Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe

Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe

Alfred Harmsworth, the son of an English barrister, was born in Chapelizod near Dublin, on 15th July, 1865. An indifferent scholar he was educated at St John's Wood, a small, private day school in London. He developed an interest in journalism when he began editing the school magazine.

After leaving school Harmsworth found work with Youth, an illustrated magazine for boys, owned by the Illustrated London News. In 1886 he was employed by Edward Iliffe to edit his magazine, Bicycling News.

The great publishing success at the time was Tit-Bits, a magazine that was selling 900,000 copies a month. In 1888 Harmsworth decided to join with his brother, Harold Harmsworth, to publish a similar type of magazine called Answers to Correspondents. He told his readers that every question sent in would be answered by post, and the answers of those of general interest would be published in the magazine. Answers to Correspondents was a great success and within four years he was selling over a million copies a week. This success helped him finance the children's paper, Comic Cuts and a woman's magazine, Forget-Me-Nots.

In 1894 decided to become involved in newspaper publishing. The Evening News was nearly bankrupt when purchased by Harmsworth for £25,000. With the help of Kennedy Jones, he dramatically changed the paper. Although he retained the traditional seven column layout, advertisements were reduced to a single column on the left. Six columns of news were presented in a crisper style with eye-catching headlines such as Was it Suicide or Apoplexy?, Another Battersea Scandal, Bones in Bishopgate, Hypnotism and Lunacy and Killed by a Grindstone. Harmsworth also began to use illustrations to break-up the text.

By 16th November the Evening News was able to state that sales had now reached 394,447. Harmsworth claimed this as a world record for a newspaper and added that sales would be over 500,000 if they owned more printing presses. By 1896 circulation approached 800,000 with annual profits of £50,000.

Harmsworth now decided to start a new paper based on the style of newspapers published in the USA. By the time the first issue of the Daily Mail appeared for the first time on 4th May, 1896, over 65 dummy runs had taken place, at a cost of £40,000. When published for the first time, the eight page newspaper cost only halfpenny. Slogans used to sell the newspaper included 'A Penny Newspaper for One Halfpenny' and 'The Busy Man's Daily Newspaper'.

The Daily Mail was the first newspaper in Britain that catered for a new reading public that needed something simpler, shorter and more readable than those that had previously been available. One new innovation was the banner headline that went right across the page. Considerable space was given to sport and human interest stories. It was also the first newspaper to include a woman's section that dealt with issues such as fashions and cookery.

Another innovation introduced by the Daily Mail was the publication of serials. Personally supervised by Harmsworth, the average length was 100,000 words. The opening episode was 5,000 words and had to have a dramatic impact on the readers. This was followed by episodes of 1,500 to 2,000 words every day.

The Daily Mail was an immediate success and circulation quickly achieved 500,000. With the strong interest in the Boer War in 1899 sales went to over a million. Harmsworth encouraged people to buy the Daily Mail for nationalistic reasons making it clear to his readers that his newspaper stood "for the power, the supremacy and the greatness of the British Empire".

Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate in the United States was so impressed with Harmsworth's achievements that he invited him to edit his New York World on the first day of the twentieth century. Harmsworth accepted the challenge and decided to change its size for the occasion. He gave this new small paper the name tabloid (compressed) that was later to become the main size of newspapers in Britain.

Harmsworth used his newspapers to promote inventions such as the telephone, electric light, photography, motorcycles, motor cars and aircraft. He was so passionate about cars that Harmsworth prohibited the editor of the Daily Mail from reporting details of automobile accidents.

On some issues Harmsworth held traditional views. He became concerned about the popularity of white bread and began a campaign to support the wholemeal loaf. In one article he wrote for the Daily Mail he argued that "better teeth, stronger bones, steadier nerves and a greater natural immunity against disease, particularly consumption, will be found if the people of England will discard the present white loaf for a more wholemeal bread".

In 1903 Harmsworth produced the first newspaper, The Daily Mirror, aimed at women. Kennedy Jones was put in charge of the project and spent £100,000 in publicity, including a gift scheme of gilt and enamel mirrors. On its first day, the circulation of the Daily Mirror was 276,000. However, sales dropped dramatically after the initial launch and by January, 1904, circulation was down to 24,000 and the newspaper was losing £3,000 a week.

Harmsworth decided to change his original plan. The editor, Mary Howarth, was replaced by Hamilton Fyfe, who changed it to a picture paper for men as well as women. As Harmsworth later recalled: "Some people say that a woman never really knows what she wants. It is certain she knew what she didn't want. She didn't want the Daily Mirror. I then changed the price to a halfpenny, and filled it full of photographs and pictures to see how that would do." Within a month sales had increased sevenfold.

Fyfe also experimented with using different types of photographs on the front-page. On 2nd April, 1904, the Daily Mirror published a whole page of pictures of Edward VII and his children, Henry, Albert and Mary. This was a great success and Harmsworth now realised the British public had an intense interest in photographs of the Royal Family.

Another successful innovation was the sponsorship of special events. In June, 1904, the Daily Mirror paid D. M. Weigal to drive a twenty-horse power Talbot on a 26,000 mile motor run. A month later the newspaper offered a hundred guinea prize for the first person to swim the Channel.

Harmsworth was offered a knighthood but turned it down saying he wanted to become a baronet. This he received on 23rd June, 1904. The following year he became the youngest ever peer of the realm when he took the title Lord Northcliffe. As he had once said that "when I want a peerage I will buy one" his enemies accused him of corruptly purchasing the honour.

In August 1905, the Daily Mirror began to pioneer the idea of the "exclusive". The first example was the "exclusive" interview with Lord Minto, the new Viceroy of India. This approach was popular and later that year the circulation of the newspaper had reached 350,000.

In 1905 Northcliffe obtained the Sunday Observer and three years later he purchased The Times for £320,000. Circulation of the paper had fallen to 38,000 and was losing money. Northcliffe re-equipped its outdated printing plant, reduced the newspaper's price by a penny to twopence, and appointed a new editor, Geoffrey Dawson. In March, 1914, Northcliffe reduced the price even further and it was not long before the one penny Times was selling 278,000 copies a day.

Harmsworth was a great supporter of flying and in 1906 offered a prize of £1,000 for the first airman to cross the English Channel from Calais to Dover and £10,000 prize for the first completed flight from London to Manchester. The idea seemed so preposterous that Punch Magazine decided to poke fun at Harmsworth by offering a prize of £10,000 for the first flight to Mars. However, by June 1910, both of Harmsworth's prizes had been won by French pilots.

Harmsworth was worried about the possible consequences of aircraft for the defence of Britain. He realised that it would soon be possible for foreign pilots to drop bombs on Britain. He wrote a letter warning Richard Haldane, Secretary of War, about his concerns, but failed to persuade the government that this danger existed.

Before the outbreak of the First World War Harmsworth was accused of being a war-monger. As early as 1897 he had sent the writer G. W. Steevens to Germany to produce a sixteen-part series entitled Under the Iron Heel. The articles praised the German Army and warned that Britain was in danger of being defeated in a war against Germany. Three years later Northcliffe wrote an editorial in the Daily Mail predicting a war with Germany

In October 1909 Northcliffe employed Robert Blatchford, the Socialist editor of the Clarion, to visit Germany to write a series of articles on the dangers that the Germans posed to Britain. Blatchford agreed with Northcliffe on the problem and in one article wrote: "I believe that Germany is deliberately preparing to destroy the British Empire" and warned that Britain needed to spend more money in defending itself against attack.

Soon after the outbreak of the First World War the editor of The Star newspaper claimed that: "Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war."

Northcliffe was determined to make the Daily Mail the official newspaper of the British Army. Every day 10,000 copies of the paper were delivered to the Western Front by military motor cars. He also had the revolutionary idea of using front-line soldiers as news sources. In August 1914 he announced a scheme where he would pay soldiers for articles written about their experiences.

During the early stages of the conflict Northcliffe created a great deal of controversy by advocating conscription and criticizing Lord Kitchener. In an article he wrote on 21st May, 1915, Northcliffe wrote a blistering attack on the Secretary of State for War: "Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high-explosive shells. The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shell - the same kind of shell which he used largely against the Boers in 1900. He persisted in sending shrapnel - a useless weapon in trench warfare. He was warned repeatedly that the kind of shell required was a violently explosive bomb which would dynamite its way through the German trenches and entanglements and enable our brave men to advance in safety. This kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them."

Lord Kitchener was a national hero and Harmsworth's attack on him upset a great number of readers. Overnight, the circulation of the Daily Mail dropped from 1,386,000 to 238,000. A placard was hung across the Daily Mail nameplate with the words "The Allies of the Huns". Over 1,500 members of the Stock Exchange had a meeting where they passed a motion against the "venomous attacks of the Hamsworth Press" and afterwards ceremoniously burnt copies of the offending newspaper.

Although the leader of the government, Herbert Asquith, accused Northcliffe and his newspapers of disloyalty, he privately accepted that shell production was a real problem and he appointed David Lloyd George as the new Munitions Minister.

Northcliffe also attacked the government for the failed operation at Gallipoli. He wrote about the "forty thousand killed, missing or drowned; three hundred millions of treasury thrown away" and argued that even if the campaign had been successful "to win this war, the German line itself must be broken" on the Western Front.

Northcliffe continued his attacks on Lord Kitchener and when he heard he had been killed he remarked: "The British Empire has just had the greatest stroke of luck in its history." After the death of Kitchener he concentrated on having Herbert Asquith removed. Not only did he criticize Asquith as a man of inaction but claimed that Germany was afraid that David Lloyd George would become prime minister.

When Asquith resigned in December, 1916, the new prime minister, David Lloyd George decided that it was be safer to have Northcliffe in his government. However, Northcliffe refused an offer of a place in Lloyd George's cabinet as he knew it would undermine his ability to criticize the government.

Although David Lloyd George offered Northcliffe a cabinet position he disliked the man intensely. In a confidential letter to his Parliamentary Private Secretary he wrote at the time he claimed that: "Northcliffe is one of the biggest intriguers and most unscrupulous people in the country."

In March, 1918, Northcliffe was approached by Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express and the government's new Minister of Information. Northcliffe now agreed to join the cabinet and take charge of all propaganda directed at enemy countries. Over the next few months Northcliffe organised the dropping of four million leaflets behind enemy lines.

On Armistice Day Northcliffe resigned from the government. In the 1918 General Election Northcliffe refused to support David Lloyd George after he refused to accept a list of people who should be in his new government. During the election campaign Northcliffe called for Kaiser Wilhelm to be hanged and the imposition of severe financial penalties on Germany.

After the war Northcliffe retained his interest in new technology. He began a campaign to promote wireless communication by arranging for the Daily Mail to sponsor the world's first wireless concert. In an editorial Northcliffe argued: "Once before the Daily Mail stirred the national imagination to realise the vital importance of flying. It has now taken the lead in private wireless experiments with the object of cultivating national receptivity for the new science and of bringing minds in train for achievements to come."

Northcliffe's health deteriorated rapidly in 1921. He was suffering from streptococcus, an infection of the bloodstream, that damages the valves of the heart and causes kidney malfunction. Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, died in August, 1922. In his will he left three months' salary to each of his six thousand employees, a sum of £533,000.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Alfred Harmsworth, letter to Max Pemberton (1884)

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. They have no interest in society, but they will read anything which is simple and is sufficiently interesting. The man who has produced this Tit-Bits has got hold of a bigger thing than he imagines. he is only at the very beginning of a development which is going to change the whole face of journalism. I shall try to get in with him. We could start one of these papers for a couple of thousand pounds, and we ought to be able to find the money. At any rate, I am going to make the attempt.

(2) The Daily Mail (4th May, 1896)

Our type is set by machinery, and we can produce many thousands of papers per hour cut, folded and if necessary with the pages pasted together. It is the use of these new inventions on a scale unprecedented in any English newspaper office that enables the Daily Mail to effect a saving of from 30 to 50 per cent and be sold for half the price of its contemporaries. That is the whole explanation of what otherwise appear a mystery.

(3) Alfred Harmsworth, diary entry (1st November, 1903)

Came down to the Mirror office and found Kennedy Jones in full swing, and after the usual pangs of childbirth produced the first copy at 9.50 p.m. It looks a promising child, but time will tell if we are on a winner or not.

(4) Philip Gibbs was one of the journalist who went to work for the Daily Mail in 1902.

The New Journalism had arrived, and the Daily Mail under Alfred Harmsworth for whom I worked was its founder and pioneer. There were violent critics of this new type of journalism. They thought it vulgar, trashy, and lacking altogether in the dignity of the old-time Press. But Alfred Harmsworth knew what he was doing, and did it with genius. He knew that a public had grown up which took an intelligent interest in things not previously considered part of newspaper chronicles. Food; fashions; the drama of life in low places as well as high; sport of all kinds; the human story wherever it might be found; the adventure of science as it affected everyday life. Harmsworth knew that women's interests had been left out mainly from the old fashioned newspapers, and he knew that here was an enormous field for increasing circulation.

(5) Alfred Harmsworth, article, Daily Mirror (27th February, 1904)

Owing to much good luck and many loyal co-workers, the Daily Mirror is, up to the present, the only journalistic failure with which I have been associated.

Disaster may often be changed to triumph by alteration in tactics. The faculty of knowing when you are beaten is much more valuable than the faculty of thinking you are not beaten when you are. I had for many years a theory that a daily newspaper for women was in urgent request, and I started one. The belief cost me £100,000. I found out that I was beaten. Women don't want a daily paper of their own.

It was another instance of the failures made by a mere man in diagnosing women's needs. Some people say that a woman never really knows what she wants. It is certain she knew what she didn't want. She didn't want the Daily Mirror. I then changed the price to a halfpenny, and filled it full of photographs and pictures to see how that would do. It did.

(6) In November 1903, Alfred Harmsworth invited Hamilton Fyfe, editor of the Advertiser, to meet him at Carmelite House.

I was shown into a small room where an extremely pretty girl sat typing letters. Then I saw that in the doorway stood a youngish man, rather heavily built, with fair hair that swept in a wave over his forehead, massive features, penetrating blue eyes. just now his eyes were smiling. "Come in," he said, his tone was friendly.

For a few minutes we talked about the Advertiser. He seemed to know that I had little money to spend, that my relations with the Board was strained. After this he looked hard at me. "How would you like to come on to one of my papers?" he asked.

Suppressing an impulse to take his hands, lift him out of his chair, and whirl him in a wild dance round the room, I said quietly: "That depends on what arrangement we could make." He pressed a bell. A small boy in uniform appeared. "Ask Mr. Kennedy Jones to come down for a moment," Harmsworth said. We went on talking, and I succumbed at once to the fascination he was to exercise over me for nearly twenty years.

Kennedy Jones came in. A totally different type of man, no charm of manner or expression - until he smiled. Coarsely moulded features, stiff black hair, rather a lazy way of moving, but a man who directly he spoke radiated acute intelligence. He shook hands in an uninterested sort of way, and sprawled on the Chesterfield lounge.

Harmsworth frowned. "I want somebody to take over the Daily Mirror," he said, and showed that he had to make an effort to say it. His failure, the first bad one he had known, hurt him. "It won't do as a paper for women," Harmsworth went on. "It's taught me two things - that women can't write and don't want to read. But we've got to do something with it. I should like to see what you can do."

(7) Lord Northcliffe, letter to Winston Churchill (11th May, 1908)

A man with a heavier-than-air machine has flown. It does not matter how far he has flown. He has shown what can be done. In a year's time, mark my words, that fellow will be flying over here from France. Britain is no longer an island. Nothing so important had happened for a very long time. We must get hold of this thing, and make it our own. I will think out what is best to be done.

(8) The Daily Mail (21st May, 1915)

Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high-explosive shells. The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shell - the same kind of shell which he used largely against the Boers in 1900. He persisted in sending shrapnel - a useless weapon in trench warfare. He was warned repeatedly that the kind of shell required was a violently explosive bomb which would dynamite its way through the German trenches and entanglements and enable our brave men to advance in safety. This kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them.

(9) Lord Northcliffe, The Daily Mail (23rd August, 1915)

The daily losses in the war, on ordinary days, where there is no attempt to advance, are about 2,000, according to official casualty lists. We are growing callous about the size of the daily lists of killed, wounded and missing. Very few people read even the headings of them, comparatively few grasp the fact that after vast losses we are just where we were six months ago on our little line in the Franco-Belgian Frontier. Thousands of homes are mourning today for men who have been needlessly sacrificed.

(10) Lord Northcliffe, The Daily Mail (3rd September, 1915)

The most decisive success at the Dardanelles would settle nothing in Flanders and would hardly affect the German resolve. To win this war, the German line must itself be broken and the German masses hurled back. Upon that task we must concentrate all our strength and not dissipate it in half a dozen different directions.

(11) In 1917, Lord Northcliffe wrote to Hamilton Fyfe, who was reporting the war on the Eastern Front for the Daily Mail,

Every article that is received from you is submitted to me; but the censor "kills" an immense amount of matter. The articles from you are "killed" I put before important members of the Cabinet, either verbally or in your writing, so that nothing is wasted.

(12) David Lloyd George, The Truth About the Peace Treaties (1938)

Lord Northcliffe wielded great power as the proprietor of the most widely-read daily paper and also as the owner of the most influential journal in the kingdom. He was inclined to exercise and to demonstrate that power. When he did so most politicians bowed their heads. He was one of the most outstanding figures in his generation. He was far and away the most redoubtable figure of all the Press barons of my time. He created the popular daily, and the more other journals scoffed at it and the populace derided it at every political gathering of all parties, the more popular it became. He owed no allegiance to any party, so that every genuine party man deplored his paper.

(13) Lord Northcliffe, The Daily Mail (16th June, 1920)

Once before the Daily Mail stirred the national imagination to realise the vital importance of flying. It has now taken the lead in private wireless experiments with the object of cultivating national receptivity for the new science and of bringing minds in train for achievements to come.

The appeal of wireless to human interest is that it seems magical and yet is real. In attempting the control of electrical energy we begin to get on terms with the world-force on which the future of mankind - for construction or destruction - will depend. The objective of such (wireless) experiments as the Daily Mail has initiated and intends to continue is to enable this country to take the lead. The only safe place is in front.

(14) Hannen Swaffer was shocked when he saw how quickly Lord Northcliffe deteriorated in 1921.

His vitality had gone, his face was puffy. His chin was sunk, and his mouth had lost its firmness. He lost his temper during a speech, because someone dropped a plate or something. He was a different man. The fires that burned within him had burned too fiercely all those years. People who heard him knew it was the end.

(15) The anonymous author of the History of the Times: 1912-1948 described the work of Alfred Harmsworth.

The creator of Answers (1888), Comic Cuts (1890), Sunday Companion (1894), Home Chat (1895), the Daily Mail (1896), and the Daily Mirror (1903), the restorer of the Evening News, and the saviour of The Times, was unquestionably the greatest popular journalist of his time. To begin with, his technical capacities ranged widely. He had performed all the work of the editorial, advertising or layout man, and knew the uses and costs of copy, type, ink, paper and binding. Northcliffe was not an illiterate proprietor. He began as a writer, always liked writing, and was writing within six weeks of his death. Alfred Harmsworth was a journalist at the age of sixteen, a proprietor at twenty-two, a baronet at thirty-eight, a baron at forty, and a viscount at fifty.

(16) C. P. Scott, letter to Henry Nevinson (7th September, 1927)

Will you kindly write us a signed review of this book about Northcliffe. He would be important if only because his rise is the rise of the vast popular press. The tragedy of his life seems to me to lie in the fact that though he knew how to create the instruments not only of profit but of power he had not the least idea what to do with his power when he got it.

(17) Kingsley Martin, The New Statesman (January, 1932)

Every newspaper lives by appealing to a particular public. It can only go ahead of its times if it carries its public with it. Success in journalism depends on understanding the public. But success is of two kinds. Northcliffe had a genius for understanding his public and he used it for making money, not for winning permanent influence. He became a millionaire because he was his own most appreciative reader; he instinctively appealed in the most profitable way to the millions of men and women whose tastes and prejudices were the same as his own. He lived by flattering. He did not educate or change his public in any essential; he merely induced it to buy newspapers.