From the Archives

Hold the Front Page – newspaper tycoon at Roehampton Club in the 1900’s involved in the beginnings of the tabloid press

Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth joined Roehampton Club in 1903 in the same batch of elected Members such as Colonel Haig (pictured) – destined to become the Senior Officer of the British Army in the First World War and John Wodehouse, 2nd Earl of Kimberley, who became the first member of the Labour Party to take his place in the House of Lords.

We can only speculate at the timing of these individuals joining the Club at exactly the same time but it is certainly clear that these figures would loom large in the spectacular growth of popular journalism that was to take place over the next twenty years.

The application form in the Club archives for R Leicester Harmsworth MP also coincides with his appointment as Director of Associated Press – the company formed in 1901 by his brother Alfred Harmsworth better known as Lord Northcliffe (pictured) who had successfully begun the process of appealing to the working class and middle income earners with his sense of what the reading public wanted to buy. He had set up several periodicals leading up to the end of the nineteenth century which he brought together to make up the largest periodical publishing company in the world.

By the time Leicester Harmsworth joined the Club, Lord Northcliffe had brought all four of his younger brothers into his media empire which included the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror and by 1908, the umbrella organisation had acquired the Sunday Times. It is a matter of record that all his brothers have been recognised as contributors to this media conglomerate. By 1914, this powerful organisation reportedly controlled 40% of the morning newspaper circulation in Great Britain, 45% of the evening newspaper readership and 15% of the Sunday circulation. Such was the overarching influence on the population of the country where the editorials could affect opinions and behaviours across the class system before the advent of radio, television and the digital world in which we live today.

During the turn of the 20th century, journalists, editors and newspaper proprietors recognised their position as the dominant media channel of the time in the form of the written word. Many of them took an active interest in sport joining clubs such as Roehampton Club knowing that they were likely to meet the movers and shakers in government or the military.

The proprietors were also not averse to making the sporting headlines themselves with significant sums of prize money or sponsorship. But only on the condition that their publications would get exclusive coverage of the event or special access to the players involved. It was Lord Northcliffe who sponsored several leading British golfers and one of the best journalists of the period to travel to the US for the 1913 US Open at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. The players involved were Harry Vardon, Edward Ray, the Open Champion Champion JH Taylor and golf writer Bernard Darwin – grandson to naturalist Charles Darwin.

The event has been immortalised in a book by Mark Frost in 2002 The Greatest Game Ever Played and a film of the same name which depicts the birth of modern golf. The US Open was one of the last international events to take place before the start of the First World War when the newspapers owned by Lord Northcliffe were used by the government, the military and the proprietors themselves to orchestrate propaganda and where necessary to censor the publication of bad news if it was deemed to adversely affect the war effort.

This is where I come back to the names at the beginning of this piece representing the key figures in the transformational success of popular journalism when the tabloid press was engaged to mobilise the labour movement for the sake of king and country. Meanwhile at home, the papers were used for propaganda purposes to keep the spirits high. Such was the success of Lord Northcliffe in demonising the German nation with a persistent stream of highly emotional fake news that he was dubbed as the ‘King of Lies’ by the Germans. Roehampton Club should be proud of its role in bringing people together at critical periods in our history. None more so than today as we work through the future of the Club in these difficult times.

Steve Riedlinger |  Club Archivist