Bracken, Brendan Rendall, Viscount Bracken 1901-1958, politician and publisher, was born at Templemore, county Tipperary, 15 February 1901, the younger son of J. K. Bracken, of Ardlaugh House, Kilmallock, and Templemore, county Tipperary, a builder and monumental mason, and one of the leading spirits in reviving the Gaelic games at Thurles. Brendan lost his father when he was very young and his mother moved to Dublin, where he attended the Christian Brothers' School. But she found him hard to manage, and sent him to the Jesuit College, Mungret, near Limerick, from which he ran away, about the time of his fifteenth birthday. His mother then shipped him to Australia in 1916, although she had no connections there except a priest, brother of the Patrick Laffan, a builder, whom she was soon afterwards to marry as her second husband.
Bracken was put on a sheep station in New South Wales, but soon displeased his employer by his addiction to reading instead of sheep tending. The Brigidin nuns near by at Echuca were kind to him, and let him read the books in the convent library. But he had an unhappy time until he made his way to Sydney. There he sought more congenial work, offering himself to the Christian Brothers as a teacher, and obtaining employment on the diocesan newspaper, to secure advertisements. From this precarious life he made his way back to Ireland in 1919, after the war had ended. He found that his mother had married Laffan and he was not wanted at home, but that he had a small legacy of a few hundred pounds. With this he made his way for the first time to England. It was the time of the Black and Tans, but he represented himself not as coming from Ireland, or as a Catholic, and of a strongly nationalist family, but from Australia, where, he said, his parents had perished in a bush fire.
He applied to various public schools, and had the good fortune to secure admittance to Sedbergh, where he was one day to become chairman of the board of governors. He was nineteen but represented himself as sixteen. He stipulated what subjects he wished to study—history and languages—and paid his own fees in advance. But his money ran out after two terms, and he then secured teaching posts, first in Liverpool, then in a preparatory school at Bishop's Stortford. This second move had the great advantage of bringing him near London. He made the acquaintance of J. L. Garvin [qv.] who introduced him to Oliver Locker-Lampson, then the owner of the Empire Review, for which Bracken undertook to gain subscriptions. It was about this time that he met (Sir) Winston Churchill, to whom he was to attach himself for the rest of his life. Garvin recommended him and he worked for Churchill in his unsuccessful election campaign at Leicester (1923), and in the by-election for the Abbey division of Westminster (1924), and those who were with him remember him as a colourful figure, tall, red-haired, vigorous, with a great power of invective.
The turning-point of his fortunes came in 1924 when he met the head of the publishers Eyre & Spottiswoode, Major Crosthwaite Eyre, a retired Indian Army officer who had married Miss Eyre and was looking for young talent. He recruited Bracken to help with an illustrated monthly of which Hilaire Belloc [qv.] was the editor. From this small beginning, Bracken emerged in 1925 as a director of the firm, and proved himself full of ideas and drive, with an excellent business judgement. He persuaded Eyre & Spottiswoode to acquire the Financial News, to give him a share of the equity, and to let him run it. This was the first of a number of successful newspaper and periodical enterprises. He founded the Banker, a handsomely produced monthly, and, as editor, used his position to secure the entrée to City institutions. He acquired the particular friendship of Sir Henry Strakosch [qv.], with whom in 1929 he joined in the control of The Economist with a special constitution guaranteeing the editor's independence. He acquired control of the Investors Chronicle and the Practitioner, an old-established medical journal. All these prospered, but it was the Financial News which established him, and enabled him to secure adoption, with the support of Churchill, then chancellor of the Exchequer, as Conservative candidate for North Paddington, for which he was duly returned in 1929. In the Parliaments of the thirties he made himself, in Stanley Baldwin's phrase, the faithful Chela of Winston Churchill, in those years in which Churchill was not only out of office but very much out of favour with the Conservative Party. Bracken, like Churchill, was a staunch imperialist, opposing the government of India bill, and the foreign policy pursued by Baldwin and Chamberlain.
When on the declaration of war Churchill was called to office at the Admiralty, Bracken went with him as his parliamentary private secretary; and when, in May 1940, Churchill formed his own wartime coalition government, he brought Bracken with him, still as his P.P.S., to No. 10. Bracken, who was sworn of the Privy Council in June, asked for nothing higher than, as he put it, to stand round and collect the coats; but he was in his element at the centre of power throughout the war, one of the two or three men closest to Churchill, sitting up with him in the small hours, and living at 10 Downing Street or its annex. He went out of his way to ease Churchill's burdens and to take the strain from the Boss as he genially called his master. The extent of his influence cannot easily be estimated, but certainly he prompted many of Churchill's appointments, and the disposal of patronage, not excluding appointments in the Church of England which interested him more than they did the prime minister. He had a wide knowledge of English journalism, and particularly cultivated the Commonwealth and American correspondents whose goodwill was so important to Britain at that time. This paved the way for his appointment as minister of information in 1941, a post in which he won golden opinions from Fleet Street for his direct and informal manner. He was fortunate to come to the Ministry when it was beginning to settle down after an uncertain start. He was one of the three political chiefs of the Political Warfare Executive. He deserves great credit for the vitality and imagination which he brought to the Ministry and for lifting it out of the disregard into which it had fallen. At the end of the war Bracken was made first lord of the Admiralty in Churchill's caretaker government; and when he lost his seat in the general election of 1945, he was promptly found the safest of seats at Bournemouth.
He pursued his business interests as thoroughly as ever, and became chairman of the amalgamated Financial Times and Financial News, and contributed for many years every Monday a weekly column under the pen-name Observer on Men and Matters in the City. After his death the new offices of the paper were named in his honour Bracken House. He founded History Today as a monthly periodical under the wing of the Financial Times. His friend Strakosch had arranged for him to become his successor as chairman of the Union Corporation, a large mining and financial house operating in South Africa, and he did so in 1945. When Churchill returned to power in 1951, Bracken declined office in the Government, but in 1952 accepted a viscountcy, although he never took his seat in the House of Lords. In his later years he became increasingly interested in public schools: Trinity College, Glenalmond, and Ampleforth, as well as his old school Sedbergh for which he built a fine school library, to which he bequeathed his own excellent collection of books on English literary and political history of the last two centuries.
He was a man of much architectural and artistic taste, who formed close friendships with the leading figures in the world of architecture and art, and was instrumental in many good aesthetic causes. He avoided publicity, especially for his benefactions. In the last ten years of his life his health deteriorated and he spent long periods abroad. Finally he developed cancer of the throat which he faced with great fortitude, until he died in London 8 August 1958. Such a volume of tributes was paid to him by contemporaries of distinction that they were collected in a book. But he ordered all his papers to be destroyed, so that there should be no biography.
There is an old Irish proverb From the fury of the Brackens, good Lord deliver us and Brendan Bracken, inexhaustibly voluble, was an overpowering figure, who stormed his way to commercial and political success. Arriving with neither connection nor wealth, he established himself before he was thirty as a well-placed director and member of Parliament, imposing himself at his own valuation. He was impervious to rebuffs, and he disregarded the conventions: arriving at parties to which he had not been invited, or changing his place at the dinner table to talk to those to whom he wished to talk. If these habits made him many enemies, there was also about him a warm-heartedness, a generosity, an imaginative sympathy, and a readiness to take trouble over individuals, however lowly placed, which won him a great deal of affection. He was a gifted phrase-maker, a ceaseless talker, with unlimited powers of invention, but also with an immense range of information, not always exact, but always delivered with an extreme self-assurance, very galling to those who knew better but lacked his overriding personality. He never married, and bequeathed a large part of his wealth, proved at over £145,000, to Churchill College, Cambridge, where there is a charcoal drawing by Robert Lutyens in the Bracken Library. There is a bust by Uli Nimptsch at Bracken House.
There are many references to Bracken in works on Churchill, notably Lord Moran's Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-65 (1966).
Private and family information
Contributor: Douglas Woodruff.