Rachel Beer: Fleet Street's first woman editor

Rachel Beer is a unique figure in the history of journalism. So why has she been almost forgotten?

By Simon Round, May 5, 2011
Rachel Beer was both a rich Victorian society lady and a social progressive

Rachel Beer was both a rich Victorian society lady and a social progressive

Until very recently if you Googled the name Rachel Beer you would not come up with anything very much, certainly nothing to suggest that she did what no woman has done before or since - edit both the Observer and the Sunday Times. Indeed, for eight years she was in editorial control of both papers.

Israeli writers Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, who have written a book, The First Lady of Fleet Street, about her life, only happened upon her by chance on a visit to London. The Jerusalem–based married couple discovered the story during a visit to Highgate Cemetery.

Koren recalls: "We took a guided tour of the cemetery five years ago and came across the grave of a man called Julius Beer. He had built a mausoleum to block the view of the Victorian aristocrats who had ostracised him. It was an act of revenge. The name sounded Jewish but if he was Jewish what was he doing in Highgate Cemetery? We started looking for information and one thing led to another - we unearthed the story of his daughter-in-law, Rachel."

Rachel was born into the immensely wealthy Sassoon dynasty and was the aunt of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. She married Frederick Beer, Julius's son, a man estimated to be 40 times more wealthy than even the Sassoons.

As a young woman, she began to edit the newspapers which were owned by the Beer family. But this was not a tale solely of riches and success. Rachel was ostracised by the Sassoons for marrying a non-Jew (Frederick's mother was a Christian, and he himself was baptised), and following his death from tuberculosis, Rachel lapsed into a severe depression which culminated in her being declared insane.

Although her story had been all-but forgotten, she was a significant figure in Victorian London, using the two newspapers to promote her progressive, at times revolutionary, views and entertaining the elite at her home. Of course she was only able to acquire a position of such prominence due to the wealth of her husband's family but this, claims Koren, should not take away from her achievements. "A lot of women had rich husbands who could buy newspapers, but she was the only one who asked her husband to put up the money. Even then she did not have to get involved in editing but she wanted to do the job."

Negev emphasises the point. "She wanted to do something with her life She married into a capitalist family but her views were practically socialist. She wanted equality for women, she was an advocate of trade unionism, suffrage for women and a universal state pension. We read her leaders which were all very eloquently and cleverly written. And because she was both editor and proprietor, she had no obligations to anyone.

"She pursued human interest stories, and in fact the papers were more like those of today. In many ways she was ahead of her time."

But Rachel was also a victim of her own time. Her career which blossomed in the late 1890s came to a halt in 1902 when Frederick died. Although she soldiered on as an editor for several months after his death, her grief made it difficult to continue, says Koren.

"All of a sudden when your world is shattered you don't care if there is going to be a war in South Africa or what will happen in the budget. She lost her curiosity about the world."

Such was her desolation that her surviving relatives were worried she would fall victim to a fortune hunter, or give her money to charity. Scared that they would lose their inheritance, they called in a barrister to declare her "of unsound mind", which meant she no longer had free access to her own funds. Rachel lived out her declining years in some comfort in Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

Says Negev: "We don't think she was crazy at all. But no one ever came to check on her and she never had the chance to have the decision reversed. She died in 1927 and was buried locally on unconsecrated ground."

So why was this talented woman so neglected by history? Koren thinks there are two explanations. "She and Frederick had no children, so there were no direct descendents to keep her story alive. Then there is the fact that newspaper owners are not interested in history. If you go to the Sunday Times there is not one piece of paper about her. The same goes for the Observer. Journalists are not interested in the past."

'The First Lady of Fleet Street' is published by JR Books. Cost: £20

Last updated: 11:37am, May 12 2011