Bill O'Hagan

O’Hagan with his gourmet sausages. In a BBC film he claimed that his recipes, which he kept in a safe, had been stolen

From The Times, 1st June 2013

Journalist and sausage-maker who led the revival of the great British banger, selling first to colleagues and later to the Roux brothers

Bill O’Hagan was a man on a mission: to make the perfect sausage. Having learnt the art of sausage-making as a youth in his native South Africa, he was appalled when he came to London in 1970 to discover just how bland British sausages were, and just how much rusk the manufacturers stuffed into them in place of meat. He was indignant and felt that the quality of the famous full English fried breakfast was a deception that Britannia had too readily fallen for. So he set about making his own, first in a small way, and selling them to his friends, including his many colleagues on The Daily Telegraph where he was the night news editor.

The sausages weren’t expensive — “Special rates for mates” he would cry in his thick Voortrekker accent as he went from desk to desk with a cold box full of bangers. In no time he had branched out from simple pork sausages to ones flavoured with garlic (Toulouse), rue, tansy, woodruff and pennyroyal, and a hot Moroccan. Some were made with venison. Some were laced with beer: tipsy turkey, drunken duck and gussy goose. There was even a “lucky dip” selection with half a dozen different varieties. “No artificial anything,” he trumpeted.

In 1988 he opened a sausage shop in Greenwich, not far from the Royal Naval College. The smell of herbs was intoxicating. He and his wife, Bronwyn, and son lived above the shop. Business was brisk: on Saturdays the queue stretched out onto the pavement and around the corner. He opened another shop, with a partner, in Smithfield. He won contracts to supply the Waterside Inn, the Roux brothers’ celebrated restaurant on the Thames at Bray in Berkshire, as well as the Dorchester, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. He launched a Save Our Sausage Society, and the Meat and Livestock Commission bestowed on him the Best Sausage Maker in Britain award. For a time he was a media celebrity.

His arrival at the Telegraph, then still in Fleet Street, was shambolic. With nowhere to stay and little money, he spent his first night asleep on top of a tomb in the churchyard of nearby St Bride’s. On his second night he ventured to sleep under his desk; early-morning arrivals turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to his snoring bulk. In those days newspaper managements were more relaxed about such transgressions than today. It has to be said that O’Hagan was no stranger to drink, which no doubt aided his slumbers in uncomfortable circumstances. Later he acquired a decommissioned black taxi cab and would sometimes sleep on the back seat. Occasionally, when he was driving around, people would get into it, assuming he was for hire, and become quite shirty when he explained that it was a private car.

O’Hagan was a round man with a huge girth, and a perfectly spherical, bald, shiny head with pop eyes and a neat moustache. For years he wore an Inverness cape and a deerstalker. He was charming, with an impish glint in his eye when he was up to something, and a sour expression when things went wrong, which they often did. He fell out with his business partner in the Smithfield venture and lost his share in the enterprise. Having so delighted the Roux brothers, he lost the contract with them when he failed to deliver on a regular basis, the demon drink having intervened. These mishaps led in 2001 to a documentary, Sausage Wars, in the BBC Two series Blood on the Carpet, in which O’Hagan accused an employee of stealing his secret recipes to set up in competition. Whatever the truth, O’Hagan left London for “a slower pace of life”on the South Coast, where he established another sausage shop.

At the Telegraph O’Hagan was never less than professional in his nightwatchman’s role, keeping a beady eye on the wires for late-breaking stories and promptly despatching his skeleton staff to fires and violent episodes; their reports were intended to catch the final edition, which went to press in the early hours. The attitide of senior executives to his drinking was understanding, not least because it was often they who were in the vanguard heading for the Kings and Keys, the Cheshire Cheese or the Tipperary, among Fleet Street’s many other watering holes.

O’Hagan was born William Edward Bastard in Kokstad, Natal, in 1944. His father, Ebbo Bastard, a farmer who had played in the 1937 South African rugby tour of Australia and New Zealand, was shot dead by a rival when Bill was a boy and he took his mother’s maiden name, O’Hagan. He learnt how to make sausages as a schoolboy when he got a Saturday job with a butcher. He was educated at Maritzburg College where the seeds of opposition to apartheid were sown. During his National Service he played saxophone in the BOSS (Bureau of State Security) band. Afterwards he got a job on the Rand Daily Mail and then, aged 26, he came to London. First he got a job on the Crawley Advertiser in West Sussex. Then, with John Roberts, he founded, wrote and edited Gatwick News, a freesheet centred on the people and events at the airport. Finally he was appointed to the staff of the Telegraph. There he met his future wife, Bronwyn, who was a switchboard supervisor.

She survives him with their son.

Bill O’Hagan, sausage-maker and journalist, was born on June 4, 1944. He died of cancer on May 15, 2013, aged 68

© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre