A brief history of The Times Crossword Puzzle by John Grant, former Crossword Editor, The Times, 1983-95

The insinuation of the crossword puzzle into The Times was a devious business. In December 1924 we had published an article about America’s enslavement to the crossword, which we called “a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society”.

Five years later, when crosswords had become popular here, The Times made an oblique move. A crossword appeared in the Weekly Edition of the paper on January 2nd, 1930, and a letter from Lieutenant Commander A.C. Powell, RN, in The Times a fortnight later asked whether it might not be reprinted in the daily edition once a week as an attraction to readers, most of whom, in subsequent letters to the editor, seemed to approve. The result was that the puzzle printed on January 23 in the Weekly Edition hopped like a chess knight into the main paper, and readers were informed that a series of daily puzzles would start on February 1.

How much the opinions of the readers counted for is not clear, because Robert Barrington-Ward, later Editor of The Times, had some weeks earlier asked his friend, Robert Bell, news editor of the Observer, if he knew of anyone who could compile crosswords. Bell put the idea to his son Adrian, who had been farming in Suffolk for 10 years, having at the age of 18 fled from London and the threat of an office life. Adrian said he knew nothing about crosswords, to which his father replied: “You have 10 days to learn.”

Adrian spent the Christmas of 1929 learning, and compiled puzzle No. 1, which appeared on the sports page on February 1, 1930. (The puzzle was not given its permanent anchorage on the back page until 1947.) He continued to compile for almost half a century until his death in 1978, by which time he had produced almost 5,000 puzzles.

Bell was a prolific writer of books on English rural life and character, gentle, modest and wise. One can see a nice capacity for lateral thinking in one of his books where he asks his wife, who is hanging over the marmelade pan, “What happened to the wooden spoon the cat gave you for Christmas?” Crossword compiling, he said, was “the ideal job for a chap with a vacant mind sitting on a tractor harrowing clods, or bicycling.” Most of his work seems to have been done on his bicycle in country lanes, with the chosen words for his next crossword propped up in the basket in front of him.

In his early puzzles he was plainly more concerned with familiarising readers with the crossword idea than being cryptic. But his ability to look at things in a new light soon became apparent: “The cylinder is jammed (5,4)” for example [Swiss roll]. And has anyone ever produced two neater clues than “Die of cold (3,4)” and “Spoils of War (4)” [ice cube and Mars]?

The crossword quickly caught on. Roger Millington, in his book The Strange World of the Crossword (M. & J, Hobbs with Michael Joseph, 1974), describes how, during the 1930 Lambeth Conference, a bishop, surrounded by copies of The Times, was heard to ask another cleric: Do you think you could find me a copy in which the crossword has not been solved?” Later, another reverend wrote to the paper suggesting episcopal authorship of the puzzles on the evidence of the clue “Home of the fatted calf nowadays” [gaiter].

The editor of the crossword from the outset was Ronald Carton, another graceful writer who had been a reporter on the staff since before the First World War.

He enjoyed telling how almost his first task on joining the paper had been to go out and buy a white silk handkerchief to cover the face of Moberley Bell, the manager, who had just died at his desk.

During the Second World War, Carton worked in a government department on anti-enemy propaganda but somehow managed to contribute the bulk of the crosswords as well as edit them all. When the office started making cuts in the clues, on the grounds of paper shortage, he was moved to protest that “[…] the clues of the crossword are written, and always have been written, with the greatest economy of words. That is what makes them bright and pungent. To cut down what is already succinct is to impair the general quality of the work.”

On Carton’s death in 1960 his wife Jane, who had been contributing puzzles and helping with the editing for some years, took over. She had a pretty turn of wit – “The greater snowdrop (9)” and “Foreign entanglements (9)” [avalanche and spaghetti] – but her chief concern was always to check every possible fact; one must be certain that the solver could not write and say, “I think this is unfair.”

The style of the crossword today owes most to Edmund Akenhead, who took over as editor from Jane Carton in 1965. As a life-long member of the Magic Circle, he felt that the cryptic crossword compiler has much in common with the conjurer, since it is his constant aim to misdirect the solver by mental sleight of hand. He was involved in two major developments, The Times Crossword Championship and the Jumbo puzzle, which he invented.

In 1970 the first championship was held, in conjunction with Cutty Sark Whisky. Competitors had to qualify by solving correctly any one of five puzzles appearing during May. Unfortunately, more than 20,000 qualified, and a laborious series of elimination puzzles had to be set. The first of these was still too easy – 1,000 people solved it – and the third too hard – only 42 – so the 302 people who had correctly solved the second eliminator had all to be invited to the final.

The Jumbo puzzles, which Akenhead started in 1970, were well described on the occasion of Akenhead’s retirement in 1983 by Roy Dean, the retired diplomat who won the first Times championship: “What elephantine elegance, what breadth of erudition, what excitement, as the solver is led on from Shakespeare to Shaw, from the Bible to Brewer, from Ancient Greece to modern science, until the onset of writer’s cramp forces the pen from his fingers. How fitting that the name of Akenhead can be clued as ‘a knowledge master’.”

Finally, a personal word to our erudite and faithful solvers. A worry often expressed to me at regional finals is: “Are the puzzles getting more difficult, or am I getting slower?” The answer is twofold. First, our compilers seldom change, and we do not try to be more than ordinarily perverse, And second, it is human nature to think we have a right to be always on our best form, and to be disappointed when we are not. So don’t worry – it’s only a game.

John Grant January 1990

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