Wednesday, June 19, 2013

'Smithie': the royal correspondent beloved of kings

Following up on yesterday's post about George Herbert Smith, I thought I'd run this short feature penned by brother Tom Blackwell. It appeared in The National Post (his employer) a few months after the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 2002. 

"Among the usual heaps of flowers, one simple wreath stood out at the funeral of George Herbert Smith, a veteran Fleet Street reporter who had come out on the short end of a too-close encounter with a speeding car.

The note adorning those red and white carnations and lilies 74 years ago was brief and to the point. What caught the eye were the names of the senders. "With deepest sympathy from the Duke and Duchess of York," read the message.

The Duke & Duchess of York (centre) in 1927, the year of George Herbert's death
I couldn't help but think about that wreath this year as news of another death overflowed the pages of this newspaper and others. The duke in question would unexpectedly be crowned King George VI after his older brother ran off with a U.S. divorcee. The duchess became queen, of course, but was far better known in later days as the Queen Mum, that one-woman royal institution who drew a million people to her funeral last spring.

The journalist? He was my great-grandfather, who sprouted a knobbly branch of ink-stained wretches on the family tree a century ago. For 30 years, the former schoolteacher reigned over the royal beat, loved by colleagues, who dubbed him Royalty Smith, and known to the kings, queens and princes he covered as "Smithie." The so-called court correspondent for the Press Association, Britain's domestic wire service, Mr. Smith was the first to inform the world that Queen Victoria had died, and once ghost-wrote a proclamation, signed by Edward VII, declaring an end to the Boer War.

When a car knocked him over one summer evening in 1927, the king and queen sent a telegram to his wife expressing concern. When he succumbed to the injuries five days later, George V cabled again: "Their majesties have known him for so many years and he will be greatly missed. I am to assure you how much His Majesty feels for you and your family in this sorrow."

The then Prince of Wales, the one who would later give it all up to become Mr. Wallis Simpson, met personally with my grandfather, who had emigrated to Canada, to pass on his condolences.
It all seems remarkable today: members of the royal family expressing heart-felt sorrow at the death of a reporter.

The Princes in Canada, the year of GH's death

But it was a different era, and my great-grandfather was a different kind of reporter. He lived through some rocky times for the monarchy: the end of Victoria's historic reign, the serial womanizing of her son Edward VII. But if he was privy to any of the scandal, it never appeared in his copy.

These days, almost anything goes in tracking the lives of the royal family, from intercepting cellphone calls to paying off spurned lovers and servants to spew out their lurid tales.

Mr. Smith's career, according to the obituaries that appeared in major British newspapers, was epitomized by discretion and friendship with the royals, the kind of cozy relationship that would make today's average reporter cringe.

"King Edward knew him well, King George, Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary were his personal friends. He went everywhere with the members of the Royal Family," said a gushing tribute in Newspaper World, a trade magazine of the day.

"A few years ago he went (by ship) with the Prince of Wales to Canada and acted as a valuable 'corrector of the press' in putting the right perspective on the sensational stories sent by some of his transatlantic colleagues, who daily sought to bait the Prince in the saloons of the liner."

Covering a royal visit to America, a New York publisher offered him big bucks to write a tell-all book about the bluebloods. He turned down the lucrative deal. (Andrew Morton would have fallen off his chair.)

My great-grandfather's close ties with the royals did give rise to some choice stories.

When the Boer War ended, he travelled to Windsor Castle, expecting the king to issue a proclamation to his people marking the historic event, relates Chris Moncrieff in Living on a Deadline, a history of the Press Association (Virgin Books). But Edward VII was out to dinner and had not issued a statement. No problem. Mr. Smith penned a proclamation himself and handed it to the king's aide. It came back, signed "Edward R," and promptly became part of history.

The same king also once offered to buy a flower from a little girl at a charity event, only to realize he had left his wallet at home. Enter Mr. Smith to gallantly lend the king a pound. Edward was good for it -- Buckingham Palace paid my great-grandfather back later that day.

On another occasion, Edward gave a speech in London that the press corps was unable to hear properly. Again, my great-grandfather wrote out what he thought was in the speech and presented it to a royal aide for verification. He got it back a little later, edited by the king in green lead pencil.

I can't help but marvel at my forbear's celebrity connections; my own brushes with greatness have mostly involved notorious murderers and frumpy politicians. Yet I still feel a bit queasy about the symbiotic relationship he maintained with the subjects of his journalism.

Maybe I shouldn't worry. There is evidence he was a crack reporter.

Mr. Smith was the only scribe, for instance, to snag an interview with Cecil Rhodes, the famous colonialist, on a visit to Britain from Africa. As Mr. Rhodes - after whom Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was named - came down the stairs toward him in a Downing Street building, my great-grandfather craftily locked the doors heading outside. The two men fumbled with the latch and the reporter got the scoop from Mr. Rhodes on an important meeting.

When officials announced to a horde of waiting reporters in January, 1901, that Victoria had died, Mr. Smith hopped on his bicycle and raced into the nearby town, reaching the few available telephones and calling in his story before any of his competitors.
He was also, by most accounts, a prince of a fellow: charming, generous, kind and modest among both kings and his fellow reporters and other commoners.

He apparently had a striking presence, adhering closely to royal etiquette that called for him to wear a morning suit - what we call tails - to many events. But he was never pompous, according to the tribute, and would help colleagues on a story or with personal troubles at the drop of a hat.

I strangely never heard about my great-grandfather - or the fact that four of his sons became reporters - until after I had decided to go into the news business myself, evidence, perhaps, of the disturbing notion that there is a gene for journalism. (Two siblings are also journalists.)

On one North American tour, he managed to fit in a visit with my grandparents, who died long before I was born. My mother remembers the neighbours in their west-end Toronto neighbourhood being enthralled by his mellifluous tones and fascinating tales as he relaxed on their front porch.

I'll forgive him his different standards of journalism. As an ancestral role model, I could have done much worse." 

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