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  James Louis Garvin (1868–1947), by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1913 James Louis Garvin (1868–1947), by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1913
Garvin, James Louis (1868–1947), journalist and newspaper editor, was born on Easter Sunday, 12 April 1868, at 117 St Anne Street, Birkenhead, the second of two children of Michael Garvin (1832–1870), labourer, and his wife, Catherine Fahy (d. 1917). Both his parents were Irish, Catholic, and poor. His father, who had moved from co. Tipperary because of the potato famine, died at sea in 1870. Garvin was raised by his mother, whose family, originally from co. Cork, had lived in Birkenhead for some years. To provide for her young family Catherine Garvin took in washing and, with the support of her relatives as well as the tightly knit Irish Catholic community around the St Laurence church and school in Birkenhead, ensured a loving and supportive, though spartan, upbringing for her two sons. The elder, Michael (1865–1914), became a schoolmaster, and his success in securing teaching positions meant family moves to Hull (1884) and Newcastle (1889).

Had Catherine Garvin had her way, James, as the younger son, would have become a priest. Although he added Louis, after the crusading king of France, to his name at confirmation, Garvin had a growing discomfort with Catholicism. His precocious and prodigious reading, together with extensive retentive powers, pointed him in other directions well before he left school at thirteen. He was a polymath and his library, which housed more than 25,000 volumes at his death, was but one measure of his eclectic learning. He taught himself French, German, and Spanish and, until his mid-twenties, regularly took evening classes in a wide range of practical subjects. As a boy he delivered newspapers and day-dreamed about being an editor. Upon leaving school he worked as a messenger and then in various clerical jobs. In 1887 he failed in the annual competition for clerical work in the civil service and was too old to sit the examinations the next year. After the collapse of his clerical employment in Newcastle in 1891 Garvin determined to become a full-time journalist.

Journalism in Newcastle and London

While in Hull, Garvin was active in the local branch of the Irish National League, turning out the Irish vote, as directed by Parnell, for the Conservatives in the 1885 general election and for the Liberals less than a year later. Home rule had become Garvin's first public cause and, heartened by the personal encouragement of its editor, the young J. A. Spender, he regularly canvassed the issue through letters and articles in the Eastern Morning News. He also contributed to the Dublin Weekly Freeman and then was the north of England correspondent for United Ireland, a Dublin weekly supporting Parnell. Thus, when Garvin approached Joseph Cowen, the proprietor of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, for employment his cuttings book was voluminous. He was offered a position as a proof-reader at 28s. a week, as well as the chance to write unpaid short editorial notes, and his first contribution appeared on 11 September 1891. A month later he demonstrated, through a 2000-word article on Parnell's funeral cabled from Dublin, that he was a journalist of uncommon talent. For the next eight years Garvin honed his skills as a journalist and received an intensive education in history and politics from a man whose political experience reached back to the revolutions of 1848. Twelve years a Liberal MP, Cowen described himself in Who's Who as ‘an old radical, imperialist and anti-socialist’. An independent thinker with a cross-bench mind, he was far more than Garvin's employer; he was a mentor and father figure whose influence ran very deep.

While Cowen played a remarkably positive role in Garvin's development as a journalist, the reach of the Newcastle Chronicle was too limited for his soaring ambitions. Contrary to the myth he later perpetuated that no one in journalism should go to London until the age of thirty, London was always Garvin's immediate objective. While he was in Newcastle two offers to work in London foundered over his salary requests, and in 1898 he made desperate but futile attempts to join no fewer than four London papers. By mid-decade he had found a way to have a national but anonymous voice when an unsolicited article of his on Irish politics was prominently published in W. L. Courtney's Fortnightly Review. For the next sixteen years, eleven of them as Calchas, the famous Greek prophet of the Trojan war, Garvin contributed well over 100 articles to the Fortnightly. In 1899 he began to write for the National Review and eight years later for the North American Review. Ultimately it was his connection with Courtney, an editorial writer for the Daily Telegraph, that brought Garvin to London in 1899 as a leader writer for that paper. By then his writing on politics, foreign affairs, and literature, the latter much inspired by his friendship with Wilfrid and Alice Meynell and their London literary circle, made it clear that Garvin possessed great range, prolixity, and a mastery of vivid phraseology.

The Observer and pre-1914 politics

In the decade and a half before the First World War, Garvin's journalism had a remarkable and, on occasion, quite discernible impact on British politics. Increasingly fearful of the threat posed by Germany, he campaigned ceaselessly for the strengthening of Britain's military resources—working closely with Lord Roberts and Admiral Sir John Fisher. In Fisher, Garvin found a partner who shared his deepening fear of Germany, his passion for naval matters, and his love of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring. Their joint intrigues to strengthen the navy were remarkably successful; similar efforts with the politically naïve Roberts to sound the alarm about the inadequacy of the army largely failed. The political salvation of the nation and the empire Garvin found in another of his heroes, Joseph Chamberlain, and his campaign for tariff reform. As editor of the pro-tariff weekly The Outlook from late 1904 to 1906, then from 1908 as editor of The Observer, and in his voluminous Telegraph and periodical writing, Garvin applied his distinctive wordsmithing to the task of making ready Britain for the inevitable struggle with Germany. The Observer was at the epicentre of a successful campaign to encourage the Lords to reject David Lloyd George's 1909 budget and in the following year, after the death of Edward VII, called unsuccessfully for a ‘truce of God’ and a constitutional conference to break the political deadlock created by the actions it had advocated. This was to be the first of Garvin's many efforts to promote a national government. On the divisive question of Irish home rule he put aside his family background and youthful political experiences as an Irish nationalist, and sought a federal solution.

Garvin's pre-war editorship of The Observer at a time of political near paralysis in national politics as well as within the tory party gave him both great influence and a remarkable profile. As a radical tory he clearly set his stamp on both party thought and organization and was, as many of his contemporaries acknowledged, the de facto leader of the opposition.

When Lord Northcliffe made Garvin editor, manager, and one-fifth owner of The Observer in 1908 he inaugurated a unique chapter in the history of British journalism. Within eighteen months Garvin had nearly tripled the circulation of the paper to 57,000, made it a paying proposition, and added a distinctive, largely Unionist, but occasionally cross-bench, voice to political journalism. A quarrel with Northcliffe in 1911 over food taxes occasioned a proprietorial split with his close friend. Generously given time to find a new owner for The Observer, Garvin interested Waldorf Astor in the paper. Recently elected as a tariff reform Unionist MP with a strong interest in social issues, Astor was then looking for an editor for his father's paper, the Pall Mall Gazette. On condition that Garvin edit both papers and give up his part ownership of The Observer, William Waldorf Astor bought the paper for £45,000. Four years later, frustrated with unsuccessful attempts to sell his newspapers, the elder Astor abruptly gave them to Waldorf as a birthday present. The Pall Mall Gazette was soon sold and Garvin happily reverted to his Observer pulpit, relieved at not having lost his beloved paper to potential close control by Unionist Party officials. In Astor he found a proprietor with whom he was able to work in relative harmony for more than a quarter of a century.

The First World War and after

The First World War was a watershed for Garvin. As editor of The Observer his influence rose steadily as he pressed relentlessly for decisive leadership of Britain's war effort. Herbert Asquith's lethargy alarmed him and he thus contributed to, and welcomed, the emergence of the first coalition government in May 1915, although it ended the career of Fisher and abruptly checked the rise of another of his heroes, Winston Churchill. Eighteen months later Lloyd George was prime minister, Waldorf Astor was one of his parliamentary secretaries, and The Observer was now at the service of the government's war effort. With a circulation of 200,000 (a level which held until 1939), with the editor's passionate leaders providing informed and lengthy commentary on the war and politics, and with a remarkable network of contacts, Garvin's Observer was, in many ways, at the height of its influence during this period.

On the personal level, however, the First World War was the low point of Garvin's life. His only son, Roland Gerard (1895–1916), was killed on the Somme, a loss that Garvin never got over; his remembrance day editorials in The Observer spoke to that pain for years. A few months later his mother, who had lived with his family since his marriage in 1894, also died. On Christmas eve 1918 the third blow fell when his wife of twenty-four years, Christina Ellen Wilson (1876–1918), mother of Roland and four daughters, died of heart failure. She was the daughter of Robert Wilson, superintendent of police, of Newcastle upon Tyne. For many years the marriage had been troubled. Garvin's enormous absorption in his work, especially after the move to London, together with the strains of sharing the same home with her mother-in-law for more than two decades, had pushed Tina into serious problems with drink and, ultimately, with her health.

Garvin's deeply personal experience of the war, especially the sacrifice of his son, haunted him and led him to press repeatedly for an enlightened peace settlement. In less than four months he wrote a massive 574-page tome making the case for an inclusive League of Nations, the fullest possible Anglo-American co-operation, and moderate German reparations. Published in March 1919, The economic foundations of peace, or, World partnership the truer basis of the League of Nations immediately sold out. But it was in his weekly Observer editorials that Garvin had his immediate impact. The most powerful of a relentless series appeared on 11 May after presentation of the peace terms to the Germans. In ‘Peace and dragon's teeth’, with its allusion to Greek mythology, Garvin wrote:
All the Treaty—apart from the incorporated and saving Covenant of the League—scatters Dragon's teeth across the soil of Europe. They will spring up as armed men unless the mischief is eradicated … Nothing is more clear and certain … and we are bound to state it.
Here was the dominant idea which was to shape his writing on foreign affairs for most of the next two decades.By the mid-1920s Garvin had completed a gradual move from London to Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, where he lived at Gregories, the bailiff's home on Edmund Burke's estate. Except for his time at the Pall Mall Gazette, Garvin had always edited from home. But now his base was no longer London and, with the exception of increasingly irregular attendance at the weekly Observer lunch, Garvin was rarely in the city. Visits to Cliveden, the Astors' nearby country estate, and convivial open Sunday lunches at Gregories did enable him to maintain some direct contacts in the wider world. In his early years Garvin had sought out his contacts; now they had to come to him and, over time, fewer and fewer did. This physical isolation was partially compensated for by a massive flow of correspondence, written in a spidery hand on both sides of distinctive blue stationery that went on for pages when often paragraphs would do. A direct telephone line to The Observer office and intensive reading of the reputed forty newspapers and periodicals that arrived daily at Gregories kept Garvin in touch with the office and the world. His work for Encyclopaedia Britannica, beginning with a 200-page contribution to These Eventful Years: the Twentieth Century in the Making (1924) also kept him well informed. He then edited a three-volume supplement of the Encyclopaedia which became the thirteenth edition, and was the editor of the twenty-four-volume fourteenth edition (1929). A need for money and a profound conviction that the Encyclopaedia was essential to the Anglo-American relationship led him to assume this major burden. Fealty to a powerful memory had led also to a crushing and ultimately destructive commitment to write the biography of Joseph Chamberlain. Three volumes were produced (1932–4), but the project was never completed by a Garvin who saw himself living in an era of political pygmies longing ‘for the big ideas of big men worthy of a big people. I don't understand anything else’ (Garvin to Astor, 25 Feb 1929, Astor MSS).

So deeply rooted was Garvin in the events and personalities of the early decades of the century that little changed in his outlook after 1922. Never an orthodox Conservative, he found Stanley Baldwin devoid of vision and he had no rapport with Neville Chamberlain. Among Labour politicians he gave occasional Observer support to Ramsay MacDonald, especially over his efforts to improve Anglo-American relations before and during the London naval conference of 1930. Like many journalists of the time Garvin was briefly intrigued by Oswald Mosley. As he had done for years, Lloyd George regularly bedazzled and infuriated Garvin. In foreign policy Garvin's Observer ceaselessly promoted the Anglo-American relationship, was long critical of French attitudes towards Germany, and was an apologist for Mussolini's Abyssinian adventure [see ]. By then, however, Garvin knew that another war was a distinct possibility; in his mind Italy was a necessary counterweight to Germany. A perceptive and repetitive visionary about air power, he used The Observer to advocate British rearmament.

The breach with Astor

When war came in 1939 Garvin, then aged seventy-one, inevitably viewed it through the lens of 1914–18. Delighted by Churchill's return to the Admiralty, he was unwaveringly loyal to his old friend after he became prime minister in 1940. In February 1942, however, Garvin's determination to assert his editorial independence in commentary about Churchill collided with his ageing proprietor's increasing alarm at the overwhelming authority being invested in one man. Astor declined to renew Garvin's contract, and the remarkable association of Garvin with The Observer, and of The Observer with Garvin, came to an end. What had been foreshadowed thirty years earlier, when Northcliffe decided to sell The Observer, was confirmed in 1942. Garvin may have been, in his mind and that of the readers, The Observer; in fact, although he had finally become a minority shareholder in 1938, control clearly rested with his proprietor. The last of the great Edwardian editors was gone from his pulpit.

Garvin's Observer revolutionized Sunday journalism and, as one contemporary noted, made the sabbath almost bearable as he set out to make The Observer half a newspaper and half a magazine. By creating the ‘Week end’ pages in 1926 he institutionalized and separated the ‘views’ side of the paper from the ‘news’ side. At the core of the paper was Garvin's signed 1500- to 4000-word editorial in which he gave his readers not necessarily what they wanted but what they ought to have, leaving them, in Beachcomber's telling phrase, ‘browsing on the southern slopes’ of his article (New Statesman and Nation, 1 Feb 1947). His leader writing was inescapable for friend or foe. Beginning his scrutiny of the Sunday papers with The Observer, Baldwin asked Tom Jones in 1923: ‘What madness is Garvin up to today?’ (T. Jones, Whitehall Diary, 1914–1925, 1969, 244). His writing was passionate, based on encyclopaedic knowledge, and full of the self-assuredness of one who knew he was read by those who mattered. ‘As you know’ he told one interviewer, ‘I am the greatest authority on foreign affairs in this country’ (Time and Tide, 1 Feb 1947). The conceit was breathtaking but valid for much of his career. As a tribute to his skills this 24- to 36-page newspaper, which generated an average pre-tax profit of £25,000 per annum, was produced by a permanent full-time staff of no more than thirty, of whom only six to eight worked on the editorial side. Before 1930 there was only one full-time reporter; the bulk of the content of the paper came from contributors whose talents and influence were unmatched in the Sunday press until the mid-1930s. Public recognition of Garvin's leadership in journalism included honorary degrees from Durham (1921) and Edinburgh (1935) universities, and senior roles in several press organizations. He declined honours from both Lloyd George and MacDonald but willingly acceded to Churchill's request and became a Companion of Honour in 1941.

In person, as on paper, Garvin's personality filled all available space. Tall and thin, with bulging eyes accentuated by glasses, he loved music, poetry, and vigorous tramps in the countryside with his beloved dogs. His fingers always in danger of being burnt as matches were struck to relight the ever-present cigar which had died out in a torrent of one-sided conversation, Garvin never failed to leave an impression on those whom he had met. His imagined epitaph said it well:
Here rests
(for the first time)
J. L. Garvin
a bad party man:
a good journalist:
a better patriot:
And a most unswerving friend.
(Garvin to Beaverbrook, 26 May 1930, Beaverbrook MSS)
Garvin's departure from The Observer did not end his career in journalism. He was immediately hired by Lord Beaverbrook to write a weekly column for the Sunday Express. In early 1945 when Garvin was told he could no longer write about the war, his friend Brendan Bracken secured his return to the Daily Telegraph. His final years were spent writing for his old paper and in the company of his second wife, Viola Taylor Woods (b. 1882), writer, whom he married in 1921 after her divorce from Maurice Woods. Garvin died of double bronchial pneumonia at his Beaconsfield home on 23 January 1947. A memorial service was held on 6 February at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

John O. Stubbs


D. Ayerst, Garvin of The Observer (1985) · K. Garvin, J. L. Garvin: a memoir (1948) · A. M. Gollin, The Observer and J. L. Garvin, 1908–1914 (1960) · J. Stubbs, ‘Appearance and reality: a case study of The Observer and J. L. Garvin, 1914–1942’, Newspaper history: from the seventeenth century to the present day, ed. G. Boyce, J. Curran, and P. Wingate (1978), 320–38 · J. Stubbs, Observer: read all about it ! (1979) · Ransom HRC, Garvin MSS · U. Reading L., Astor MSS · DNB · The Times (7 Feb 1947) · J. L. Garvin, correspondence with Lord Beaverbrook and related papers, Parl. Arch.


Ransom HRC, corresp. and papers |  BL, letters to G. K. Chesterton and other household members, Add. MS 73195, fols. 70–85 · BL, letters to Albert Mansbridge, Add. MS 65259 · BL, corresp. with Lord Northcliffe, Add. MSS 62236–62237 · BL OIOC, letters to Lord Reading, MSS Eur. E 238, F 118 · BL OIOC, corresp. with John Simon, MSS Eur. F 77 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sibyl Colefax · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Simon · Bodl. Oxf., letters to E. J. Thompson · CAC Cam., letters to Lord Fisher · CAC Cam., letters to W. T. Stead · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare · Durham RO, letters to Lady Londonderry · JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · LUL, corresp. with Emile Cammaerts · Mitchell L., Glas., Glasgow City Archives, letters to J. P. Smith · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Elibank · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Lothian · News Int. RO, letters to The Times · NL Ire., letters to John Redmond · Norfolk RO, corresp. with Henry Massingham · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook and related papers · Parl. Arch., letters to Ralph Blumenfeld · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Andrew Bonar Law · Parl. Arch., letters to David Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., letters to Lord Samuel · Parl. Arch., corresp. with John St Loe Strachey · TNA: PRO, corresp. with James Ramsay MacDonald, PRO 30/69/6/106 · U. Birm. L., corresp. with Austen Chamberlain and Mary Chamberlain · U. Birm. L., letters to W. H. Dawson · U. Reading, corresp. with Nancy Astor  



BFINA, home footage


A. L. Coburn, photogravure, 1913, NPG [see illus.] · oils, c.1918, priv. coll. · M. Beerbohm, cartoon, 1931, repro. in D. Hudson, British journalists and newspapers (1945), facing p. 40 · W. Stoneman, photographs, 1942, NPG · D. Low, drawing, repro. in New Statesman (15 May 1926) · B. Partridge, pencil drawing, NPG; repro. in Punch (25 April 1928) · A. P. F. Ritchie, caricature, Hentschel-colourtype, NPG; repro. in VF (13 Sept 1911) · photographs, BL

Wealth at death  

£27,048 16s. 8d.: probate, 31 May 1947, CGPLA Eng. & Wales