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Todmorden wartime broadcaster earns Uni historian a special prize

Old BBC Mics

Fri, 10 Jul 2015 14:02:00 BST

BBC broadcaster was chosen for his Northern accent for the American listeners, who thought the Southern English accent sounded “cissy” 

William 'Billy' Holt DURING World War Two, the BBC wanted broadcasters with Northern accents, especially for the benefit of American listeners who thought that Southerners sounded “cissy”.  Todmorden-born William Holt (pictured left) – an author, traveller and political activist – had just the voice they wanted.  He quickly became one of the country’s leading radio personalities, alongside other famous Yorkshiremen, such as J.B. Priestley and Wilfred Pickles.  But this celebrity was short-lived and although the multi-faceted Holt is still well-remembered on his home patch, his broadcasting career had sunk into obscurity until a University of Huddersfield historian produced a prize-winning essay that brought it back to the surface. 

Dr Christine Verguson (pictured right) Christine Verguson specialises in the history of the BBC and her PhD thesis examined the Corporation’s commitment to regional broadcasting in the post-war years.  During her research, she encountered a huge amount of archival material dealing with the life and career of William Holt, who lived from 1897 to 1977.  His former home in Todmorden is marked by a blue plaque that describes him as “weaver, author, artist, publisher, political activist, broadcaster, inventor, world traveller and humanist”.  (The plaque can be seen below).

Although it earns a mention on the plaque, his broadcasting career is largely forgotten, writes Dr Verguson.  “Yet Holt was named by the 1949 BBC Yearbook as one of the Radio Personalities of 1948, particularly because of his work on the BBC’s various overseas services,” she adds. 

‌Now Dr Verguson has written an essay which explores how Holt projected his Yorkshire identity in the broadcasts he made to home and overseas audiences during and after World War Two. 

She entered it for the Bramley Award, which is a component of the Yorkshire History Prize, bestowed annually by the Yorkshire Society.  Judges decided that it deserved a ‘Special Award’. 

William Holt Talking 

William Holt plaque William Holt was the son of a Todmorden coal dealer and started work as a weaver in his early teens.  He served in World War One and then went travelling, before turning to political activism, joining the Communist Party.  In 1932, he was jailed for nine months after leading a protest.  He also became a journalist and author and reported on the Spanish Civil War.  In 1938, he made his first broadcast for the BBC Northern Region and – billed as “a weaver from Todmorden” – would specialise in documentaries on British life and industry. 

During World War Two, the BBC Overseas Service sought broadcasters for its American section because – in the words of a producer – “Southern accents and intonations were regarded as ‘cissy’ by North American listeners”. 

Holt took his opportunity well and Dr Verguson’s essay documents his flourishing wartime broadcasting career, which included a series of talks named Democracy Marches.  In 1949, he had a BBC Home Service series named William Holt Talking.  In that year, the BBC Yearbook named him one of the Radio Personalities of 1948. 

In the early 1950s, Holt’s career with the BBC – for which he worked as freelancer – began to fade.  Dr Verguson’s archival research uncovered several negative appraisals and as Holt badgered the Corporation for work he came to be seen as a nuisance.  In the Calder Valley, there have long been suspicions that Holt’s Communist past was held against him. 

Later in his life, William Holt became known for writing about his travels with a horse named Trigger.  This led to radio appearances and a Yorkshire Television documentary.  But his period of national celebrity had passed.  His value, according to Dr Verguson is that he had been able to convey Britain’s way of life to overseas audiences, with his Yorkshire accent – actually fairly mild – lending authenticity. 

Dr Verguson – who is publicity officer for Huddersfield Local History Society – will receive her Special Award for the essay on William Holt at a Yorkshire Society function in September.  She now aims to publish her analysis of the broadcasting career of the “weaver from Todmorden”.

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