Article abstract: Beaverbrook created the most successful newspaper empire of his day and, in World War II, as minister of aircraft production, was greatly responsible for the victory in the Battle of Britain.
William Maxwell Aitken was born May 25, 1879, in Maple, Ontario, Canada, where his father was a Presbyterian minister, but the family soon moved to Newcastle, New Brunswick, where young Max grew up. His father, William Cuthbert Aitken, had emigrated from Scotland to pursue a ministerial career, and his mother, Jane Noble, Canadian by birth but also of Scottish ancestry, was the daughter of a storekeeper. Although later in life Aitken referred to his relatively poor background, in fact it was comfortably middle-class. He was the third of ten children. His was a happy childhood and Aitken early developed a reputation for mischief, something he kept throughout his life. He attended a local school but failed the Latin portion of his college entrance examinations and instead chose the law for a career.
It was business and finance, however, which brought Aitken his fortune. The early twentieth century was a period of economic expansion in Canada, and Aitken became successful in taking over companies, combining them with others, and using the profits to invest again and again. He soon had economic interests not only in Canada but also in the West Indies and was a millionaire before his thirtieth birthday. Aitken rarely became involved in the day-to-day operation of his companies. For him, the thrill and the reward of business were in the act of creation itself, with its challenge and excitement. He had little patience, became bored easily, and preferred the new to the old. Nevertheless, from a distance he watched his investments and rarely lost money.
In 1906, Aitken married Gladys Henderson, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a Canadian military officer. Aitken loved his wife, but not exclusively; he often left her alone, surrounded by luxury, as he pursued his business and other interests. They had three children, two boys and a girl. By 1910, Aitken had also acquired financial interests in Great Britain, and in that year the Aitkens moved to London. He never returned to Canada for any length of time.
For most individuals, Aitken’s financial and business successes would have been sufficient accomplishments, but not for him. In London, he became acquainted with a leading Conservative politician, Andrew Bonar Law, also a Canadian whose father had been a Presbyterian minister. Their relationship was initially financial but soon became political and personal; Bonar Law became Aitken’s hero. In December, 1910, with Bonar Law’s support, Aitken was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative; the following year, Aitken was granted a knighthood. Undoubtedly, his political successes were the result of his acquaintanceships and his money. In some circles, he had the reputation of being merely a Canadian adventurer and thus not quite proper, but he was generous to his friends and had a captivating personality which impressed not only Bonar Law but also such Liberal politicians as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. Aitken was of average height, five feet, nine inches, but because of his quickness, he often appeared smaller; when his eyes flashed and his smile spread all across his face, he seemed still a mischievous boy yet to grow up. He was always an apt subject for political cartoons.
Unlike Churchill, Aitken found the day-to-day political world boring, and he cared little about the political issues which divided the various parties. Aitken was more radical and less class-conscious than most British politicians of the day, but he opposed socialism and was very much the individualist who believed in capitalism. When World War I began, Aitken joined the Canadian army. He still retained his interest in making new mergers out of old firms, however, and thus became intimately involved in the political revolution of December, 1916, which saw Lloyd George replace H. H. Asquith as prime minister of the coalition government. In 1917, Aitken accepted a seat in the House of Lords as Lord Beaverbrook, a name he selected from a small river which flowed near his childhood home in New Brunswick. Later in the war, he became minister of information in Lloyd George’s government.
Although he had helped Lloyd George become prime minister, Beaverbrook had doubts about the continuation of the coalition into peacetime. In 1921 and 1922, many political discussions were held at Cherkley, Beaverbrook’s country home near London. Finally, in late 1922, Lloyd George fell and Bonar Law became prime minister. Unfortunately for Beaverbrook, Bonar Law died of cancer within a year, and the new Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin, distrusted Beaverbrook, who returned his sentiments.
During most of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Beaverbrook observed politics from the outside. Lloyd George’s political influence was over, and although Churchill served in the Baldwin government during the 1920’s, his relations with Beaverbrook lessened. Beaverbrook’s great energies, however, found new outlets. During the war, he had purchased, primarily for political reasons, the London Daily Express, a successful newspaper in financial difficulty. In 1919, Beaverbrook began the Sunday Express, and a few years later he acquired the London Evening Standard. He had become one of the leading newspaper barons on Fleet Street. In the late nineteenth century, Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, had founded, in his Daily Mail, a new style of journalism, addressed to the middle and lower classes rather than the traditional establishment, and whose function was to entertain rather than simply inform; the Daily Mail was exciting and it was cheap and had many readers. Beaverbrook followed the path earlier trod by Northcliffe but with a difference. The Daily Express was not directed to any particular portion of the British population but was rather Great Britain’s first...
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