John Roberts (1892-1967) was one of the most important figures in New Statesman history: the business manager and later managing director who stayed with the magazine from 1913 to 1957, a working lifetime. He was born in Bermondsey to John Thomas Roberts and his wife Lydia Clare Roberts nee Broughton. Hyams, who interviewed Roberts for his NS-at-50 book, says his father was ‘a tinker’, although Rolph says he was a metalworker (which is what the 1900 and 1911 censuses say). It sounds as if ‘tinker’ is Roberts’ own word.The 1911 census shows him – the eldest child, 19, a chartered accountant’s clerk – at home with nine siblings, each born at two-year intervals – Maude (18), Lydia (16), and a seemingly unstoppable run of brothers: William (14), Harry (12), Leonard (10), Edward (8), Albert (6), Horace (4) and Reginald (2). Hyams and Rolph both say there was an eleventh.
Roberts was a skilled accountant and businessman who was in place by the time he was twenty-one – on the recommendation of his former employer, R.B. Byles, at Alston Rivers, the publisher’s. He had gone on to work for W.H. Smith and also The Athenaeum. Although he took three years away in World War One, at the front, as a sergeant in the Royal Field Artillery, he was welcomed back, even if he spent his whole working career being complained about. Rolph, who says he was Roberts’ friend, admits that he was a problem for owners and editors – who had to navigate his opposition (Martin, for instance, had to face accusations that he spent too long away from the editor’s chair – conceivably right). His opposition could be political – from the left – as well as looking at the business as a business.
It was Roberts who fixed the mergers with Athenaeum, Nation and Week-end Review. His skill in negotiation was essential to the board and the editors, and he was arguably the brains behind the increasing sales. It is very surprising that Adrian Smith’s survey gives him such little time. Rolph devotes a thirteen-page section of Martin’s biography to Roberts. We learn that he was married twice, the second time to Joanna, who was the daughter of a Charterhouse master, and who was twenty years younger than Roberts (an imposing figure, incidentally, and very tall). But the second marriage was clouded by Joanna’s multiple sclerosis. They had at least two children – twin boys in 1944 – with whom Kingsley Martin was much taken.
Rolph explains how Roberts was bought off in 1957, as Martin neared the end of his editorship. He lived for another ten years, dying, according to Rolph, on Christmas night 1967 (Joanna died a few years later).
Rolph’s facts about Roberts are slightly suspect. For instance, he claims that Roberts and Martin Armstrong put together ‘The Wipers Times’, when that seems to have been the work of Captain Fred J. Roberts, no relation, and Jack Hesketh Pearson. Since I can’t confirm his marriages or date of death (no obvious matches in the records), these have to remain second-hand information.