The Death of George V – As Reported First in The Times

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Craig Pett is a Gale Sales Representative based in Melbourne. Craig promotes Gale resources to University and State Libraries in Victoria, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. In addition, he sells Gale databases to public libraries and schools in the same states. Craig is also an independent researcher in his own right, with a specialty on Jonathan Swift and eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish affairs.

When King George V died on 20 January 1936 the world was led to believe that he had died entirely of natural causes. Little did people know at the time that his death had been hastened by his physician in order to ensure that the news was reported first in The Times rather than the afternoon newspapers. It is a matter that can be explored with the help of Gale Primary Sources.

After the King died at 11:55 pm on Monday 20 January 1936 the news was reported in The Times the following morning with a headline ‘A Peaceful Ending at Midnight’ and a brief article detailing his final hours. Later that day The Daily Mail reported on how people around the country were expressing their grief; The Telegraph included an article describing the King’s ‘Peaceful Passing at Midnight’; The Financial Times also reported on the King’s ‘Peaceful End Just Before Midnight’; and The New York Herald Tribune, printed in Paris, carried a moving eulogistic column. But evidence released fifty years later shows that the King’s death was not as peaceful as these newspapers suggest.

FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT. “Death Of The King.” Times, 21 Jan. 1936, p. 12. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5ETiw4.

The notes made by the King’s physician, Lord Dawson of Penn, were released from the Royal Archives in November 1986. As reported in The Daily Telegraph on 27 November 1986, the notes disclose that as the King’s condition deteriorated throughout the day Dawson consulted Queen Mary and the King’s son, Edward, who instructed him not to prolong the King’s life unnecessarily. Clearly Dawson took the instruction ‘not to prolong’ the King’s life as one authorising him to shorten it. It was ostensibly an instance of the practice of euthanasia but as Dawson’s notes state: ‘The determination of the time of death of the King’s body had another object in view, viz the importance of the death receiving its first announcement in the morning papers rather than the less appropriate field of the evening journals.’ In the notes, Dawson says that he telephoned his wife asking her to call The Times to tell them to hold back publication (it would not have been appropriate for Dawson to call The Times himself ─ he needed an intermediary). He then administered the lethal dose and the notes tell us that within 15 minutes, peace had descended upon the King and that within 40 minutes he was dead. With the whole business transacted before midnight, The Times was able to break the news in its morning edition.

In the fifty-year period in which they remained in the Royal Archives, Dawson’s notes were accessed on one occasion. Lord Dawson had died in 1945 and in the course of researching his life, Dawson’s biographer, Francis Watson, accessed the notes and saw what had happened, but he withheld the information from his finished biography, published in 1950[1]. He finally published the finding in 1986 in the magazine History Today, in an article which is cited under the entry for ‘George V’ in Gale’s Biography in Context, and in the course of that article he explained that he had withheld the information from his biography on Dawson at the request of Dawson’s widow (remembering, as has been seen, that that widow herself had direct involvement in the matter). Dawson’s notes were not, however, accessed by Kenneth Rose, the scholar and biographer when he was researching a long biography of the King which was published to acclaim in 1983[2], but written without knowledge of Dawson’s notes. This is a biography, incidentally, which shows that the King managed his relations with the media carefully. Renowned for his eloquence as a speaker, the King made good use of the new medium then available to him, radio[3]. He made nineteen public broadcasts throughout his reign, bringing the voice of the monarch into the homes of the people for the first time. In fact, the last broadcast that King George ever gave was his celebrated Christmas Address of 1935, a transcript of which was printed in The Listener on 1 January 1936.

“Our Loss.” The Listener, 22 Jan. 1936, p. 154. The Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5ETpW5

As for the print media, Rose reports that the King did indeed have a dim view of the afternoon press and was strategic in developing close relations with The Times. He kept a direct phone line to the offices of The Times[4]. He also sent advance copies of his speeches to The Times so that they would appear in print there first[5]. It is to be doubted, however, whether the King would have approved of this close relationship with The Times being exploited during his final hours. Kenneth Rose certainly thought not. When Dawson’s notes were released Rose was ‘appalled’ and, as reported in The Daily Telegraph on 27 November 1986, considered it be a case of murder.

It is also interesting that, at the time that Dawson’s notes were released in November 1986, rival newspapers were reasonably diplomatic. You might think that the afternoon papers which were slighted during the reign of George V would have leapt upon the news and made all sorts of allegations against The Times. But in their editions for 27 November 1986 The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph simply reported the news, with neither specifically referring to ‘The Times’. Possibly because any publicity for a competitor is good publicity, these papers referred only to Dawson wanting the news to break in ‘the morning newspapers’.

 

The Front Page of The Daily Telegraph for 27 November 1986 – Shields, Jenny. “George V’s Death was Euthanasia.” Daily Telegraph, 27 Nov. 1986, p. [1]+. The Telegraph Historical Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/5Fs6W4

The Times itself was coy about the matter. It acknowledged the facts with a front page story on 27 November, then the following day made editorial comment ─ an awkward editorial that addresses the gravity of the situation whilst trying to give it some humour.

Editorial column in The Times for 28 November 1986

But the question is which of Dawson’s motivations took priority ─ to put a merciful end to the King’s suffering? Or to see that the news was broken first by The Times? We cannot know for certain, but there is evidence indicating that the King himself would have stopped Dawson if he could have. At the time, Dawson was already known to practice euthanasia. In fact, he was so well known for it that a contemporary rhyme about him even predicted that he might one day bring the King’s life to an early end:

Lord Dawson of Penn
Has killed many men
That is why we sing
“God Save the King”[6]

Accordingly, it has been thought that the King’s final words show that he was sufficiently lucid at the time to know precisely what Dawson was doing to him.[7] The final words of this gracious and articulate monarch were uttered as the injection was being administered: ‘God damn you’.

 

[1] Francis Watson, Dawson of Penn, London, 1950.
[2] Kenneth Rose, King George V, London, 1983.
[3] Rose, op. cit., 393.
[4] Rose, op. cit., 393.
[5] Rose, op. cit., 393.
[6] Quoted in the editorial column in The Times for 28 November 1986.
[7]‘1936 Secret is Out: Doctor Sped George V’s Death,’ Joseph Lelyveld, New York Times, 28 November 1986.