Filson Young

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

Table of contents

31. Attacking the Admiralty

In July 1919, not long after Filson got back to London from Spain ?for the last time?, a big peace parade crossed Trafalgar Square on its way to Buckingham Palace. Filson, wearing a naval uniform he was no longer entitled to, marched near the front of the procession, and the story goes that when, about eight abreast, they reached the triple Admiralty Arch at the entrance to the Mall, they suddenly realized that no one had told them how to divide to pass through it. On the spur of the moment, Filson planted himself in front of the central arch and signalled to each section as it arrived to divide in two through the two side arches (1). Whether or not this family story is true, the big photograph of the Peace Parade in the Illustrated London News of 26 July 1919 does show one man in naval uniform, together with six others, standing under the central arch facing the procession so that it has to pass right and left. The watching crowds completely fill Trafalgar Square and line the Mall. The man who had entered Mafeking and seen the funeral of Queen Victoria must have been in his element.

Filson’s son Billy was born on July 11, and christened in October on the other side of Trafalgar Square at St Martin-in-the-Fields. The Rev H.R.L.‘Dick’ Sheppard baptized the baby with salt water brought specially from the North Sea, in the presence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty (as he now was) and Sir Percy Loraine. These two sponsors also gave the baby their names: William David Loraine Filson Young. Nelson, high on his column hardly more than a stone’s throw away, had his back to the proceedings. A smart ‘society’ portrait of Vera and Billy had appeared in the Daily Mirror in September, and the christening was announced in the Court News section of the Times.

Still living at 124 Ebury Street, Filson had decided it was time for him to lead a smart society life. At forty-three he had settled down with a family of his own. He had worked hard as author and journalist for more than twenty years and his work had been found good; he’d had an active war. Life owed him something – now was the time to begin reaping the rewards of what he had done. He and Vera set up house in style with a cook-housekeeper, possibly a manservant, certainly a nanny for the baby. He also had a secretary, Mary Bates. Among the amenities of the house was a chamber organ he’d had specially designed and built for him by a well-known organ builder, Thomas Lewis, who in Filson’s opinion had solved the problem of getting pure organ tone and ‘prompt speech’ from pipes scaled down to the dimensions of an ordinary room. Filson’s private organ had two manuals, complete pedal and four stops, and ran on an electric motor. It also had ebony and ivory keys that had come from an old organ formerly in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course to support himself and his family he had to work. Before the war he had edited and introduced the case of the Seddons for Harry Hodge’s ‘Notable Trials’ series, and now he turned to the story of Crippen. At the time of Crippen’s arrest for the murder of his wife in 1910, Filson in the Saturday Review had fiercely attacked the captain of the ship in which Crippen and his mistress Ethel le Neve had tried to escape to America. Captain Kendall and Lord Northcliffe – who was equally to blame, in Filson’s opinion – had used the ship’s wireless to keep Daily Mail readers entertained with a day-by-day account of the crossing, while Crippen and Miss le Neve had no idea their disguise had been penetrated and that they would be arrested the moment they set foot in New York. Filson’s point was simply that, no matter what they had done, their love for one another was worthy of respect and should not have been held up for ridicule behind their backs, so to speak, in the British press. Now, in 1919, he wrote a sympathetic and balanced introduction to the case which has often been considered a model of its kind. The Trial of H.H.Crippen, a transcript of the court proceedings with Filson’s introduction, was first published in 1920. Filson was sure that in editing the transcript and writing the introduction he was making an important contribution to justice. He had once pointed out (in the Pall Mall Gazette, 27 March 1914) that the ‘Notable Trials’ series had helped reopen the case of Oscar Slater, though in fact it was to be many more years before the innocence of this unfortunate supposed murderer was finally established.

1920 is an unusual year in the story of Filson’s life, in that there is very little record of what he was doing – or where his income was coming from [activities in Spain connected with a business venture of the Duke of Westminster??] – until October, when he got down to serious work on his long-contemplated book about his naval experiences with Beatty and the battle cruisers. In doing so he was well aware that his own memories of these events would present a lop-sided view of what had happened; for instance, there would be a great deal about the battle cruisers, and Lion in particular, and almost nothing about the light cruisers and destroyers whose role had been equally important. With this in mind, he asked the Admiralty for permission to study official documents relevant to the story, and offered to submit anything he wrote to their censorship. But Their Lordships Commissioners of the Admiralty regretted they could make no exception in his case to the rule that had been laid down, that the only person who could be permitted to see these official documents was Sir Julian Corbett, who had been appointed on behalf of H. M. Government by the Committee of Imperial Defence to write the official History of the war from the point of view of the Navy. This response, Filson commented, was an example of a state of affairs highly characteristic both of the Admiralty and of the official British attitude towards anything in the nature of history and literature. He was thrown back on his own resources.

He reproduced almost word for word the seven articles on life in the Fleet he had written for the Times in 1915-16, and was now able to add the story of how he joined the Fleet himself and give detailed accounts of the two actions he had taken part in, the Dogger Bank battle and the Scarborough raid. To this he added a bombshell for the Admiralty: the two versions of Beatty’s official dispatch after the Dogger Bank battle, the version released to the public by the Admiralty and the original version written by Beatty, so that he was able to show that the Admiralty had made considerable changes, doctoring the facts to suit their own propaganda purposes. In April 1921 the Times serialized the parts of the book describing the two battles and printed both versions of the Dogger Bank dispatch. On April 28 Cassell published the book under the title With the Battle Cruisers (it was also published in the United States the same year by Little, Brown as With Beatty in the North Sea). Filson made sure that a pre-publication copy reached everyone who mattered, and the book immediately created a stir in official circles. Beatty told Filson he would read it with the greatest interest and write again when he had digested it – ‘In any case it will be an additional memento of our friendship and cooperation during what was a very eventful and stirring Period’ – but he seems not to have written again, so perhaps they met and discussed it. Northcliffe read it, and so did Churchill (Fisher had died in 1920). The Foreign Secretary (Lord Curzon) and Lord Haldane (a former Secretary for War and Lord Chancellor) not only read it but promised instant action in Parliament. Three days before publication Haldane wrote to Filson:

I have now read through, from cover to cover, your brilliant book. I think that it will be largely studied, and that you have rendered a very real service to the cause of naval reform.

The moral of the book is the necessity of a thinking branch, highly organised, at the Admiralty, and the undue predominance there of civilian administrators and of aged conservative sailors …

But the real point is the organisation of the D… [illegible] Branch, and the necessity of freedom of hand for the First Sea Lord. Here your book is full of valuable first hand testimony. We must move about this. I have got first place for a debate on the question for Wed. May 4th in the House of Lords, where I have given notice of a motion to call attention to the subject, and to ask for papers. I shall be careful not to refer to either yourself or Beatty, for I might get you into trouble. (2)

Nonetheless Haldane did mention Filson’s name in the May 4 debate, coupling it with those of Jellicoe and the architect of the German battle fleet Grand Admiral Tirpitz, who had also produced memoirs of the war at sea. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, asked in the same debate whether the account of the Dogger Bank battle given in the book could be taken as correct, to which the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty replied that it could, thus relieving Beatty of responsibility for the Admiralty’s misleading version of his dispatch. Curzon told Filson:

You have in my opinion done a national service by giving D.B.’s dispatch to the world in its original form. I have pressed the Admiralty again and again to try to get them to publish all such and kindred information but the policy of hush is quite invincible. There appear to be so many senior officers’ reputations at stake that it is all but hopeless to expect the truth about anything as far as the R[oyal] N[avy] is concerned.

I shall certainly do what I can to interest people in your book and I shall probably have to quote from it frequently when trying to speak in this place.

I only hope that the book will be the huge success that it deserves.

Jim Hacker planning to outwit Sir Humphrey. Complimentary letters continued to pour in. Among the naval experts, Carlyon Bellairs, MP, called it wonderful and H.W.Wilson prophesied it would live long. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle added to the chorus:

There are some passages in it which one could never forget. It is a mercy that you were there to record such things. They will now live.

The press was full of praise too. Garvin’s Observer saw Filson as an impressionist whose eager curiosity had brought a harvest of remarkable observations and statements for the captivation of his readers, though it censured him for being too quick to criticize the Admiralty and senior officers. But most reviewers considered these criticisms justified. The Daily Express took offence at the bit where Churchill and Fisher tried to out-boast each other about how easily they could handle the press, and commented, ‘the Press is not “handled” so easily as offending passages in an admiral’s dispatches.’ The Sunday Times liked a ‘quiet quaint beauty of style’ peculiar to the author, while the Nation and Athenaeum thought Filson’s descriptions of the sea were comparable to a painting by Whistler. But the book-buying public was less enthusiastic. The Saturday Review, writing when the book had been out four months, offered a reason for this:

It should not excite our wonder that a community, thoroughly weary of war before it was over, should find it hard to work up interest in the histories that tell us why it went to so wearisome a length. There is no comfort to be got from such studies. For instance, to be persuaded that our enormous, invincible, and almost divinely gallant Navy really failed, would, for many an Englishman, poison the remainder of his life. We must not, therefore, be surprised if Mr Filson Young’s story of his fascinating life ‘With the Battle Cruisers’ has been received with far less consideration and applause than it deserves. (3)

Nor could the Sir Humphreys of this world be expected to respond enthusiastically. The Nation and Athenaeum saw Filson as:

an observant and thinking man who is by nature, one guesses, made lonely and suspect because of his acute ironic, and independent mind; for the world does not take warmly to its bosom the clever looker-on who can neither be cajoled nor intimidated. (4)

One letter which arrived at the end of May will have given special pleasure:

Me propongo leer este libro con la mayor atención, pues como Vd. sabe, sigo siempre con el mayor interés cuanto con la Marina se relaciona y muy particolarmente todo lo que se refiere á la Gran Bretaña, hacia la que me animan sentimientos de admiración y de verdadera simpatia …

Espero que pronto tendré la occasión de verle por España de donde creo guarda un buen recuerdo.

Reciba una vez mas las seguridades de mi aprecio y buena amistad.

Alfonso RH (5)

In May, at Max Beerbohm’s one-man show at the Leicester Galleries, Leicester Square, the public had another chance to see his 1913 caricature of Filson sitting at his writing table quill pen in one hand, the other limply raised, beaky face turned fastidiously away from the onlooker. There would be a reproduction of it in Beerbohm’s collection A Survey published later the same year (among the other notable figures pilloried in this volume was King Alfonso, well known for his English Queen and his addiction to sailing. And, though he can’t have realized its full significance at the time, it was also in May 1921, a year before the founding of the BBC, that Filson published his first article on broadcasting (6). What had caught his attention was the distorted reception of music on the first primitive radio receivers.


1 John R.H.Chisholm (11 March 1976) and V.Isabel H.Young in conversation with SM.

2 Lord Haldane to FY, 25 April 1921.

It may be instructive to compare these 1921 reactions with a more recent professional assessment of Filson’s book: Perhaps it was too early [in 1921] for an unsponsored “warts and all” account of the battle cruisers’ activities, but, if the quality of With the Battle Cruisers is any measure, it is a pity that Young did not remain with the Royal Navy in such a privileged position for the duration of the war. Beatty and the North Sea deserve their Boswell, and an unbroken narrative of the events of the 1914-18 war at sea would have contributed much to future generations’ understanding of the period. -Commodore James Goldrick (Royal Australian Navy), in his introduction to the 1986 and 2002 reprints of With the Battle Cruisers by the US Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland and Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, respectively. Among other appointments, Admiral Goldrick served as Commander of the multinational Maritime Interception Force enforcing UN sanctions on Iraq during February- June 2002.

3 27 August 1921.

4 30 April 1921.

5 I intend to read this book with the greatest attention since, as you know, I always follow with the greatest interest anything to do with naval matters, and most particularly everything relating to Great Britain, for which I feel admiration and true affection…

I hope I shall soon have the opportunity to see you in Spain, of which I believe you have happy memories.

Allow me to assure you once more of my appreciation and sincere friendship.

Alfonso K[ing of] S[pain]

6 The Times [date] May 1921

Be Sociable, Share!