Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents


I liked books about prostitutes, there were a good many then, and I vividly recollect a novel called The Sands of Pleasure written by a man called Filson Young. It must have been well written otherwise I would never have remembered it so perfectly to this day. It was about an Englishman’s love affair with an expensive demi-mondaine in Paris.

[Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (1979), p 63]

Jean Rhys, now remembered for her own fictional portrayals of women down on their luck in Paris, was in her teens when she came on The Sands of Pleasure in the local library on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

When it was first published in 1905 the book was condemned as immoral and thus, not surprisingly, sold well. Today, like the rest of Filson Young’s work, it has been forgotten.

‘Uncle Filson’ was my grandfather’s younger brother, but from my perspective as a small child he had died before the beginning of history. In fact, he was born a few months before Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, and died less than two years before the outbreak of Hitler’s war. I occasionally heard his name mentioned in conversation. My grandmother had never liked her brother-in-law. For one thing, she could never be sure how many times he’d been married, and she knew he called her ‘the juggernaut’ because she was clumsy and constantly knocking things over. He’d been heard to claim that when you went for a walk with her you had to run round the corners. Rude, but true; an exact description of her relentless progress.

Family anecdotes sometimes presented Filson as arrogant, snobbish and vulgar, sometimes as unconventional, energetic and resourceful: two sides of the same coin. Apparently he was once doing research in the Royal Library at Windsor when King Edward VII (whom he admired) came into the room.

‘Who are you?’ said the King.

‘Filson Young,’ said Filson promptly, ‘who are you?’

Another time, offended by the table manners of a man in a restaurant, he is supposed to have called out, ‘Waiter! Put a screen round that table!’ I’ve since discovered that this is a ‘floating’ anecdote that has also been attached to others, though of course this doesn’t necessarily make it any less accurate as an assessment of character. He was the sort of middle-class snob who’d tick you off if you said ‘maids’ when you should have said ‘servants’. Many heartily disliked him. But he could bluff his way past ticket-collectors, commissionaires and even admirals into places where he had no business to be – a virtue in a journalist.

There was a shelf of books he had written in my grandparents’ glass-fronted bureau-bookcase, but it was many years before I began to read them. I was surprised by their variety and vitality. War reportage from land and sea, musical criticism and reminiscences, a comprehensive guide to cars and motoring from 1904, an early study of the Titanic story, eyewitness descriptions of famous murder trials, ‘studies in the adventure and technique of broadcasting’ from 1933, and several volumes of articles and largely autobiographical essays mostly first published in weekly reviews, particularly in his earlier years. He had favoured a kind of self-conscious finely-wrought mandarin prose, but the sheer energy of his writing commanded respect, and he could be sensitive, passionate and incisive when he really cared about something. To mangle a number of metaphors, he had been no armchair aesthete in an ivory tower, but a man who cared for words but had never been afraid to get his hands dirty.

Finally, in 1973, I decided to find out everything I could about him. Some letters and other papers relating to Filson and his brother my grandfather had come down to me. Relatives, friends and colleagues of Filson then still alive had more papers and photos and stories to tell.

An advertisement in the press brought a few replies on the lines of: ‘Oh yes, wasn’t he the man who tried to get the BBC to broadcast racing odds back in the thirties?’ or ‘a vulgar, ostentatious man – gave his mistresses silver cigarette-cases’ or ‘what an inspiration – learning to fly at sixty with a weak heart and broadcasting a blow-by-blow account of his progress week by week; I remember it to this day.’

One of Filson’s publishers was still alive, and I interviewed him in the house near Iver in Buckinghamshire where he had lived since 1910: this was Martin Secker, then 95 years old and blind. His much younger wife, Sylvia, took me upstairs to a long low-ceilinged sitting-room lined with the books he had published. He was sitting straight-backed and immobile on the sofa, dressed in a smart tweed jacket and flannels, legs crossed with hands one on top of the other on his knee, a handsome man with abundant silver hair smoothly brushed and parted. Gentle and kindly, often smiling, he said he was glad to hear I wasn’t yet another academic demanding to know the exact reason he had allowed a particular comma on a particular page in one of D.H.Lawrence’s novels, or grilling him with questions on the lines of ‘Where were you and what were you doing on the evening of May 27, 1928?’

I was shown a humourlessly efficient letter recently received from an interrogator of this kind. Secker commented dryly, ‘I think he will understand why he doesn’t get an answer.’ Sylvia pushed a large table up to the sofa and brought in an old-fashioned tea with cucumber sandwiches and substantial cake. A black cat moved comfortably from my knee to the tea-table where it settled to watch us eat. ‘Why did you publishNew Leaves?’ I asked, referring to a collection of Filson’s essays Secker brought out in 1915 and reprinted in a cheaper edition twelve years later.

‘It was my own idea,’ he said. ‘I always admired his writing in the Saturday Review before the First War.’

He asked Sylvia to go and fetch a copy of New Leaves from the cellar. The book was slightly musty.

‘You can have it if you like,’ he said. ‘What’s it worth to you? Five pounds?’

I handed over the money, taking care not to admit I already had several copies (in better condition) at home.

‘I shall never forget Filson Young’s book on the Titanic,’ Secker went on. ‘Published by my friend Grant Richards. A minor masterpiece.’

Sylvia fetched it from a shelf behind him.

‘Not letting you have my copy of that.’

A piece of paper between its pages proved to be a typewritten carbon-copy of the original Agreement between author and publisher.

‘But you can have the Agreement if you like. What’s it worth to you? Five pounds?’

He asked how my biography of Filson was going and said firmly several times,

‘You’ll have no difficulty in finding a publisher.’

I left a draft of 54 pages, about Filson and his relations with Grant Richards, for Sylvia to read to him later. She drove me to the station, and said ‘Please come again. It does him so much good to keep in touch with the world.’ On returning the typescript to me by post some weeks later he wrote (in Sylvia’s hand): ‘I have no doubt at all that you will find no difficulty in finding a publisher for your book about Filson. I hope you will get on with it without any further delay and try to finish it by the end of the year.’ That was in late July, a quarter of a century ago.

I spent weeks in the British Library’s newspaper department at Colindale scanning the crumbling pages of the enormous tomes in which the many newspapers Filson had written for were buried, and leafed through early radio scripts and staff memos in the BBC’s written archives at Caversham (some documents removed before I was allowed to study the files because abusive of people then still living).

At Broadcasting House I heard his voice on fragments of early broadcasts preserved on disc, and at theDaily Express in Fleet Street I was just in time to rescue from the shredder a long pink envelope full of fragile cuttings marked ‘Young Filson Naval Expert DEAD’.

The Guardian’s archivist in Manchester revealed that though (as I knew) contributions to the paper were published anonymously around 1900, several handwritten ‘Literary Contribution Ledgers’ still existed that listed freelance contributors from the period with the titles of what they had written and how much they’d been paid for each item. From one of these ledgers I discovered that he’d once not only had a piece of music he’d written himself when a music student played in an important recital on the Town Hall organ, but had (anonymously) written a favourable review of his own music and its performance for the Manchester Guardian.

Across the Atlantic, the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign turned out to have an invaluable collection of 767 letters between Filson and his principal publisher Grant Richards and sent me the lot on a single microfilm.

In the British Library I found a book by Filson I’d never heard of, published under a pseudonym when he was only twenty. And a year after that, he’d had a Prelude and Fugue for organ published by the famous German music publishers Breitkopf & Härtel – rather like having your first attempt at a film-script produced by Hollywood today.

Before he was thirty he had participated in the Relief of Mafeking, been praised as a writer on music, and analysed the state of early Edwardian Ireland. He had worked as a journalist for masters as diverse as the mandarin Liberal C. P. Scott’s Manchester Guardian and the iconoclastic Northcliffe’s Daily Mail, and spent a year as jobbing editor of one of the many cultural and political weeklies that vied for readers in the London of the time.

While doing this, and with the motor-car barely out of its cradle, he found time to research and write the encyclopedic The Complete Motorist (1904), a handbook which, repeatedly updated, remained a valued popular guide for over a decade.

A year later, for the adventurous if impecunious young publisher Grant Richards he wrote the novel that was to make a lasting impression on the adolescent Jean Rhys. The Sands of Pleasure eventually sold nearly a hundred thousand copies and there was talk of making it into a film.

But Filson Young had written too much too quickly, and by his early thirties he seemed burnt out. Then, from nowhere, came the 9/11 of its day, the Titanic disaster. Aided and abetted by Grant Richards, he wrote Titanic at breakneck speed a beautifully shaped account of what happened, remarkable accurate considering that it hit the bookstalls only 37 days after the ship went down.

When the First World War came he wangled his way into the Navy, and in January 1915 watched the naval battle of the Dogger Bank in the North Sea from a precarious position high up a mast on board Admiral Beatty’s flagship the battle-cruiser Lion, which was so severely damaged by German shells that she came within an ace of being blown up. This was the first clash between the fast, massive, powerful and yet dangerously vulnerable steel dinosaurs known as ‘battle cruisers’ and he had firm and controversial views on their famous vulnerablity. Almost as interesting: he was onboard as something like a companion to the admiral. Later in the war he was a correspondent on the Western Front before representing the Daily Mail and later theTimes in neutral Spain, where he doubled as an Admiralty spy. 

Typically he was in the room when two titans, Churchill and Fisher, had a fierce argument about the role of war correspondents, and how much access they should be allowed.

After the war he edited the political and cultural weekly Saturday Review for nearly three years. In the new world of the twenties he built it into one of the best cultural and political weeklies of its day, only to be unceremoniously sacked for telling his employer that the only function of a newspaper proprietor was to sign cheques.

Never mind; he had just met the head of the fledgling BBC, John Reith, and during the next decade and a half he had a considerable influence on the nationwide development of radio broadcasting, the new medium of the twenties. He became an official BBC programmes adviser.

Filson wrote and presented programmes of his own, including a long series of pioneering outside broadcasts from Cornwall and a running commentary on learning to fly in late middle age.

Always a firm believer in the power and indeed the duty of broadcasting to educate, it was he who had the idea that later developed into the ‘Reith Lectures’.

Every week from 1930 to 1936 the Radio Times carried a signed article by him, for a readership of up to two million.

Drinking too much and becoming a fine old curmudgeon, he died of heart trouble at the age of 61. This was in April 1938, a period of growing international crisis in Europe, and by the time the Second World War was over, he’d been largely forgotten. Yet his name is still constantly turning up in one connection or another. This book aims to fit the various pieces together, and to present a rounded portrait of ‘a splendid descriptive writer’1 and his response to a rapidly changing world.

There’s no deliberate fiction in this book. I’ve invented no dialogue and have nowhere dressed up guesswork as fact. Where I speculate I say so. This is not from pedantry, but because I believe what ‘really’ happened is far more relevant to us than anything I could invent, even if I do realise that no biography, no matter how comprehensive and detailed, can avoid being selective and subjective.

The BBC planned to use him as their first in-house consultant on TV programmes, but before he could start he died of heart failure at sixty-one, leaving a legacy of debt.

One likes to think that today an operation might have given him many more active years, perhaps even a chance for tranquil recollection in old age – if such a man would ever have been capable of more than a few moments of tranquillity.

Filson Young was twice married and had innumerable affairs (he is said to have been bisexual). By no means everyone liked him, but many of those who did remained faithful friends. In the new world war he did not quite live to see, his two sons died in action as RAF pilots, one at El Alamein and the other in Burma.

Though sometimes cruel and chauvinistic in his own relations with women, Filson hated the conventional pieties that cramped and stunted the lives of women his day, weighting divorce heavily in favour of men.

In an afterword toFred and Edie (1999), a fictional account of the terrible ordeal of Edith Thompson who was hanged for murder in January 1923 after her lover, Frederick Bywaters, had killed her husband, Jill Dawson pays tribute to Filson’s passionate defence of the unfortunate woman as ‘the most affecting of all accounts’.

That, in a way, brings us full circle. Praising Fred and Edie, the Whitbread Award judges declared: 

Dawson has discovered a female language that picks up where Jean Rhys left off.  And we can argue that Rhys started where Filson Young left off.

Filson championed Thompson’s dignity and integrity in his long introduction to the case for the Notable Trials’ series, holding the view that in effect Edith had been hanged not so much for murder as for ‘immorality’. It was one of several such essays. And there, you see how wide ranging FY’s work was: his contributions to Notable Trials are still intelligent as well as utterly compelling.

Even now, in the twenty-first century, Filson will not quite allow us to forget him. A daughter of one of his cousins recently stated on the internet her belief (perhaps her hope) that he may in fact have been her father:

Filson Young was my godfather, also my father’s cousin, and I bear his name. Unfortunately I never knew him because, so family folklore has it, he was thrown out of the house by my father when I was a small baby for trying to seduce my mother. Naturally I can’t help wondering if he’d succeeded at an earlier date because I grew up to be an artist and a writer – Diana Fassino (née Diana Mary Filson Young, at <www.knowledge

Richard North and I both rather hope this online effort will produce even more FY material.

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  1. David Ayerst Garvin of the Observer(1985), 56 []