Henry Hamilton Fyfe

Henry Hamilton Fyfe

Henry Hamilton Fyfe, the son of James Hamilton Fyfe and Mary Jonas, was born on 28th September, 1869. After finishing his education at Fettes School, he joined his father on the staff of The Times. As a young man he was a strong supporter of the Conservative Party and acted as a special constable at the Bloody Sunday demonstration at Trafalgar Square.

After working as the theatre critic of The Times, Fyfe became editor of The Morning Advertiser in 1902. The youngest newspaper editor in Britain, Fyfe brought in several innovations including a gossip column and making recently published books into news stories.

Alfred Harmsworth was impressed by Fyfe's work and the following year he appointed him editor of his newspaper, The Daily Mirror. At the time, circulation was down to 40,000, and was still falling. Fyfe made extensive changes to the newspaper. As Fyfe later explained, he main appeal was to those who wanted to read their newspaper on the way to work: "Packed in tram, train, or omnibus, standing up perhaps and holding on to a strap with one hand, they required in the other, not a journal to stir thought or supply serious information, but one to entertain them, occupy their minds pleasantly, prevent then for thinking. It was easier to look at pictures than to read print. The news was displayed and worded in a manner that made assimilation simple. Everything in the Daily Mirror was calculated to be easy of absorption by the most ordinary intelligence."

Fyfe also experimented with using different types of photographs on the front-page. On 2nd April, 1904, the Daily Mirror published a whole page of pictures of Edward VII and his children, Henry, Albert and Mary. This was a great success and Fyfe now realised the British public had an intense interest in photographs of the Royal Family.

Another successful innovation was the sponsorship of special events. In June, 1904, the Daily Mirror paid D. M. Weigal to drive a twenty-horse power Talbot on a 26,000 mile motor run. A month later the newspaper offered a hundred guinea prize for the first person to swim the Channel.

In August 1905, the Daily Mirror began to pioneer the idea of the "exclusive". The first example was the "exclusive" interview with Lord Minto, the new Viceroy of India. This approach was popular and later that year the circulation of the newspaper had reached 350,000.

After four years with the newspaper Alfred Harmsworth offered Fyfe the chance of becoming special correspondent to his most popular newspaper, the Daily Mail. This appealed to Fyfe who had a great love of travelling. As Fyfe explained in his autobiography, "I was the special correspondent with the largest newspaper public in existence to address, and a fairly free hand as to what I would write about and how." Over the next few years he reported all the world's major stories for the newspaper.

By this time Fyfe's political opinions had moved sharply to the left. He had joined the Fabian Society and he associated with leaders of the emerging Labour Party. The policy of employing Fyfe to write political leaders in the Daily Mail came to an end after he supported attempts by David Lloyd George to redistribute income with his 1909 People's Budget.

On the outbreak of the First World War Fyfe immediately went to France and covered the Battle of the Mons. His reports were censored by Fredrick E. Smith and according to Fyfe, this helped to increase panic in Britain. "He saw the intention with which they had been written - to rouse the nation to a sense of the need for greater effort. But he seemed to think that it would be better to suggest disaster by the free use of dots than to let the account appear in coherent and constructive form. With unsteady hand he struck out sentences and parts of sentences, substituting dots for them, and thus making it appear that the truth was far worse than the public could be allowed to know."

Lord Kitchener, Britain's War Minister, was unwilling to have journalists working on the Western Front, and Fyfe was threatened with arrest if he stayed. Fyfe attempted to overcome this problem by joining the French Red Cross as a stretcher bearer. In this way he was able to continue reporting on the war in France for a couple more months. However, the British military caught up with Fyfe and he decided to leave and report on the Eastern Front where journalists were still able to report on the war without restrictions.

Fyfe returned to the Western Front in 1917 and remained there until July 1918, when he was replaced by William Beach Thomas. The reason for this was that all men up to the age of 48 could be conscripted into the army. Fyfe was over that age, but as Thomas was just under 48 and could be sent to the Western Front as a soldier, rather than as a journalist.

Like other British war correspondents, Fyfe was offered a knighthood for his work during the First World War. Fyfe, who saw it as a bribe to keep quiet about the inefficiency and corruption he had witnessed during the war, refused it. Fyfe believed that Britain's political and military leaders had let the country down during the war. A strong critic of the Versailles Peace Treaty, Fyfe was also an active member of the Union of Democratic Control after the war.

On 1922, Arthur Henderson, the Labour M.P., asked Fyfe to became editor of the Daily Herald. Over the next four years he increased its circulation but he unwilling to accept attempts by the Trade Union Congress to control the content of the newspaper and left in 1926.

Fyfe went on to work for the Daily Chronicle and the Reynolds' News. In the 1929 General Election Fyfe failed to become the Labour MP for Sevenoaks. He was also defeated at Yeovil in the 1931 General Election. As well as his newspaper work, Fyfe wrote biographies of Alfred Harmsworth (1930) and T. P. O'Connor (1934) and an autobiography My Seven Selves (1935) where he wrote about his life as a journalist and war correspondent.

Henry Hamilton Fyfe died at Eastbourne on 15th June 1951.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Henry Hamilton Fyfe was a reporter on The Times when he read the first edition of The Star.

I recollect very well reading the first number of T. P. O'Connor's Star (that was in 1888). I read it over my cocoa and aerated bread lunch - with excited enjoyment. T. P. O'Connor, a journalist of genius, really was the founder of the New Journalism which ousted those dull morning papers ten years afterwards. His Star offered good reading from many pens, some already famous, some to be. He was bold enough also to declare a policy of justice for the under dogs. "The rich, the privileged, the prosperous," he wrote, "need no guardian or advocate; the poor, the weak, the beaten require the work and word of every humane man and woman to stand between them and the world."

(2) In November 1903, Alfred Harmsworth invited Henry Hamilton Fyfe to meet him at Carmelite House.

I was shown into a small room where an extremely pretty girl sat typing letters. Then I saw that in the doorway stood a youngish man, rather heavily built, with fair hair that swept in a wave over his forehead, massive features, penetrating blue eyes. just now his eyes were smiling. "Come in," he said, his tone was friendly.

For a few minutes we talked about the Advertiser. He seemed to know that I had little money to spend, that my relations with the Board was strained. After this he looked hard at me. "How would you like to come on to one of my papers?" he asked.

Suppressing an impulse to take his hands, lift him out of his chair, and whirl him in a wild dance round the room, I said quietly: "That depends on what arrangement we could make." He pressed a bell. A small boy in uniform appeared. "Ask Mr. Kennedy Jones to come down for a moment," Harmsworth said. We went on talking, and I succumbed at once to the fascination he was to exercise over me for nearly twenty years.

Kennedy Jones came in. A totally different type of man, no charm of manner or expression - until he smiled. Coarsely moulded features, stiff black hair, rather a lazy way of moving, but a man who directly he spoke radiated acute intelligence. He shook hands in an uninterested sort of way, and sprawled on the Chesterfield lounge.

Harmsworth frowned. "I want somebody to take over the Daily Mirror," he said, and showed that he had to make an effort to say it. His failure, the first bad one he had known, hurt him. "It won't do as a paper for women," Harmsworth went on. "It's taught me two things - that women can't write and don't want to read. But we've got to do something with it. I should like to see what you can do."

(3) In his book My Seven Selves, Henry Hamilton Fyfe explained how he changed the Daily Mirror.

As for the women, I had the very disagreeable duty of sending them away with three months' wages "in view of the changes about to be made in the paper." What these changes were to be nobody knew. The women asked me. I could not tell them. They begged to be allowed to stay. They left little presents on my desk. They waylaid me tearfully in the corridors. It was a horrid experience - like drowning kittens.

One day the Chief (Harmsworth) sent over to me a man (Arkas Sapt) on the magazine side of his business, with a note saying that he was probably mad, but that I might listen to what he wanted to tell me. I listened. He told me he could print photographs from half-tone blocks on quick-printing rotary machines. No newspaper up to that date had been regularly illustrated in this way. Photographs were always copied in pencil or pen and ink, and printed from line blocks. A paper that could reproduce photographs directly would be a novelty with an immediate and compelling appeal. I formed the opinion that this man was certainly not mad, though perhaps eccentric, and that what he had discovered might, if it satisfied our tests, make the fortune of the Daily Mirror. I was right. It did.

(4) In his book My Seven Selves (1935), Henry Hamilton Fyfe explained the success of the Daily Mirror.

The shape and content of the Daily Mirror recommended it strongly to those who needed something to help them through their half-hour's journey to work in the morning. Packed in tram, train, or omnibus, standing up perhaps and holding on to a strap with one hand, they required in the other, not a journal to stir thought or supply serious information, but one to entertain them, occupy their minds pleasantly, prevent then for thinking. It was easier to look at pictures than to read print. The news was displayed and worded in a manner that made assimilation simple. Everything in the Daily Mirror was calculated to be easy of absorption by the most ordinary intelligence.

(5) In 1907 Henry Hamilton Fyfe was appointed special correspondent with the Daily Mail.

I was the special correspondent with the largest newspaper public in existence to address, and a fairly free hand as to what I would write about and how. From that time until the war I had as good a life as ever fell to the lot of any journalist in any land. To travel had been my hope - more than that, it had been my determination. In my holidays I had got as far afield as I could. Now travel was to be my occupation, my livelihood.

As a method of enhancing the prestige of the paper, it was impressed on all connected with it that they must on all occasions wear the correct clothes, be seen in only exclusive places of resort, give the impression that they were accustomed to the habits of the wealthy and fashionable. This was the resolved commercial policy of Northcliffe, and from the commercial angle a very sound policy. His idea from the beginning, even when people were ashamed to be seen with the Mail and business men took it home under their coats, was that it should seem to be produced for the rich and privileged. This had its effect, as he knew it would, on advertisers. It resulted, too, in making the paper eventually what it had all along aimed at being - an organ of the well-to-do.

(6) In the early 1900s Henry Hamilton Fyfe became a socialist and supporter of the Labour Party.

As a rule, if a man gets into the forties without wanting to set things straight, he is secure against the microbe that bites reformers. Now I found this rule did not apply to me. How I should have developed if the war had not come I cannot tell. The war did come, and brought the reformer in me more to the top.

(7) Henry Hamilton Fyfe went to France on the outbreak of the First World War.

To me at first it was an exciting novelty. The thrill of romance was in it still. All that I had read about war (nearly all of it rubbish) flooded my mind with ideas of pomp and circumstance, of shrewd intellects contending for advantage, of marching columns and flying cavalry doing as those intellects planned. What a fool I was! How quickly I learned that war is above all dullness; that those who direct it - or let it take its own course - are mostly pompous, incompetent dullards; that, like all other machinery, the machinery of war has escaped from the control of its users; that the task of soldiers is to cower in trench dug-outs and have hell rained upon them. However, for the moment, before I had seen anything of it, war appeared to be a tremendous event, full of colour, fine in quality; and I was going to report it.

The whole country swarmed already with soldiers. Most of them were middle-aged, none of their uniforms fitted. They wore the absurd red trousers below the blue coat which had been in fashion since Napoleon's time. I recall a conversation with a French journalist who assured me that the army would lose all spirit if its red trousers were taken away. He would not listen to me when I said the uniform would have to be altered, as the British red coats were changed to khaki in South Africa. That was the general attitude of Frenchmen.

(8) In September 1914, Lord Kitchener, Britain's War Minister, banned journalists from the Western Front. Hamilton Fyfe attempted to overcome this problem by joining the Red Cross.

The ban on correspondents was still being enforced, so I joined a French Red cross detachment as a stretcher bearer, and though it was hard work, managed to send a good many despatches to my paper. I had no experience of ambulance or hospital work, but I grew accustomed to blood and severed limbs and red stumps very quickly. Only once was I knocked out. We were in a schoolroom turned into a operating theatre. It was a hot afternoon. We had brought in a lot of wounded men who had been lying in the open for some time; their wounds crawled with lice. All of us had to act as aids to our two surgeons. Suddenly I felt the air had become oppressive. I felt I must get outside and breathe. I made for the door, walked along the passage. Then I found myself lying in the passage with a big bump on my head. However, I got rid of what was troubling my stomach, and in a few minutes I was back in the schoolroom. I did not suffer in that way again.

What caused me discomfort far more acute - because it was mental, not bodily - were the illustrations of the bestiality, the futility, the insanity of war and of the system that produced war as surely as land uncultivated produces noxious weeds: these were now forced on my notice every day. The first cart of dead that I saw, legs sticking out stiffly, heads lolling on shoulders, all the poor bodies shovelled into a pit and covered with quicklime, made me wonder what the owners had been doing when they were called up, crammed into uniforms, and told to kill, maim, mutilate other men like themselves, with whom they had no quarrel. All of them had left behind many who would be grieved, perhaps beggared, by their taking off. And all to no purpose, for nothing.

(9) Henry Hamilton Fyfe became editor of the Daily Herald in 1922.

The Daily Herald had never emerged entirely from the first stage of its existence as a daily strike sheet a year or two before the war. While the war was on, it became a weekly with a bite to it. In 1919 it resumed appearance as a daily with so much of the old bite left that it gained ground slowly. Most supporters of Labour have Tory tastes. They dislike actual changes, however loudly they may demand future reforms. They were used to a certain type of daily newspaper; the Herald did not conform to type. Also it attacked most of the leaders whom Labour people had been taught to revere. Those leaders hated Lansbury, the founder of the paper, who had, with immense energy, collected funds for its rebirth. They did more to hinder than to help it on.

(10) When Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister he constantly complained to the editor of the Daily Herald, Hamilton Fyfe, about the way the newspaper sometimes criticised the leadership of the Labour Party. Eventually, Fyfe wrote MacDonald a reply.

I have had to do with so many Prime Ministers that I am not surprised by the petulant tone of your letter. Beginning with old Lord Salisbury, who was in office when I joined The Times, I have seen the same kind of complaint made by Arthur Balfour; by Cambell-Bannerman; by Asquith, and by Lloyd George.

The Herald is the organ, not of your Government, not of a Party, but of the Labour Movement. In that Movement there are many currents of opinion, ranging from the silly Communism, which thinks that whatever is Russian must be right, to the Liberalism which would still be where it was a few years ago if Asquith had not been such a ninny and Lloyd George such as a knave. It would be foolish to aim at making the policy of the Herald fit in with all these currents of opinion, but it is very important that no section should feel resentment at not being allowed to express its views in its own newspaper.

You forget, I believe, that the Herald belongs to some five million people; that it exists in order to represent what they think and feel; and that if I were to say to any section of them; "I will not publish your opinions because that would be unpleasant to the Prime Minister," there would be good reason to retort that I was setting the momentary interest of a Ministry above the permanent interest of the Movement, which is beyond question the greater of the two.

(11) Henry Hamilton Fyfe, editor of the Daily Herald, wrote about the General Strike in his autobiography, My Seven Selves (1935)

It is still frequently asserted, and perhaps by many believed, that this abortive attempt by Trade Unionists to assist their comrades, the miners, was an attack on the Constitution, a blow aimed at the State, a revolutionary act. It is natural enough for opponents of Labour, whether political or industrial, to misrepresent the General Strike in that way, but a number of writers of books have erred through ignorance.

No one who was acquainted with the Trade Union leaders at that period, no one who watched from inside the day-to-day development of the affair, can think of this assertion with anything but amusement. There was not a single member of the General Council of the Trade Union Congress who would not have shrunk with horror from the idea of overturning the established order - if it had occurred to him. I am certain there was no one to whom it did occur. They decided on the strike in desperation. They had promised support to the miners, and they did not know what else to do.