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Dancing to a different tune

As a boy, Cecil Fleetwood-May had been educated partly in Germany and had acquired a fluent knowledge of German. This may explain why, as a 20-year-old in 1914 when European powers marched to war, he did not join the forces. His linguistic skills were too valuable and point to his probably having been employed in government intelligence services in London. But we can never know for certain.

He joined Reuters in 1917 as a sub-editor. Yet by 1930 he had become both wireless manager and head of Reuters commercial services.

Bespectacled, genial, boisterous and hard-working, Fleetwood-May was a small man with big but always workable ideas. Many years later, as European manager after the Second World War (during which his only son, John, a bomber captain, was killed aged 20) the bounce had diminished. Younger colleagues began to find it hard to credit the oft-told tale that his proficient French and excellent German had been acquired during a youth which had included playing the piano for dancers in broad-minded taverns across Europe.

Back in 1920 the tale had seemed far more plausible. Fleetwood-May was then in his prime.    

When on 14 October 1851 Paul Julius Reuter first opened for business in London at Royal Exchange Buildings he offered “commercial intelligence” - what today would be termed financial and economic information and services (the core of Thomson Reuters markets division). From the start this business made modest money. General news was only added some years later. Although hard to make pay, it was the latter which became the main interest of Reuters for the next 70 years.

By the period just after the First World War, professional snobbery on the part of the “proper” Reuters journalists had reduced the Commercial Department to a small operation producing routine market reports and stock exchange quotations. Much data of commercial interest passed daily through the news services but was largely ignored. Fleetwood-May put forward a proposal to extract this information and to offer it to trade newspapers and business firms under the name of Reuters Trade Service. Reuters’ chief then was Sir Roderick Jones, often criticised but not without imagination. Desperate to find a new income stream for the company, he agreed to the plan.

Bespectacled, genial, boisterous and hard-working, Fleetwood-May was a small man with big but always workable ideas

The new Trade Department commenced operations on 1 January 1920. With Fleetwood-May brimming full of fresh ideas and ambition for his new service, it was but a first step. Commercial services required the fastest possible delivery of price and other statistical information. With this in mind, Fleetwood-May decided to explore the untried possibilities of broadcast wireless telegraphy instead of cable relay. This could ultimately mean that reception points across the world would receive Morse code messages simultaneously.

An enthusiast for the new medium, Fleetwood-May listened in to the various experimental wireless transmissions being broadcast in the London area. Realising that an increasing amount of commercial information was coming onto the airwaves, by 1922 he plucked up sufficient courage to ask Reuters’ senior managers for £30 to buy equipment. Most were unenthusiastic, but Jones over-ruled them. Money was allocated to equip Fleetwood-May’s house in suburban Finchley as a private listening-post with a rooftop aerial. The house was then connected to Reuters’ Old Jewry head office by telephone line and thence, via a transformer, to a few wireless sets at Reuters.

Meanwhile, two German agencies had realised the possibilities of wireless and begun broadcasting exchange rates in a more formal fashion to subscribers in Germany and neighbouring countries. Suddenly, wireless had become the new thing. The possibilities seemed endless. The lack of enthusiasm on the part of Reuters’ management now melted away.

In Britain, only the Post Office, a department of state, had the right to transmit such a service. The autumn of 1922 saw the start of an association (Reuters as customer, the Post Office as purveyor) that would define news agency wireless communications for the next 20 years.

Initially, Fleetwood-May thought purely in terms of a European Commercial Service. Exchange rates were transmitted in Morse seven times a day from the Post Office wireless station at Northolt in northwest London. The new service - the Reuterian - was soon a success, and it was decided that Reuters needed a more powerful transmitter capable of reaching subscribers far beyond Europe. There was one at Rugby, about 80 miles north of the city. It was a powerful long-wave station used by the British Admiralty during the First World War but now frequently idle. Its facilities were offered by the Post Office but the tariff rate would be high (£5 - the equivalent of a good weekly wage - to start from “cold”). Despite this, the Reuterian went from strength to strength, becoming Europe’s leading commercial service. The year 1929 saw a further development when the Post Office offered the company the use of a powerful short-wave transmitter at Leafield near Oxford. Costs now dropped significantly, and for the first time Reuters began to use wireless to send general news as well as commercial information to Europe.

It was a mere seven years since permission had been given for a pioneering wireless aerial to be erected on the roof of Fleetwood-May’s home.

Reuters had danced with commendable speed to his rewarding new tune.

CARICATURE: Cecil Fleetwood-May portrayed in a cartoon titled Golf Clubs and Golfers featuring members of Brookmans Park Golf Club north of London. It was published in The Tatler on 31 March 1937. ■