Filson Young

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

Table of contents

43. Life at St Ives

During the last fifteen years of his life, Filson’s base in Cornwall was his unmarried sister Ben (Isabel)’s semi-detached stone house ‘Carbis Water’, on the main road at Carbis Bay, just over a mile from St Ives, where his other sister Janie lived at 28 The Terrace with her doctor husband Fred Matthew. Ben had inherited her mother’s gentleness; she was the sort of person who would rescue a drowning wasp and give it a chance to dry its wings. She made a modest living looking after children whose parents had to spend long periods abroad; some of them came to think of her as a second mother, because she respected their opinions, talked to them as equals and was sensitive to their feelings. She also inherited her mother’s role as the erratic Filson’s closest friend and supporter. Unlike most people, she saw him as niggling and mean in small things but generous in big things, and they seldom quarrelled. She was his ‘darling’, but being a child-minder by profession, she had no hesitation in being angry if he came in late for meals she had cooked, as he often did when he had been out in his boat.

By 1930 Filson’s son Billy was ten; he would sometimes stay with his aunt Isabel (children were not allowed to call her Ben), and sometimes with Janie and Fred.

His younger brother Richard did not come to Cornwall at all for many years, being in the custody of his mother Vera. But Billy was never short of playmates on his visits, what with Isabel’s constant supply of ‘abandoned’ children. Of these, the one who remained closest to her was Elizabeth Addison, who still liked to go to ‘Carbis Water’ for summer holidays even after her parents returned from their duties in British West Africa, where he father was a District Commissioner in Sierra Leone. For the children, Filson’s arrival from London in his AC car ‘Prudence’ was always a great event. He would organize picnics and excursions to Godrevy lighthouse or Hayle estuary in his 14-foot former fishing boat ‘Irene’ (the final ‘-e’ had to be pronounced), which had an inboard Singer car engine. When he took them out in ‘Prudence’ he liked to thrill and frighten them by driving at apparently reckless speed through the country lanes. If he saw a car ahead, he’d announce, ‘We’ll catch this mouse!’ and overtake the offending vehicle as quickly as possible. On Sundays he would drive them to St Hilary, and the children would compete to be the first to see the church spire appear among the trees. But the game Billy and Elizabeth liked best was played after lunch when Filson always had a siesta. He would lie in bed pretending to talk in his sleep, muttering nonsense and outrageous comments on people they knew. Their part was to keep straight faces, because the minute a sound escaped either of them he would stop and pretend to snore and the game would be over. In the evenings he would organize readings from Dickens; he read well himself and insisted others should learn to read well too and not go too fast. In old age, Elizabeth remembered how deeply he had cared for Billy. On one occasion he paid £1 for Billy to go out in a speedboat for five minutes, and when the man brought him back after three and a half minutes Filson made such a scene that Billy got a free additional trip of much more than five minutes. But the row had upset Billy, and seeing this Filson put an arm round his shoulders and said gently, ‘Airmen never cry.’ At this time one of Filson’s aims was to promote civil aviation on behalf of his old Ulster acquaintance the Marquess of Londonderry, Secretary of State for Air in the 1931-35 ‘National’ government headed by Ramsay Macdonald, and Billy had been taken up on several flights. There was a gentle side to Filson; his violence towards women seems to have been spontaneous rather than calculated or sadistic. He was a lifelong opponent of corporal punishment for children, more unusual in a man of his generation than it would be today, and on one occasion he even asked Bernard Walke to go and make sure that Billy wasn’t being beaten at school. Although he was ready to be reckless in his car, he couldn’t bear anyone else to expose Billy to physical danger, and was once furious when Elizabeth, three and a half years older than Billy, took the boy down a mineshaft. As they got older, a sexual element came into entered into this three-sided relationship. Filson made passes at Elizabeth who rejected him, but her step-daughter has no doubt that Elizabeth was Billy’s first lover (114).

But, even in Cornwall, there was work to do. Filson had to listen to radio programmes for the BBC, and once a week shut himself up in his little study at ‘Carbis Water’ to write his column for the Radio Times. He took an interest in passing entertainers who showed talent and sometimes found them work with the BBC. One group he helped performed regularly in a tent, and included the singer-guitarist Elton Hayes, whose recording of  Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.became famous twenty years later.

Filson stood about five-foot-eleven; by the early thirties he was stout though still light on his feet. The cheeks whose pallor had impressed Philip Gibbs at the Daily Mail in 1903 were ruddier now. He dressed with care and had strong views on colour combinations, often juxtaposing blues and greens in a way not at all fashionable in the 1930s; his favourite suit at this time was made from an unusual saxe-blue (115) Harris tweed. He liked the company of young people but hated to be addressed as ‘sir’; the last thing he wanted was to grow old gracefully. When his sister Janie’s son introduced him to a girl-friend as ‘my uncle’ he snapped: ‘In future you introduce me as Filson Young or I shan’t speak to you again’ (116).


114  Rose Dixon in conversation with SM, 15 Aug 2003.

115  Light blue with a greyish tinge.

116  Dr Patrick Matthew in conversation with SM, 22-24 March 1976.

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