John Reith, 1st Baron Reith

From Academic Kids

John Charles Walsham Reith, 1st Baron Reith (July 20 1889 - June 16 1971), later Sir John Reith (1927-), then Baron Reith (1940-) established the British tradition of independent public service broadcasting.

Early life

Born at Stonehaven in Scotland, Reith was the youngest, by ten years, of the seven children of the Revd Dr George Reith, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland. He was to carry the religious convictions of the Free Church forward into his adult life. Reith was educated at Glasgow Academy then at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk. Reith was an indolent child who had used his intelligence to escape hard work but he was genuinely disappointed when his father refused to support any further education and apprenticed him an engineer at the North British Locomotive Company. Reith had been a keen sportsman at school and only learnt to tolerate his apprentiship through part-time soldiering in the 1st Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers and 5th Scottish Rifles.

In 1914, Reith left Glasgow for London, largely in pursuit of a 17 year-old schoolboy, Charlie Bowser, on whom he appears to have formed something of a crush. Though he readily found work at the Royal Albert Dock, his commission in the 5th Scottish Rifles soon found him serving in World War I, being invalided out when struck in the cheek by a bullet in October 1915. He spent the next two years in the USA, supervising armament contracts, and became attracted to the country, fantasising of moving there with Bowser after the war.

On his return to the UK, Reith and Bowser both fell in love with Muriel Odhams. Reith won Muriel's hand but warned her that she must share me with C. He sought to redress the asymetry by finding a partner for Bowser but Reith's subsequent jealousy interrupted the men's frienship, much to Reith's pain.

However, the end of the war saw a reconcilliation, with Reith's return to Glasgow as General Manager of an engineering firm and Bowser becoming his assistant. But the lure of London proved too much for Reith and in 1922, he again set out for the capital. Dabbling in politics, despite his family's Liberal Party sympathies, he ended up working as secretary to the London Unionist group of MPs in the United Kingdom general election, 1922. Perhaps prophetically, that election was the first whose results were broadcast by radio.


On December 14 1922 Reith became the general manager of the British Broadcasting Company, an organisation formed by manufacturers to provide broadcasts to foster demand for wireless sets. In his own words he was:

... confronted with problems of which I had no experience: Copyright and performing rights; Marconi patents; associations of concert artists, authors, playwrights, composers, music publishers, theatre managers, wireless manufacturers.

Reith oversaw the vesting of the company in a new organisation, the BBC, formed under royal charter and became its first Director-General from January 1 1927 to June 30 1938.

He expounded firm principles of centralised, all-encompassing radio broadcasting, stressing programming standards and moral tone. To this day, the BBC claims to follow the Reithian directive to "inform, educate and entertain".

The first regular television broadcasts (November 1936 to September 1939) started under Reith's stewardship.

Later life

After leaving the BBC in 1938, he became chairman of Imperial Airways. In 1940 Reith was appointed Minister of Information in the government of Neville Chamberlain. So as to perform his full duties he became a Member of Parliament for Southampton. When Chamberlain fell and Churchill became Prime Minister his long running feud with Reith led to the latter being moved to the Ministry of Transport. He was subsequently moved to become First Commissioner of Works which he held for the next two years, through two restructurings of the job, and was also transferred to the House of Lords.

The BBC Reith Lectures commemorate Lord Reith.

Preceded by:
New office
Director-General of the BBC
Succeeded by:
Sir Frederick Ogilvie
Preceded by:
Lord Macmillan
Minister of Information
Succeeded by:
Alfred Duff Cooper
Preceded by:
Euan Wallace
Minister of Transport
Succeeded by:
John Moore-Brabazon
Preceded by:
The Lord Tryon
First Commissioner of Works
Succeeded by:
Office replaced
Preceded by:
New office
Minister of Works & Buildings
and First Commissioner of Works

Succeeded by:
Office replaced
Preceded by:
New office
Minister of Works and Planning
Succeeded by:
The Lord Portal

Template:End box

Preceded by:
New Creation
Baron Reith Succeeded by:
Christopher Reith

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