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Obituary: The legendary Clare Hollingworth, 1911-2017

Clare as a freelancer in the 1950s.

Clare as a freelancer in the 1950s.

The FCC’s legendary Correspondent member, Clare Hollingworth, who spent her entire working life travelling the world reporting war and conflict, passed away at home in Hong Kong in January at the very venerable of age 105.

Hollingworth, often hailed as the “doyenne of Foreign Correspondents”, forged a remarkable career as a foreign correspondent, beginning with the scoop of the century when she reported the start of World War II from Poland in September 1939 while working as a stringer for London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

She was a dedicated journalist who overcame gender barriers to report from the front lines of major conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Vietnam. She lived her final four decades in Hong Kong after being one of the few Western journalists to report on the Cultural Revolution from China in the 1970s.

Hollingworth had celebrated her 105th birthday in October last year at the FCC. “We are very sad to hear about Clare’s passing. She was a tremendous inspiration to us all and a treasured member of our club. We were so pleased that we could celebrate her 105th birthday with her this past year,”  FCC president Tara Joseph said.

Best known as a Daily Telegraph correspondent, Hollingworth wrote for many publications during her long career, including The Economist, The Observer, Manchester Guardian, Daily Express, International Herald Tribune and Asian Wall Street Journal.

Charles Moore, the editor of the Daily Telegraph described Clare as one the Telegraph’s most distinguished servants and an inspiration to all foreign correspondents and all women in journalism. Other tributes from the Telegraph included:

Clare in the 1960s next to a RAF Hunter in Aden

Clare in the 1960s next to a RAF Hunter in Aden

Kate Adie, the veteran BBC war correspondent said Hollingworth was “a pioneer” for women in journalism who did not stop after her great scoop, went on to have a “a lifetime of journalism, full of adventure, good stories and terrific attention to detail and fact. She was a role model, without being aware of it.

Robert Fox, the Telegraph‘s former defence and chief foreign correspondent, described Hollingworth as amazing and steadfast. “After the Falklands I remember she took me to lunch and asked me about the state of the British Army. She used to take the trouble to come over to me, she was always interested and took a great deal of interest in younger reporters.”

The BBC’s John Simpson, who first met Clare in 1978, described her as a journalist who people trusted. “She interviewed the Shah of Iran in 1941, just after we had put him on the throne, and she was the only person he would speak to before he died – because he trusted her. I consider her one the finest journalists of the 20th Century, along with Martha Gellhorn and one or two others. I shall miss her memory more than I can say.”

Chris Patten, who knew Hollingworth when he was Hong Kong governor, said, “Clare was quite literally one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century. She was a great buccaneer, brave, witty and wise. “She covered some of the greatest stories of the last century with imitable dash and, on top of all that, she was kind and lovable.”

Clare with the Commander of British Forces near Tamar in Hong Kong.

Clare with the Commander of British Forces near Tamar in Hong Kong.

Patrick Garrett, her biographer and great-nephew, said, “At 105 we had begun to wonder if Clare was one of the immortals. However, she got a cold around Christmas and obviously it is an extra concern with the elderly. We assumed she’d fight it off but it was to be her last Christmas.

“She was far from home but she’d been abroad most of her life. Seventy-eight years ago in Nazi Austria and most years since on foreign soil.”

Garrett, in his biography of Hollingworth, “Of fortune and war” published in July last year, described her first taste of war: “27-year-old Clare collared one of the scoops of the century by borrowing the flagged diplomatic car of the British consul-general in Katowice (with whom she’d a fling, extra-marital for both of them) on the Polish-German border, driving probably in breach of the rules into Germany and by chance seeing masses of Wehrmacht tanks readying for action. When a couple of days later the tanks rolled into Poland, Clare’s first account of world war breaking out was denied – by a disbelieving Polish government.”

What is far less well known is what Hollingworth was doing immediately before she walked into the offices of the Daily Telegraph in Fleet Street in August 1939 and asked for, and got, a job. “The fact is during the spring and summer that year Clare played an important part in rescuing around three thousand people from under the very noses of the Nazis.” These were refugees facing immediate arrest, or worse, as the Nazis tightened their grip on eastern Europe. Clare’s job was to try to help these very frightened people who were on the Nazis’ wanted list to find a safe haven. This she did despite nightmarish logistical difficulties, lack of funds and baulky bureaucracies. It is an amazing account of sheer, bloody-minded persistence on Hollingworth’s part – qualities that would serve her splendidly in her journalism. It was clearly “fiendishly difficult and dangerous work that deserved gratitude and recognition far beyond the modest OBE she received from the British government much later in life.”

Clare during the India-Pakistan war in circa 1965, also with The Guardian

Clare during the India-Pakistan war in circa 1965, also with The Guardian

After her journalistic coup on the Polish-German border, Clare had hair’s-breadth escapes from the rapidly advancing German forces, experiences which did nothing to quench her thirst for action and adventure. Far from it. And the outbreak of World War II was by no means her only scoop. Another notable success was breaking the story of double agent Kim Philby’s defection to Moscow.

Throughout her subsequent career she repeatedly impressed or shamed her male correspondent peers with her sang-froid and apparent fearlessness. “It was manic story-chasing and a perverse pleasure in warfare. This relentless hunt for conflict and adventure would become a way of life for Clare, and ultimately it is what defined her as a person.”

Hollingworth was born October 10, 1911, to a middle-class family in the village of Knighton in Leicestershire, England. Her father ran a boot factory founded by her grandfather. She took brief courses in Croatian at Zagreb University, international relations in Switzerland and Slavonic studies in London. She worked as a secretary and then at a British refugee charity in Poland while writing occasional articles about the looming war in Europe, before landing the job with the Daily Telegraph that was to launch her remarkable career.

When Clare moved to Hong Kong in 1981 it was supposed to be temporary. She was researching a book on The Great Helmsman (Mao and the Men Against Him) and had secured a research position at HKU’s Centre of Asian Studies. She never planned to stay, but was intrigued by the negotiations over Hong Kong’s future. Finally she decided to sit it out until the Handover. She never left.

Undoubtedly one reason she opted for Hong Kong was the FCC. Describing the Club as a “second home” for some members may be an old cliché. But for Clare it soon became her first home. Widowed in 1965 she lived for journalism, and was frankly obsessed with following “the story”. She lived modestly – university accommodation at first, later an un-renovated one-room flat. But in the FCC Main Bar there was always someone – local insiders, out-of-towners, and reporters from the 20th century’s wars – to exchange gossip and memories.

A one minute silence was observed in the Main Bar and a service to celebrate Clare’s life will held in the Club on Thursday, January 19. Tributes to Clare and her achievements can be found on the FCC website at www.fcchk.org

Celebrate Clare Hollingworth Facebook page

Patrick Garret, Anna Fenton, Jonathan Sharp, Paul Bayfield