Not too many people under 60 in Canada will have any idea who Lord Beaverbrook is, unless they are from New Brunswick. Even in Great Britain, where he spent most of his life, I suspect the memory of him is fading. But in his day he was a giant:
- a self-made millionaire by the age of thirty who left his native Canada for the Imperial metropolis of London in 1910 for even greater success;
- the owner and publisher of the Daily Express, the London paper which at one point had the highest circulation in the world;
- an MP in the UK parliament, a knight, and the original Fleet Street press baron;
- Minister of Information in the first Lloyd George cabinet during the First World War;
- an author and journalist in his own right;
- a close friend of Winston Churchill, and served in his cabinet throughout the Second World War, notably as Minister of Aircraft Production through the Battle of Britain;
- his biography was written by the eminent English historian (and his friend) A. J. P. Taylor; and
- founder and donor of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in the provincial capital of Fredericton, New Brunswick (where I got the t shirt with the image above by Charles Pachter).
When put that way, he sounds like a great man, and in many ways he was. That said, there was always a air of scandal about him. His ownership of the Daily Express was not known throughout much of the First World War, and Beaverbrook used it to secretly criticize a government that he was part of – including playing a role in the downfall of Asquith, the Prime Minister through the first three years of the war. The Daily Express was then, as now, not a paper found in the best of homes, being oriented to scandal-mongering and being economical with the truth. Beaverbrook really saw it as a means of propaganda and money-making, not a noble trust. When he was a young man based in Halifax and Montreal he made his fortune in Canada in mergers and acquisitions, but the means by which he did it were considered a bit shady, and he was more or less obliged to sell his Canadian holdings and leave the country in 1910. The character of Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited is said to be based on him.
He was born Max Aitken in 1879 in Maple, Ontario (now best known for being the home of Canada’s Wonderland, north of Toronto), the son of a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister. His father accepted an appointment to the Presbyterian church in Newcastle New Brunswick on the shores of the Miramachi river, and he grew up there. He always saw it as his home town, and later endowed it with a library and various other public buildings. When he was proposed in 1916 to be made a baron he originally wanted to be Baron Miramachi, but apparently too many Brits mispronounced it (probably with a hard ch as in church and not the correct ch as in chef). So he chose another place for his peerage: Beaverbrook. And could anything sound so Canadian as BEAVERBROOK?
But where is Beaverbrook? Well, here it is (the Google maps view):
Not very impressive, is it? Basically, it is just a whistle stop on the old Intercolonial Railway that ran from Quebec to Halifax and was built as a result of the negotiations around Confederation in 1864 through 1867. That particular section of track was built in 1875, and the final link between the Maritime Provinces and Quebec was completed the following year. But I can imagine a young Max Aitken playing out along the woods and tracks, and when obliged to find a place name for his peerage chose a an evocative if not distinguished one.
My great-grandfather Thomas G. Scott (1854-1923) was a locomotive engineer on the old Intercolonial, doing the run between Campbellton and Moncton for forty years. Born in Bathurst NB he was a pious Presbyterian, the superintendent of the Sunday School, and described in his obituary as the minister’s right hand man. I can well imagine that he knew Beaver Brook Station the place.
Locomotive engineers had big heavy boxes that they took with them into the engine cab. They kept the records of their journeys in them. This is my great-grandfather’s:
It’s not much to look at, but when you open it up there are treasures:
Mostly it is old logs with handwritten notes about the weather and the train he was driving. But it also had a medal Thomas Scott got for service in the Intercolonial during the Great War, an old psalter, as well as an article about his funeral in 1923, and his last letter to his youngest son, my grandfather. My grandfather inherited it, and he kept some of his old school records in it, as well as a notarized release that allowed my granddad as a young university student at McGill to ride in the engine with his father.
It is doubtful that Beaverbrook ever met my grandfather – while they started out in similar circles they certainly did not end up in the same ones. But I can imagine that at some point in the 1880s my grandfather would have sounded the whistle around Beaver Brook Station and Newcastle to force the boys off the tracks, and that young Max Aitken was one of them.
While I started reading Taylor’s 892 page opus on Beaverbrook, I confess I did not finish it. Most of the facts here are from the wikipedia entry.