Britain’s first female national newspaper editor, Rachel Beer, is a surprisingly little known person, all the more so given her lively and interesting family history and that she edited not only one but two newspapers, both of which are still very much with us – The Observer and The Sunday Times.
(The first Sunday newspaper in Britain also had a female editor, but it was not a national newspaper. That was Elizabeth Johnson, who launched the British Gazette and Sunday Monitor on 26 March 1780.)
Beer’s opportunity to achieve this first came in part due to her husband, Frederick Beer, whose own foray into the newspaper industry gave his wife the first steps along the road in a very male-dominated society and profession. That then provided the stage for Rachel Beer’s formidable skills and determination to achieve something, a woman editing a national newspaper, which no-one in Britain managed for more than 80 years afterwards.
A large part of the book is the prequel to this, providing the background of their family history. Their families were so colourful and interesting, spanning from the India of the British Empire, via family control of 70% of the Chinese opium market through to the shocking Jewish ghettos of Germany, and featuring Siegfried Sassoon as a nephew, that these accounts would make a great volume on their own.
The book contains the wonderful story of Augustus Harris’s brief period as owner of The Sunday Times. The manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, he wished to sue someone from libel who had accused him of not being able to write anything. To buttress his case, he decided to buy a newspaper which could then run a weekly column from him, so demonstrating his ability to write.
However, somewhat surprisingly, journalism itself does not feature that heavily in the book. Newspaper, editors and the like all get mentioned but there is not much in the way of a history of the newspaper industry. For that look to another book, although this one does provide some reminders of how journalism used to operate, such as the fact that between 1816 and 1840 The Observer regularly took money from the government in return for promoting its views. The newspaper wasn’t alone in that in what was an unfortunate phase in the history of Britain’s journalism which many journalists post-Leveson has skipped over in their talk of the wonders of a free press over the last few centuries.
Rachel Beer was a pioneer in being a female editor rather than in her style of editing itself, although her campaign to cut drinking and gambling by providing free substitute forms of entertainment for the poorer sections of society was distinctive and high profile. It is those sorts of insights into 19th century life, adding to the amazing family histories, which make this book such a great read, as long as you do not approach it expecting a detailed history of journalism.