SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024


How The Beaver built the Express into a great paper selling 4m a day

Beaverbrook with Churchill at the outbreak of war

WHEN I was Night Editor of the Express, I often wondered what it would be like having Lord Beaverbrook come on the telephone late at night wanting to know what news was going on, which he often did in the old days apparently.

 In my years at the Express, the Chairmen who came and went like skittles at the Dollis Hill Bowling Alley, never compared with what I had heard about The Beaver, or Lord Rothermere whom I was to work for in my later life.

 I found Rothermere, whom I met often, to be a journalist’s champion, who understood our jobs and rewarded us for doing them. Unlike the so-called socialist peer and French polisher’s son Hollick at the Express (who dished me out some dark days), and others, in my view.

 At the Express, Beaverbrook was apparently the same as Rothermere in the early years. He always kept his finger in the pie. Some might say that was a bad thing, but I think it was good. By all accounts he would check the opposition newspapers and keep on the editors’ backs if they missed anything and he would read and even give his thoughts on the leader column, the feature pages, and especially politics. And why not? He was obviously qualified.

 When I arrived at the Express, after his death, I didn’t know the full story of The Beaver’s life, just bits, like so many other young journalists at the time. But I have since learned a lot more. Apparently, he enjoyed gambling; drinking, sailing, politics and making money. And why not?

 William Maxwell Aitken was born in 1879 in Canada, the son of a Presbyterian Minister and a farmer’s daughter. They had 10 children. Max grew up in New Brunswick and at 13 set up his school newspaper, The Leader, and later became the local correspondent for the St John Daily Star.

 Over the next few years, he worked as a reporter for various titles in Canada and even became a debt collector before moving into politics and business. By the time he was 30 he was in business and became a millionaire after setting up his own financing company on the Montreal Stock Exchange to create a giant 13-member cement trust in a deal that gave him a £3million profit.

 Apparently, he had very few scruples and loved a joke. He loved women too, especially other men’s wives but it was mostly his money that made him attractive to them. For he was not physically imposing or handsome. He was of medium height and slight build, with a receding hairline, broad forehead, wide nose and had ‘the face of a sad goblin,’ Life Magazine was to say later. A bit unkind.

 In 1910 he moved to London and by the end of the year had become the Tory MP for Ashton-under-Lyne. The following year his love of newspapers prompted him to secretly invest £25,000 for part ownership in the ailing Daily Express, even though he was warned against it. And so began his work behind the scenes to create his newspaper empire.

 When the First World War broke out, he took on artists, photographers, and filmmakers to record life on the Western Front and founded the Canadian War Records Office in London. He even wrote three books on the battles of Canadian soldiers on the fields of Flanders, finally being given the honorary rank of Colonel in the Canadian Army.

 At this time the British Press was suffering at the hands of the government censor but gradually Max’s reports in Canadian newspapers were picked up in Britain and he became famous. In November 1916, a shares deal worth £17,500, landed him the controlling interest in the Daily Express. Again, he kept it secret as he battled behind the scenes to build the title.

 But after he received a peerage the following year, in January 1917 as the 1st Baron Beaverbrook, whistleblowers stepped in, and the secret came out. Max took his name from the stream Beaver Brook, which he used to swim in growing up as a boy in Canada. The Tory Party weren’t happy about what they saw as a conflict of interests, owning a newspaper and being an MP.

 But the public lapped up the new Express journalism, it was popular and hit the spot with Middle England. And it was fiercely patriotic. By Armistice Day 1918, Beaverbrook had turned the title into the largest circulation newspaper in Britain, selling 2.7 million a day and was to go on to sell over four million, far outstripping the Daily Mail.

 Beaverbrook used it to attack his political enemies, support his society friends, and crusade for his own causes. Soon he and Churchill, already good friends, became even closer, although they had fierce arguments.

 Churchill said of him: “Max is a good friend in foul weather but when things are going well, he will have a bloody row with you over nothing.” Beaverbrook said of Churchill: “Winston Up is frightening. Winston Down is magnificent.” The two often stayed at each other’s country houses.

 As the Second World War broke, Winston appointed him to head the Ministry of Aircraft Production. He was an outstanding success, and some say later turned the tide of war in Britain’s favour with his determination to increase the UK’s force of heavy bombers and fighters.

 Beaverbrook threw himself into the task, as Churchill knew his friend would. He was aggressive, argumentative, and often rude as he clashed repeatedly with the Air Ministry and the Air Marshals. But he single-mindedly cleared bottlenecks and rapidly raised aircraft output.

 From the start of his reign as owner of the Express, Beaverbrook could not stop sticking his finger in the pie crust of his newspaper, and as time went on and the war ended, he spent even more time ringing editors and checking on what they and their staff were doing at various times of the day.

 Memos, dictated into a Dictaphone were a particular favourite method of harassing them and keeping them on their toes. Secretaries were told to switch the Dictaphone on immediately he came through. Even editorial conferences abruptly ended and cleared the moment he was announced.

 The paper’s third Editor R.D. Blumenfield told of one particular bad day in the office; He received a memo saying:

 My dear Blum,

 I have had time this morning to make a critical examination of the Daily Express and I am sure you won’t mind my giving you the results of it.

On the front page there are frequently important news items from the night before. Surely there ought to be enough completely fresh matter for that page?’

I notice that we missed the Boom Towers claim. There ought to be a man put on to read the other papers and check anyone responsible for missing these things on The Express.

The smaller ads are being eliminated or not coming in a satisfactory way. This requires treatment. The theatre ads don’t pay well enough to put on the Leader page and should go on the Back Page.

It is not good business to attack Lord Rothermere even by implication. We are in the middle of a complex paper deal with him, and he has always been generous in these matters.

As for the editorials they are a strange mixture of good and bad. I attribute this to being written by one hand and altered by another.

‘Please don’t bother to answer this letter, which merely consists of suggestions you may find useful’.

 At this time, The Beaver as he was nicknamed, took special interest in the paper’s writers both old and new. One was Peter Chambers in his younger days in features and writing the leaders. Beaverbrook wrote to one editor saying: “You have failed to let me know about Peter Chambers. He did not appear in the paper again on Saturday but no message from you about it, and yet I am doing my best to sustain and interest in the boy – and in you!”

He appeared convinced that Peter was being suppressed and added:

 “I wish to make it clear to you that the DX no longer engages in suppression. I have notified others to that effect.”

 Memos like this came in regularly to all Express Editors during Beaverbrook’s reign, including to Arthur Christiansen who would regularly get a real ear bashing, apparently. Often the reason would be The Beaver’s friends … and they weren’t all just in politics. Among them were people like writers Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling.

 Former Editor Bob Edwards recalled that he received a memo from Beaverbrook after his Chairman had tea with Maugham.

 The Beaver wrote: “Mr Edwards, I was talking with Somerset Maugham who was discussing newspapers with extraordinary vigour and much perception. He said that all articles in the DX were too long. Each feature should be no more than one column in length. You might let me know what you have got to say about that?”

 The memos came like stories over a telegraph wire and in the end, Bob hired a personal assistant, Peter Drake, who spent much of his day getting answers for him to reply.

When we Newbies arrived at the Express in the early Seventies, Peter was still around and was a sort of Mr Fix It for the Managing Editor, visiting wives of senior journalists and sorting out rest homes and sometimes even hospices for staff. Arranging pension payments, that sort of thing.

 There were others around from the old Beaverbrook school too. But they were few and far between on the editorial floor.

 There was no doubt the Canadian multi-millionaire was an extraordinary man, and his legacy of patriotism and fair play still comes through sometimes on the Express of today. But it needs a chairman like him again perhaps … and some money to go with it. Certainly, recent chairmen haven’t been in his league. And now the paper faces an uncertain death. I will leave the last word to Churchill who said:

 “People who did not know the services Max rendered during his tenure of office or his force, driving power, and judgment as I did, often wondered why his influence with me stood so high.

 “They overlooked our long association in the events of the First World War and its aftermath. We belonged to an older political generation.

 “Often, we had been on different sides in the crises and quarrels of those former days; sometimes we had even been fiercely opposed; yet on the whole, a relationship had been maintained which was a part of the continuity of my public life, and this was cemented by warm personal friendship.”


Uncovered — The Grey Cardigan

Doug Mann, left (in his cardigan). Right, Chris Williams and background Jack Atkinson, Dan McDonald and Terry Manners

For years we have wondered about The Grey Cardigan … or sometimes Brown Cardigan man, writing deathless prose about newsroom antics in our industry. Who was he based on?

 Who was the Original Grey Cardigan Man? Surely, it must have been our very own Doug Mann of this parish, who joined the Express from The Telegraph in 1972. Those of us who worked with him will fondly remember him and his cardigans … I think he had about four and never seemed to be without one of them in any kind of weather.

 He wore a light grey one when I met him on my first day in the newsroom. Then came a dark grey one … and then a brown. There was even a gold one, and later a pea green. They all seemed to be the same style and make … six buttons at the front, woollen and tight fitting.

 He also wore a trilby hat every time he left the building, but I don’t know how many of those he had.

 Dear old Doug, a lovely man. To those who remember him, he was everybody’s favourite uncle. He came in, subbed in his cardigan, put his hat on and went home. We never saw him in the pub. And never saw his cardigan on the back of the chair. If he did drink, no one ever knew where. We never bumped into him.

 Except, he must have done. One sub reported bumping into Doug as he wobbled down the steps from Blackfriars Station one night. Doug was apparently three sheets to the wind and his face was crimson under his hat. He was awfully embarrassed and asked the sub not to report back. It was a well-kept secret by everyone the sub soon told.

 Some years after Doug left the Express and then the planet, someone told me there was a plaque on a seat on a hill in North London somewhere, dedicated to him. He always sat there gazing across the landscape on his days off, in his hat, of course … and probably cardigan too.


Three chairs for Gordon!

In the alpha-male world of the Stone (composing room) in the Seventies there were always all sorts of little competitions going on. I remember composing room overseer Gordon Something, a former Commando sergeant, showing off his prowess at jumping from a standing position, using his two feet simultaneously, on to a chair and landing in the same position on the seat. No one could do it. He once took fifty quid in bets at the end of a shift. Warning: Don’t try it.

 And then of course there were the Jack Atkinson challenges. He was always taking people on running up and down the stairs to the Stone. And on one occasion took on News Sub Bernie Workman (whatever happened to him?) in a running race to St Paul’s and back. Bernie won, but Jack swore blind the tussle-haired Welsh terrier ducked into a doorway halfway up Ludgate Hill and appeared to complete the last half of the race ahead of him.

 No one took Billy Monty on in a scrap, that I knew of.


Form a line … behind Monty!

There was hardly any trouble to speak of in the pubs and clubs of Fleet Street at night, that I recall. Perhaps the odd boozy fallout but not much. Except one night in the Poppinjay around 10 0’clock. I was alone with Billy Montgomery by a pillar in the corner and the place was about three quarters full. Landlady Josie was off and there was a relief manager at the bar, as Express reporters and subs mingled at the counter in various groups … until Laurel and Hardy came in.

 They looked innocent enough … one tall, overweight guy and his thin but fit looking, wiry mate. They weren’t Street folk. They just looked like they were on a pub crawl in jeans and tee-shirts. Billy had clocked them because the tubby one was carrying a stick of wood at the end of his arm dropped by his side, which I hadn’t noticed.

 “Could be trouble, Tel. Don’t make eye contact,” he said, sucking his lips as he always did when roused. Of course, I sneaked a look, as Hardy began to argue with the relief manager about money owed, as far as I could make out.

 Suddenly, Hardy went ballistic, smashing glasses and bottles on the bar with his stick, making his way to the opening flap. There were shouts and screams as the manager cowered in the corner and the sound of smashing glass and mayhem filled the bar. 

Hardy continued his rampage smashing all the glass mirrors on the wall; ripping out the optics and even stamping on boxes of crisps, before returning to his mate back on our side, who had amazingly produced a stick too and was looking fitter by the second.

 “Right, who wants some?” Hardy shouted at us, as they both stood there with their sticks raised. I looked around me, they had created their own space, a giant patch of No Man’s Land … but behind Monty a gaggle of subs and reporters had squeezed together in his shadow. They knew where to be. I remember looking at Billy … his face was crimson. He was ready. Locked on like a radar scanner.

 The two attackers moved towards the door.

 “Right, no one saw nothing!” Hardy growled. “Got it!” His eyes scanned the crowd. They went out the door and disappeared. The Poppinjay was closed for a week for repairs … no police ever came for statements.


"Down the hole please Jack, when you've filled your pipe!"

13 November 2023