The First Lady of Fleet Street: The Life of Rachel Beer: Crusading Heiress and Newspaper Pioneer, by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, is a well-documented story of a woman of substance during the Victorian era.
What is might not be well-known about her are her pursuits in journalism and how she became the owner and editor of two newspapers in England: The Sunday Times and The Observer. Her connections to the newspapers and her responsibilities came about during a time period when woman were not viewed as worthy of overseeing a business, never mind newspapers. She was adamant in her goals to have her newspapers thriving, and to have them available for all to read.
The first third, or more, of the book dealt mainly with her parents, grand parents and other family members, dating back to India, where she was born into the Sassoon lineage. She was the daughter of wealthy Jewish immigrants, immigrants who were held in high esteem in the business world, and immigrants who fostered productivity and wealth distribution. Their backgrounds figure throughout the pages and the book delves into ancestral roots and business acumen of those family members. The story depicts the opium and cotton dealings involved in the Beer family gaining wealth and prominence in the trading world in India. It depicts how they emigrated and eventually became upstanding members of English society.
The book also depicts the background of her financier husband Frederick Beer, and his family members and ancestors. When the two families melded due to the marriage of Rachel and Frederick, a rift occurred, due to the fact that Frederick’s family had abandoned their Jewish roots, converted to Anglicanism, and led a Christian life. Rachel followed suit, and converted. Her family did not take kindly to this, and disowned her. This did not deter Rachel from following her feelings of love. Although a Anglican convert, her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and background never completely left her, and was displayed within her projects and business environment.
Rachel was a strong woman, and one who held humble ideals within her environment. She was dedicated to overseeing food distributions to the poor, and personally involved herself in handing out the food. She also was involved in a school for the poor Jewish children in the East End of London. In her writings in her newspapers she was sympathetic towards the Jewish population, the aged and towards any segment of individuals down on their luck. She was an advocate of the Zionist movement.
Women’s Suffrage was a movement she often wrote about, and was clearly dedicated to. Voting rights for women was a primary concern of hers. She also believed in equality for women, during a time of angst against women being considered equal to men.
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Rachel never forgot her birth roots, and at social gatherings and parties held in her home, she would dress the part, infusing herself in Indian and Oriental styled garb. She thrived on these events, and enjoyed showing the side of her formed from birth in Baghdad.
Rachel’s story is one that seems to run the course of social standards and mores in Victorian England. She was a woman of dedication and power during a time when it was frowned upon for English women to be involved in business and/or politics. Women were not allowed to vote at that time, never mind be regarded and respected in the business world. From high society to helping the poor, charity and giving to others was a staple and one of the foundations of her life. She thrived on selfless giving. Her life’s passions ended abruptly.
After Frederick’s death from tuberculosis, Rachel was left to carry on alone. She was exhausted mentally and physically from caring for him while he was ill, along with running the two newspapers. She grieved endlessly, and found no joy in life. She had no children, and her familial connections were basically nil. Her brother, Joseph, had her declared unsound and unable to care for herself or her properties and businesses. This caused the courts to order Joseph to oversee her finances and health. She spent the last twenty five years of her life living in the English countryside, along with a nurse and other staff members in a very comfortable style. She eventually began to involve herself in charitable movements, and helping the poor was a prime concern of hers.
The First Lady of Fleet Street: The Life of Rachel Beer: Crusading Heiress and Newspaper Pioneer, is the story of a woman consumed with helping the Jewish poor (adults and children alike), a woman consumed with journalism and the plight of those in need, and a woman who was consumed with grief over the loss of her husband, until the day she died.
I found the book, as a whole, to relay more of Rachel’s family’s background and Frederick’s family’s background, than I had wished to read. I wanted to read more about Rachel. The portions that did detail Rachel and her pursuits were quite interesting, and I read through those pages fascinated by all the details.
July 9, 2013 – 2 Av, 5773
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