Gomer Berry was four years younger than his brother William, and was also a pupil at Abermorlais and then at the County School. He said in later years that he too worked for the “Merthyr Times” which may be so but in 1901 when he was 17 he was working as a draper’s apprentice in Manchester House which was Merthyr’s largest department store. Then a year later he was with his brother William in London.
William invited his younger Gomer to join him to be in charge of advertising, sales and finance. It turned out to be a brilliant partnership with William’s flair and Homer’s financial acumen. In their bachelor days they shared a flat in Arundel Street, Strand, and until 1936 they harmoniously shared a joint bank account on which each could draw without consulting each other.
When Gomer was 22 he and his brother William borrowed £100 from their brother Seymour. They then launched in 1901 a paper of their own, “Advertising World.” This was a bold but shrewd move for by the turn of the century advertising was firmly established as an industry and several hundred advertising agencies were operating in London. William is reputed to have written every word of the first issue Advertising World flourished as a paper for the trade and William invited his younger brother to join him to be in charge of advertising, sales and finance. It turned out to be a brilliant partnership with William’s flair and Homer’s financial acumen. In their bachelor days they shared a flat in Arundel Street, Strand, and until 1936 they harmoniously shared a joint bank account on which each could draw without consulting each other.
In 1909 they sold “Advertising World” for £11,000, a handsome profit, and bought a publishing company and began to publish various periodicals. One was called “Boxing”, a title that reflected one of Merthyr’s and William’s passions. It was an immediate success. From an initial print run of 100,000 in 1909 it was selling more than a quarter of a million copies weekly by the outbreak of World war One. From this launch pad they founded a press dynasty with dazzling speed. In 1915 they bought the struggling “Sunday Times” for £80,000, most of which they borrowed, then in 1919 the “Financial Times.” By 1921 the Berry Brothers had added the “Daily Graphic,” the profitable “Kelly’s Directories,” and had interests in the “Western Mail” the “Evening Express”, the “Cardiff Weekly,” the “Merthyr Express” and the “Pontypridd Observer”. William went on to the board of GKN and Seymour became a director of the “Sunday Times.”
In 1924 with Sir Edward Illife, they formed Allied Newspapers Ltd. To take over the Berry interests but also to start a major programme of acquisitions. By January 1928 this company controlled the “Daily Telegraph,” the “Illustrated Sunday Herald,” and morning, evening, and weekly papers in Sheffield, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Aberdeen, and Darlington. In 1926 it bought for eight million Lord Rothermore’s Amalgamated Press Ltd which published dozens of magazines and periodicals and owned printing presses and a large paper mill. Altogether the berry group (as it became known) controlled three national morning papers, six provisional morning papers, eight provincial evenings, eight provincial weeklies, and about 70 periodicals. This was not the end of their acquisitions. They bought papers in Bristol, Derby and Cardiff. At the end of 1929 the Berry’s had control of 26 daily and Sunday papers and almost 100 periodicals together with the largest paper mills in the world. Their dominance did not go unchallenged.
Sir James Gomer Berry, Bart, chairman of the Infants’ Hospital Vincent Square, Westminster, announced at the annual meeting on Monday afternoon that he wished to erect and equip a maternity block as a memorial to his wife. He asked the committee to accept a gift of £50,000, payable over seven years, to cover the entire cost. Sir James Gomer Berry was warmly thanked for his munificent gift.
One of Wife’s last requests
Sir James Gomer Berry stated that it was the earnest wish of his wife that an adequate and properly equipped maternity block should be constructed at the hospital when the extensions took place, and one of her last requests to him was that any memorial to her should be at the Infants Hospital, in which she took so deep an interest.
“The block,” he added, “will form part of a general extension scheme which has been approved at an estimated expenditure of £250,000.” Under the new scheme they would more than double the present number of cots. They would provide a well-equipped maternity block, enlarge and bring up to date the surgical section, and have at their command an operating theatre.
“It is the intention of the committee of management,” added Sir James Gomer Berry, “to make the hospital the best and most complete infants’ hospital in the world.”
Breaking up the Empire
In 1937 after 36 years of extremely fruitful collaboration they amicably divided their empire. Iliffe took some of the periodicals and Kelly’s Directories. William took the “Daily Telegraph” and the “Financial Times,” and the controlling interest in Amalgamated Press which was the magazine group.
Gomer took the “Sunday Express,” the “Sunday Chronicle,” the “Sunday Graphic,” the “Empire News,” and “Daily Sketch” and all the provincial papers. He therefore had the lion’s share with 18 newspapers (five of them national). He became chairman of Allied Newspapers and in 1943 changed the name to Kemsley Press.
Gomer followed his brother’s example and became editor-in-chief of the “Sunday Times” where the editor was the same W.W. Hadley who had encouraged William to enter journalism over forty years previously, (Hadley remained editor until 1950 when he retired aged 84). Gomer lacked the flair of his brother but he did have the good sense to employ Ian Fleming as foreign editor on the “Sunday Times.” He appointed Harold Hobson as theatre critic and editors of quality like Harry Hodson and Dennis Hamilton. When he had acquired control of the paper in 1937 its circulation was 263,000. When the paper was sold in 1959 it had risen to 885,000. He also issued the Kemsley Manual of Journalism (1947) and started a training scheme for journalists based in Cardiff. From 1952 he began to sell of his papers and in 1955 with Isaac Wolfson and Maurice Winnick gained the franchise for weekend television broadcasting in the Midlands and the north of England. However is sons were not keen on the enterprise and he withdrew, thereby losing the opportunity to make another fortune. Eventually in 1959 he sold his papers including the “Sunday Times” to the Canadian, Roy Thomson. Initially he asked for fifteen million but settled for five million
Gomer married Mary Lilian Holmes by whom he had six sons and a daughter. His wife died in 1928 a week after he was made a baronet. In 1931 he married Edith, formerly the wife of C.W. Dresselhuys a Dutch diplomat.
It was generally believed that one reason William and Gomer divided their empire in 1937 was the large size of their families and a desire to clarify inheritances. A number of sons and daughters subsequently became senior executives in the family newspapers.
Gomer Berry was knighted in Baldwin’s New Years’ Honour List in 1928 and in 1936 Baldwin raised him to the peerage as Baron Kemsley. When Neville Chamberlin became prime minister in May 1937 Kemsley offered him unqualified support in his dealings with Hitler. Chamberlin in return felt the Kemsley was the only newspaper proprietor he could confide in and trust. More politically naïve that his brother, as late as 1939, just six weeks before war was declared, Kemsley visited Hitler and told him that Churchill had little support in Britain and should not be taken seriously. When Chamberlain was replaced by Churchill in May 1940 Kemsley was shocked and it was some months before his newspapers were thoroughly pro-Winston. Thereafter his support was unstinting and Churchill made him a Viscount in his 1945 resignation honours list. His papers, particularly the “Daily Graphic” which he saw as his answer to the Labour supporting “Daily Mirror,” were fierce critics of the Attlee government 1945-51 and firm supporters of Anthony Eden’s Suez adventure in 1956.
After disposing of his newspapers Kemsley largely lived abroad and died in the Hotel Metropole in Monte Carlo on 7th February 1968, aged 84. Lord Kemsley, who was accompanied by Lady Kemsley, had been staying in Monte Carlo for the sake of the health. He was then referred to as the “greatest business-getter Fleet Street has ever known.”
Bequests to Merthyr
Although the brothers gave to a number of national charitable causes they did not forget Merthyr. After Seymour died and left funds in trust for the relief of the poor of the Borough William and Gomer gave £3,000 a year for two years so that the fund could start its work immediately. They also gave a further £1,000 to the Miners’ Distress fund and Gomer took over the presidency of Merthyr General Hospital. In conjunction with Lady Buckland, William and Gomer presented to the town the Lord Buckland Memorial Extension to the General Hospital which cost £40,000, and provided it with an endowment fund of £20,000. In 1936 William and Gomer presented a new clock tower to the parish church. Between them the brothers spent many thousands of pounds in gifts to local schools, hospitals, churches, the Dowlais Male Voice Choir, sporting organisation and in funds for the relief of poverty and in trying to sustain local industry. Gomer, as Kemsley, when opening the Fete and Gala on 26th May 1947 said ‘Never a week has passed in the 46 years that fate ordained that I should make my life elsewhere, without my scanning the pages of the “Merthyr Express.”’ I know from personal experience that in the fifties when the “Merthyr Express” was part of the Kemsley Empire he insisted that a copy was posted to him each week, hot off the press.
In 1936 William and Gomer presented a new clock tower to the parish church. Between them the brothers spent many thousands of pounds in gifts to local schools, hospitals, churches, the Dowlais Male Voice Choir, sporting organisation and in funds for the relief of poverty and in trying to sustain local industry. Gomer, as Kemsley, when opening the Fete and Gala on 26th May 1947 said ‘Never a week has passed in the 46 years that fate ordained that I should make my life elsewhere, without my scanning the pages of the “Merthyr Express.”’ I know from personal experience that in the fifties when the “Merthyr Express” was part of the Kemsley Empire he insisted that a copy was posted to him each week, hot off the press.