The Cherwell was not resurrected again until either 1946 or 1947. The Bodleian’s collections resumes under the proprietorship of Martyn de B. Gordon-Fisher in 1947. However, the first editorial of Gordon-Fisher’s paper makes reference to how the paper had been restarted some point after the war, before it was sent into liquidation by the Proctors. Why had the Proctors destroyed the Cherwell? The owner of the paper, Alan Beesley, had accidentally sent a questionnaire about women’s sexual experiences at Oxford to a female don. Unsurprisingly, the Proctors were not impressed, and suspended its publication. The resurrected paper did not recover easily, and it quickly became a bi-weekly publication. At the same time, some stability was restored and Gordon-Fisher was able to attract a wide range of contributors. The new owner promised: ‘we will do our best to avoid the criticism usually directed against Varsity magazines – that of cliquishness.’
The future of the Cherwell changed forever in 1951, when it was bought by Clive Labovitch and Earl M. White. Initially, Labovitch and White continued with the paper’s existing magazine format for a year, before deciding that a fundamental change was needed. Sales were not what they once were, and the Cherwell was struggling to differentiate itself from other Oxford magazines with a literary bent. On Tuesday, 27 January 1953, the Cherwell was reborn as a newspaper. The two proprietors laid out their thinking in the first newspaper edition of the paper:
Every innovation is not an improvement, every change is not necessarily for the better. But while we must admit to a slight nostalgia for our shiny pages and glossy birdcage of a cover, we feel that the war of magazines in Oxford is an outmoded conflict, and there is a need for us in our new form. When Cherwell was established in 1920, the University was barely a third of its present size and it was much more possible to be informed of almost all that was happening. Today the University is not merely physically larger, but has increased the scope of its activities to such an extent that a weekly newspaper has become practically the only remaining desideratum.
The Cherwell: News Edition was eight pages long, and included news, interviews, and listings. Having to deal with news stories led the paper to take a more serious tone, particularly when there were a large number of student suicides in 1953. The editorial team wrote in frustration that there was ‘no such thing as an imaginary psychological ailment’ and that ‘the University must in the name of humanity provide a service which is overdue by several young lives.’ The paper was more financially successful than the magazine, but to provide a greater degree of stability, Labovitch also negotiated a move to a small brick hut at the back of the Oxford Union in 1954, with the help of his friend Michael Heseltine, the Treasurer of the Union at the time. 9a Saint Michael’s Street would prove the paper’s longest lasting office, where the Cherwell remained from 1954 until 1981.
Barely a year after the Cherwell adopted newspaper form, its Cambridge competitor Varsity attempted to enter the Oxford media market. Trouble occurred on 24 January 1955, when a dozen members of Varsity’s Cambridge staff visited Oxford and were followed around its colleges, by people who tore down posters and leaflets advertising the newspaper. These shadowy figures were allegedly doing their bidding on behalf of the Cherwell. On the day the Oxford edition of Varsity first went on sale, the BBC even sent down a cameraman who told The Observer that he hoped to film ‘a bit of scuffling’ between the two papers. Thankfully he would be disappointed, although the Cambridge Editor of Varsity, Michael Winner, kept a low profile as he had heard that the Cherwell staff wanted to throw him in the river. Fortunately for the Cherwell, Oxford students remained too tribal to buy a newspaper that had its origins in Cambridge, and Varsity’s presence proved short-lived.
By relaunching the Cherwell as a student newspaper, Labovitch and White saved the paper. They had taken a struggling publication from a room in New College to a well-equipped office at the centre of events in Oxford. In the last edition of the Cherwell before they graduated, its staff wrote that the two had truly been responsible for a ‘Cherwell Renaissance’.
Labovitch and White sold their interest in the paper to another student called Michael Sissons in 1957. However, this state of affairs did not last long, as the Cherwell was sold to a trust consisting largely of senior members of the University in April 1958. To improve the management of the paper the new owners created Oxford Student Publications Limited (OSPL), which was formally established on 6 January 1961. In the short run, this seemed to strengthen the paper as the editors looked to publish it twice a week and staff were even told at one meeting that ‘Cherwell was a newspaper steadily working towards Manchester Guardian level’. Meanwhile, The Isis mocked the Cherwell’s increasingly professional pretensions, by commenting on all the ‘impovements’ that were taking place – a jest aimed at the quality of the paper’s proofreading. But in the long run, dons proved no better at managing the Cherwell in the long run than student proprietors had been. Barely a decade after the incorporation of OSPL, there was serious talk in 1972 of a merger between The Isis, and the equally impoverished the Cherwell. In fact, the situation had deteriorated so much that, in 1974, the paper had to launch a national appeal in order to stay in print. Leading political figures of the day, including Edward Heath and Roy Jenkins, contributed £5. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn both declined. The bluntest rejection came from the writer Kingsley Amis, who wrote:
I understand your difficulty, but I am rather hard up these days, believe it or not, and since Cherwell never did anything for me in the way of publishing my work, I don’t see why I should go out of my way to do something for it.
By 1977, it looked like OSPL might finally have recovered and the Cherwell jokingly ran a front page with the headline ‘Fleet Street Shudders!’, which announced that OSPL would make a bid ‘not exceeding two figures’ for the Evening Standard. But the situation deteriorated again, and by the 1980s the advertising revenue from publishing a careers guide was the only way it avoided shutting down.
By Robert Walmsley
Part 4 – ‘The Cherwell Renaissance’