Sunday, 20 November 2011

People from the Past: 2. Andrew Stuart Hibberd MBE (1893-1983)

Above: Stuart Hibberd's memoirs, published in 1950 as This - is London...

Stuart Hibberd was one of the best known voices on radio in the early days of the BBC. He joined the Corporation in 1924 and was its chief announcer until his retirement in 1951. He settled in Budleigh Salterton, living in Westfield Road.  

Stuart Hibberd was born on 5 September 1893 in Broadstone, East Dorset, and educated at Weymouth College from where he won a choral scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge. He was always proud of his West Country roots and remained as Vice President of the Society of Dorset Men until the end of his life.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined the Dorset Regiment, serving with distinction in the Gallipoli campaign and also with the army in India, where he gained the rank of Captain.

In 1923, he married Alice Chichester, a cousin of the future round-the-world sailor Sir Francis Chichester (1901-72). From a military family, she was the daughter of Lt Col Gerard Chichester, who had gained the rank of Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel in the service of the 4th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment. An uncle was Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Chichester, 9th baronet.

The following year he joined the BBC at its headquarters at 2 Savoy Hill next to London's Savoy Hotel, having seen a newspaper advertisement for an announcer. His impeccable enunciation and received pronunciation were clear factors in his favour.  The Corporation was just two years old and had recently moved from its previous base at Marconi House at the junction of the Strand and Aldwych.

It was at a time when broadcasting was in its infancy, buoyed up with enthusiasm for a new art. Stuart Hibberd recalled the mood in his memoirs: "The three things that impressed me most, as a newcomer, were the general atmosphere of friendliness, the way I was at once made to feel at home - one of a family as it were - and the all pervading pioneering spirit, which seemed to proclaim from the house-tops, 'Here's a wonderful worthwhile job. Nothing matters more than broadcasting, unless it is still better and more extensive broadcasting.'"

He became one of the BBC's first professional announcers: reading the news, as well as presenting talks and concerts and talks. Along with other broadcasting pioneers he was responsible for laying down ground rules to develop the special technique of preparing scripts written for the ear rather than for the eye. Shorter, less complicated sentences and the use of colloquial English became prerequisites.

Other rules were introduced which have been long since abandoned. From 1926 until September 1939, dinner-jackets were prescribed as standard for radio announcers when on duty in the evenings even though the audience could not see them. Stuart Hibberd recalled in his memoirs how he accepted such rulings.

"Personally, I have always thought it only right and proper that announcers should wear evening dress on duty. After all, announcing is a serious, if new, profession, and the wearing of evening dress is an act of courtesy to the artists, many of whom will almost certainly be similarly dressed if they are taking part in a programme from 8 p.m. onwards." He did admit: "It is not ideal kit in which to read the News... and I remember that more than once the engineers said that my shirt-front creaked during the reading of the bulletin."

Above: Stuart Hibberd's fame as a radio announcer secured him a place in the gallery of celebrities published on cigarette cards by W.D. & H.O. Wills

He became the BBC’s Chief Announcer, a post that he held for 25 years. During that time his voice became familiar to millions as he announced events of national importance. He was famous for the pause which marked the opening words of his news bulletins: "This - is London."

The ten-day General Strike of 1926 was one of the first of such critical events that confronted broadcasters, not least because the public relied solely on the BBC for news of the events, newspaper production having stopped. On Government orders the Corporation's Savoy Hill headquarters was placed under police guard to ensure that broadcasting continued.

In 1932 the BBC moved to Broadcasting House in London's Portland Place. It was Stuart Hibberd who read the first news bulletin to be transmitted from the building. Three years later he was appointed MBE for his services to radio.

One of his most memorable bulletins was when he announced the impending death of King George V on 20 January 1936 with the words "The King's life is moving peacefully towards its close."

The events of World War Two were to make the voices of wartime broadcasters like Alvar Liddell, Frank Phillips and John Snagge even more familiar. This was especially so as the peacetime practice of guarding newsreaders' anonymity had suddenly been abandoned. The BBC Handbook of 1941 stated: "The reason for this is not a hankering after self-advertisment - although at first some listeners unfairly took it to be so; in wartime listeners must be able to recognise instantly the authentic voice of British broadcasting and then, in any possible emergency, they will be on their guard against some lying imitation by the voice of the enemy."

Another change came about when in 1940 the BBC transferred to Bristol but this was a temporary measure and the Corporation staff returned to London in July 1942. Stuart Hibberd's bulletin of 1 May 1945 announcing Hitler's death was a much remembered moment of this period. 

From 1949 he presented The Silver Lining, a Thursday afternoon programme aimed at disabled and housebound people. He also produced talking books for the National Institute for the Blind. After his retirement as chief announcer in 1951 he continued to present The Silver Lining until the programme ended its run in 1964.

Stuart Hibberd's retirement from radio was marked by his closedown "Good night everybody... goodnight."  The characteristic pause, which also marked the start of his bulletins, was designed to give listeners the chance to say "Good night" in reply.  

He and his wife Alice moved to Westfield House in Budleigh Salterton where he continued to be well known, popular and respected. In 1970 he was elected President of the Devonshire Association. 

"People raised their hats to him as he passed in the street when I went to see him in Devon in the 1970s," recalled the broadcaster and journalist Roger George Clark.  Alice died in 1977. They had no children.

In retirement his voice continued to be recognised during his readings of the Lesson in St Peter's Church. The local Baptist Church was also in his debt thanks to the proceeds from a lecture series which he donated to help with the purchase of a new Manse in Elmside.  Westfield House, his former home in Budleigh, was replaced by flats. The building is now called Hibberd House. 

An excellent biographical sketch of Stuart Hibberd by Dr Roger Lendon has been published by the Otter Valley Association's Ovapedia at

Stuart Hibberd - This - is London...London, 1950
Tom Hickman - What did you do in the War, Auntie? The BBC at war 1939-45London, BBC Books, 1995

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