Sir (Walter) Newman Flower

October 10, 2006

Sir (Walter) Newman Flower (1879-1964)
The study of local history requires patience and some determination. It is sometimes difficult to separate myth from reality and when there are many layers of varnish it becomes quite a challenge to reveal the true picture. You will find that there are already several articles on our website which attempt to uncover false assumptions about the village’s past, and there will no doubt be more in due course. It is in the nature of historical investigation that it brings a sceptical eye to popular accounts of events which are not fully supported by documentary evidence. Since his death there have been several articles or chapters written about Sir Newman Flower which have emphasised his Dorset pedigree and indeed his Fontmell roots, often repeating the same old set of assertions without scrutiny or apology. In the Dorset Year Book of the year following his death, a ‘Tribute to Sir Newman Flower, Publisher of Distinction, Author of Charm, True Son of Dorset’ was published. Sir Newman Flower was undoubtedly a ‘publisher of distinction’ (as his obituaries emphasised) but the other designations are in need of some clarification.

The former brewery, Fontmell Magna

The former brewery, Fontmell Magna

Walter Newman Flower was born at the brewery, Fontmell Magna, on the 8th July 1879. His first name Walter soon became discarded in general use. His grandfather, George Franklin Alpin Flower had inherited the brewery from his cousin William Monckton. The Moncktons were a long-established family in the village and William was described in the 1861 census as an unmarried maltster and brewer aged 52, who also farmed 21 acres and employed four men. Newman’s father, John Walter Flower, took over the management of the business from his father. The family had come originally from West Stafford, just south east of Dorchester and very close to where Thomas Hardy lived. The Flowers had lived in Lewell, a small hamlet comprising farms and a lodge which was included in the parish of West Knighton although the farms are nearer to West Stafford.
The 1881 census for Fontmell records John Walter Flower aged 25, Brewer, born in Lewell, Dorset; Wilhelmina Katie, 23, wife (from Camberwell); Walter Newman, aged 1, born Fontmell Magna; Arthur L., 2 months, born Fontmell Magna; and two servants – Elizabeth Brockway, 17, (from Tollard, Wilts), and Ellen Royal, 22, a qualified nurse from Penn Hill (in Fontmell). As you can see from the photograph, the brewery house was a substantial brick-built, three-storey dwelling of comparatively recent design, and the house and household suggests levels of affluence uncharacteristic of the village at that time. We have a detailed description of the house in 1904. No doubt there had been some changes from the rooms that Newman first knew, but the general layout was unlikely to have been very different. The ground floor had a dining room, a large kitchen and a ‘south morning room or library’. The first floor comprised a drawing room ‘with marble mantelpiece’, three bedrooms and a bath room. The second floor had two more bedrooms and ‘a spacious landing’.
Some of the memories of his early childhood in the village were

Higher Mill (now Springhead)

Higher Mill (now Springhead)

recorded in his Man o’ Dorset (1919) article and which later re-appeared as Chapter 1 of Just as it Happened (1950). He vividly describes the village in winter when ‘the snow came down more heavily than ever. I looked towards our village, a mile away. A few eccentric shapes of houses lay dimmed in the snow-swirl. The old mill at Spring-Head was a grey dump. The glooming afternoon was beginning to throw its woolly arms about the hill, Fore-Top and Melbury Beacon had gone to sleep in the soft wrappings of winter’s oncoming night.’ A little further on he writes that ‘there was no world beyond our village … we attended the village funerals to help the sexton fill in the graves.

The Salkeld Memorial

The Salkeld Memorial

‘We attended the village weddings and many christenings … We used to sit on Salkeld’s tomb in the churchyard and eat peppermints in the summer sun and argue how his 1857 rifle could have put bullet holes through the may-pole cock’s tail from the Rectory nearly a mile away’. Unfortunately, he refers to Lieutenant Philip Salkeld VC as ‘Richard’, which tends to undermine the authority of the story. And did he let his imagination run away with him when he recalls ‘those hectic days in Dorset’? ‘In Fontmell Wood game-keepers were shot. Our brewery travellers were held up on the highways after dark by highwaymen of the Dick Turpin order, for we lived in one of the loneliest spots in North Dorset. We children were not allowed to go out after dark in winter’. Similarly he dramatized a general election when ‘people were thrown into Poole Harbour and my father rode his horse wildly through an aggressive mob outside Shaftesbury which was bent on bringing him down’.
In the 1891 census for Fontmell there is no reference to Newman, but there are entries for his father and mother, his brother Arthur, aged 10, and now two sisters, Ada Blanche, aged 8 years and Wilhelmina Gertrude, aged 5, (both born in Fontmell Magna), with a governess and two domestic servants. And now John’s brother, Augustus Frederick Flower, aged 31, born at Lewell, Dorset, unmarried, brewer and brewer’s engineer and his two sisters – Emily A. 36 and Matilda F. 29, were living in Mill Street.
So why was Newman not recorded – was he already (aged 11 or 12) away from the village? And why is he so reticent about his school days? The admission records for Fontmell’s village school date from 1879 and a thorough check of the next 15 years has revealed no entries for any of the Flower children. Well, we now know the reason why he was not in Fontmell in 1891. It was because he appears on the Weston Super Mare census for that year as a pupil at the Brynmelyn School in that Somerset town. This was a boys’ school which had opened in 1881 and was connected with the Society of Friends (Quakers). He was there until late 1892 and the school records show that he was an enthusiastic member of its Natural History Society with a keen interest in botany and astronomy. Perhaps more significant, given his later authorship of books on Handel, Schubert and Sullivan, was his frequent participation in the school’s music, both as a singer and a pianist. We do not know when he first entered the school, but these records suggest that he was well established and involved in its activities, so he may well have been there since he was 8. Before that, Caroline Drabble, the governess mentioned in the 1891 census, may have been responsible for his education.
From 1893 at about the age of 14, Newman attended the Manor House School, at West Hill, Hastings, Sussex for 18 months. This was a preparatory boarding school that had been founded in 1857. His father had by now moved the family to South Croydon, where they lived at ‘Mayfield’, Dornton Road, which may explain the change of school. Hastings was about as far from Croydon as Weston was from Fontmell. Newman’s father continued working in Fontmell and (occasionally) travelling to Croydon at weekends to see his wife and children. Is it possible that John had planned ahead for his children’s education? Whether by design or chance he had now moved near to Whitgift School, Croydon, which was within easy daily travelling distance from the new family home. From February 1895 until April 1896 Newman was a Whitgift boy. His father was described as ‘an engineer’ in the Whitgift register. It was a relatively short stay of 14 months, and we cannot be sure what he was doing for the rest of the summer of 1896. As Mr W G Wood, the archivist at Whitgift School has suggested, it is feasible that he had a private tutor (possibly augmenting his Whitgift salary). Or perhaps he spent the summer in Fontmell?
At this time his father sold the Fontmell brewery and

Fontmell Brewery and Crown Hill

Fontmell Brewery and Crown Hill

established the ‘J W Flower and Company’ at the Springhead Works in Fontmell where the Eclipse bottling machine was invented. Newman later wrote that his father now ‘saw a better future in brewers’ engineering than in sharing with a lot of relatives a brewery in which he was the only one who did any work’. The new company later moved to Wimborne, Dorset where there had been a strong tradition of brewing in the 19th century. In August 1895 Albert Sibeth had taken over the Fontmell brewery and the Day Book (now in the archive of the Dorset History Centre) reveals the day-to-day activities of the workforce in which four men were employed in the maintenance and (later) refurbishment of the brewery. Robert Cribb was an ‘engineer metal worker’, George Cousins was a ‘shaper of brewery equipment’, John Brushett was an ‘engineer’ and all three lived in the village. The fourth workman, Mr Light, came from outside the village.
Newman wrote that he knew his father wished me to succeed him at the brewery, but his experience in the school holidays of being ‘required to go down to the mash in the brewery at 4am in the damp and beastliness of cold’ had turned him against a brewing career. By the summer of 1896 Newman was determined to find work in journalism. In September, aged 17 he sought employment in London and was offered a literary apprenticeship with a weekly paper called ‘The Regiment’ for which his father had to pay £50 [£2,700 today]. He travelled into central London every day from Croydon, his father having bought him a season ticket and provided a daily allowance of sixpence for his lunch. The work clearly suited him and by 1902 he was ready to join Sir Arthur Harmsworth’s press as a sub-editor in Fleet Street where he also edited the London Magazine.
Now with the presumed security of a steady income, he married Evelyn

John Walter Flower

John Walter Flower

Readwin from Wells in Norfolk in 1903. Their son Desmond John Newman Flower was born in 1907. By then Newman had already changed firms. In 1906 he had joined Cassell and Company, the London publisher which at that time was said to be a struggling business. From 1907 Newman edited the Cassell’s Magazine of Fiction (later the Story-Teller) for 21 years. It was a considerable financial success for Cassell and Company. Among the authors he was associated with were H G Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, G K Chesterton, Somerset Maugham, Arnold Bennett and Compton Mackenzie. In 1913 Cassell and Company published Red Harvest, the first of Newman’s books, and in 1915 he became the literary director of Cassell.

The Crown Inn

The Crown Inn

From 1914 to 1920 Newman was also the Honorary Editor of The Dorset Year Book, to which he contributed several items of his own. For example, his article Man o’ Dorset appeared in the 1918-19 edition, and included an account of a brief visit to Fontmell in 1915. ‘I was motoring through Dorset, and late one evening I came up the road from Blandford to Shaftesbury. And then I stopped by some sudden intuition at the little inn beside the high road in the village where I was born. I turned off the engine and went inside. A group of villagers was about the bar, and the faces were strange to me. I studied them one by one, anxious, very anxious, to find one I knew’. This simultaneous clinging to his birth-place memories and distancing himself from a community he had left twenty years ago, creates an ambivalence in his writing which became almost a marked characteristic later on. The same story appeared again, in a slightly modified version, in his 1950 publication Just as it Happened.

George Frederick Handel

George Frederick Handel

In complete contrast in 1923 he published George Frederick Handel, the first of three books about composers, to be followed by Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1927 and Franz Schubert in 1928. His Handel book was reprinted five times and revised in 1959, with a paperback edition in 1972. The subtitle tells us what to expect: ‘his personality and his times’. In his preface to the first edition he makes it clear that ‘no attempt has been made to survey the works of Handel in any technical sense, nor to deal with his music in any technical form … I have endeavoured, rather, to outline Handel the Man – the striking personality who never admitted defeat, but rose superior to whatever powers a surfeit of enemies could and did exert’. The substantial text is supported by a bibliography of twenty pages, and his large collection of original Handel editions and manuscripts were later (1965) given to the Henry Watson Music Library at Manchester. Many of these items from the Aylesford collection had been purchased at a Sotheby’s sale in 1918. In some senses Newman’s approach to Handel was very similar to his approach to Thomas Hardy and Arnold Bennett – he was writing biographical narrative, not musical or literary criticism. But there can be no doubt about his serious intentions, and one wonders just how he found the time, given his commitments at Cassell and to his family.

Sir Newman Flower, 1915

Sir Newman Flower, 1915

Cassell and Company plainly came first, for he purchased the book-publishing part of the firm. In 1927, the Berry brothers (Lords Camrose and Kemsley), who owned Cassell for a number of years, finally decided that they were really magazine and newspaper publishers and were not interested in book publishing. Newman, who had been running both sides of Cassell for several years, offered to buy the book list. The owners agreed on condition that Newman, the foremost magazine editor in the country, would never publish magazines again, a condition which he accepted. He raised the necessary capital and in May 1927 the sale was completed. The Berry brothers retained all the magazines, which they transferred into their own magazine publishing company, Amalgamated Press. In 1930 his son Desmond (educated at Lancing College and King’s College, Cambridge) also joined Cassell and Company and two years later they published the first of a series of translations by him of French novels. Newman himself published in 1932-3 the three volumes of the Journals of Arnold Bennett a monumental editorial task undertaken after Bennett’s death in 1931. By now Newman was recognised as a major figure in the London publishing world and in 1938 he was knighted in recognition of his services to literature. In Who’s Who he entered as recreations ‘Handeliana’ and ‘Sweden and things Swedish’. The latter enthusiasm is an aspect of Newman’s life that, as far as one can tell, he did not write about. He was by now living in Idehurst in Sevenoaks, Kent, but working full time in London, where he was a member of the Reform Club.

Desmond Flower

Desmond Flower

In 1939 Newman published a long article about Thomas Hardy in the ‘Dorset Year Book’ which was also later included in Just As it Happened. Like all good journalists, he often found a second home for an article. But the war was to place heavy burdens on a man in his sixties whose head office was destroyed by bombing and whose dependency on the supply of paper (now severely restricted) was central to his work. Moreover, Desmond Flower, who was already proving himself to be an essential element of the firm’s productivity, was serving in the army in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and was awarded the Military Cross for action at Estry in Normandy. In collaboration with James Reeves he later edited The War 1939-1945 published by Cassell in 1960.
Newman’s father John Walter Flower died in 1941 at the age of 85

Sir Newman Flower

Sir Newman Flower

and his business passed to his son and grandson, Desmond. But neither had any enthusiasm for engineering and they later sold the company to GEC. The works closed in 1966 and two-thirds of the Eclipse Works was demolished in about 1985, but the frontage is now a listed structure. In 1943 Newman’s second marriage was to Bridget Downes of County Clare. Two years later Newman’s Through My Garden Gate was published on poor quality ‘War Economy Standard’ paper. It opens with ‘The garden of a thousand joys is the only name for the garden which is loved by a person who works in it’, but unfortunately he was talking about his Kent garden, and there is no word about the gardens of his childhood in Fontmell. In 1936 Churchill signed a contract with Cassell to write A History of the English Speaking Peoples. During the war, Churchill rang Newman to say that Alexander Korda had expressed interest in producing a film version. Churchill realised that Cassell controlled the film rights; he therefore proposed that if Newman would cede the film rights to him, he would undertake to give Cassell first offer of anything he might later write about the current war, a proposal that Newman immediately accepted.
In 1946 he retired from Cassell after 40 years but remained as chairman of the Board. Desmond became the managing director and Newman finally returned to Dorset to live in Tarrant Keynston, a nearby village just east of Blandford. ‘So I went back to that corner of Dorset which seemed to belong to me because my Youth had never left it. Maybe some being which was part of me had wandered away for half a century in search of something less beautiful than that which it had discarded.’
The publication of Just as it Happened in 1950 was to be his last book. There are 20 chapters of which only the first two and the final one are semi-autobiographical in the usual sense. All the others are about the authors, statesmen and distinguished professionals he had met while at Cassell. It is mostly an anthology of his earlier published articles, and written in a relaxed conversational style characterized by vivid insights into their personalities. He talks about them as his friends, many of whom he had worked with for several decades. His early experience of writing and editing magazines taught him the full range of journalistic skills and these he freely employs in his books. ‘I have employed anecdote’, he wrote in the foreword, ‘because I believe that it will throw a sidelight on a person which may be more illuminating than the author’s opinion’. Unfortunately a number of articles or chapters in books have appeared recently in print that have treated anecdote as biographical fact. Newman Flower gives the impression of following Dick Whitington’s example in seeking his fortune in London. When he conjures up the image of leaving Fontmell Magna in 1896 by way of the ‘long white road that leads over the hill’ he is of course deliberately creating the impression that this was the first time he had left the village. Deliberate in the sense that it makes a good, colourful story. But as we have already observed, he had left the village many years before to go to school first in Weston Super Mare, then Hastings and then Croydon. Newman Flower may actually have lived in Fontmell for fewer than eight years.

Sir Newman Flower's gravestone in Fontmell churchyard, carved on thick Welsh slate by Sidney Bendall

Sir Newman Flower’s gravestone in Fontmell churchyard, carved on thick Welsh slate by Sidney Bendall

After a long illness, Newman died on 12th March 1964 in his 85th year (as had his father), and his ashes were interred in the Fontmell Magna churchyard. A memorial service took place in St Paul’s Cathedral. In January 1997 Dr Desmond John Newman Flower, MC died at the age of 89, proving yet again that longevity was a family inheritance.

NOTES
The Library of Georgetown University, Washington DC, USA purchased a collection of Newman’s correspondence with various authors regarding the publishing business at Cassell’s. A biographical note attached to this internet catalogue regrettably (and inaccurately) states that he was educated at Weymouth College (!) in Dorset, just to add to the confusion about his early years.
Several items of Newman’s Handel collection are also located at the library of Princeton University, New Jersey, USA., though the bulk of his wonderful collection of Handel manuscripts is held by the Music Department of the Manchester Public Library.
Newman’s correspondence with H G Wells between 1912 and 1932 is held at the library of McMaster University, Ontario, Canada.
Newman had unsuccessfully attempted to buy the Handel House in Halle in 1922.
I am indebted to the following correspondents for their generous and detailed response to my questions about Newman’s schooling:
William G Wood, Archivist of Whitgift School
Roger Bristow, Information Services Librarian, Hastings Library
Lynette Hawkins, Library Assistant, Weston Information Library
The author of this article also has a Fontmell/Cassell and Company connection – two of his books were published by them in the 1990s.

Since its first publication further information and corrections have been received and included in the article from Dr Nicholas Flower, grandson of Sir Newman Flower. February 2008

Author: Ian Lawrence