The day they buried Hickey

DANCE OF DEATH: The Mail’s Nigel Dempster stands on the champagne-filled coffin of William Hickey with, from left, Brian Vine, Alison Miller, Kim Willsher, John Roberts, Geoffrey Levy, Richard Compton Miller, Peter Tory and Christopher Wilson

BACK in 1987, the Express decided to axe the famous William Hickey gossip column and replace the long-dead diarist with a real person in the shape of the late lamented Ross Benson. Fleet Street gossip columnists led by the Daily Mail’s Nigel Dempster decided to hold a mock funeral for poor old Hickey. The Hickey name was revived following Benson’s death. This is how the Chicago Tribune reported it at the time:

They wept mock tears for William Hickey when they laid him to rest after his death at the age of 54.

There was no corpse to inter, so they filled a coffin with champagne bottles, placed a rusty typewriter on top and marched down Fleet Street with a New Orleans-style band playing jazz music.

Crowds lining the Street of Shame, the heart of Britain's newspaper industry, laughed and cheered through it all, London`s most bizarre funeral of the year.

Hickey was the pseudonymous gossip columnist of the Daily Express and one of the most famous names in British journalism. The Express decided recently to kill him off and replace him with a flesh-and-blood columnist named Ross Benson.

So, those who mourned Hickey donned top hat and tails and carried his coffin out of the Daily Express building and across Fleet Street to St. Bride's Church, which is saddled with the responsibility of caring for the souls of journalists. Then they went to a Fleet Street watering hole where they disposed of the contents of the coffin.

The pallbearers, who passed a handkerchief among themselves, wiping away mock tears, were all people who had worked on the Hickey column. Some have gone on to fame in their own right as columnists on other newspapers.

Nigel Dempster of the Daily Mail, the superstar among today's columnists and himself a former William Hickey, leaped on to the coffin and danced to the band's accompaniment of Just a Closer Walk With Thee.

Gossip columns, which have spawned uncounted libel suits and have been a key weapon in Fleet Street's circulation wars, have a long and colourful history in Britain. In the 18th century they were boisterous, free-wheeling, scurrilous and highly entertaining. But in the puritanical 19th Century, they developed into a collection of rather bland social notes about debutante parties and the like.


Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of the Daily Express, changed all that in 1933 when he invented Hickey. The real William Hickey was an 18th century rogue, drunkard and lawyer who was sent to India in disgrace and came back to England in retirement to write his memoirs about his scapegrace exploits.

Beaverbrook employed Tom Driberg, a penniless classics scholar from Oxford University, to write the column. Driberg, an ex-communist, set the standard for modern-day gossip columnists, returning to the ways of his 18th Century predecessors and savaging the social world from which he had originated.

Driberg later left the Express to become a member of Parliament. About 50 people have succeeded him, one of whom lasted only one day. The column grew to have a large staff of assistants, employed to ferret out the peccadilloes of the rich and famous. At one time it employed 12 people.

There is a story that idle hands on the staff used industrial tape to wrap up anyone who was working on the telephone. One young reporter was said to have been wrapped up and suspended from the ceiling by a coat hanger while talking on the phone to Prince Richard of Gloucester.

In the swinging 1960s, Hickey and other columnists became more poisonous, invading the private lives of those they wrote about in a flagrant way.

Playwright John Osborne skewered the columnists in a play called The World of Paul Slickey and his wife Penelope Gilliat attacked them in a memorable magazine article. The effect was to tame the columnists, at least until the Daily Mail hired Dempster.

The last William Hickey was Richard Compton Miller and, on the day after the Fleet Street funeral, it became apparent the obsequies had been premature. For there, in its usual place in the Express, was the Hickey column. Hickey had been given the rare privilege of reporting on his own funeral.


Much of the column was devoted to an account of Hickey's 'last night on the town' on the evening preceding the funeral. It seems that he spent it in high style, attending a glittering party that followed the opening night of the musical High Society.

Michael Shea, press secretary to Queen Elizabeth II, said after years of fielding queries from Hickey about the lives of various members of the royal family: “I'm delighted to say that I've never been attacked maliciously by Hickey, which puts me in a very distinguished and highly select group."

Hickey closed with this observation: "Who knows, the death of William Hickey may turn out, like Bobby Ewing's, to have been a terrible dream."

But the column was his last. Hickey`s successor, Benson, was to begin his column Monday and Miller will become the paper's chief feature writer.

Benson, 38, has the looks of a matinee idol and there is an abiding suspicion among some in Fleet Street that he was chosen for precisely that reason so he could compete with Dempster as a television personality.

But Benson is a man of substance. He was voted international reporter of the year in the British press awards for 1984 for his coverage of the war in Afghanistan, and he said he hopes to give the column an international flavour. "I am pledged to live by and improve on William Hickey`s ideals –and ultimately, if not sooner, to bury Dempster," he said. Dempster, in his post-funeral column, ignored the whole subject.

HAPPY MOURNERS: James Whitaker, Brian Vine, Alison Miller (Hickey editor for five months in 1976), Kim Willsher, unidentified woman in hat, John Roberts, Richard Compton Miller, Geoffrey Levy, Peter Tory, Nigel Dempster, Michael Leapman and Olga Maitland

NOW FOR LUNCH: A similar line-up with the addition of Christopher Wilson next to Dempster

Pictures above supplied by JEANETTE BISHOP

Louise Court, centre in shawl, and Kim Willsher in dark glasses, who supplied this picture

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre