A cub reporter in Weymouth
Douglas Brown’s memories of the old Southern Times in the 1930s
Published in March ’08
|The author at work as a young man. Note the paste-pot and the price of The Concise Oxford Dictionary: 37½ p!|
In May 1934 I joined the staff in Weymouth at the Southern Times. Soon I was washing the windows, delivering voucher copies of the Southern Times to its advertisers, collecting money from the newsagents and fetching tea for the editor. I still have my first wage packet. It inflated my ego because it was addressed to Mister Brown; it punctured it again because it contained only eight shillings – the equivalent of 40p today.
The Southern Times had a sale of about 5000 copies a week and its offices in Weymouth were in a small converted shop, between a butcher and an outfitter, in St Mary’s Street, the narrow main shopping street which contained many fine old Georgian buildings with elegant bow windows. Within, the reception office was bleak and Dickensian. There was a bare, varnished counter, under which the old files of the paper were stacked in some confusion, many yellowing and crumbling at the page edges. The paper had been founded in 1852, so there were a lot of files.
|A compromising room similar to the one at the Southern Times when the author worked there
There were two desks in the office at the back. At one of them Wally Locock performed the duties of chief reporter, photographer and sub-editor. The second desk was occupied only on Thursdays and Fridays by Evan E House. He was authority personified, not to be spoken to unless he spoke first. He was a short, stocky man, a human bulldog, but his bark was worse than his bite. House was one of the finest journalists I ever knew, and I learned more about the business by studying his methods than ever I learned afterwards from any single individual. He was just over fifty when I started work. He had been born in Dorset and he had never worked outside the county. He had started on the Dorset County Chronicle at Dorchester before he was fourteen. One of his first jobs as a cub reporter had been to cycle out to the village of Milton Abbas to report the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
The Chronicle and the Southern Times were in the same family ownership and when the proprietor died in about 1930, the executors placed Evan House in charge of them both, until such time as they had sorted out the estate and found a purchaser. This interregnum continued for several years and covered most of my time with the Weymouth paper. House’s nose for news was uncanny. His network of contacts was immense. His basic technical ability was impressive. He was the finest shorthand writer in the county and, alone and unaided, he provided the official transcripts for the Dorset Quarter Sessions and the Dorchester Bankruptcy Court. But he could not use a typewriter, so these verbatim reports had to be transcribed into longhand, after which he gave most of them to me to type.
|The author reported on King Edward VIII’s visit to Portland and Weymouth in November 1936 but knew nothing of the storm which was about to break and would culminate in the Abdication less than a month later|
From the first day, Wally Locock took seriously his task of making me a journalist. On the first morning, and on every Monday thereafter, I bent my head over file copies of issues of the paper published exactly fifty years earlier. My job was to select and to copy out half-a-dozen paragraphs suitable for re-publication under the heading ‘Weymouth 50 Years Ago’. In the dense jungle of closely printed verbiage I found many exotic specimens, including accounts of rural ceremonies which had been discontinued in Thomas Hardy’s day and had been long forgotten.
On the second day in the office Locock gave me a sealed envelope addressed to the manager of a local cinema, the Odeon. It was a newly opened place, extravagantly furnished to reflect the excitement of a new phase of the film industry – the ‘talkies’ had arrived a few years earlier. The manager was an elegant figure in full evening dress, with tails, who stood at the top of the carpeted staircase which led to the auditorium and welcomed his patrons with generous smiles and gracious gestures. He opened the letter I presented to him, eyed me curiously and had an usherette show me to one of the best seats.
|The lifeboat was always a useful source of stories. William & Clara Ryland was on station at Weymouth from 1930 to 1957 and saved 129 lives.|
The sea provided a rich catch of news stories. On wild winter nights I would hear the explosion of the maroons which signalled that the lifeboat had put to sea. Soon afterwards the phone would ring and House would ask me to report to the office. Once he had established the essential facts, I would start ringing around Fleet Street, dictating short stories to each newspaper and news agency in turn, while House drove off to gather eye-witness material or to interview survivors.
The Royal Navy provided a range of stories of its own. In November 1936 King Edward VIII visited the Royal Navy at Portland and afterwards landed in Weymouth and drove through the town to catch his train back to London. From a perch in the station forecourt, I recorded every detail as he met the local dignitaries and then departed, but this was an occasion when I completely missed the real story. A visiting London journalist remarked that there was no sign of Mrs Simpson and, until he explained further, I had no inkling what he meant. This was in fact one of the King’s last official engagements before his abdication. About a week afterwards, the crisis was out in the open.
By this time I was attending the local magistrates’ court two or three times a week, and there I saw the whole range of human experience and the whole spectrum of human emotion on display. There were fewer motoring offences in those days, but petty larceny, house-breaking, assault and disorderly conduct were all part of the staple diet. There was a constant procession of distraught wives seeking separation and maintenance orders against their husbands, and details of their ordeal were then commonly reported. County Court hearings provided a complementary picture of the purely financial misfortunes of humankind.
Occasionally we tried to make the news ourselves. If things were slack, we would scan the national papers for ideas. If a clergyman somewhere had criticised a new fashion of women wearing ‘beach pyjamas’, we knew precisely which local minister to contact to get an equally forthright home-ground denunciation of modern times and modern trends. And which local butcher, baker or candlestick maker to approach for a robust riposte, so that a good controversy might be launched and kept going for several weeks.
Quite as daft was the space we devoted to the End of the World. The prediction that annihilation was at hand came from some crackpot minor preacher and he set his scenario in Weymouth Bay. A giant tidal wave was going to surge up the Channel, take a left-hand turn by Portland Bill and inundate first Weymouth, then Wessex, and in due time even Mount Ararat. As the reader will know, it was a false alarm.
|The Esplanade with its “toast-rack” buses as the author knew it in the 1930’s
A change of ownership of the Southern Times introduced a director who had worked in Fleet Street, and he broadened the paper’s content to include feature articles and illustrations. I was allowed to produce a cinema page – an idea which had never been thought necessary before – and also a full-page feature about the Dorset countryside. At weekends, I took long walks over the cliffs and I helped to establish a cycling club, the Ridgeway Wheelers, and we explored most of the roads and lanes of the county. I also absorbed a great deal about the Wessex scene from Thomas Hardy’s novels. Hardy had died only six years before I joined the paper. Evan House had interviewed him at his home near Dorchester, so that although he had described a rural life that had all but disappeared, I thought of him as a contemporary writer.
I was now being paid twenty-five shillings a week, modest annual increases having been given only after I had asked for them. I had reason to feel restless and anxious to advance. The decision to move on, however, was not to be my own. I caught scarlet fever, was put into isolation for six weeks, and during that time the new owners of the Southern Times, although they had barely settled themselves in, found themselves in the hands of the Official Receiver. Another purchaser was quickly found and one of their initial cost-cutting decisions was to save the twenty-five shillings a week they were paying me. When I recovered, I had no choice but to leave home to find other editorial work. I had worked for the firm for over three years, often for more than twelve hours a day and often for seven days in the week, and my wages over that period averaged out at about twelve shillings a week, but I received no word of thanks. Evan House, however, provided a good reference. In June 1937, two months before my eighteenth birthday, I moved to Brentwood in Essex, a county which seemed utterly remote, lying as it did on the far side of London.