Suffolk: The day we broke the news of the Sutton Hoo burial site - and the modest reporter who never claimed the scoop as his own
19:30 26 March 2014
He was the journalist who wrote one of the most important stories in the 140-year history of this newspaper.
At the end of July 1939, Alfred Bowden, known as “Bow,’’ was the reporter chosen to reveal the discovery of the fabulous treasures at Sutton Hoo. His story in the EADT beat the national newspapers and BBC radio, who all had to follow it up over the next few days.
Today, nearly 75 years later, the story remains one of the EADT’s proudest moments. But, despite being the man who wrote it, “Bow’’ never considered it to be his “scoop’’ – it was an achievement for the newspaper.
Memories of how the EADT told the Sutton Hoo story came back into the spotlight recently when the newspaper also exclusively revealed the discovery of a related “Village of the Kings’’ at nearby Rendlesham. There were parallels between the stories to which I will return later,
But back to Alfred “Bow’’ Bowden. He was a senior reporter in the EADT’s office in Carr Street, Ipswich, on the night in question in July 1939. The Sutton Hoo discovery had been kept a closely-guarded secret, and only two men at the paper – managing editor Ralph Wilson and news editor Alf Draycott – knew about it.
Speaking to the EADT in 1979, “Bow’’ recalled that he reported for a night shift and was told not to leave the office because it was possible that a big story would break – it all depended what happened at a meeting in London that day.
He recalled: “They were sorting out who should get the credit for the discoveries. We had agreed with Mr Maynard (the curator of Ipswich Museum) to keep quiet about the discovery as they didn’t want the public walking all over it.
“Because we were the main paper in the area and had kept quiet about it, they were going to let us have first bite. I was chosen to write the story because while I was working at Colchester I had written a good deal on archaeological subjects. You only have to turn over soil in the garden there and you find something.’’
When Mr Maynard returned from the big meeting in London he went straight to the EADT’s offices and into a conference with Mr Wilson and Mr Draycott. When they eventually emerged, “Bow’’ was asked to write down what Mr Maynard was going to tell him.
“We went into the room used by the leader writer which was also the library and he dictated to me for about an hour. He also gave me the photographs. After I had finished my story it went straight to Mr Wilson and Mr Draycott without even going through the sub-editors.’’
These days, the story would have made big front page news. But, back then, only adverts appeared on the front of the paper. So “Bow’s’’ story was printed in the middle of the broadsheet EADT. He didn’t even get a by-line, because that wasn’t the paper’s house style!
“Bow’’ stayed very late into the night, seeing the papers off the press before returning to his house in Sidegate Lane, Ipswich – where he found his wife Dorothy was in labour. Later that day, their son Michael was born.
Today, Michael, known as Mike, is 74 years old and lives in Ipswich with his wife, Val. They say that “Bow’’ – who died in 1987, aged 79 - was very modest about his big exclusive.
Mike said: “He was a very modest man. He never said to me that I had a claim to fame – being born on the same day as he wrote the Sutton Hoo story.’’
Indeed, Mike and Val are not sure whether “Bow’’ even visited Sutton Hoo, despite his strong links with the place, because he never learned to drive a car.
But nonetheless there could well be a link with the family. Mike and Val’s great-granddaughter, Lauren, is very keen on archaeology and hopes to pursue it as a career. She loves visiting Sutton Hoo.
The parallels between “Bow’s’’ 1939 exclusive and the more recent EADT “scoop’’ about the discoveries at Rendlesham are uncanny. In both cases, the stories remained closely guarded secrets. In both cases, there was a certain nervousness among the authorities about the stories being told. And in both cases, after assurances that the stories would be told accurately and responsibly, the EADT got its exclusive.
“Bow’’ retired from this newspaper in 1979, afer a distinguished career spanning more than 30 years during which time he held a number of senior editorial roles, including pretty much running the Star when it was without its own editor.
As already mentioned, “Bow’’ died in 1987 after a period of ill-health. But he will certainly never be forgotten in these offices. He was, after all, the modest man who landed what was arguably our biggest-ever “scoop’’.
I always tell this story when I give talks about the history of the EADT and Evening/Ipswich Star. I am very grateful to “Bow’s’’ son, Mike, and his wife Val for getting in touch to make sure I tell the fascinating story accurately!