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J.G. Crowther's War: Institutional strife at the BBC and British Council

  • ALLAN JONES (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

Science writer, historian and administrator J.G. Crowther (1899–1983) had an uneasy relationship with the BBC during the 1920s and 1930s, and was regarded with suspicion by the British security services because of his left politics. Nevertheless the Second World War saw him working for ‘establishment’ institutions. He was closely associated with the BBC's Overseas Service and employed by the British Council's Science Committee. Both organizations found Crowther useful because of his wide, international knowledge of science and scientists. Crowther's political views, and his international aspirations for the British Council's Science Committee, increasingly embroiled him in an institutional conflict with the Royal Society and with its president, Sir Henry Dale, who was also chairman of the British Council's Science Committee. The conflict centred on the management of international scientific relations, a matter close Crowther's heart, and to Dale's. Dale considered that the formal conduct of international scientific relations was the Royal Society's business rather than the British Council's. Crowther disagreed, and eventually resigned from the British Council Science Committee in 1946. The article expands knowledge of Crowther by drawing on archival documents to elucidate a side of his career that is only lightly touched on in his memoirs. It shows that ‘Crowther's war’ was also an institutional war between the Science Committee of the British Council and the Royal Society. Crowther's unhappy experience of interference by the Royal Society plausibly accounts for a retreat from his pre-war view that institutional science should plan and manage BBC science broadcasts.

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1 James G. Crowther, Fifty Years with Science, London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1970, p. 155. Crowther does not name the organization he applied to, giving only three dots in place of its names. The dots could stand for ‘BBC’, whose main science producer Mary Adams transferred in 1936 to the fledgling BBC television service leaving a vacancy in the radio services. The vacancy was filled by Ian Cox. See Jones Allan, ‘Mary Adams and the producer's role in early BBC science broadcasts’, Public Understanding of Science (2012) 21(8), pp. 968983.

2 Jeff Hughes, ‘Insects or neutrons? Science news values in interwar Britain’, in Martin W. Bauer and Massimiano Bucchi (eds.), Journalism, Science and Society: Science Communication between News and Public Relations, New York and London: Routledge, 2007, pp. 11–20.

3 Crowther, op. cit. (1).

4 Alice Byrne, ‘The British Council and the British world, 1939–1954’, GRAAT On-Line (March 2013) 13, available at www.graat.fr/cultural.htm.

5 Byrne Alice, ‘The British Council and cultural propaganda in the United States, 1938–1945’, Journal of Transatlantic Studies (2013) 3, pp. 249263, 249.

6 Chilvers Christopher A.J., ‘The dilemmas of seditious men: The Crowther–Hessen correspondence in the 1930s’, BJHS (2003) 4, pp. 417435, 420.

7 Chilvers op. cit. (6), p. 420.

8 The date when Crowther started contributing to the Manchester Guardian is not entirely clear, but Crowther op. cit. (1), p. 41, suggests that he considered 1927 to be significant in the establishment of his journalistic career with that publication. Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 260, gives 1949 as the year of his last contribution to it. To arrive at my estimate of Crowther's output for the Manchester Guardian I used the ProQuest online database of The Guardian, and searched in the author field for ‘J.G. Crowther’ OR ‘scientific correspondent’ OR ‘science correspondent’ between the dates of 1927 and 1949. I confined the publication title to ‘Manchester Guardian’ as this database covers some other publications. The search produced 383 ‘hits’. In these hits, J.G. Crowther's name appears in the byline eleven times. Oliver-Hill Andrews (personal communication, 1 March 2015) says that everything with the ‘scientific correspondent’ byline after about 1929 was by Crowther, but prior to that date some articles with this byline were secured by Crowther from scientists. I therefore tentatively round the number of articles by Crowther down to 350. For more on Crowther's writings see Oliver Hill-Andrews's doctoral thesis ‘Interpreting science: J.G. Crowther and the making of interwar British culture’, University of Sussex, 2015.

9 Chilvers, op. cit. (6), p. 421.

10 James G. Crowther, Science for You, London: Routledge and Sons, 1928, p. vii.

11 Crowther op. cit. (10), p. 235.

12 Crowther op. cit. (1), p. 43.

13 Letter from Crowther to Mary Adams, 3 September 1931, BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham, Reading, UK (subsequently BBC WAC), Crowther Contributor File.

14 Chilvers, op. cit. (6), p. 426.

15 Chilvers, op. cit. (6), p. 422.

16 Boris Hessen, ‘The social and economic roots of Newton's Principia’, in Nikolai Bukarin (ed.), Science at the Cross Roads, 2nd edn, London: Cassel, 1971, pp. 147–212.

17 Loren R. Graham, Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 143.

18 Graham, op. cit. (17), p. 144.

19 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 79.

20 ‘The origin of matter: new type of ultimate particle found by Cambridge scientist’, Manchester Guardian, 27 February 1932, p. 11.

21 Hughes, op. cit. (2) p. 15.

22 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 96.

23 Crowther op. cit. (1), p. 99. Crowther's account of Bohr's presentation was published in the Manchester Guardian on 19 April 1932, p. 5, ‘The neutron: Niels Bohr's address at Copenhagen’, and not on 19 March 1932, which Crowther erroneously gives as the publication date in op. cit. (1), p. 99.

24 Crowther's accounts are given respectively in ‘The atom: disintegration by electricity’, Manchester Guardian, 2 May 1932, p. 9; and ‘Mystery of the cosmic rays: apparatus that makes them photograph themselves’, Manchester Guardian, 3 September 1932, p. 13.

25 Crowther, op. cit. (1), pp. 175–176.

26 Crowther, op. cit. (1), pp. 189–190.

27 Crowther, op. cit. (1), pp. 168–183.

28 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 245.

29 Printer's proof of typeset Science Page for Radio Times, Crowther Archive, the Keep, Brighton, UK (subsequently CA), SXMs29/9/10/2.

30 Memorandum from Crowther to Hilda Matheson, 6 December 1926, BBC WAC, Crowther Contributor File.

31 Memorandum from Crowther to Hilda Matheson, 6 December 1926, BBC WAC, Crowther Contributor File.

32 Memorandum from Crowther to Hilda Matheson, 6 December 1926, BBC WAC, Crowther Contributor File, underlining in original.

33 H. Matheson, manuscript comment on Crowther's letter of 6 December 1926, BBC WAC, Crowther Contributor File.

34 See Jones Allan, ‘Elite science and the BBC: a 1950s contest of ownership’, BJHS (2014), 4, pp. 701723. Jones , ‘Clogging the machinery: the BBC's experiment in science coordination, 1949–1953’, Media History (2013) 4, pp. 436449. Timothy Boon, Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television, London: Wallflower Press, 2008, pp. 187–191 and Chapter 7.

35 Hilda Matheson to J.G. Crowther, 16 November 1927, CA, SxMs29/9/10/5.

36 These broadcasts were the earliest instances I have found of science broadcasts by a popularizer rather than a practising scientist.

37 Jones Allan, ‘Mary Adams and the producer's role in early BBC science broadcasts’, Public Understanding of Science (2012) 8, pp. 968983.

38 Chilvers, op. cit. (6), p. 422.

39 Letter, 29 November 1929, from D.B.S. to J.W. Stafford at the Passport Office, National Archives, Kew, London, UK (subsequently NA), KV2/3341 Security Services file on J.G. Crowther. Chilvers, op. cit. (6), p. 419, says that Crowther joined the Communist Party in or around 1923.

40 Mary Adams to Ian Cox, n.d. (probably c. June 1936), BBC WAC, R51/523/1.

41 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 180.

42 Crowther's voice survives in BBC recorded radio programme ‘A generation for progress’, broadcast on BBC Radio 3, 27 September 1972. National Sound Archive Recording reference T10854R. BBC reference T39893.

43 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 130–136.

44 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 123–129.

45 See, for example, Roy MacLeod and Kay MacLeod, ‘The social relations of science and technology 1914–1939’, in Carlo M. Cipolla (ed.), The Twentieth Century, vol. 1, Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1976, pp. 319–320.

46 MacLeod and MacLeod, op. cit. (45).

47 Chilvers, op. cit. (6), p. 427.

48 Joseph Needham, ‘Report on four months’ tour in the United States, June–November 1940’, SZ/TQ/2/7, Zuckerman Archive, University of East Anglia (subsequently ZA), p. 4.

49 Needham, op. cit. (48), p. 4.

50 Needham, op. cit. (48), pp. 6, 7.

51 Letter from Lord Melchett to Solly Zuckerman, 26 March 1941, ZA, SZ/TQ/2/7.

52 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 228.

53 Letter, 29 May 1941, from B. Ifor Evans to William Bragg (and members of Science Committee), NA, BW 2/338. At some point subsequently Crowther's job title was changed to ‘director’, possibly accompanying a raising of the status of the Science Committee within the council. A long, undated anonymous document, ‘The place of the Science Department in the organization of the British Council’, in the Royal Society Archive, HD/8/2/3/1/13, probably by Crowther and from internal evidence written more than a year after he joined the council, outlines the anomalous position of the Science Committee as a sub-department of Education. Various difficulties of this arrangement are outlined, including, for example, that the Science Committee had insufficient authority to intervene when the council's Film Department produced an unsuitable film about the Royal Institution. The document appears to be making the case for separating Science from Education and raising it to divisional status. By the time of Crowther's resignation in early 1946 he was referred to as ‘director’ of the Science Committee, which would be consistent with a change of status of Science. An undated five-page ‘Report on British Council Science Committee’ by Crowther in CA SxMS29/5/2/15, evidently written around the time of his resignations, refers retrospectively to events at the council. Crowther titles himself ‘director’ when recounting events from 1942 and subsequently.

54 At the time of Crowther's appointment to the Science Committee, he and Bragg did not know each other well. Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 229.

55 Pure Science Panel, Agenda for 1st meeting on Friday 4 July 1941, Publicizing British Scientific Achievement, NA, BW2/339.

56 Pure Science Panel, Agenda for 1st meeting on Friday 4 July 1941, Publicizing British Scientific Achievement, NA, BW2/339.

57 Letter, William Bragg to J.G. Crowther, 25 June 1941, NA, BW2/339.

58 Samples of Monthly Science News, CA, SxMs29/5/2/11.

59 Alice Byrne, ‘“Boosting Britain”: Démocratie et propagande culturelle, Britain To-day 1939–1954’, doctoral thesis, Aix-Marseille Université, 2010, pp. 60–61.

60 British Council Science Committee, minutes of meeting on 4 November 1941, NA, BW 2/338.

61 For example, draft minutes of the Science Committee meeting for 25 November 1942 have much on Anglo-Soviet scientific relations. The minutes for 13 July 1943 and 8 December 1943 deal with Anglo-Chinese relations. NA BW 2/338.

62 Patrick Petitjean, ‘J.G. Crowther and the Anglo-French Society of Sciences’ (2007), downloadable from https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00112452v1/document, accessed 27 February 2015. Crowther, op. cit. (1), pp. 240, 242, says that the Society for Visting Scientists operated informally from 1942, and was formally established in October 1944.

63 Anon., Nature, 23 September 1944, p. 391.

64 Note by a sergeant at Metropolitan Police, Special Branch, 2 October 1944, NA KV2/3341, Security Services file on J.G. Crowther.

65 Note from A.S. Halford, Foreign Office (recipient unclear), 28 January 1947, NA, KV2/3341, Security Services file on J.G. Crowther.

66 Memo from Sir Richard Maconachie to director general, 22 December 1943, BBC WAC R51/529.

67 Undated memo/press release ‘Science lifts the veil’, c. November 1941, BBC WAC R51/523/3.

68 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 230. Also draft minutes of 4th meeting of the Science Committee, Wednesday 25 November 1942, NA, BW 2/338.

69 Simon J. Potter, Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922–1970, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 113–114. Potter, ‘The colonisation of the BBC’, in Marie Gillespie and Alban Webb (eds.), Diasporas and Diplomacy: Cosmopolitan Contact Zones at the BBC World Service (1932–2012), Abingdon: Routledge, 2013, pp. 40–56, 40.

70 Gerard Mansell, Let Truth Be Told: 50 Years of BBC External Broadcasting, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982, p. 122.

71 Marie Gillespie and Alban Webb, ‘Corporate cosmopolitanism: diasporas and diplomacy at the BBC World Service, 1932–2012’, in Gillespie and Webb (eds.), Diasporas and Diplomacy: Cosmopolitan Contact Zones at the BBC World Service (1932–2012), Abingdon: Routledge, 2013, pp. 1–20, 9.

72 Letter, Eric Blair to J.G. Crowther, 21 September 1941, CA, SxMs29/9/10/4.

73 Letters from J.G. Crowther to Una Marson, 17, 30 November 1942; 13, 14 January 1943. Letter, Una Marson to J.G. Crowther, 20 January 1943. Letters, G. Ivan Smith to J.G. Crowther, 10 March 1943, 12 September 1945. Letter, Anthony Weymouth to J.G. Crowther, 7 December 1943. All BBC WAC, Crowther Contributor File. Letter, B.K. to E. Schreider, 26 January 1945, CA, SxMs29/5/2/2. Letter, Eleen Sam to J.G. Crowther, 27 November 1942, CA, SxMs29/5/2/12. Letter, J.G. Crowther to Eleen Sam, 19 February 1946. CA, SxMs29/5/2/2.

74 In a memo of 17 June 1945 from Pacific Service Director (G. Ivan Smith) to controller (European Service), Smith refers to Crowther, as a friend; and in a letter to Crowther, 12 September 1945, Smith tells Crowther that he is leaving the BBC to work as a documentary producer for Rank Films and invites Crowther and his wife to dinner. BBC WAC, Crowther Contributor File.

75 Smith to assistant controller European Service, manuscript addition, 17 June 1945, BBC WAC, Crowther Contributor File.

76 Minutes of a meeting of the committee of the Division for the Social and International Relations of Science, 3 December 1941. Also minutes of Divisional Committee for Social and International relations of Science Minutes, 14 April 1942, which attribute the idea for the conference to Crowther. ZA, SZ/TQ/2/6.

77 Letter from J.G. Crowther to N. Luker, 24 December 1941, BBC WAC R51/523/3. Memo, N. Luker to director of Talks, 7 January 1942, BBC WAC R51/523/3.

78 Memo, N. Luker to director of Talks, 7 January 1942, BBC WAC R51/523/3.

79 Memo, director of Talks to assistant director of Talks, 12 January 1942, BBC WAC R51/523/3.

80 Memo, director of Talks to controller (Home), 4 March 1942, BBC WAC R51/523/3.

81 Letter, Sir Cecil Graves to Sir William Bragg, 6 March 1942, BBC WAC R51/523/3.

82 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 229.

83 Lawrence Bragg, ‘Interview with Sir Lawrence Bragg’ by David Edge, 20 June 1969, Oral History Transcript at American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library and Archives, available at www.aip.org/history/ohilist/28531.html.

84 British Association for the Advancement of Science, Advancement of Science (1943) 2(8), pp. 335–336.

85 British Association for the Advancement of Science, Advancement of Science (1943) 2(8), pp. 300, 303.

86 British Association for the Advancement of Science, Advancement of Science (1943) 2(8), p. 299.

87 Anon., Evening Standard, 14 December 1943.

88 Letter from British Association for Advancement of Science to director general, BBC, 19 November 1943, BBC WAC R51/529.

89 Internal memo from W.J. Haley, 24 November 1943, regarding letter from British Association for the Advancement of Science, BBC WAC R51/529.

90 Notes of meeting at Broadcasting House, 14 December 1943, BBC WAC R51/524/4.

91 There was, however, a brief sequel a few months later involving the Association of Scientific Workers. In February 1944 Haley met representatives from the Association of Scientific Workers whose main proposal was ‘that the BBC should appoint a full-time scientific officer who would be assisted by some sort of outside scientific advisory body’ (Record of interview 12 February 1944 with Dr Douglas McClean (Lister Institute) and Dr Van Heyningen from W.J. Haley to C(H), BBC WAC R51/529). This was much the same as the pair of proposals made a few months earlier by the BAAS's delegation. Once again, the proposal made no progress.

92 ‘Notes of meeting at Broadcasting House’, 14 December 1943, BBC WAC R51/524/4.

93 Director of Talks to assistant director of Talks, 12 January 1942, BBC WAC R51/523/3.

94 Director of Talks to assistant director of Talks, 12 January 1942, BBC WAC R51/523/3. The secrecy of the advisory arrangement with the Royal Society is revealed in a memo from director of Talks to controller, Home Service, 19 October 1943, BBC WAC R51/529.

95 Director of Talks to assistant director of Talks, 12 January 1942, BBC WAC R51/523/3.

96 Biographical information from Wilhelm Feldberg (rev. E.M. Tansey), ‘Dale, Sir Henry Hallett (1875–1968)’, in H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2011, 11 August 2013, at www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32694.

97 This account of Dale's side of the disagreement is based on a letter from Sir Henry Dale to Sir William Larke, 13 March 1946, NA BW 2/337.

98 Letter, Sir Henry Dale to Sir William Larke, 13 March 1946, NA BW 2/337.

99 Letter, Sir Henry Dale to Sir William Larke, 13 March 1946, NA BW 2/337.

100 This account of Crowther's objections is based on a letter from R. Seymour to W.H. Montagu -Pollock, Foreign Office, 1 March 1946, NA, BW 2/337; and also on the five-page undated document ‘Report on British Council Science Committee’, CA, SxMS29/5/2/15.

101 Petitjean, op. cit. (62), p. 17 n. 41.

102 Lyon's book was Sir Henry Lyons, The Royal Society 1660–1940: A History of Its Administration under Its Charters, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944.

103 J.G. Crowther, ‘The Royal Society’, New Statesman and Nation, 2 December 1944, p. 375.

104 J.G. Crowther, undated document, ‘Report on British Council Science Committee’, CA, SxMS29/5/2/15.

105 Letter, J.G. Crowther to Sir Henry Dale, 26 February 1946, NA, BW 2/337.

106 Letter, J.G. Crowther to Sir Henry Dale, 26 February 1946, NA, BW 2/337.

107 Letter, General Sir Ronald Adam to J.G. Crowther, 17 August 1946, CA, SxMS29/5/2/15.

108 J.G. Crowther, draft reply to letter from General Sir Ronald Adam to J.G. Crowther, 17 August 1946, CA, SxMS29/5/2/15.

109 Crowther, op. cit. (1), p. 307.

110 Crowther's published account of the institutional disagreement between the Royal Society and the British Council Science Committee occupies pp. 235 and 249–251 of Crowther, op. cit. (1).

111 J.G. Crowther, undated document ‘Report on British Council Science Committee’, CA, SxMS29/5/2/15.

112 Crowther, op. cit. (1), mentions two non-BBC broadcasts: one for New Zealand Radio entitled ‘Science and peace’ in 1951 (at pp. 318–319), and one for Polish Radio in 1955 (at p. 322).

BBC copyright material reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. I am most grateful to Oliver Hill-Andrews for many helpful suggestions regarding archival material, and for illuminating discussions regarding J.G. Crowther. I am also indebted to Alice Byrne for information regarding the British Council.

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