Before Wapping

Asa Briggs

  • Victorian News and Newspapers by Lucy Brown
    Oxford, 305 pp, £32.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 19 822624 1

‘Alas! We are a Press-ridden people,’ one of the Commissioners for the Great Exhibition exclaimed in 1851. He wished to exclude members of the press from the Crystal Palace or at least to make them buy their entrance tickets. Henry Cole, who was prepared to consider all ‘novelties’, was appalled at this reaction, and eventually it was he who won the day. The Exhibition, he felt, above all else needed publicity, and he was relieved not only when the reporters came in dozens but when the artist of the Illustrated London News was allowed to make drawings of the buildings, the objects inside them, and the crowds.

Lucy Brown does not choose this particular example of the demand for press publicity on the part of a Victorian organiser, but she gives many examples from the 1850s and later of the demand for it on the part of politicians, some of whom had to face similar protests to those faced by Cole. Gladstone, whom she singles out because there is so much surviving evidence concerning him, showed a developing skill in his public relations. As early as 1864-8, he saw Thornton Hunt of the Daily Telegraph on nearly a hundred occasions. The relationship was mutually rewarding. Later, after a break with the Telegraph, itself of considerable political interest, he relied on the Daily News and for a time on the Northern Echo, but by the time he was eighty he knew the press so well, Miss Brown notes, that he was incapable of refusing an interview with an American journalist. The word ‘interview’ originated in the United States, and many politicians, including Disraeli, found the experience ‘newfangled and possibly dangerous’. Like almost everything else in the history of the press, it came to stay, if with twists and turns of mood and style – from ‘flunkeyism’ to iconoclasm – not just because of what journalists wanted to do but because they always had willing and sometimes pressing ‘clients’. Throughout her study Miss Brown is just as concerned, and rightly so, with demand as with supply.

Her book, compact, tidy and reliable, is very selective. It certainly does not cover either all aspects of the handling, presentation and distribution of news in Victorian England or all periods within the reign. The early years receive far less attention than the later, and even the Mid-Victorian years, which began with the Exhibition, are treated rather summarily. There is little, for example, about Palmerston: Miss Brown takes it for granted that he exploited ‘systems of publicity’, left unexplained, which Gladstone, for example, was to imitate. It is true that as long ago as 1910 Reginald Lucas wrote a revealing book, Lord Glenesk and the ‘Morning Post’, which revealed many details of the fascinating relationship between Palmerston and the press, and that Stephen Koss in the first volume of The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain (1981) dealt with it critically and at length. Yet a reader turning to Miss Brown’s book and expecting it to live up to its title might well be disappointed if he had not also read Lucas and Koss. The presence of Koss’s monumental volume may have led Miss Brown to compress her own volume into smaller compass than she might otherwise have allowed, for Koss himself thanked her in his introduction. In a curious way, however, the books are complementary, not competitive, with Miss Brown’s far stronger on the economic side. Perhaps for this reason, however, she is more prepared than Koss to accept as ‘natural’ what press owners and their staffs chose to do: Koss was very often sharply critical of both.

The Great Exhibition was held near the beginning of a decade when much was being made of the invigorating role of the press. Indeed, in 1850, the year before the Exhibition opened, F. Knight Hunt published his two-volume study The Fourth Estate, which was dedicated to the journalists of England and their ‘constant readers’. ‘What is it,’ de Tocqueville had asked, ‘that drops the same thought into ten thousand minds at the same moment?’ Hunt was more impressed by the diversity of opinions that newspapers might express, and this was among the reasons why he considered them ‘a necessity of modern civilised life’. Indeed, for him, the prevalence or scarcity of newspapers in a country afforded ‘a sort of index to its social state’. ‘Where journals are numerous, the people have power, intelligence and wealth.’ Where journals are few, ‘the many are in reality slaves.’ The examples Hunt gave are still familiar. The United States was at one end of the spectrum, Russia at the other. Britain, however, had in many respects led the way.

Miss Brown does not mention Hunt. Nor does she deal in much detail with diametrically different versions of the role of the popular press in the late 19th century after the rise of the ‘new journalism’, a term which both she and Koss try to place in perspective. Her select bibliography is as compact as her book, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that it is some other sense of restraint, and not merely the presence of Koss’s volume, that has narrowed her chosen range. Is it the fear of spreading too widely? Among living writers she does not mention Richard Altick, Raymond Williams or Anthony Smith. Nor does she speculate about newspapers and books, which co-existed easily or sometimes uneasily on W.H. Smith bookstalls, although she has a brief and useful section on periodicals which steadfastly dealt in opinions. She treats somewhat perfunctorily changes in literacy and in pictorial illustrations, which came surprisingly slowly. There is no intimation either that this is a book written after the advent of television, which has given a new orientation to news and its impact. She has consulted the W.H. Smith archive, however, and historians will be glad that her book appears more or less in parallel to Charles Wilson’s valuable history of Smith’s, First with the News.[*]

Between the Exhibition and the advent of the ‘new journalism’, during the 1880s and 1890s, there had already been highly significant changes in the scope and scale of press operations, and sensitive contemporaries were well aware that these required examination in depth and in perspective. ‘It is a commonplace of criticism,’ Francis Hitchman wrote in the Quarterly Review in 1880, ‘that the history of the Newspaper Press of England has yet to be written. Times without number the work has been attempted, but it still remains unachieved.’ In setting out to deal with what more than a century later are still extraordinary gaps in knowledge, and with no oral history to guide her, Miss Brown wisely begins, not with politics, her major interest as revealed in this book, but with economics, a subject she is well qualified to analyse. She starts, therefore, not with editors, but with printers. ‘A big competent newspaper,’ she insists, ‘is above all a feat of organisation,’ and she goes on to discuss the price of newsprint, printing technology, and the costs of telegraphy and advertising, before relating each of these variables to the others.

Some Victorian comments – and she is a good collector of comments – sound surprisingly modern. ‘The truth is,’ wrote the manager of the Times in 1884, ‘that newspapers pay by Advertisements and not by circulation and that Advertisers are attracted by the classes of readers rather than by their numbers.’ It was already a contentious statement. From the same Times office 14 years earlier it had been claimed that seven men working two new Walter presses – they had been patented in 1867 – could produce the same output as 48 working on hand-fed Hoe machines. There might have been something contentious about this comment too, but Miss Brown, who makes good use of the Printer’s Register as a major source, does not mention printing trade unions. Any messages for Wapping can be found in a book which again does not appear in her bibliography, A.E. Musson’s The Typographical Association (1954). There was already plenty of resistance to new technology earlier in the 19th century, and there is ample evidence of collusion between ‘masters’ and ‘men’ to delay its introduction later. The reason why this issue did not matter more is that the total number of printers was increasing in the decades covered by Miss Brown. Again the Times suggested the right reason in 1901: ‘It is true that, in the first instance, the introduction of labour-saving machinery ... caused a temporary displacement of labour ... but machines ... ended by greatly increasing the demand for labour.’ As Musson noted in 1954, it is significant that most Victorian technological development came from outside Britain; and he has more to say about the introduction of the linotype, for instance, than has Miss Brown. She is more impressed by the energy with which newspaper proprietors invested in new technology than by the selection, presentation and management of news on the editorial side, and this, perhaps, may be a message for Wapping after all. Yet messages do not interest her, and she does not fully draw out, for example, the implications of her impression that ‘there was a far smaller difference in style and language than there is today between “quality papers” and the “down-market” ones.’ To draw out those implications would require a different kind of analysis. It could be illuminating.

Miss Brown’s fourth chapter on journalists and her seventh on social contacts are essential chapters in her book, though her main interests seem to be revealed most clearly in her third chapter on party politics. Her approach there is novel. Instead of dealing with the influence of newspapers on party politics, a relatively familiar theme, she focuses on the effects of the rise of party politics on newspapers. If one side had a penny paper, the other side had to have one too. Political money was available, therefore, for involvement and then for investment in offices and machines. All this was good for the newspaper industry, but it could not guarantee commercial success. She is healthily sceptical about the political and social consequences of the process. The choice of what to select or to emphasise by way of ‘news’ rested more on ‘what was current politically’ than on ‘the state of the nation’. Moreover, there were times when ‘press investigation lagged well behind the raising of questions in Parliament.’ It was a paradox that in proportion as newspapers gained in social acceptance in the last decades of the century, they declined in critical vigour, and this at a time when rhetoric spotlighted ‘belief in the Press as the impartial investigator of right and wrong’ even more than it had done when Hunt wrote his Fourth Estate.

In her chapter on journalists Miss Brown is equally sceptical about the value to the historian of journalists’ autobiographies: ‘they are always inaccurate on political facts and dates.’ She notes, however, the mobility revealed in journalists’ careers, a matter of great importance to the historian treating provincial newspapers as firm local evidence. ‘To a modern reader Victorian provincial papers express, more eloquently than anything else, the particular character of the place where they circulated, but in fact they would have been put together by professional experts who would have been gathered from all the corners of the kingdom.’ Given that this is an extremely important point, it would have been useful if it had been pursued further. There are now, after all, many studies of provincial cities which have relied heavily on press evidence, and their contents ought to have been analysed. It should be added, however, that Miss Brown makes other points in this connection which are valuable and original. She shows, for example, that at the time when editorial sovereignty was being held up as a principle, proprietors were at least as keen on the press as property as they are in the days of Wapping.

The chapter on social contacts will be the most stimulating in Miss Brown’s book for those whose interests go further than the making of newspapers as consumer products. It is a chapter which will make more of a mark now in London clubs than in Wapping. It begins with a good quotation from a letter to T.H.S. Escott: ‘At this dinner it was agreed that you were the Amphitryon as well as the Demosthenes and Tacitus of the day, and a special banquet at which you entertained the Cabinet etc at the Garrick Club was cited in proof.’

It is a difficult opening to follow up. Miss Brown, not surprisingly, does not seem to like Escott – or Sala – but they are precisely the kind of journalists whose multitudinous writings are rightly or wrongly invaluable to social historians. Indeed, a moral tone creeps into her account at this point. ‘Those who were “weak about their Hs”, teetotallers, clergy of all kinds, and anyone who could not afford to live expensively, were unlikely to be met by Escott or Frank Harrison Hill. Equally importantly, the names that crop up in these circles do not include people with an active concern with trade and industry.’ We come back again round the circle to the proprietors. Although she does not mention them here, there were many who did have an active concern with trade and industry. Clubland was often outside their range. The reader is left with the strong impression that Miss Brown would rather have met them than most of the people who worked for them. The preference does not spoil her book, but it suggests that it should be read alongside others.

[*] Cape, 510 pp., £16, 21 November 1985, 0 224 02156 7.