Women first edited national papers in Victorian times, says Jonathan Sale

Fleet Street pioneers W

hen Rachel Beer took over the editorship of the Sunday Times in October 1894, it was the first time a woman had become the editor of a national newspaper.

The second time this happened was in 1896, at The Observer. That was Rachel Beer too. She edited both papers simultaneously, which remains a hard act to follow for both men andwomen. There had in previous centuries been women editors, though not of nationals. Anna Maria Smart was an 18th-century editor, in her case of a weekly paper in Reading, and her daughter inherited the editorial chair. Smart needed to earn her living because her husband was a patient in a psychiatric hospital. (Christopher Smart lives on as the author of For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry, the most barking (or purring) tribute ever written to a God-fearing feline, set to music by Benjamin Britten.*) Rachel Beer did not need to earn a living, as

Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren explain in First Lady of Fleet Street, which is both an intriguing biography and a fascinating account of Victorian journalism. She came from the wealthy Sassoon family of international traders which at one time handled – legally – 70 per cent of the Chinese opium market. When she once missed the train en route to visit her young nephew Siegfried (later the author of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), she hired a private train for the 30-mile journey. A society hostess, she was ostracised by most members of the (Jewish) Sassoon family when she was baptised into the Christian faith. Her husband Frederick Beer too had lost his family, in his case to the Grim Reaper, and had inherited a vast fortune that included the ownership of The Observer. Founded in 1791, the paper’s circulation had soon reached a soaraway 6,000 copies, mainly in London, with a special Monday edition for those unfortunate enough to be stuck in the provinces. Frederick launched The Journal, a daily paper

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she was good at – she took out her fountain pen and began writing the leaders, with no subject too big or small. The topic for October 14 1894 was ‘the perennial Irish question’ (no change there). Soon, she was calling for taxes on top hats, cats and bicycles. “Compared with Parliament, Sodom and Gomorrah would have contained a virtuous population,” she snapped, adding: “Contrasted with the average MP, Nero himself was an enlightened philanthropist.” She campaigned against the nation’s dim

full of snippets of news for the Victorian commuter in a hurry, but it was a century ahead of its time; he pulled the plug after six weeks because the commuter was in too much of a hurry to buy the paper.

He confined himself to being a hands-off

proprietor of The Observer but Rachel made a habit of popping into the office and suggesting ideas to the editor who, after a while, popped off for good. As did his replacement. And his replacement soon found out that the proprietor’s wife was not just a contributor but an assistant editor – and breathing down his neck. What Rachel desired was her own paper where she could call the shots and, in 1894, Frederick bought it for her when it came on the market: launched cheekily as The New Observer in 1821, it had been rebranded even more cheekily as The Independent Observer and, finally, settled for Sunday Times on its masthead. It had been the traditional rival of the original Observer but the two papers now jogged along together. Bidding farewell to the editor – something

commander-in-chief, the 77-year-old Duke of Cambridge. She enthused about a flat-rate postage. She warned of the threat from Germany and speculated about a Russian revolution. She campaigned for Captain Dreyfus, the French soldier falsely accused of spying, and interviewed the actual traitor. She set up a ‘First Night Dresses’ column. She

approved of new technology such as ‘flying machines’ and ‘automotors’. She devised a scheme for telegraphing late news of the Boer War to readers who did not receive her special supplements on the hostilities. She hired Gilbert and Sullivan, the latter as a music critic, the former as, counterintuitively, a war correspondent. All this was written and organised from her study in Chesterfield Gardens near Hyde Park. The first lady of Fleet Street went to Fleet Street only on Saturdays; staff would come to her and she had a newfangled phone installed for contacting the office. The two Sunday papers coexisted happily, apart, that is, from the time when she mentioned to Frederick that on Nelson’s Day the Sunday

...and those who followed

IN FLEET STREET’S four centuries of publishing, it took nearly 300 years for a woman – Rachel Beer – to make it to the editorship of a national paper. After Mary Howarth,

very briefly the editor of the fledgling Daily Mirror in 1903, there was a gap of the best part of another century before Wendy Henry was appointed in 1987 as the Ms Big of the News of the World then

of the Sunday People. Rebekah Wade (now

Brooks) was also the editor of the News of the World before she took over at The Sun. Again, (Lady) Eve Pollard edited the News of the World then the Sunday Express, while, as it happened, husband (Sir) Nick Lloyd was Mr Big at the Daily Express. The year 2018 saw

three women editors in post: Katharine Viner at The Guardian, Victoria

Newton at the Sun on Sunday and, until she left in February, Dawn Neesom at the Daily Star. Although one would

be spoilt for choice if appointing a captain, one could easily make up a team consisting of present and former first ladies of Fleet Street – the Fleet Street Footer Femmes: Alison Philips of the Daily Mirror, Tina Weaver of the Sunday Mirror, Janet Street-

Porter and Lisa Markwell of the Independent on Sunday, Sarah Sands, who edited the Sunday Telegraph, and (Lady) Patience Wheatcroft, who followed her. (Lady) Rosie Boycott clocked up three: the Indy, the Sindy and the Daily Express. Follow that, chaps.


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