Henderson, (Robert) Brumwell ('Brum') (1929–2005), managing director of Ulster Television and public figure in Northern Ireland, was born 28 July 1929 in Hillsborough Castle, Co. Down, younger son of Oscar Henderson (qv), and his wife Alicia Mary (née Henry). His father was a member of a prominent family, owners of the Belfast News Letter for several generations; James Henderson (qv) (1797–1863) was Brumwell's great-grandfather, and Sir James Henderson (qv) (1848–1914) was his grandfather. His maternal grandfather, Robert Boyd Henry, was a successful building contractor; the Henry firm had been responsible for building Belfast's Albert Bridge, churches in Belfast and city centre buildings. The boy's forename 'Brumwell' was in honour of a family friend, Sir Brumwell Thomas, the English architect of Belfast City Hall, but from boyhood he was always called 'Brum '. Oscar Henderson was private secretary to James Albert Hamilton (qv), 3rd duke of Abercorn, who was Northern Ireland's first governor (1921–45), so the two Henderson boys grew up in private apartments in a wing of Government House, enjoying the run of the grounds and the feeling of being at the centre of Northern Irish life. His elder brother was (Oscar) William 'Bill' Henderson (1924–2010), later a Unionist MP at Stormont and the last Henderson to own the Belfast News Letter. Brum's governess, Zena Rankin, taught him again in Brackenber House preparatory school, Belfast, before he went to public school in Bradfield College, Berkshire, which he disliked but appreciated in hindsight. He thoroughly enjoyed Trinity College, Dublin, especially the dramatic society, D. U. Players, and student journalism; though he claimed he did almost no work in four years, he also claimed that he just missed a first-class degree in 1951 when he graduated BA. He was offered a job as trainee producer in the Gate Theatre, by Hilton Edwards (qv), but at £2 a week the salary was not sufficiently attractive to a young man from Henderson's background (though to finance his social life while a student he had had to clean buses at night).
He started a law degree, but was quickly bored, was briefly a trainee sub-editor with the Irish Times, but in late 1951 went back to Belfast to work on the family newspaper, the Belfast News Letter. After some training in provincial newspapers in Glasgow and Liverpool, and in the News of the World in London, he then returned to the News Letter to spend a few years working his way through all the departments of newspaper production. It was intended that he would eventually succeed his uncle, James Henderson (qv) (1889–1963), as editor, but in October 1958 he was approached by a group of local businessmen to help pull together a consortium to apply for the licence to set up Northern Ireland's first commercial television station. His uncle was very opposed to the idea, but both Oscar Henderson and Bill Henderson were in the group; Paddy Falloon (qv), a hotelier and businessman, was influential, Randal MacDonnell, earl of Antrim (1911–77), was chairman, and William MacQuitty (qv) was the first managing director. Henderson, confident and creative, and not hindered by any knowledge of broadcasting, very much enjoyed the exciting scrabble to find financial backing and the four hectic weeks in which the bid to be awarded the ITA franchise for Northern Ireland was drawn up; in November 1958, after the bid's success, he returned to newspaper work.
In January 1959 Henderson met Lord Antrim by chance on the street, and was told that the company, with only three full-time staff, was in danger of failing to meet the deadline of going on air in November 1959, allegedly because of difficulties with MacQuitty. Henderson, aged 29, agreed to leave the News Letter and when on 1 May 1959 he took over as general manager of UTV, he had found his vocation. He pulled off what had seemed the impossible task of finding premises, staff, equipment, programmes, audiences and advertising in time for a launch on 31 October 1959, though it was a near thing; his description of the early days in his lively autobiography Brum (2003) conveys the excitement of the new departure. His love of show business and experience in local journalism, along with his business acumen, were admirable qualifications, but Henderson also had myriad contacts in all walks of life; somewhat unusually for a unionist in that place and time, he was willing to acknowledge the existence of diverging values and traditions, and to work alongside catholics.
Henderson succeeded MacQuitty as managing director of UTV, a position he held until 1983, and also served as deputy chairman (1977–83) and chairman (1983–91). UTV became successful relatively quickly, and Henderson's style of leadership kept him as the linchpin in all aspects of its output and operations, including the greatly increased news coverage during Northern Ireland's Troubles; he took responsibility for decisions on news policy and balance, and on whether to cooperate with what was effectively occasional censorship by Westminster, as well as for deciding when to evacuate Havelock House in frequent bomb threats. His own life, he claimed, was threatened on forty occasions by groups with varied viewpoints who did not think the news output was sufficiently balanced.
Henderson established the important collection of modern art in UTV. The station was the first in the United Kingdom to introduce the idea of regional news magazine programming, and Henderson also helped develop the concept of late-night educational programming. He successfully led UTV in 1980 when it fought off a challenge to its franchise, despite the openly expressed concerns of the Independent Broadcasting Authority that UTV was effectively a one-man operation. However, in 1990–91, culminating in March 1991, Henderson lost a struggle to stay on as chairman of the board, when some board members decided he was a liability in the company's then campaign to regain the franchise. The autobiography makes it clear that Henderson was bitter about what he described as the board's gracelessness. He resigned forthwith from the board as well as the chairmanship.
Enforced and reluctant retirement did not bring idleness, as Henderson was deeply involved in British broadcasting more generally and also had been for many years one of the most active figures in many other fields of public life in Northern Ireland. He was a director of Independent Television News (ITN) (1964–8), and a director of ITV Publications (1969–86). In 1982–4 he was chairman of the Royal Television Society, of which he had been a fellow since 1977, and a member of council (1981–4). His contribution to life in Northern Ireland was very considerable. He held directorships in a number of commercial companies and in Laganside Corporation, established to regenerate Belfast's inner city; he was chairman of the Northern Ireland Publicity Association (1959–60), and of the Northern Ireland Millennium Bid Committee in 1994; he was a member of the UK Council of Directors (1973–93), and chairman of its Northern Ireland branch (1973–9). A member of many committees, including the Northern Ireland Design Council (1980–92), he was president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (1980–81) and of the Northern Ireland Chartered Institute of Marketing (1984–92). He set up the Ulster Waterways Group in 1993 to work for the re-opening of local canals, and he retained his enthusiasm for amateur drama, as president of the Association of Ulster Drama Festivals (1978–98), and thereafter, along with the association, set up the Brum Henderson Trust to organise acting workshops and other events.
He held significant roles in educational institutions; he was the Crown's representative on the senate of Queen's University Belfast (1980–2001), and a governor of the Ulster Polytechnic (1979–84). He served on the Lockwood Committee of 1964 which reviewed the provision of university education in the province and eventually and controversially recommended the establishment of the New University of Ulster at Coleraine rather than in Derry; his influence on the decision was probably considerable, and characteristically wholehearted. He also served on the Northern Ireland Council for Continuing Education (1975–85), and on various committees of TCD and the University of Ulster, and was awarded the honorary degree of D.Litt. by the New University of Ulster in 1982 and an honorary doctorate by QUB in 2002. The Brum Henderson Memorial Award, established in 2006, is presented annually to the most promising student in journalism courses at the University of Ulster.
In 1979 (the same year in which he was appointed CBE for services to Northern Ireland), Henderson, despite his strongly unionist background, agreed to be involved with the newly established charity Co-Operation North; this was an organisation founded to increase dialogue between catholics and protestants and between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He was vice-president (1979–99), and enjoyed being a high-profile symbol of the organisation's aims and projects, especially in visits to the United States, where latterly he maintained a home in Florida. He also enjoyed golf; having shown great promise as a teenager, he was one of a number of youngsters who were awarded coaching sessions from Fred Daly (qv). He and Harry McCaw jointly wrote a history of Royal County Down Golf Club (1985). He also wrote a short history of UTV, with a punning title, A musing: on the lighter side of Ulster Television (1984), and a pamphlet on the possibilities of educational television, Midnight oil (1961).
The phenomenal workload and the concomitant hedonistic social networking, into both of which Henderson always threw himself enthusiastically, had distressing effects on his personal life. He had met Joy Frances Duncan, daughter of John Duncan from Portadown, at TCD; she gave up her medical studies for a degree in arts to spend more time with him. They married in September 1953, but chiefly because he had no time at that period of his life for anything but work and socialising, the marriage was difficult from 1960, and ended in a bitter divorce in 1970. There were two daughters of the marriage. In 1973, he married Patricia Ann Davison, a UTV secretary, who with his two daughters survived him when he died 29 July 2005 at his home near Ballynahinch, Co. Down.