Rachel Beer, editor of the Observer 1891-1901

The first female editor of a national newspaper in Britain was from an Iraqi-Jewish family, born in Bombay and got her biggest scoop as part of the notorious Dreyfus affair

Rachel Sassoon Beer was the first woman to become editor of a national newspaper in Britain. She started editing the Observer in 1891 and took over fully from her husband Frederick Beer in 1896, when he had become too ill to continue working. At this time she was also editor of the Sunday Times, and for several years she continued to edit both papers.

Beer was a member of the wealthy Sassoon family (poet Siegfried Sassoon was her nephew). The family was Jewish, originally from Iraq. Beer’s grandfather, David Sassoon, moved to Bombay from Baghdad in the 1830s and Rachel Beer was born there, though her family moved to England when she was a baby. Beer worked as a nurse as a young woman, before marrying Frederick Beer in 1887.

Frederick Beer’s family was also wealthy, also Jewish, but had converted to Anglicanism when they moved to England from Frankfurt (his father Julius Beer built a monumental family mausoleum in Highgate Cemetery). Rachel Beer converted the day before their wedding and was rejected by her own family as a result.

The GNM Archive holds little about Beer’s tenure as editor of the Observer, but there is a series of correspondence from 1965 between Tristan Jones, Managing director of the Observer, and Stanley Jackson, who was conducting research for his book on the Sassoon family.

One of these letters includes queries on a range of subjects including: Julius Beer, who had bought the Observer in 1870 and passed it to his son; a dramatic sounding editorial on cannibalism (of which Jones found no evidence); and obtaining a photo of a portrait of Rachel Beer belonging to Siegfried Sassoon (likely the image that appears above in the Observer’s 1966 175 year anniversary edition).

Letter from Tristan Jones to Stanley Jackson regarding Rachel Sassoon Beer. GNM Archive ref: OBS/1/2/1/1/2/2/5
Letter from Tristan Jones to Stanley Jackson regarding Rachel Sassoon Beer. GNM Archive ref: OBS/1/2/1/1/2/2/5 Photograph: Guardian News & Media Archive/The Observer

It also includes a reference to one of the most interesting episodes of Beer’s time as editor of the Observer: her involvement in the Dreyfus affair. The case was made famous by Emile Zola’s 1898 open letter J’accuse. Beer was committed to obtaining justice for Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army falsely accused and convicted of passing military secrets to Germany.

Beer achieved a scoop for the Observer when she met and obtained a confession from Major Esterhazy, the officer who had produced false documents (a “bordereau”) to aid Dreyfus’s conviction.

Esterhazy was in London in secret, hiding from authorities (having disguised himself by shaving off his moustache). Beer had knowledge of his whereabouts because the Observer’s Paris correspondent had already established a relationship with the Major.

The Observer 18 September 1898 extract: Esterhazy is in London exclusive
The Observer 18 September 1898 extract: Esterhazy is in London exclusive Photograph: GNM Education Centre/The Observer

Amid speculation in the press across Europe about where Esterhazy might be hiding, Beer was able to publish two exclusives “special to the Observer” on the case, first detailing where he had been staying and the following week confirming their meeting and including his own confession to her.

The Observer 25 September 1898 extract: Rachel Beer meets Esterhazy.
The Observer 25 September 1898 extract: Rachel Beer meets Esterhazy. Photograph: GNM Education Centre/The Observer
The Observer 25 September 1898 extract: Esterhazy confession.
The Observer 25 September 1898 extract: Esterhazy confession. Photograph: GNM Education Centre/The Observer

In her own leader column on 25 September 1898, Beer accused the French military of antisemitism and called for a retrial for Dreyfus.

Beer continued to edit the Observer until 1901.

The catalogue for the GNM Archive is available to browse here. Please see this page for further information on the archive collections and how to access them.

How to access past Guardian / Observer articles

Further reading


Elli Narewska

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
News replaces adverts on the Observer front page
During the second world war the Observer replaced adverts on the front page with news

Margaret Holborn

01, Nov, 2016 @10:58 AM

Article image
The Observer Foreign News Service
This month’s teaching resource from the GNM Archive focuses on the long running Observer Foreign News Service, exploring its contribution to the coverage of world affairs by the press in the period after the second world war and beyond

Helen Swainger

01, Nov, 2015 @10:00 AM

Article image
Manchester Guardian's Queen Victoria obituary supplement
Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The Manchester Guardian produced detailed news coverage the following day and a 12 page special illustrated supplement celebrating her 63 year reign

Margaret Holborn

05, Jan, 2017 @10:28 AM

Article image
Charles Dickens dies - archive, June 1870
Charles Dickens died on Thursday 9 June 1870 at his home in Gadshill in Kent. He was 58. Our resource examines how the Manchester Guardian and Observer reported the author’s death

Margaret Holborn

08, Jun, 2017 @1:10 PM

Article image
Madeline Linford: a pioneering editor at the Guardian
Madeline Linford, first editor of the Manchester Guardian women’s page and subsequent features and pictures editor was the only female editor at the paper for nearly 25 years

Margaret Holborn

08, Jan, 2019 @11:06 AM

Article image
Tsar Nicholas II abdicates: a midnight interview
The transfer of power in Russia after the revolution in March 1917, as reported by the Guardian and Observer

Elli Narewska

03, Mar, 2017 @3:27 PM

Article image
Beveridge report - archive 1942
The Beveridge report, which provided the blueprint for the postwar welfare state, was published 75 years ago. This resource looks at the Manchester Guardian’s response to its publication and Sir William Beveridge’s subsequent involvement with the Observer

Margaret Holborn

01, Nov, 2017 @10:47 AM

Article image
Ching Ching and Chia Chia: London Zoo's giant pandas
The arrival of two pandas, a gift from Mao Zedong to Edward Heath, in September 1974, as reported and photographed by the Guardian and Observer

Mena Sultan

04, Sep, 2018 @8:42 AM

Article image
How Peterloo led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian
This article looks at the Peterloo massacre on 16 August 1819 which led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian two years later and highlights a range of resources and further reading

Margaret Holborn

15, Aug, 2019 @11:03 AM

Article image
Walter Doughty's glass plate negatives - photographing news in the 1920s
The GNM Archive has a rare collection of 19 glass plate negatives belonging to the paper’s first staff photographer Walter Doughty taken between 1920-22 during the Irish war of independence and subsequent civil war

Margaret Holborn

28, Sep, 2018 @10:42 AM