Background and origins: letters of congratulation

Letters of congratulation


If you look at the first edition of The Week-end Review (March 15 1930), part of the cover of which is above (notice that the competitions are in the middle), you will find that there is a series of congratulatory messages to the editor, Gerald Barry. First to announce his support is the Prime Minister (of the 1929-1931 Labour government), Ramsay Macdonald. Macdonald commends ‘intelligent and independent journalism’ (as against ‘sectional or partisan propaganda’). The second letter is from The Conservative Party leader, Stanley Baldwin, who echoes Macdonald, referring to ‘that spirit of fairness and independence which has always been and I hope will always be the pride of British journalism’. Letter number three is from Herbert Samuel, at the time the deputy leader of the Liberal Party (deputy to Lloyd George), and destined a year later to be Home Secretary in the first National Government (‘I may not concur with the opinions it will express, but I admire the spirit from which it springs’ – more of this ‘spirit’ in a moment).

Now there is a letter from author (and parody enthusiast) Max Beerbohm, who doesn’t know what the new paper will be called, but asks to be put down for a subscription, and promises to be a ‘constant reader’. He is followed by Augustine Birrell, who had, in Liberal governments of the first two decades of the twentieth century been both President of the Board of Education, and an at-first successful Secretary for Ireland (a post he resigned when the Easter Rising took place). ‘There is no more disgusting spectacle visible today,’ he writes, ‘than that of a syndicated millionaire Press swallowing up … independent newspapers.’  He commends Barry’s youthful enterprise, and expresses his envy. And then there is a note (from Biarritz) from the author of The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy; from Sir Ronald Ross (presumably the Ulster Unionist MP for Londonderry, and not the Nobel prize-winner of the same name and title); and from the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.

But there is one more letter:


Sir, – Some of the regular competitors for the literary prizes in the paper
under your late editorship, we wish you and your contributing staff every
success in this new venture, and we hope that our former taskmasters may
be invited to give us further opportunity for friendly rivalry in the
WEEK-END REVIEW. – We are your faithful, and their obedient servants,

Most of these five – particularly ‘Seacape’ – are to feature frequently amongst the early competition winners, and Lester Ralph actually sets Competition No. 2.  The point is, however, that the first competition did not simply attract entrants. The new weekly arrived with them in situ, ready to continue what they had begun elsewhere. And ‘elsewhere’ was The Saturday Review, which Barry and his editorial team had walked out of, the very same week. So the New Statesman competitions, as begun in The Week-end Review, had their origins in a notable act of journalistic defiance, but also a host of previous competitions.

The Saturday Review: the editorial team in revolt

One of Rothermere's ads in the Daily Mirror in April 1930

One of Rothermere’s ads in the Daily Mirror in April 1930

On February 18, 1930, a new party, the United Empire Party, was formed.  According to the Daily Express‘s front page on Monday 28 February, in the main article, entitled THE GREAT PUSH, subscriptions had reached £63,000 over only three days. The Daily Express was owned by the Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, formerly Max Aitken, who had been an MP, been given a peerage by Lloyd George, and brought into the war cabinet in 1918 as Minister of Information (he was also to serve in Churchill’s War Cabinet).

Express on SR 30

Like his counterpart, Lord Rothermere, who owned the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, Beaverbrook wished to push Baldwin’s Conservative Party into accepting an exclusive trade agreement with the colonies and dominions, at the expense of any other country; both papers duly argued that the economic calamities of the 1920s, and the General Strike, had been caused by a refusal to make explicit trading arrangements with imperial countries. Beaverbrook, rather confusingly,  had already launched one political outfit, the Empire Free Trade Crusade, in July 1929. However, he secured Rothermere’s backing for the new one (and there was much editorial back-slapping as a result). The front page article announced as one of two significant developments that George Pinckard, the proprietor of ‘the famous Conservative periodical, the “Saturday Review”‘ had written as follows to the Editor of the Daily Express:

“I shall be very glad to give all the help I can to the new Empire Party. I am most enthusiastic about it, as it has come about at a time of great need to help British industry and agriculture. I am concerned that otherwise, as stated in the “Saturday Review”, “We are, it seems, within measurable distance of an economic collapse.”

The front page also printed the endorsement of the Rev. W.G. Perryman, the vicar of St. Mark’s in West London, who described the new initiative as ‘big and virile, alive with imagination.’ However, the editorial team at The Saturday Review were not at all prepared to kow-tow to their owner’s wishes. When Pinckard and his board insisted that The Saturday Review run a lead article extolling the benefits of the United Empire Party, its editor, who was Gerald Barry, together with all his editorial team, and most of the paper’s contributors, resigned en masse, having first prepared the next edition to denounce the UEP. Barry and his team were far from the ‘famous Conservative’ journalists depicted by the Daily Express – for which Barry had briefly worked as a young man, before becoming associate editor (1921) and editor of The Saturday Review (1924). In his six years in charge, the paper – which had been founded in 1855 – had become more adventurous, radical and independent in its views, although it had printed contributions from Wells and Shaw before Barry was in charge. Shaw had actually been its drama critic.

This gesture of defiance was greeted with applause by the liberal press, on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times noted the event in a headline:

NYT Sat Review

Among the many who left with Barry were Thomas Earle Welby (‘Stet’), T. Michael Pope, Ivor Brown, Humbert Wolfe, L.P. Hartley, Edward Shanks, Max Nicholson, Gerald Bullett and Martin Armstrong, names that will become familiar as early judges of the Week-end Competitition that was to pass eventually to New Statesman. You can read Barry’s parting shot and the new incumbent’s unstinting support for the UEP here.

Within a week, Barry had found two new backers, one of whom was Samuel Courtauld (as in the Courtauld Institute). The other was William Jowitt, of whom more below. Courtauld’s wife was particularly keen that he should support the new weekly – which was of course The Week-end Review. Its subscription list quickly rose to four thousand, including, it is plain, a small army of literary competitors. The Saturday Review had been running a competitition, a competition in every way the same as in The Week-end Review’s ‘new’ venture,  since early 1926 (that is, within the first two years of Barry taking charge). In fact, it had just passed the 200th competition mark (almost the same stage as the WR‘s competitions when the New Statesman absorbed them). What is more, it continued to be part of the Saturday Review‘s furniture, with its two-part structure, for the Saturday Review‘s next few years, its judges including the new (as yet unidentifiable) editor, and for a short while, some of the WR men themselves. Nor should we imagine that the competitors (including the five signatories) deserted the Saturday Review wholesale. Some of them were winning, or coming near to winning, in both the Saturday Review and the Week-end Review. Among those who continued to win in both magazines (which had very similar styles and structures) were ‘Pibwob’ and Gertrude Pitt and (with predictably fleeting success) Edmund Casson. Indeed, one minor change that the WR made to its new run of competitions was a ban forbidding a double-victory. Pibwob was winning both the A and the B competition in the Saturday Review at the same time as he was winning WR competitions. By contrast, ‘Seacape’, the most successful early WR competitor, and another of the signatories to the congratulatory letter, plainly let his Saturday Review subscription lapse. After the split, one of the principal judges, and the most conspicuous one not to leave with Barry and the others was ‘Peter Traill’. ‘Peter Traill was the pseudonym of Guy Mainwaring Morton (1896-1968), who had some success as a writer of westerns, notably Rangy Pete, which had made it on to the silent screen in 1925 as ‘The Texas Trail’, a fifty-minute five-reeler.

While Barry and his team set about making their mark – not surprisingly with the support of all three political parties, as in the opening issue – it is worth recording the shenanigans that surrounded the UEP, which Rothermere continued to support, while Beaverbrook, within three months, had reverted to, and revived the Empire Free Trade Crusade, looking for by-elections to win. In October 1930, after one or two polling successes, but no victory, Beaverbrook’s Empire Free Trade Crusade stood in the Paddington South by-election, a safe Conservative seat, and saw its candidate, Vice-Admiral Ernest Taylor win. Oddly enough, there was a UEP candidate in the poll as well, a Mrs Alexandra Stewart-Richardson, who garnered only 500 votes, and was disowned by Rothermere as a woman who could not succeed, because she was not titled. The by-election victory, designed to bring down Baldwin as Conservative leader, very nearly toppled him – but there were no further by-election victories – and Vice-Admiral Taylor MP joined the Conservative Party when holding the seat in the 1931 election.  The nearest the Empire Free Trade Crusade came to another victory was in a straight fight with Duff Cooper, a Conservative, who won the St. George’s, Westminster by-election in March 1931. Look above and, ironically enough, you’ll see his name listed as one of the contributors to the first issue. There is a decent and fuller outline of events here. As the piece points out, the crusader that is the Express logo (and, in a bastardised version, also that of Private Eye) is a curious  relic of the Empire Free Trade Crusade. The Express‘s own website claims that the Crusader is an invention dating back to 1933, but its composers have plainly never seen editions dating from the late 1920s.

peyejohnsonDaily Express 400808 001

As for The Saturday Review, it subsequently became in 1933 the property of the eccentric and colourful Lucy, Lady Houston, thrice-married, and acquiring a great deal of wealth and influence from each marriage, and indeed a relationship before the first marriage: she used the paper to attack Ramsay Macdonald. She reputedly died in 1936 of starving herself after the stress of the Abdication Crisis. The paper lasted until 1938.

The Competitions and The Week-end Review

[more to follow here as each year is completed]

The competitions between 1930 and the end of 1931 – when there were still, although they didn’t know it, just two years to go, to a large extent merely carrying on the tradition set up in The Saturday Review, with judges drawn from the writers at first, and gradually, from friends of the writers, and some of the pushier fringe figures like Vita Sackville-West (who was attempting to earn more cash in the wake of Nigel Nicholson leaving the colonial service). Some of the judges, like J.C.Squire, revel in the mischief of the competitions. Some of the others (notably James Agate) seem to take a sort of vainglorious pleasure in setting obscure tasks. The presiding genius, though, is Martin Armstrong, effectively the literary editor, and a setter of austere poetical tasks which he judges with schoolmasterly pleasure. What binds both the judges and the entrants together would appear to be a shared antipathy to T.S.Eliot and to free verse in general. ‘Stet’ – Thomas Earle Welby – was licensed to write about writers long dead, and was somewhat obsessed by Swinburne. He had edited Landor’s poetical works. The judges and the entrants wanted the poetry clock to stay stopped in 1914 at the latest. They were Georgians – men and women alike.

What the competitions reveal is a sort of bond between the younger and older entrants that is quite surprising. This is not a weekly for experimentalists, but for politically aware young people who were interested in subjects like sexuality and poverty, had almost certainly voted Liberal, but were now faced with a change in the political landscape. At the same time, they wanted to read, and to write, literature as it had been, rather than as if it were part of a gigantic experiment.

We can’t tell much about the gender of the entrants, because so many are pseudonymous (about half). Nevertheless there are several young women amongst the entrants, as there is an extraordinary mass of talent – young people who would go on to be successful as writers, but also mathematicians, scientists, archaeologists, classicists, civil servants. The ones who seem to be missing (from the competitions) are those in their thirties and forties and fifties – one senses that the old guard are rich or retired or both. The new guard are recent graduates (or still at university) in many cases. The competitions attracted those who wanted to tease their brains, but who had either the energy or leisure to do it.

The Downfall of The Week-end Review

Curiously enough, it was the first editor of New Statesman, Clifford Sharp, who helped cause The Week-end Review‘s closure, and absorption into New Statesman and Nation, although it was also a victim of the ‘slump conditions’, to use Kingsley Martin’s phrase in Editor. Sharp, who seems to have been admired as an editor almost as much as he was loathed by those with whom he worked, and whose career as first editor at New Statesman had two years earlier come to an end because, as Martin put it, ‘he drank himself out of the chair’, read a letter signed ‘Barrister’ in the January 16th 1932 issue of The Week-end Review. It was headed ‘The Press and Contempt of Court’. ‘Barrister’ wrote to express his concern that newspapers were becoming more timid of comment on a case because of fear of contempt of court (he was referring to The Week-end Review having suspended comment on a case the previous month, because it had gone to appeal. The case – ‘the Hull case’ was an extraordinary one in which a transsexual called Austin Hull was effectively sentenced to six months’ hard labour for gross indecency after the ordering of a Guilty verdict by the judge. The Week-end Review was instrumental in some mitigation of the punishment meted out). He went on to cite a case in which Clifford Sharp (as an editor, reckless enough with the law as to wipe out a modest profit earned by New Statesman in the late 1920s) had been involved.  On Feb 27 1932, as we can see from this extract from the cover, Sharp wrote an article in response to the letter, under the same title.


Sharp had been accused of implying that a judge (Mr. Justice Avory) had behaved without integrity (he had written that the summing-up was unfair). Sharp’s argument had been that the case, which concerned birth control – it involved Marie Stopes, with whom Sharp had no sympathy – was beyond the impartiality of any judge. According to Sharp, Law Officers were reluctant to prosecute him, but, once the prosecution was under way, the issue became merely how the Court would save face. His counsel was Sir William Jowitt – a man of some integrity who had agreed to serve as Attorney-General in Macdonald’s government provided he, as a Liberal, stood down, and re-fought his Preston parliamentary seat as a Labour member (he did; and he won). Of Jowitt, Sharp wrote that he ‘aided and abetted the court in every way’, forcing Sharp into an ‘unconditional retraction’, leading to a ‘well-staged farce’ at the end of which the judge, Lord Hewart, found Sharp ‘guilty’ but liable to neither fine nor imprisonment, although New Statesman was liable for a few precious hundreds in costs. The gist of the article was that, in essence, ‘Barrister’ was right: the press were giving in too easily to threats of contempt.

However, in writing his article – as perhaps Barry should really have noticed – Sharp had effectively (‘aided and abetted … well-staged farce’) accused the court and his counsel of being in cahoots. The whole rigmarole of making an apology followed again. But it was to have a devastating consequence for The Week-end Review, for who was financing the magazine, together with Sam Courtauld, but Sir William Jowitt? Courtauld, who was friends with Jowitt, but far less politically radical, had had his slight distaste for Barry’s increasingly ambitious social commentaries (on advertising, on abortion, on sex, on poverty) tempered by his co-owner. Now Jowitt had his doubts as well. And, worse than that, Courtauld had originally been persuaded to back Barry by his wife; and his wife had in the interim died. The Week-end Review was losing Courtauld £2000 a year. After the Sharp fiasco, he declined to support Barry any more after 1932 (ironically, Barry’s anthology of Week-end Review articles and features in 1932 had been dedicated to Courtauld). And now, with another weird irony, the former editor of New Statesman halted the progress of the Week-end Review so totally that it collapsed at the end of 1933, and was rescued only at the eleventh hour, in the second week of 1934, by none other than Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman. It was Sharp who caused the weekend competitions to move to the very magazine that he had been considered no longer fit to edit.