Aitken was born in Maple, Ontario, Canada, in 1879, the son of a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister. The following year, his family moved to Newcastle, New Brunswick, Canada, which he considered to be his home town. It was here, at the age of 13, that he published his first newspaper.
Although Aitken wrote the entrance examinations for Dalhousie University and registered at the Saint John Law School, he did not attend either institution. His only formal higher education came when he briefly attended the University of New Brunswick. Aitken worked for a short time as an office boy in the law office of Richard Bedford Bennett, in the town of Chatham, New Brunswick. Bennett later became Prime Minister of Canada and a business associate.
As a young man, Aitken made his way to Halifax, Nova Scotia where John F Stairs, part of the city's dominant business family, gave him employment, training him in the business of finance. In 1904, when Stairs opened his newly formed Royal Securities Corporation, Aitken became a minority shareholder and the firm's general manager. Under the tutelage of Stairs, who would be his mentor and friend, Aitken engineered a number of successful business deals and was planning to do a series of bank mergers; however, Stairs' unexpected early death in late September 1904 led to Aitken acquiring control of the company. Stairs had given the untested and untrained Aitken an opportunity in business, just as Aitken would later do when he hired A. J. Nesbitt, a young dry goods salesman from Saint John, New Brunswick. Because Montreal, Quebec was the financial center of Canada, Aitken would send Nesbitt to open the Montreal branch of Royal Securities.
On January 29, 1906, in Halifax, Aitken married Gladys Henderson Drury, daughter of Major-General Charles William Drury CBE and Mary Louise Drury (nee Henderson). They had three children before her death in 1927:
In 1912, A. J. Nesbitt left Aitken's employ to form the Nesbitt, Thomson and Co. stock brokerage. Aitken appointed employee Izaak Walton Killam as the new President of Royal Securities and sold the Canadian securities company to Killam in 1919.
Adding to his chain of newspapers, which included the London Evening Standard, he bought a controlling interest in the failing Daily Express from Lawson Johnson on 14 November, 1916 for £17,500; he had been lending money to the paper and its proprietors since January 1911. He always obscured this transaction because it was at the same time as the Parliamentary crisis which replaced Asquith with Lloyd George, in which Aitken's ally and protegé Bonar Law played a great part. Aitken's friend and biographer, A.J.P. Taylor, states that this was a mere coincidence, brought on by Johnson's eagerness to be quit of the paper.
He was granted a peerage in 1917 as the 1st Baron Beaverbrook, the name "Beaverbrook" being adopted from a small community near his boyhood home. He had initially considered, but on the advice of Louise Manny, rejected "Lord Miramichi" as too difficult to pronounce. The name "Beaverbrook" also had the advantage of conveying a distinctive Canadian ring to the title.
In 1918 he became the first Minister of Information. He became responsible for allied propaganda in allied and neutral countries. Lord Northcliffe became a Director of Propaganda and control propaganda in enemy countries. During his time in office Beaverbrook had a number of clashes with Foreign Secretary Balfour over the use of intelligence material. Beaverbrook felt that intelligence should become part of his department, Balfour disagreed. Eventually the intelligence committee was assigned to Beaverbrook but they then resigned en masse to be re-employed by the Foreign office. Beaverbrook also came under attack from MP's who distrusted a press baron being employed by the state. He survived but became increasingly frustrated with his limited role and influence, and in September 1918 he resigned claiming ill health.
In 1957, a bronze statue of Lord Beaverbrook was erected at the centre of Officers' Square in Fredericton, New Brunswick, paid for by money raised by children throughout the province. A bust of him by Oscar Nemon stands in the park in the town square of Newcastle, New Brunswick not far from where he sold newspapers as a young boy. His ashes are in the plinth of the bust.
Beaverbrook was both admired and despised in England, sometimes at the same time: in his 1956 autobiography, David Low quotes H.G. Wells as saying of Beaverbrook: "If ever Max ever gets to Heaven, he won't last long. He will be chucked out for trying to pull off a merger between Heaven and Hell after having secured a controlling interest in key subsidiary companies in both places, of course."
In England he lived at Cherkley Court, near Leatherhead, Surrey. Beaverbrook remained a widower for many years until 1963 when he married Marcia Anastasia Christoforides (1910-1994), the widow of his friend Sir James Dunn. Lord Beaverbrook died in Surrey in 1964. The Beaverbrook Foundation continues his philanthropic interests.
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