John Womersley: Daily Mail executive and northern editor

John Womersley, who has been killed in a car accident in the south of France, was one of the original executive team which established the reborn Daily Mail under Sir David English. He was 71.

A highly regarded journalist, he held a series of senior positions on the Daily Mail, which included running the newspaper’s New York bureau and eight years as its northern editor.

But it was during the relaunch of the Mail as a compact newspaper after its merger with the Daily Sketch in 1971 that he emerged as a pivotal figure after being appointed as its first news editor.

Under his charge, the Mail broke a string of exclusives about the Norma Levy affair – the call girl who brought down two ministers in the early Seventies – establishing the newspaper as Fleet Street’s foremost breaker of big news stories.

To the reporting staff, John was not only a news editor of quality and stature, but a man who thoroughly enjoyed the attention that his prominent nose attracted.

On a visit to Downing Street with other senior executives, the then Prime Minister Edward Heath pointedly remarked about John’s obvious “nose for news” but the newspaper’s reporters went one better than that.

During his tenure as news editor they always talked about “the nose desk” and he loved it.

He was later appointed assistant editor, news, before moving to the US in 1977. He returned to Britain to run the Daily Mail’s northern editions in Manchester in 1979 where he edited with a flair and an unbridled enthusiasm.

His time at Deansgate coincided with the manhunt and eventual arrest of the Yorkshire Ripper and with his passion for the big story he ensured the Mail remained ahead of all rivals.

In 1987, after the Daily Mail restructured its Manchester operation, he turned down English’s offer of a senior position on the Evening Standard and took early retirement.

Shortly afterwards he settled in France, where he and his wife Frances built a villa surrounded by vineyards in the heart of the famous Minervois wine-growing region.

It was there he died earlier this month when his car was struck by a freight train on an unmanned level crossing.

Born in Yatton, Somerset, the only son of a hotel manager, Womersley began his career as a 16-year-old messenger and tea boy on the South Wales Echo in Cardiff.

After National Service he returned to Cardiff before moving to the Manchester Evening Chronicle.

Determined to fulfill his ambition of working on a national paper, and after two years persistently writing letters and sending telegrams to the Daily Sketch, he was hired as a £20-a-week reporter in 1957, supplementing his income with Saturday shifts on the Sunday People. He joined the Sketch news desk as night news editor in 1960 and four years later moved on to the day desk as joint deputy news editor.

He became news editor in 1966, a job which brought with it a company car. He neglected to mention that, at 35, he could not actually drive.

As an executive, Womersley had a reputation as a hard worker, regularly putting in 18 hours a day, but in a cut-throat world he was always a kindly and courteous man.

After his successes in London, he nurtured a new generation of journalists in Manchester and was proud of the subs and reporters who went on to great things in London. He continued to take a paternal interest in their careers long after he had ended his own.

A life-long supporter of Manchester United, when he was not at home entertaining his many former-Fleet Street friends for whom he held open house, Womsersley and his wife loved to travel.

He was married three times. He is survived by his widow and daughters of his first marriage, Tara and Gayle and two grandsons.

A memorial service is to be held at St Bride’s, Fleet Street.

Richard Kay, Daily Mail

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