The genteel citizens of the Home Counties around London commemorate today the shocking events of 1985 that ensued when supplies of the Daily Telegraph failed to get through for five days running.
Eric Brand, now head of a successful communications company, was a cub reporter on the Esher News and Mail at the time. He recalls: “Although by then Margaret Thatcher’s popularity had recovered from the low point in 1981 when there were riots in many of Britain’s inner cities, there was still a mood of unrest.
“The disturbances didn’t get much of a mention in the national press, but it was big news for the local papers. Rupert Murdoch was at war with the unions over his plans to move the printing of the Sun to Wapping, and somehow the Telegraph deliveries got caught up in all the wildcat strikes and secondary picketing.”
Contemporary copies of the Harpenden Observer describe disoriented Telegraph readers leaving newsagents on the first day deliveries failed. But in Tunbridge Wells there were actual riots.
“By the second day the mood was getting ugly,” recalls Ethel Mears, a local resident, “and by the third day things came to a head as hundreds of angry readers converged on the Town Hall to demand action.” Local news footage shows scenes of harrumphing and fist shaking, and a disturbing scene as the Mayor was jostled as he left for a civic event. In the ensuing melee a library window was broken and a police car ran over someone’s hat.
It is difficult now to believe such events took place, but for some the scars run deep. “My husband Albert was so desperate to read a newspaper he bought the Guardian,” says Ethel. “He wouldn’t touch a tabloid on principle, and he said the Times was going to the dogs, so he bought a copy of the Guardian and read it from cover to cover. He gradually turned purple as he read, and had a mild seizure afterwards. He was never the same again.”