folder Filed in England, Stories
Two feet on jobs ladder and the timing was good
A career in journalism requires basic skills, plus a nose for news and untold good luck
Editor access_time 11 min read

A family’s history can take many different turns down through time. My “turning” was already mapped out when, as a determined 16-year-old I arrived at the crossroads and changed direction without any hesitation. I was on the road to a career I had dreamed about for a long time…

I had converted a summer office junior job into a trial period trainee news reporter and then persuaded my bosses to take a further chance on a young working-class bloke. My main advantage was the fact I had taken private lessons in typing and Pitman’s shorthand – essential skills for the job. Probably, I had spent as much time on “skills” as preparing for the next year in the sixth form.

My “persuasive words” meant I could be a journalist – my dream wannabe – sooner and, as they say in Lancashire, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. So I had pushed the idea to my parents (“Opportunity seldom knocks twice”) and, reluctantly, (“Look before you leap!”) they went along with it. One foot on the ladder in journalism.

It also helped that, in 1958, I was in the right place at the right time as wartime shortages of newsprint were ending gradually. This enabled newspapers to expand with increased demand for news stories and features; with more people required to produce them. And, of course, more advertising because war materials production was switching to consumer stuff – like twin tub washing machines.

Sniff out more good stories

Soon, I was doing my best with bottom-of-the-page stories in the Manchester Evening Chronicle and Manchester Evening News. As I watched and learned from my colleagues at the Oldham Press Agency, my confidence grew as did my news sense – that elusive “nose for news” that was essential for success. Freelance journalists were paid only for what appeared in print and the number of column inches occupied. You need to eat – sniff out more good stories.

As a trainee, I was paid a weekly wage, as were other reporters and photographers at Oldham Press Agency. For this opportunity to learn on the job I would have paid the agency… It might have taken five years of further education to get to this very place on the ladder. What I need now was more skills and experience. All looking good.

My first task of the day was still to browse every edition of every newspaper served by the news agency; to clip out the stories and pictures sent to them as a check against payments received. I could study the nuanced differences in the story treatments between the various national papers. That was an invaluable daily lesson in editing and headline writing. How do they do that – it was dazzling.

Life at Oldham Press Agency was changing as the principals, Tom Brennand and Roy Bottomley were spending more time at the Daily Mirror’s Manchester office. By now it was the biggest selling daily in the land with its sensational story presentation, massive headlines and appeal to the working man – as epitomised by its cartoon character, Andy Capp.

Heady cocktail of local interest pieces

The Mirror and its sister paper, the Sunday Pictorial, had the most journalists. They were driven relentlessly to find the most sensational stories of each day. A heady cocktail of “local human interest” pieces full of colorful quotes and Lefty social ills reportage was served-up with every issue… Exactly the coverage the average working class family in every region of the country could relate to.

Northern readers, who worked in the coal mines, the steelworks, shipyards and other heavy industries, mainly voted Labour while remaining conservative in outlook. They laughed and cried with their copies of the Mirror. Cartoon character, Andy Capp, has had his finger on the nation’s pulse since its launch in 1957.

Mirror editorial staffers were the best paid in the business and freelancers like Tom and Roy, working “day duties” at the paper’s Manchester office became big earners. When they got too busy at the Mirror, they called in their senior employees from Oldham Press Agency to help out with a few day duties.

First “death knock” with shotgun story

That gave a bit of a boost to the lower rankings like me, who stepped up to the bigger, better stories and the experience they provided. There were human interest stories all around. Oldham Press Agency managed to get ever-increasing coverage in the national dailies and television news programmes that were a new and expanding market for freelance journalists.

One of my more gruesome stories was the 16-year-old farm kid from hill town Saddleworth who accidentally shot himself with his dad’s shotgun. I got to the scene quickly. It was not a pretty sight. Part of his face had been blown away.

This was my first “Death Knock”, asking for a photograph from a grieving father whose gun had slain his only son is as bad as it gets. It was a tragic accident that would haunt his family and locals for many years to come. I remember it still.

I had quite a few “Happy Knocks” too. In those days, everybody did the football pools, including my dad and gran, in the hope of winning a fortune in prize money. Oldham Press Agency got a contract from Norman Martlew, a Mirror journalist who became the PR chief for Littlewoods Pools in Liverpool. The job was to tell the lucky punters they had won a jackpot prize and get their story into the newspapers.

Pools winners and rock ‘n’ roll

Every week Littlewoods winners’ details would be sent in and one of us (with a photographer) would race out to get the interview and pictures of the delighted winners.

The wins got bigger and in 1961, when Keith and Viv Nicholson won the £152,000 jackpot it generated historic levels of coverage with her answer to the reporter’s first question. “I’m going to spend, spend, spend.”  It was all gone within three years, but her story of the working class woman who preferred glam adventure inspired TV dramas and a hit West End show.

The Nicholsons lived in Halifax, so Oldham Press Agency missed out on the biggest pools story ever, including the London cheque presentation by Bruce Forsyth.

There were happy moments too as rock n roll swept across the Atlantic and newspapers learned how to cope with the social changes that followed the whirlwind. Rock groups were storming across the land as it, seemingly, did not need much musical skill to get the sound.

A junior reporter, sent out to review an early rock concert, wrote:
“The double bass player had the girls in ecstasy when he lay down on the ground and waved his instrument in the air.”

It didn’t surpass an earlier Oldham Evening Chronicle headline over a story of the Commonwealth Trans Arctic Expedition, in which Sir Edmund Hillary led a New Zealand Team and Sir Vivian Fuchs was head of a large British team that raced each other to the South Pole.

“Hillary reaches Pole – Fuchs 200 on the way”

The paper sold out within hours. Readers were delighted for Hillary and rushed to Failsworth Pole*- to join her in the fun. The devout, churchgoing Chronicle lady features editor responsible for the headline had no idea how it would be interpreted – and nobody dared to tell her.

Or, there’s this Oldham Chron’ headline on a court case:
“Steak pudding and chips (twice) slapped on wife’s head”

Times were good for the newspaper industry and profits soared in line with additional sales and advertising revenue. Pay rises for journalists were still few and far between, but there were no caps on “expenses” which gave tax breaks to newspaper owners and hacks. Claims for “expenses” generated some of the most creative writing of the week and the industry is awash with legendary claims that got through.

Query on Middle East reporter’s expenses.
Accounts chief: “I checked and camel hire is £400 and you’ve charged £1,000.”
Reporter: “Ah…yes, but this was a racing camel.” He was paid out.

World’s biggest newspaper publishing centre.

Newspaper readers enjoying their daily diet of unrelenting news from across their county, the country and the globe probably imagine their newspaper has its journalists in all of the places providing stories for the day’s issue. This was almost true for people living in the north of the country, served by the mighty presses of Withy Grove, Manchester, for decades the free world’s biggest newspaper publishing centre.

The Manchester offices of the national newspapers employed around 700 full-time journalists who busied themselves in smoke-filled newsrooms located above the print rooms. These were manned by 1,000s of print and kindred trades operatives who actually controlled the publishing operation according to working agreements, entirely skewed in their favour.

They operated through craft chapels, each of which had a “Father of the Chapel” (FOC) whose main task was to oversee the agreements and cause trouble if they felt they were being breached in any way. Journalists were also subjected to restrictive practices, such as not being allowed to physically handle typeset.

A “job” for “Wall Men” had been generated as a direct result of this ban.

It worked like this: If the journalist, called a stone sub, wanted to move a story from one page to another or carry over a long story to another page he told the compositor working on the relevant pages. The page make-up comp would then look around the comp room, the walls of which would be lined by operatives looking pretend-attentive while chatting among themselves. This great skill had been honed over years spent leaning against the wall.

It was a highly prized job

The task of the Wall Men was to walk across to lift the indicated typeset and its accompanying paper galley proof and carry them to another part of the comp room where the destination page was located. Sometimes It would be worked on by another compositor and stone sub, the latter a journalist able to read upside down, mirrored (right to left) typeset.

Having fulfilled their turn, they returned to the wall. As there could be a dozen Wall Men, the chance of any of them becoming exhausted was minimal. It was a highly prized job, usually allocated to “family” or “friend” of an FOC. To complete the pantomime scenario, pay chits were often made out to M. Mouse or R. Hood.

Nobody knew it at the time, but within a decade or so hot metal typesetting and the restrictive practises that went with it would be swept away by a completely new method of electronic publishing. Nobody at that time could possibly imagine that someone could compose and publish an article like this using only a smartphone…


‘Spend, spend, spend’ football pools winner, Viv Nicholson, died in April 2015 aged 79. Nicholson and her husband lived up to her promise, taking just three years to spend the £152,000 – the equivalent of £3.5m today – they won in 1961 – The Guardian.

** Failsworth Pole was a Germanic totemic pole in the town centre, dating back centuries. Pack mules, stagecoaches, trams, omnibuses, Royal visitors, and campaigning politicians all staged at Failsworth Pole. It was famous around the world. North Pole, Failsworth Pole, South Pole. There are no pubs at the North and South Poles, but Failsworth has three in the Pole conservation area. History of the poles of Failsworth.

ancestor ancestry stories Daily Mirror Failsworth Pole family history family story genealogists genealogy generation journalism Viv Nicholson Withy Grove

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