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Beaverbrook & Express Group


This profile looks at Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), the Express newspaper group and contemporary magnate Richard Desmond.

It covers -

  • introduction
  • Beaverbrook's group
  • biography
  • studies
  • Lord Copper and other fiction


Anglo-Canadian entrepreneur Lord Beaverbrook boasted that his UK newspapers were run for influence, rather than profit.

It has been fashionable to cite that quip as an explanation for why his group was dismembered after the founder's death but restructuring of other groups on Fleet Street and elsewhere during the same period suggests that causation is more complex.

The group is currently owned by Richard Desmond after passing through United Media, profiled elsewhere on this site.

Beaverbrook's group

Max Aitken (1879-1964), later enobled as Lord Beaverbrook (a reward for services rendered or simply to get him out of people's hair) made a fortune in Canada before - like Roy Thomson and Conrad Black - moving to the UK.

Throughout the twenties and thirties he conducted quixotic political campaigns, subsequently serving as a minister in Churchill's wartime government. His newspaper empire has been dismantled; its chief monuments are the Beaver's reputation and a modernist building (all art deco chrome and black glass) in Fleet Street.

Beaverbrook Newspapers was sold to Trafalgar House Investments (property and shipping) in 1977, being renamed Express Newspapers. Five years late Trafalgar's media and shipping interests were spun off, with Express as part of Fleet Holdings, absorbed in October 1985 by regional publisher United Newspapers.

In 1996 United became part of the MAI group, currently being dismantled after sale of its television interests to Granada and acquisition of its major newspapers in late 2000 by Richard Desmond, Britain's leading publisher of soft-core porn.

For a perspective on the decline and fall we recommend Robert Picard's lucid The Rise & Fall of Communication Empires (PDF) and studies of the Astors, who vacated the publishing field when demands for funding became too severe and business became less simpatico.


Son of a Presbyterian clergyman, Max Aitken grew up near Beaverbrook, New Brunswick, and made a fortune through corporate reorganisations before heading off to England in 1910 when Canada became a bit unwelcoming. It's been suggested that his commercial predations meant that he was shunned by Canadian polite society; arguably the UK was instead a bigger theatre in which to strut and make mischief.

He entered Parliament in alliance with Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law, acquiring national newspapers in opposition to the Harmsworth family and the Astors, notably the Pall Mall Gazette (a traditional toy for rich arrivistes), the Daily Express and Evening Standard. The Sunday Express was founded in 1918.

After involvement in the downfall of Herbert Asquith - his memoirs provide an insight into the elevation of David Lloyd George as Prime Minister - he received a peerage. Lady Astor dismissed him as Lord Been-a-crook; a subsequent critic commented that his portrait by Graham Sutherland, made him look "like a diseased toad bottled in methylated spirits."

During the twenties and thirties he conducted political crusades - frequently unclear where personal, party and national interests stopped - and was a hands-on manager of the papers. Hearst commented that Beaverbrook used tabloid methods on broadsheets, with the result that by 1936 the Express had the largest circulation in the world. In 1922 Beaverbrook and the first Viscount Rothermere exchanged interests in each other's groups. Rothermere's Mail took 49% of Express Newspapers, paid in part with 80,000 Daily Mail Trust shares. Beaverbrook subsequently used the cross-holdings to his advantage, with a substantial profit when the arrangement ended in 1933.

Beaverbrook's campaigns - for Edward VIII, imperial free trade - were notably unsuccessful, despite his assertion that the press was "a flaming sword which will cut through any political armour". Along the way he found time to romance a variety of femmes fatale, including Dorothy Schiff of the New York Post, subsequently acquired by Rupert Murdoch.

He was prominent in Churchill’s wartime government as Minister of Aircraft Production (40-41), Minister of Supply (41-42), Minister of War Production (42), Special Envoy to the United States on Supplies (42), and Lord Privy Seal (43-45).


AJP Taylor's portrait of Beaverbrook (New York: Simon & Schuster 1972) - a sort of mirror image of Orson Welles's love letter to William Randolph Hearst - has become a classic.

While rightly criticised as too close to his subject - the forword confesses that "I loved Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook when he was alive. Now that I have learnt to know him better from the records I love him even more" - Taylor's verve and intelligence mean that he has not been superseded by more recent studies such as the intelligent Beaverbrook- A Life (London: Pimlico 1993) by Anne Chisholm & Michael Davie.

Beaverbrook's own writings, in particular Men & Power 1917-19 (London: Hutchinson 1956) - while examples of 'faction' long before the New Journalism became popular - are excellent entertainment.

Breakfast With Beaverbrook: Memoirs of an Independent Woman (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger 1995) by Anne Moyall - former Beaverbrook aide, co-founder of the Australian Dictionary of Biography and pioneering historian of Australian science - is intimate, perceptive and charming. Logan Gourlay edited The Beaverbrook I Knew (London: Quartet 1984), a set of reminiscences.

Tom Driberg's Beaverbrook: A Study in Power & Frustration (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 56) is another love letter by Beaverbrook protege 'William Hickey'. This Man Beaverbrook (1940) by William Brittain, Newspaper Lords in British Politics (1958) by Carl Hambro, Beaverbrook, "a difficult fellow" - the Story of Beaverbrook at MAP (1945) and G, for God Almighty: a personal memoir of Lord Beaverbrook (1969) by David Farrer are of archival interest only.

In contrast Gregory Marchildon's Profits and Politics: Beaverbrook and the Gilded Age of Canadian Finance (Toronto: Uni of Toronto Press 1996) is more revealing about the vagaries of turn of the century investment banking - much like 1990s funding of dot coms and 1980s cable tv companies - than Beaverbrook the man.

There's a perspective in Steel at the Sault: Francis Clergue, Sir James Dunn & the Algoma Steel Corporation, 1901-1956 (Toronto: Uni of Toronto Press 1984) by Duncan McDowall and in Blue Skies and Boiler Rooms: Buying and Selling Securities in Canada 1870-1940 (Toronto: Uni of Toronto Press 1997) by Christopher Armstrong.

The Fall of the House of Beaverbrook (London: Deutsch 1979) by Lewis Chester & Jonathan Fenby is a account of dismantling the empire, supplemented by the self-congratulatory A Growing Concern: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1979) by Trafalgar supremo Nigel Broackes. Voice of Britain: The Inside Story of the Daily Express (1983) by Roger Allen is self-congratulatory.

Richard Cockett edited My Dear Max: The Letters of Brendan Bracken to Lord Beaverbrook 1925-58 (London: Rainbow 1990).

Beaverbrook's own writings - entertaining, invaluable but not always reliable - include Success and Canada In Flanders (1922), Politicians & the War 1914-1916 (London: Hutchinson 1928), Men & Power: 1917–1918 (London: Hutchinson 1956), My Early Life (Fredericton: Brunswick Press 1965), The Abdication of Edward VIII (London: Hamish Hamilton 1966), The Decline & Fall of Lloyd George (London: Collins 1966) and Friends (1959).

Lord Copper and other fiction

He appears, thinly disguised in novels by his mistress Rebecca West (1892-1983) - the portrait as Francis Pitt in her Sunflower rivals the vapourings of his friend Barbara Cartland - HG Wells and Arnold Bennett. Doom, a 1928 potboiler by the zany William Gerhardie (1895-1977), features him as Lord Ottercove - publishing tycoon, promoter of bad novels and hero of the Kiss-Lick Club. Gerhardie elsewhere commented on his "eyes like Ivan the Terrible's, burning along every line."

There's something of the Beaver in Lord Raingo (1926) by Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), Sir Bussy Woodcock in HG Wells' The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930) and Sir Magnus Donners in Anthony Powell's A Dance To The Music of Time. Wells had sought to avert the publisher's displeasure by commenting "I wanted a man who had made money fast and had an original mind. You seem to be the only one who answers to that description in London." Evelyn Waugh understandably denied that Beaverbrook was the original of Lord Copper in Scoop (1938) and Officers & Gentlemen.

Beaverbrook starred - along with West, Wells and fellow magnate Edward Hulton - in They Forgot To Read The Directions, a 1924 silent film in which he drugs three former mistresses before drowning their babies in the ornamental pool at his Cherkley Court residence.