Harmsworth, Alfred Charles William
, Viscount Northcliffe (18651922), journalist and newspaper proprietor
, was born at Sunnybank, Chapelizod, near Dublin, on 15 July 1865, the eldest son of Alfred Harmsworth (18371889), barrister, and his wife, Geraldine Mary (18381925), daughter of William Maffett, a land agent from co. Down. The family background was therefore Anglo-Irish, but the Harmsworths moved to London two years later in the hope of improving their prospects. Declining fortunes necessitated another move, from St John's Wood to Hampstead.
Early years and journalism
Alfred began his education at Stamford grammar school, Lincolnshire, in 1876 and went as a day boy to Henley House School, Hampstead, in 1878, where he showed an early interest in journalism by publishing the school magazine. The family continued to decline, thanks to Alfred's father's fondness for alcohol, and Alfred set out to earn his living; by 1880 he was an occasional reporter on the Hampstead and Highgate Express
. He diversified his experience, composing articles for The Cyclist
, by no means a minor job, for this was the great age of the bicycle, and he also wrote for The Globe
and various boys' and girls' papers published by James Henderson, whom Alfred described as his first journalistic sponsor. His education took another, and rather unusual, turn when he embarked on a continental tour with E. V. R. Powys, third son of the third Lord Lilford; but his personal life was thrown into disarray when he made a maidservant pregnant, and his mother obliged him to leave the family home and take lodgings. In 1882 he took rooms in the Temple at 6 Pump Court, and abandoned any thoughts of going to Cambridge (a somewhat vague notion floated before his continental tour).
There is no specific reason why the young Harmsworth chose to make his career in journalism, except that it was a profession in which the less than completely educated could make their way if they showed sufficient talent and made the right contacts. Harmsworth wrote for The Globe
, the Morning Post
, the St James's Gazette
, and the various publications of Cassell & Co., and for the rising man of popular journalism, George Newnes. His freelance work enabled him to make vital contacts, and alerted him to what he described in a conversation with Max Pemberton on the steps of the British Museum as the need to offer less British Museum and more life (Taylor, 11). He was impressed by what the editor of Tit-Bits
, Newnes, was doing to cater for those whom Harmsworth described as the products of the British schools: thousands of boys and girls … who are aching to read. They do not care for the ordinary newspaper. They have no interest in society, but will read anything which is simple and is sufficiently interesting (ibid., 12). Harmsworth was only nineteen when he edited Youth
for £2 a week. A bout of pneumonia brought on by cycling from Bristol in the rain and with insufficient food resulted in his doctor's ordering him in 1885 to leave London for a while, and he moved to Coventry, where he worked for Iliffe & Sons, a publishing house which owned the Midland Daily Telegraph
and Bicycling News
. But Harmsworth maintained his connection with London journalism, writing two books for George Newnes, One Thousand Ways to Earn a Living
, and All about Railways
. He was offered a partnership in the Iliffe firm before he was twenty-one, but by now he had recovered his health and saved £1000, and he returned to London in 1887. Harmsworth had now the experience and the capital to found his own newspaper business, which he did at 26 Paternoster Square, and from there issued a number of magazines, including the celebrated Answers to Correspondents
. The first issue came out on 16 June 1888, a storehouse of interesting knowledge (ibid., 14). It was eye-catching, for it asked questions and supplied answers which still intrigue: for example, How madmen write (ibid., 15). In 1890 he launched Comic Cuts
, a pictorial magazine which was not aimed at children but at adults who had read little or nothing previously. Harmsworth was joined in this enterprise by his financially astute brother , and together they built up the Amalgamated Press Company, whose profits soon reached £50,000 a year; within five years Answers
alone was recording net weekly sales of more than 1 million copies.
Harmsworth was an impetuous man. On 11 April 1888, much to his mother's disapproval, he married Mary Milner (18671963), daughter of Robert Milner of Kidlington, Oxfordshire, a merchant with West India interests. They had no children, which Harmsworth seems to have regretted, but there was plenty to absorb his energy, because he was becoming a man to notice in the world of journalism when it was about to enter a new and vital stage in its development. The new journalism of the 1890s was by no means entirely new: its economic and technological foundations had been laid in the previous decades, with improved machinery, the use of illustrations, investigative reporting, and the employment of news agencies. To these were now added short paragraphs, more space for human interest stories, and catchy headlines. Another important development was the wider range of distribution which created truly national newspapers for a population which was ready for the busy man's newspaper in what the politician and journalist T. P. O'Connor called in 1889 an age of hurry (A. Jones, 134). Harmsworth and his brother were in the forefront of popular publishing with their magazines, which included Boys' Home Journal
, Boys' Friend
, Home Sweet Home
, and Home Chat
. By 1892 the firm's combined weekly sales figure was 1,009,067, the largest of any magazine company in the world. The Harmsworths now moved into daily journalism when in 1894 persuaded them to buy the derelict Evening News
for £25,000; with Kennedy Jones's help they made it into a profitable newspaper. Harmsworth now briefly showed an interest in politics, standing unsuccessfully as Unionist candidate for Portsmouth in the general election of 1895. A year later he revealed where his real talents lay. On 4 May 1896 Alfred Harmsworth showed that he had the ability and the nerve to take the new journalism at the tide, when he launched the Daily Mail
, a perfect example of the newspaper for the busy man in the age of hurry.
The Daily Mail and The Times
appearance was conservative by the standards of today's tabloids. It was not, as used to be supposed, a working man's paper, but a paper for the lower middle classes, the clerks and other City workers who needed something to read on their way to and from work. Harmsworth used the techniques that had turned the Evening News
round: the insertion of eye-catching items; the improvement of the distribution of the paper, with selected sales points where most potential readers were to be found; the use of a net sales certificate to attract advertising; a women's page. Moreover, Harmsworth realized the importance of careful preparation: more than sixty-five dummy runs of the Mail
were made, beginning on 15 February 1896. Harmsworth was sure of the kind of readership he wished to reach. The Mail
was described as The busy man's paper (Pound and Harmsworth, 202), and Harmsworth developed the means to satisfy their reading needs by using the new technology which could cut, fold, and count copies as well as printing them; between 48,000 and 90,000 copies an hour were produced. The first issue sold 397,213 copies, and net sales peaked at 989,255 in 1900, never falling below 713,000. Harmsworth knew too that a commercial enterprise must never stand still, but must forever expand. In 1902 he set up a Manchester office, using a system of coding that enabled his staff to telegraph from London to Manchester letterpress, headings, and positions. He established two printing presses and twelve linotype printing machines, which applied the principle of the typewriter to the automatic casting of type, in an empty schoolroom in Manchester, thus doing away with hand compositors. In 1897 he took advantage of the telegraphic link between London and New York, and in 1898 established a wire from his headquarters to the end of the ocean cable on Valentia Island off the Irish coast. In 1902 the firm moved into Carmelite House and there Harmsworth installed eight linotype 3 small rotary presses in the basement, producing savings of 35 per cent; this enabled him to sell his paper for half the price of his nearest competitors. He arranged a telegraph between the Mail
in London and Le Journal
But Harmsworth's genius did not lie only in his appreciation of the potential of the technological revolution of the late nineteenth century. He was a supreme exponent of popular journalism, with an instinctive flair for getting inside the mind of the common man. The third marquess of Salisbury dismissed the Mail
as a newspaper run by office boys for office boys (Pound and Harmsworth, 211), but this was an unfair description of Harmsworth's talents. He understood the middle classes of England, appreciating that they did not necessarily want four leading articles, a page of Parliament, and columns of speeches (Taylor, 32). Harmsworth was not an easy man to work for. He searched the Mail
for ways of perfecting its style, and he was savage in his criticism of what he saw as failures among his staffif they did not produce good pictures or print a woman's page, for example. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as a trivializer. He still harboured political desires, and he urged the patriotic line. In 1897 he warned of the German threat to the British empire. The South African War of 18991902 gave him a perfect canvas on which to paint his political beliefs. He called for more guns, better generalship; he criticized the Conservative cabinet as inefficient, old, and prone to panic. He printed vividand uncompromisingly realisticaccounts of combat and the battlefield. By the end of the war Harmsworth had no doubt that his newspaper made him politically significant. In 1904 he wrote to St Loe Strachey:
The most unfortunate part of the circulation of my paper is the fact that the immense number of people who see everything that appears in it and the comment they make magnifies every utterance. We have been obliged to reduce the tone and colour of the paper to far below that of any morning newspaper except the Times. (Northcliffe to St Loe Strachey, 18 Nov 1904, St Loe Strachey MSS, Parl. Arch., S/11/4/16)
The position, he went on, is a new and difficult one for a newspaper owner. He gave examples of how recently, in a small savings bank collapse, he had been obliged to leave things alone after he was inundated with letters and telegrams from bankers all over the country.
The Harmsworth empire expanded, though not always quite so successfully. On 2 November 1903 he founded the Daily Mirror
as a women's paper witha great innovationan all-female staff; this failed, but characteristically Harmsworth ordered a relaunch in January 1904 as the Illustrated Daily Mirror
, and sales recovered. His national reputation was acknowledged on 23 June 1904 when he was made a baronet. He always liked to claim that when he wanted a peerage he would buy one, like an honest man (Taylor, 85), but he was satisfied to accept one on 9 December 1905, taking as his title Baron Northcliffe of the Isle of Thanet. He liked to style himself N to advertise his role as the Napoleon of Fleet Street. Northcliffe exemplified popular journalism; but he also aspired to buy a quality newspaper, and in 1905 he acquired The Observer
, which was added to his Associated Newspapers group. But he quarrelled with its editor, J. L. Garvin, and sold it to Waldorf Astor in 1912. By then he had realized his ambition by buying The Times
on 16 March 1908 for £320,000, following a complex financial and political campaign in which he outmanoeuvred his rival, C. Arthur Pearson. Northcliffe was more acceptable to the Conservative Party leader, A. J. Balfour, and he was able to portray Pearson as a young adventurer. He always claimed that he allowed the paper independence, but its editor, Geoffrey Dawson, saw eye to eye with him on protectionist and unionist politics, otherwise the relationship would not have worked. Northcliffe wanted to save the paper as a kind of national asset, and even contemplated leaving it in his will to a national committee like that which ran the British Museum. He also wanted to make it more commercially viable by attracting advertising and making its coverage of the news more topical, however much he protested that it should not be run as a profit-making machine (Koss, 96). When sales dipped below 41,000 in 1913 Northcliffe took appropriate action, reducing the price by one third to 2d
., though the net gain in sales of 6000 did not offset the loss in revenue. On 16 March 1914 he again took bold action, reducing the price to 1d
. Average sales rose to 145,000. He also introduced pictorial advertisements, purged inefficient staff, enlivened the typography, offered discounted advertising and subscription rates, and appointed a penny-pinching day editor, Hugh Chisholm, on the assumption that a Scotsman would save him money.
Northcliffe's private life at this time could be described as one not unnatural for a newspaper magnate, with plenty of money, power, and the glamour of success. He already had an illegitimate son, Alfred Benjamin Smith, the product of his youthful indiscretion, who was raised by his grandmother and whom Northcliffe apprenticed to a carpenter. From 1900 he and his wife grew apart, and he kept a regular mistress, Kathleen Wrohan (d
.1923), an Irishwoman with whom he had three children, two sons and one daughter, all of whom he provided for. The first son was born on 25 August 1912 at 2 Brick Lane, London, and Northcliffe gave £1000 a year for the first three years of the boy's life and £6000 a year thereafter. In 1912 his daughter, Geraldine, was born and on 14 August 1914 a second son, Harold. All were generously provided for. Likewise he was good to his employees, provided they satisfied his relentless journalistic standards, and he gave generously to them, especially those who named their sons after him, all of which suggests that his lack of family with his wife was deeply disappointing to him. In 1902 he took a second mistress, his secretary Louise Owen (also Irish), and he had an affair with the Baroness Betty von Hutten, a popular novelist. By 1914 Northcliffe had made his mark on British cultural history. He was supposed to possess political power, but no one knew for sure how powerful he really was. Politicians did not like to take chances; in 1909 Lloyd George showed him his draft budget proposals, telling him to make what he liked of the information in the Daily Mail
. In 1910 he was offered £1000 from Unionist Party funds to produce an extra million copies of a special edition of the Mail
for provincial distribution, a plan which came to nothing, but which illustrated the important links between press and politicians. But Northcliffe was not for sale, unlike many of his journalist contemporaries. And it was the coming of the First World War that gave him his chance to play a key role on the political stage. He had always taken the patriotic line. In 1913 he urged the country to support Lord Roberts's idea of a national service league to put the country on a war footing. He had always predicted that Germany was the enemy of Britain and her empire, with preparations … quietly and systematically made (Taylor, 141). He lobbied MPs, especially Winston Churchill, to alert them to the German threat.
Northcliffe at war
When the European crisis broke in August 1914, however, Northcliffe did not want to send an army to Europe: What about our own country? (Taylor, 144). But he quickly threw himself heart and soul into the allied cause, claiming that the Daily Mail
was the paper that foretold the war, and setting himself up as the personal advocate of soldiers' interests. At the end of August the Mail
offered to pay for letters sent to their families by serving soldiers. He campaigned against official secrecy, and on 26 August Hamilton Fyfe wrote graphically of the British wounded, adding that they had no trenches, no cover of any kind (ibid., 149). He was keen to identify German atrocities. He called on the government to declare cotton as contraband. Above all, he exposed the shells scandal in April 1915 when he alleged, and with good cause, that the want of sufficient high explosive shells was fatal to the British offensive at Festubert (ibid., 157). On 21 May the Mail
printed the headline The Tragedy of the Shells; Lord Kitchener's grave error (ibid., 157). This had the unexpected result of causing a dip in the Daily Mail
sales, with Northcliffe described as the ally of the Hun; but it also contributed to the crisis which ended with Asquith reconstructing his government and taking the Unionist opposition into the cabinet. Northcliffe's reputation rested on the assumption that he could, and did, wield power; and this was enhanced by the political manoeuvres of December 1916, which ended with the replacement of Asquith as prime minister by Lloyd George. The role of the press is still disputed, but there is no doubt that at the time Northcliffe was given the credit. When his younger brother Cecil Harmsworth asked Northcliffe who killed cock robin?, he answered his own question: you did (McEwen, 63). On 4 December The Times
carried a leading article written by its editor, Dawson, criticizing Asquith, disclosing much of the detail behind the war council which Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law proposed on 21 November consisting of three men, and in effect sidelining the prime minister. On 5 December Asquith backed out of his earlier assent to the council, and matters were now set on a collision course. But Asquith was possibly looking for an excuse to retreat from his earlier concession, and Lloyd George denied that he had seen The Times
article, adding that failure to implement the proposed agreement would only reward Northcliffe who frankly wants a smash (Koss, 305). But the outcome enhanced Northcliffe's reputation as a kingmaker.
Northcliffe always, and sincerely, prided himself on his independence from the political parties, and indeed his financial success enabled him to detach himself from them, unlike most newspaper proprietors and editors. He quickly dispelled any notion that he might be inveigled into the new administration: Ah-h, wouldn't they like to get me out of Fleet Street (Koss, 306). Therefore, although Northcliffe agreed to go to the United States of America as head of the British war mission in May 1917, which he found a frustrating experience as he was rebuffed by the British ambassador, Spring Rice, and accepted a viscountcy on his return, he still maintained his independence. He accepted the post of director of propaganda in enemy countries in February 1918, insisting that his choice of the term director rather than minister reflected his freedom from politicians' clutches.
Such declarations of independence were unwelcome to politicians and journalists alike. When on 16 November 1917 Northcliffe publicly stated, in a letter to The Times
, ostensibly in reply to a reader, that he was highly dissatisfied with the conduct of the war, and would not join any administration, the Liberal editor, A. G. Gardiner, asserted that the message of it all was that The democracy, whose bulwark is Parliament, has been unseated, and mobocracy, whose dictator is Lord Northcliffe, is in power (Willis, 245). Lloyd George acted for the politicians when he claimed that the press must be either squashed or squared. When faced with criticism for appointing Northcliffe as director of propaganda in enemy countries Lloyd George replied that he was safe as long as he was occupied (Koss, 327). When the war ended, unexpectedly Lloyd George was anxious to continue squaring Northcliffe, asking for his support in the forthcoming general election. Northcliffe's response gave some substance to the charge of megalomania: I do not propose to use my newspapers and personal influence … unless I know definitely, and in writing, and can consciously approve, the personal constitution of the Government (ibid., 338). Lloyd George smartly rebuffed him, but Northcliffe's ambitions took an even more bizarre turn when he published an article in the Daily Mail
on 4 November 1918, From war to peace, which was taken as a bid for a seat at the Versailles peace conference. In the general election campaign Northcliffe called for the most punitive peace to be imposed on Germany, and called on Lloyd George to take a firm stand on reparations. In April 1919 Lloyd George, having earlier warned Northcliffe not to be making mischief (ibid., 346), turned on the press lord. In the House of Commons on 16 April 1919 he denounced Northcliffe's diseased vanity, accusing him of trying to sow dissent between the allies, and asserting that not even that kind of disease is a justification for so black a crime against humanity (Hansard 5C
). The implication was that Northcliffe was suffering from mental illness, and Lloyd George tapped his head as he spoke to make the point clear. The rumour that Northcliffe was indeed going insane was spreading, but Northcliffe wrote calmly to Louise Owen that Lloyd George should be dealing with the world's problems, not attacking him: No ordinary man like myself should at this time figure so prominently before the world (Taylor, 200).
Northcliffe's health was now in decline. He suffered from a cough and a sore throat. He continued to use his newspapers to campaign for political causes, against waste of public money by government, for an Irish peace settlement. But he appeared to have lost his journalistic touch when his campaign for the Sandringham hat (which Winston Churchill wore) failed. Yet he showed that the old performer had not forgotten his skills when he persuaded Dame Nellie Melba to sing in the first wireless concert in history at Marconi Place, Chelmsford, and the next day, 20 June 1920, editorialized on the importance of the wireless set as a means not only of business and government, but of entertainment. He showed his abiding interest in technology by installing a wireless set in The Times
offices to speed up news delivery. He also appreciated the importance of air travel, as shown in the Alcock and Brown flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in June 1919. His interest in what made people into newspaper readers remained undimmed: Smiling pictures make people smile … I personally, prefer short leading articles … People like to read about profiteering. Most of them would like to be profiteers if they had the chance (Taylor, 2045). In the summer of 1921 he went on a world cruise, though prematurely aged, and was besieged by admirers wherever he went. He returned looking more unwell in February 1922 and although he appeared in London at several public functions, and even went to Germany (where he was hated during the war for his propaganda there, and where he suspected that he had been poisoned), he displayed alarming symptoms of ill health. His condition was a blood infection, possibly from his teeth, which invaded the brain and then damaged the valves of the heart, and it caused his behaviour to become more erratic. He was rude, delirious, and often insensible, and this appeared to give substance to the false claim by Wickham Steed, The Times
's editor in 1922, that he was suffering from syphilis. This rumour persisted until 1954, when definitive medical analysis contradicted it.
Northcliffe died on 14 August 1922 at his house, 1 Carlton Gardens, London, and was given a funeral at Westminster Abbey. He was buried at North Finchley, Middlesex, on 17 August. He left two messages before he died: one was that he wished to be laid to rest as near his mother (who outlived him by three years) as possible at North Finchley and I do not wish anything erect from the ground or any words except my name and the years I was born and this year upon the stone. The second was truly magnificent: In The Times
I should like a page reviewing my life-work by someone who really knows and a leading article by the best man on the night (Pound and Harmsworth, 8812). These last words sum up Northcliffe better than any other tribute or criticism. Northcliffe sought political power, and used his independence from the political parties, which subsidized and suborned newspapers, to pursue his aim as self-appointed tribune of the people. This pleased neither politicians nor political journalists. It also missed the point that Northcliffe was essentially a great newspaperman, who exercised a profound influence on popular culture. This is not to deny that Northcliffe exercised a certain kind of political power; when conditions were right, when governments were weak, or politicians made vulnerable for other reasons, then the Northcliffe press could and did exert influence on the workings of high politics. Contemporaries in the political world seemed to fear him; but it was hard to judge the extent of their fear, for it was always useful for politicians to have as their stock-in-trade the argument that press power was too great and that press lords were over-mighty subjects. Northcliffe's uncomplicated patriotism, springing no doubt from his Anglo-Irish roots, strikes the modern observer as extreme; his determination to drive Lord Haldane from office as lord chancellor in 1915 arose from what Northcliffe regarded as Haldane's brushing aside Northcliffe's insistence on the importance of the aeroplane in modern warfare, but it was a brutal campaign. Northcliffe saw Ireland and Irish politics in terms of their relationship to the well-being of the British empire, and he had no sympathy for the Ulster resistance to Irish home rule, except insofar as it must be resolved for the good of empire.
But Northcliffe's importance lay in his instinctive knowledge of what the modern newspaper could be, and of the potential it had to gather in a mass readership. His understanding of the importance for the press of technological developments was unrivalled. No detail of the world of newspaper production escaped him. In 1905 he founded the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company to purchase 3100 square miles of territory to produce wood pulp for his newspapers. In all this he was supported by his brother Harold, whose financial acumen perfectly matched Northcliffe's bold and imaginative strokes.
Northcliffe's last years were almost grotesque: his illness, his incoherence, the decline in his appearance from beautiful young man to a prematurely aged one with heavy, even ugly features, his overweening political ambitions culminating in Lloyd George's denunciation in no doubt carefully chosen words of his diseased vanity, all bear witness to his physical and mental deterioration. But Northcliffe's career must not be judged in terms of his final collapse, even though his last wish to be buried beside his mother is resonant of Orson Welles's classic film Citizen Kane
. Northcliffe, in his grasp of the principles and techniques of modern journalism and of the nature of its readers, was the greatest figure who ever walked down Fleet Street: the Chief.
D. George Boyce