The publishing magnate Cyril Arthur Pearson was born in 1866 in Wookey, Somerset, the son of a clergyman. He was educated at Eagle House School, Wimbledon, and at Winchester College. In 1884 he won a competition, the prize for which was a clerkship on the staff of Tit-Bits magazine, founded by George Newnes. His energy, practical aptitude and force of personality saw him quickly rise to the position of manager and we went on to help Newnes set up a new periodical, the ‘Review of Reviews’. By this time he had married his first wife, Isobel Bennett, and was living in Wimbledon. In 1890 he left Newnes to set up his own business, C Arthur Pearson Ltd, and publish his own popular periodical, ‘Pearson’s Weekly’, with its motto ‘To Interest, to Elevate, to Amuse’: the magazine, though struggling initially, made Pearson’s fortune. In 1890 he moved from Wimbledon Common House to the Bungalow, Shere, and then to Round Down, Gomshall, where he and his wife and three daughters lived until 1895 when they moved to Catteshall Manor in Godalming and in 1896 to nearby Broadwater.
His first marriage having ended in divorce, in 1897 Pearson married his second wife, Ethel Fraser, and bought Frensham Place as his country seat. A man of fierce, if often relatively shortlived enthusiasms, he embraced life in Frensham, sailing on Frensham Pond, building a riding school (later part converted into an aviary) and constructing a 18 hole golf course. His magazine empire continued to expand and in 1898 he founded Pearson Publishing Company in the USA, which published ‘Pearson’s Magazine’. A keen advocate of the benefits of nature and life in the open air, he established the Fresh Air Fund (later known as Pearson’s Holiday Fund), to allow East End children to enjoy outings to Epping Forest. He also put up the money which funded the creation of the Boy Scout movement and his firm published ‘Scouting for Boys’
In 1900, he founded the ‘Daily Express’ newspaper, intended as a popular paper to rival the ‘Daily Mail’ which had been established in 1896. It was the first newspaper to have news, rather than advertisements on the front page. At the same time he took up the controversial cause of tariff reform and protectionism, championed by the Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain, and was the first chairman of the executive committee of the Tariff Reform League (1903-5). In 1904, he also bought the ‘Standard’ and ‘Evening Standard’ newspapers and his plan to acquire a controlling interest in the ‘Times’ only collapsed at the last minute in 1908.
Pearson sold the ‘Standard’ and ‘Evening Standard’ in 1910 and in 1912 sold his interest in the ‘Daily Express’. His eyes had long troubled him and in 1913 he was informed that he would soon be blind. He put Frensham Place on the market and the house and estate of 138 acres (including the private golf course) were sold in March 1914. During the war it was used as a depot by the Army Service Corps.
Pearson viewed his disability as a challenge to be surmounted: as his biographer puts it, he possessed ‘the most abounding energy …. For such a man difficulties were positively attractive, and the worst misfortune could have no terror’. He initially transferred his energies to supporting the National Institute for the Blind, becoming its treasurer and then president, and campaigned tirelessly for cheaper Braille books. However with the outbreak of war and the return home of servicemen with life-changing injuries, Pearson decided he should address the needs of those, like him, who had lost their sight. He established a hostel for blinded soldiers in the Bayswater Road in February 1915, soon moving to the larger premises of St Dunstan’s in Regent’s Park. Officers resided in two houses in Portland Place. At the time of the move to St Dunstan’s, 16 men were being cared for; by the end of the war over 1700 were in residence or had passed through, including Australians, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders.
St Dunstan’s provided an immensely practical and bracing response to the men’s sightlessness. All were given the gift of a suitably modified watch by Pearson, were given a crash course in reading Braille and were taught one of a number of trades: massage, shorthand, telephony, poultry farming, carpentry, mat-making, boot repair or basket making. They were also encouraged to participate in games and sports, rowing on Regent’s Park lake and dances and concerts. To help men establish themselves in the outside world, a Settlement and After-care Department was set up and a network of local agents kept in touch with the men and their families. Supplementary centres, or annexes were created, and a holiday home was also established in Brighton. Shortly before Pearson’s death, St Dunstan’s itself was vacated and new headquarters established in St John’s Lodge in Regent’s Park Inner Circle. The name St Dunstan’s was retained.
Pearson was created a baronet in 1916 and received a GBE in 1917. He accidentally drowned in his bath at his London home, 15 Devonshire Street, on 9 December 1921, aged only 55, and was buried in Hampstead Cemetery, the funeral being attended by nearly 1500 blind veterans from across the country who had been helped by St Dunstan’s to rebuild their lives. Pearson’s family continued his work, his wife becoming the first president of St Dunstan’s, succeeded by their son, Neville.
Pearson’s biographer wrote ‘He took the men who in the heyday of their youth had lost their sight fighting for their country, inspired them with courage, filled them with hope, taught them how to overcome their handicap, and contrived to make their lives happy and useful’.
The charity continues its work today under the new name of Blind Veterans UK, providing training, rehabilitation and lifelong support to veterans who have lost their sight.
Sidney Dark, The Life of Sir Arthur Pearson (1922)
The Dictionary of National Biography