Friday, January 01, 2010

Viscount Northcliffe (1865 - 1922) - Pioneer Press Baron

During a recent stroll around Gravesend, I came across a memorial tablet dedicated to Viscount Northcliffe at the entrance to a building called the White House.

Not to be confused with it's famous namesake across the pond, this White House formerly served as the offices of the now defunct Imperial Paper Mills (IPM).

In it's heyday the IPM occupied a large swathe of the Thames riverfront at Gravesend and even had it's own internal railway network and wharf for unloading wood pulp.

In the mid 1980's, the mill was demolished and the site is now occupied by an ASDA superstore and retail park. The wharf continued to operate for several years after the closure of the mill but has now been mothballed and it's fate remains uncertain.

Anyway getting back to the story of the Viscount.....

Being curious, as ever, and having not previously heard of him, I decided to see what I could find out.

Viscount Northcliffe was born Alfred Charles William Harmsworth on 15th July 1865 in Chapelizod, Dublin he moved to London at the age of two. The son of an English barrister, he was the eldest of an eventual fourteen children. Alfred's father died at a young age leaving the family in dire financial straights.

In around 1875, Alfred Harmsworth attended the Henley House School in Hampstead which was run by a Mr J V Milne, father of A A Milne (later creator of children's favourites Winnie the Pooh, Tigger & friends).

Another famous contempory of Alfred at the school was H G Wells. In 1934 Wells wrote the following about his fellow pupil....

"He made a very poor impression on his teachers and became one of those.... unsatisfactory, rather heavy, good-tempered boys who in the usual course of things drift ineffectively through school to some second-rate employment. It was Mr Milne's ability that saved him from that. Somewhere about the age of twelve, Master Harmsworth became possessed of a jelly-graph for the reproduction of MS. in violet ink, and with this he set himself to produce a mock newspaper. Mr Milne, with the soundest pedagogic instinct, seized upon the educational possibilities of this display of interest and encouraged young Harmsworth, violet with copying ink and not quite sure whether he had done well or ill, to persist with the Henley House Magazine even at the cost of his school work"

The first edition of the Henley House Magazine was issued in 1878 with contributions from Wells amongst others and in 1881 the first printed version appeared - edited by one Alfred Harmsworth.

The school magazine set Alfred on his career in publishing. After leaving school he worked as a freelance journalist contributing to publications such as the "Illustrated London News" and most signifcantly a weekly called "Tit Bits" which was very popular with the public and had made it's owner very successful.

Alfred carefully studied the layout of "Tit Bits" and resolved to start an
improved publication of his own. He remarked to a friend....

"The Board Schools are turning out hundreds of thousands of boys and girls annually who are anxious to read. They do not care for the ordinary newspaper but will read anything that is simple and is sufficiently interesting."

This was in reference to the Education Act of 1871 which guaranteed a minimum level of edcuation for all children and meant that literacy levels had climbed rapidly.

The only problem was raising the finance to get his venture off the ground.....

Eventually, after several years of failed attempts, through a contact at the Daily Telegraph he was put in touch with an investor which enabled him to launch "Answers to Correspondents" on the 12th June 1888.

Initial sales were disappointing but rather than give it up as a bad job, Alfred completely revamped the publication, shortening the name to "Answers". Gradually sales began to climb and his younger brother Harold (later Viscount Rothermere) joined the business.

Unlike Alfred, Harold had a very keen eye for figures and got the business into a sound financial position.

In October 1889, Alfred had a brainwave that would transform the business into a great success and lay the seeds for the growth of his eventual media empire.... Amalgamated Press.

The bright idea? offer a prize to one lucky reader of a pound a week for life.

It may not sound earth shattering now but at the time it was unheard of. The prize was to go to the reader who made the nearest estimate of the amount of bullion in the Bank of England upon a certain date.

It captured the imagination of the public and people talked about it on the trains and omnibuses, in the pubs and on the streets.

The editors of the traditional papers frowned upon the idea and demanded the intervention of the State. Literally by leaps and bounds the circulation rose and reprints had to be ordered to keep up with demand.

A few months after the first competition was launched, a second prize was announced but this time stopped by the authorities at the eleventh hour. It is estimated that "Answers" was making a profit of nearly thirty thousand pounds a year.

Around this time, Alfred and his new wife Mary bought a house called Elmwood near the village of St Peter's on the Isle of Thanet in Kent. Elmwood became the best loved of all his homes. He built a billiard-room, extensive stables, which were subsequently used to house his collection of cars, and a series of outhouses.

The Harmsworth brothers had money to invest and in 1894 they took over the ailing newspaper, the "London Evening News". It was totally revamped with special columns added for female readers who had been neglected by the traditional papers. It's circulation increased rapidly and it was returned to profit.

Two further newspapers were purchased in Glasgow and merged to form the "Glasgow Daily Record".

On 4th May 1896, the first ever edition of the "Daily Mail" was published. It was another overnight success billed as "the penny newspaper for one halfpenny” and “the busy man’s daily journal". It eventually held the world record for the highest newspaper circulation.

The new paper had it's critics. Lord Salisbury sniffily described it as "written by office boys for office boys".

The class system was still very entrenched at this time and many in the establishment looked down on the Harmsworths who they considered to be "new money".

The near bankrupt "Weekly Dispatch" was added to the stable and transformed into the "Sunday Dispatch", the largest selling Sunday paper in the UK at the time.

In 1903 the "Daily Mirror" was launched (initially for female readers) and in 1905 the "Observer" joined the long list of titles. In the same year, Alfred Harmsworth was elevated to the peerage and made Baron Northcliffe of the Isle of Thanet.

1908 marked the pinnacle of Alfred Harmsworth's publishing career when he took control of the "Times" one of the world's most respected newspapers which many overseas States considered to be a quasi official mouthpiece for the British Government.

At this point, it is estimated that the Baron's media empire held up to 40% of the morning, 45% of the evening and 15% of the Sunday total newspaper circulation in the UK. Furthermore, his papers were read by people of all classes - the "Times" and "Observer" for the upper classes, the "Daily Mail" for the middle classes and the "Daily Mirror" for the working classes.

Politicians who had previously shied away from the press began to recognise the influence that the press barons could wield over all sectors of the British electorate.

Northcliffe was always interested in the latest new technologies. He was one of the first car owners in the UK (around 1894) and in 1906 he met the Wright brothers and was immediately taken with the aeroplane.

The "Daily Mail" offered a ten thousand pound prize for the first mechanical flight from London to Manchester in twenty-four with not more than two stops and a further a prize of one thousand pounds for the first flight across the English Channel.

The British Government at that time regarded aviation as a silly fad of the "Daily Mail". One rival London newspaper even offered to pay ten million pounds for a flight of ten miles by mechanical power!

On July 25th, 1909, the Frenchman Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel in his aeroplane, landed in Dover, Kent and claimed the one thousand pound prize.

On April 28th, 1910, the "impossible" was achieved, and the ten thousand pound prize was won by another Frenchman, Louis Paulhan.

The Amalgamated Press decided to set up their own papermaking operations to ensure their continued supply of newsprint - they were using up to 2000 tonnes per week for their various publications.

They entered into a long term agreement with the Government of Newfoundland to lease an area of 2300 square miles of spruce forest which would be used to make woodpulp.

I found an interesting web site which details some of the operations in Grand Falls, Newfoundland. where the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company, as it was known, set up their pulp mill.

In 1912 the Imperial Paper Mill was founded in Gravesend, Kent and pulp was shipped from Canada to the mill's wharf for manufacture into newsprint. The Amalgamated Press had already set up a printing works a short distance away from the IPM some years previously.

In the years running up to the First World War, Northcliffe had used his newspapers to criticise the British Government's lack of readiness for what he perceived to be the German threat.

His criticism continued after the commencement of hostilities with Germany. He was fiercely opposed to Winston Churchill's plan to capture the Dardanelles from the Turks, which later ended in disaster.

On 21st May 1915, the "Daily Mail" published a leading article entitled -"The tragedy of the shells: Lord Kitchener's grave error" - which lambasted the Secretary of State for War for sending to the front shrapnel shells, useless in trench warfare, instead of the urgently needed high-explosive shells.

Initially the British public were outraged by the article and the Mail's circulation dropped by a million copies. However, Northcliffe was soon vindicated leading to the collapse of the unpopular Liberal Government and the appointment of Lloyd George as munitions minister.

The new British coalition Goverment asked Baron Northcliffe to head up a British War Mission to the United States with the aim of lobbying them to enter the war against Germany.

On 25th February 1917 a German warship shelled Northcliffe's country house Elmwood located near the Kent coast in an attempt to assassinate him.

In 1918 Northcliffe became the British government’s director of propaganda and was elevated to 1st Viscount Northcliffe of St Peters in the County of Kent in recognition of his service to the war effort.

Following the war, Northcliffe took up the promotion of several new causes which he favoured including Irish independence and the Group Settlement Scheme in Western Australia.

This scheme involved the assisted emigration of British citizens to develop remote regions of Australia. Northcliffe was fearful that Australia would be colonised by Japan unless radical action was taken.

Here is an extract from a controversial speech he made during a visit to Australia in 1921...

" I leave lovely Australia, haunted and saddened by thoughts of your weakness. ... I am amazed at your indifference to the events in the outside world and especially in Asia. One can almost smell the East in your northern winds and yet I have met scarcely a score of men and women in Australia with any sense of the imminent danger in which the country stands. . . . The world will not tolerate an empty and idle Australia , . . Tens of millions will come to you whether you wish it or not.... I am staggered by the indifference of the Australian people to the vital question of immigration. . . . Why not a bold, constructive immigration policy ? Where is the obstacle ? Why not at once take steps to establish within two or three years a flow of at least 100,000 people a year to the Common wealth with a rapid increase to 250,000 ? The outstanding fact is that Australia must have people."

Viscount Northcliffe became the victim of a megalomania that led to a nervous breakdown shortly before his death on 14th August 1922. The cause of death was attributed to a longstanding heart condition. His funeral was held at Westminster Abbey and he is buried in Hampstead, London.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please feel free to leave a comment. They are always appreciated!

Further reading....

Interesting Kent Personalities

The story of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell

More posts about the Gravesend area of Kent

W T Henleys / AEI Cable Works Northfleet

Milton Church Gravesend - Porcupines and Masons!


  1. Viscount Northcliffe changed the face of the British press. His decision to focus on human interest stories and devote pages to previously negelected groups, like women, was revolutionary.

  2. I found the above acticle very interesting as I now work as a receptionist in The White House. As I am not a native of Gravesend I was not aware of the history attached to it.
    Thank you.

  3. I used to work in the building to the right of the White House which was the paper mills Lab. on the top floor, we also had a small store on the top floor of the White House. I used to collect samples around the mill,paper and chemicals to test,also pulp samples off the ships before they were unloaded. There were 4 of us working 1956. Martin.

  4. I used to work in the building next to the White House,this was the Mills Lab, the White House also had accounts there,and the lab had a store room.I used to collect paper/chemicals from around the mill for testing,also plup from the ships before it was unloaded.Nice to see the old building again. Martin

  5. Martin Fettes-Neame21 June 2012 at 15:10

    I live in a modern house on the site of the grounds in Broadstairs, called Northcliffe Gardens. Until recently it had a wonderful Victorian greenhouse complex. I have sadly demolished most of it. I have pictures if anyone is interested.
    Martin Fettes-Neame

  6. believe it or not, i found a newspapaer dated aug 15 1922 here at my work in twickenham, London, the news about viscount northcliffe death is written, he was called as the Father of Modern Newspaper.... its juz amzing to have and see it for real!

  7. In the mid 50's I worked for the M.D. of Imperial P.M. in New Bridge St., London. We had a chair no-one ever sat in, that had been Lord Northcliffe's. One of the main newsprint sources was the region behind Clarke City, Canada, on the St.Lawrence. I worked for the Managing Director of Imperial, and spent one whole day being shown around the works at Gravesend. Amazing place - so many really skilled workers. The noise of the rollers. Have never forgotten it. In my time at Imperial I learned quite a lot about papermaking and woodpulp.

  8. I work as a driver for Imperial tankers and have just started loading bitumen on part of the old paper mill site , I was after more information on the Imperial wharf connection , very helpful.