Canadian history and art owe much to Sir Max Aitken.
In charge of maintaining Military Records overseas during the First World War, Sir Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) recognized the importance of recording events from the front lines. He pioneered a front-line photography program but when he discovered that some of the Canadian achievements were not being properly documented by the cameras, Aitken commissioned an artist to recreate some of the battles on canvas.
The results were so successful that Aitken founded the war artist program under the auspices of his Canadian War Memorials Fund. The Canadian War Art program flourished through both World Wars with many notable artists such as the Group of Seven producing great works of art in all theatres of war. Ultimately, over 13,000 paintings and sculptures were created illustrating the Canadian experience of war.
William Maxwell Aitken was born in Maple, Ontario in 1879. He was the son of a Scottish Presbyterian preacher in Newcastle, N.B. and became a millionaire businessman by the age of 32, a press baron and a respected British politician.
He had a reputation as a shrewd political figure and a pushy newspaper publisher, barking orders to the editors of his London papers down the telephone lines from his country mansion, Cherkley Court, near Leatherhead, Surrey.
He founded the Canada Cement Company by successfully merging several other companies. He was also able to forge a merger which created the Steele Company of Canada (Stelco). Prior to WWI, he had moved to England because of the business opportunities at the time.
He became friends with another New Brunswicker in England, Bonar Law, who became the only Canadian to be Prime Minister of Great Britain. With Law's help, Aitken entered politics and was elevated to the House of Lords in 1917 and became known as "Lord Beaverbrook".
The Man and His Life
Aitken had a large personality and was known to enjoy his reputation as a mischief-maker "par excellence" who kept his "Canadian drawl" as he moved about London's political circles. Novelist William Gerhardie once asked Aitken if his middle name was short for Maximillian, to which Aitken reportedly replied "No, Maximultimillion."
Almost everything about the man seems to have a mythical and a factual version. For example, his peerage name, Beaverbrook, has a romantic story attached to it that Aitken picked the name because it reminded him of a stream near his home in New Brunswick where he fished as a boy. The less colourful version reports that it was simply a place he found on a map.
It has been said that Aitken enjoyed his position as an outsider, but it seems he also enjoyed being an insider, playing a role in British politics for more than 50 years. Aitken was a confidant of Sir Winston Churchill – whose name is recorded over and over again in the guest book at Cherkley Court. Bonar Law, a right-hand man to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was a regular guest who always celebrated Christmas there, and poet Rudyard Kipling not only signed in at Cherkley Court, he wrote a poem for the first guest book.
Aitken had a long political career that began shortly after he arrived in London in the spring of 1910. Aitken was one of only three British cabinet members to serve in both world wars. In Prime Minister Lloyd George's cabinet, Aitken was the first ever minister of information, and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. But Aitken was strong-minded and resigned from Lloyd George's government, leading him to promote his political views in his own newspapers.
Having delivered newspapers as a boy (reportedly around the age of 12, Aitken was organizing youths to deliver newspapers for him), Aitken went on to own two successful British newspapers – the Daily Express and the Evening Standard.
He reportedly told a British foreign minister that he would always have "the loyal support of my newspapers." Aitken's papers were widely-read. The Daily Express sold 4,300,000 copies in 1960, making it the largest selling British newspaper.
The First World War
By the time the First World War began, Max Aitken had transformed himself from a man of humble background to a wealthy newspaper baron, living in London, and with considerable influence in the highest levels of English politics and society. A Member of Parliament in Britain since 1910, Aitken returned to Canada in September 1914 to offer his services to the Canadian government.
He secured for himself an appointment as "Canadian Eye Witness", with responsibility for reporting the activities of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to the public in Canada, and for superintending whatever records the CEF generated.
Aitken established what eventually became known as the Canadian War Records Office in London, and before long news of Canadian war efforts were printed in Canadian and British newspapers.
Aitken also established the Canadian War Memorials Fund, which produced a collection of war art by the finest artists and sculptors in Britain and Canada. He also organized a three-volume series Canada in Flanders, which chronicled the achievements of Canadian soldiers in the field.
Aitken had a close relationship with Canada's Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes. Hughes' dismissal in 1916 put an end to Aitken's tenure as military representative and he shifted his attention back to British politics.
Lord Beaverbrook's legacy to historians of the First World War is considerable. He was responsible for the thousands of feet of film, hundreds of paintings and drawings, millions of pages of text, and thousands of photographs which have taught Canadians much about the Great War.
In Canada, Aitken got into trouble as a young boy in school and tried but failed to get into Dalhousie University in Halifax, but he eventually studied law. And it was in Halifax that he started his business career, setting up companies with ties to the Caribbean and England.
Aitken helped Prime Minister R.B. Bennett in his bid to win a seat in the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in Bennett's earlier days of politics. Aitken's press purchases began in Canada when he acquired the magazine Canadian Century, which didn't have much success since Aitken was a bit of an absentee publisher.
The Second World War
When the Second World War came about, Aitken became a member of Winston Churchill's cabinet and as Minister of Aircraft Production was responsible for increasing the output of fighting aircraft for the war effort. After the war ended, Aitken spent much of his time and effort in his home province and made many financial contributions to civic and university programs. In later years, Aitken travelled widely and focused more on writing his books, which have been referred to as well-written but indulgent accounts of his heroes and his own war experiences.
As honorary colonel-in-chief of the North Shore Regiment during WWII, he lauded the men for their record in action, adding that it was his privilege to have them as his guests. A parade had been suggested by the commanding officer, before sailing for Canada on December 21 1945, but Lord Beaverbrook replied: "Don’t have a parade. I’ll give them a dinner."
Among the guests were Viscount Bennett, who once taught school in New Brunswick, Major-General D.C. Spry, C.R.U. Commander, and Group Captain Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook’s fighter-ace son. "Let the beer flow like the waters of the Miramichi", bellowed Lord Beaverbrook as he played host to 300 officers and men of the First Battalion North Shore Regiment following the Allied victory.
The North Shore Regiment was one of four Canadian assault battalions to land in France on D-Day. The regiment saw action in many of the famous battles of the campaign. Almost 380 men of the regiment were killed in action and 850 wounded. Only four men were captured by the Germans in the whole campaign, which is considered something of a record among front-line infantry regiments.
Aitken was very financially successful during his life, but he also very generous. He started the Beaverbrook Foundation in 1954 to hand out grants. He donated large sums of money, much of it to causes in his native New Brunswick. He set up the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton in 1959 and has funded ice rinks, a town hall and theatre, and has given money to the University of New Brunswick, where he was a chancellor.
Lord Beaverbrook's Legacy
Lord Beaverbrook and his wife Lady Beaverbrook left a considerable legacy to his adopted province of New Brunswick and the United Kingdom, among others. His legacy includes the following:
University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick
- Aitken House
- Aitken University Centre
- Lady Beaverbrook Gymnasium
- Lady Beaverbrook Residence
- Beaverbrook House (UNBSJ E-Commerce Centre) City of Fredericton, New Brunswick
- Lady Beaverbrook Arena (formerly operated by the University of New Brunswick)
- The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, including world-renowned art collection (N.B.'s provincial gallery)
- The Fredericton Playhouse
- Lord Beaverbrook Hotel
City of Miramichi, New Brunswick
- Lord Beaverbrook Arena (LBA)
- Beaverbrook Kin Centre
- Lord Beaverbrook Bust in Queen Elizabeth Park in Miramichi
- Lord Beaverbrook School
- Lord Beaverbrook Rink
- Lord Beaverbrook High School
- The Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications
Memeorial Plaque to Lord Beaverbrook
A plaque erected by the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board, Department of Public Records and Archives of Ontario, located at the corner of Keele Street and Major Mackenzie Drive in Maple, Ontario reads as follows:
One of the Commonwealth's best-known publishers, politicians and philanthropists, William Maxwell Aiken was born in Maple. The son of the Reverand (sic) William Aiken, a Presbyterian minister, he was educated in Newcastle, New Brunswick to which his family moved in 1880. After a highly successful career in Canada as financier he entered the British House of Commons in 1910 as a strong advocate of Imperial Preference and was raised to the peerage in 1917 as Lord Beaverbrook.
He later became the principal British publisher of mass-circulation newspapers. During the Second World War Lord Beaverbrook was a member of the British War Cabinet and is best remembered as the Minister of Aircraft Production who organized the production of the fighter aircraft which won the Battle of Britain.