1st Baron Astor of Hever (1956-1971)
Chairman Proprietor of The Times (1922-1959)
Born 1886 Died 1971
Born in New York on the 20th May 1886, he was the son of William Waldorf Astor, later the 1st Viscount Astor and Mary Dahlgren Paul, but despite his American birth, his father's assumption of British citizenship in 1899 meant that he was raised as an English gentleman being educated at Eton College and New College, Oxford.
However he only spent a year at Oxford and left in 1906 to join the 1st Life Guards, later becoming the Aide-de-Camp to the Governor-General of India in 1911. He left India with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and joined the Household Cavalry in France as a signalling officer. He was present at both Ypres and Cambrai, twice wounded and created a Chevalier in the Légion d'Honneur in recognition of his bravery. At the beginning of 1918 he was given command of the 520th Household Siege Battery, and in September 1918 was wounded in fourteen places, his injuries being so severe that his right leg had to be amputated.
The loss of his limb effectively brought his military career to an end, and he retired from the army with the rank of major. He nevertheless retained an interest in the army and served as honorary Colonel to the Kent and Sussex Royal Guard Artillery (1927–1946) and the 23rd London Regiment (1928–1949) both of which were Territorial Army regiments, and later became the Lieutenant-Colonel of the 5th Battalion of the City of London Home Guard (1940–1944) during World War II. He also served as the President of the Kent Council British Legion (1934–1962), and the National Association for the Employment of Regular Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen (1936–1962) both of which were charitable organisations with military connections.
After his discharge from the army, his father gave him Hever Castle, believing that it would give him something to occupy his time. With his father's death subsequent death in the following year he inherited a considerable portion of the Astor fortune, and could quite easily have lived the life of an English country gentleman. John Jacob however favoured doing something more active. He tried politics, and was elected to the House of Commons in 1922 as the Conservative member of Parliament for Dover, but he never made that much of an impression as a parliamentarian, although he held the seat until Labour landslide of June 1945.
It was however in the newspaper business that John Jacob really made his mark. The death of Alfred Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe on the 14th August 1922 meant that the ownership of The Times came on the market. John Jacob, whose father, and now elder brother owned The Observer was regarded as a suitable owner for a newspaper that had attainted the significance of something of a national institution, became the chairman proprietor of The Times, owning 90 percent of the shares against the 10 percent owned by John Walter.
Although one of his first acts was dismiss Wickham Steed and bring back Geoffrey Dawson as editor, he never once sought to impose his own views on the paper. Indeed when some of his friends sought to persuade him that it was his duty to ensure that the paper express the views that he thought were right, he countered with the opinion that since the paper's staff spent their time studying the affairs of the day, they were far more qualified than he to express an opinion on the matter. He was thus responsible for continuation of the paper's reputation as the journal of record (a reputation which it has of course since lost under Rupert Murdoch. John Jacob continued to act as Chairman until 1959, when his son Gavin took over, and as a director until 1962, although his connection to The Times continued until its sale to the Thomson Organisation in 1966.
As a press baron he was naturally felt to have acquired a general expertise in media matters and was appointed to the Government Broadcasting Committee in both 1923 and 1935 and became a member of the BBC's General Advisory Council in 1937; he attended the 3rd Imperial Press Conference at Melbourne in 1925 as treasurer, and was chairman of the subsequent 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Conferences and also acted as the very first chairman Press Council between 1953 and 1955. In addition to which he was chairman of the Middlesex Hospital (1938–62), and of Middlesex Hospital Medical Scheme (1945–62) and pursued other business interests, being a director of the Great Western Railway (1929–1948), Hambro’s Bank (1934–1960), Barclays Bank (1942–1952), Phoenix Assurance (where he was vice-chairman (1941–1952), and chairman 1952–1958), London Guarantee and Accident, and the Monotype Corporation.
Unsurprisingly it was felt that such a pillar of the establishment was deserving of a peerage title and on the 21st January 1956 he was created Baron Astor of Hever; the 'of Hever' being necessary to distinguish his title from that of the Baron Astor held by his elder brother.
The big change in John Jacob's life came with the Finance Act 1962, which for the first time brought assets held abroad within the scope of estate duty. As one of the beneficiaries of the Astor Trust in New York, John Jacob (or at least his estate) would therefore have been obliged to hand over a larger cheque than anticipated to the Inland Revenue. Thus on the 21st September 1962 he announced his intention to leave for the south of France where he spent the remainder of his life, where he devoted much of his time to his hobby of painting.
He later died in hospital at Cannes on the 19th July 1971. His remains were returned to Britain where he was buried in the grounds of Hever Castle.
John Jacob was married on the 28th August 1916 to Violet Mary Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, the youngest daughter of the 4th Earl of Minto. They had three sons Gavin who succeeded him as 2nd Baron, Hugh (born 1920) and John (born 1923).
He was also something of a sportsman. In 1905 he won the Public Schools raquets competition, and three years later in 1908 won both the singles Army raquets competition and the doubles in conjuction with the Lord Somers. It was also in 1908 that he won a gold medal in the racquets doubles competition in the 1908 Olympic Games, his partner then being V. Pennell. Despite losing his leg in the war he continued to play sports such as cricket, lawn tennis, and golf and was the Parliamentary squash champion in both 1926 and 1927.
- William Haley, Astor, John Jacob, first Baron Astor of Hever 1886-1971, from the Dictionary of National Biography, 1986
- The entry for ASTOR OF HEVER from Burke's Peerage and Baronetage