John Reith - 1. Beginnings
John Reith (1889-1971) was the founder of the BBC. He was its first general manager when it was set up as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922; and he was its first director general when it became a public corporation in 1927. He created both the templates for public service broadcasting in Britain; and for the arms-length public corporations that were to follow, especially after World War Two. Reith fought off the politicians' attempts to influence the BBC, while offering the British people programmes to educate, inform and entertain.
But in a working life that stretched over 60 years, Reith was at the BBC only 16. This is the story of a towering figure – physically as well as metaphorically - who was never satisfied with life and who said 'What I was capable of compared with what I've achieved is pitiable.'
THE EARLY YEARS 1889-1914
'Being a son of the manse I was made a good deal of, but I had no friends of my own'
John Charles Walsham Reith was born on July 20th 1889 at Stonehaven, Kincardineshire. His family were holidaying there from Glasgow, where his father George was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland, later to become the United Free Church of Scotland.
His mother Adah was English and the daughter of a London stockbroker who met George in 1868 at the country home of one of his churchgoers. They married in 1870 and over the next ten years they had four boys and two girls. But it was nearly another ten years before a fifth son, John, was born. By then Adah was 41 and George 47. John (known as Non to the family) was brought up by nurses and rarely saw his father, who was usually too busy.
'I was entirely moral; but utterly vexatious and difficult.'
Reith's first school was convenient (it was next to his father's Manse) but hardly appropriate. It was a girls' school where lessons included sewing and singing. He won a prize for his singing – though he later reckoned it was probably because his teacher was one of his father's flock.
In autumn 1896 he moved to the Glasgow Academy, where his haughty manner brought him the nickname Lord Walsham. 'I had enough brains to get through all the classes without effort,' he wrote, 'and so scraped though'. But it wasn't enough for the academy, which, when he got to 15, suggested he left. It's been suggested he was a bully, and he certainly had the build to strike fear in the younger boys – he eventually grew to 6ft 6in. He admitted he was impatient and intolerant, though insisted he was 'entirely moral'.
One of Reith's brothers, Archie, was by that time a Church of England vicar in Norfolk and he recommended a local boarding school, Gresham's, in the market town of Holt. So in 1904 Reith became a boarder 300 miles away from Glasgow, where he was the only Presbyterian and the only Scot. He immediately tried to run away on a bicycle. Eventually, he settled down. He enjoyed the school cadet training corps and was a good enough shot to compete at Bisley. But while he wanted to go to university, his father decided he should learn a trade and become an engineer.
'The five years' apprenticeship had a lasting effect. Some of it good'
Engineering was not a new departure for a Reith. Nor was eventually running a big concern. His paternal grandfather began his career as a wheelwright before becoming a lawyer, railway pioneer and general manager of the Clyde Navigation Trust, one of Glasgow's most important and powerful bodies. Reith's apprenticeship followed a punishing schedule: up at 4.45am to travel from the Manse to the Hyde Park Locomotive Works; and after work and evening classes, he rarely got to bed before 11pm. As a minister's son, there was a real risk that the other apprentices would make fun of him. So he dressed carefully: an engineer's cap, which he described as being set at 'an aggressive angle', a thick muffler instead of a collar and a threatening expression on his face. Later the cap and muffler were abandoned: 'But the expression,' he wrote, 'seemingly, had congealed.'
'You'll come back with your tail between your legs'
After his apprenticeship, Reith went to London. It was against his father's advice. He warned him he'd come back 'with your tail between your legs.' He was offered £1.50 a week working for a civil engineering firm, S Pearson & Son, extending the Royal Albert Dock. After a month it was increased to £2 a week. Reith saw a future with the firm. He hoped in a few years he could be promoted to sub-agent earning £1,000 a year – until he spoke to the existing sub-agent. He had worked for Pearsons for 15 years and was earning just £250. As Reith put it: 'That was that; my days with Pearsons were numbered, the numbering to be done by me.'