Filson Young

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

Table of contents

6. The end of an age

Filson was back in Manchester before the end of July 1900, and his first job was to prepare his Guardian articles and letters from South Africa in book form. The Relief of Mafeking was rapidly published by Methuen as a companion volume to J.B.Atkins’s The Relief of Ladysmith which the same publisher had brought out a few months earlier. Tom Young had helped see The Relief of Ladysmith through the press, and with Filson on his way home, Scott discussed the Mafeking book with Tom. ‘Speaking broadly,’ Scott told Tom, ‘what I want to guard against is that nothing should appear in the public letters which would be open to serious objection if appearing in the paper.’(75) The Guardian‘s distaste for the South African war did not extend to criticizing British methods of warfare, and Scott and Tom agreed to get Filson to tone down his section on the looting and wrecking of farmhouses in the Orange Free State. I discussed this with the Guardian‘s historian David Ayerst, who maintained that neither Filson nor Atkins had in fact written anything in their dispatches that even a Conservative paper could not have printed. Scott’s letter of June 7 to Filson finally reached him (sent back to England from Cape Town), and on July 26 he wrote from Manchester to Scott in London: 


In writing so fully and plainly you gave proof of kindness and friendliness which I seem to have not deserved. Since I came home and have seen how things looked from this side I have seen how badly I have misrepresented myself in the affair … I did not get your second wire (‘remain for present’) until after I had received one from Amery making me an offer which I accepted at once ‘unless Guardian keeps me for campaign’. Then, you see, I considered myself bound to him unless I got that assurance from you. Even so, I was in the wrong.


I am slaving away to get my book ready for the publisher as I have promised it in a week … I am disappointed that so long a time has elapsed without my seeing you – I don’t feel that I have really come back. (76)


When The Relief of Mafeking came out at the end of September, Filson sent a copy to Kipling who wrote back:


Dear Young ‘un … It’s rather a good book I think … the account of the relief is ripping good and the Boer burial bit splendid. But I miss the word of sympathy in it with the luckless loyal Colonial and there is an air of fine philosophic detachment which gives me the impression that you had dropped into the war from another planet … that’s only a side show though and I make you all my compliments on your book. Now for stories! (77)


The reviews praised Filson’s narrative and descriptive powers but what impressed them most was his style with its avoidance of the more banal journalistic clichés of the day; ‘fine writing’ made more of an impression in 1900 than it usually does now. The Outlook and the Athenæum both compared Filson’s work favourably with another South African War book which came out at the same time, Winston Churchill’s Ian Hamilton’s March, dismissing Churchill’s work as shoddy and self-important. The Outlook, impressed by the same episode as Kipling, judged that:


A man may fairly be proud who, sent out to describe war and its glories, can write so truly and pathetically of common humanity as Mr Young describing the burial of two Yeomanry privates in the presence of the Boers. (78)


Though I doubt Scott would have appreciated the suggestion that he sent Filson out to describe the glories of war.


From August Filson was back at his old job as a free-lance contributor of theatre notices to the Guardian. When the Hallé concert season began in October he began reporting it for the Musical Standard as usual, but gave this up in December when the Guardian offered him regular work as a music critic. In this context he pulled off a rare coup just before Christmas when he reviewed a Kendrick Pyne Town Hall organ recital in which a composition of his own was played by his old teacher. All Guardian reviews were anonymous at the time, but the reviewer’s name is stated in a ledger of payments to free-lance contributors preserved in the Guardian‘s archive. The ordinary newspaper reader might have been forgiven for wondering why the reviewer skated so quickly over Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn to spend half his notice on the brief and onscure piece that introduced the recital – though he or she might have noticed that its composer shared the name of the author of The Relief of Mafeking. Filson wrote:


The first work on the programme … was an organ fugue by Mr Filson Young, a young musician who was once a pupil at the Manchester College of Music. It is a very respectable piece of work in the fugal style … [though at one point modernity creeps in with] an upward-straining passage of chromatic harmonies that would have made Bach’s hair stand on end, had he not worn a wig. … The entire work, which is of much greater value than the general run of organ compositions published at the present day, was brilliantly played by Dr Pyne and very well received by the audience.


whose numbers, the composer/reviewer/war correspondent concluded with satisfaction, greatly exceeded the number of seats in the hall. Was Scott ever aware of what had Filson had done? Maybe not, since Filson continued to review Pyne’s Saturday recitals regularly.  (79)


Now two events occurred which, more than Mafeking, marked a transition from one era to another. A hundred years ago, it seems, spin did not take precedence over factual accuracy to the extent that it does today [research Times reporting on New Years 1900 & 1901, and Guardian (own microfilm) on 1900]. At all events, the crowds that danced, sang and drank in Albert Square, Manchester on the night of December 31 1900 were there to celebrate the start of a new century. Near midnight Filson gazed with them through the fog at the face of the Town Hall clock as the minutes ticked away. When the clock struck the hour the crowd stood silent a moment then cheered, only for their cheers to be drowned by a cannonade of bells.


Three weeks later Queen Victoria was dead. You had to be nearly seventy to remember a time when she had not been queen. Scott sent Filson to London to cover the funeral, and he reported what he saw and heard in his usual vivid style. The streets were decked in clashing combinations of red, white, blue and purple, and the crowds lining the route were all in black. The roar of London sank to a quiet hum like bees in heather, and when the procession passed there was a cheer for the small sad figure of Lord Roberts, fresh from his apparent victories in South Africa. The coffin was carried on a simple gun- carriage under on white pall, on which lay crown, orb and sceptre like toys tossed aside by a tired child. Behind the gun-carriage rode the new king, Edward VII, looking tired and uncomfortable, while his cousin the German Kaiser sat straight as a statue. This was the great national ceremony; Filson then went to Windsor to cover the simple family burial at Frogmore. Watching the six-year-old boy who would one day briefly be King Edward VIII before abdicating to become Duke of Windsor, standing with his grandmother, Filson wrote prophetically:


Little Edward of York held the hand [of the new queen, Alexandra], the heir to all this amazing condition of human relationship that must be farcical or worthy according as the poor, exalted figurehead discovers and fulfils his duties or leaves them entangled among the meshes of his environment. (80)


Returning to Manchester he spent less time in the concert hall and the theatre, building instead on his new reputation as an expert on South Africa and military affairs. Two days before the Queen died he had given a lecture on ‘The Relief of Mafeking’ at Ancoats in Manchester, following Churchill and Atkins who had talked about their own war experiences a few weeks earlier in the rather grander Manchester setting of the Free Trade Hall. Among other things, Filon complained that most of the war books now flooding out from the publishers were badly written.



75 Minute of reply scribbled by Scott and dated ‘July 4′ on letter from T.M.Young to C.P.Scott of 3 July 1900.


76 FY to C.P.Scott, 26 July 1900.


77 Rudyard Kipling to FY, 3 Oct 1900; ‘the Boer burial bit’ refers to an episode described in The Relief of Mafeking (pp 197-201) in which the Boers buried two British soldiers with full ceremony. I mention it in passing on p xx above; see also my extract from The Outlook review below. A modern reader may find Filson’s description of the burial trite, over-written and over-long, though clearly it was important to him as the moment the futility of war first came home to him – not a popular attitude in an age more jingoistic than ours, and certainly not an attitude likely to impress Kipling.


78 The Outlook, 27 Oct 1900.


79 Manchester Guardian, 24 Dec 1900. Filson’s piece was not the one published by Breitkopf & Härtel three years before. That was in G Flat, while the present piece was introduced on the programme as ‘Introduction and Fugue in G Minor’. This was the title of the second piece Breitkopf published for Filson, in 1911, possibly the piece played by Pyne on this occasion.


80 Manchester Guardian, 5 Feb 1901.

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