The first non-white UK newspaper editor was hired in 1894by Nina Martyris / June 19, 2013 / Leave a comment
Amol Rajan, the new editor of the Independent, is being widely congratulated for becoming the first non-white from an ethnic background to be named editor of a national newspaper in the UK. The 29-year-old Calcutta-born Rajan deserves every good wish, but he’s not the first to have broken through.
Rachel Sassoon Beer, editor of the Sunday Times and the Observer between 1894 and 1902, claimed that title more than a century ago. Her story is fascinating— and heartbreaking.
Beer was born in Bombay in 1858 into the super-rich and philanthropic Sassoon family of pro-British Baghdadi Jews. They made their fortune on opium and cotton after establishing themselves in Bombay, where the patriarch David Sassoon fled after being banished from Baghdad by the pasha. Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh describes them as a family “which had hobnobbed with English kings, intermarried with the Rothschilds.” Rachel was David Sassoon’s granddaughter (and aunt to the poet Siegfried Sassoon). When her father was sent to England to expand the cotton business, Rachel and her mother joined him.
Beer’s extraordinary life story is lucidly and honestly related in a recent biography, The First Lady of Fleet Street by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren. “First Lady of Fleet Street” is a worthy sobriquet for someone who was Britain’s first non-white editor, first woman editor, and its only editor to simultaneously edit two rival Sunday newspapers. Both papers were owned by her husband Frederick Beer.
Aha! you think. A proprietor’s wife who rode his coattails to the editor’s chair. Not quite. While there’s no doubt that her wealth and social status helped—the Beers entertained the Prince of Wales and were thick with the Gladstones—let’s not forget that Rachel was a Jewish woman who became editor in an anti-Semitic, misogynist era when women were not allowed to vote, banned from libraries, and denied university degrees because of the belief that too much brain work caused breakdowns and infertility. This superstition would come back to haunt Beer.
Excluded though she was from the news tips passed around with the port, Beer quickly proved her editorial chops. A natural newspaperwoman, she relished a good political dust-up and used her editorials to champion social change. Women journalists were expected…