Lord Beaverbrook - The Miramichi's Greatest Benefactor

Before Lord Beaverbrook died in 1964 in Surrey, England he said, "My last home will be where my heart has always dwelt."

And in accordance with his wishes, his ashes were interred in his beloved "Square" in Newcastle.

William Maxwell Aitken spent his boyhood in Newcastle. He was the sixth of ten children of Rev. and Mrs. William Aitken and he lived with his family at the Presbyterian Manse, now the Old Manse Library, one of Lord Beaverbrook's many bequests to his boyhood town.

Rev. Mr. Aitken had come to Newcastle from Maple, Ontario in 1880, when young Max was just a year old.

Max Aitken received his education at Harkins Academy where he was described as only a fair student, restless and a dreamer. His strong points were that he was a mathematical wizard and a prodigious reader, the latter trait having been inherited from his father.

Yet even in his youth, Max Aitken was enterprising. In his autobiography he recounts the various ways he earned money during his young days. These included pumping the organ at St. James's for 25 cents per week; establishing a newspaper at age thirteen; selling and collecting for the provincial and daily Sun and being a correspondent for the Saint John Sun.

This young Newcastle boy was to become an international financier, a British politician and cabinet minister, a member of the Peerage and a powerful newspaper publisher.

Despite his rise to fame and fortune, he remained interested always in his native town and province. He established scholarships for promising students and set up annuities for several of his boyhood friends and mentors. One friend who was granted an annuity for life was William Corbett of Newcastle.

In later years he gave to the town of Newcastle the Edward Sinclair Rink and the Beaverbrook Theatre and Town Hall and to Chatham the Lord Beaverbrook Arena and the Beaverbrook Civic Centre. There were many other gifts as well and his largesse extended to the capital city of Fredericton, the University of New Brunswick, and all across the province and the country.

On his visits to Newcastle throughout the years, the old timers greeted him as "Max". During his retirement years his dedication and interest appeared to increase. He and his granddaughter Lady Jean Campbell were frequent visitors. He took a personal hand in the refurbishing of the Square and the Old Manse Library, sending Miss Barbara Gandy from England to act as the first librarian.

He also took a keen interest in the projects of local historian Louise Manny, in particular the restoration of the old burial ground at Wilson's Point (now the Enclosure) and the collection of Miramichi folk songs.

Local Boy Makes Good

At the age of 16, Max Aitken followed his great friend, R. B. Bennett into the field of law. He articled in the Chatham Law Office of L. J. Tweedie which was located on the second floor of what is now Digdon's Shoe Store. When his hero, R. B. Bennett left the partnership in 1897 to go to Calgary young Max Aitken was bereft but he stayed in the Tweedie office for a time hoping to eventually succeed Bennett as Mr. Tweedie's partner. When Charles Mitchell of Newcastle got the position, Aitken enrolled in Law School in Saint John but he stayed only a short time before he followed his friend west.

R. B. Bennett was to become Prime Minister of Canada and Max Aitken's path was to take him back to Halifax, to Montreal and finally London.

By the age of 31, Aitken had made his first fortune by engineering the merger of thirteen cement companies and by assisting in important bank and steel industry mergers. Following this triumph, he was able to retire from business and sail to England where he proposed to build a new career in politics.

This trait of switching from one interest or career just as he had reached the pinnacle was to remain with him all his life. The intriguing part of his history is that he was equally successful in all three careers--business, politics and journalism. Journalism, he always said, was his first and last love.

Success In England

When Max Aitken arrived in England, Andrew Bonar Law of Rexton, who was to become Prime Minister of Britain, was already there. Aitken became his private secretary and when Arthur Balfour resigned the leadership of the Conservative party, Aitken masterminded the intrigue that made Bonar Law his successor.

Max Aitken was elected to the House of Commons in 1910 and he so dazzled the British that honours came quickly to him. He was knighted in 1911, was made a baronet in 1916, and was raised to the peerage in 1917, all before his 38th birthday. For his title he chose the name of the little village of Beaverbrook, near his hometown of Newcastle.

The First World War provided Beaverbrook with further opportunities for personal advancement. He was deeply involved in the 1916 plot to remove Herbert Asquith as prime minister and to put Lloyd George in his place. And later, in 1922, he helped to dissolve Lloyd George's coalition government and establish his friend Bonar Law in the position of prime minister. He himself became British minister of information in 1918. At the same time he was in charge of Canadian War Records and was responsible for commissioning the many remarkable paintings which Canadian artists executed during the war.

But already Beaverbrook had decided that real power lay in other directions than politics. He understood the influence that could be wielded through the popular press and in 1916 he acquired the Daily Express, around which he built up a whole constellation of papers, including the Sunday Express, the Evening Standard, and the Scottish Daily Express.

Beaverbrook used his papers as political instruments. He was a devoted imperialist, believing that the British Empire should be transformed into a confederation of equal states. He thought that if the empire were made into a great free trade area and raised high tariff walls against the rest of the world, then all Britain's economic problems could be solved.

When World War II broke out, Beaverbrook was not ignored by Winston Churchill. He was appointed minister of aircraft production from 1940 to 1941, at a time when a vigorous organizer was needed to create a British air force out of almost nothing; he was minister of supply from 1941 to 1942 and lord privy seal from 1943 to 1945, when he left active politics. He was also for a while the administrator of the British lease-lend program in the United States.

When the great effort of the war ended, Beaverbrook retreated to his personal newspaper empire, but he was increasingly disillusioned with the progressive break up of the other empire--the British Empire. Realizing that his power to influence affairs had dwindled in the post-war years, he retired to the English countryside.

Lord Beaverbrook had served the Empire well. He was the only man other than Winston Churchill to serve in the British cabinet during two world wars.

He loved the Miramichi and he loved Canada. It was to Canada that he left his fortune, administered by the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation. His generosity to his native country continues.

(Northumberland News, January 9, 1985)

Copyright © Lois F. Martin, 1985. All rights reserved.