1. The first puzzles
The Listener was a weekly magazine initiated by the BBC in 1929. It contained articles on politics, travel, the arts, and indeed on any topic covered in its mainstream ‘serious’ channels, at first radio then later television. Many leading statesmen and intellectuals were regular contributors, with both articles and book reviews.
The puzzle series commenced in 1930, coincidentally the same year as The Times started its daily puzzle. This was a time when crosswords were a worldwide craze after being invented in America in 1913.
In the second issue in 1930,
The Listener commenced a series of weekly competitions, mostly requiring an essay or poem to be sent in. No. 8, published on 26 February 1930, was a crossword puzzle. (The series then continued with its earlier themes until No. 12, when it effectively stopped, although there were occasional one-off competitions in later weeks.)
This puzzle was headed as follows:
“We offer five prizes of One Guinea each for the best solutions of A Radiept Crossword. Solutions will be opened and judged on Tuesday morning, March 4.”
There were 5 winners named, with others offered a tour of B.B.C. Studios.
It had a rather bizarre grid and numbering system, with a few clues with a radio theme. It is, however, not universally regarded as the first Listener Crossword, an accolade that falls to “Our Crossword Puzzle No. 1”, subtitled A Musical Crossword, which had a much stronger theme in the clues. It was published on 2 April 1930, at the same time as the regular competition series stopped.
The puzzle was described: “This week we start a series of crosswords for the amusement of our readers. No prizes will be offered, but any reader who sends to us, within a week of publication, the correct solution of any of our crosswords, will be entitled to an invitation to visit the B.B.C. Studios on certain afternoons. … The names of readers who have correctly solved the crosswords will be published in
The Listener in so far as space permits.”
The solution was accompanied by:
“This crossword proved difficult, and only one correct solution was received, that submitted by Mr. I. Cresswell of … Colchester. Honourable mentions are awarded to C.C. Parrott, Edwin Chappell, and Miss E.M. White.”
The series continued apace, with puzzles almost every week. The style of the Listener Crossword became established in these prewar days:
it combined clues — at first definition style but soon cryptic — with a theme either stated or to be discovered. It also acquired a reputation for extreme difficulty: there would occasionally be no correct entries and so few correct entries were expected that at one time there was a prize for each; see below. Some puzzles could be entirely in Greek or Latin; others required an acquaintance with British Literature beyond what would be expected of most solvers today.
It is remarkable how fertile was the imagination of the early setters. It would be left to others to refine clueing style and to set standards of fairness in grids, but the Listener Crossword led the field in thematic ideas. As early as No. 3 there was a grid in the shape of the map of India and clues that exposed the solvers’ ignorance of Hindustani. In addition to puzzles with a classical theme, science, the arts and even the weather made early appearances. Towards the end of the second year one puzzle involved a clue writing competition.
Scheduling puzzles in appropriate slots was involved from the start: Crossword No. 4 appeared on St. George’s Day and the grid was a map of England. Shortly after this, puzzles appeared near to Derby Day, Budget Day, the Proms and, of course, Christmas, with themes to match. Crossword No. 1001 was entitled The Thousand and one (K)nights.
Mathematical puzzles became a feature early in the series, making a more frequent appearance than at present, and they demanded a higher level of mathematical skills than those currently being published. Further information about these is presented in the Reference section.