Thomas Wemyss Reid (1842-1905)
Journalist, biographer, novelist

Thomas Wemyss Reid (1842-1905)In 1866 a young journalist, Thomas Wemyss Reid, 24 years old, stepped off the train in Leeds to take up the post of chief reporter on the Leeds Mercury, then the leading provincial newspaper in the north. He was to stay here for more than 20 years, deeply involved in the political and intellectual life of the town, which he declared always held a special place in his heart.

Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1842, the son of a Congregational Minister, he had begun work at 15 as an office clerk, but cherished an ambition to be a newspaperman. By 19 he had got a job with the local paper. His brilliance as a reporter and leader-writer led to his appointment as editor of the Preston Guardian in 1864, and then to his reporting job in Leeds. After a year he was appointed the Mercury’s representative in London where he formed influential political and literary friendships which gave him access to several behind-the-scenes scoops. In 1870 he was invited back to Leeds to be editor of the Mercury, which flourished under his enthusiastic leadership, rivalling the London press in the quality of its news and comment and its insider sources of information. His personal life prospered too. Widowed after only three years of marriage, he married again in 1873, his new wife the daughter of a Headingley merchant. They lived first in Ashwood Villas, Headingley Lane, and then in a comfortable newly built villa in Cardigan Road, overlooking the open fields which were later to be transformed into the famous cricket and rugby grounds.

A committed Liberal, he was a firm supporter of W. E. Gladstone and his policies, and it was at his suggestion that Gladstone was invited to contest Leeds in the 1880 general election, though in the event Gladstone’s son Herbert took the seat. The following year Reid was one of the organisers of Gladstone’s ceremonial visit to Leeds, when the elderly Prime Minister was feted like a god. The arrangements featured a massive banquet for 1300 people in the Cloth Hall yard, expensively covered over for the occasion, a lavish luncheon at the Town Hall, and a mass meeting where he addressed a packed, excited audience of some thirty thousand. This was followed at dusk by a huge torchlight procession out to Headingley where Gladstone was staying. Reid described the spectacle of the torch-lit column of thousands of men snaking across the darkness of Woodhouse Moor as one he would never forget.

As well as politics, Reid had strong literary interests. He was a great admirer of the Brontes, at a time when some still dismissed them as inferior writers. Knowing this, Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Bronte’s intimate friend, entrusted him with the letters Charlotte had written to her and told him previously unknown stories of her friend. On these he based articles and a monograph about her which stirred up some controversy. Biography suited him, and he was later to record the lives of some of his political and literary friends: W.E.Forster, MP for Bradford and architect of the 1870 Education Act; Richard Monckton Milnes, first Lord Houghton; Lord Playfair; Dr John Deakin Heaton of Leeds; his friend William Black the journalist and novelist. These, like the Life of W.E.Gladstone which he edited, contain much material still valuable today. He enjoyed success too as a novelist, publishing two novels which sold very well in their time though they are now forgotten.

In 1887 Reid resigned as editor of the Mercury though he continued writing weekly articles. He moved to London to become manager of the publishing company Cassell & Co., and became a well-known commentator on the political and literary scene. He was knighted in 1894 for ‘services to letters and politics’ and died in 1905 at his London home.

Eveleigh Bradford
September 2010