From Office Boy to Press Baron
The fourth article in our series – Hornsey Personalities of the Past
This is the classic ‘rags to riches’ story. The son of itinerant Polish immigrants, Elias went on to own a large property in Highgate called Southwood Court. He was created Baron Southwood in 1937, Viscount Southwood in 1945 and was Labour Party Chief Whip in the House of Lords, 1944-45. The embodiment of the British Establishment, his memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey. How had he accomplished all this?
Julius’s early life
Following failure as a jet merchant in Birmingham, his father unsuccessfully tried shopkeeping in various parts of London with bailiffs in the background during Elias’s childhood. After frequent changes of home and school for him and his six siblings, Julius finished his education at 13 and earned 5 shillings a week on his first job carrying out menial tasks. After a year he applied to be an office boy with Carlyle Press in Charterhouse Square at six shillings a week. So began his career in publishing, initially unsuccessful with long periods of unemployment.
Success at last
On his 21st birthday in 1894 Elias reached a significant milestone. He turned up at the new Covent Garden printing works of Odhams Bros.which the two sons of William Odhams had just set up. It was several days before this eager but untrained and unpaid errand boy to the firm’s only compositor was noticed by an Odhams brother who summoned Elias to his room to explain his presence. The answers showed a sound knowledge of printing and Odham gave him employment at 25 shillings a week. Elias went out and about in the City obtaining orders for leaflets, catalogues and visiting cards, all crucial to keeping the printing presses busy. His success in helping keep the firm solvent was rewarded after a year when he became a manager.
Odhams goes from strength to strength
Helped by Elias’s single-minded industriousness, the firm acquired a growing number of popular magazines including specialist ones such as Racing Pigeon, Family Doctor and Vanity Fair. In 1906 Odhams acquired John Bull, edited by Horatio Bottomley, whose reckless statements brought threats of libel and a number of libel actions. Bottomley got the firm into debt but John Bull’s circulation rose year on year.
By now Elias was the dominant force in the firm, working his way up to the post of managing director and then chairman of Odhams Press Ltd. In 1922 Bottomley was arrested, tried and sentenced to seven years penal servitude for misuse of funds invested in his Victory Bonds Club. The circulation of John Bull dropped from nearly two million copies a week to less than 300,000. Years of hard work and the strain caused by this bad publicity led to Elias having a nervous breakdown.
Elias and Odhams Press Ltd. recover
Once Elias recovered, John Bull was reformed and popular magazines such as Ideal Home and Horse and Hound put the firm back on its feet, along with The Sunday People and the Sunday Dispatch, purchased from Lord Northcliffe. In 1930, Odhams acquired a majority share in the Daily Herald which grew from a daily circulation of 250,000 to 2,000,000 in 1937, making it the world’s best selling daily newspaper.
By 1937 Odhams had founded the first colour weekly, Woman. Branching out into books and periodicals the firm published Sphere, Tatler, The People, Debrett’s Peerage and Mickey Mouse Weekly. In 1937 Elias’s workload led to another, more serious breakdown, than that of 1919-20. His recovery in 1937 was speeded up by a letter from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who had advised King George VI to make Elias a peer. Baldwin had admired the way Elias had dealt with the abdication crisis in the Daily Herald.
Personal happiness in Highgate
In 1906 Elias married Alice Collard, whom he had met in the Odhams’ home, ‘Fairlight’, 30, Wood Lane, Highgate. The happy couple took up residence at 38, Wood Lane. In 1922 they moved to Southwood Court on Southwood Lane where Alice Elias spent nearly thirty years improving their garden. When ‘Southwood’ next door went on sale in 1932, Elias bought and demolished it and in 1934 he acquired part of the garden of ‘The Limes’ next door, extending Southwood Court’s grounds to six acres.
The lawn, rockery, fountains and rose garden provided an ideal setting for many garden parties in aid of local and national charities. When Hornsey District Offices moved in 1935 from directly opposite his home to the new Hornsey Town Hall in Crouch End he bought and demolished it so that no building faced the entrance to his home. When created a Baron two years later he took his title from Southwood Court.
Lord Southwood the great benefactor
He was a charming, unassuming man of slight built and small stature but he was a giant in his business and charitable activities. Elias raised money for and gave generously to local and national causes. He also took a particular interest in hospitals and was on the Council of King Edward’s Hospital Fund which distributed financial help to many London hospitals. In this capacity he attended the opening in May 1938 of the Southwood Children’s Wing of Hornsey Central Hospital in Park Road, N8.
Lord and Lady Southwood had no children but showed great concern for child welfare. In 1 January 1939 he became Chairman of the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street and during his seven year chairmanship he raised over a million pounds. A few weeks later he was at the Santa Claus Home for Crippled Children, Cholmeley Park, Highgate, opening a new £2000 wing. The money raised had been insufficient so his wife made up the difference.
His greatest charitable achievement came in the early years of the Second World War. The British Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance Brigade desperately needed funds and Lord Southwood was asked to breathe life into the Red Cross Penny-A-Week Fund. He rose to the occasion and organised a massive advertising and publicity campaign.
In a handbill dated 13 April 1942 he wrote, ‘I wonder whether it is possible for us who remain free to understand what it is like to be behind the barbed wire of an enemy prison camp’. This campaign raised 17 million pounds. It was Lord Southwood’s crowning achievement and probably led to his being the only civilian raised to a Viscountcy in the 1946 New Year’s Honours List, dominated by recognition for war service.
A kind man who remembered people’s names, in his article on Julius Elias in HHS Bulletin 24 (1983), Malcolm Stokes commented, ‘It seems from employees and others who worked for Elias in a voluntary capacity that he was able to provide inspiring leadership by a caring concern for others.’ He died on 10th April 1946 at Southwood Court. Elias’s funeral service was held at St Michael’s Church, Highgate. His ashes and those of his wife, interred in the grounds of St James Church, Piccadilly. A life well lived but little remembered today.
Hornsey Historical Society