As a follow-up on the previous post on Bracken House, this week a post on the man these newspaper offices were named after. Brendan Bracken liked to make a mystery out of himself. When still young, he described himself as an Australian orphan, and although he had lived in Australia for a while, he was not born there, nor was he an orphan. He was also alleged to be the illegitimate son of Winston Churchill. The rumour probably did not originate from his vivid imagination, but he made no effort to deny it either. His private papers were on his orders destroyed within twenty four hours of his death, which certainly did not make life easy for his biographer, Andrew Boyle, who described the writing of ’Poor, Dear Brendan’. The Quest for Brendan Bracken as a work of detection.
Bracken was born 15 February, 1901 at Templemore, Ireland. Already when very young, he told colourful tales and preferred to play truant rather than go to school. After his father’s death, his mother moved the family to Dublin, but Brendan kept up his truancy antics and in 1915, his mother placed him with the Jesuits at Mungret in the hope that they could teach him some discipline. Unsurprisingly, the school did not agree with him and he ran away. He seemed to have toured through Ireland, leaving a paper trail of unpaid hotel bills. His mother was not unduly worried until the bills stopped coming. She found him in Limerick, claiming to be a trainee journalist. She was having none of that and whisked him off to Dublin where it was decided to send him to Australia. As can be expected by now, Brendan did not exactly behave as the dutiful son should and instead of staying to finish his education in Sydney, he managed to arrange a far freer existence at the sheep farm of a distant relative of his mother’s. He used the library at the convent at Echuca to educate himself in his spare time in the subjects he thought worthwhile. He supplemented his pocket money with some private teaching, pretending to be a fully qualified teacher.
But Australia was not his dream country and in 1920 he was back in Ireland, but not for long. His mother had remarried and had no intention of listening to his tall tales while footing all the bills. Brendan went to England. He somehow managed to get himself into Sedbergh School in Cumbria, pretending to be a 15-year old Australian orphan. Although the headmaster probably never fully believed him, he was admitted, but only stayed for a couple of months. When he left Sedbergh, he had every intention of trying to make a living teaching, but after just two years switched to politics and journalism. He managed to get himself introduced to Oliver Locker-Lampson who engaged Brendan to promote a new magazine, the Empire Review. In 1923, he met his hero Winston Churchill and involved himself in the latter’s – unsuccessful – attempt to become the MP for Leicester West. One thing led to another and Brendan managed to succeed in both his publishing efforts (among others The Financial Times) as well as in his political life.
His easy chameleon-like behaviour, appearing exactly what he thought others would like him to be, combined with his charm and – not always truthful – account of himself, brought him into contact with many people who could and would further his career. He became friends with Lord Beaverbrook, of Daily Express fame(1), and at the beginning of WWII, Winston Churchill asked him to become his Parliamentary Private Secretary. In July 1941, Bracken was appointed Minister of Information, and although at first reluctant to accept a post where three of his predecessors had failed miserably, he overhauled the Ministry drastically the first week in office, clearing it of all ”bureaucratic deadwood” and reasserting the rights of ‘his’ ministry in handling official propaganda. He had a knack of appointing the right people and could therefore leave the actual day-to-day running of the ministry to others. According to Lord Chandos, “he threaded his way with great skill through the labyrinth of public relations and avoided the pitfalls and sands. […] He ran the policy with a firm hand and left the details to others”(2)
After the war, Labour won the elections and Bracken was suddenly without a political job, but he quickly filled the gap by engineering a merger of The Financial News and The Financial Times. He became the chairman of the ‘new’ Financial Times which was at that time based in several separate buildings in the City; only after his death would they move to Bracken House. Lord Poole, his successor as chairman at the FT, said in a statement circulated with the accounts for the period June 1957-December 1958, “Bracken was a man of brilliant and varied parts […] under his inspiration the paper was broadened from a journal of primarily financial and economic interest to the lively, vigorous newspaper we have today”.(3) Bracken died on 8 August 1958, aged 57 and, according to his wishes, there was no funeral service, no memorial service and all his papers were burnt in the fireplace of 8 Lord North Street, his London home.
Look up to the top floor of the house and note the bricked-up window. I read somewhere that Bracken swapped that part of the house with the neighbour for a bit of the garden, but whether that is true …? In November 2007, an application was submitted for approval to renew the marquette paving, because cracks had appeared in the front entrance steps of number 8. On the photos supplied with the application, the cracks can clearly be seen.
Another application of more interest perhaps, was submitted two years earlier by English Heritage to Westminster City Council for a blue plaque. The application was received in September 2005 and the favourable decision notice was issued on 12 October. The submitted plan included a drawing of the plaque design.(4) As you can see, it was to be a standard English Heritage blue plaque. I have contacted them to ask whether the plaque is indeed on the shortlist that they mention on their website and if so, whether any concrete steps have been taken about the plaque. Will keep you posted on this.
UPDATE 21 Oct. 2013: the good people at English Heritage have already sent a reply to my query about the blue plaque and this is the situation: although they have permission from the council to put up the plaque, the owner of the property refuses permission, so all EH can do is check on a yearly basis whether the situation has changed. Some people … honestly … no sense of history. Let’s hope they change their mind or that ownership of the house changes and we will see a blue plaque at 8 Lord North Street. In the mean time, the drawing above will have to do.
Most of the information on Bracken’s life comes from Andrew Boyle, ’Poor, Dear Brendan’. The Quest for Brendan Bracken (1974)
(1) See: My Dear Max: The Letters of Brendan Bracken to Lord Beaverbrook 1925-1958, ed. R. Cockett (1990).
(2) Boyle, p. 294.
(3) The Financial Times, 24 June 1959.
(4) The application can be seen here