4. Reith back in Britain
Back in Britain 1917 – 1922
'I love M very much, but C was my love years before I knew her'
In August 1917 Reith, still a serving officer, returned to Britain from the US. It took time to find a suitable posting but eventually in 1918 he began work in Sussex with the Royal Marine Engineers, building an underwater hydro electric barrage across the Channel. There were 1,800 men under him, including 20 officers. He was also able to see more of Charlie Bowser. But their relationship was about to get more complicated. The uniformed driver of his commanding officer was a local woman, Muriel Odhams, of the publishing family. And Reith took a shine to her. The result was extraordinary. After the war ended in November 1918 Reith and Charlie took a house together but there were increasingly three in the relationship. Reith was fond of both Muriel and Charlie – and Charlie was fond of Muriel and Reith. One of their first rows in their new home was when Reith and Charlie talked about marriage. Reith said he'd never thought about it, 'being satisfied with my relationship with him'. Charlie, on the other hand, hoped he would marry. Reith's reaction: 'I knew that marriage and our friendship was not compatible.'
Thoughts of marriage
'Another love had come'
In spite of his row with Charlie about marriage, Reith was obviously thinking about it. A letter from his father offered advice – though the stern minister's words were clearly not those of a romantic: 'Does the girl you are attracted to come of healthy stock, and is she thoroughly healthy herself?' And there was what Dr Reith called a 'momentous consideration' for his son: 'Will she help me to love and serve my Saviour more than I do?' Reith wrote how he tried to explain his feelings to Muriel:
'I had told her that for years the only people in the world I loved were my father and mother. Then C. came and without making any difference in my love to the old folks I loved him more than all the world. I said that now without lessening that, another love had come.'
Kissing and telling
'He had sobbed his wee heart out'
Reith clearly had feelings for Muriel. But so did Charlie. Bizarrely, when Charlie confided he was in love with Muriel, Reith noted 'I was awfully pleased'. But it was Reith that Muriel loved and he recalled one evening he spent with her using words worthy of a romantic potboiler:
'She put her arms round my neck and held me ever so close and I said “Kiss me darling.” So she put her lips to mine and then away and then back again and we kissed each other. Her lips were trembling and I was shaking all over.'
Naturally all this was immediately relayed to Charlie when Reith got back home and this time it was Charlie who was 'awfully pleased'. Or maybe not. On another occasion, Charlie saw Muriel with her hair down and was overcome with emotion. He went to tell Reith:
'He came into bed beside me; said that he wanted to cry but it wouldn't come. Next day he said after I'd gone to sleep he had “sobbed his wee heart out”'
'I felt as if I had left him in some way'.
Little wonder Muriel's parents were uncomfortable with the threesome. Even the day in April 1919 that Reith finally proposed, they went walking as a trio. The proposal seems to have been a choreographed pas de trois. First Reith sent Muriel out on her own while he discussed his proposal with Charlie. Then he sent Charlie to catch up with Muriel and tell her to wait for Reith. Charlie retreated while Reith proposed and after she said Yes, Reith returned to Charlie. It must have been a big emotional release. He put his arms round Charlie, kissed him and broke down in tears: 'I felt as if I had left him in some way'.
The Man from the Ministry
'I asked God to help me live pure and straight'
Reith's engagement was a long one, partly because the day after proposing to Muriel, the now-promoted Major Reith was ordered to a new post on Salisbury Plain, to work on a housing scheme for soldiers. It was his final posting in the Army. In August 1919 he started work as a civil servant at the Ministry of Munitions. His job as assistant director of ordnance supply was to oversee the end of contracts with arms suppliers. Unofficially he also tried to get Charlie a job there. 1919 ended sadly for him. His father died in December and as Reith looked on his body, he remembered one of the last things Dr Reith had said to him: 'I asked God to help me live pure and straight, and to dedicate myself to Christ and be born again'.
Jobs for the boy
'Some of them did not wear their traditional and symbolic boaters'
As for much of his later life, Reith's job at the Ministry wasn't satisfying him and he looked for another. One was in India. But in 1920 Reith settled for work nearer his old Glasgow home: a job with the leading engineering firm William Beardmore and Co, running its factory in Coatbridge. One of his last tasks at the Ministry of Munitions was to make sure Charlie got the job he was leaving. Not only that, he later wrote to his old Ministry boss to ask him to put Charlie's name forward for an OBE. The string-pulling continued. Once he was running the Beardmore factory, he offered Charlie a job working with him. Charlie came north and the two men took lodgings, sharing a bedroom and a sitting room in Dunblane. Meanwhile Muriel was still living with her parents in Sussex and complaining to Reith about when they would be married.
As a boss Reith was no-nonsense. He ordered Beardmore foremen to start wearing bowler hats again – a traditional symbol of their authority. He introduced clocking on and said if men didn't like it, they had a week's notice to quit. But he also arranged dances and lectures for staff, and entertained senior figures on Coatbridge council to persuade them to allocate some of their council houses to his workers.
The end of the affair
'The girl is not good-looking at all but is cheery and probably a good sort'
With Reith engaged, he must have thought it was a good idea to get Charlie fixed up too. In April 1921 he arranged for him to meet a girl called Maysie Henderson. Reith did not think her good-looking, but financially, she was a catch. She had an income of £20,000 a year – that's more than £600,000 today. Charlie liked her too. But as the two grew closer, Reith became more jealous. He started describing Maysie in his diary as “the Henderson girl”; later she became “Jezebel”. In July 1921, three weeks after Charlie proposed to Maysie, Reith and Muriel married at her home near Brighton and went to live in Dunblane. The relationship with Charlie did not survive a year. An increasingly resentful Reith threw a 25th birthday dinner for Charlie in December, and did not invite his fiancée. She seems to have had her revenge. She married Charlie in March 1922. A couple of weeks later Reith received a letter from him ending their relationship. It left him thunderstruck. From then on he would avoid his old friend; and the bitterness he felt lasted for the rest of his life.