George Newnes was the man responsible for The Strand Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly whose pages bore the Sherlock Holmes stories from Adventures onwards. But, before the Strand Magazine or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes had ever been thought about, Newnes had established himself as a tycoon of the publishing world (think Rupert Murdoch but Victorian, religious and heavily invested in ‘pure’ and ‘healthy’ literature).
The son of a reverend, George Newnes grew up in Matlock Bath and went to work at age sixteen in a haberdashery shop – an unsuspecting candidate for the wealth and success that was to fall to him. In 1880 Newnes had the genius idea of a penny weekly newspaper dedicated to small news such as short stories, anecdotes, celebrity goings on, and jokes. After a year of planning, in 1881 Newnes released Tit-Bits whose first edition sold 5000 copies in two hours in Manchester alone, and whose circulation rose to over half a million. Later, came his next venture Review of Reviews in 1889 with fellow editor W T Stead, whom he later parted from due to editorial differences (Stead and Newnes were both liberal – but Stead was far more willing to publish literature that pushed the boundaries of respectability). The Strand Magazine followed in 1891 and was succeeded by many others: Country Life, World Wide Magazine, and Home Magazine to name but a few.
The Strand Magazine was to become a national institution of the middle classes, with no inconsiderable help from Arthur Conan Doyle whose stories became forever linked to the magazine. Reginald Pound recounts the tale of how the stories were first published in The Strand Magazine:
‘Two short stories, submitted on a foolscap in small plump handwriting, arrived on the desk of Greenhough Smith, who had been appointed literary editor of the new magazine. Forty years later he described how he reacted on that day in the late spring of 1891. ‘I at once realised that here was the greatest short story writer since Edgar Allan Poe. I remember rushing into Mr Newnes’s room and thrusting the stories before his eyes.’ … ‘Good story-writers were scarce, and here, to an editor jaded with wading through reams of impossible stuff, come a gift from Heaven, a god-send in the shape of a story that brought a gleam of happiness into the despairing life of this weary editor. Here was a new and gifted story-writer: there was no mistaking the ingenuity of the plot, the limpid clearness of the style, the perfect art of telling a story.’
Newnes, of course, accepted the Holmes stories immediately and paid generously for them. The rest, as they say, is history. Pound claims that as soon as the Sherlock Holmes stories began to be published, the circulation boost was both ‘immediate and as conclusion as a reflexive action.’ The success of Doyle and of The Strand Magazine went hand-in-hand.
Newnes had a real knack for understanding and anticipating popular culture: the success of his magazines are proof enough but Sherlock Holmes was the cherry on the proverbial cake. He would always strike while the iron was hot and thus oftened pioneered technological advancements, genres of stories or magazines, with great success. Newnes worked incredibly hard for his success and because he was so good at what he did, he quickly climbed the social ranks. Yet he was also an advocate of the life philosophy ‘work hard, play hard’ (as he confesses in an interview in the Idler, 1893), so when he wasn’t working he was mostly playing golf at the club or tennis on his own (heated and electrically light) tennis court at his house in Putney.
Newnes’ attitude towards popular culture was radical: he felt that literature should be for all classes and so worked to bring helpful and healthful literature to the masses. This was not a popular opinion, as many in the literary world felt that this lowered the value of literature, but Newnes’ religious and liberal upbringing meant that he was stubbornly philanthropic in all areas of his life. The Strand Magazine and Tit-Bits were his gift to the masses, but he also spent time and money in other, more charitable, yet also profitable, ventures.
For example, most Tit-Bit readers commuted to work by train, and one day a woman wrote to him to say that her husband had died in a train accident, holding a copy of Tit-Bits and asked if Newnes would be able to give her any money. Not only did he do so, he set up an insurance policy for all Tit-Bit readers that stated if they died in a train-related accident (and it did have to be an accident) whilst holding a copy of Tit-Bits, their family would receive a pay out – and pay out he did – every incident was reported on and it became well-known that Newnes was true to his word (and of course it increased the sales of the magazine too, as people paid it as insurance on their commute).
The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway was another venture of George Newnes. As the two towns became a popular tourist area, the difficulty of travelling between them was hindering the economic potential, as one was at the top off a cliff and the other at the bottom. Not many were brave enough to venture up by foot. In 1886 a plan was put in place to develop the area, including a cliff railway from Lynton to Lynmouth – the engineering complications was one thing, but there was also not enough money. During this process Newnes fortuitously visited his friend Thomas Hewitt, one of the developers. It was proposed that Newnes invest in the scheme and Newnes did without hesitation. The railway met a huge public need; it completely changed the lives of the locals, and allowed tourism to flourish. This was one of 3 large investments Newnes made in the area, which made him very popular amongst the local people as a benefactor to Lynton and Lynmouth.
Such was the man who published Sherlock Holmes: he was seen a father-figure to the masses. His morality, his generosity and his insight into popular culture made him popular in his own right. He even included himself in the Strand Magazine’s ‘Portraits of Celebrities’ due to the ‘repeatedly expressed wish’ of the readers and of course, we will always thank him for releasing Sherlock Holmes to the world.