Charles Dickens celebrates the newspaper industry and its portrayal of ‘modern’ British society

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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). Freemasons'_TavernThis 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]

Crossed wires in the early days of telecommunications.

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Earlier this week, as I drove out of north London on my way to the motorway, I passed a mother and child waiting at a bus stop. The child was about 6 or 7 and she was looking intently at a mobile phone, playing a game I imagine. I looked to her mother who was also completely absorbed in her device, with no obvious connection to her daughter at all. This is modern Britain I thought.

We all rely on our phones today, but rarely actually as devices to speak to anyone on. Instead we communicate by text, direct message, emojii, or post and respond to updates on social media. Our ‘smart phones’ are powerful computers that allow us access to more information than even our recent ancestors could imagine as well as a host of entertainment in the form of films, music, games and reading material. Indeed, you may well be reading this blog post on your mobile device.

The telephone was invented (as every school pupil used to be taught*) by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875. He applied for a patent in the US and brought his invention to England in 1878 and tried it out on Queen Victoria, making calls from her house at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Thomas Edison developed the technology at much the same time so we have two men vying for the accolade of inventing the telephone.

In 1879 the Telephone Company Ltd opened two exchanges in London (one in the City on Leadenhall Street, the other at 3 Palace Chambers in Westminster). A telephone service then, was up and running in the Metropolis and rivals soon started to get in on the game.

Most of the technological advances we associate with ‘modern’ Britain were born out of intense competition (the train, tram, and omnibus for example) and London was at the heart of capitalist innovation. So it is no surprise to find that as early as 1883 (just 6 or 7 years after Bell’s breakthrough) that this competition resulted in prosecutions at London’s Police courts.

In May 1883 Theodore Torrey , the manager of the Globe Telephone Company, and two of his employees – William Goodfellow and James Molyneaux – appeared to answer a summons at the Guildhall. The summons had been taken out by the United Telephone Company (UTC) and accused Torrey and his team of ‘wilfully and maliciously tying up their wires’.

This then, was an early case of industrial sabotage with the aim of putting a rival out of business (or at least stealing a march on their custom).

Both firms were represented by legal teams and it was made clear that this situation was already the subject of a civil case in the court of Chancery. There an injunction had been granted against the Globe Company which ordered the wires to be untied. Globe had appealed this decision and the case rattled on (as they tended to in Chancery).

However, at Guildhall the lawyers for the UTC argued that this was actually a criminal case (one of damage) and so should be heard separately. The two sets of legal minds argued this out for a while before Sir Robert Carden (sitting as magistrate in Guildhall) before he decided that he couldn’t see enough daylight between the two points of view to make a judgement at this time.

The lawyer for the prosecution – a Mr Grain – said that the company wanted to get the situation resolved because at present the United Company’s customers were being inconvenienced. They had literally got their wires crossed he stated. For the defence Mr Lewis countered that the reason the wires were tied by his clients was because they were in the way, pointing out that the UTC had sent them over the Wool Exchange ‘purposely to interfere with their wires’. In fact, he said, they weren’t even genuine wires but dummy ones, simply placed there to cause inconvenience. If they were removed then the case in Chancery might proceed more quickly.

The magistrate could not untangle this tricky legal argument and so he adjourned the case for a few days, perhaps so heads might cool and private lines of communication between the warring firms might succeed where the public ones had failed. This was one of those ‘first world’ problems for most Londoners of course; very few people had access to a telephone in 1883 or even knew how to use one. How things have changed.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 25, 1883]

* Now they can just ‘google it’.