Harmsworth, Geraldine Mary (1838–1925), matriarch, was born 24 December 1838 in Dublin, fifth child and daughter among eight children of William Maffett of Co. Down and Dublin, and his second wife, Margaret (née Finlayson) of Dublin, whom he had married in 1831. By his first marriage (1809), to Margaret Crooks of Co. Tyrone, he had had three children who survived infancy, and several grandchildren. Geraldine's political loyalties, uncompromising values, implacable integrity, strength of character, and disconcerting candour and forthrightness, would owe much to her parents’ Ulster-Scots presbyterian stock, although her religious affiliation was anglican.
Maffett, a grocer's errand-boy turned harsh and hard-bargaining land agent, was a disciplinarian at home, but not ungenerous. In the large family house at 27 Pembroke Place (latterly Pembroke Road), music was the main amusement. Geraldine was a good singer and piano player who memorised many of the operas she heard in Dublin. As well as French and German governesses, who helped the children moderate their Irish accents, there were trips to England, where Geraldine visited the Great Exhibition and witnessed the duke of Wellington (qv) mounting his white horse outside Apsley House, and Madame Tussaud taking money at her waxworks show. The two boys joined the British army; one sister married a TCD professor of German, one a solicitor.
In 1862 the plump, pretty, auburn-haired Geraldine, who was now living in a house called St Helena in Finglas, attracted and fell in love with the handsome Alfred Harmsworth, son of a London greengrocer-cum-small-builder, then fourth master at the Royal Hibernian Military School in Phoenix Park; she described him as the brains of their relationship and herself as the ballast, and – herself prone to social diffidence, nervousness, and depression – she delighted in the laughter, affability, and romantic imagination that contrasted with the dullness and worthiness of her family. Since Harmsworth had neither money nor obvious prospects, Geraldine concluded he needed ‘stirring up’ (Pound & Harmsworth, 12) and decided that he should become a barrister; his humour and brilliance as a talker so charmed William Maffett that he not only permitted Harmsworth to marry Geraldine, but threatened to disinherit any of the many disapproving relatives if they boycotted the ceremony because they believed she was marrying beneath her. Their wedding was in St Stephen's church, Dublin, on 22 September 1864; William Maffett died in 1865, leaving a complicated will that would ultimately benefit lawyers more than his large and fractious family.
In 1864, already reading for the Irish bar, Harmsworth was admitted as a student of the Middle Temple. Alfred Charles William (later Viscount Northcliffe (qv)), the first and most remarkable of the fourteen Harmsworth children, was born on 15 July 1865 in Sunnybank, their little Georgian house on the banks of the Liffey at Chapelizod. Geraldine Adelaide Hamilton (who would marry Lucas White King (qv) and give birth to Cecil King (qv)) followed in 1866. With little prospect of financial help from family, Geraldine decided they must move to London, their departure accelerated by a rumour that – as an Englishman teaching at a military school – Harmsworth was a Fenian target. Ever attracted by romance and drama, he wrote in his diary: ‘Reading law with my sword on my knee. Dieu nous garde’ (Pound & Harmsworth, 15). Geraldine ‘left her native land with anything but a heavy heart. Loyal in sentiment to her Ulster connections, she had no great love for Ireland, holding the over-simplified view that the North was constructive and the South destructive’ (Pound & Harmsworth, 15). Having taken refuge with relatives successively in Dublin, Armagh, and Belfast, they left for London in March 1867.
Pleasant, unambitious, convivial, and a hard drinker, Harmsworth nonetheless was called to both the Irish and English bars. He was popular and clever, had great presence, and was the eloquent star of the Sylvan Debating Club, which he founded, but he was too indolent, melancholy, dreamy, and increasingly an alcoholic to do more than scratch a living; the family had to move to ever cheaper houses around north London, where Geraldine – untrained in domestic skills – struggled to keep up middle-class appearances: children wore reach-me-down clothes, toddlers were wrapped in newspapers on cold nights, and babies slept in a drawer. She was no better than her husband at dealing with grinding poverty. Occasionally, she escaped domestic drudgery by participating in public readings from Shakespeare and Dickens.
Three children died in infancy; in addition to Alfred and Geraldine Adelaide, the survivors were Harold Sidney (later the enormously rich Viscount Rothermere and founder of a newspaper dynasty), born 1868; Cecil Bisshop King (qv) (later MA, TCD, a Liberal MP, under-secretary for foreign affairs, and Baron Harmsworth, who married a Dublin cousin, Emilie Alberta Maffett), born 1869; Robert Leicester (later owner of the Darracq car company, Liberal MP, provincial newspaper proprietor, book and art collector, and baronet), born 1870; Hildebrand Aubrey (later a newspaper executive, investor, and baronet)), born 1872, Violet Grace (later Mrs Wilfred Wild), born 1873; Charles (who had an intellectual disability), born 1874; William Albert St John (who would make a fortune from Perrier water), born 1876; Christabel Rose (later Mrs Percy Burton), born 1880; and Vyvyan George (later a gentleman of leisure), born 1881. Harmsworth died of cirrhosis of the liver and possibly throat cancer in 1889, at 52, still adored by Geraldine, who – though always dutiful – showed little joy in her children, though she took some grim satisfaction from their exceptional handsomeness: ‘If you can get good looks,’ she said once, ‘then you have something’ (Taylor, 1).
By now young Alfred had founded his first paper and married above him. He had early shown his mettle: informed by his mother that ‘those who ask shan't have, and those who don't ask won't get,’ he is alleged to have replied ‘Yes, Mother, but I take’ (Ferris, 21). Their relationship survived his being expelled from the house at the age of 16 for getting a maid pregnant. For the rest of his life, Alfred would demonstrate towards his mother a devotion so intense as to be generally thought morbid. Yet it was his closeness to her that gave him early a sympathy with and understanding of women that was to help make his fortune.
Aged 24 when his father died, Alfred was determined that the family would prosper and their mother be as happy as possible: brothers Harold, Leicester, Cecil, and Hildebrand joined him in the newspaper business and within a couple of years they were rich. Alfred gave his stout, red-cheeked, serious mother a house in Maida Vale and then a fine mansion at 2 Cumberland Place, Marble Arch; her carriage had liveried servants. In 1897, after the success of his Daily Mail – launched in 1896 – for £9,000 he and Harold bought her Poynters Hall at Totteridge, a Queen Anne mansion with thirty-five acres laid out by Capability Brown; her income included £6,000 a year from Alfred. In 1902 Alfred reported that she had made ‘the modest demand for “more freehold” for an Xmas and birthday gift’ (Edwards, 11).
Geraldine Harmsworth's matriarchal writ was unchallenged: her well-staffed, but economical and teetotal residence was the focal point for her children and most of her thirty-seven legitimate grandchildren for the rest of her life. (If she knew of Alfred's three illegitimate children by Kathleen Wrohan, one of whom was named after her, she did not discuss them.) Rolls-Royces arrived regularly, with their inmates on their best behaviour; daughters-in-law were often found wanting in breeding or character or care for their children, and in front of grandchildren she once ordered the great Lord Northcliffe to leave the drawing-room because she ‘would not have such talk’. He left, of course (King, 63).
Enid Stokes (née King), the grandchild who knew her best, recalled that Geraldine ‘had a tremendous fund of good sense and good judgement and though [she was] nervous, I have never met anyone who could give such a formidable impression of unchanging strength, deep affection and earthy wisdom. She was a rock to which all her family clung, especially her sons’ (Edwards, 5–6). President Theodore Roosevelt, it was said, ‘had formed a high opinion of her capacity’ (Times, 31 Aug. 1925) when in October 1908 he entertained her, Alfred, and Lady Northcliffe at the White House. Geraldine refused to visit Washington's tomb at Mount Vernon, as ‘she would not pay tribute to a rebel’ (Thompson, 157).
Because of Alfred's genius and his generosity towards his siblings, all Geraldine's progeny were prosperous and several very successful. As the founder of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, and owner from 1905 to 1912 of the Observer and from 1908 of The Times, Harmsworth was a man of enormous influence and power. Although he was married, and attentive to mistresses and illegitimate children, his mother was first in his life; he usually wrote to her at least once daily when abroad (where he kept his watch on ‘Totteridge time’ (Ferris, 203)), visited her daily when in London, and often stayed overnight in the room next to hers; he frequently signed letters ‘Your Firstborn’; and his newspaper headquarters in Fetter Lane were called ‘Geraldine House’.
Although he was desperate for his undemonstrative mother's approval, Northcliffe was sufficiently robust to withstand such uncompromisingly honest telegrams as ‘Alfred, I cannot make up my mind which of your papers is the more vulgar this morning’ (Pound & Harmsworth, 819), yet her influence was to be seen on, for instance, his newspapers’ attitude to Ulster, for which Northcliffe – whose loyalty was to the British empire – had no particular feeling: ‘All your papers are supporting coercion of Ulster’, read her telegram to him in early December 1921. ‘Do you approve? Very anxious and concerned. Reply. Mother.’ From Indonesia Northcliffe responded (‘very disturbed by your Ulster message most darling one . . .’) with a flurry of telegrams; Rothermere was charged with reassuring her that she had misunderstood (Thompson, 371). Her son Cecil, then at the foreign office, recorded that representatives of The Times called on him to report that she had summoned them to her house and given them a piece of her mind. Northcliffe, he explained to them, had always said he would brook no interference from anywhere where that newspaper was concerned, ‘but, I said, the Old Lady of Totteridge was in a category apart, the only human being to whom Northcliffe yielded his opinion’ (Pound & Harmsworth, 819). He recommended that they soften their tone as she had instructed. ‘This was accordingly done.’
When Alfred died in 1922, Geraldine reacted with her customary reserve, repeating constantly: ‘It is the Lord's will, it is the Lord's will’ (Ferris, 285). He left her 8 per cent of his £2,000,000 fortune: in 1924 she and Rothermere gave a £60,000 endowment to the Middle Temple in memory of her husband, the unsuccessful barrister. She died 29 August 1925 and was buried beside her eldest son in St Marylebone cemetery, Finchley, as he had requested. In 1926, for £155,000, Rothermere bought the fifteen-acre site of Royal Bethlehem Hospital beside the Imperial War Museum and turned it into Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park.
‘As often happens with the mothers of men who achieve success in life, she was herself a woman of personality, courage and practical ability’, observed her Times obituary. Observing that she ‘remained unswervingly loyal to the cause of Northern Ireland’, it concluded that she ‘possessed in full measure the tenacity and consistency of purpose of the people of Ulster’. In the view of her family, she was the person who made their success possible: as her great-grandson, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere put it: ‘She ruled them all . . . to release all their energy, they needed to have a firm emotional anchor; there's simply no firmer an emotional anchor than a strong mother’ (Taylor, 8). Photographs of her, dating from 1864, 1867, and 1921, are reproduced in Pound & Harmsworth.