Harmsworth, Alfred Charles William (1865–1922), Viscount Northcliffe , journalist and newspaper proprietor, was born 15 July 1865 at Chapelizod, Co. Dublin, eldest among seven sons and three daughters of Alfred Harmsworth, teacher and later barrister, of London, and Geraldine Harmsworth (qv) (née Maffett) of Dublin. When he was two the family moved to London to facilitate his father's career change, and he attended from 1876 Stamford Grammar School and from 1878 Henley House. An omnivorous reader with a precocious interest in journalism, at fifteen he founded the Henley House Magazine. Because of his father's alcoholism and his family's poverty, by 1880 he had left school and was reporting for the Hampstead and Highgate Express and writing for the Cyclist, the Globe, and several children's papers, as well as (from 1882) numerous other publications including the Morning Post and the St James's Gazette; at 19 he was editor of Youth. Having impregnated a maid, Louisa Smith (whose son Alfred he would support and give employment to), he had been expelled at sixteen from the noisy home where he had effortlessly dominated his ten siblings.
In 1887, having worked for a Coventry publishing house, written two books (One thousand ways to earn a living and All about our railways), and saved £1,000, Harmsworth returned to London to found a newspaper business in London, with the intention of reaching a hitherto neglected potential readership of women and the literate working class. Against his mother's advice – for she feared he would be as poor as his feckless father – on 11 April 1888 her stunningly handsome son (his nickname was ‘Adonis’) married the beautiful Mary Elizabeth Milner, a merchant's daughter well above him socially; two months later, with his wife's help, he launched the wildly popular Answers to Correspondents. His ambition to be rich was strengthened by his father's death (1889) and his determination to give his adored mother (whom he saw or wrote to daily) every possible material comfort. By 1892, in partnership with his brother Harold, whose astonishing financial acumen complemented Alfred's unique publishing vision, the Amalgamated Press Co., with over one million weekly, had bigger sales than any magazine company in the world; their empire flourished with such publications as Magnet and Home Chat.
In 1894 the Harmsworths (assisted by brothers Leicester, Cecil (see below), and Hildebrand) bought and revived the Evening News and in 1896 launched the Daily Mail – an instant success because of its sheer readability and the intelligent use of new technology. With energy and élan, Harmsworth edited the paper for its first three years, employing young journalists whose populist style of flamboyant sensationalism, along with the paper's low price, brought mass circulation among a previously untapped readership; there was even a women's page. Its beliefs reflected his on most issues, and, crucially, the paper did not just report the news but embarked on a series of campaigns on such matters as fire brigades and trams. Vibrant and innovative, it led the field in encouraging great scientific developments of the time through its prizes for feats of motoring and later aviation; a pioneering motorist himself, Harmsworth had used early editions of the Daily Mail to predict a transport revolution.
The Daily Mirror failed when it was launched in 1903 as an all-female enterprise, but succeeded triumphantly in 1904 when revamped as an illustrated paper. The Observer was acquired in 1905 by the Harmsworths’ Associated Newspapers, but sold in 1912 because of differences of opinion with its editor, J. L. Garvin, but Harmsworth's acquisition of The Times in 1908 and his innovative management (which included potentially ruinous price-cutting) would secure its future. A baronet in 1904, he became Baron Northcliffe of the Isle of Thanet in 1905 and a viscount in 1917. (His brother Harold would deservedly in time become a viscount, and he, or Alfred, or both, helped to have their brother Cecil made a baron, Leicester and Hildebrand made baronets, and their brother-in-law Lucas White King (qv) a knight.)
The comment of Harmsworth's acute and disconcerting mother on his triumphant announcement that he had acquired The Times was: ‘I'm sorry, Alfred. You have lost your horizon’ (Taylor, 91). He would seek a further one as a shaper of public affairs. He had shown in the Mail – particularly in its harsh criticisms of political and military failures in the 1899–1902 South African war – that he saw himself as an independent, incorruptible crusader for the common man and the interests of the British empire. He had warned since 1897 that Germany was a threat, and from the outbreak of the first world war the bellicose, fearless colossus (or Napoleon, as he thought of himself) of Fleet Street would become the major domestic challenge to government and generals. His passionate dedication to the interests of soldiers was infused with a terrible anger at the conditions he saw on his many visits to the front line as a reporter. Additionally, for he was devoted to the children of his siblings (his room at The Times had a cupboard full of toys), there was his intense grief at the deaths in war of his sister Geraldine's son, Luke, and Harold's sons Vere and Vyvyan, and the terrible mutilation of Leicester's son Alfred, as well as the drowning of Geraldine's youngest son in 1918 when a German submarine torpedoed the Leinster.
The Northcliffe press's justified assaults on the secretary for war, Lord Kitchener (qv), for his failure to provide the army with the right kinds of shell, precipitated a cabinet crisis in May 1915 that ended with the prime minister, Asquith, appointing Lloyd George as minister of munitions and bringing members of the opposition into government. Northcliffe's savage criticism of incompetent government did not let up: ‘The British empire has had the greatest stroke of luck in its history. Kitchener is dead – drowned at sea’, he announced triumphantly to his mother in June 1916 (King, 58), and following another harrowing visit to war zones that summer, he intensified his press campaign against Asquith, whom he thought incompetent and indecisive. There were many who believed he was chiefly responsible for having Asquith replaced by Lloyd George that December.
Northcliffe never thought of himself as an Irishman, although oddly his two chief mistresses, Mrs Kathleen Wrohan (mother of Alfred, Geraldine, and Harold) and Louise Owen, were Irish and he stayed in touch with relatives there and bought Sunnybank, the house in which he had been born. Still, though he looked at Ireland from the vantage point of empire, and believed its problems would be solved by economic not political developments, he had to take account of the inflexible Ulster unionism of his mother, who was his greatest influence. Initially he regarded home rule as dangerous, but wrote disapprovingly in July 1912 of ‘the violent Ulster language of Bonar Law, Carson and others’ (Thompson, 210), which his Ulster relatives also deplored. Fearing civil war, he travelled around Ulster in July 1914 to view the covenanters; ‘I have seen enough of the drilling of these auspicious and determined Scotch and English Irish to know that they cannot be put down’, he wrote to his mother (Pound & Harmsworth, 456). ‘Northcliffe has ‘been “doing” Ulster, & is much struck with the Covenanters, whom he regards . . . as a very formidable tho’ most unattractive crew’ (Thompson, 218), reported Asquith, who loathed Northcliffe, but nonetheless prevailed on him to temper somewhat his criticisms of government policy. Northcliffe's preoccupation with the war left him little time to contemplate Ireland until the Easter rebellion pushed it centre stage and he and Lloyd George made common cause: it was Northcliffe who advised Joe Devlin (qv), the West Belfast MP, to propose Lloyd George as negotiator.
A great admirer of William Martin Murphy (qv), Northcliffe invited him to London, as he believed that ‘if he and I got together we could settle this damnable business; but it needs to be settled now, otherwise the hotheads will get to work, both in Ulster and elsewhere’ (Pound & Harmsworth, 500). Much to Northcliffe's disappointment, Murphy remained obdurately opposed to any form of compromise, and Northcliffe went back to fighting the bigger war. Maintaining his independence by refusing to enter government, he did a stint as head of the British war mission in the US from May 1917 and, from February 1918, was director of propaganda in enemy countries – appointments which Lloyd George hoped inter alia would keep Northcliffe busy and out of the country. Post-war, they were at loggerheads, with Lloyd George finally responding to Northcliffe's incessant demands for a more punitive policy towards Germany by denouncing in April 1919 in the commons his ‘diseased vanity’ and tapping his head to imply mental illness.
Northcliffe made sporadic efforts to settle the Irish question, which he believed could be resolved by a form of dominion home rule. In March 1917, in a St Patrick's day speech at the London Irish Club (published as The remaking of Ireland), a venue chosen because he believed it a waste of time to talk to those with whom one agreed, he criticised Britain's bad management of Ireland and offered to broker an agreed solution between north and south that would bring industrialisation and prosperity to the whole island. In July 1919 The Times suggested a complex deal, devised by its proprietor, which involved partitioning Ireland, with two legislatures and executives, either of which could veto legislation passed by a joint all-Ireland parliament; some MPs and peers would continue to sit at Westminster, which would still have power in areas such as defence and foreign policy. (It was very similar to the plan proposed by Lloyd George five months later.) A rumour that he was to be lord lieutenant of Ireland elicited the response: ‘Does any human being imagine that I would compromise my power and independence by a footman's job like that?’ (Thompson, 330).
In November 1920, in an interview with a French journal, Northcliffe regretted the state of war that existed in Ireland, said that a military victory would provoke bitterness in Irish communities in the US, Canada, and Australia, and hoped for a settlement that would be acceptable to the ‘vast body of moderate Sinn Feiners’ (Thompson, 340). His evolving opinions were mirrored in The Times; savage criticism of Black and Tan reprisals led to death-threats and accusations of being pro-Sinn Féin. Yet what was driving him was concern for Britain's reputation abroad. To Hamar Greenwood (qv) in March 1921 he ‘suggested that hanging six young men at intervals of two hours on the same day was hardly good propaganda in view of our great difficulty with the United States’. His response to the explanation that executions had to be arranged to suit the English hangman's convenience was to write: ‘Thus we are governed’ (Thompson, 347–8). George V's address in Belfast in June 1921 calling for forbearance, conciliation, and forgiveness received such strong support from both The Times and the Mail that the king sent Northcliffe a letter of thanks. Even from China, he kept in touch with the treaty negotiations and warned against a government surrender, while dealing with maternal protests at the suggestion that Ulster and Bonar Law be reasonable; his overriding concern remained that a permanent solution be found that would benefit the empire, Anglo–American relations, and Ireland – in that order.
Almost burned out by his fifties, his appearance degenerating, and plagued with poor health, Northcliffe went on a world cruise in July 1921, returning in February with what proved to be malignant endocarditis – terminal blood poisoning. His last months were terrible, for his brain was affected, his conduct unpredictable and often appalling, and he was rumoured to be mad with megalomania and/or dying of syphilis – popular diagnoses that were not definitively contradicted until 1954. He died 14 August 1922, and tens of thousands watched his cortège as it travelled from the grand funeral service in Westminster abbey to the St Marylebone cemetery in Finchley, Middlesex. At his request the next plot was reserved for his mother, for he was estranged from his wife and had no legitimate children.
As a newspaperman, Northcliffe was an unmatched genius and technological revolutionary who took the press to the people; because of his high standards and his financial generosity, he greatly elevated the status of journalists; as a public figure, right or wrong, he was a ruthless and often bullying warrior for what he saw as the interests of his country, its empire, and his fellow citizens; as a private man he was witty, able to make fun of himself, decent, and financially generous to his family, his mistresses, his illegitimate children, and his friends. It was to be his brother Harold, Viscount Rothermere, who would create the dynasty that controls Associated Newspapers and who would pay out of his own pocket many of the bequests – including three months’ salary to all his employees – that had exceeded the £2,000,000 left by his brother and caused the break-up of his estate.
Northcliffe's brother Cecil Bisshop Harmsworth (1869–1948), 1st Baron Harmsworth , politician, was born 28 September 1869 and went to TCD in 1886 from the Philological School in Marylebone Road, London, with enough financial assistance from a friend of his father's to enable him just to survive; he became senior moderator in modern literature and Stewart scholar in literature, but on graduating joined his brother's business. Long on modesty and manners (Alfred called him ‘the gentleman of our family’) and short on ambition, he was a contented editor of Answers. He married (28 April 1897) Emilie Alberta, twelfth child and fourth daughter of his mother's half-brother William Hamilton Maffett of St Helena, Finglas, Dublin, and had five children. A Liberal MP (1906–10, 1911–22) and popular in the commons, the peak of his political career was as under-secretary of state for foreign affairs in 1919 and British member of the council of the League of Nations in 1922; Chamberlain gave him a peerage in 1939 at Rothermere's request. Always interested in and active in matters pertaining to Ireland, he was much involved with Northcliffe's Irish initiatives (about which he wrote in his diary), was his go-between with William Martin Murphy, had property and business interests in Ireland, and was a member of the University Club. He died 13 August 1948.
Among the many likenesses of Northcliffe are portraits by P. A. de Laszlo in the National Portrait Gallery, London (1911), and by John Lavery (qv) in Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane (1921), a posthumous bust by Lady Hilton Young at St Dunstan's in the West, Fleet St., London, and several photographs in Pound & Harmsworth, which also has two featuring Cecil.