Sir Harold Evans, the doyen of contemporary journalists, shot to fame editing The Northern Echo in the 1960s. Chris Lloyd tells his story.

AFTER the great founding eras of Stead and Starmer, the name of another journalistic knight – Sir Harold Evans – looms largest in The Northern Echo’s 150 year history.

Harry edited the paper for little more than five years in the 1960s, but he re-established its reputation as a campaigning paper rooted in its community before he went off to do great things on a national level at the Sunday Times.

He arrived in 1961 as a 31-year-old from the Manchester Evening News, in his home town, although he had spent three years studying economics and politics at Durham university. He inherited a rather staid newspaper which hadn’t done much shouting for a couple of decades.

The Northern Echo: Harold Evans unveils The Northern Echo Tidy Village Trophy that was won by Sedgefield in October 1964Harold Evans unveils The Northern Echo Tidy Village Trophy that was won by Sedgefield in October 1964

“A rocket needs a solid base and The Northern Echo was deeply rooted in the region,” he once said. “All I had to do was put some fuel in the engine…”

First of all he modernised it so it sounded like a newspaper for the 1960s. He channelled the “vigour and bluntness” that he found on the North-East cultural scene through writers like Sid Chaplin and artists like Norman Cornish to create a clean and punchy paper.

On June 28, 1965, he swept away the frighteningly Victorian Gothic masthead on the top of page one and replaced it with the emphatic yet homely title piece which still graces the front page to this day (it's in a font called Clarendon).

Then he gave the Echo something to shout about by reconnecting it with its campaigning roots.

He campaigned against inflammable nightclothes and called for improved road safety. He embraced the teenage spirit of the age (as the pictures on pages 88-89 show), and he held a son et lumiere concert which raised money to floodlight Durham Cathedral for the first time – a forerunner of today’s Lumiere festivals.

The Northern Echo: One of Harold Evans' most enduring achievements is the floodlighting of Durham cathedral. Here, the first floodlights are installed in July 1964 prior to Evans' son et lumiere fundraising concertOne of Harold Evans' most enduring achievements is the floodlighting of Durham cathedral. Here, the first floodlights are installed in July 1964 prior to Evans' son et lumiere fundraising concert

He was most proud of his campaign to get the cervical smear test introduced free on the NHS.

He’d heard that Vancouver was trialling the test and didn’t understand why it shouldn’t be tried in somewhere like the North-East. He sent a reporter to Canada to investigate. After six weeks the reporter returned to Darlington and said the world expert on cervical smears was in Gateshead hospital but no-one would listen to him.

Evans listened – and persuaded the Government to introduce a life-saving trial in the North-East in 1966.

His oddest campaign was when he offered his photographers a fiver if they could capture the 'Teesside smell' – a notorious and noxious waft that drifted the length of the Tees Valley and which the Teesside chemical industry refused to accept existed.

By chance, within five minutes of photographer Ossie Stanford taking a picture of a sunny Stockton lane, the haze which accompanied the smell descended on the lane, blotting out the sun. The before and after pictures forced ICI to accept that its emissions were an issue and Evans began to clean up the Teesside environment.

Perhaps his most profound campaign concerned Timothy Evans (no relation) who had been hanged for murdering his wife and child at 10 Rillington Place in London in 1950. Evans would be regarded now as a vulnerable adult, and it later transpired that mass murderer John Christie had been living, and indeed killing, in the flat beneath. Christie was, in all probability, guilty of murdering Evans’ family, yet the unfortunate man, unable to mount his own defence, had hanged.

The editor campaigned to have his namesake pardoned, and when Home Secretary Roy Jenkins granted it in 1966, it effectively ended the death sentence for all but high treason.

The Northern Echo: Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is interviewed by Sir Harold Evans, Editor-at-Large of Thomson Reuters, at the Women in the World summit in London on October 9, 2015Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is interviewed by Sir Harold Evans, Editor-at-Large of Thomson Reuters, at the Women in the World summit in London on October 9, 2015

Harold Evans, who gained a national reputation by presenting What the Papers Say on Granada Television, left the Echo to edit the Sunday Times where his perseverance eventually won compensation for victims of the thalidomide morning sickness drug.

Since 1984 Sir Harold has been living, writing and editing in New York, where he is regarded as the doyen of contemporary journalists.

He, of course, shot to fame when he put fuel in The Northern Echo’s rocket…