Given that surviving archival records of the Metropolitan Police courts of the Victorian period are very few are far between for the past few years I’ve spent a considerable amount of my time reading nineteenth-century newspapers. While I stick mostly to the ‘police intelligence’ it is impossible not to occasionally get distracted by the other news stories they covered. Living, as we do, in a society where news is now 24/7 and delivered instantly via tiny super powerful computers that fit in our pockets, it is hard to imagine sometimes how important the Victorian press was to the dissemination of news and ideas to our ancestors. So, in a break from the norm today I want to highlight a speech that was reported in 1862 in the Daily News by none other than Charles Dickens, arguably England’s greatest ever novelist.
In May 1862 the Newsvendors Benevolent Institution celebrated their 23rdanniversary with a banquets at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street (below right). This is not the current Freemason’s Hall which is just further up the street but was on the site of what is now the Connaught Hotel. Regardless, it was a grand affair and with Dickens in the chair, no doubt an entertaining evening was had by all.
The famous author and public speaker opened by praising the man that had deputized for him the year before, Wilkie Collins. In 1861 Dickens had toothache and so had handed the chair to his friend but now expressed some regrets so well had his fellow novelist performed. ‘If I ever find myself obliged to provide a substitute again’, Dickens declared, ‘they may implicitly rely on my sending them the most speechless man of my acquaintance!’.
He then went, at some length, to list the ways in which the newspaper covered the whole gamut of life in Victorian Britain and the world. He did this by imagining himself peering over the shoulder of a reader, just as many of us will have done on a tube train or bus, trying to catch a story that has made the headlines.
The newspapers, Dickens noted, tell us who is born, who married, and who has died, and how. Other points and events in our lives are also recorded, especially if they are the lives of royalty or the famous. I’m struck by the fact that just the other week a baby was born in London and this made the news, even though millions of babies are born every day, all over the world. This baby was special of course, because Archie Windsor was the son of a prince and his new American born spouse.
Dickens noted that it was in the newspaper that the reader discovered that ‘there are great fleets bound to all the ports of the world’ and here that they would find what these fleets carried, what space they had, where you might purchase a ticket to travel on them, and even find out what the ships were made of. Here were adverts for almost anything you could want (and many things you certainly wouldn’t need):
‘Still glancing over the shoulder of my newsman, I find I am offered all kinds of houses, lodgings, clerks, servants, and situations which I can possibly or impossibly want. I learn to my intense gratification that I need never grow old, that I may always preserve the juvenile bloom of complexion, that if I ever become ill it is entirely my own fault, that I may have no more grey hair. If I have any complaint and want brown cod liver oil or a Turkish bath I am told where I can get it, and that if I want an income of £7 a week I have only to send for it enclosing half-a-crown’s worthy of postage stamps’.
Along with the adverts (spurious and genuine) Dickens cited the political news that the papers reported. Here, he said, you could find out what the Home Secretary had to say about the ‘last outrage, the last railway accident, or the last mine explosion’, only to be told that the minster of state had said that ‘he knew nothing of the occurrence beyond what he had read in the newspapers’!
Dickens himself had reported from the law courts before he had ‘made it’ as an author of popular stories. He told his captive audience at the Freemason’s Tavern that the reporting of the police courts of the capital would inform the reader that:
‘if I have a propensity to indulge, I may very cheaply bite off a human being’s nose, but that if I presume to take off from a butcher’s window the nose of a dead calf or pig, it will cost me exceedingly dear’.
Once the laughter had settled down he went on to add:
‘and also find that if I allowed myself to be betrayed into the folly of killing an inoffensive tradesman upon his own doorstop, that little incident will not affect the testimonials to my character, but that I shall be described as a most amiable young man, and above all things, remarkable for the singular inoffensiveness of my character and disposition’.
Dickens was an astute observer of course and in many of the reports of court cases the defendants are described in flattering terms despite the crimes they are accused of, especially if they are drawn from the ranks of ‘respectable’ society.
He then went on to list the theatrical and other arts news that could be found in the papers, even though he noted that it was hardly ‘news’ at all. He ended with a tour around foreign and international news suggesting that the London press reported incidents and events that in some countries (he mentioned Japan as an example) would never be reported. This echoes today’s world news where British and European readers may well be better informed of what is happening in some closed societies (like China, Saudi Arabia or North Korea) than the people living there.
News, after all, is power.
Charles Dickens finished his speech with a toast to the men (and ladies) of the institution who raised funds for those vendors who fell on hard times. The evening raised around £100 for the charity which would be used to provide pensions for the men who sold the newspapers that carried all of this news to the public. £100 in 1862 amounts to about £6,000 today, and so it was a significant sum of money.
I’m struck by the comparison we might make with the way Dickens characterized the reach and variety of the newspaper in 1862 and today’s internet or ‘world wide web’. Our first instinct now if we want to find something out is to reach for our phones, tablets or PCs and to ‘Google it’. In seconds we find an answer (if not always ‘the’ answer) to our question.
But for all this technology our desire to know and understand the world around us is much the same. Moreover the Internet has really only replaced print news as the vehicle to inform, deceive, manipulate and exploit our desires and prejudices. Had the Victorians invented the worldwide web they would have probably have used it for all the things we use it for.
Once again I am left wondering just how ‘modern’ we really are.
[from Daily News, Wednesday, May 21, 1862]