We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Brendan Rendall Bracken (1901–1958), by unknown photographer, 1941 Brendan Rendall Bracken (1901–1958), by unknown photographer, 1941
Bracken, Brendan Rendall, Viscount Bracken (1901–1958), politician and publisher, was born on 15 February 1901 at Church Street, Templemore, co. Tipperary, the second son and third of the four children of Joseph Kevin Bracken (1852–1904), builder and monumental mason, and his second wife, Hannah Agnes Ryan (1872–1928). His father belonged to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. His temperamental mother aspired to gentility. Widowed in 1904, she had by 1908 moved her family (including two stepdaughters) to Dublin. There Brendan, a bright and unruly child, attended St Patrick's national school, Drumcondra, until 1910, when he transferred to the O'Connell School, run by the Christian Brothers. Distressed by his misbehaviour, Mrs Bracken sent him in 1915 to Mungret, a Jesuit boarding-school near Limerick, but he bolted and ran up hotel bills. A family friend, Patrick Laffan, had a brother in New South Wales; the tearaway was shipped off to join him in 1916 (a draconian response rendered more explicable perhaps by the boy's jealousy of his mother's attachment to Laffan). Bracken led a precarious life in Australia. Sacked from a sheep farm, he worked intermittently at schools in Echuca, Sydney, and Orange, and avoided vagrancy by visiting convents as a student of church history. Loss of faith did not ever diminish his love of the ecclesiastical. He read voraciously, talked incessantly, and latched onto new acquaintances with alacrity.

After returning to Ireland in 1919, Bracken found his mother, now Mrs Patrick Laffan, embroiled in a bitter dispute with his siblings over money. He left them to it and headed for England, where he purported to be an Australian, this being the time of the Anglo-Irish War. Henceforth he would not willingly admit to Irish or Roman Catholic roots. Later, when famous, he deliberately made a mystery of his background (while giving financial assistance to relatives whom he hardly ever saw). Claiming to be a graduate, he earned enough from teaching jobs in Lancashire to afford to spend autumn 1920 as a pupil at Sedbergh public school, posing as a fifteen-year-old orphan—though tall, burly, and contemptuous of authority. The old school tie won him transient employment at preparatory schools at Rottingdean and Bishop's Stortford, where he told tall stories about friends in high places. Late 1922 found him in London working part-time for the Empire Review, a monthly journal run by Oliver Locker-Lampson. One of its contributors, J. L. Garvin, took a shine to the eager young ‘Australian’ and introduced him to various figures in politics and journalism. One was Winston Churchill, for whom Bracken at once manifested an extraordinary enthusiasm. Churchill put him to good use as an election helper in 1923–4. Bracken did not discourage a rumour that he was Winston's illegitimate son.

In December 1923 another new associate, Major J. S. Crosthwaite-Eyre of the publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode, invited him to edit a number of the Illustrated Review. Bracken repackaged it as English Life and gained entrée to London salons in return for publicity puffs. His social success was that of an unconventional ‘character’: a loud-mouthed know-all, impervious to rebuffs, who gatecrashed parties and insulted everyone with reckless abandon. His witty cracks were as renowned as his preposterous lies. When caught out, he would simply laugh. Charlatanism comprised a part of his entertainment value, and his looks did him no harm: a big pale face, a slightly flattened nose, wire spectacles, blackened teeth, and a shock of crinkly carrot-coloured hair which sat on his head like a bad wig. His accent was hybrid Irish-Australian-Cockney, and a cigarette usually dangled from his lip. Casual observers saw in Bracken the unconscious rudeness of a natural barbarian. In truth there was no such simplicity about him. To clergymen and headmasters, for example, he could appear serious, sensitive, idealistic, and even spiritual. Perceptive associates understood that here was a personality so contradictory that attempts to distinguish bogus traits from genuine would be futile.

Crosthwaite-Eyre, for one, thought highly of Bracken. His drive and intelligence merited a seat on the board of Eyre and Spottiswoode in January 1926. The Banker, their new periodical, was Bracken's idea. Now he induced this old-fashioned firm to plunge headlong into financial journalism, acquiring in 1928 the Financial News (a City daily), the Investors' Chronicle, the Liverpool Journal of Commerce, and a half-stake in The Economist. While projecting the image of a press baron, Bracken was actually only a modest shareholder in Financial Newspaper Proprietors Ltd, the subsidiary which ran these titles, yet he did earn £3000 a year as editor of The Banker, chairman of the Financial News, and managing director of The Economist. His chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza may have helped impress the Conservatives of marginal North Paddington, who adopted him as candidate for the general election of 1929. He scraped home after a boisterous campaign, but quickly had to refocus on business, as the profits of the financial press plummeted after the Wall Street crash. Though always a moody and unpredictable employer, Bracken appreciated that specialist papers rely on high standards and to deliver these he picked the right men: Paul Einzig and Maurice Green, for example. His own editorial interventions did not amount to much. Still, by 1934, when he became chairman, Financial Newspaper Proprietors Ltd was prospering once more with a livelier style of economic news.

In parliament Bracken rekindled his relationship with Churchill, who, now politically isolated again, found time for the extrovert who so warmly agreed with him on all the great issues of the day. Baldwin, often the target of their criticism, famously described Bracken as the faithful chela (Hindi for a slave-like votary of a guru). Indeed, this was no normal political alliance: Bracken readily met Churchill's demand for hero-worship, applauding his wisdom, excoriating his foes, running his errands, and touting his journalism. The older man enjoyed the vehemence, flippancy, sarcasm, and zest of an acolyte who shared something of his own way with words. Even Clementine Churchill ultimately recognized that this insufferable interloper had a talent for laughing her husband out of melancholy. Many, however, viewed their intimacy as proof of Churchill's bad judgement.

To the Commons, Bracken preached the gospel of Winston on India, armaments, and foreign policy. Economics elicited his own voice, though, advocating laissez-faire. North Paddington saw him only infrequently, as he loved the social whirl of Westminster. There in 1930 he had bought 8 North Street (renamed Lord North Street in 1937). It was a Georgian house, and he furnished it in period, becoming a connoisseur of architecture, antiques, and rare books. He courted a couple of society beauties, Lady Pamela Smith and Penelope Dudley Ward, and liked people to think that he remained unmarried because the latter had rejected him. His self-assurance faltered in the presence of nubile women. He was probably celibate. An object of fascination to amateur psychologists, he never truthfully confided much in anybody.

When Churchill was made first lord of the Admiralty in September 1939, Bracken became his parliamentary private secretary. No one intrigued harder to get Winston into Downing Street, for Bracken revelled in the role of brash, tough, cynical, political ‘fixer’. Sworn of the privy council in June 1940 (despite royal doubts), he moved into no. 10 so as to be always on hand for ‘the Boss’. Their midnight bouts of wild talk and hard drinking (often with Lord Beaverbrook) were grist to the mill of Churchill's critics, yet even they could never decide whether Bracken was evil genius or court jester. Day in, day out, he had the prime minister's ear. He brought him the gossip, spread his message, and helped him develop his ideas through discussion. The detail of such influence is elusive, but Bracken tended to show more interest in people than in policies. Junior appointments and honours were his province, with his power varying inversely with the premier's preoccupations. Churchill, for example, let him handle church patronage. Bracken meanwhile hinted at knowing all the secrets. Never a simple ‘yes man’, he could get away with saying things to his chief that nobody else would dare to utter. Their violent quarrels were soon forgotten, and Winston made a joke of having to humour ‘poor dear Brendan’.

Bracken's promotion to minister of information on 21 July 1941 raised eyebrows—and turned out to be a master-stroke. The department, located at Senate House, Bloomsbury, was notoriously discordant and despised. Trapped between news-hungry journalists and tight-lipped defence staff, it had alienated both. Suddenly Bracken's aggressive energy shocked the ministry out of its malaise, while his decisive leadership clarified its purpose—which was not to try and stimulate patriotism or good cheer, but simply to supply as much news about the war as possible within the constraints of military security. Exploiting his link to Churchill he badgered the War Office, Admiralty, and Air Ministry into speeding up the flow of information and ending excessive censorship. The public, he argued, could be trusted to interpret war news more maturely.

The minister might shirk his paperwork, yet he knew how to handle the media—ever available and ready to comment, never defensive or condescending. American correspondents particularly liked the informality of his weekly press conferences, when he embroidered the official communiqués with anecdotes and faux indiscretions. Old habits died hard: he loved to tell of a mythical brother in the navy. Interdepartmental rows were common, especially with the Foreign Office. In the political warfare executive, Bracken feuded ferociously with Hugh Dalton over propaganda to enemy-occupied countries. On the other hand he soothed relations between the government and the BBC, whose independence he safeguarded by differentiating sharply between overseas broadcasting (needing close supervision) and domestic broadcasting (as free as the press). By 1943 the Ministry of Information was running so effectively that its political head seemed bored with it. He left routine to the director-general, Cyril Radcliffe, and concentrated on aiding the prime minister.

Bracken had become one of the most influential figures outside the war cabinet. Not many Conservative MPs had advanced so far during the coalition years. He was first lord of the Admiralty in the caretaker government formed on 25 May 1945. But perhaps Bracken and the Ministry of Information had been merely a happy coincidence: an unusual minister for an unusual ministry. As Beaverbrook hoped otherwise, the Daily Express gave him unwonted publicity during the general election, headlining his opposition to planning, Keynesianism, and extravagant welfare schemes.

Bracken was disproportionately blamed for the Conservative defeat in July 1945, when he lost his seat. A by-election in Bournemouth returned him in November, yet his whipping-boy role was affirmed: for disaffected back-benchers, decrying Bracken was a coded way of sniping at Churchill, a party leader beyond open reproach. It did not matter that he shadowed fuel and power with provocative flair; root-and-branch anti-socialism embarrassed tory reformers. In business he flourished. Thanks to his late friend, Sir Henry Strakosch, he chaired the Union Corporation from 1945. He may not have known much about its South African mines, but his phenomenal range of contacts justified his fee. In September 1945 he merged the Financial News with the Financial Times (another chairmanship for him) and in 1951 he launched History Today.

Bournemouth East and Christchurch retained Bracken in parliament in February 1950 and October 1951. Then in November he retired from politics after declining the Colonial Office in Churchill's government. Viscount Bracken of Christchurch, created in January 1952, never took his seat in the Lords. His vitality, previously so great, had grown fitful. Some were pleased to say that he had mellowed; others found him morose. Acute sinusitis was a factor. He could still be quite his old self when browbeating Financial Times staff. His ‘Men and matters’ column appeared weekly until 1955. Public schools were his passion, carried almost to excess. He made major benefactions to Sedbergh and chaired its board of governors. His death at Flat 121, Grosvenor House, Park Lane, London, on 8 August 1958 was caused by cancer of the throat. The body was cremated without ceremony at Golders Green.

Brendan Bracken had made his way by a quick brain, audacity, and turbulent forcefulness. Those who knew him best vowed that under his thick defensive shell there beat a heart of gold. Maybe they sentimentalized him in reaction to others who portrayed him only as a bully, boor, or grotesque. His generosity, though real, was capricious. He was a uniquely successful minister of information, and it is ironic how an incurable romancer improved the openness of wartime news management. Not until the 1970s were the facts of his early life clarified. Bracken is remembered as Churchill's loyal supporter through thick and thin and also as an oddity.

Jason Tomes

Sources  

C. E. Lysaght, Brendan Bracken (1979) · A. Boyle, Poor dear Brendan (1974) · My dear Max: the letters of Brendan Bracken to Lord Beaverbrook, ed. R. Cockett (1990) · The diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, ed. K. Young, 2 (1980) · I. McLaine, Ministry of morale (1979) · D. Kynaston, The Financial Times: a centenary history (1988) · Lord Moran, Churchill: the struggle for survival, 1940–1965 (1966) · P. Einzig, In the centre of things (1960) · J. Colville, The fringes of power (1985) · Hansard 5C · R. S. Churchill, Twenty-one years (1965) · J. Ramsden, The age of Churchill and Eden, 1940–1957 (1995) · DNB · b. cert.

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton; corresp. with third earl of Selborne · Borth. Inst., corresp. with Lord Halifax · CAC Cam., corresp. with P. G. Buchan-Hepburn · CAC Cam., corresp. with P. Einzig · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Halifax [copies] · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir E. L. Spears · CUL, corresp. with Sir S. Hoare · JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Viscount Davidson · TCD, corresp. with T. Bodkin · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Sir E. Bridges, CAB 127/330 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Sir S. Cripps, CAB 127/76 · U. Birm. L., corresp. with Sir A. Eden  

FILM

 

IWM FVA, actuality footage · IWM FVA, news footage

 

SOUND

 

IWM SA, oral history interview · IWM SA, recorded lecture


Likenesses  

photograph, 1941, Sci. Mus., Science and Society Picture Library [see illus.] · R. Lutyens, charcoal, 1956–9, CAC Cam., Bracken Library · U. Nimptsch, bust, 1956–9, Bracken House, Cannon Street, London · photographs, repro. in Lysaght, Brendan Bracken

Wealth at death  

£145,735 5s. 6d.: probate, 1958