||Alfred Charles William Harmsworth was born in Sunnybank, Ireland on July 15, 1865 to Alfred Harmsworth and Geraldine Mary. The family had an Anglo-Irish background, but they moved to London two years after Alfred was born and then subsequently moved from St. John’s Wood to Hampstead for financial reasons. He married Mary Milner, despite his mother’s disapproval, on April 11, 1888. Alfred Charles William Harmsworth became the Viscount Northcliffe and was a journalist and newspaper proprietor who launched the Daily Mail. He is remembered as a giant on Fleet Street and a pioneer of modern journalism
After studying at Stamford grammar school in Lincolnshire in 1876, Harmsworth went to the Henley House School in Hampstead in 1878 and developed his interested in journalism when he began publishing the school magazine. Harmsworth then had to turn to journalism to earn an income because of his father’s alcoholism. By 1880 he was reporting occasionally for the Hampstead and Highgate Express, as well as the The Cyclist, Wheeling, and The Globe. He also began writing for a few boys’ and girl’s papers published by James Henderson, Harmsworth’s first journalistic sponsor.
During a continental tour with E. V. R. Powys, Harmsworth impregnated a maidservant and was forced by his mother to leave the family home and take up his own lodgings. His illegitimate son, Alfred Benjamin Smith, was raised by his grandmother. Harmsworth moved in to the Template at 6 Pump Court and abandoned his ideas of going to Cambridge, instead turning fully to journalism.
Harmsworth wrote for The Globe, Morning Post, St. James’s Gazette, various publications for Cassell & Co., and for George Newnes. During his freelance work, Harmsworth saw an increasing need for publications more about daily life and less about society. At the age of nineteen, Harmsworth began editing Youth. In 1885, he had to take a break from London and move to Coventry due to a bout of pneumonia. While in Coventry, he worked for the publishing house Iliffe & Sons, which owned the Midland Daily Telegraphy and Bicycling News. Harsmworth also maintained contact with George Newnes in London, writing two books: One Thousand Ways to Earn a Living and All about Railways. Before reaching the age of 21, the Iliffe firm offered him a partnership, but by then he had recovered his health and established some savings so he instead returned to London in 1887.
Given his experience and financial capitol, Harmsworth decided to found his own newspaper business at 26 Paternoster Square. He issued many magazines, including the popular Answers to Correspondents. He launched Comic Cats in 1890, a pictorial magazine aimed at adults. His brother, Harold Harmsworth, joined the business and two successfully built up Amalgamated Press Company, which was soon making £50,000 a year, with Answers to Correspondents selling over 1,000,000 copies a week.
Technological and social developments encouraged a shift towards popular publishing, with catchy headlines, shorter content, and human interest stories. The Harmsworth brothers were at the forefront of this wave with magazines such as Boys’ Home Journal, Marvel, Boys’ Friend, Home Sweet Home, and Home Chat. By 1892 their firm had the highest weekly sales figure of any magazine company in the world. They moved into daily journalism in 1894 when they bought the derelict Evening News at the urging of William Kennedy Jones. They made the newspaper profitable with Kennedy Jones’s help. After an unsuccessful run for a Unionist candidate for Portsmouth in 1895, Harmsworth refocused his energies on journalism, founding the Daily Mail on May 4, 1896.
The Daily Mail was intended to be a paper for the lower middle classes, the clerks, and other City workers to read on their commutes. Harmsworth put a lot of thought into developing the Mail, from layout design to improving distribution to testing dummy runs of the paper. Harmsworth had a clear sense of reader needs and how to meet them. The first issue sold 387, 213 copies. Sales peaked in 1900 at 989,255 and never fell below 713,000. He established a telegraphic link between London and New York in 1897 and then in 1898 a wire from his firm’s headquarters in London to Valentia Island off the Irish coast. Harmsworth established a Manchester office in 1902, with a coding system that could telegraph letterpress, headings, and positions between London and Manchester. That same year, the firm moved to Carmelite House, which allowed for the setup of cost-saving printing measures that allowed Harmsworth to sell the Mail for half the price of his competitors. He also arranged a telegraph between the Mail in London and Le Journal in Paris.
On November 2, 1903, Harmsworth expanded his business with the launch of the Daily Mirror, a women’s paper with an all-female staff. Initially this paper failed, but recovered in January 1904 with the relaunch of the Illustrated Daily Mirror.
Harmsworth gained a national reputation that was acknowledged when he was made a baronet on June 23, 1904. On December 9, 1905 he accepted a peerage, receiving the title of Baron Northcliffe of the Isle of Thanet.
While Harmsworth excelled at popular journalism, he once again expanded by adding The Observer to his Associated Newspapers group in 1905. He quarreled with the editor, J.L. Garvin, and sold The Observer to Waldorf Astor in1912. However, Harmsworth still desired a quality newspaper and, on March 16, 1908, bought The Times for £320,000. Harmsworth’s interests in technology also continued; in 1905, he purchased 3100 square miles of territory to found the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company, which produced wood pulp for his newspapers.
After 1900, Harmsworth and his wife grew apart. Harmsworth had a regular mistress, Kathleen Wrohan, with whom he had three children. The couple had two sons and one daughter and Harmsworth provided for all of them. Harmsworth took up with a second mistress, his secretary Louise Owen, in 1902 and also had an affair with the novelist Baroness Betty von Hutten.
Harmsworth had a fair amount of political power because politicians understood the important link between politics and the press. Harmsworth’s politics arose strongly during the First World War, where he put forward his patriotic stance. He supported Lord Robert’s idea of a national service league and lobbied MPs, including Winston Churchill, about the German threat.
In August 1914, Harmsworth did not want to send soldiers to Europe, instead advocating for the allied cause. He framed the Daily Mail as the paper that foretold the war and advocated for soldier’s interests. The Mail offered to pay for letters sent by soldiers to their families. He also campaigned against official secrecy. In April 1915 he showed that the British offensive at Festubert was greatly impeded by the lack of high explosive shells. While the publication of this story led to a dip in sales, it also contributed to subsequent government restructuring. Harmsworth’s political maneuvers are also suspected of contributing to the replacement of H.H. Asquith with David Lloyd George as prime minister. An article written by The Times on December 4, 1916 outlined the details of a war council proposed by Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law that would sideline the prime minister. While the effect of this article is unclear, at the time it enhanced Harmsworth’s reputation and political influence.
While certainly wielding political power, Harmsworth prided himself on his nonpartisanship. He had enough financial success to work independently of the interests of any particular party, which separated him from other newspapers. He tried to maintain independence from the new administration, but he also held several posts. He went to the United States in May 1917 as the head of the British war mission. He also served as director of propaganda in enemy countries in February 1918.
After the war, Lloyd George asked for Harmsworth’s support in the upcoming election, which Harmsworth did not give. Harmsworth then published ‘From war to peace’ in the Daily Mail on November 4, 1918, which appeared to be a bid for a seat at the Versailles peace conference. Lloyd George did not take kindly to this article and denounced Harmsworth in the House of Commons on April 16, 1919. Lloyd George implied that Harmsworth was suffering from mental illness and rumours of insanity spread.
In the last years of his life, Harmsworth’s health declined. He continued to campaign for various causes through his newspapers, albeit with limited success. He did have some success advocating for new technology, specifically the wireless radio and air travel. He went on a world cruise in the summer of 1921 and returned more unwell in February 1922. He had Streptococcus, a blood infection that damaged his brain and heart causing his behavior to become increasingly erratic. From 1922 until 1954, when it was disproved, there was a rumour that Harmsworth was suffering from syphilis.
Harmsworth died on August 14, 1922 at his home in London. His funeral was held at Westminster Abbey and he was buried at North Finchley, Middlesex on August 16. He had two requests upon his death: to be buried near his mother with a simple tombstone featuring only his name and the years of his birth and death. The second was to receive a page-long obituary in The Times written by the top journalist at the time of his death. In his will he gave his six thousand employees three additional months of salary as a bonus.