Rachel Beer 1858 - 1927
R achel Beer was England’s first female newspaper editor, editing The Observer and owning and editing The Sunday Times in 1893.
She was born in Bombay (Mumbai), India on 7th April 1858 to Sassoon David Sassoon and Farha Reuben. The prominent Jewish family traded in cotton and opium, a legal drug at the time used as a painkiller, for fever and other conditions during the Victorian period.
Her brother Alfred married the artist Theresa Thorneycroft, who was not of the Jewish faith. Their youngest son was Siegfried Sassoon, who became one of the leading war poets of the First World War.
Rachel Beer worked as an unpaid nurse in the Brompton Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest for two years from 1884 and would write about her experiences and opinions in the Victorian magazine The Woman’s World. Negev & Koren in their book First Lady of Fleet Street quote from a February 1887 article she wrote about nurses,
‘She was indignant that the “sisters of mercy” were treated in a fashion “no better than white slavery”, and were exploited by private institutions, which made a profit out of their labour and paid miserably.’
In 1887 Rachel married Frederick Beer. He was the son of Julius Beer an Ashkenazi Jew from the Frankfurt ghetto. They were a rich banking family who had invested in the railways and transatlantic cables. Frederick had been baptised as an Anglican and Rachel converted to Anglicanism the day before their wedding. Prime Minister Gladstone was one of the guests at their wedding. Unfortunately Rachel’s mother would no longer speak to her.
A devoted couple, Frederick owned The Observer and gave The Sunday Times to Rachel as a gift. She wrote a weekly column in The Sunday Times ‘In the Witness box’ and interviewed prominent people of the times.
Frederick succumbed to illness and Rachel nursed him and continued to run the newspapers. Frederick died in 1903 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery in the Beer Mausoleum. Subsequently Rachel had a breakdown and in 1903 was certified by the well-known psychiatrist Sir George Henry Savage, and was committed ‘to the care of the commissioners of lunacy’. The following year her trustees sold the newspapers.
After her husband’s death, Rachel moved to Tunbridge Wells and leased Chancellor House to be near her sister-in-law Theresa Sassoon. The 1911 census declared Rachel as a widow of private means living with Anna Maria Macartney, 38, Mental Nurse and Nora Bernal Ryan, 25, Mental Nurse. During the war years Rachel appeared to have regained control over her finances and together with her personal assistant Miss Edith Ross, (also buried in Tunbridge Wells Cemetery) Rachel had an impact in the local community. Rachel became a patron of the Rusthall VAD Hospital, and in 1916 the Kent and Sussex Courier reported that one of the two new wards erected when the hospital was extended to 100 beds was funded entirely by Rachel, becoming known as the ‘Rachel Beer’ ward. In 1918 Rachel also funded two hostels for the Matron and her staff. During this period she financed many entertainments and concerts for the soldiers. What is not clear is whether Rachel attended any of these concerts or events at the hospital or whether she was confined to the Chancellor House grounds. All three of her nephews were involved with the war, including Hamo who died at Gallipoli in 1915.
After the war Rachel, with the help of Miss Ross, would continue to support the local medical services by allowing the grounds of Chancellor House to be used for performances of theatricals, including ‘The Piper’ in 1922 and ‘The Comedy of Errors’ in 1926 performed by Ben Greet and his players. All proceeds went to support Tunbridge Wells General Hospital.
Rachel died at Chancellor House in 1927. In announcing her death, the Kent and Sussex Courier made no mention of her profession as a journalist, stating only that she was ‘well-known for her generous interest in charity, particularly in hospitals.’