Filson Young

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

Table of contents

8. “The Daily Mail”

At the beginning of 1903 Alfred Harmsworth, dynamic creator and proprietor of Britain’s first important popular daily, the Daily Mail, was in his late thirties, and constantly on the lookout for able and energetic young men to run his papers. His latest idea was to launch the first daily specially for women, to be called the Daily Mirror, a daring idea which didn’t come off. Filson first met Harmsworth about this time, remembering twenty years later: ‘[He was] an engaging, distracting, inspiring and bewildering influence … I loved him at sight; he deafened his friends with my praises.’(92) But for the moment Filson was still at Lathbury’s side since, as we have seen, the old man’s friends had rallied round and raised enough money to enable him to start The Pilot again a month after it apparently folded in November 1902 (a stay of execution only as it turned out – The Pilot finally died in May 1904). But in the spring of 1903 Filson accepted an offer from Harmsworth to edit Page Four of the Daily Mail, the so-called ‘literary’ page where each day two or three articles on general subjects appeared next to the leaders. The editor-in-chief was Tom Marlowe, adept at handling the unpredictable Harmsworth, Filson’s new colleagues included Charles Hands, severely wounded during the dash to Mafeking three years before.

One of the regular contributors to the literary page was Edgar Wallace.


Harmsworth was well known for his irregular methods, one of which was to appoint two people to the same job and leave them to fight it out. He had also been impressed by another young journalist, Philip Gibbs, and had made him editor of Page Four too. Gibbs duly reported for work to Harmsworth at Carmelite House:


[Harmsworth] held out his hand but seemed doubtful of my identity.


‘Let me see,’ he said. ‘Oh yes, I remember. Didn’t I ask you to join us?’


‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘You offered me the editorship of Page Four.’


He looked surprised.


‘Did I? Well, that’s a little awkward. I’ve given it to a brilliant young fellow named Filson Young.’


My spirits sank to zero …


‘Perhaps I had better get Young to come down,’ said Harmsworth.


He rang the bell, and told the boy who answered it to ask Mr Filson Young to come down.


A tall, good looking, pale-faced young man gave me a flabby hand when I was introduced to him.


‘This is Philip Gibbs,’ said Harmsworth. ‘He tells me I offered him the editorship of Page Four.’


Filson Young looked surprised, and gave a little uneasy laugh.


‘I’m afraid he’s going to be disappointed.’


‘Well, he can work under you for a time,’ said Harmsworth. ‘He can write plenty of articles for you. Later on perhaps – one never knows – he may take over the editorship of Page Four.’


It was a suggestion to Filson Young that he might be ousted from his chair unless he took care. It was an awkward situation, but I must say that Filson Young behaved very well to me and seemed to like the stuff I wrote for him. I managed to get in about two articles a week, and some time afterwards I took the editorial chair when Young was sent off to Ireland to write a series of articles, which he did brilliantly, and then was given other work during my time on the Mail. (93)


The incident made such an impression on Gibbs that he described it in print twice. The account above was published eight years after Filson’s death, but there is an earlier one, published when Filson was very much alive and editing the Saturday Review. In this earlier account Filson is a ‘tall, thin, pale, handsome, and extremely haughty young gentleman’ who saunters in with an icy ‘Good afternoon’:


‘Oh Young,’ said Harmsworth in his suavest voice, ‘this is a newcomer, named Philip Gibbs. I half promised him the editorship of Page Four.’


Here he tapped Young on the shoulder and added in a jocular way:


‘And if you’re not very careful, young man, he may edit Page Four!’


Young offered me a cold hand, and there was not a benediction in his glance. I was put under his orders as a writer, as heir presumptive to his throne. (94)


Despite this unpromising start, Filson and Gibbs worked well together, even if each considered himself the real editor of Page Four. The story went that every time either of the two rose from the Page Four editorial chair and left the room, the other sat down in it, so the one who spent most time as editor was the one who could resist the ‘imperious calls of nature’ longest. History doesn’t relate which had the strongest bladder, but Harmsworth was highly amused. (95)


In the Daily Mail, Filson was able to write on subjects that interested him, such as Horace Plunkett’s programme of agrarian reform for Ireland (at this time the whole country was still under the British Crown), and Queen Draga of Serbia, an adventuress who overreached herself and was murdered in June 1903. He admired her for her dramatic style: at 30 she had turned herself into a queen by ensnaring and marrying a 17-year-old king, and a remark Filson applied to her could equally well be applied to himself: ‘Your true adventurer in life must be for ever stepping, never marking time.’ (96)


That summer both Filson and Tom were sent to Ireland by their papers as special correspondents. Tom reported passionately but astringently to the Guardian on the Gaelic League and the depressed agricultural condition of the country. He had probably returned to Manchester before Filson set out in his car on the road from London to Holyhead towards the end of June. Gibbs claims that the Daily Mail sent Filson to Ireland to ‘write a series of articles’. Filson did indeed make use of the trip for that purpose, but his principal brief was to cover the two big events of the summer, the 1903 international motor race for the Gordon-Bennett Trophy, and the first state visit to Ireland of the new King and Queen, Edward VII and Alexandra.


In Dublin on Wednesday July 1, Filson watched drivers and cars from Europe and America gather in Dublin for what had become the greatest event of the international motoring year. Winning the 1902 race, from Paris to Innsbruck, the British driver S.F. Edge had broken a hitherto total French monopoly of motor racing. Edge’s win gave Britain the chance to host the 1903 race. Racing on public roads in England was forbidden by law, but Ireland was another matter. So a circuit of just over 100 miles, starting and finishing at Ballyshannon (between Athy and Kilcullen in Co. Kildare), was planned to run through the three counties of Kildare, Carlow and Leix (Laois). The race itself was next day, July 2. The eleven competitors came from France, Germany, the USA and Britain. All three British drivers came to grief: Charles Jarrott and Stocks crashed while Edge was forced to retire with tyre trouble – British tyres were too weak to carry powerful British cars. But the names of Jarrott and Edge will occur in this story again.


Filson now had three weeks to kill before the arrival of the King and Queen. First he exchanged the sound and fury of motor-racing for the total silence of a Trappist monastery at Mount Melleray in County Waterford, describing the experience for the Daily Mail. Then he drove north and found Belfast to be a city of ‘arrested prosperity’. In Donegal he pondered the discrepancy between two Irelands, the prosperous east – an alien prosperity, because due to England – and the poverty-stricken west. Conversations with fishermen by an altar and holy well on the shores of Lough Gill in Sligo (near W.B.Yeats’s ‘Isle of Innisfree’) convinced him that Irish priests were on the whole admirable men, but that the Roman Catholic Church itself was a pernicious influence, its crowning achievement the ‘complete and awful chastity of the people’. (97)


He was back in Dublin for the arrival of the King and Queen on July 21, and noted that the crowds were interested rather than enthusiastic. For four days the sovereigns busily appeared together or separately all over the capital. Queen Alexandra naturally visited Alexandra College, the principal girls’ school, where Filson found


a perfect festival of femininity. It was over all too soon, and the gracious presence was withdrawn; but oh! the noise of the girls when the last sword of the last aide-de-camp had clanked down the stairs. (98)


In Phoenix Park (where just over twenty years earlier Fenians had stabbed to death Gladstone’s Chief Secretary for Ireland and his assistants with surgical knives) the sovereigns reviewed troops before a ‘brilliant social crowd’; the King beamed, the skies beamed, the people beamed and shouted and cheered, and Filson exclaimed ‘Really, Ireland seemed a very desirable country this morning.’(99)


The next week saw a royal progress through the country. To Filson’s delight the King and Queen passed through Portaferry on their way to Strangford, and next day unveiled a new statue of Queen Victoria in Belfast before embarking in the royal yacht Victoria and Albert for Galway. The newspapermen followed in half a dozen boats, and from Galway the little fleet rounded the south-western tip of Ireland to reach Cork and Queenstown (Cobh), where the King read out his farewell to Ireland and knighted the agrarian reformer Horace Plunkett. The royal couple were given a great firework display as a send-off, then the Victoria and Albert transported them to the more familiar and relaxing pleasures of Cowes. In Filson’s opinion the visit had been a personal triumph for King Edward, though he was sure short visits of this kind did nothing to convince the Irish people that their rulers really cared for them; for that, some part of the royal family needed to live more permanently in Ireland.


Filson spent the rest of the summer putting his impressions of Ireland into book form. The result, Ireland at the Cross Roads, was a step forward in that it was not merely a collection of pieces that had already appeared in newspapers, but contained a good deal of previously unpublished material as well. It also marked Filson’s first connection with the ambitious young publisher Grant Richards, who was to play an important part in his life for the next ten years. But those who had followed Filson’s articles in the Daily Mail would not have been surprised by the main themes of Ireland at the Cross Roads: the crippling influence of the Roman Catholic Church (though Filson claimed to write as neither Protestant nor Catholic) and the promise

of Plunkett’s agrarian schemes. The crossroads of the title was the choice facing Ireland as Filson saw it: extinction (through emigration) or renascence. The Anglo-Irish novelist George Moore praised him for speaking out:


He is the first to tell the truth, that it is of little use to teach people to spray potatoes or to pack eggs whose eyes are set on the kingdom of Heaven. (100)


The Times paid tribute to the book’s ‘high literary quality’ while The World particularly admired a passage tracing the influence of the sea on the inhabitants of western Ireland and suggested that Filson’s writing bore comparison with the great masters of English prose, in this instance being ‘not merely a piece of exquisite language, but the expression of a simple and profoundly true thought which has not occurred to any previous writer’.(101) All this must have been music to the ears of the ‘haughty young gentleman’, still only 27. Everything his pen touched seemed to turn instantly to gold – music criticism, war reporting, and now a study of one of the most important and controversial parts of the British Empire.


Before the publication of Ireland at the Cross Roads Filson undertook another enquiry for the Daily Mail – his last, as it happened. This was a study of conditions in English prisons, and the first example of his interest in criminology. It appeared in the Mail in seven parts during October 1903 under the title ‘Houses of Bondage: Impressions of Prison Life Today’. He visited Portland, Parkhurst and a ‘Borstal’ for young offenders, considered the position of both prisoners and warders, and the death penalty, and came to the conclusion that society should try to mark it harder to fall and easier to amend. But his days of battling with Philip Gibbs for the editorial chair of Page Four were nearly over. At the end of 1903 he was offered the editorship of an important political and cultural weekly review, The Outlook, a paper similar in format to The Pilot, but politically much further to the right.




92 Saturday Review 19 August 1922 [presumably; check date]


93 Gibbs Pageant of the Years (1946) [ref]  The last sentence seems a little ambiguous – was Gibbs given other work during his time on the Mail or was Filson given other work during Gibbs’s time on the Mail? In fact, apart from a solitary book review in December, and possibly the anonymous review of his cousin Helen Chisholm’s translation (from German) of the political activist Leo/Lev Deutsch’s Sixteen Years in Siberia on 9 November, Filson seems to have written nothing more for the Daily Mail at this time.


94 Gibbs Adventures in Journalism (1923), [ref]


95 Greenwall Northcliffe (1957), 131.


96 Daily Mail 12 June 1903.


97 Daily Mail 22 July 1903.


98 Daily Mail 23 July 1903.


99 Daily Mail 24 July 1903.


100 Daily Mail 24 Nov 1903.


101 [date not known]

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