The Making of Tormore – Brendan Bracken

The Tormore Connection

Lewis Rosenstiel was an unpredictable boss.  He was the only authority in his company but his decisions were affected by a mood that would be affected by a complex personal life. If he wanted something, it would happen; if that meant ignoring company structures and relying on outside fixers, it didn’t matter. In the UK Brendan Bracken was the fixer and had authority in the building of  Tormore distillery, even though Schenley had already purchased a UK distilling operation, Seager & Evans.

Why the project was managed this way, or what the problems were that required a high level fixer,  we have no way of knowing. My suspicion is that Bracken connection with Rosenstiel pre-dates Schenley’s move into the UK and that he was probably responsible, in some way, for the purchase of Seager & Evans and then continued as primary intermediary between the USA and the UK. I have no direct evidence for this but it is all I can think of to explain the authority he had in the building of a new distillery.  We can only be grateful it was the case and that the project was not, automatically turned over to Seager & Evans as soon as they had been purchased because I’m sure the result would have been nowhere near as interesting. Instead it was all Bracken – he found the site and commissioned the architect and was the link with the person with ultimate authority:  Rosenstiel.

Bracken was a romantic with a long-standing interest in architecture and would not have countenanced the mundane. With his interest in neo-classical design he would not have allowed a functional box.  He gave the commission directly to Sir Albert Richardson, a long time friend and associate and  there is no doubt they shared many aesthetic principles  and Richardson’s work accords with Bracken’s taste.  So we can thus say with absolute certainty that Tormore looks the way it does because of Brendan Bracken – even if he wasn’t the designer. 

Not many people in the whisky world know this – it is a secret between you and me.

But who was Brendan Bracken, a man from outside the whisky industry, who played such an important role in the construction of the dramatic looking distillery along the A95 near Ballindalloch? Who was the man who could make such a visible difference yet be content to remain invisible?

The answer is: he was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. Someone who shaped the nature of financial journalism, protected the BBC in a time of danger, supported Churchill in his wilderness years and was at his elbow during the war.  He had more influence than many better known public figures but his work was mostly behind the scenes as a fixer. A man with a huge network of connections who always knew who to contact or who to put in touch with who..

His is a story well worth telling.

The Early Years

In all his time in England Brendan Bracken’s background was a mystery. He would never talk of it directly and would either evade the question or tell outright lies. Very many stories were in circulation and people were puzzled and looked for an explanation. Was he Australian? He pretended to be but had only spent a few teenage years there. Was he Winston Churchill’s illegitimate son? This was a persistent rumours and something he didn’t go out of his way to deny but that was hokum. “Who is that man?” members of society would ask about a large bounding man with a mop of red hair and a tendency to talk the hind legs off a donkey.

In fact he was Irish, something he wanted to hide, either because of the prejudices of the times or because he needed to completely remake himself and erase where he came from. His father, J.K., was a stonemason who owned his own business and was comfortably off. He was also a Fenian and one of the co-founders of the Gaelic Athletic Association. And so his views about England couldn’t have been more different from his son’s. Brendan became firmly, imaginatively attached to the idea of England and its Empire and in rejecting his roots he was zealous in his Englishness. J.K. died when Brendan was three and so he did not have the time to be a guiding influence Brendan’s life. That thankless task fell to Hannah his mother, who was also responsible for bringing up two stepdaughters from J.K.’s first marriage alongside four children of her own. 

Hannah was an educated woman with a middle class up-bringing and I cannot see how she wasn’t frustrated by the confinement of her duties. She reacted by being strict, distant and rather unbending, which was probably a mixture of personality and circumstance. Perhaps, as Bracken’s biographer Christopher Lysaght suggested, Brendan’s relentless bookishness was, in part, an attempt to gain his mothers approval but it did little to counteract the actions of his wilful, rebellious nature. She must have been in despair at how to manage him. At school he would only learn what he wanted and ignore anything else. Outside of it he had his own gang, ‘Bracken’s Gang’ which engaged in constant street fights with the rival Manor Street Gang. A policeman once came to his home to report that Brendan had been involved in a brawl and thrown his adversary into the canal. “No action will be taken on this occasion as I can see, madam, that the boy comes from a most respectable home. But don’t let it happen again”. His mother, a middle class, rather snobbish lady, must have died of shame. in the end she packed him off to Mungret, a Jesuit boarding school near Limerick, thinking the strict discipline would do the trick. It didn’t he just ran away.

A family conference decided the best way forward was to send Brendan to Australia under the care of a priest,Tom Laffan, the brother of Hannah’s second husband. In a small town in Victoria he continued his haphazard education by reading voraciously and remembering almost all he read. The common report of everybody who met him was that he had brains to burn and a prodigious memory and he made use of it with the free run of a number of libraries and studying books by authors such as Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Cardinal Newman.  In doing so he formed an emotional bond with the England of the long eighteenth century, and a sense of the national destiny.  As always though, he would follow his own path and must have had the inner confidence to know things would, in some way, work out. Eventually he ended up in Sydney, where he earned money by teaching and through journalism. In those days formal qualifications didn’t count for as much as personal contacts and Brendan could always open doors with his tall stories and is charm. For the rest of his life that never changed. It was the basis of his life’s work

After three years in Australia he returned to his home in Ireland,  but the stay was brief as it was clear he had no place there. So after a final parting the lid was firmly slammed slammed on his ancestry and upbringing.

In 1920, at the age of nineteen he arrived in Liverpool

Sedbergh

It is not often that one term in a public school warrants its own subhead in an account of someones life but the story is so unusual it deserves its place.

Ask yourself the question: if you are nineteen years old, fresh into England and determined to make your way, what would you do? Now your answer will depend on your abilities and ambitions but one thing I am sure of, you would never ever pretend to be fifteen and enrol as a student in a public school. Yet this is precisely what Brendan Bracken did.

He turned up at the door of William Nassau Weech in September 1920 and asked to be admitted. Normally someone with no background, references, or certificates would have been turned away but Brendan could tell a compelling tale of coming from Australia , where his parents had died in a bush fire and the last words of his father were to tell him to go to England and get a public school education. The headmaster was fascinated, if disbelieving, and his curiosity and sense of being in the presence of someone extraordinary, overcame propriety and so he was admitted the boy into the fifth form.

Of course Brendan only did school on his own terms with no games or OTC and only paying attention to classes that interested him. His fundamental nature was not easily changed, but if challenged he was smart enough to discomfort any master in argument. Weech responded by adapting, allowing him access to sixth form history and literature classes and giving him free rein in the library. 

At the end of the term Brendan left but he had made such an impression that when Weech bade him farewell as a pupil he asked him to come back as a guest. But he was probably unaware of the depth of the mark his school had left on the young man. All through his life Bracken had an emotional attachment to the place, being a regular visitor of a later headmaster, Rufus Bruce Lockhart, and later becoming chairman of the Governors. Later still he funded the renovation of its library (work designed and overseen by Sir Albert Richardson, of course) and left it money in his will.

He was rootless and it offered him some sort of root.  Also it gave him a school tie.

The Social Network

Nothing to do with Zuckerberg,  this is how it was done – old school. In fact it often was (and still is) literally old school – i.e. friends and acquaintances from a public schools,  oxbridge, and family social gatherings. But do you become part of this network if you are an outsider with a mysterious background? In Bracken’s case the answer was not only to use personal charm and abilities, but also treat it as a serious project and study the subject. In other words he was anything but casual about his objective.

When he left Sedbergh he earned money as a teacher at the prep school attached to bishop Stortford College. It was here that he became friends with Eric Whelpton (cosmopolitan, with a history in military intelligence and one of the models for Lord Peter Wimsey) who left an account in his memoir,  ‘The Making of a European’ of a “man with innate power – he could impose himself on people who considered him to be a charlatan, but who were so amused by his tricks that they valued his company.” But he also spent day after day learning by heart the contents of directories such as Who’s Who, Crockfords, and the Army List. He studied to be able to place the people he met and surprise them with his knowledge of their background. In doing this it must be remembered that he had a prodigious memory and he was using his time as an undistinguished teacher to prepare an assault on ‘society’. His aim was not social climbing i.e. a form of snobbism and wanting to associate with the right people, he had serious. ambition.  His aim was to collect people of influence who could help him get on. This ambition was a contrast with his friend Whelpton who wanted to travel and experience the world: “Thee trouble with you, Eric, is that you have no direction; you will never get anywhere on your own; but if you stick with me we will go up together; I am going to be Prime Minister before I am finished.”

His first step was a job on ‘Empire Review’, which allowed him to mingle with literary and political society in London and make his first great contact: J.L. Garvin, who was then editor of the Observer. He became a frequent visitor at his house, absorbed his knowledge, especially about the writings of Edmund Burke,  and as a result of lengthy conversations became a protégé. It was through Garvin that he first met Winston Churchill, probably the most important relationship of his life.  Another great contact was Lady Colvin, who was charmed by the boisterous young man who could bring her all the titbits of London gossip. In return she offered guidance and it was through her soirées  that Brendan became fully integrated into London literary life, and through one of her circle, Evan Morgan, he was recommended to Major John Symons Crosthwaite Eyre, of Eyre and Spottiswoode as “a brilliant young Australian” who might be able to help them with their new and struggling monthly Called the Illustrated Review.

Illustrated Review had been launched in 1923 with a marquee editor in Hilaire Belloc. Unfortunately the literary high priest found the commercial business of running a magazine a bit beneath him and it floundered. He resigned in a huff and Brendan was the emergency replacement who was only to happy to throw himself into the task of broadening appeal and attracting advertisers. He changed its name to English Life and made it a commercial success.  As the editor of something a bit like Country Life his social horizons were expanded even further to include the established aristocracy. Features about stately homes and old families gave him the opportunity to go to weekend parties, see historic buildings, study their architecture and see many great works of art, as well as making contacts. He was always making contacts.

This brief summary might suggest he was coldly calculating but his ambition was not necessarily cold. Everybody who knew him well described him as a man with a great capacity for friendship and loyalty, who was at heart affectionate and warm. People who knew him less well were often less understanding and wrote him off as a pushy braggart with a flexible relationship with the truth. For example Evelyn Waugh knew him from a few social gatherings and painted a fairly cruel portrait of him as Rex Mottram, in Brideshead Revisited.  But at heart Brendan was genuine. He was sincere in his beliefs and he did not collect people purely for his own ends to climb up the greasy pole. One of his great pleasures was helping others by being able to put them in touch with the right person.

On Becoming a Press Baron

An ebullient Bracken within the staid Eyre and Spottiswoode, where most of the directors were content to sit back in their comfy boardroom chairs, feeling secure because the company had the monopoly, by Royal Letters Patent, to print the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, was not a natural match. But Major Crosthwaite Eyre knew that the company could not stand still for ever and had to move forward – hence his venture into journal publishing.  And if he wanted to shake things up there was no better person to introduce than the ambitious, energetic, and very young Brendan Bracken.

Brendan was always on the lookout for new opportunities and although his transformation of ‘English Life’ was all very well he thought its future limited because the number of competing publications fragmented the advertising revenue.  Banking, on the other hand, was the only significant industry that didn’t have a specialist publication catering for its interests. The potential advertising market could be huge, especially when he looked to America and the success of Bankers’ Magazine and so he poured all his energy into creating Banking as a broad ranging journal that dealt with economic and political issues alongside the more technical issues of the industry. Crosthwaite Eyre was impressed by his energy and vision and made him an Eyre and Spottiswoode board member at the age of 24! A move that definitely caused some flutterings in the dovecote.

With this endorsement there then followed a burst of acquisitions to build up a portfolio of publications. The Financial News, a City daily was bought, as was the Investors Chronicle and the Liverpool Journal of Commerce. That the Economist was only semi bought is an interesting tale.  Although it was for sale and Bracken put in a bid, the old owners were not happy with the idea that a traditionally Liberal paper would fall into the hands of a Tory. It was thus sold jointly to Bracken and Sir Henry Strakosh, with an independent trustee tasked with maintaining the traditions and general character of the journal. It was an amicable partnership. Outside of finance and economics the purchase of the Practitioner looked a bit odd but it was consistent with the idea of looking for a market with advertising potential. In fact it was a bit of a master stroke, albeit accidentally, as it supported the group during the great depression when the finance market dried up. People always need doctors.

After the war the pre-eminence of his role in financial journalism was cemented by the merging of Financial News with the Financial Times to create the paper we know today.  By this time he was less hands-on but he could still follow his passions and so in1950 he launched the monthly journal History Today.  He had always been interested in history.

For someone without a fortune to become a press baron is a major achievement. His titles were influential  and his mark on financial journalism was profound in the way it set standards we recognise to this day.  He achieved this by selecting the right people and backing them against outside criticism. For him work was all about people but he did operate according to some basic principles one of which was that you should never compromise on quality as long-term profitability could only be maintained by maintaining standards and being trusted. (In this respect he was like Sam Bronfman).

The Faithful Chela

For most of his adult life Brendan was aide, henchman, acolyte, advisor, supporter, and friend of Winston Churchill. In the words of Stanley Baldwin, he was a faithful Chela (a Hindi term for a dependent person occupying a position between that of a servant or slave and a disciple, which was meant as an insult but was adopted with pride).

They first met at J.L. Gavin’s where Brendan impressed with his energy, volubility and willingness to contradict the great man, so much so that Churchill made a point of asking “who was that young man?”. Very soon afterwards he adopted him as part of his inner circle, almost like a surrogate son. As part of the ‘Three Bs’ (the other being Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Birkenhead) he provided valuable support.  Significantly his positivity and energy had a way of alleviating the black depression that often swept over Churchill.  But he was distrusted by outsiders as an unserious arriviste but and Clementine, Churchill’s wife.  At first Clementine was, at first, no fan, thinking Brendan was merely on the make by taking advantage of a famous man and the way he would turn up unannounced and expect a place at the table. In fact the relationship was so familial there was a strong rumour that Brendan was Churchill’s illegitimate son. No one could quite explain how a young man from nowhere could so quickly become a confidant.

But Brendan was not cynically exploiting a social contact to advance his own career. His loyalty was genuine and he was constant in his support. Something Clementine later came to realise, and she was a person who rarely changed her mind about people. Probably the greatest service Brendan rendered the country was the selfless service which sustained Churchill in his wilderness years and enabled him to be in position to take over as Prime Minister, when needed, in wartime.

He started by twice being Churchill’s election agent (not successfully as Churchill was nominally Liberal and hadn’t yet rejoined the Conservative party). Behind the scenes he was doing much more: arranging for Churchill’s newspaper articles to be syndicated, advising on negotiations with publishers, putting him in touch with Sir Henry Strakosh to manage family finances and help with the purchase of Chartwell, and offering advices on subjects that frankly bored Churchill, like economics. Later he could offer more direct political help as he was himself elected to Parliament in 1929 for the seat of Paddington. He was part of the small group of MPs, during the 1930s who warned about the dangers of Germany and the need to re-arm. From contacts in Germany he found out about the scale of Germany’s military programme.  A Foreign Office official, who was a neighbour,  was brought into the circle and provided classified information and  a few Air Force officers provided secret intelligence. He organised the gathering of information to highlight the seriousness of the threat and the need for action.  It was from Bracken’s house in Great North Street that opposition to appeasement was organised.

 There is a popular image that in these years Churchill stood alone but he couldn’t have done it without support and in this Brendan Bracken was very important. There is quite a story about the way Churchill finally became PM when the choice to succeed Chamberlin was between Churchill and Lord Halifax. In the evening of 8th May word reached Brendan that Winston had agreed he would act as second in command if Halifax became Prime Minister. Brendan thought this would be disastrous and loose us the war. He scoured London searching for Churchill and found him at one o’clock. ‘You can’t go through with this’ he spluttered but Winston would not go back on is word. ‘Well,’ Brendan persisted ‘at least you must not speak first when you get to Number 10. Promise?’ Winston promised and Brendan went to bed satisfied that if Winston kept his word Halifax would be forced to speak and would suggest  Winston as Prime Minister.  So it happened.

On such small things can the destiny of nations be formed. How much do we owe to Brendan Bracken, chivying, lobbying, providing wise counsel in the nick of time? Men of destiny might do their ‘Great Man’ schtick but never underestimate the importance of those who are close advisors, those who allow that greatness to flourish. It can often be the counsellors who save the day.

Minister of Information – Newspapers

During the war Brendans initial role was that of chief fixer. The man at Churchill’s elbow who could act as intermediary, put alternative views and plead causes. He was in the thick of it and really enjoyed the role of being in the shadows yet having real influence. However it did not last. He was needed in another role: to fix the Ministry of Information which was in a mess and widely distrusted. Reluctantly Bracken took the post as Minister in a political graveyard. 

But he was a success and given the circumstances, remarkable success. Part of the reason was that it played to his strengths. He had the advantage of being a newspaper man and knowing what what reporters and editors wanted, not only technical things such as deadlines but also knowing how to make them feel more included and privy to special knowledge. The press was on his side from the beginning (his friendship with Beaverbrook was a definite aid in this) and he never lost their trust. Part of the reason was the way he was liable to let his tongue run away from him (you cannot fight against nature) and at the end of the session a press officer would have finish with a list of things they had been told but could not print. But this meant the press thought they were on the inside and were not being fobbed off. This was true because Bracken had an unwavering belief that “the freedom of the press is as important as the freedom of parliament” and that the conduct of war was assisted by newspapers keeping people informed without the taint government control. He would not interfere and censor opinion (much as Churchill sometimes wanted to) he would only use censorship to correct facts.

However giving people a warm feeling that you are on their side will only get you so far. If the channels of communication were clogged and information was not getting through the relationship would soon have soured. This had been at the heart of the distrust of previous regimes – the military services controlled the supply of operational information and as a general rule military people are secretive – information was withheld. Organisationally the services retained their control when Bracken took over he was able to work with the grain and use his formidable powers of persuasion allied with the knowledge of his closeness to Churchill to get those involved to change their attitude. More information was released but it was a constant battle, especially as he was not afraid of bad news and believed the public should be trusted with the full picture and not be treated as children who had to be sheltered from the truth.  On a number of occasions he had to complain to Cabinet that he was getting more information from correspondents than he was able to give.

The interesting personal dynamic was that Churchill, by nature, was one of those people who wanted only good news to be reported.You only have to think of the way the the BBC reported the General Strike to see how he wanted information controlled.  After the fall of Singapore there was a lot of criticism, at which he bridled, and the final straw was a cartoon by Zec in the Daily Mirror showing a shipwrecked seaman with the caption ‘The price of petrol has been raised by a penny – official’ Churchill thought this undermined morale and wanted the Home Secretary to suppress the paper. Brendan had to fight his corner and stand up to his great friend, perhaps he was one of the few people who could. He belied the description of being a chela. He was someone who could, and did, criticise when necessary.

Ministry of Information – The BBC

At the beginning of the war the BBC was in a pickle. It had accepted a gentleman’s agreement to accept official guidance in their treatment of public affairs. They agreed to conform to official policy whilst retaining the right to execute it their own way. It did not work well.  The BBC had no access to secret information, which led to some mishaps,  and there were too many , often conflicting, self serving views from different officials. There was friction and disagreement on all sides. Not only that, within the BBC there was fear of complete takeover, especially as Churchill had spoken of them as the ‘enemy within’ and the previous MoI minister, Duff Cooper had done little to defend them. They did not think the appointment of a Churchill acolyte was going to improve the situation.

They were wrong. It could be claimed that Bracken saved the BBC and gave it the protection to develop its reputation for independent and balanced news gathering and be a trusted broadcaster.

At first it didn’t look that way a couple of months into his tenure. His Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ernest Thurtle,  said in the House that the governors of the BBC were no longer responsible for any part of the BBC’s activities related to the war. Brendan was embarrassed had to respond decisively, which he did by stating public that the Corporation was firmly in the hands of its governors, and privately by making it clear that this was his policy. He made a distinction between the overseas and home service. Overseas broadcasting was under the control of the Foreign Office and was the voice of Britain but he thought there was no more need to control home broadcasting than there was to censor newspapers. He refused to consider amending the Charter to increase Parliamentary control over broadcasts and argued that professional broadcasters should be free to get on with their job, even if found some left wing commentators personally uncongenial. In fact he encourage the Corporation to be more bold and publicly announced that he had such complete faith in the BBC governors, he was willing to defend them, whatever they did.

But this is not to say that he washed his hands and stood aside –  that was hardly his nature. Of course he interfered but he did it in a way to make the governance of the BBC more robust. One of the great threats was money. The government was concerned about inadequate financial controls and overspending and the Treasury was threatening to send in inspectors, which could have been disastrous given the Treasury’s reputation for sensitivity and understanding. Bracken averted this by headhunting Robert Foot to investigate (‘We must have you for a few months then you can go back to your blasted gas’). In the end Foot stayed for three years and turned round the finances so they were no longer a bother. He became the Director General for two years and gave the corporation stability before then William Haley was appointed as his successor.

The BBC emerged from the war in much better shape than it had been before Bracken took over as Minister of Information. And he continued to defend its interests afterwards by supporting the unpopular idea to increase in the licence fee and speaking out against any notion that ministers should have any control over the corporation’s output.

Post War

The war was Brendan Bracken’s peak and it is inevitable that what came after was decline. At first it didn’t seem needed to be that way Evan if he had lost his seat in the Labour landslide of 1945. He was soon parachuted into Bournemouth and took up the battle of being in opposition – and opposition it certainly was. He lay into the the Labour programme with impunity, after all that was his job, but he was also at odds with the centrist trend of the Conservatives, which was now in the ascendency. He was a romantic, traditional Tory, who would not have been out of place in the nineteenth century,  and didn’t really have a faction in the parliamentary party. He was on the front bench and make rollicking speeches mocking the proposals of the government but he was out of step and must have realised that his time had gone. 

The break point seems to have been around 1950 when his health deteriorated. He had always been a bit of a hypochondriac but now he seemed to suffer with illnesses that left him feeling overwhelmingly tired and unable to combine both a political and business career. He chose business. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951 he declined the offer of a ministerial post and and shortly after resigned his seat.

He never did become Prime Minister, as he had hoped in 1922 but it was once said of him that he was for a time the most significant Irishman in English public life since Edmund Burke.

The post-war period was though a time when his business career, for the first time, allowed him to make serious money.  Before, as a director of Eyre and Spottiswoode and chairman of the Financial News Group,  he had always been comfortable but had accumulated no capital. In 1945 he was elected chairman of the Union Corporation, a South African based mining corporation on the recommendation of the previous chairman Sir Henry Strakosch and the share offers he received enabled him to build up his fortune.

He retained the chairmanship the Financial News Group because in neither case was he a hands-on executive. The Financial News Group was run by Garrett Moore (Lord Drogheda) and at Union Corporation his role was mainly making the right contacts and through that opening up opportunities. His outside role with helping Lewis Rosenstiel with Tormore fits into this pattern. He saw a way to help inward investment and the create jobs and increase wealth in a part of the country he had come to love. This was the way he operated. He was at heart a fixer.

During the 50s his health continued to decline and he died in 1958 of cancer, only 57 years old.

Architecture and Design

If we picture Brendan as a teenager in Australia reading avidly and imbibing the idea of Britain’s imperial power and the grandeur of eighteenth century England through the writings of Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbons, and Sheridan (even if two of those are Irish), we can see a great romantic imagination at work. He created an ideal, which ran deeper than politics and philosophy, it was also aesthetic.

The house he lived in for most of his adult life was a rather glorious Queen Anne town house at 8 Lord North Street, just off Smith Square, was furnished with appropriate period pieces. He had a good eye and a connoisseurship aided by a retentive memory and his regular visits to so many grand houses during his days editing English Life. He later became a trustee of the National Gallery and his love of the visual arts was constant.

His deputy at English Life, and also his friend,  was Robert Lutyens who introduced Brendan to his father, the great architect, Sir Edwin, with whom he became a familiar house guest. Through this connection he then met his two other architectural guides in Professor Charles Reilly of Liverpool School of Architecture and Professor Albert Richardson of the Bartlett School of Architecture. 

Although he was a huge admirer of Lutyens (and pushed for him to be given the commission to build the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool) but it was with Albert Richardson that he had the most fruitful relationship. Together they could enjoy the illusion of eighteenth century life at Richardson’s house in Ampthill, and share a love of domestic architecture. Their friendship led to many commissions – if Bracken wanted anything done it was always Richardson to whom he turned:

  • In 1940 a young American airman, William Fiske, had died on active service. Churchill and Bracken saw the propaganda potential for their cause of overcoming American isolationism. They decided a monument should be placed in the crypt of St Paul’s next to Washington’s. Bracken had Richardson design the lettering, which read “He died that England might live”.
  • Richardson designed the interior of the school library at Sedbergh, in an eighteenth century building that had once housed the whole school.
  • The Financial Times, Bracken House, near St Pauls is probably Richardson’s finest and was the first post-war building to be listed
  • In his will Brendan left £1,000 to the governors of Sedbergh for a memorial to Rufus Bruce Lockhart  and entrance gates to the Bruce Lockhart Music School. To Ampleforth he left £750 for a memorial tablet for Dom Paul Nevil. In both cases he suggested Albert Richardson as the designer.

Brendan was always  loyal to his friends. It was thus inevitable that he would once more turn to Sir Albert Richardson for the design of  Tormore distillery.

Character References

“The Earl of Longford has written that Brendan Bracken was the most remarkable man he ever met. I incline to the view that his significance and interest is much more in his personality than in his achievements, however formidable one assesses them: in what he was, rather than what he did. He is like an unforgettable character in a novel. As such he was, I say with gratitude, a great subject of biography.”  – Charles Lysaght. Finest Hour 113. Winter 2001- 2002 (reprint of Brendan Bracken Memorial Lecture)

My first impression [of Brendan] was that I was looking at a Polynesian with dyed hair…He was tall and splendidly built, moving, walking and running with singular grace. His voice was rather thick with an accent that must have been Irish but as he claimed he came from Sydney I assumed that it was Australian.

As other people discovered later, Brendan had innate power – he could impose himself on people who considered him to be a charlatan, but who were so amused by his tricks that they valued his company.” – Eric Whelpton

“For such a young man he had an enviable overdose of self-assurance. That was the characteristic that struck me the moment I entered the room… his conversation was brilliant, full of devastatingly witty cracks, but also full of genuine information. Knowing as he did all the people that mattered it was only natural that he should pick up information. But in addition he had a flair for extracting the information he was interested in. His was an amazingly quick brain… His was a character full of contradictions but his basic quality was an immense kindness and his desire to help, not only his friends but also people he had only met casually. It was my impression that he derived great satisfaction from feelings of possessing the brains and influence that made it possible to help others” – Paul Einzig, financial journalist and long time associate.

“He always stood for the highest standards in his papers and the financial journalism of today owes him much. A man of brilliant intelligence and scintillating wit, seething with ideas (often good, sometimes wildly impossible) a man with high capacity for action, mercurial and difficult to handle if things went badly. A man capable of great generosity… A man with a gift for friendship, a man with whom one could quarrel but not for long. Above all, and despite superficial appearances, a man of high standards and high ideals.” Oscar Hobson (ex-editor of the Financial News). News Chronicle 8 Dec 1958

“Few men of influence, and his influence through Churchill was great, have done so much good for others – in the main unknown” –  Anthony Eden  Sunday Times 27 Oct 1974

In his youth he was a great talker who spoke with the speed of a machine-gun in action and who, once started, was difficult to stop. In verbal argument he could be aggressive, but never bore malice. A a Minister he could take decisions. on one occasion during the war, when I was waiting for him, he sacked two senior and well known ex-Titans of Whitehall in under five minutes… Another quality he had in highest measure was his consideration for his staff. In a long career I can recall no one who came near him in taking on his broad shoulders the full responsibility and consequent blame for the mistakes and consequent blame for the mistakes or negligence of his subordinates.” – Robert Bruce Lockhart

“Brendan had an enormous number of friends whose presence he seemed to be able to command at will. I only had to say that I wanted to know something or other and he would say, “Oh well, we must talk to old X; I’ll get him to lunch,’ and the victim always appeared, were he a Cabinet minister or trade union leader. He also had the knack of turning the conversation quietly and deliberately so as to extract the information he required, and he always succeeded.” – R.H. MacWilliam

“This was a brilliant man, quick and clear in mind, unselfish in thought, compassionate in judgement.”

“He was a romantic who liked to express himself as a cynic, employing cynicism not as a guide to his own life buts protective armour against the false enthusiasm of others.”

“I sometimes found him exasperating owing to a certain indirectness in the way he approached his objectives” – Cyril Radcliffe who was Bracken’s Director General at the Ministry of Information

“Ill health and the passing of the years have mellowed him. The early aggressiveness has disappeared and the generous warm heart , which was always there, has come to the top. he is a sentimentalist with all the virtues and faults of the type and has a capacity amounting to almost to passion for helping lame dogs over fences. I sometimes wonder how a man can make so many promises without breaking them.” – Robert Bruce Lockhart

“As I was to discover in the course of time Bracken was capable of inspiring strong dislikes. He had a talent for infuriating and antagonising people. But I found his personality very attractive.” – Paul Einzig

One Last Whisky Mystery.

In Charles Lysaght’s biography there is one small, tantalising detail when describing Bracken’s increased wealth on becoming chairman of Union Corporation :

“As director he was offered shares on favourable terms and was able to cash them in at profit when they reached their market level. Such options, which Bracken rarely took up, together with a gift of IBM shares made bean American businessman for whom he found a distillery in Scotland in about 1950, accounted for the bulk of Bracken’s fortune” p262

It is not quite clear but this information seems to from a conversation with two fellow directors – R.H. MacWilliam and K.H. Wallis – so it is possible the details are not precise e.g.  American might be Canadian and so Sam Bronfman or Harry Hatch, or the date might be later: 1954 for Hiram Walker to buy both Glencadam and Glen Scotia, or 1955/6  to buy Seager & Evansl. If the date is accurate it could only refer to Sam Bronfman buying Strathisla. But this was bought at open auction following the bankruptcy of Jay Pomeroy, this seems unlikely.   The Rosenstiel connection looks the most likely but we will probably never know for sure.

However a mystery is a fitting way to end this summary of Brendan Bracken’s life.  He was a man who came from obscurity, recreated himself and then became an actor on the national stage. He told many stories about his life – most of them untrue. He was a fabulist but someone totally sincere in his actions and principles. Although he had an enormous number of friends and acquaintances there were few, if any, with whom he was intimate

“Who was that man?”

Sources

Brendan Bracken told tall stories and fact and fiction merged in a way that entertained and baffled his acquaintances.  Writing a biography of such a character is no easy matter, luckily there have been two people who have diligently pieced together the story from the documents and by talking to people who were still alive at the time they wrote in 1970s.

The first was: Boyle, A. (1974). Poor, dear Brendan : The quest for Brendan Bracken. London: Hutchinson. It is good but the second biography is definitive and is the book I have mostly relied upon: Lysaght, C. (1979). Brendan Bracken. London: Allen Lane.

There is a volume of letters between Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook: Bracken, Brendan, Beaverbrook, Max Aitken, Baron, & Cockett, Richard (ed). (1990). My dear Max : The letters of Brendan Bracken to Lord Beaverbrook, 1925-1958 (Sources for modern British history). London: Historians’ Press.

I followed up some of the references used by Charles Lysaght but there was little need; he had included all of the key quotations, but nevertheless I found them interesting.

Lockhart, R., & Young, K. (1973). The diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart. Vol. 1, 1915-1938. London: Macmillan.

Lockhart, R., & Young, K. (1980). The diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart. Vol. 2, 1939-1965. London: Macmillan.

Lockhart, R. (1957). Friends, foes, and foreigners. London: Putnam.

Whelpton, E. (1974). The making of a European. London: Johnson.

Einzig, P. (1960). In the centre of things : The autobiography of Paul Einzig. London: Hutchinson.

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