More memories of a Weymouth cub reporter
Published in Dorset Life two years ago, Douglas Brown’s reminiscences of the Southern Times in the 1930s were well received. Here he offers another instalment.
Published in March ’10
It was as a teenager in 1934 that I joined the Southern Times at its office in St Mary’s Street. One end of the office counter was screened off by frosted glass and was fitted with a sloping desk top. Here I sat on a high stool, ready to jump down whenever a customer appeared. At a table behind the open section of the counter sat a reporter, Eric Downton (later a distinguished war and foreign correspondent with the Daily Telegraph and Reuters), who was usually thumping one of those ancient typewriters with keys banked up like the opening wings of a bird.
My eyes were fixed on Fleet Street, where at that time almost all of the national newspapers had their offices. My boss, Evan House, had covered the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. That was the year after Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, the first, the most colourful and the most egocentric of Britain’s 20th-century press barons, had founded the Daily Mail and inaugurated the era of the popular daily press. By the ’thirties, when I started work, the bright young men who had surrounded Northcliffe in his heyday were reaching retirement age and were recalling in a succession of autobiographical books the glamour of their youth. I saw Fleet Street as the Golden Gate to everything. Once one passed through it, anything became possible: encounters with the great, travels to farthest horizons, all the sensations if not the reality of wealth.
I was a long way from the excitements of which I read in the autobiographies of my editorial heroes, but on a smaller scale life opened up, full of new experiences. Weymouth was a huddle of grey stone houses, many of them Tudor, along one side of a long, sheltered harbour. On the other side, in the newer part known as Melcombe Regis, a long crescent of splendid Georgian houses faced the bay, stucco painted in dazzling white and yellow, with bow windows and wrought-iron balconies. The small shopping area of half a dozen narrow streets had a mixture of architectural styles spanning almost four centuries. One or two of the bars had hardly changed in a hundred years: they had low ceilings, were furnished with much old brass and ships in bottles, and spread sawdust over their floors.
Portland was a big naval base and Britain still had a formidable navy. When the fleet was in, these pubs overflowed with sailors in bell-bottom trousers and cloth jackets with the big blue and white shoulder collars which had survived from the days when they were needed to prevent oiled pigtails soiling uniforms. Their cap bands – Nelson, Rodney, Hood – echoed the glories of Britain’s age-long sea power.
Each day the diary offered something different: church fairs and fetes, debating society sessions, sporting engagements of all kinds, fires and accidents, concerts. I learned to cope with most of them adequately, but there were moments of doubt and despair. When I stood on the touch-line on the gusty plateau of Portland, teeth chattering as I watched two local teams I had never set eyes on before, it was disconcerting to find each time a goal was scored that I could not identify the striker. When I emerged, dazed, from an hours-long performance (or did it only seem that long?) of Stainer’s Crucifixion by the choir of the Methodist Church, it was a painful experience to sit at my typewriter unable to find any sentence that made sense. When I was sent for the first time to the annual dinner of a local organisation, I sat mesmerised by the cutlery until my neighbours at table gave a lead to show which to use first.
I worked long hours. Each morning I started at 9 am, went home to dinner at midday, and then worked through until I was clear, which was rarely before 7 pm and often much later. On these occasions I was allowed 7d (3p) expenses, with which I bought a small flat slice of ‘lardy cake’ and a cup of tea. On Saturdays I worked until 1 pm and, more often than not, I went to the office for a few hours on Sunday evenings. It was habit-forming and even when the work load slackened, I stayed around. ‘I really don’t know what makes me stay there when it isn’t necessary,’ I wrote in my diary one night, ‘except that I like to and I enjoy myself as much there as I would do anywhere else.’
One attraction was the shop talk. Colleagues from the evening paper, the Dorset Daily Echo, would look in. Occasionally there would be a visitor from Fleet Street and familiar by-lines would come to life before my eyes: I remember meeting O’Dowd Gallagher, one of the most famous foreign correspondents, a veteran of the Abyssinian and Spanish wars; Percy Hoskins, the most celebrated crime reporter of his time, who had met most of the murderers of that period; and H R S Philpott, parliamentary correspondent of the old Daily Herald, who regularly talked with Cabinet Ministers.
I became inquisitive about the production side of the paper. The copy I wrote was sent to Dorchester to be set into type and assembled into pages for printing. I wanted to see how it was done. In addition to gathering the material for my feature pages, I wanted to design them – to ‘lay them out’. The art of newspaper typography and design was in its infancy at this time. Not until 1930 did an adventurous daily newspaper drop the ridiculous habit of ending every headline with a full stop! The Daily Express went on using it until well into 1935. In the mid-1930s, when I was seeking inspiration in Fleet Street practice, several national papers still carried only advertisements on their front pages, including the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.
Local politics provided another arena which I explored enthusiastically. South Dorset was a rock-solid Conservative and Unionist stronghold, represented in the Commons by the heir to one of Britain’s oldest and most respected dynasties of politicians and statesmen, the Cecils. The first ennobled Cecil had been Principal Secretary to Queen Elizabeth I nearly 400 years before. A later forebear had played Box and Cox with Gladstone at 10 Downing Street in the late years of Victoria’s reign. Now Robert Cecil, Lord Cranborne, was making his reputation at Westminster. He had just been given office as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs; his chief was the newly appointed Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden.
Government foreign policy was the subject of fierce controversy in the 1930s, so every word of ‘our Member’ when he was visiting his constituency had to be fully and accurately recorded and carefully assessed. Most of these speeches were reported by Evan House, for Fleet Street looked for full coverage, but sometimes I would go to lend a hand and once or twice I was trusted to handle a job on my own. I was made very conscious of the heavy responsibility involved and I felt a special tension as I waited with pencil poised for his Lordship to perform. He spoke well, with a slight lisp, the authentic Eton and Oxford accent, and no oratorical drama.
One evening, after delivering a speech in Weymouth, he was going on to another meeting on Portland. His agent enquired if I wanted a lift and so I found myself in the Cranborne Rolls-Royce, her Ladyship driving, the MP beside her and an over-awed sixteen-year-old junior reporter sitting on the edge of a seemingly enormous rear seat. They ignored me for a while during a husband and wife discussion of how he had ‘gone over’ at the first meeting. Then, with a slight inclination of his head, Cranborne observed: ‘I shall be saying exactly the same thing, I expect, in Portland. How do you think it sounds?’
I felt it would be presumptuous to assume that he was addressing me and I sat silent.
Then, from the driver’s seat: ‘His Lordship was asking you a question.’
‘Oh, fine, yes, fine….’ My voice trailed feebly away.
After that, they both chatted freely and inconsequentially and I made enough response to keep my end up. That night I told my mother about it. ‘They were both very nice to me,’ I said.
She snorted, and added in her soft Welsh accent: ‘Oh, and so you’re becoming an old Tory then, is it?’
Twenty years later I was again reporting his Lordship, but in very different circumstances. On the death of his father he had inherited the title of Marquess of Salisbury. He had also become a very influential Cabinet minister, making important pronouncements in the House of Lords. As for me, I had achieved my ambition of emulating H R S Philpott and had become the parliamentary correspondent of a national daily newspaper, frequently visiting the press gallery of the Upper House when Salisbury was speaking.
[We gratefully acknowledge the help of Maureen Attwooll and Dr Geoffrey Carter for their photographic research for this article.]
1, 2 and 4. Maureen Attwooll collection
3. From the collection of Dr Geoffrey Carter
5. Getty Images