Saints and sinners find fame in Oxford's pages - Press Gazette

Saints and sinners find fame in Oxford's pages

Some 765 assorted swindlers, heroes, drunks and geniuses, all describing themselves as journalists, have made it into the gargantuan new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The massive reference work runs to 60 volumes and cost £25 million to compile over a period of 12 years.

The print edition costs £7,500 but journalists are likely to find the online version a useful reference tool – subscriptions cost £195 per year plus vat.

A trawl through the web version revealed that journalism appears to be a better way than many to make an impression on Britain’s history.

Journalists strongly outnumber doctors (17) and priests (16) in the reference work.

But they are well behind the most strongly-represented group, politicians (3,444), and just behind, actors (907) and lawyers (877).

To qualify for inclusion in the book an individual must have died before the end of 2000, and have made an important impression on British life.


John Bull founder lived in world of fantasy

Horatio William Bottomley (1860-1933) Listed as a “journalist and swindler” he created a “world of fantasy” to alleviate the misery of growing up in an orphanage.

He trained as a legal shorthand writer and founded several “weekly Hansards” reporting the work of local councils.

Advertising revenue was enhanced by the promise of special treatment for those who paid a regular subsidy.

In 1902 he bought a moribund evening newspaper called The Sun which failed to prosper despite “dubious investigatory stunts and a highly successful racing tipster”. He sold it in 1904 and in May 1906 launched a sensationalist weekly called John Bull. He remained editor of the successful weekly until 1921 – it bore the masthead “without fear or favour, rancour or rant”.

According to ODNB “The primary purpose of John Bull was to promote Bottomley and his schemes”. During World War One John Bull “spewed out venomous chauvinism”.

Bottomley served five years penal servitude in 1922 after being convicted of fraud and then “stumbled into obscurity”.

Claudi Vera Jones (1915-1964)

Communist and journalist born in Trinidad and grew up in New York. She wrote for the Daily Worker, edited monthly Communist magazine Spotlight and was imprisoned for 12 months during the McCarthyite era in America.

Extradited to Britain in 1955 she began publishing a monthly paper called the West Indian Gazette and in 1959 began an annual indoor event to showcase Caribbean talent which grew into the Notting Hill Carnival.

The Gazette outlived her by only two issues.

William Woodfall (1745 to 1803)

Celebrated in his day for parliamentary reporting, he was known as Memory Woodfall because of his incredibly rententive mind. He was said to be able to reproduce 16 columns of speeches without having taken a single note.

As editor of the Morning Chronicle he was sued by the Government for libel in 1779 – after congratulating Admiral Keppel on his acquittal from a court martial on charges of cowardice after the battle of Ushant.

He was sentenced to 12 months in prison.

Jeffrey Bernard (1932-1997)

After spending his twenties drinking in the bars of Soho with the likes of Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon he began a racing column in Queen magazine, later writing for the New Statesman, before starting his 21-year Low Life column in The Spectator.

His heavy drinking meant that the magazine often had to announce ‘Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell’ due to the absence of his column. and this became the title of Keith Waterhouse’s play about his life.

Waterhouse penned Bernard’s ODNB entry which said: “He did not tell stories but simply rambled on, with each funny or profound (or funnily profound) thought leading to the next.”

His column was described by Jonathan Meads as a suicide note in weekly instalments. Bernard married four times and died of renal failure brought on by alcoholism.

Brian Redhead (1929-1994) Succeeded Robert Robinson in 1976 to present Today on BBC Radio 4 for 18 years after previously being northern editor of The Guardian and then editor of the Manchester Evening News.

He once wrote: “Journalism should be seen, and heard, as the first attempt at writing history”.

The ODNB entry describes him as “a professional northerner with a national voice who made Today, one programme the decision-making classes could not afford to miss”.

By Dominic Ponsford



Press Gazette's must-read weekly newsletter featuring interviews, data, insight and investigations.