Eric Merrill

Gritty journalist turned press officer
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For older generations of Fleet Street journalists, the name Eric Merrill will restore images of a long-departed epoch: a time when provincial working-class boys of real ability battled their way through grammar schools and on to local weekly or evening papers en route to Fleet Street and glory. Scores of famous by-lines still remain among the achievers - while others, perhaps of equal, or even greater, potential became diverted. Eric Merrill was one of the diverted.

Eric Merrill, journalist and public relations officer: born Rotherham, Yorkshire 9 April 1914; MBE 1955; married first 1940 Nancy Taylor (three sons; marriage dissolved 1981), second Margaret Glass (née Giles; two stepsons, one stepdaughter); died North Shields, Tyne and Wear 1 April 2005.

For older generations of Fleet Street journalists, the name Eric Merrill will restore images of a long-departed epoch: a time when provincial working-class boys of real ability battled their way through grammar schools and on to local weekly or evening papers en route to Fleet Street and glory. Scores of famous by-lines still remain among the achievers - while others, perhaps of equal, or even greater, potential became diverted. Eric Merrill was one of the diverted.

The son of a Rotherham carpenter and a mother who ran a back-street corner shop, the young Merrill exhibited an early remarkable talent. He won a place at Rotherham Grammar School and in 1926, by the age of 12, demonstrated such potential, notably in language skills, that he was awarded a one-year scholarship to learn German at the Krefeld Realgymnasium.

That success became the marker for the rest of his career - as a journalist, then through his wartime activities followed by post-war years as a Whitehall press officer and ultimately as head of press for the rail and transport industries. Yet, throughout all these changes, Merrill never lost his touch as, I would claim, the thwarted newspaper reporter with a nose for a first-class story. That is what helped to make him such an outstanding press officer in so many different and difficult roles, stretching from running army press relations in Palestine and the Middle East in the aftermath of the Second World War through to top man in charge of press relations at the newly nationalised British Railways.

It all began hesitantly. After leaving Rotherham Grammar School he spent a miserable month clerking in the Yorkshire Penny Bank. Then, at 17, came Merrill's launch-pad job - as junior reporter with the Rotherham Advertiser. Covering local flower shows and reporting funerals was routine but vital training, although, for Merrill, there was one principal objective - sports reporting and especially writing about cricket.

The ambition continued when he moved to the Yorkshire Evening Post, followed by the Sheffield Independent - and, he hoped, even when joining the reporters' room at the Beaverbrook Daily Express in Manchester. Yet Merrill never achieved his aim. Instead, in 1937, came the chance of a job in Germany for Reuters, based in the Ruhr during the years of critical build-up to war: in fact he just managed to escape from Hitler's Reich five days before the start of the Second World War.

Merrill was seconded to the Central Office of Information but, determined to join the Army, enrolled with the York and Lancaster Regiment and was quickly commissioned before being sent to Africa with the King's African Rifles. Merrill ploughed his way through Egypt, North Africa, Kenya, Abyssinia, Palestine the Lebanon and Cyprus - gradually expanding his skill in languages to embrace KiSwahili, Kikuyu and Luganda tongues as well as a working knowledge of Arabic.

All of which were valuable assets when he was appointed head of army public relations, first in Cairo, from September 1945, then in Palestine, where he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel to work closely with the putative Israeli leadership during the critical uprising before the birth of the Israeli state.

In that role, Merrill established a close working relationship with Harry Beilin, a leading member of the Jewish Agency who later became a senior Israeli diplomat. There is little doubt that Merrill was also involved with British intelligence work during that period - about which he remained secretive. Even so he was mentioned in despatches and appointed MBE for his role in Palestine.

In fact Beilin saved Merrill from almost certain assassination by a group of Jewish terrorists who had discovered Merrill's importance as a link man with the Jewish Agency. Beilin obtained advance information of the plan to kill Merrill and organised a secret rescue plan.

When Merrill returned to Britain in 1947 he was given another army public relations role and remained in uniform until 1951 when, as a civilian, he was appointed head of army public relations at the War Office. Later, when the Ministry of Defence was formed, bringing all three services under one roof, Merrill became director of press and public relations under the Defence Minister Duncan Sandys. He stayed there for more than seven years before becoming head of press and publicity for the British Transport Commission in January 1959, 11 years after nationalisation.

Merrill served six different chairmen of British Rail - General Sir Brian Robertson, Dr Richard Beeching (later Lord Beeching), Sir Stanley Raymond, Sir Henry Johnson, Sir Richard Marsh (Lord Marsh) and Sir Peter Parker - and retired in 1977.

He was as devoted to Britain's railways as he had been to his earlier military life. His great pride was to establish the National Railway Museum which in 1975 he concentrated at York, bringing together some dozen separate rail museums from the old private rail network. It remains as a kind of Merrill monument - a salute to the enterprise of this gritty Yorkshireman, built like a fast bowler he probably envied, frequently grumpy and contrary, but always with an abundance of wonderful inner warmth.

Geoffrey Goodman



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