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Victorians had an insatiable appetite for news

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Industry, Literature, News, War on Thursday, 28 March 2013

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This edited article about the Victorian popular press originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 214 published on 19 February 1966.

Archibald Forbers reports, picture, image, illustration

Archibald Forbes was the peerless war reporter for the Daily News during the Franco-Prussian War

The development of the daily newspaper was one of the great achievements of the Victorian Age, and it was not possible until 1840. In that year publication of the proceedings in the Houses of Parliament was for the first time officially allowed.

The Morning Chronicle is said to have been the first paper to employ a regular staff of Parliamentary reporters working in relays in the gallery of the House of Commons. It was the Morning Herald which first established correspondents in the chief European capitals, as well as in large cities in the British Isles.

Circulation in those early days was extremely small, for a very large number of people could not read. At the beginning of the Queen’s reign the total sale of the six leading London daily papers was only about 75,000, and of these The Times accounted for 50,000.

During the earlier part of the Victorian Age journalism in Great Britain was dominated by The Times under the proprietorship of various members of the Walter family, and especially under the editorship of John Delane, who succeeded to the position at the age of twenty-three, and remained from 1841 to 1879. Perhaps it gained its greatest influence during the Crimean War when Delane organized war correspondents on a scale never before attempted, and ruthlessly exposed the faults in the conduct of the campaign and the deficiencies in the equipment of the troops. It was mainly through William Howard Russell’s articles that Florence Nightingale was stimulated to undertake her nursing mission. The Times raised a large sum of money to assist her.

In 1855 the stamp duty on newspapers was repealed, and six years later the duty on paper went as well. This paved the way for new and low-priced newspapers, as this was just the time when the number of people who could read was rapidly increasing.

It was in these circumstances that the Daily Telegraph came into existence, the first penny newspaper to be published in London. It soon became a rival of The Times, as the following story well illustrates.

It is said that soon after Northcliffe became proprietor of The Times he went on a tour of inspection of the building, and in a basement he found a very old man, with a long white beard, sitting at a table on which lay a hundred sovereigns and a loaded pistol. The explanation of this extraordinary sight was that one Saturday evening in 1870 some unexpected turn in the Franco-German War made it necessary for the British Press to send out special correspondents to the front. The banks were shut, but the editor of the Daily Telegraph managed to raise enough money to get his man off across the Channel.

The editor of The Times was not so fortunate, and in consequence the rival paper secured a “scoop.” Ever after, so the story went, one hundred pounds in gold, with an armed man to guard it, had always been in readiness in The Times offices.

Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, was the greatest journalist of that, or any other, age, though the Victorian Era only marked the beginning of his career. He had been born in Dublin, was taken to England when a child, and at twenty-three he published the first number of a weekly called Answers. In four years it was selling a million copies a week.

Northcliffe saw in the growth of education the opportunity to publish a popular newspaper, and in 1896 he founded the Daily Mail, which not only informed but entertained. He also broke fresh ground by catering for women readers. Northcliffe was to reach the summit of his power during the first World War, as for example when he exposed the scandal of the great ammunition shortage.

In a slightly different field the nineteenth century also witnessed the appearance of the weekly illustrated newspaper, of which the earliest in the world is said to have been the Illustrated London News. Like so many things Victorian it started in quite a small way, and without any flourish of trumpets, for it was founded by a small printer and newsagent in Nottingham in 1842. It was greatly aided by improvements in printing and the reproduction of pictures, and the same is true of the Graphic, which dated from 1869. It also published serial stories, and Thomas Hardy’s well-known masterpiece, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, first appeared in its pages.

It must not be imagined that this journalistic activity was confined to London, for the provincial newspapers also increased in size and importance, and in this they were aided by the distribution difficulties of their London rivals. Today in most of the great provincial centres newspapers published in Fleet Street are on the breakfast table, but in Victorian days they would as likely as not arrive about noon, which meant that a busy man had no time to read them until evening. This gave their local rivals a chance to be first with the news. At the present time the provincial Press is one of the glories of British journalism, and it built up this position in the Victorian Era. Its editors have steadfastly refused to edit the news, and almost without exception the reporting is scrupulously fair.

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