RIP Clare Hollingworth — Whose Scoop Stunned the World

(Including the all-male British press corps in Berlin)

Clare Hollingworth, whose death was announced yesterday, is best known for a scoop landed just three days into her long and brilliant career in journalism. In August 1939 she revealed to Daily Telegraph readers (and an incredulous British foreign office) that the German invasion of Poland was imminent. Reporting the outbreak of the Second World War — billed the “scoop of the century” — became her defining achievement.

It was all the more impressive because she achieved it in a male-dominated profession. Aspiring female reporters, particularly those chasing more illustrious work as foreign correspondents, were regarded with suspicion and at times derision during the 1930s. Journalism was widely regarded as a “man’s job” — a perception her scoop helped in a small way to change.

While researching my book about journalists in the era, I was struck by how few women were given a chance to report on the great events of the day. The story of Shiela Grant Duff, a talented Oxford graduate who asked The Times for a job earlier in the 1930s, was sadly typical. She approached senior staff, including the editor Geoffrey Dawson, to ask whether the paper would employ her to work as an assistant in the Paris office. The answer was no — she was told by a senior member of the foreign desk that women shouldn’t work on the editorial side of newspapers as it would involve nightshifts alongside men.

Grant Duff, who recalled the incident in her memoirs, was riled further when The Times said that if she happened to visit Paris she was welcome to send articles about fashion. She was furious. “To feel capable of stopping a world war and then to be asked to write fashion notes!” she wrote.

It was in this atmosphere that Hollingworth attempted to begin a career in journalism. She could not even rely on her mother, who distrusted reporters, for support. “She didn’t believe anything journalists wrote and thought they were only fit for the tradesmen’s entrance,” Hollingworth recalled.

Nonetheless she started work for the Telegraph at the age of 27. Obtaining the job was an achievement in itself and owed much to her experience travelling and helping refugees in Europe. With her scoop, headlined “1,000 tanks massed on Polish border”, she beat what remained of the exclusively male British press corps based in Berlin (and precipitated their rapid departure from Nazi Germany).

She continued to report insightfully and without fear for the rest of her long career. Hollingworth will be remembered as a great reporter — and all the greater for her success at a time when women were offered few opportunities in the trade.

Will Wainewright is the author of Reporting on Hitler: The British Press in Nazi Germany, published next month.