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Vallance, (Gerald) Aylmerlocked

(1892–1955)
  • Adrian Smith

Vallance, (Gerald) Aylmer (1892–1955), journalist, was born at Partick in Lanarkshire on 4 July 1892, the son of a shawl manufacturer, George Henry Vallance, and his wife, Agnes Felton. Although baptized George Alexander Gerald, he later changed his names to Gerald Aylmer. His educational achievements were exceptional. He won an open scholarship to Edinburgh's leading public school, Fettes College, where his academic prowess earned him a succession of prizes. As head boy Vallance crowned his school career by winning an open classical scholarship to Balliol College, where he gained a first in classical moderations (1913). The outbreak of the First World War prevented him from completing his studies. He was commissioned in the Somerset light infantry—by some accounts because he was too drunk to realize he had enlisted—and was posted to India. He was transferred to the intelligence corps in 1915, and allegedly played the ‘great game’ in the Himalayas. The former classicist had discovered a natural aptitude for soldiering. He graduated from Staff College at Quetta in 1917, and ended the war as brigade major of the 2nd Indian division. Mature beyond his years, and with little incentive to re-enter the ivory tower, Vallance looked to a post where he could draw upon his fascination with economics as well as his obvious administrative skills. Thus, from 1919 to 1928 he held the post of general secretary of the National Maritime Board, while at the same time beginning to write on financial matters.

Vallance's reputation as a freelance writer grew, as did the range of topics he was prepared to tackle. An attractive and affable character, always identifiable in a crowd by his height and large pointed beard (a later nickname was ‘the Admiral’), the bespectacled Vallance became a familiar sight in Fleet Street. He was thus already known as a journalist when, in 1929, Sir Walter Layton invited him to leave commerce and join The Economist, where he became assistant editor. In 1930 Layton became chairman of the board of the News Chronicle, a mid-market newspaper born out of the old and by now obsolete Liberal dailies. He made increasing use of Vallance in creating a popular and genuinely independent alternative to the more Conservative Daily Mail and the Daily Express. The remoulding and remarketing of the News Chronicle was taking too long, so in 1933 Vallance became editor, making an immediate impact. Decisive, well-organized, and experienced in handling even the prickliest of editorial or printing personnel, Vallance quickly learned how to put a paper to bed and dine well at the Savoy Grill. He then focused upon recruiting fresh talent. Vernon Bartlett, already well known on the wireless, found a new home with the News Chronicle after being sacked by the BBC, while Gerald Barry applied proven talent as an editor to the features desk. Younger writers later enjoyed distinguished careers elsewhere in Fleet Street or inside the BBC, the Design Council, and other similarly august bodies. Vallance placed great store on his paper's coverage of the City and of industry, establishing a reputation for incisive reporting and coverage that lasted long after his enforced resignation early in 1936.

As an editor—ironically the only post he ever held in the newspaper industry—Vallance operated with quiet efficiency, while at the same time ensuring that the News Chronicle acquired a much sharper political edge, witness its deep antipathy towards the British Union of Fascists. Old Liberal loyalties were in effect abandoned, and the post-1931 rebirth of the Labour Party welcomed. This increasingly antagonized those directors who remained loyal to the Liberal cause; no less shocking were the stories of their editor's sexual exploits. Vallance's undisguised glee at the Liberals' losses in the 1935 general election, when added to his notoriety as a heavy drinker and an office philanderer, left Layton with no alternative but to accede to the board's insistence on dismissal.

Vallance's editorship of the News Chronicle proved to be the high point of his career. In 1937 he joined the New Statesman as assistant editor to Kingsley Martin, and stayed there until his death nearly twenty years later. Not that Vallance's relationship with Martin was always harmonious. By the early fifties an outstanding debt had generated much ill will, with Martin increasingly critical of his colleague's chaotic personal finances and complicated private life. Nevertheless, in his memoirs Martin was generous in his praise of an unusual personality whose intellect and intelligence were matched by a wide range of practical skills: a typical weekend in the thirties would see Vallance drive north to a castle leased in the borders, fly fish for trout and then cook his catch, find time to work on his next book, entertain his travelling companion, and be back in London in time to chair an editorial conference first thing on Monday morning. When not writing on the great issues of the day, Vallance drew upon a myriad of hobbies and interests in order to entertain his readers. Ironically, despite his own financial misfortunes, Vallance was always a shrewd commentator on money matters, and this extended to his two most significant inter-war books: The Centre of the World (1935—about the City of London) and Hire-Purchase (1939).

Vallance was an important counterweight to Kingsley Martin, always remaining calm under pressure, endeavouring to ensure editorial consistency, encouraging a collegial atmosphere within the Great Turnstile offices, and invariably offering sound advice. Only rarely did Vallance's personal politics, increasingly sympathetic to the Communist Party, get the better of him, and then even Martin would tremble at his assistant's highly convincing prediction of capitalism's imminent demise.

Vallance relished playing Cassandra whenever his editor was in earshot, and a return to uniform in 1939 offered endless opportunities. As a lieutenant-colonel in the War Office, Vallance resumed intelligence work, liaising with the press in a news management role. In addition he wrote several pamphlets for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. Vallance still wrote regularly for the New Statesman—anonymously, but no doubt with War Office approval. However, there is evidence to suggest that anonymity offered the opportunity to complement pro-allied propaganda with items which Vallance's superiors would most certainly not have sanctioned. Thus, the New Statesman during and after the Second World War consistently supported the communists in Yugoslavia, and indeed Vallance named his son after Tito. Similarly, the assistant editor must shoulder much of the responsibility for a widely shared view that after 1945 his paper was too willing for too long to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt.

As an editor Vallance was the consummate professional, never allowing his private life to undermine the quality of his work. He applied the same high level of efficiency and enthusiasm to whatever job he was asked to undertake, and he rarely made enemies. Good humoured, genuinely funny, and ever ready to entertain with an anecdote from an exciting and eventful life, he was always capable of bringing out the best in his colleagues, many of whom owed their careers to his early tutelage.

Vallance was married three times. His first wife was Phyllis Taylor Birnstingl, the daughter of J. K. Reid of Edgbaston and a widow with two daughters. The marriage lasted from 1928 until it was dissolved in 1940. Vallance then married Helen, divorced wife of J. R. H. Chisholm and the daughter of Philip Gosse, a medical practitioner. This second marriage produced one son and one daughter, but again ended in divorce. Finally, in 1950 Vallance married Ute Christina Fischinger, the daughter of Max Ferdinand Fischinger, a German army officer. In his last five years Vallance was beset by creditors and bedevilled by illness, but he enjoyed a rare period of domestic stability. After a lifetime of sexual adventures he died in London, on 24 November 1955, a happily married man.

Sources

  • G. Cox, ‘The editor who made love — and great news’, British Journalism Review, 7/3 (1996), 16–24
  • C. H. Rolph, Kingsley: the life, letters and diaries of Kingsley Martin (1973)
  • E. Hyams, The ‘New Statesman’: the history of the first fifty years, 1913–1963 (1963)
  • K. Martin, ed., Editor: a second volume of autobiography, 1931–1945 (1968)
  • I. Elliott, ed., The Balliol College register, 1900–1950, 3rd edn (privately printed, Oxford, 1953)

Archives

  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56838

Wealth at Death

£6443 7s. 2d.: administration, 6 March 1956, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)