William Maxwell ‘Max’ Aitken, First Baron Beaverbrook Bt, PC
William Maxwell Aitken, the first Lord Beaverbrook, effortlessly traversed the worlds of politics, finance and newspapers, revolutionising them – with not so much as a backward glance – as he did so. Imbued with a small fortune, great restlessness and energy, and an unswerving belief in the British Empire, he moved, as a young man, from his native Canada to London.
There, within a few years, he had propelled himself into Parliament and had acquired the majority shareholding in the Daily Express and the Evening Standard. He quickly gained the reputation of a fearless political fixer, (a reputation, it must be admitted, that was at times unfounded), and he was one of only three men to serve in the Cabinet in both Wars.
Aitken revelled in his position as an outsider: ostentatiously keeping his Canadian drawl, largely disdaining overtures of two British monarchs, and enjoying his image as a master of intrigue and mischief maker par excellence.
For nearly half a century, when cabinets fell and finance houses collapsed, the whisper across England would always be the same: Where is Max Beaverbrook?
|25 May 1879||Birth in Maple, Ontario|
|1910 to 1916||Member of Parliament for Ashton-under-Lyne|
|1917||Granted Peerage of the United Kingdom: Baron Beaverbrook|
|1918||Minister of Information|
|1918||Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster|
|1940-1941||Minister of Aircraft Production|
|1941-1942||Minister of Supply|
|1942||Minister of War Production|
|1943-1945||Lord Privy Seal|
|9 June 1964||Death at Cherkley Court, Leatherhead, Surrey|
|Gladys Henderson Drury (1906-1927)|
|Marcia Anastasia Christoforides, Lady Dunn(1963-1964)|
|He had three children from his marriage to Gladys Drury:|
|Janet Gladys Aitken|
|Sir John William Maxwell Aitken|
|Peter Rudyard Aitken|
The Early Years
Aitken was born on 25th May 1879, the fifth child of William Aitken, a dignified and devout Presbyterian preacher of Scottish extraction. He spent his early childhood in the frontier town of Newcastle, New Brunswick, Canada. Later in life he would recall the hardship of his early years. But this was an undoubted exaggeration: though by no means rich, the Aitken family were able to live comfortably in their Canadian provincial backwater.
Young Max attended high school where he showed early signs of an ability to make trouble, and tried and failed to gain entry into Dalhousie University. Moving away from his family, he studied to become a lawyer, and helped another aspiring barrister Richard Bedford Bennett, (who later became Prime Minister of Canada), to gain election to the Legislative Assembly of the North West Territories.
He moved again to Halifax, where charm and some luck brought him to the attention of the dominant business family, who employed him to sell bonds on commission. In 1904 John F Stairs opened the newly formed Royal Securities Corporation; Aitken became a minority shareholder and the company’s general manager. Quickly gaining confidence he engineered a number of increasingly large business deals and began setting up companies, with interests as far wide as the Caribbean and England.
By 1906, by his own reckoning, he was worth $700,000. He continued to manipulate the markets and create mergers – of which the largest and perhaps most lucrative was the Canadian cement merger – drawing censure on more than one occasion from the Canadian authorities. It is said that there were irregularities in the stock transfer resulting from the conglomeration of the cement plants. Aitken sold his shares, making a large amount of money; and then left for England. Some say that had he stayed in Canada he would have been charged with securities fraud.
Introduction To Politics
It was to London that Aitken arrived in the spring of 1910, ostensibly to raise capital for the acquisition of a steel company. But it was to politics that he turned. He had met Bonar Law through business; their friendship grew quickly through a mutual belief in tariff reform. To beat such a drum, Aitken needed a parliamentary seat and with the help of Bonar Law and the lesser known politician Edward Goulding, he found candidacy as a Conservative, and then election, in Ashton-under-Lyme, in Manchester.
It was a remarkably swift entry to the Commons, and one that did not go unnoticed. 'Who is Mr Aitken?,' enquired the Daily Mail. It was a question that was to be repeated when Aitken, months later, accepted a knighthood in the 1911 Coronation honours. The party coffers had certainly grown since his arrival, if, so far, his reputation had not. His appearances in the Commons were brief and uninspiring, but investigations into his businesses in Canada precluded his return there for the moment. It was not for nothing that Lady Diana Cooper would later address her letters to 'Dear Lord Crooks'.
Aitken had always harboured an attraction to the world of journalism since he had delivered newspapers as a small boy. He had acquired a magazine in Canada, the ‘Canadian Century’, which did little more than limp along; the absence of the proprietor, it can be assumed, was keenly felt.
From 1911 he made overtures to buy the Daily Express in London, slowly increasing his stake in the newspaper from that year onwards. By 1916, through a slow process of incrementalism, he owned the paper outright, though he did little to trumpet the fact, and few for the moment knew that he owned the largest shareholding.
Victory for Aitken in the contest for control of the paper drew a sad contrast to the struggles of his adopted country on the battlefields of France. Asquith's cabinet by 1916 was riven by the fissures in the wider Liberal party; every day that the war continued his reputation as an ineffective leader grew larger.
Opportunities were open. Here, behind the scenes, Aitken manoeuvred relentlessly, first promoting his old friend Bonar Law and then conspiring to bring Lloyd George and Bonar Law together into an anti-Asquith cabal. There was much to-ing and fro-ing from his rooms at the Hyde Park Hotel. On 5th December, Asquith resigned; on the 7th, Lloyd George became Prime Minister with Bonar Law at his side.
On 9th December, 1917 Aitken was offered a peerage. If he had not exactly placed Asquith's head on the block, he had certainly been instrumental in bringing him to trial. Sir Max accepted the peerage, ignoring the King's objections.
The Morning Post proposed that he should call himself Lord Bunty, after a popular play called ‘Bunty Pulls the Strings’, a satirical if not altogether unfair, reflection on recent events. Instead, he chose the title Beaverbrook, not – as was romantically put about – because it had been a stream near New Brunswick where he had fished as a boy; but, because, more prosaically, he had found it on a map.
The 1920s and 1930s established Beaverbrook's reputation as a brilliant exponent of crusader politics. He had, of course, won appointment in the last months of the war as the first ever Minister of Information responsible for Allied propaganda in Allied and neutral countries; and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but a series of rows with Lloyd George led to his resignation.
It was therefore the pages of the Daily Express and the running of that newspaper, which felt the full force of his boundless energy. After the fall of Lloyd George, he used it to support Bonar Law in his successful attempt to become Prime Minister: a pyrrhic victory as within months Bonar Law was dead.
More satisfying were the huge rises in circulation both in the Daily Express and Sunday Express, which had been set up in December 1918, (and to a lesser extent in the Evening Standard which he acquired in 1923.) In 1919, the Daily Express sold 400,000 copies a day; by 1938 some 2,329,000 and, much later, by 1960, the astonishing figure of 4,300,000, making it the largest ever selling British newspaper.
It will be for his role as a pioneer of newspapers and for his ability to form public opinion that Beaverbrook will be ultimately remembered. In the 1930s, while personally attempting to dissuade King Edward VIII from continuing his potentially ruinous affair with American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, Beaverbrook’s papers published every titbit of the affair, especially allegations about pro-Nazi sympathies. He did, of course, try to maintain the hardly plausible outward appearance of a benign proprietor.
But anyone who visited Cherkley Court, his country house near Leatherhead in Surrey, could not be deceived. There was ticker tape with the latest news continually arriving, there were banks of telephones ringing, sound scribing machines in operation. Amongst it all sat Beaverbrook firing off memorandums, leaking gossip, and barking orders down the telephone to terrified editors.
The Daily Express became the voice of intellectual populism with Beaverbrook's appointment of writers such as Michael Foot, John Junor, Woodrow Wyatt, and the cartoonist David Low. It was also a useful stick with which he could beat friends and foes alike.
Appeasement and War
Thus the Express leant wholehearted support to his Empire Crusade of 1929-31 – even introducing the helmeted crusader on its masthead which the paper keeps to this day – which was the extension of his early tariff reform sympathies to 'whole hog' protectionism; it gave cover to his attacks on Baldwin; and, most notoriously of all, it became a sounding board for his opinions on the abdication crisis, appeasement, and relations with Russia.
The crusades of appeasement and the campaign for closer relations with Russia almost left the Daily Express seriously derailed, (not in the battle for circulation, indeed in these years circulation climbed further), but as a continuing beacon of serious opinion.
The issues illustrated both the power of subjugating the press to the mind-set of a single person, and the chronic myopia that such a practice could create. Beaverbrook had been in tentative contact with Ribbentrop since 1937, and had – admittedly in the name of European stability – been preaching a conciliatory attitude towards Germany through his newspapers. An Evening Standard leader opined in September 1937: 'The chief error in British policy towards Germany is a matter not so much of actions as of attitudes. For years past British politicians have spoken harshly of Nazi Germany purely because it is Nazi … is it not possible to sweep that atmosphere away?'. On learning of Ribbentrop's appointment as Foreign Minister in March 1938, Beaverbrook wrote to congratulate him: 'It is with real pleasure that I hear today of your appointment … I know full well that you will take full advantage of your great authority and immense power … you will have the loyal support of my newspapers.'
In September 1938, the Daily Express famously declared that Britain would 'not be involved in a European war this year, or next year either'. Beaverbrook kept on declaring it to the bitter end, almost until Hitler's Panzer divisions arrived at the gates of Cherkley. (It is ironic indeed that the searing polemic, ‘Guilty Men’, fired off in 1940 against the appeasers of the 1930s, was written by a number of Beaverbrook journalists: Michael Foot, Peter Howard, and Frank Owen. It did not mention Beaverbrook. It should have done.)
A similar lack of foresight was evident in his dealings with Russia: a meeting with Stalin in September 1941, led to a determined campaign to supply Russia with armaments and to open up a second front as soon as was possible, perfectly arguable in their own right. Not so, was his sympathetic stance towards Stalin, a stance that continued in the post war years against all evidence to the contrary.
Speaking in Washington in April 1942 he argued that 'Communism under Stalin has provided us with examples of patriotism equal to the finest annals of history? Communism under Stalin has won the applause and admiration of all western nations? Political purges? Of course. But it is now clear that the men who were shot down would have betrayed Russia to her German enemy.'
Beaverbrook's energies found more productive results in his tenure as Minister of Aircraft Production, and later Minister of Supplies, with a place in the War Cabinet, from mid-1940 onwards. It was a post offered by Churchill, against the advice of George VI. For Churchill had always been impressed by Beaverbrook's 'vital and vibrant energy' even though they had, on several occasions over the last thirty years, been at each other's throats.
The new Prime Minister had long regarded Beaverbrook as a confidant, and now, a very necessary addition to the war effort. The minister's irascible zeal soon proved its worth. Fighter and bomber production were immeasurably increased. 'This was his hour,' Churchill later declared. 'His personal force and genius, combined with so much persuasion and contrivance, swept aside many obstacles. Everything in the supply line was drawn forward to the battle…' That said, there were those in his Ministry who did not enjoy being treated like his newspaper editors. And it is a reflection on his character that he could not understand why. Again and again he complained of the difficulties that he faced, firing off a letter of resignation as he did so. Finally, one was accepted. In addition to his ministerial role, Beaverbrook accompanied Churchill to several wartime meetings with President Roosevelt; and later in 1941 he headed the British delegation to Moscow with American counterpart Averell Harriman. But by September 1943 he was back: as Lord Privy Seal. For all their differences, Churchill could not live without the counsel of the wily Max.
The Post War Years
The post war years, with their combination of rigorous socialism and imperial decline, were an unpleasant reality for the aging Beaverbrook. To the outside world his legend continued: his editors still waited nervously for the call and the unmistakable bark: 'What's news?' But there seemed more of a sense of nostalgia about his conversation and his work, and certainly an embittered isolation from political affairs.
He found solace in travel – a tough yearly schedule that took him from Cherkley, to La Capponcina in the south of France, to the Bahamas, to New York, to Canada and back – and, of course, in writing. He turned out well written, if somewhat indulgent, accounts of his heroes and his own contribution to the First World War.
After the War, Beaverbrook served as Chancellor of the University of New Brunswick and became the university’s greatest benefactor, fulfilling the same role for the city of Fredericton and the Province as a whole. He provided additions to the University, scholarship funds, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Beaverbrook Skating Rink, the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel, the Playhouse, and many other projects. He once estimated that he had given some $16 million to various causes in New Brunswick alone. He set up and chaired Foundations both in the UK and Canada to further his philanthropic aims. Lord Rosbery said of him: ‘He used his wealth unostentatiously, sometimes not even letting his right hand know what his left hand did. He helped many in distress. I have known even his enemies, of whom he had many, to be helped by him anonymously when he heard that they were in an impoverished condition.’
In England, Beaverbrook lived at Cherkley Court, near Leatherhead, Surrey. He remained a widower until 1963 when he married Marcia Anastasia Christofrides, the widow of his friend Sir James Dunn.
By the early 1960s, however, it was clear that the curtain was falling. He was feted one last time at a dinner at the Dorchester for his eighty-fifth birthday in late May 1964. He died two weeks later on 9th June. He could show outwardly, at least, that there had been no decline.
|The Abdication of Edward VIII
Canada in Flanders London
Courage, The Story of Sir James Dunn
The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George
The Divine Propagandist
Don't Trust to Luck
Friends: Sixty years of Intimate personal relations
with Richard Bedford Bennett
Men and Power, 1917–1918
My Early Life
Politicians and the Press
Politicians and the War, Volume 1
Politicians and the War, Volume 2
Spirit of the Soviet Union
The Resources of The British Empire
The Three Keys to Success
Why Didn't you Help the Finns? Are you in the Hands of the Jews? And 10 Questions