Alfred C. Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, was born in Dublin on 15 July 1865. He attended Henley House School in London, where the headmaster was the father of A. A. Milne. His most recent biographer notes that as a young man he was advised by G. A. Sala (one of Dickens’s ‘young men’) to abandon the idea of a writing career for something more lucrative. Instead he went on to become the most successful newspaper proprietor of his age, founding the Daily Mail in 1896 and the Daily Mirror in 1903, before taking over The Times in 1908. He was made Baronet of Elmwood in 1904 and Baron Northcliffe in 1905. At his death in 1922 his gross wealth was recorded as £3,250,000.

Harmsworth married Mary Milner in 1888 and the couple spent their honeymoon in Folkestone, the beginning of a lifelong association with Kent. In 1890 he bought a house called Elmwood, in Broadstairs. While he spent much of his time travelling or in London, Elmwood would remain ‘home’ until shortly before his death in 1922.

Harmsworth was known for his generosity to local causes. He was one of the organisers (or at least, supporters) of the first Dickens Festival in Broadstairs in 1897, with the aim of raising funds for a Fishermen and Boatmen’s clubhouse and reading room. It was rumoured that Henry Dickens and Mary Angela Dickens had offered to give readings, and Harmsworth lent his own collection of relics for the occasion. Dolly Varden was ‘fascinatingly embodied by Mrs Alfred Harmsworth’.

From 1894-97 Harmsworth also funded the Jackson-Harmsworth Arctic expedition, including Dover resident Dr Reginald Koettlitz.

He was not sympathetic to every campaign, and in October 1912 Winston Churchill wrote to thank him for ‘a stick with which he could protect himself from the suffragettes.’ However, Harmsworth’s relations with Churchill and other politicians were often strained, particularly during WW1, when he used his newspapers to critique military and political policy (he was notably critical of Kitchener). He was influential enough to claim with some degree of credibility that the Germans were aiming at him personally when Elmwood was shelled by a warship in February 1917. While Harmsworth was unhurt, three people nearby were killed, including a baby. Northcliffe reported to his Daily Mail staff that he was ‘used to being bombarded’ and pointed out that ‘this is nothing compared with the incidents endured all day long’ in France and Belgium.

During a prolonged bout of flu, which lasted for 9 weeks in the spring of 1918, he continued his newspaper propaganda from Broadstairs. At around the same time he recruited H. G. Wells to his ministry of propaganda in London, although this friendship also failed to survive the war years.

A controversial figure in his own lifetime, Lord Northcliffe opposed women’s suffrage but ‘paid high salaries to female writers before anyone else in Fleet Street’; was ‘a prominent proponent of family values who kept a series of mistresses’; funded local causes including orphanages and the Dover Patrol memorial, as well as founding the Imperial Paper Mills in Gravesend, which operated until the 1980s, while ruthlessly sacking pressmen he felt to be inadequate. Regardless of these inconsistencies, he is widely acknowledged as ‘Britain’s greatest press baron’.

With thanks to Andrew Roberts for agreeing to ‘cast an eye’ over this very condensed account of Northcliffe’s complex career.


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