T.P. O’Connor – A giant of journalism

T. P. O'Connor in 1917. Library of Congress.

A GIANT of London’s Fleet Street, a pioneer of ‘New Journalism’ and the longest serving MP in the British House of Commons, Athlone man Thomas Power O’Connor, was among the most influential journalists in the history of the British press.

Born in 1848 in Athlone, County Westmeath he came from a modest background, his parents running a local shop. His mother was a woman of foresight who saw the importance of education for her children as critical to their future success. She reputedly won money on a lottery and used the money to send the young T.P. to college in Galway where he excelled academically.

After graduating O’Connor considered going into the legal profession before moving to Dublin where he took a job as a reporter at Saunder’s Newsletter; he was to remain a prolific journalist for the rest of his life. In 1870 T.P. Moved again, this time to London where he had managed to get a job as a sub-editor at the prestigious Daily Telegraph due to his proficiency in French and German. Always ambitious, T.P. Was not satisfied with his pay and prospects at the Telegraph and decided to move on to become the London correspondent for the New York Herald. His post at the Herald did not last long however as the paper faced financial trouble and T.P. became a general freelance reporter.

Always politically aware, O’Connor was a supporter of home rule for Ireland which drew him towards the Liberal Party of William Gladstone, he disliked the anti-home rule Conservative Party’s leader Benjamin Disraeli and published a scathing book on his career that proved a big sales success. In 1880 he entered the political fray himself and was elected as a Home Rule MP for Galway in the west of Ireland. At the following election he was offered the chance of standing in the Liverpool Scotland constituency that he took as it was more convenient for him. He had been appointed as the leader of the new Irish National League of Great Britain and the League was headquartered in Liverpool. He took the seat in 1885 becoming the only Irish nationalist MP from a non-Irish constituency.

Back on Fleet Street O’Connor was a proponent of what was then termed the ‘New Journalism’; it was the forerunner of what would now be called tabloid journalism. T.P. Saw that millions of working class people were literate for the first time but the worthy, wordy traditional newspapers did not cater for this huge new demographic. He sought to produce a new type of journalism that was simpler, conveyed stories more directly to the reader and addressed the issues that the working classes cared about. He became editor of the the new radical newspaper The Star that became a huge success under his stewardship, among the writers he employed was George Bernard Shaw. Of the notable stories of the day, it was The Star’s coverage of the dramatic Jack the Ripper murder hunt in East London that garnered the paper huge popularity. T.P. Left The Star a few years later over editorial differences with the owners and went on to found a number of publications himself, but none of these matched the popularity of The Star.

In later life he became the President of the British Board of Film Censors, a position he held for 13 years. He also returned to writing with the Daily Telegraph specialising in obituaries. In 1918 he became ‘The Father of the House’ in the House of Commons, the title bestowed on the MP with the longest unbroken service and in 1924 he supported the first Labour Party government under Ramsay McDonald. He was elected again in 1929 but died in November that year at the age of 81 having served as an MP for 49 years and 215 days. His funeral was held at Westminster Cathedral and he was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. The Chartered Institute of Journalists honours his memory by maintaining a charity fund in his name while a bust of him overlooks the traffic passing by on Fleet Street bearing the inscription, ‘His pen could lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines.’

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