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Ghosts from the past

25 June, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Acorn House – former NUJ HQ in Gray’s Inn Road

THE mysteries of Acorn House, a corner building in Gray’s Inn Road, King’s Cross may never be known but I was thinking the other day of an incident in a person’s life that changed his forever.

The street protests by Black Lives Matter brought it to mind – the life of Tom Welsh, an old colleague of mine, and an eminent expert on libel.

Tom, a young journalist, had gone to Chicago to witness the demonstrations of Vietnam veterans, many of them badly maimed, who were due to protest outside one of the political conventions at the height of the bloody Vietnam war in the late 1960s.

In that single span of time what Tom saw changed him into a fine liberal journalist with strong feelings for the importance of ethics in journalism.

He was editing the old Camden Journal as well as the Hornsey Journal in the mid-70s at the time when we met – and gravitated effortlessly to each other. Later, he edited an evening paper in Cumbria and became a leading ethicist among journalistic circles.

What has this to do with Acorn House, a non-descript building at the junction of Swinton Street and Gray’s Inn Road?

Well, Tom would have gone occasionally to “Acorn” because it was the HQ of the National Union of Journalists. Since then, it was sold a few years ago to the Terence Higgins Fund, and is now part of the portfolio of developers known as Access. It’s in the news again because Access want to trade it off, as it were, as a building that can be turned into “affordable flats” as part of a deal for the redevelopment of a site opposite King’s Cross Station.

Tom Welsh. Photo: North-West Evening Mail

Acorn House, like so many union HQs, has seen many turbulent times – the disputes in the regional press, the closure of The Times in the late-70s and the infamous years of 1986/87 when Murdoch closed down his Fleet Street plants– without the workforce knowing that was his plan – and moved them to Wapping. Weekly demonstrations, clashes with the police, were all part of the years 86-87.

I met many fine journalists as well as print workers at Wapping protests. But Murdoch’s high-tech plant at Wapping prevailed though it is now being sold. Among fine journalists were Jacob Ecclestone, NUJ shop steward at The Times, a sub-editor by trade; and Charlie Taylor, print worker and shop steward who lived in King’s Cross. In the evening and sometimes weekends Charlie devoted himself to a fine institution, the Camden Community Health Council, a watchdog over hospitals, which was an electable post. The CHCs were foolishly wound up – they must have upset a health secretary.

I liked Charlie. His voice would disappear into a whisper because his vocal cords had been damaged and often his words would be lost against the noise of traffic whenever I met him in the street in Camden Town.

In the Second World War he had been a merchant seaman on the convoys, taking military cargoes to Murmansk in Russia, and had been torpedoed more than once, in freezing waters I recall, a heroic figure.

I associate him with Acorn House as with so many other “ghosts” from the past, like Tom Welsh. If new tenants move into a new-look Acorn House they will know nothing of them , but, if you are like me, a believer in matters that the laws of physics have not yet come to terms with, you may catch the names Tom Welsh and Charlie Taylor echoing in the building.

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