Published on 28 Mar 2014

A good, old-fashioned hack: Chapman Pincher at 100

When I was a schoolboy the only newspaper we were supplied with was the Daily Express. In those days it outsold all others and boasted 6 million readers. The star front-page scoop reporter was one Chapman Pincher. Even the name was redolent of Bulldog Drummond and Biggles.

But Harry Chapman Pincher did not make it up. His editor had wanted a posh name. Harry Pincher had a middle name of Chapman. He became, unforgettably, Chapman Pincher – the scourge of all who told him secrets. And very many did.

So bad were the leaks from Harold Macmillan’s cabinet that the prime minister wrote to his defence secretary: “Can nothing be to suppress or get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher?”

Harry Chapman Pincher was not “got rid of”. He is, perhaps surprisingly, still very much alive, and on 29 March he celebrates his 100th birthday. He has total recall: names, places, secrets and the rest. He has even penned an autobiography in his hundredth year, aptly titled Dangerous To Know.

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He remains remarkably spry, sitting bolt upright in a comfy army chair in his living room, with his 95-year-old wife, Billee, sitting a few feet behind him, supping her midday sherry. I’ve been to meet them both in their Queen Anne home in west Berkshire.

Harry seems to have set his mind some years ago on getting to 100. He hasn’t drunk alcohol since he retired 35 years ago, hasn’t smoke cigarettes ever, and abandoned his pipe upon joining the army in the second world war.

The litany of spies about whom Harry spilt the beans runs from Blake to Vassall. He’s a cold war correspondent. He sees Putin as a modern-day menace and Snowden “should be shot”.

His fear is of falling over – so he no longer goes out. But he is on his computer, keeping abreast of the world every day. He is by degrees lucid, funny, naughty and and unashamed to boast both of his luck and of his scoops.

I’m not going to spoil his story. My interview with him airs on Channel 4 News. It is rare indeed to be able to talk so vividly with a man born on the eve of the outbreak of the first world war, and who remembers seeing a Zeppelin dropping bombs on the Yorkshire town of Pontefract. And that’s not all!

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7 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Jon,

    Pincher?

    Pffffffttttt…….

    Nothing but a standard Cold Warmonger.

    “Fleet Street” was as full of them then as it is now. So is C4 News international “reporting.”

    If you only had the Daily Express in your house when you were a kid it explains a lot about the roots of your personal culture.

    My Dad, wise man, taught me always to read as widely as I could and ALWAYS to “read between the lines.” Excellent advice I have followed all my life.

    Pincher was just a mouthpiece for the “intelligence” services. Nothing more.

  2. fran coath says:

    I remember many many years ago reading Chapman Pincher’s futuristic novel Not with a Bang… I thought it was very sobering. Imagining a future where tecchnology and science could make

    everyone look young became a curse . So much so that the genuinely young people to identfy
    themselves from the oldies
    would put the initials GY
    after their names! How
    scary is that? His book really gave me food for thought. How wonderful he’s still around.

  3. Penny says:

    I am proud to share my birthday with such an amazing man…

  4. philip wagstaff says:

    In his book Unreliable Sources journalist John Simpson describes Pincher as “rather sinister” (p409)

  5. Tony Hurst says:

    A rather waspish [churlish?] comment on a good interview by Jon with Chapman Pincher: your liberal-leftie underwear is clearly showing, Mr Edwards.

    Curiously, my dad was a wise man too [most of our parents were, in case the idea hadn’t quite dawned on you!], and WE had the Daily Express every day, just like Jon’s family. I doubt it made such a negative impact on me, Pincher notwithstanding, as it seems to have on your own views. I always particularly enjoyed “By the Way” by Beachcomber, and laugh at it today, 60+ years on.

    If you had taken the trouble to listen more carefully to the interview, you would have learnt some interesting things about the current European/Russian situation, something about which you clearly know little/care even less.

  6. nige cook says:

    He is the former Daily Express science journalist and assistant editor who broke the 1950 story “Fuchs gave bomb to Russia” with a Daily Express front page containing photos of secret mathematical reports for the time-constant of neutron fission reactions in an implosion nuclear weapon core surrounded by a thick neutron reflector! The actual equations were clearly visible on the front page photos of the newspaper. He also wrote several books about nuclear weapons like his 1950 book “Into the Atomic Age” which includes several excellent illustrations of nuclear bomb shelters, explosions, and a girl holding a uranium bar in her bare hands! (Naughty, naughty, that would cause some poor Health and Safety physicist trouble these days.)

    No wonder he was a menace to the secrets-obsessed, thus undemocratic, leadership. On 4 May 1959, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan wrote a minute to his Defence Secretary asking that Chapman Pincher be suppressed or bumped-off.

    I expect that Macmillan was just being a “bit emotional” and didn’t intend murder, although you can never quite be sure what the results of such talk will be.

  7. Jan Cosgrove says:

    Putin is a chip off the old russo-imperialist block, what else do we expect from him, democracy, respect for the rule of law. Welcome back cold war and russo-centrism masquerading as defending russian citizens – sometimes by annexation of another’s territory, or by creating stooge states or even poisoning your own citizen with polonium in another country. Putin is in the tradition of Russian spheres of influence policy.

    Snowden … more power to people like him, they are a better defence of freedom than the media in the main. There’s no excuse re reading just one paper anymore. You can read the world’s press online for free.

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