Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sign of the Times: press coverage in the Victorian era

This essay examines the years 1854 and 1899 through the prism of one of the principle media of the day, The Times of London. Nearly a hundred years later, Mayer considered The Times to be one of the world’s best two newspapers and is now a flagship title in News Limited, one of the largest media organisations on Earth. The years under examination, 1854 and 1899, belong to the period known as Pax Britannica which Harvard’s Albert Imlah defined as the era from 1815 to 1914 commencing with Waterloo and ending at Sarajevo. Lying at the heart of this period were the Victorian years from 1850 to 1900 that roughly defined the boundaries of Britain at the peak of her powers. The internationalism of the 1851 Great Exhibition was the outward sign that British capital was ready to conquer the globe. The new century in 1901 saw the death of Victoria and the inexorable rise of Germany and the US as rival powers. In order to understand a little of these key years, it is instructive to look at the newspapers of the day. By their very ephemeral nature, daily newspapers record events of the quotidian and it is precisely those banal, everyday qualities that define cultural difference.

Throughout the Victorian period, The Times was the newspaper of record. For much of the middle of the 19th century, it was Britain’s pre-eminent newspaper under the editorship of J.T. Delane. Established in 1785 it was always a newspaper that led the technical field. When The Times moved to the mechanical (steam) press - which printed ten times the speed of hand presses - it achieved a wide middle class distribution. It was the flagship newspaper for a class that began to take its share in the government of the country. With the gradual reduction in the Stamp Tax and the aid of its free advertisement sheet and occasional double supplement, The Times was the only newspaper to achieve a circulation of 60,000 before 1855.

In 1854 Britain was finally emerging from the depression of the 1840s. Despite the radical intentions of the Chartists, Britain was left relatively unscathed by the European year of revolution in 1848. The economy was opened up to free trade by the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 which had protected landed interest from the proper workings of the market. The country’s new prosperity was reflected in the prominent position of the money market on page five of The Times. Britain was part of a growing international market. The Times noted that although the Paris bourse “exhibited great steadiness,” over in Vienna “a fresh panic appears to have set in” (The Times 1 November 1854 p.5). Some of that panic was a result of the first European war since Napoleonic times. Despite the Pax Britannica, both 1854 and 1899 were war years. 1854 saw the carnage of the Crimean War while the Boer War started in 1899.

The Times was quick to bring news of both these wars to its readers. The speed of news increased rapidly in the 19th century as first the railway and then the telegraph began to form the structure of McLuhan’s global village. As early as 1844, The Times used the new Cook and Wheatstone telegraph to transmit news of the birth of Victoria’s second son Alfred Ernest from Windsor to London in just 40 minutes. In 1854 the Crimean War was the excuse for the British army to build a telegraph across the Black Sea. The Times was not allowed to use the army telegraph but its intrepid war reporter William Howard Russell (who would also go on to represent the newspaper during the 1857 Indian Mutiny) got his messages by steamer across the Black Sea to Varna or Constantinople. From there it was sent “BY SUBMARINE AND BRITISH TELEGRAPH” (The Times 4 November 1854, p. 7) very quickly to London. Yet the Times complained in an editorial that although it was possible for a man to travel to the Crimea in 12 days, news of Sebastopol was taking 18 days to arrive and even then “in the most fragmentary and apocryphal form” (The Times 4 November p.6).

Russell’s reports of casualties and military incompetence caused a storm. The Light (Cavalry) Brigade was annihilated and “entered into action about 700 strong and mustered only 191 on its return (The Times 13 November 1854, p. 6). Never before had the public been treated to such candid and immediate descriptions of war. But it was the page one shipping news such as “Supplies for the Crimea for Varna direct” (The Times 11 November 1854, p.1) as much as Russell’s unbiased reporting that brought the complaint from the British Commander-in-Chief General Simpson that “the enemy never spends a farthing for information. He gets it all for five pence from a London paper”. While The Times’ war coverage also alienated both the Prime Minister of the day, Aberdeen, and his successor Palmerston, it was the personal contact between those two men and The Times’ editor J.T. Delane that gave the newspaper access to vital information in an era where news sources were disorganised.

The newspaper printed a wide variety of opinion on the war. Letter writers expressed their indignation that “Another year of high prices of food…chiefly because war interferes with imports and we have declared our principle foreign food growers to be our enemies” (The Times, 4 November 1854, p.10). The Times even published a Russian account of the war “from the Journal de St Petersbourg” (The Times, 11 November 1854, p.7). Back on the home front, a fundraising public meeting in St Pancras received cheers when it called on all “at home to do all in our power to relieve the anxious minds of those brave men who are so bravely fighting for the cause of freedom against despotic tyranny” (The Times, 4 November 1854, p.8).

With the conflict taking place a safe distance away, the public craved war news. Interest was at fever pitch after the most celebrated battle of the campaign at Balaclava was fought on 25 October. The Times knew how to appeal to patriotism when it framed the “shocking outrage” of an Exeter highway robbery as the story of a victim who deserved “considerable sympathy” because her husband was away with the 8th Hussars in Crimea (The Times, 1 November 1854, p.5).

But there were limits to how far news could travel by telegraph in 1854. The first successful transatlantic cable was not laid until 1866. Cables reached India and China in 1870, Australia a year later, and they arrived in South America in 1874. By 1899 the world was wired. By the end of the century The Times could report on Theodore Roosevelt’s endorsement of President McKinley with a dateline of “NEW YORK June 30” in its newspaper the following day (The Times 1 July 1899 p.7). Meanwhile the money markets could now promptly report on world events as it lamented the “continued marked weakness of Western Australian shares” although “American railroad shares were fairly firm” (The Times, 4 December 1899, p.4).

The Boer War was the major British war of the turn of the century. The Times helped familiarise the names of the faraway places when they devoted a full page to a “map of the NATAL FRONTIER from LADYSMITH to CHARLESTOWN” which, it said was “The Times WAR MAP of SOUTH AFRICA (The Times 2 November 1899, p.4). The war was fought against the 50,000 strong well guerrilla army of Paul Kruger’s Boer Republic who held the initiative in 1899 by invading British Natal. As the year drew to a close, the Boers besieged Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking and might have forced the British into a settlement. On 2 November, the Times reported garrison commander Sir George White’s account of “the Disaster at Ladysmith” where the “losses on our side were numerous” and the position “fell into enemy hands” though the “security of Ladysmith itself was not affected” (The Times, 2 November, 1899 p.5). On the following page, the Times showed it still had the ability to defy authorities when it editorialised that White’s account was not “wholly convincing” (The Times, 2 November 1899, p.6).

Incredibly, the price of The Times was 2d cheaper in 1899 than it was 45 years earlier. In 1854 The Times cost 5d. Although the advertising tax had been removed the year before, it would be another year before the last of the Stamp taxes were removed on newspapers. That same year Cobden said of The Times that at 5d it was as cheap as any paper in the world. But he cautioned, “it was no consolation to the poor peasant, whose earnings were 15d and 18d a day”. When the maximum weight of a 1d postage was reduced below the Times average weight, the newspaper’s growth was impaired and the new Daily Telegraph became the first successful metropolitan penny daily. The Times meanwhile sold regularly at 3d from 1861 to 1913 justifying the price by upholding its unique character. Cobden’s complaint was still valid at the end of the century. The price of the newspaper was beyond the reach of many. Charles Booth estimated that one third of the people of London lived below the poverty line at the end of the century.

The Times unbroken column layout of the political pages remained unchanged in the years between 1854 and 1899 and was typical of what Morison called “the upper- and middle class typographical orthodoxy” of the early 19th century (Morison in Wiener 1988, p.51). However the newspaper changed in other ways. In 1858, The Times switched to stereotypes on cylinders which enabled production to be multiplied (Lee 1976, p.56). In the 1880s newspapers changed from printing on rags to woodpulp which vastly reduced the cost of newsprint, though at the cost of durability (Lee 1976, p.57).

Despite the technological changes, The Times was slow to embrace the techniques of new journalism. Illustrations were rare, the war wasn’t front page news in 1854 or 1899. The first three pages were reserved for classified ads, births, deaths, personal messages and shipping news. On Christmas Day 1854 the Times front page told of the death of Mrs Dorothy Bagnall, “35 years the faithful and valued servant of the family of the Marquis of Anglesey” (The Times 25 December 1854 p.1). In November 1899 similar messages abounded. Instead of reading about the Siege of Mafeking, Times page one readers were asked to sample the “dainty cuisine” of Fredericks Modern English hotels and were offered an imploring plea to “send power of attorney to sign for son. Absolutely necessary” (The Times, 1 November 1899, p.1). The commercial prosperity of The Times depended on a large number of these types of small advertisements.

The Times newspaper captured an era in flux. While writers like Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf described the Victorian age as “the descent of some dismal cloud” over Britain, it was an era of great dynamism and the birth of the modern age. Victorians bore the brunt of a bewildering world-shrinking revolution. The Times of London faithfully documented this revolution in its own quotidian fashion.

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