George loved to visit the villages and was the area’s greatest benefactor in the latter half of the 19th century.
His wealth, energy and enthusiasm helped transform the villages into a popular Victorian tourist destination and his patronage provided the outstanding town hall, Congregational church building and cliff railway.
He was born in Matlock Bath, Derbyshire in 1851 into the family of a church minister at the Glenorchy Chapel and was educated at Silcoates School and City of London School. His first profession was as a Manchester haberdasher, but in 1881 he had an instant publishing success when he launched a popular penny magazine of short items called Tit-Bits. His interests in publishing grew as he added new magazines including Country Life and The Strand Magazine where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was first able to publish his Sherlock Holmes mystery series. His publishing empire expanded rapidly, making him a very wealthy and powerful man; he served as MP for Newmarket from 1885 and became a baronet in 1895.
Sir George frequently spent holidays with his wife Priscilla and family in Lynton & Lynmouth and was keen to develop the area known as “Little Switzerland” for the benefit of the wealthier classes.
At that time the steep gradient between Lynton & Lynmouth had been a deterrent to visitors but he saw that there was an opportunity to use a recently patented invention by a local engineer to lay track up the 1 in 1.75 gradient.
The innovative water powered cliff railway cost £8,000 and opened in 1890. In the same year he purchased Hollerday Hill where he had a house constructed over the next three years for his family. His enthusiasm and efforts continued and as a result the 19-mile Lynton & Barnstaple Railway opened on 11 May 1898. Sir George and Lady Newnes arrived at Lynton station on the first official train and formally opened the Railway.
A horse-drawn coach then took them to Lee Road where Sir George laid a foundation stone for the Town Hall which was completed and opened by Sir George on 15 August 1900.
There seemed no end to his generosity yet by 1908 his businesses were failing. The financial worries affected his health and by 1910 his fortune had gone and he died a broken man at Hollerday House. To their surprise the Newnes family were saddled with debts, the mansion was put up for sale and stood empty for three years before it burnt to the ground in 1913 in very mysterious circumstances.
The allegiance that Sir George Newnes gave to Lynton & Lynmouth in the late 19th century led to the popularity and success of the resorts – a success that continues to this day. The splendour and history are still there to enjoy today. You can still travel on the cliff railway between Lynmouth and Lynton to admire the views. Take a short stroll to the town hall that continues to captivate visitors, including a bust of Sir George set into a stone arch. Then take a walk up picturesque Hollerday Hill to visit the site where Sir George’s house stood. A short drive or quick bus journey will take you to see where the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway Trust are once again carrying passengers aboard steam trains from Woody Bay Station along part of the old route of Sir George’s railway.