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Lord Northcliffe: The golf-mad Daily Mail founder's life in Broadstairs, the alligators he kept in his garden and the day a U-boat tried to blow him up


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He changed the face of national newspapers forever, spearheaded the government's propaganda machine during the First World War and kept alligators in the back garden of his Kent coastal retreat.

In fact, his actions so enraged the German forces they sent a U-boat to the English Channel to try and assassinate him.

Lord Northcliffe loved his Kent retreat - and kept wild animals and a growing car collection there
Lord Northcliffe loved his Kent retreat - and kept wild animals and a growing car collection there

And he even found time to transform the fortunes of one of the county's leading golf clubs; with his influence still apparent today.

Welcome to the remarkable world of Alfred Harmsworth, better known in the history books as Lord Northcliffe, the man who gave birth to both the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror and owned many other titles.

While it's easy to think of today's modern media magnates – such as Rupert Murdoch – wielding enormous power, it was nothing to that commanded by the former journalist-turned-newspaper proprietor in the earliest years of the 20th century.

Highly opinionated, with his views reflected in the pages of the newspapers he ran and dividing opinion just as they do today, he dominated an era when newspapers were the primary source of information.

Yet he found time to relax by unwinding at a sprawling country estate in Broadstairs, Elmwood, close to North Foreland Golf Club, purchased in 1891 when he was 36.

Alligators were kept in a greenhouse at the peer's coastal retreat
Alligators were kept in a greenhouse at the peer's coastal retreat

The Tudor home came with acres of land which stretched down to the coast towards Joss Bay.

There, he and his wife Mary could escape their busy lives in London, where their main home was, and enjoy an area he had frequently holidayed in as a child.

It was also the place he could indulge his fascination with wild animals. In one of its greenhouses he kept two alligators "in a giant mud bath". The stables were converted to house his growing collection of motorcars.

By the time he had bought the place, he had already started to establish the empire for which he will always be remembered.

First it was with popular magazines, blazing a trail with cut-prices and publicity-generating competitions. Then, in 1894 he purchased the Evening News, the London daily, followed two years later by the launch of the Daily Mail.

The Daily Mail put up money to pay those killed or injured by air attack during the First World War. Picture: Imperial War Museum
The Daily Mail put up money to pay those killed or injured by air attack during the First World War. Picture: Imperial War Museum

Aimed fairly and squarely at the working classes – not catered for by the rather staid other major newspapers of the time – he delivered tit-bits of news, with big headlines and plenty of illustrations. All at half the cost of its rivals.

It sold almost 400,000 copies of its first edition, then a record.

Much like the title remains today, it wore its patriotic pride on its sleeve but was not into pushing its – and by default, Harmsworth's – own political agenda on its readers.

By 1903, he launched the Daily Mirror – initially designed to be staffed by women and read by them. But it failed to capture the audience and within months was turned into a pictorial-led title with the female staff all axed.

Within a few years its circulation was in excess of 460,000, making it one of the nation's biggest-selling titles. By 1908, he'd acquired The Observer and The Times too. He also became the youngest peer, first as a baron taking the title Lord Northcliffe of the Isle of Thanet and, by 1918, Viscount Northcliffe.

Former PM David Lloyd-George - he offered Lord Northcliffe a place on his coalition war cabinet
Former PM David Lloyd-George - he offered Lord Northcliffe a place on his coalition war cabinet

In short, he held the lion's share of the morning and evening newspaper industry, giving him an unrivalled platform.

He decried plans to invest in the welfare state at the expense of defence funding and championed the ideals of the Conservative Party.

And he didn't hesitate in using the Mail, in particular, to whip up anti-German sentiment in the years leading up to the 1914-18 conflict – something which prompted The Star newspaper at the time to write: "Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war."

With the ability to make or break governments, the Prime Minister David Lloyd-George invited him to join the coalition war cabinet when hostilities erupted – not by virtue of being a big fan of the newspaper owner, but more alert to the dangers of him being outside the camp. However, he rejected the offer, as it would prevent his papers being able to criticise the war effort, which he wasn’t afraid to do – lambasting the legendary Lord Kitchener (most famous for being the face of the ‘your country needs you’ poster campaign) for a shortage of shells for frontline troops.

But his clout was recognised when he was both part of a delegation to travel to the US to try and persuade the it to join the war, and, in the same year, 1917, he was named 'director of propaganda in enemy territories' – a job his role owning the Mail had, perhaps uniquely, prepared him for.

War hero Lord Kitchener faced criticism in the pages of the Daily Mail during the First World War
War hero Lord Kitchener faced criticism in the pages of the Daily Mail during the First World War

It was, after all, the Mail which first dubbed the Germans as 'the Hun', a phrase which has survived more than 100 years.

It was while he held that role that his Broadstairs retreat was targeted by the Germans. It sent a U-boat to fire on the house, missing its intended target but hitting a cottage in which one of his gardeners lived, killing a young mother and her baby.

It was a shattering reminder of how life during the conflict had changed.

Having worked so hard to create his publishing empire, Northcliffe had been advised by his doctors to try and relax more for the good of his health. His brother had suggested golf, and so after acquiring Elmwood he became actively involved in the neighbouring North Foreland Golf Club.

There he indulged his passion for the sport and by 1913 had leased to the club the land which now houses half of its 18-hole course and its much-praised short course, the first 18-hole par-three course to be built. He even had a light railway constructed to ferry sand from Joss Bay up the course to fill in the bunkers.

North Foreland Golf Club - the land which is now occupied by holes 10-18 and the short course were previously owned by Lord Northcliffe
North Foreland Golf Club - the land which is now occupied by holes 10-18 and the short course were previously owned by Lord Northcliffe

By extolling both the course and the sport's virtues through his newspapers, he helped drive up golf's popularity and in turn allowed him to indulge in his passion.

"He's the reason the club is like it is," explains Arthur King, director at North Foreland and co-author of a history book on the club. "He got a big architect at the time to come down and design the course and it's thanks to his money it is what it is."

When the war finally finished, he splashed out a record-breaking figure in British sport, at the time, to acquire the services of golfer Abe Mitchell – described as "the greatest golfer never to win The Open". He came to the club on a five-year contract to not only become the club's professional but also to give Lord Northcliffe some private tuition.

Adds Mr King: "It set it up as being one of the top clubs in the country at the time."

Abe Mitchell would, after leaving North Foreland in 1925, go on to work for Samuel Ryder, as in the man who created the Ryder Cup – the biennial tournament pitting the talents of US golfers against those from Europe. Abe Mitchell, coincidentally, is the figure which stands on top of the trophy.

Abe Mitchell was one of world golf's greatest players - and, thanks to Lord Northcliffe, spent five years in Thanet
Abe Mitchell was one of world golf's greatest players - and, thanks to Lord Northcliffe, spent five years in Thanet

But before Mitchell's contract was to expire, Lord Northcliffe died in 1922 from a heart condition. He was just 57.

By then, he had already sold the Daily Mirror to his brother, Lord Rothermere, with the brothers jointly owning Associated Newspapers, the umbrella company for the media empire they had created.

Upon his death, and with no heir – he and his wife had no children, although it is believed he had four off-spring courtesy of two other women – his stake in the company went to his brother.

His newspaper empire continues to this day, under the umbrella of DMG Media. It remains in the controlling ownership of the Harmsworth family.

His Elmwood home has seen much of the land surrounding it sold off and new homes built. The original buildings have been sold off as separate homes.

North Foreland Golf Club in Kingsgate, Broadstairs - which owes much to the media magnate
North Foreland Golf Club in Kingsgate, Broadstairs - which owes much to the media magnate

Perhaps his most significant legacy in Kent is the North Foreland Golf Club. It retains close links with the Harmsworth family and DMG Media. The Northcliffe Golf Society play at the course each year and DMG helped fund the archway entrance to the short course, which is now known as the Northcliffe.

"Our link to Lord Northcliffe is something we're very proud of," says the club's Arthur King.

"After he died in 1922, although the club continued, by the time it got to the war, the club went into bankruptcy and the council [which leases the land to the club] took it back.

"During the Second World War, the Army requisitioned one side of it – they're still digging up bits of Army stuff now – then two guys came in, took a lease and the club has grown ever since.

"Since then, we've hosted qualifiers for The Open and attract visitors from around the world."

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