Controversial, intelligent and determined, Rachel Beer was a force to be reckoned with in her day. She forged the path for women in journalism and became Fleet Street’s first female editor, so why has her legacy been so quickly forgotten? Only the painstaking investigative works of her recent biographers bear any testament to the fact that she was once here.
Born in Bombay in 1858 to one of the 19th century’s richest families, she was the home educated daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, yet she recklessly fell in love with the Christian heir to a banking fortune.
Despite being ostracised by her family, she married financier Frederick Arthur Beer, converting to the Anglican faith to do so. Former Prime Minister, William Gladstone was a guest at the wedding. The only family member she remained in touch with was her brother Alfred, the father of WW1 poet, Siegfried Sassoon.
Her new husband’s investments just happened to include The Observer newspaper and after no time at all, Mrs Beer was contributing articles. In 1891 she was named Deputy Editor but as her husband owned the title, to give her a higher position would suggest she was as important as him. Instead, he bought her The Sunday Times, where she controversially became Editor.
Rachel Beer was recognised for her exclusives. During her time at The Observer she printed an admission of Count Esterhazy that he had forged letters that condemned an innocent Jewish officer, Captain Dreyfus, to jail on Devil’s Island. This caused an international outcry and led to his release. Her background coloured many of her leaders, which often expressed sympathy towards Jewish causes. A bold, campaigning proactive writer of the time, Rachel Beer would air her views on the political and social affairs of the day, despite having no journalistic training.
Dedicated to her cause, Rachel Beer fought for women’s rights, universal state pensions and was a passionate advocate of trade unionism. She was ahead of her time, printing human interest stories years before they were picked up by others.
While her professional life soared, her personal life collapsed when Frederick Beer was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1896. Mrs Beer stepped in as Editor for both newspapers but when her beloved husband died in 1901, aged just 43, she suffered serious depression. Despite experiencing a breakdown, she continued to run the papers.
Her nephews, though, began to worry about her money. She had no children and they panicked she might donate her millions to charity. They sent a barrister known as ‘The Master of Lunacy’ to her house and with the flick of a pen, one the most powerful women in Britain was stripped of all her rights, credibility and the control of her fortune.
Within months it was as though she had never existed. Relocating to Tunbridge Wells for country rest, she lived out her years with the care of a nurse. Despite requesting to be buried with her husband in his family’s mausoleum, Rachel Beer’s family intervened and in 1927 she was laid to rest in Tunbridge Wells Borough Cemetery with her headstone identifying her only as… ‘daughter of the late David Sassoon’.
Written by Philippa Park