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Historical perspectives

The life and mystery of Dick Sheepshanks

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

Form! form! Riflemen form! Ready, be ready to meet the storm!
– Alfred Lord Tennyson, The War

This time, I revisit the story of Ernest Richard Sheepshanks, Reuters ‘Golden Boy’ during the increasingly turbulent 1930s. Again, this story comes with a ‘shock warning’ so if you are likely to be easily shocked you have been warned!

The battle of Teruel

For Dick Sheepshanks, 27 year old Reuters correspondent covering the General Franco’s Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War, the end came suddenly and without warning. It was December 1937, the very last day of the old year.

Retired Reuters journalist, Peter Mosley, gave the facts in our Thomson Reuters ‘In Memoriam’ book.

‘…..Sheepshanks joined a convoy of press cars to visit the front line near the ancient city of Teruel, in the foothills of the Sierra de Sudar range in eastern Spain. The cars pulled into the main square of Cudete, a village about five kilometres (three miles) from Teruel. It was bitterly cold. The journalists went to look for a vantage point from where they could observe the battle for Teruel but could not find one. Four of them climbed into one of the cars. chatted, ate chocolate and smoked cigarettes to help keep themselves warm. Suddenly, the Republicans began shelling the village. The first shell landed a few hundred yards from the parked convoy. The second one exploded just beside Sheepshanks’s car, riddling it with shrapnel. In the driver’s seat and closest to the blast, American reporter Bradish Johnson, of the Spur, died instantly. Sheepshanks, sitting next to him, was hit in the head. He never regained consciousness and died that evening. In the rear of the car, another American, Edward Neil of the Associated Press, received leg wounds from which he later died. The fourth war correspondent in the car escaped with minor scalp wounds. He was Harold (‘Kim’) Philby of the Times of London …..’

A Victorian ideal

Reuters war correspondent Dick Sheepshanks
Reuters war correspondent Dick Sheepshanks

To Sir Roderick Jones, the Head of Reuters News Agency, correspondent Dick Sheepshanks had represented everything he would have liked to have been – but wasn’t. Tall, debonair and handsome, born in 1910 to a ‘good’ Yorkshire ‘county’ family, Dick boasted an impressive academic and sports record. He also enjoyed useful personal connections.

At Eton, where he was Captain of Cricket, he shared the same school house as Sir Christopher Chancellor, Reuters Manager in the Far East. From Eton he followed Chancellor’s footsteps to Trinity College, Cambridge to read History. He played cricket for Yorkshire, football for the Corinthians (amateur) club and captained his College cricket team. He was popular with his Reuters colleagues, some of whom assumed him to be the unofficial fiancée of socialite Jeanne Stourton, daughter of Viscount Southwell. His cousin was Anthony Blunt, another Trinity man, who, forty odd years later, would be revealed as a member of the Cambridge Five, a group of spies working for the Soviet Union from the 30s to the early 1950s.

Jones, small in stature, with shoes specially built-up to increase his height, was a hat-salesman’s son from Dukinfield near Manchester. His parents had married five weeks before his birth, and his education went no further than the local Board School. He had begun a long way from Eton and Oxford, and this could have made him jealous of Sheepshanks. Instead, in some ways, he began almost to regard Dick as a son. He already had three sons, but perhaps Dick Sheepshanks was the one he would most ’liked’ to have had.

This did not mean that Jones allowed his admiration to curtail his own personal agenda. For Jeanne Stourton has to be fitted into the picture. She saw herself (in her words but not Dick’s) as Dick’s ‘one true love and great passion’. Also she was Sir Roderick Jones’s current mistress. If Julia Stonor, Stourton’s daughter is to believed, she was, in addition, ‘close girlfriend’ of Lady Jones (Sherman’s Girl, 2006).

Did morally-conscious Dick have any idea just how action-packed Jeanne’s social calendar really was? He couldn’t have done. When it came down to it, was his friendship with Jeanne really as close as all that.

Working as a Special Correspondent

He joined Reuters as an assistant in the Editorial Department in October 1933. Early promise soon seemed to be fulfilled, pinpointing him as a young man who ‘was going to be a winner’. In 1935 he was chosen as Special Correspondent to cover the Italian Invasion of Abyssinia. He caught dysentery the moment he arrived in Addis Ababa. Two months later, in December, he was invalided home.

His next chance came in June 1937 when plans were made to send him to Spain, then in the throes of a bloody Civil War. Reuters sent out four correspondents; Dick and one other to report from Generalissimo Franco’s Nationalist side; two to report from the Republican (Government) side.

When news of his death reached London the outpouring of grief knew no bounds. Why was it quite so great? Orchestrated, principally by Sir Roderick, virtually every newspaper in Britain and the Empire devoted pages to his life story, the circumstances of his death, his funeral and his Memorial Service at St Bride’s, Fleet Street. Could an answer be that, along with many older newspaper readers, Sir Roderick (born 1877) was still instinctively – to an extent more than he was aware – a product of his late Victorian youth and young manhood?

Dick Sheepshanks never had the chance to fulfil his early promise. He might have gone on to great things. Or he might have faded into mediocrity. But, deep within himself, Sir Roderick – practical and unsentimental when required – still wanted to believe in the Chivalric ideal of his 1890s youth; an ideal which really he knew had been trampled out of existence in the valley of the Somme during the long [Great War] summer of 1916. It is significant that few stained glass memorial windows made after 1916 ever again depicted a Knight in Armour.

The closing words of his address given at Dick’s Memorial Service on 7 January 1938 seem to say it all…….

‘..His whole existence was a proof, of which we have many in REUTERS, that the young of this day, no matter the school or the grade of society from which they spring, are up to the highest standard of physical , mental, and moral fibre ever known to our race. There was a period after the War when some of us who had the handling of young men were pessimistic. That period is closed. The malaise has passed; and the gallantry of Sheepshank’s life proclaims a refreshed and strengthened people;. We have on the walls of REUTERS a memorial to those who laid down their lives in the Great War. For Dick Sheepshanks there shall be a similar memorial. Carrying his plume and his pennon high, he passed into the Unknown as he would have wished to, in the heat of the fray, blithely doing his duty. Let us not grieve for him. He has gone to where beyond these Voices there is Peace! He will live in the hearts of all as long as ourselves do live; for generations he will endure the traditions of the Agency as an example and an inspiration to those who make it their calling…..’

But, of course, Sheepshanks was soon forgotten, even in Reuters. And yet for those who do now inquire, some myths and mysteries remain.

The mysterious death of Dick Sheepshanks?

The first centres around Kim Philby, the only survivor. Also a graduate of Trinity, he was exposed as a spy many years later. In 1937 – and through the Second World War – he had been working for the Soviet Union.

A story resurfaces regularly which contends that, during their time together in Spain, Dick was beginning to harbour suspicions about Philby. This meant that he had to be ‘taken out’. With cold-hearted indifference to the lives of the other two men, Philby hurled a hand grenade at the car. He then quickly inflicted a minor surface wound on himself and lay down beside the damaged car.

The first problem is that all photographs show without any doubt that the car was strafed by shrapnel.

The second is that all first-hand accounts agree that Philby was sitting in the rear of the two-door car. He could be released only after Sheepshanks and Johnson had been removed from the front.

The second myth is even stranger. Apparently, Jeanne Stourton told friends that not only was she also in Spain but she was in another car following the four journalists. As a witness to all that took place she ‘knew’ that Philby had set the whole thing up.

Hundreds of words appeared in the press. There is not a single suggestion that Dick’s girlfriend was on the scene and witnessed the death of her ‘unofficial fiancee’. The Reuters files say nothing. If true, this sensational piece of information would have made a heart-rending story.

The pre-arranged seating plan for Dick’s Memorial Service shows Miss Jeanne Stourton and her mother, not on the family side of the aisle, but the Reuters side – well behind Sir Roderick and Lady Jones, Reuters senior managers and its directors. The service was extensively-reported. Jeanne was never referred to as ‘unofficial fiancee’ or girlfriend.

What we do know is that, seven months later, at The London Oratory, Miss Jeanne Stourton married Sherman, only son of 5th Baron Camoys and heir to the ancient Catholic seat of Stonor Park in Oxfordshire.

Learn more

Browse our company history dating back to 1799 or contact our archive staff directly for a deeper dive into the Thomson Reuters Archives.

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