Hawtrey cast her in the role of Norma Bates in the Joan Temple play No Room at the Inn. The play’s first performance was at the Embassy Theatre in July 1945. Subsequently the play transferred under producer Robert Atkins to the Winter Garden Theatre, Drury Lane. She also played the same role in the 1948 film version, with the screenplay co-written by the famous Welsh author Dylan Thomas and Ivan Foxwell. She signed her first film contract at the age of 17 for Associated British Pictures.

This link is to a very interesting Pathe’ newsreel, made at the start of her career.

She went on to star in several films, including Train of Events, with Jack Warner and Valerie Hobson and Murder without a Crime, with Dennis Price and Derek Farr.

She was perhaps best known for her role as the tomboy Clarry in the 1947 Ealing Studios production Hue and Cry, a story set among the rubble and buildings of post-war London about a group of school children who discover that crooks have been sending coded messages about upcoming jobs to their gang using the pages of a children’s comic. In 1951 she married Harry Fowler, another actor from the cast of Hue and Cry.

Joan and Harry were the “Posh & Becks” of their era, a glamorous young couple who were seen at all the film premiers and major social events of the early fifties.

 Joan was heartbroken when she discovered her husband was having an affair. On March 31, 1954 the twenty-six year old actress committed suicide. She was found unconscious in the gas filled kitchen in her West London home. Her official cause of death was suicide by asphyxiation. Joan was cremated and buried in London, England. Her mother and other relatives believe that her death may have been accidental. They think that she was only attempting suicide to scare her husband. Harry Fowler eventually remarried and passed away in 2012.

A very sad end to a very promising career. Who knows what she might have achieved. As a vivacious actress of the cockney type, it is easy to imagine her in “Carry on” type roles. Perhaps alongside Joan Sims, her Laindon contemporary. I have found no evidence that the two Joan’s knew each other, but it seems likely that they may have done. Joan’s mother, Vera Martin was my mother’s sister and therefore Joan was my first cousin, a fact of which I am very proud.

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  • Thinking of Joan Dowling today, this being the 70th anniversary of her passing. A truly wonderful actress. Never forgotten.
    Paul, would you please email me.

    By Adrian (31/03/2024)
  • I have been intrigued by the story of dear Joan Dowling. In 1956 or 1957 I met the gay love of my life, and we spent 33 years together until he sadly passed away in 1991. On our meeting, where I was working in a restaraunt, my other half was living in a flat belonging to Dennis Price the actor, in Notting Hill, The following day, I was invited for a lovely Sunday lunch of roast beef, Dennis was in South Africa in performing “Seperate tables”, so I sadly did not meet the gentleman, after commenting on the beautiful food, I was taken into the kitchen where I was told the Roast beef had been cooked in the same oven, that dear Joan Dowling had committed suicide in, which is one of the reasons I doubt it was an attempted suicide, gone wrong, because she did it in the gas oven. I understood it was NOT over Harry Fowler having an affair, although that is possible, but, because I was led to believe Harry was gay. Hope this is of help to you

    By alan mawson (19/11/2023)
  • I believe she was a great actor and would like to add a thought, I think she was my cousin only she looks like my aunt Lillian an exact replica and my grandmother had a photo of her in her purse. Alas my grandmother died in 1955 my grandmother’s name was Esther Rebecca Dalling but I can’t think how to check.

    By Ron smith (08/06/2023)
  • Thank you so much for the information. I collect Royal Film Performance programmes and theatrical garden party programmes and I have often seen Joan’s face and wondered about her. I shall watch some of her films now.

    By Sarah Henderson (18/05/2021)
  • Very Sad at such a young age & so talented ..
    One of her co-stars also died young – Ann Stephens….
    Does anyone know how she died at such a young age as well..

    By Greg (02/05/2021)
  • Just watched film The Magic Box. Joan Dowling was one of the stars playing cameo roles along with the likes of Laurence Oliver, Richard Attenborough, etc. Quite an interesting film if you are into cinematography.

    By Georgina Nottage ne Ellingford (21/09/2020)
  • Just watching Murder Without Crime. I thought I’d look her up. Was shocked firstly to discover her premature death and more so the cause. I’m not sure I’d be able to live with myself knowing I’d caused someone to take their own life. I’m sure Harry wouldn’t have been as happy as he should have been knowing what he did. Tragic. Hue and Cry is one of my favourite films. It won’t be the same the next time I watch it.

    By David Harrison (16/05/2020)
  • I saw this lovely girl in No Room at the Inn last week, I couldn’t understand why she would have committed suicide with all her life ahead of her and such enormous talent. I wonder if Harry Fowler ever forgave himself.

    By Denise (11/05/2020)
  • God bless her very sad.

    By Paul Osullivan (27/04/2020)
  • This is so sad… just having watched the excellent film ‘Train of Events’ from 1949, I wanted to learn more about Joan Downing.

    By Terry (10/04/2020)
  • At the Inquest, the Coroner with all the available evidence to help him, concluded that this lady had killed herself.

    By William Vickers (03/11/2019)
  • My mother’s cousin was Harry Fowler and as it was always told me about Joan Dowling, that when she found out about Harry’s affair, she had intended, as you say, to scare Harry. She had expected Harry to come home and find her.

    Unfortunately, he didn’t come home in time to save her. Joan was also great friends with Diana Dors.
    Apparently Joan was a lovely lady. Gone before I would have known her.

    By Kacey Taylor (22/01/2019)
  • Hi Paul.  Very interesting piece, I am researching Basildon/Laindon famous people. I was aware of Joan Dowling but not of her Laindon connection. Any chance of you contacting me? Cheers. Ken.

    Editor: Ken’s contact details have been passed on to Paul.

    By Ken Porter (25/06/2015)

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