Posted: August 23rd, 2022
Multi-award winning Sunday People former chief reporter KEN GARDNER died on August 2 . He was 93. Ken Gardner’s funeral is on Thursday, September 8 at 2pm at All Saints’ Church, Somerford Keynes, Cirencester GL7 6DL
KEN Gardener was News Reporter of the Year in the British Press Awards in 1966; Highly Commended in the news category in 1968; Campaigning Journalist of the Year in 1969; and winner of the Special Award for Investigative Journalism in 1970.
By Plain John Smith (Pic: Mirrorpix. Ken Gardner working in India in 1971.)
BACK in the 1950s, with a circulation nearing five million, The People was Britain’s greatest campaigning newspaper.
Ferocious and fearless, it relentlessly exposed the antics of crooks, conmen, corrupt coppers, slum landlords, swindlers, dodgy local government officials and other assorted villains, racketeers, cheats and liars.
And at the heart of these crusades for the common man was Ken Gardner. Born in Battersea, the son of a plumber, Ken began his newspaper career as a 16-year-old copy boy on the Daily Sketch. He went on to become a junior reporter on south London weekly papers and then, after National Service in the RAF, he joined the Portsmouth Evening News.
But he always had eyes for Fleet Street Street, and in 1956 he landed a job on The People. Small in stature, but tireless and tenacious, Ken was the perfect fit for a paper led by legendary editor Sam Campbell, whose aggressive approach specialised in exposing villainy and social injustices.
In a typical quirky decision, Campbell decided that William Gardner should ditch his original first name and instead use his middle name, and so the byline Ken Gardner came into being. It was a byline that began to appear on a number of controversial series, examining the phonies inhabiting the worlds of black magic, witchcraft, fortune telling and the paranormal.
Then Ken took on exposures of the the shady characters operating money-lending schemes, football pools charity scams, and sweetheart deals between corrupt local councillors and unscrupulous contractors.
Sent to Newmarket to investigate allegations of drug taking in the racing community, including jockeys and stable lads, Ken bought a supply of riding boots and posed as a salesmen to sell them at bargain prices to stable staff. It allowed him to infiltrate the tight-knit racing community, stand up the story and finally to ambush the Queen Mother’s trainer, Fulke Walwyn, at a race meeting, and confront him with his findings.
Soon Ken was jetting around the world on ever more challenging and often dangerous assignments. In Sicily he had to dodge the attention of the Mafia as he uncovered a gang shipping young Sicilian women to the UK as sex slaves. He filed graphic accounts of the terrible conditions of refugee camps in the Middle East; highlighted the plight of drug-taking British youngsters on the hippie trail who ended up sick and penniless in the Afghan capital, Kabul; and confronted lying government officials in East Pakistan as they tried to cover up the tragedy that left hundreds of thousands dead when floods swept across the sand flats of the Ganges Basin.
From Japan, he reported on the scandal of expensive dogs being shipped there from Britain to be used in breeding and kept in appalling conditions.
Trekking through the jungles of Rwanda to interview American anthropologist Diane Fossey, who was living with mountain gorillas, he was given a hostile reception by the reclusive scientist who refused to talk to him. Unfazed, he reached into his pocket to produce a photo of himself posing outside the cage of Guy the gorilla in London Zoo.
“Look, I love gorillas too,” said Ken, adding, with poetic licence: “I even named my son, Guy, after this gorilla.” Impressed, Diane sat down and gave him her first ever newspaper interview.
Posing as a potential customer, he went to the French village of Bourdeilles to investigate the cruelty involved in force-feeding geese, turkeys and ducks to produce foie gras. His description of how the poultry were fed a mixture of maize, water and olive oil through a funnel thrust down their throats produced shock waves when his story appeared in The People, and led to a boycott of foie gras producers.
Back home Ken immersed himself in the saga of the Portland spy ring, where a small group, including two people working at the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment in Portland, were supplying secrets to the Russians. They passed on details of Britain’s first nuclear submarine. They were led by a man who called himself Gordon Lonsdale but who was, in fact, a colonel in Russia’s KGB.
When Lonsdale went on trial at the Old Bailey, Ken posed as one of his oldest friends and managed to talk himself into one of the holding cells beneath the court where he could speak to the Russian spymaster. It was the start of an amazing relationship in which Lonsdale trusted this engaging reporter so much, he even suggested Ken should go to Lonsdale’s flat in Regents Park and help himself to any photographs or documents he found there. For Ken, this led to a string of exclusives that were the envy of Fleet Street.
Lonsdale was sentenced to 25 years in jail, but Ken kept in touch with him at Wormwood Scrubs prison, and when Lonsdale was released after only four years in an exchange for British businessman Greville Wynne, who had been accused of spying while in Russia, Ken maintained the contact. In a series of cloak and dagger meetings in Moscow and East Berlin, the People man extracted Lonsdale’s full confession to produce yet another sensational exclusive.
After Sam Campbell died in 1966 and Bob Edwards became editor of The People, Ken’s amazing exploits continued. When rumours began circulating that a detachment of British soldiers from the Scots Guards had massacred villagers in Malaya while fighting against communist insurgents in 1948, Ken travelled up and down Britain for weeks searching for any clues to the identities of the soldiers involved, many of them National Servicemen. In the end he found 10 of them who swore affidavits that, indeed, they and other UK troops had machine gunned to death 25 villagers suspected of harbouring terrorists.
Once again The People had a shocking and sensational front page story. And Ken was named Campaigning Journalist of The Year.
But it wasn’t only out on the road that Ken needed to his maintain his almost cocky confidence and the ability to take no nonsense from anybody. Soon after joining The People, he found himself in the witness box at the High Court in London, giving evidence for two days in a libel trial in which the Wandsworth prison officer who had been accused by the People of taking bribes was claiming that the story was completely untrue.
Facing him across the court and representing the prison officer was Gilbert Beyfus, QC, a renowned and mesmerising barrister known as “The Old Fox.” Ken knew him as “an aggressive legal thug who always went for the throat”. But to the amazement of lawyers, the jury and spectators in the packed courtroom, it was Ken who came out best in his verbal duels with the bruiser QC. Accusing Beyfus of twisting some of his replies, an angry Ken leaned from the witness box, pointed a menacing finger at him, and snarled: “That’s not what I meant and not what I said. Don’t put words in my mouth!” Visibly shaken, Beyfus flopped down in his seat with his head in his hands, a beaten man.
To Ken’s delight the jury found for the defendants. The People had won.
Elated by the verdict, editor Sam Campbell offered Ken a week’s holiday in Monte Carlo at the luxurious Hotel de Paris. But when Ken heard that he could not take his wife Lily and their children with him, he politely declined the offer and instead asked for the rest of the day off. He recalled: “Lily and I spent the afternoon fishing for tiddlers on the pond at Clapham Common.”
In the 1970’s, Ken decided it was time to put his People career behind him and move on to something new. Taking a month’s sabbatical, he went on a pub management course. On his return to the office he negotiated a decent pay-off from the paper – and took over a run-down pub called The William the Fourth in Windsor. Within weeks he had turned it into a roaring success, and in the coming years he expanded to pubs and restaurants in Wiltshire, Dartmouth, Bath and Gloucestershire.
Happily retired, Ken wrote a book entitled “True to Type,” looking back on his newspaper career. He explained: “People asked when I left, and they still ask now, whether I miss Fleet Street. The answer is that I don’t, because there is no longer anything to miss. It doesn’t exist, as I knew it.
“In a modern newsroom I would quickly become claustrophobic at the thought of being chained to a desk, rewriting agency copy or putting my name on gushing press releases about ‘celebrities’ of whom I’ve never heard. I shouldn’t miss working for a newspaper that saw its raison d’etre as a vehicle for TV listings and its chief rival TV Times.
“I couldn’t envisage spending lunch times at my desk, with a bottle of mineral water and salad from a plastic container.
“What I’d miss would be going out on stories, going to pubs and finding stories, maintaining contacts who supplied me with stories and ideas, and building up the sort of story that would make rival papers sit up when our first edition hit the street.
“But that sort of reporting simply doesn’t seem to exist any longer. The real Fleet Street that I knew is no more. The party’s over.
“So… what’s to miss?
“I’d rather be in the pub.”
Ken leaves wife Lily, and children Guy, Russell, Samantha and Marshall.