Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe (15 July 1865 – 14 August 1922) was a British newspaper and publishing magnate. As owner of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, he was a pioneer of popular journalism, and he exercised vast influence over British popular opinion in the Edwardian era. Lord Beaverbrook said he was "the greatest figure who ever strode down Fleet Street." The turn of the century saw the rise of popular journalism aimed at the working class and tending to emphasize sensational topics. Harmsworth was the chief innovator. P. P. Catterall and Colin Seymour-Ure conclude that:
More than anyone [he] ... shaped the modern press. Developments he introduced or harnessed remain central: broad contents, exploitation of advertising revenue to subsidize prices, aggressive marketing, subordinate regional markets, independence from party control.
Northcliffe played a powerful role in the First World War, especially in attacking the government in the Shell Crisis of 1915. He headed the mission to the new ally, the United States, in 1917, and was director of enemy propaganda in 1918.
His Amalgamated Press employed writers such as Arthur Mee and John Hammerton, and its subsidiary, the Educational Book Company, published The Harmsworth Self-Educator, The Children's Encyclopædia, and Harmsworth's Universal Encyclopaedia.
Although born in Chapelizod, County Dublin, Harmsworth was educated at Stamford School in Lincolnshire, England, from 1876 and at Henley House School in Kilburn, London from 1878. A master at Henley House who was to prove important to his future was J. V. Milne, the father of A. A. Milne, who according to H. G. Wells was at school with him at the time and encouraged him to start the school magazine.
He was the elder brother of Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, Cecil Harmsworth, 1st Baron Harmsworth, Sir Leicester Harmsworth, 1st Baronet and Sir Hildebrand Harmsworth, 1st Baronet. Beginning as a freelance journalist, he founded his first newspaper, Answers (original title: Answers to Correspondents), and was later assisted by his brother Harold, who was adept in business matters. Harmsworth had an intuitive sense for what the reading public wanted to buy, and began a series of cheap but successful periodicals, such as Comic Cuts (tagline: "Amusing without being Vulgar") and the journal Forget-Me-Not for women. From these periodicals, he built what was then the largest periodical publishing empire in the world, Amalgamated Press.
Harmsworth was an early pioneer of popular journalism. He bought several failing newspapers and made them into an enormously profitable chain, primarily by appealing to popular taste. He began with The Evening News in 1894, and then merged two Edinburgh papers to form the Edinburgh Daily Record. That same year he fitted out an expedition to Franz Joseph Land in the Arctic with the aim of making attempts on the North Pole.
On 4 May 1896, he began publishing the Daily Mail in London, which was a hit, holding the world record for daily circulation until Harmsworth's death; taglines of The Daily Mail included "the busy man's daily journal" and "the penny newspaper for one halfpenny". Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, said it was "written by office boys for office boys". Harmsworth then transformed a Sunday newspaper, the Weekly Dispatch, into the Sunday Dispatch, then the highest circulation Sunday newspaper in Britain. He also founded the Harmsworth Magazine (later London Magazine 1898–1915), utilizing one of Britain's best editors, Beckles Willson, who had been editor of many successful publications, including The Graphic.
In 1899, Harmsworth was responsible for the unprecedented success of a charitable appeal for the dependents of soldiers fighting in the South African War by inviting Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Sullivan to write The Absent-Minded Beggar.
Harmsworth also founded The Daily Mirror in 1903, and rescued the financially desperate Observer and The Times in 1905 and 1908, respectively. In 1908, he also acquired The Sunday Times. Amalgamated Press subsidiary the Educational Book Company published the Harmsworth Self-Educator, The Children's Encyclopædia, and Harmsworth's Universal Encyclopaedia.
Harmsworth was created a Baronet, of Elmwood, in the parish of St Peters in the County of Kent in 1904. In 1905, Harmsworth was elevated to the peerage as Baron Northcliffe, of the Isle of Thanet in the County of Kent, and in 1918 was raised to Viscount Northcliffe, of St Peter's in the County of Kent, for his service as the head of the British war mission in the United States.
Alfred Harmsworth married Mary Elizabeth Milner on 11 April 1888. She would be styled Baroness Northcliffe from 27 December 1905 and Viscountess Northcliffe from 14 January 1918. She was appointed Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) and Dame of Grace, Order of St John (D.St.J) in 1918. They had no children.
Alfred Harmsworth had four acknowledged children by two different women. The first, Alfred Benjamin Smith, was born when Harmsworth was seventeen; the mother was a sixteen-year-old maidservant in his parents' house. Smith died in 1930, allegedly in a mental home. By 1900, Harmsworth had acquired a new mistress, an Irishwoman named Kathleen Wrohan, about whom little is known but her name; she bore him two further sons and a daughter, and died in 1923.
By 1914, Northcliffe controlled 40 per cent of the morning newspaper circulation in Britain, 45 per cent of the evening and 15 per cent of the Sunday circulation.
Northcliffe's ownership of The Times, the Daily Mail and other newspapers meant that his editorials wielded great influence over both "the classes and the masses". In an era before TV, radio or internet, that meant that Northcliffe dominated the British press "as it never has been before or since by one man".
Northcliffe's editorship of the Daily Mail in the run-up to the First World War, when the paper displayed "a virulent anti-German sentiment", led The Star to declare, "Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war." His newspapers—especially The Times—reported the Shell Crisis of 1915 with such zeal that it helped to bring down the Liberal government of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, forcing Asquith to form a coalition government (the other triggering event was the resignation of Admiral Fisher as First Sea Lord). Lord Northcliffe's newspapers led the fight for creating a Minister of Munitions (a post first held by David Lloyd George) and helped to bring about Lloyd George's appointment as prime minister in 1916. Lloyd George offered Lord Northcliffe a post in his cabinet, but Northcliffe declined and was appointed director for propaganda.
Such was Northcliffe's influence on anti-German propaganda during the First World War that a German warship was sent to shell his house, Elmwood, in Broadstairs, in an attempt to assassinate him. His former residence still bears a shell hole out of respect for his gardener's wife, who was killed in the attack. On 6 April 1919, Lloyd George made an excoriating attack on Northcliffe, calling his arrogance "diseased vanity". By that time his influence was on the wane.
Alfred Harmsworth's health declined in 1921 due mainly to a streptococcal infection. He went on a world tour to revive his spirits, but it failed to do so. He died of endocarditis in a hut on the roof of his London house, No. 1 Carlton House Gardens, in August, 1922, and left three months' pay to each of his six thousand employees. The viscountcy, barony, and baronetcy of Northcliffe became extinct. He is buried in the cemetery at East Finchley, North London.
Historian Ian Christopher Fletcher states:
Northcliffe's drive for success and respectability bounded main outlet in the commercial world of journalism, not the political world the parties and parliaments. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, underlying the relentless acquisition of newspapers and perfection of their "copy," was the simple incorporation of millions of readers into his press empire.
A.J.P. Taylor, however, says, "Northcliffe could destroy when he used the news properly. He could not step into the vacant place. He aspired to power instead of influence, and as a result forfeited both."
Through his newspaper empire, Northcliffe promoted the ideas which led to the Group Settlement Scheme. The scheme promised land in Western Australia to British settlers prepared to emigrate and develop the land. A town founded specifically to support the new settlements was named Northcliffe, in recognition of the role that Lord Northcliffe played in bringing about the scheme.
Northcliffe lived for a time at 31 Pandora Road, West Hampstead – this site is now marked with an English Heritage blue plaque.
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