Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe
From time to time it is considered good business for a newspaper to engage in what is euphemistically described as a “crusade”, and in the autumn of 1906 [Daily Mail editor] Alfred Harmsworth decided to undertake a Napoleonic campaign against the rising price of soap. This increase in price had been agreed on by the soap manufacturers, following the sudden rise in the cost of raw materials; it had recently been discovered that some of the ingredients of soap could also be converted into margarine and other foodstuffs suitable for the poor, and to balance the consequent rise in the costs of production the soap manufacturers had put up the price of their products. More, at the suggestion of Mr Lever (later Lord Leverhulme), the Sunlight soap millionaire, they were planning an amalgamation of the principal firms to eliminate the tremendous costs of competitive advertising. Such an amalgamation would, of course, have enormously reduced the advertisement revenue of the newspapers, and rumours immediately spread about that it was part of the scheme to corner all the raw materials available and substantially increase the price of soap to the public. This latter consideration was, according to the statement of his newspapers, the sole inspiration of the philanthropic Harmsworth scheme to fight the “soap trust” and protect the public, and the poor washerwoman who would be most hardly hit by an increase in supervisors became an object of passionate editorial concern.
The attack on the “soap trust” was launched with all the vigour and thoroughness of which Alfred Harmsworth was capable, and most of the Daily Mail reporters, including Edgar, were sooner or later pressed into the fray. A “black list” of all the soap firms involved in the amalgamation scheme was published, with the names of their products, as also a list of firms not so involved, whose products the public was recommended to buy without fear of being instantly strangled by the great soap octopus. Lever Brothers came in for the heaviest punishment, for not only was Mr Lever the originator of the scheme, but he had also, on the advice of his agents, reduced the weight of the standard bar of Sunlight soap by an ounce, a diplomatic alternative to an increase in retail prices. The attention of the retailer had been expressly called to this reduction in weight by a small label gummed on the end of the soap carton, but the Daily Mail fell on the expedient with a yell of outrage which suggested that the “fifteen-ounce pound” was a deliberate attempt to deceive and vampirise the public.
In common with other members of the reporting staff it fell to Edgar to supply colourful detail of the suffering caused to the British public by the increased cost of soap, and he was specifically instructed to voice the laments of the poor struggling washerwoman. Accordingly, with great feeling (and, one cannot help suspecting, from the comfort of his study in Elgin Crescent) he contributed to the general Daily Mail philippics under the moving headline of “Cruel Blow to the Poor”. “Out of the region of high finance,” he wrote, ”away from the battleground where an indefinite public fights a very tangible twelve million pound trust, you are nearer to the crux of the whole question when you get to the place where the washing hangs out on the line and the steam and soapy scent of washing day permeates the neighbourhood… 'From early Monday morning to late on Saturday night'”—it is an unspecified washerwoman who is speaking—“I stand at my wash-tub—and very often well into the early hours of Sunday morning. To meet the competition of the laundries I have reduced my price to 9d. a dozen—and at this price the rise in the price of soap means all the difference between bread-and-butter for my children and dry bread.” This affecting account was inserted anonymously into the columns set aside daily in the Daily Mail for the attack on the soap trust, but it achieved unexpected and somewhat embarrassing prominence when it was quoted in court during the shattering libel action which ultimately followed.
Lever Brothers had borne the assault as long as they could, and then had announced that the amalgamation scheme was to be abandoned. It was an undeniable triumph for the power of the Press, and the Harmsworth newspapers were not slow to drive home to the public the philanthropic magnitude of their achievement. So great was the triumph, indeed, that Harmsworth found himself completely unable to relinquish the subject, and when, a few weeks later, Lever Brothers made an attempt to retrieve the damage by a vast scheme of advertising (not, curiously enough, in the Daily Mail) he returned to the attack with open and exuberant scoffing. This sudden resumption of hostilities was too much for Lever. The Daily Mail campaign had already had a disastrous effect on the sales of Sunlight soap and the value of Lever shares; he had owned himself beaten, abandoned the trust, and restored the sixteen-ounce pound. More he could not do, and when he found himself and his firm still victims of hostile publicity he took legal advice, briefed Sir Edward Carson and F.E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) and sued the Daily Mail and associated newspapers for libel.
It was a lively case, and with such brilliant counsel it soon became apparent that the Harmsworth crusade to protect the British public was going to be expensive. With masterly succinctness Sir Edward Carson drew up the case for the prosecution. The Daily Mail, according to the plaintiffs, had accused Levers of selling soap in a fraudulent manner; they also claimed that large numbers of employees had been dismissed as a result of the combine. They had, moreover, charged them with cornering the raw materials market, with attempting to bribe the Press, with using unsavoury fish oil in their products, and with pursuing a policy in regard to the combine which “tended to the oppression of the poor”. Up to the present, said Sir Edward, the trading losses of the plaintiffs had, as a result of these public accusations, already amounted to £40,000, and two million preference shares had been reduced in value with a loss to the shareholders of £200,000.
The charge of oppression of the poor particularly took the ironic fancy of the prosecution, and in the published reports of the proceedings (for the case was being followed by other newspapers with hilarious interest) Edgar's story of the piteous washerwoman occupied a prominent and unenviable place. “Turning,” said The Times report, “to another article entitled 'Cruel Blow to the Poor', Sir Edward said it told a story of a poor widow who supported a large family of small children by washing, and who lost 1s. 6d. a week through the increase in the price of soap. She must, said counsel, have used ninety-six 3d. tablets. (Laughter.) They had asked where this poor widow who was using ninety-six tablets a week and was being driven to the pawn shop by Mr Lever was to be found, and in answer to interrogatories the reply they got was that the story was contributed by a reporter on tne staff who was now in the south of France reporting the wine riots. (Laughter.)”
The defence pleaded in reply that their charges were true, that the conduct of the plaintiffs had been fraudulent and dishonest, and that the articles complained of were fair comment—but the jury thought otherwise. Judgment was given for Lever Brothers, who were awarded £50,000 damages—the largest sum up to that time that had ever been awarded in a libel action. Encouraged by this promising result the lesser soap companies which, with Levers, had borne the brunt of the attack, rushed into litigation, and Mr Lever's damages having set an opulent example, Sir Alfred Harmsworth found himself finally liable for damages amounting in all to a quarter of a million. It was a crushing blow, even to so rich an organisation as the Harmworth Press, and a panic of economy swept through Carmelite House. In the course of the anxious conferences and discussions which followed Sir Alfred asked irritably who was the reporter whose ridiculous calculations on the losses of washerwomen had provoked such malicious amusement at the Daily Mail's expense. Edgar, returning innocently from Narbonne, where he had, indeed, been covering the wine riots, found a black mark of disfavour registered against him.
Margaret Lane, Edgar Wallace: A biography, 1939