Reith, John (Reith of Stonehaven, Baron)

Scope and Content

The collection consists of the business and personal papers of John Reith, first Baron Reith and first Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It is composed of:

- 18 volumes of personal diaries (1911–1971)

- 27 volumes of enclosures (scrapbooks) (1889–1969)

- 12 files of Reith's post-BBC correspondence (1940-1969)

- Papers on the Advertising Commission (1964-1971)

- Minutes of the Cycle Division Council (1956-1958)

- Unpublished biography of Thomas Chalmers (1957-1958)

The diaries have always been the main focus of interest in this collection. It should be noted that they concentrate as much on Reith's personal, and indeed domestic, affairs as they do on his public life, and they are in no sense a journal or record of the pre-war BBC. Nevertheless, they make for a lively, if tendentious, account of historic events and personalities.

Up to 1934, the original diaries are in typed form. This is the result of Reith's self-editing of his previously written material. Thereafter, they are in Reith's own, densely-written, hand. The Written Archives Centre's typed transcripts run up to 1954. Reith's pagination has been retained, as has his idiosyncratic way with layout.

The enclosure volumes, being in poor condition, were re-mounted by the Berkshire Record Office in 1980. They are in large folio form, and the original layout of the papers on the page has been replicated. They include letters, both business and personal, received by Reith, but generally not his side of the correspondence. There are also numerous photographs, press cuttings, and mementoes. Some items relating to the Reith children were returned to Christopher Reith at his request.

There are currently two indexes for the contents of the enclosure volumes. Letters written by public figures, which are included in enclosures volumes six to thirteen, have been listed as 'Letters of Special Interest' in a typed hard copy format. A second index, held in a digital format, covers all contents of the first six volumes.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Charles Walsham Reith (1889-1971), son of an eminent Scottish churchman, trained and worked as an engineer and factory manager either side of distinguished service in the Great War. In 1922, he successfully applied for the post of General Manager of the British Broadcasting Company. Although the impetus behind the new venture was commercial, Reith impressed his employers with both his conception of broadcasting as a force for social good, and the strength of personality required to bring this about. Rapidly promoted to Managing Director, he stewarded the Company through the political turbulence of the General Strike. He was instrumental in the granting of the Royal Charter that brought about the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927, with himself as first Director-General.

Reith's single-mindedness and well-developed sense of purpose were never universally popular, but his BBC became the template for many other broadcasting organisations throughout the world, and his tenure saw the launch of the BBC's overseas services and the pioneering launch of television. The restless Reith and the BBC parted company in 1938. The remainder of his career was a disappointment to him - this despite serving as a minister in Churchill's wartime coalition, and his chairmanship of a number of businesses and non-governmental organisations such as the Commonwealth Development Corporation. He died, largely estranged from the BBC, in 1971.


The files in this series are arranged numerically, with correspondence, enclosure volumes, and diaries grouped separately. Within these groups, the content of the enclosure volumes and correspondence files is broadly, but not exclusively, in chronological order. The diaries are in chronological order.

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

Loose leaf diaries in soft backed folders.

Large enclosure volumes (commonly referred to as scrapbooks) held together by removable screws.

A few miscellaneous items in standard Written Archives Centre file format.

Because the diaries are fragile, they are not issued for research. Typed transcripts are used instead.

Custodial History

The collection is a single deposit from 1979 (supplemented by the typed diary transcripts, which were created at the Written Archives Centre in the early 1980s).

Lady Reith died in 1977. The collection remained in possession of the family until 1979, when son and heir Christopher John Reith made it known that he was prepared to release the papers to the BBC. A legal agreement was drawn up, a fee agreed, and the papers were collected from Christopher Reith's home in Perthshire by the then Head of Reference and Registry Services. They were delivered to the BBC Written Archives Centre, where they have been housed ever since.

In 1980, work began on a typed transcript of the diaries, so that they could be made available for research. The transcript covers the years dealing with Reith's active public life (i.e. up to the age of 65). In the same year, the enclosure volumes were sent for professional conservation.

Related Material

Reith's influence can be traced in many archive files throughout his time at the BBC. The following areas contain direct or indirect references to Reith, although there is less direct correspondence than might be expected, given his reputation as an all-controlling figure:

- BBC/CO1: British Broadcasting Company

- High-level Boards and Government Committees into broadcasting, including articles and public pronouncements. E.g. BBC/CORP/GOV/R1: Board of Governors, BBC/CORP/BOC/R3: Internal Administrative Committees, BBC/CORP/R4: Government Committees .

- BBC/CORP/DGC/R62: Director-General's Office ,

- There are occasions in areas of programme policy (mainly BBC/CORP/R34: Policy ) that reach Director-General level. E.g. Sunday programming, Royal events and the broadcasting of jazz.

- Some of the files for the more prominent contributors will also contain correspondence with Reith ( BBC/R/RCONT and BBC/T/TVART ).

The Written Archives Centre also holds The Reith Diaries , edited by Charles Stuart ( PEOPLE:REI, 1975 ), which first brought these papers to public notice. It is inevitably selective, but reprints many of the more historically significant entries. The Centre also holds Reith's own autobiography Into the Wind ( PEOPLE:REI, 1949 ), and his Great War memoir Wearing Spurs ( PEOPLE:REI, 1966 ), as well as biographies of Reith by Garry Allighan ( PEOPLE: REI, 1938 ), Andrew Boyle and Ian McIntyre ( PEOPLE: REI, 1972 ), and a memoir by his daughter, Marista Leishman ( PEOPLE: REI, 2006 ).

The Written Archives Centre's press cuttings also reflect Reith's status as a major public figure.