Rachel Beer 1858-1927
Over a hundred years ago a journalist by the name of Rachel Beer controlled two influential newspapers. She entertained the great and the good, from Gladstone to the Prince of Wales – and all this twenty years before any women had the right to vote.
Rachel Beer was a Sephardic Jew whose father, David Sassoon, came to London after making his fortune in the export of Indian opium. His daughter was raised in luxury but when he died, even though Rachel was determined to be independent and train as a nurse, her mother was desperate to marry her off in the tradition of their faith. She had her daughter's portrait painted by the fashionable Henry Thaddeus, and when that failed to net a match Rachel's image was modelled in marble as well!
Doubtlessly, Rachel would have had many suiters. She was very beautiful. But, only at the age of 28 did she eventually fall in love. Frederick Beer was another Jew of German origins, though he had been baptised in the Church of England and when Rachel consented to be his wife and also took her husband's faith she was promptly disowned by her family.
Frederick owned The Observer and in 1893 he also bought the Sunday Times, intending for his wife to edit it, a position she took very seriously – conducting painstaking investigative work and taking its stance from Conservative to independent while claiming that rather than support MP’s she preferred to observe their squabbles as ‘an entomologist observes the contest of rival tribes of ants.’
Working from her grand Mayfair home, Rachel wrote 3,000 words a week, and amongst other things she campaigned against the libel laws of the time which encouraged only timidity. She railed against wasteful public spending, while advocating pensions for all workers over 60 years.
When Frederick became ill with TB, she took over the running of the Observer too, achieving one of the century’s greatest exclusives when, by the means of cheque book journalism, Count Esterhazy admitted that he had been involved in the forging of letters that condemned an innocent Jewish officer to be condemned on Devil’s Island – a notorious French penal colony.
However, despite all her success, when Frederick died she became depressed and suffered a nervous breakdown, at which point her brother had her declared insane, and one of the country’s wealthiest and most influential women lost control of her entire fortune in one single stroke of a lawyer's pen. Her brother sold both of the papers and Rachel lived out the rest of her life in the care of three mental health nurses in a house in Tunbridge Wells.
When she died at the age of 69, rather than being buried in her beloved husband’s Highgate mausoleum, Rachel was buried with the Sassoons in the family grave in Brighton.
The Oberver briefly alluded to her death, but there was not one word written about the ten years she spent as its proprietor and editor.
For more information, this BBC World Service programme written and presented by Alan Johnston is very interesting, and First Lady of Fleet Street: A Biography of Rachel Beer is written by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren.