A new book by Jos Scharrer, The Journalist, explores the life and times of Flora Shaw, colonial editor of The Times newspaper in the 1890s. Scharrer is Shaw’s great-niece, who lives in South Africa. “This is the story of a woman who forged a successful career in journalism in the misogynistic nineteenth Century. This is also the story of an arch Imperialist who supported a plot to claim an African country for the British Empire, as well as the tale of an humanitarian who organised care for 250 000 Belgium refugees in the dark days of WW1. Welcome to the remarkable life of Flora Shaw.”
The Media Online caught up with Scharrer to find out more about the life and times of Flora Shaw.
How did Flora get to be an editor at The Times? What path did she take?
Flora Shaw was home-educated. When she was 17 years old she caught the attention of the famous Oxford art critic and educationalist John Ruskin who was some 37 years older than her. He decided to take her under his wing and for many years became a surrogate father figure to her. He organised her reading and took her to meet important people including the great philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle. It was under Ruskin’s guidance and help that she wrote her first children’s book Castle Blair, which became a best seller and ran to eight editions. This was followed by other popular children’s books such as Hector, A Sea Change and others. She also wrote for popular magazines and short children’s stories for Aunt Judy’s Magazine.
When she rented a little cottage in Abinger, Surrey, she discovered that the famous writer George Meredith was a close neighbour and the two became friends, spending many hours discussing art and literature. Through Meredith she was introduced to Robert Louis Stevenson who became a frequent visitor to her cottage. So her circle of literary friends grew, and when Meredith introduced her to the famous journalist who invented investigative journalism, WT Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, she felt she was nearly there. Stead invited her to send him any articles she thought would be of interest to his readers.
She shortly thereafter left for Gibraltar with friends and it was here that she discovered she could write something that could be politically sensational. Quite by accident on a walk in the countryside she spotted a cluster of houses with robed men standing outside. As she approached they all went inside, and she found that puzzling. On investigation she was told that a notorious Sudanese leader and alleged slave trader, Zebehr Pasha, was living there with his aides under house arrest. Flora arranged with the British authorities to interview this man, which she did over a period of four months. What she uncovered was his strenuous denial of the accusations and his insistence that he had been falsely accused of being partly responsible for the death of General Gordon at Khartoum and being in secret alliance with El Mahdi whose forces had so successfully attacked the British.
She sent the first of what would be a series of several articles to Stead, who decided to publish. As the result of these articles, Zebehr Pasha was released and returned to Cairo where he picked up his fabulous lifestyle once again – complete with a huge harem and lions chained at his palace gates. They remained firm friends until his death. Stead immediately employed Flora as a full-time journalist on his newspaper and under his supervision she learnt how to conduct investigative journalism and how to undertake the detailed research required for quality writing. Right from the beginning her subjects were economics, politics, labour and foreign affairs.
After two years of working with Stead she was invited to also contribute to the Manchester Guardian, whose editor was CP Scott. Scott sent her to Brussels to cover the International Anti-Slavery Conference – the first international conference of its kind. A large press contingent attended and Flora was the only woman present.
She had now established a reputation as being a professional journalist and her articles impressed many. Shortly after this conference, she was approached by The Times Manager, Charles Moberly Bell and invited to become a special correspondent. Being the only woman on this leading newspaper, she agreed that they could publish her articles under the name F. Shaw, so that the conservative readers would not realise that the articles were written by a woman. Three years later she was appointed colonial editor, and by this time her articles were published under her full name of Flora Shaw.
Did you have access to her personal story, diaries, letters?
In my childhood I was told many stories about Flora by my grandmother, aunt and father. I also have a biography written about her by Charles Moberly Bell’s daughter Edith entitled FLora Shaw, Lady Lugard DBE. In addition there are many recent articles about her published on the internet, including an extensive one by Prof. Emeritus Dorothy Helly of Hunter College, University of New York, who is a specialist in gender studies. Helly studied all of Flora’s papers in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and helped gather what papers she could.
My big breakthrough, however, came when I acquired a large two-volume biography on Flora’s husband Frederick Lugard by Margery Perham. In these volumes Perham detailed many letters written by Flora to Lugard and his numerous letters to her. These letters which are also stored at the Bodleian Library gave me new insight into her character and her views, which I discovered were not as harsh and passionately imperialistic as her articles indicate. Clearly she wrote what her employers wanted her to write.
My brother Eyre Shaw gathered a great deal of information from members of the extended Shaw which he passed on to me.
I also have in my possession one letter Flora wrote to my grandmother indicating both her concern and kindness together with political comments.
How long has the project taken?
I started collecting books and information about 10 years ago and have about 15 books detailing parts of Flora’s life and that of her husband. About two and half years ago, I sat down one Saturday and started Chapter One. As my time was limited it took me one year to write the first draft. This I continuously rewrote and edited, adding more information as it came to hand, until finally I handed the book over to professional editors. My biggest challenge was finding the time as I still run a small advertising agency and have been helping my one son build up his mobile catering business – Longtom Foods.
What lessons could we learn from her today?
What I found remarkable was her absolute dedication to her work and her belief that she had the ability to do “good” in the world. She was extraordinarily single-minded about her devotion to her duties and her research was extensive. She always made a point of getting alternative and opposing points of view so that her articles had a balance, as Stead had taught her. There were many times when she would work right through the night to get an article out. She generally would have about 5 hours sleep a night which reminded me of Margaret Thatcher who displayed many of these characteristics. She developed a wide network of highly placed individuals from the Prince of Wales to the Duke of Marlborough. From Cecil Rhodes to Winston Churchill. She went out of her way to entertain these people and made a point of inviting them to stay at her home in Surrey, and giving sumptuous dinners at her London home. She was a frequent visitor to the magnificent Blenheim Palace where she enjoyed quality political conversation and debate so she was always in the thick of political affairs.
How long was she editor and what happened afterwards?
Flora was appointed to the Pall Mall Gazette in in 1887 by Stead and worked for him and then also the Manchester Guardian for a couple of years. She became special correspondent to The Times in 1890, continuing with the three newspapers until she joined The Times full-time later in 1890. She was appointed colonial editor in 1893 and resigned in 1899 as a result of feeling she had lost her enthusiasm and satisfaction in her work. After that she wrote freelance for the Encyclopedia Britannica, Chapters on South Africa for a colleague’s book on the outbreak of the Boer War, and also for The Times that once again sent her to South Africa to investigate the Boer War as a Special Correspondent and to visit the concentration camp at Bloemfontein.
There is no question that during this time she suffered depression and even had a nervous breakdown, attributed to the break-up of her longstanding romance with Sir George Goldie who was the founder of the Royal Niger Company. A year later in 1901 Goldie’s closest friend and associate Sir Frederick Lugard who had been corresponding with Flora for a few years and was regarded as one of her closest friends and supporters, proposed to Flora. After a few weeks she agreed on condition that he understood that they were to marry “as friends”. She was then 50 years old. They married on the island of Madeira, from where they sailed to Nigeria, where he was the High Commissioner for the Northern Territories. Her life with Lugard also took her to China, Japan and Hong Kong where he was Governor for five years. Here she entertained royalty from many countries as the Governor’s wife including Mrs Keppel, the mistress of the king and the great grandmother of Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.
It was during her marriage to Lugard, that she wrote the important African history A Tropical Dependency regarded as the first serious book on African history ever written and recently republished by the Black Press in the United States.
When Lugard was appointed the first Governor of the united territories of Nigeria, which he had worked hard to create, Flora stayed in London, lobbying for Lugard’s causes with the powers-that-be, including the Duke of Marlborough, Winston Church, Lord Harcourt and others. When WW1 broke out she also took up the cause of the Belgian refugees who flooded into England (250 000 in total) and for her work in caring for these refugees she was awarded the DBE (Dame of the British Empire). Lugard was elevated to the peerage in January 1928 and became a leading member of the House of Lords, giving many speeches relating to African affairs, of which he was considered an expert. She died in January 1929 following a heart attack that had left her in a weakened state of health. In the last few years of her life her marriage to Lugard had developed into a true love affair.
What kind of a newspaper was The Times then?
The Times was one of the oldest and most influential newspapers of its time, and the epitome of the British establishment. Founded in 1785 it is regarded as one of the Big Three with The Guardian and Daily Telegraph. In the late 1889s it was hit by a forgery scandal involving the Irish politician Parnell, and published fake letters about him of a damaging nature. It was as a result of this set-back and a change of management that Flora Shaw was brought on board to help establish a new positioning of the newspaper as the mouthpiece of the British Empire.
What was the reaction to her imperialist leanings?
It was precisely her imperialist leanings that helped her get to the top of her profession, as she had The Times newspaper and the whole British establishment behind her and agreeing with what she wrote. She was the main instrument used by The Times to push the imperialist point of view and the propaganda about how the might and power of the empire would result in the upliftment of mankind and the alleviation of poverty and ignorance around the world. What became the tipping point and what started to turn the tables was the Jameson Raid, which four years later led directly to the Boer War. That was when people first started to question whether Britain was on the right path in adding to its territories through military action. In 1897 the empire was at its peak and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was celebrated with huge pomp and ceremony. It was never to be at this height of power and influence again.
At the heart of the book is the Jameson Raid, the telegrams of conspiracy and the subsequent inquiry into the raid at Westminster Hall. I suppose the modern day equivalent was the trail of Rebekah Brooks into the hacking scandal on her newspaper, News of the World, of which she was editor. Flora, of course, was never on trial for anything, but she did face three days of solid cross examination about the role she played behind the scenes in the Jameson Raid. As a result of her testimony nobody in the British Government or The Times, was ever implicated in the plot behind the raid. As the result the British Government was much in her debt, as was the management of The Times. Following this Inquiry Flora Shaw became a celebrity and was regarded, according to an article in the New York Times dated 31 October 1898, “as one of the remarkable women of the age.”
Flora Shaw broke that solid glass ceiling that prevented women of that time reaching important positions in careers and politics. The era was hugely misogynistic. How she achieved this is what this story is all about.
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