BKAS ESSAY SHORTS No. 3 (March 2018)

Manufacturing the Market: Selling the Over-Seas Daily Mail

Aiko Watanabe (Waseda University)


In the first half of the twentieth century, the Daily Mail became the world’s first mass circulation daily, widely influencing public opinion and specifically targeting lower-middle and working-class readers. Reflecting its readers’ social world, it also sought to expand their cultural and material horizons, as a sort of slightly more educated friend. It was on the 4 May 1896 that its founder, the irascible Lord Northcliffe, acted upon his astute observation that there was a public appetite for a daily newspaper which was less stuffy than what had hitherto been on offer – an appetite for a paper containing a mixture of hard news, celebrity gossip, sensational articles, romantic short stories, puzzles and prizes. Accordingly, Northcliffe had no intention of competing with quality broadsheet papers such as the Times or Daily Telegraph, but sought to coexist with them.1 As he famously opined, he was not in the business of determining "what is best for the nation", but in delivering "what the people want",2 eschewing the high moral tone that characterised the broadsheet press. This formula quickly allowed the Daily Mail to establish its reputation as the most circulated paper in Britain, with domestic circulation reaching 500,000 half-penny copies per day in 1898, and 870,000 by 1903 (Isobe, 102). From the outset, advertising revenue was a crucial factor in keeping the paper cheap and accessible. 

The Overseas Daily Mail (ODM)

Despite achieving market domination by the dawn of the twentieth century, Lord Northcliffe was anxious to further increase his influence with the public, and to defend the principles of the British Empire, which he saw as a force for good in the world. He set about achieving this goal in several notable ways. His purchase of the venerable, but almost moribund Times in 1908, was designed to expand his reach to the upper echelons of society, and through a series of special supplements, he managed to arrest the anaemic growth which had plagued the title for at least a decade. More importantly, however, he launched two sister papers to the Daily Mail which targeted readers abroad: The Continental Daily Mail, launched in 1905 for European readers and those in North Africa, and perhaps most importantly, the Over-Seas Daily Mail (ODM), first issued in 1904. Initially marketed as a weekly digest of the DM, the latter rapidly established its own identity through the editorship of Sir Evelyn Wrench, but especially after a revamp in 1919 following the cessation of global hostilities. Beginning on the 25 November 1904, the ODM targeted middle and upper-middle class readers, largely expatriates. While much of the content was derived from direct extraction and abridgment of news and articles in the domestic version, the paper had several specially created sections, such as "Our London Letter" and "News from Home". An advertisement in The Spectator in 1906 effectively characterised the output, "All the News of the Week is given – both Home and Foreign – Speeches, Sport, Fashion, Finance, Obituary, Books of the Week, as well as frequent articles of Imperial interest."3 Rather more obviously, the advertisements carried by the ODM where very different than those in its sister paper, and from the relaunch in 1919, it also contained a series of extremely detailed "export supplements" promoting British firms and commerce, designed to be detachable from the main paper.4 This significant undertaking ensured that the ODM functioned as a sort of market place or "shop window" for British products and engineering expertise. At the same time, Northcliffe was also using The Times to extol business opportunities in South America and Russia with a series of special supplements of their own.5 The inference being that readers of The Times were more likely to be investors with significant capital at their disposal, whereas readers of the ODM were primarily consumers.

Readership Demographic According to Advertisements

In the absence of a full quantitative content comparison between the DM and ODM, a partial visual survey of the different advertisements and understanding of their "tone" provides a diagnosis of the reading demographic targeted by each paper. The consistent mantra in post-war Britain was economy, substitution, and avoidance of wastage. A pertinent recurring example from the DM can be found in an advertisement for Harrods Department Store, captioned "How do you save money?" Although a high-end retailer, it nevertheless sought to inform the penny-conscious, but fashion-aware consumer, how to avoid buying ill-suited clothes by first browsing Vogue magazine. Another, ubiquitous advertisement, this time a culinary example, was an advertisement for Jack Tar King Fish. The gist of the advertisement was that fish can be used to make good ersatz, chicken-tasting sandwiches. On the other hand, advertisements for the Overseas Daily Mail were very different, of unrelenting imperial interest, and emphasised the quality of British products: a typical ODM title page featured patriotic advertising for a range of products, from "Colonial Outfits [for] India and the Tropics" to Webb’s Indian Tonic Water, to Barnard’s wire netting. All variously directed towards male "Empire builders".

The Overseas Club and the ODM

Positioning itself as a conduit for the flow of British goods and services, the ODM also marketed itself as a vital spiritual link between the "Motherland" and British subjects in all corners of the far-flung empire. Northcliffe tapped into a sense of estrangement and isolation that many British expatriates felt, working hard to combat this through exporting British traditions, customs, and social mores. On its many pages, the Overseas Daily Mail sought to foster a sense of national solidarity between ‘Brits abroad’, providing a virtual space for English readers from all over the world to meet and reinforce their identity. From this simple idea, the Overseas Club was born. 

The Overseas Club, founded in 1910 had grown to a global membership of more than 25,000 members by 1921. Writing in the same year, F.A. McKenzie described how the aim of the Club was to, "draw British people, living within and without the Empire, together in the bonds of comradeship", while emphasising its non-party and non-sectarian nature (McKenzie, 1921). Before the publication of its own journal in 1915, the ODM was the club’s official mouthpiece, drawing together the disparate membership on its weekly pages. This process was visualised in a graphic published in the ODM on the 24 July 1926, showing Britain at the centre of a vast empire, with Mail lines radiating out across the globe, and captioned, "To people in all these lands 'The Over-Seas Daily Mail' goes every week".  (Figure 1) 

Figure 1. ODM 24 July 1926. (c) Shadowlands Archive.

The Overseas Club in fact began in the correspondence columns of the ODM. In the regular column "Our Parliament of the Empire" of the 19 March 1910, the editor brought up the idea of establishing an "Imperial League" to "promote the welfare of the Empire in its broadest sense" (19 March 1910, ODM). Half a year later, on 27 August, the newspaper proudly announced that the Overseas Club had been established. The editor described how there had been strong approval from readers: "Correspondents have pointed out that The Over-seas Daily Mail, by reason of its unique world-wide circulation, is possibly the only journal in the British Empire capable of successfully undertaking the formation of such an association" (27 August 1910). Thus, the Overseas Club worked effectively as a promotional tool for the ODM and vice versa, in a carefully conceived and well-balanced symbiosis. This was similar to the way that The Times Book Club was used as a vehicle to promote subscription to The Times. The foundation of the Overseas Club not only helped to increase subscribers to the ODM, but all helped retain existing readers, who once involved with Club activities, would be locked in to an ODM subscription. It would be, after all, simply unpatriotic to cancel a subscription. What the ODM represented was something much bigger, more important, more extensive, than a mere newspaper bringing news from home. It was at the very heart of the imperial project, and lauded by among others, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement. Writing to congratulate the Club on the 28 September 1912, he declared, "I only hope that it [the Overseas Club] will go on and do great work for the Empire" (28 September 1912, ODM).

Unlike many Empire clubs however, in its early years the Overseas Club charged no entrance fee or annual subscription, nor did it have any physical premises.6 It was inclusive too, not requiring recommendations from existing members which, at the time, almost all London clubs required. To join, all one needed to do was submit a simple application form. (Figure 3) In the absence of physical premises, for the first five years the Overseas Club worked hard to create a strong sense of shared identity with the ODM essential to this process, creating its own (rather fascist-looking) emblem, certificate of membership, flag, badges, rings, necklaces and so on, available through mail order. (Figure 2 & 5) One deceased member from Quebec, Canada, even went as far as to have the club symbol on his gravestone. (Figure 6).

To coincide with the launch of the Club, the ODM conducted a publicity campaign to increase its membership, and by extension attract both new, and retain existing subscribers to the ODM. Their initial target was to reach 100,000 members. To maintain reader’s proactive stance towards garnering more members, a barometer was printed in the ODM each week to visually represent the increasing number of members. (Figure 4) Starting on 10 September 1910, the numbers drastically increased from 120, to 70,030 members by 2 December 1911. On the 26 October 1912, membership surpassed 100,000.7 This powerful visual representation for what was essentially a paper club, was replaced in December 1914 by the introduction of "The Overseas Clock", showing London membership of the Overseas Club. This new graphic, now produced under wartime conditions, emphasised that London was at the centre of the Club and, by extension, the Empire. It also helped to attract new readers who might have supposed that the ODM was only for non-resident Britishers. It is also clear that during the war the ODM became more reciprocal in its content, with information coming inwards as well as going outwards. Evidence certainly suggests that the club was appreciated by its members, especially in reducing loneliness and homesickness. Belonging to the Club was tangible proof of participation in, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s use-worn concept, an imagined community.


Figure 4. Membership barometer (left); Figure 5. Overseas Club emblem (centre); Figure 6. Gravestone of a Club member


The ODM was carefully positioned in the newspaper market place. It reflected its proprietor’s own political views, and was sold through the trope of Empire in the form of the Overseas Club, from which it was inseparable. This form of advertising and promotion was highly effective, especially in creating an active and committed readership. It solved one of the chief problems of advertising periodicals rather than books, the need for a constant, long-term marketing strategy, to ensure reading numbers do not drop off.

[Reformatted and images added, 1 February 2023].


 1 Lord Northcliffe in fact added The Times to his newspaper portfolio in 1908. 

2 Quality papers: "what is best for the nation"; tabloid papers: "what the people want" (Williams, p. 2).

3 The Spectator, 3 February 1906.

4 These export supplements included, "British Engineering"; "British Building & Furnishing Industries"; "British Motor & Cycle Industries"; "British Drapery & Textile Industries" and occasional supplements featuring specific cities. The evolution of the title was as follows: The Daily Mail Over-Seas Edition (1904-1919); the Overseas Daily Mail (1919-1946); the Overseas and Transatlantic Mail (1946-1950) and the Weekly Overseas Mail (1951-1952). 

5 See, The Times Supplements, Primary Sources Collection, BRILL (2018). Disclosure: the BKAS Director has a commission interest in this supplement: https://primarysources.brillonline.com/browse/the-times-supplements.

6 The Overseas Club rented its first physical premises in Aldwych in 1914, and launched its own publication in December 1915 called, simply, Overseas Journal. It was renamed several times, before finally becoming the Royal Over-seas League in 1960. See ROSL Timeline, https://www.rosl.org.uk/about-rosl/our-heritage/rosl-timeline

6  There is an obvious incongruity with McKenzie’s figure here, which would imply a huge drop off of membership during and immediately after WWI. While possible, further work is required to reach a satisfactory conclusion regarding the membership demographics. 


Harris, Paul. The Story of the Daily Mail (London: Associated Newspapers, 2013).

Jeffery, Tom and Keith McClelland, "A World Fit to Live in: the Daily Mail and the Middle Class 1918-1939" in Impacts & Influences, eds. by J. Curran, A. Smith & P. Wingate (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 27-52. 

Isobe, Yuichiro. The History of British Newspapers [igirisu shinbun-shi] (Japan Times, 1984)

McKenzie, F.A. The Mystery of the Daily Mail: 1896-1921 (London: Associated Newspapers, 1921).

McKibbin, Ross. Classes and Cultures England 1918-1951 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Williams, Kevin. Get Me A Murder A Day!: A History of Mass Comunication in Britain (New York: Arnold, 1998).