Alfred Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe (1865-1922)
From Literary Anecdotes About 19th Century Authors Born After 1829

ALFRED was born in 1865, a little more than a year before me, and he seems to have entered Henley House School when he was nine or ten years old. He made a very poor impression on his teachers and became one of those unsatisfactory, rather heavy, good-tempered boys who in the usual course of things drift ineffectively through school to some second-rate employment. It was J. V.'s [J.V. Milne] ability that saved him from that. Somewhere about the age of twelve, Master Harmsworth became possessed of a jelly-graph for the reproduction of MS. in violet ink, and with this he set himself to produce a mock newspaper. J.V., with the soundest pedagogic instinct, seized upon the educational possibilities of this display of interest and encouraged young Harmsworth, violet with copying ink and not quite sure whether he had done well or ill, to persist with the Henley House Magazine even at the cost of his school work. The first number appeared in 1878; the first printed number in 1881 `edited by Alfred C. Harmsworth' . . . During my stay at Henley House, I contributed largely, and among others who had a hand in the magazine was A. J. Montefiore, who was later to edit the Educational Review, and A. A. Milne (`aged six'— at his first appearance in print), the novelist, essayist and playwright.

Now neither Milne nor anyone in the Harmsworth family, as they scanned the early issues of this little publication, had the faintest suspicion of the preposterous thrust of opportunity that it was destined to give its youthful editor. But in the eighties the first school generation educated under the Education Act of 1871 was demanding cheap reading matter and wanting something a little easier than Chambers's Journal and a little less simply feminine than the Family Herald. A shrewd pharmaceutical chemist named Newnes tried to make a modest profit out of a periodical, originally of cuttings and quotations, Tit Bits, and made a great fortune. Almost simultaneously our Harmsworth, pursuing print as if by instinct, tried to turn a modest hundred or so by creating Answers to Correspondents (1888) . . . . Answers hung fire for a time until it dropped its initial idea and set out to imitate and beat Tit Bits at its own game, with the aid of prize competitions.

Neither Newnes nor Harmsworth, when they launched these ventures, had the slightest idea of the scale of the new forces they were tapping. They thought they were going to sell to a public of at most a few score thousands and they found they were publishing for the million. They did not so much climb to success; they were rather caught by success and blown sky high. I will not even summarize the headlong uprush of Alfred C. Harmsworth and his brother Harold; how presently they had acquired the Evening News, started the Daily Mail, and gone from strength to strength until at last Alfred sat on the highest throne in British journalism, The Times, and Harold was one of the richest men in the world.

Only one item in this rocket flight is really significant here. The second success of the Harmsworth brothers was a publication called Comic Cuts. Some rare spasm of decency seems to have prevented them calling this enormously profitable, nasty, taste-destroying appeal for the ha-pence of small boys, Komic Kuts. They sailed into this business of producing saleable letterpress for the coppers of the new public, with an entire disregard of good taste, good value, educational influence, social consequences or political responsibility. They were as blind as young kittens to all those aspects of life. That is the most remarkable fact about them from my present point of view, and I think posterity will find it even more astonishing.

From H. G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (1934), i. 326-328.

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