Harry “Donny” Davies: An Old International

‘The Guardian in London and Manchester’ Ref. GDN/Add Box 322/1. Copyright Guardian News and Media

Blog post by Ian Graham, Reader Services

The University of Manchester Library is home to the archive of the Manchester Guardian and within this vast collection there is a chunky folder of letters and telegrams sent to the Editor of the Guardian, and carbon copies of the corresponding replies. They focussed on the death of someone who was wholly unfamiliar to me but clearly held in high regard by others. For instance, one Reverend Winchurch (a Methodist minister) wrote,

“Sir, In the passing of Don Davies we have lost a writer of rare quality. I place him first among the sports reporters of my time, with the second a long way behind … [Davies’s match reports] were stylish essays, cultured, humorous examples of Lancashire dialect as well as a perfect picture of the match and the players…”

Dated 7th February 1958, Winchurch’s letter was written the day after the Munich Air Disaster. The story of the disaster is well-known, particularly amongst football fans and especially amongst Mancunians. In summary, British European Airways Flight 609 crashed upon taking off at Munich-Reim airport; on board were the famed “Busby Babes” Manchester United football team, heading home from a victorious quarter-finals match in the European Cup, and an assortment of club staff, journalists and supporters. Of the forty four passengers, twenty perished there and then; a further three expired in the Rechts der Isar Hospital. Amongst the dead was the subject of Reverend Winchurch’s letter, Harry “Donny” Davies, a Manchester Guardian sports journalist and sometimes radio broadcaster.

Letter from Rev. W. Winchurch to the Editor, Manchester Guardian, ref. GDN/223/35/26

As mentioned, Davies was not someone I had heard of. However, a little research showed that he was an interesting, and accomplished, fellow. Born in Pendleton in 1892, he was a first-rate sportsman before turning to journalism, playing football for the Northern Nomads F.C. and Port Vale, as well as earning three caps for the England national amateur team. In what was — and still is — one of the stranger footballing arrangements, Stoke F.C. offered to pay Davies’s fees to study for a BA in History at Manchester University in exchange for him accepting a position in their team; he accepted, but spent only a week at the University before war broke out and he signed up as a lieutenant in the East Yorkshire and South Lancashire regiments. Sometime later, he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps but, a mere fortnight after gaining his wings, was shot down over France and imprisoned first in Karlsruhe, and then in Freiburg, before eventually being sent to Holzminden, considered amongst the worst German prisoner-of-war camps.

Upon the War’s close, he returned to England, weighing less than six stone. Regaining his health (“The great thing about physical fitness,” he once remarked, “is that you can’t buy it or inherit it, you’ve got to work and sweat for it and beat back the great enemy, sloth”[i]), he became an assistant master in the Day Continuation School at Messrs. Mather and Platt, an engineering firm in Manchester (for whom he would work for the next thirty eight years, becoming finally the firm’s Education Officer); he also took up cricket, playing first for Bradshaw Cricket Club, then Lancashire.

Davies began writing for the Guardian in 1930, brought on board by the sports editor E. A. Montague. “Should the day dawn,” Montague told Davies on the latter’s first visit to the Guardian offices, “when, in the opinion of the person now addressing you, your space could be more profitably used by someone else, that fact will be conveyed to you in terms which will admit of no misunderstanding. Meanwhile we ascribe to you the title of ‘An Old International’”. The day never came when a more profitable alternative to ‘An Old International’ was found. In our collection of letters and telegrams of commiseration, written in the weeks following the Munich disaster, the reasons why are clear, recurring as they do from letter to letter: Davies was a great, stylish writer, full of buoyant good humour, erudition and warmth. He was not simply a sports writer, but a fixture in the lives of his readers.

“No visit to one of these matches, either in reality or as a listener, was complete without the Monday edition of the Guardian to read ‘Old International’s’ marvellous accounts of the proceedings,” writes one correspondent and, referring to Davies’s work on BBC Radio’s Sports Report, continues, “. . . no-one could ever replace the character whose pen and voice were so compelling and who was able to influence our shopping and gardening time tables on the Saturday so that we would be at home in time to hear the invitation from London, ‘Come in, Don Davies’ either at lunch or tea-time”. [iii]

Another correspondent writes, “We shall miss that simile which made us smile all day, or a line of classics which evoked such pleasant reflections . . . One recalls, for instances, his description [. . .] of Webster having modelled his training on Nebuchadnezzar seeing he spent so much time on the ground” [iv] (a reference to the Biblical king who, punished by God for his boastfulness, was robbed of his sanity and “was driven from men and did eat grass as oxen”). The same correspondent concludes, “Your paper has lost a literary artist of scholarly taste”. [v]

Whilst it is possible for a journalist (or anyone) to practice convincingly a type of counterfeit erudition, Davies’s “scholarly taste” was not a flashy affectation, but a central aspect of his life. According to Davies’s daughter, “[h]is study walls were decorated with Durer prints, brought back from his footballing trips to Germany. On the mantelpiece were busts of Wagner and Beethoven. His bookshelves were as full of poetry books as of books on sport. Goethe, Heine and Schiller were his favourites . . .”[vi] Even imprisoned at Holzminden, Davies read earnestly, getting through Gibbons’ Decline and Fall in its entirety; Thomas Tout, a history professor at Owens College, Manchester, ensured Davies was provided with books. Davies’s broad knowledge of the classics, and art, and countless other things, was something of a trademark. Writing in the Guardian, he was known only as ‘An Old International’; but his real identity was, under certain circumstances, a very solvable mystery.

“For a long time I was puzzled as to the identity of ‘Old International’, when a year or so ago I happened to tune in to a broadcast of Sports Report [a BBC radio programme] as the announcer was introducing a commentator from Manchester,” writes another correspondent. “I knew immediately that commentator Don Davies was ‘Old International’ — not so much by what he said but how he said it. What other sports writer would use a Biblical quotation to illustrate a particular feature in a game of football?” [vii]

Affection for Davies extended beyond those who were interested in football. Whilst there are many letters akin to those sent by the lowly Whalley Range Amateur Football Club (“it was always our pleasure to welcome this kindly gentleman to our ground, for the annual match against the Public Schools”[viii]) and the esteemed Secretary of the Football League (“Mr. Davies was so well known in football that his passing will leave a gap which will be hard to fill”[ix]), there were also testimonies of his appeal to those beguiled purely by his warmth and style. A Mrs. Dorothy Bennett writes, “Being a woman, football does not hold a great interest for me, but I always listened to Mr. Davies’s commentaries each week. His clever and magical similes always fascinated me . . .”[x]. In a similar vein, an R. Pickles notes that “. . . no other contemporary writer in sport was so widely read by people without particular interest in football”; Pickles also makes a suggestion: “Would this be too early a time to ask whether it will be possible, some time in the future, to issue in book form a selection of the reports of ‘Old International’?”[xi]. This idea of a memorial work of Davies’s writing appears in many of the letters, with some correspondents suggesting that the proceeds of such a work should go toward the upkeep of Davies’s widow and family. For the researcher, and casual reader, it is a great boon that the Guardian’s responses to many of these and other letters have been preserved in carbon copy form in the collection — even if, with respect to publishing a collection of Davies’s work, their tone is somewhat cautious, even pessimistic. “The question of republishing the articles is difficult,” goes the reply. “We shall certainly look into it. As you know, one or two have appeared in the Bedside Guardian in the last year or two, but we may be able to do something more substantial.”[xii] It is unclear whether such a volume ever materialised; I certainly haven’t been able to find any trace of it.

Letter from the Editor, Manchester Guardian, to R. Pickles, 10 Feb. 1958, GDN/223/35/96.

It is to the Guardian’s credit that they replied to many — if not all — of the correspondents. Perhaps inevitably, responding to so many letters written in a similar vein led to the replies being a touch formulaic, with the same phrases appearing over and over again: “The loss of Davies is one that we will feel very much. He won’t be easy to replace as far as we are concerned, and for his family it will be impossible.” [xiii] Nonetheless, the replies struck the right tone, alluding to the newspaper’s loss whilst placing a greater emphasis on the loss suffered by Davies’s family. Indeed, one of the many touching aspects of this collection is the public’s concern for Davies’s wife and children. A T. Goring writes, “May I [. . .] ask a favour of you to arrange for the address to be written on the enclosed envelope which contains my letter of condolence to Mrs Davies, and have it posted to her.” [xiv] Another correspondent, an R.S. Walker, suggests that any proceeds from a published collection of Davies’s work “should assist his widow.” [xv]

A letter to Davies’s widow from the Guardian’s editor summarises this facet of the collection perfectly. Written on 12th February, not yet a week after the Munich disaster, it begins, “Could I enclose a further list of those who have written?” and continues “For the most part they are private individuals. I think they have simply felt that they must express their great grief at your husband’s death. There may, however, be a few at least whom you know personally. All these letters have been acknowledged.” [xvi]

Whilst the collection does not contain any letters from Davies’s widow, it does have a touching missive from Deidre Gooder, Davies’s daughter. Beginning with, “I should like you to know how very much your generous tributes to my father have helped my mother and myself in our great sorrow . . .”[xvii] it can be read here in its entirety:

To summarise: although comprising a relatively small portion of our sprawling Guardian Archive, the Donny Davies collection provides a view of what takes place “behind the scenes” when a well-known, much-loved figure dies unexpectedly, and in a very public, very tragic way. Correspondents may be roughly categorised as those with direct personal connections to Davies and those who did not know him but, through his writing, felt as if they did. Maybe this latter category isn’t quite so cut-and-dried, though; by all accounts, the journalist version of Donny Davies was less a persona than a fair reflection of the man himself.

Discussion Points

What does this collection tell you about the relationship between a newspaper and its readers?

What made Donny Davies so popular with his audiences? If Donny Davies was alive today would he have used different forms of media? If so, what?

Additional resources

Jack Cox, ‘Don Davies “An Old International”’ London, (1962).

You can find out more about the Guardian Archive here or access the online version of our bicentenary exhibition ‘Manchester’s Guardian: 200 years of the Guardian newspaper’ here. You can also arrange to view items from the Guardian archives with our Reader Services Teams, find out more here.

There are many other blog posts on the Manchester Guardian Archive. See the selection below:

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Dr Janette Martin

Dr Janette Martin

Research and Learning Manager (Special Collections) interested in developing online learning resources drawn from the spectacular collections held at the UoM