English Heritage turns down plaque honouring 19th century Jewish woman editor

Rachel Sassoon Beer: edited the Observer and the Sunday Times

Rachel Sassoon Beer: edited the Observer and the Sunday Times

English Heritage has rejected a request to put up a blue plaque outside the Mayfair address of a Jewish woman who edited two major British newspapers in the 1890s.

Rachel Beer's contribution to British journalism as editor of both the Observer and the Sunday Times was largely overlooked, until last year when Israeli writers Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev published a book telling the story of The First Lady of Fleet Street.

Across London, the lives of almost 850 people - from prominent figures like Charles Dickens to lesser-known ones such as novelist Elizabeth Bowen - are marked with blue plaques at their former homes or offices.

When Mr Koren and Ms Negev contacted English Heritage last year, their suggestion of honouring Mrs Beer in this way was initially welcomed. But they have now been told that the committee found her ineligible.

Born in Bombay to the wealthy Sassoon family, (her nephew was the poet Siegfried Sassoon), Rachel married newspaper proprietor Frederick Beer, son of a Jewish banker who was a convert to Christianity.

With no training, she began contributing articles and in 1891 became editor of the Observer, then two years later editor of the Sunday Times, both of which she and Frederick owned. As editor she wrote strident editorials on foreign policy and women's rights, and in 1898 her scoop was the exclusive story of the forgery behind the Dreyfus Affair.

After her husband died in 1901, she was distraught and her grief led her to abandon her career. Childless, her legacy was all but forgotten by the time of her death in 1927. According to English Heritage, her obscurity means she cannot be commemorated with a plaque.

"She has come to public prominence chiefly as a result of a biography published only last year," said a spokesman. "It's best to see how the critical debate plays out about the historical significance of an individual."

The spokesman added that other comparable figures also had claims to commemoration. Funding shortages meant that English Heritage could fulfil only nine of the around 100 requests for plaques every year. "This means, unfortunately, that many good suggestions do not make the shortlist."

At present, only nine journalists - all men - have plaques in their name, while just 115 plaques overall celebrate the lives of women.

Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror and a well-known media commentator, said the rejection was surprising given that the names on plaques "are often not known to the passer by…the whole point of them is to show that these people existed".

He said it was "bad form" from English Heritage, especially since it was a century before there was another female editor of a serious newspaper - Janet Street Porter of the Independent on Sunday.

"Rachel Beer was a remarkable woman. There is a mistaken view that she was merely a kind of gofer for her husband, which was never true," Mr Greenslade said. "As far as I know she is the only person ever to have edited two newspapers at the same time. She has earned her place in newspaper history."

"She really deserves it," said Ms Negev. "Rachel Beer was left out in her lifetime, and even 120 years later it's a pity she is not being recognised for such a big achievement."

    Last updated: 1:32pm, March 8 2012