The lasting legacy of Lord Beaverbrook
As UNB celebrates its 225th anniversary, we look back at the life and times of New Brunswick's Lord Beaverbrook, Chancellor of UNB from 1947 until 1964, and the institution's greatest benefactor of the 20th century.
For a brief biography of Lord Beaverbrook, click here.
"When he came to Fredericton the University really came to life, as if there were a strong electric current flowing through the whole place. You never knew what was going to happen next. There was an air of expectancy. It might be a new building; it might be a new magazine; it might be - who knows what?" It was thus that English professor Desmond Pacey remembered what it was like when Lord Beaverbrook paid his annual visit to New Brunswick and UNB.
For 16 years following his appointment in 1947 as chancellor of UNB, Beaverbrook returned regularly to the province of his childhood, usually for about six weeks from the middle of September to the end of October.
His entourage included a chef, a valet, a butler, and two secretaries, all of whom he managed, seemingly without effort, to keep busy.
And as if his own famous presence weren't enough, he always brought distinguished visitors with him to lend even more luster to both the city of Fredericton and UNB's fall convocation, at which honorary degrees were frequently conferred on luminaries, such as Sir Arthur Bryant, Brendan Bracken, Krishna Menon, A.L. Rouse, John F. Kennedy and A.J.P. Taylor.
His routine was very much the same each year. He rose early, breakfasted alone, and then tackled correspondence that arrived each day in large brown envelopes until it was time to talk by telephone to London. Thus he kept in touch with friends, associates, newspaper editors and business interests.
At about 10 a.m. he would take an hour's walk, normally along the Green, sometimes alone, more often in the company of a guest, a local associate or a friend. When accompanied he often had notes in his pocket to remind him of things he wished to discuss with that person. And there was always time, it seems, for casual chats with passersby, especially when they were students.
He seldom lunched alone, using the occasion to transact business or gain information from politicians, academics or other local worthies. A post-lunch rest was usually followed by more correspondence, or working on the manuscript of a book, or planning one of his major benefactions.
Then it was time to phone Montreal for the news of its stock exchange and later Wall Street, perhaps more (as A.J.P. Taylor said) to keep up with what was going on than to speculate.
As they were in England or the West Indies or the south of France, where Beaverbrook also kept residences, his dinner parties in Fredericton were characterized by good food and drink and stimulating conversation. His Lordship presided at table with a wit, humor and charm that kept attention focused on him and made guests feel honored to be included.
Not infrequently he had more in mind than just a good time. Colin B. Mackay, who was president of UNB for most of the Beaverbrook years and who perhaps attended more of these dinners than anyone else, remembered, "I always knew how serious the dinner party was to be when I knew the kind of champagne to be served; I would call his butler in advance to find out. When he served his best champagne I knew he was out for the kill, that he wanted something from some government official or donor."
Quite often what Beaverbrook wanted was something for UNB or for one of the magnificent gifts he was planning to bestow on New Brunswick - an art gallery, a theatre, a town hall, a skating rink. There have been some who felt that Beaverbrook's benefactions were an expression of self-aggrandizement. Malcolm Muggeridge visited Fredericton in the fall of 1963 to write an article for Maclean's on Lord Beaverbrook.
What he saw did not please him. "Lord Beaverbrook has conferred many benefits on New Brunswick," Muggeridge acknowledged, "but not by stealth; his right hand has not only known what his left hand was up to, but has eagerly co-operated. It may be said, without exaggeration, that his name is as prevalent there as in the columns of his newspapers, and that its mention is as liable to produce among Frederictonians the same faint twinge, the same perceptible lowering of the voice, as among his journalistic employees. In New Brunswick Lord Beaverbrook is his own personality cult.
"One project during Trueman's term in which Beaverbrook was heavily involved was the expansion of the Bonar-Law Bennett Library, now the Provincial Archives. The Latin motto emblazoned above its entrance is Ne me derelinquas, Domine or "Forsake me not, O Lord!" A more popular local translation, however, at least among those who feared that Beaverbrook's great generosity might one day come to an abrupt end, was "Forsake us not, your Lordship."
Forsake us he did not. The beneficence towards UNB, which began in 1920, lasted to the end of his life and, through his son, Sir Max Aitken, and daughter-in-law, Lady Violet Aitken, and the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation, into the 21st century.
Mary Louise Lynch (BCL'33, DCL'81), for many years Beaverbrook's New Brunswick lawyer, attributes the arousal of his interest in UNB to Murray MacLaren (BA1880, LLD'17), a distinguished surgeon and, at the time he first visited Lord Beaverbrook in England in 1921, a member of Parliament.
During that first encounter the decision was taken to establish the Beaverbrook Scholarship, Beaverbrook's greatest gift to UNB and to New Brunswick, ensuring a cadre of educated people to assist with the province's and Canada's development. Other gifts followed: the Lady Beaverbrook Residence (1930), the Lady Beaverbrook Gymnasium (1940), the addition to the Bonar Law-Bennett Library (1951), Beaverbrook House in Saint John (1953), thousands of valuable books and manuscripts, and countless smaller, unrecorded benefactions. It was his gifts to the library, perhaps more than any others, which facilitated UNB's transition from a small college to a true university.
And what he got for New Brunswick was as important and impressive as what he gave.
He used his connections in the business world to solicit large sums of money for UNB's ambitious building program in the 1950s and early 1960s; he used his considerable influence with New Brunswick's governments to get them to provide the operating funds for the rapid expansion that took place during that period; he used his fame to bring UNB to the attention of world leaders in politics, business, the arts and the academy who would otherwise have never heard of it.
But what was in it for him, this world figure who had been a multi-millionaire (or a "Maxi-millionaire," as he was fond of saying) before he was 30; who was knighted at 32; made a British peer at 38; had played essential and acclaimed roles in both world wars; was on a first-name basis with most of the leading figures of his time; and who was one of the greatest press barons of all time - what was the attraction for him in spending such a significant part of each year in Fredericton?
There were no doubt rewards for him, intangible but real. He had felt, upon first going to England, and notwithstanding the rapid trajectory of his political and business careers there, that there were gaps in his education and knowledge, especially in the field of literature and the arts.
Through UNB especially, but also through the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and The Playhouse, the "barefoot boy from the Miramichi," as he sometimes referred to himself, believed he was providing young New Brunswickers with the experiences and opportunities he had missed as a youth but discovered so abundantly in later life. His return home each year was an opportunity to witness and test the benefits of his beneficence.
NOTE: This article is an edited version of James Downey's introduction to "The Beaverbrook Beneficence" chapter in the Pictorial History of the University of New Brunswick by Susan Montague. Dr. Downey served as president of UNB from 1980 to 1990. Thanks to Dr. Downey and Ms. Montague for permission to share this story on the web.