Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Newnes, George

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NEWNES, Sir GEORGE, first baronet (1851–1910), newspaper and magazine projector, born at Glenorchy House, Matlock, on 13 March 1851, was youngest son of three sons and three daughters of Thomas Mold Newnes (d. 1883), a congregational minister at Matlock, by his wife Sarah (d. 1885), daughter of Daniel Urquhart of Dundee. Educated at Silcoates, Yorkshire, and at the City of London School, he was apprenticed when sixteen to a wholesale firm in the City of London. Three years after completing his apprenticeship he was placed by another London firm of dealers in fancy goods in charge of a branch business in Manchester, and there suddenly conceived the idea of a journal which should consist wholly of popularly entertaining and interesting anecdotes, or, as he termed, them ’tit-bits,' extracted from all available sources. This idea proved the foundation of his fortune. Within twelve months he made plans for producing such a periodical. Negotiations in Manchester for financial help to the extent of 500l. failed. Scraping together all the money he could, Newnes accordingly produced with his own resources on 2 Oct. 1881 the first number of the weekly paper which he christened 'Tit-Bits.' He engaged the Newsboys' Brigade to sell it in the streets. Within two hours 5000 copies were sold.

The paper grew in popularity, and after producing it in Manchester for three years with increasing success, Newnes transferred the publication to London, where he opened offices first in Farringdon Street, and later in Burleigh Street and Southampton Street. Other bold innovations upon a publisher's business followed. By instituting the 'Tit-Bits' prize competitions, including the offer (on 17 Nov. 1883) of a house, 'Tit-Bits Villa,' at Dulwich, of the value of 800l. as one of the first prizes, he appealed in a new fashion to a widespread popular instinct which has since been developed to immense profit and in endless ways by the proprietors of other publications. Equally original and successful was his insurance plan, which constituted each copy of 'Tit-Bits' a railway accident policy for the purchaser. These expensive schemes, which were launched by Newnes only after most careful consideration, and in spite of general predictions of failure, gave excellent returns. One of his prizes, a situation in the office of 'Tit-Bits,' was won in Sept. 1884 by Mr. Cyril Arthur Pearson, who rose to be manager of the paper, and left in July 1890 to start 'Pearson's Weekly.' A frequent contributor to the page 'Answers to Correspondents' was Mr. Alfred Harmsworth (now Lord Northcliffe), who as a result founded in 1888 'Answers,' a rival paper to Tit-Bits. The popularity of the competitions became so great that in one day no less than two hundred sacks of letters were received. The paper meanwhile improved. It ceased to be a collection of extracts only and included in increasing proportion contributions by authors of note.

In 1890 Newnes, at the suggestion of his schoolfellow, William Thomas Stead, brought out the first number of the 'Review of Reviews,' with Stead as editor; but after a few months Stead and Newnes separated, Stead taking sole charge of the 'Review,' while Newnes in 1891 started the 'Strand Magazine,' combining on a large scale popular illustration with popular literary matter at the price of six-pence. In January 1893 he made a still bolder venture. At the close of 1892 the 'Pall Mall Gazette,' an evening daily newspaper, which was then a liberal journal, edited by (Sir) E. T. Cook, suddenly changed hands and politics. Newnes promptly engaged the services of the whole superseded literary staff of the 'Pall Mall Gazette' and started on 31 Jan. 1893 the 'Westminster Gazette' as a new organ of the liberal party. Newnes's friends in the party were nervous about investing their money, but Newnes had full confidence in himself, and succeeded in giving the paper financial stability. His publishing firm was incorporated in 1891 as a limited company with a capital of 400,000l. and reconstructed in 1897, when the capital was increased to 1,000,000l. Among the new ventures which followed from the house of George Newnes, Ltd., were: 'Country Life' (1897), the 'Ladies' Field,' the 'Wide World Magazine' (both in 1898), and 'C. B. Fry's Magazine' (1904).

Newnes entered Parliament in 1885 as member for the Newmarket division of Cambridgeshire, which he represented in the liberal interest until 1895, when he lost his seat, and was rewarded for his services to his party by a baronetcy. The prime minister, Lord Rosebery, stated that the honour was conferred on him as a pioneer of clean popular literature. Newnes was returned for Swansea Town in 1900, and represented that constituency until the general election of 1910.

Newnes applied much of his wealth to public purposes. His London residence was on Putney Heath, and he took great interest in the welfare of Putney. In 1897, the year of the diamond jubilee, he presented a new and spacious library at a cost of 16,000l., the building being opened by Lord Russell of Killowen, the lord chief justice, in May 1899. In 1898 he fitted out at his own expense the South Polar Expedition, under the guidance of the Norwegian explorer C. E. Borchgrevinck. His sympathy with suffering was always strong. The painful sight of horses toiling up the steep ascent from Lynmouth to Lynton in Devon, where he acquired a country residence, led him to build a cliff railway there. Similarly he met the difficulty which was felt by invalids in mounting to the heights at his birthplace, Matlock, by building a cable railway for their use, which he presented to the town on 28 March 1893. He died at his residence in Lynton on 9 June 1910, and was buried at Lynton.

Newnes married in 1875 Priscilla Jenney, daughter of the Rev. James Hillyard of Leicester, by whom he had two sons, of whom the younger, Arthur, died in childhood. The elder son, Frank Hillyard Newnes, his successor in the baronetcy, has been since 1906 M.P. for Bassetlaw, Nottinghamshire.

A memorial tablet in the corridor near the entrance to the Putney library was unveiled on 23 May 1911; it consists of a bronze bust of Newnes in relief against a white marble background, designed by Mr. Oliver Wheatley. A cartoon portrait by 'Spy' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1894.

[Life of Sir George Newnes, by Hulda Friederichs (with portrait), 1911; T. H. S. Escott, Masters of English Journalism, 1911; Mitchell's Newspaper Directory, 1911, p. 16; Putney News-letter, 12 June 1910; Tit-Bits, 25 June 1910; The Times, 10 June 1910; Whitaker's Red Book of Commerce; private information.]

C. W.