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]

Two classes collide in central London

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An 1850s omnibus

Recently I have become quite interested in the dynamics of traffic in Victorian London. I’m not normally so fascinated about the minutiae of everyday life but I’m writing a book which explores the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and posits a potential solution. Myself and my co-researcher suggest that the transport network of the capital might well be an important factor in the murder series for reasons which, well, I just cant go into before the book goes to print. I’ll keep you informed.

With transport in mind today’s story concerns a collision, between an old form of transport (an open carriage – not unlike that which carried Harry and Meghan away from their wedding) and a ‘modern’ one (an omnibus). It took place at mid century and also brings together members of very different classes in Victorian society.

Lady Thesiger, the wife of Sir Frederick Thesiger the Conservative politician (and future Lord Chancellor) was sitting in an open carriage while it moved slowy along on Cockspur Street. It was a Tuesday afternoon and it was clear and dry, as the carriage’s hood was down and Lady Thesiger had a good view of the street around her.

As her coachman began a manoeuvre to cross the road and ‘park’ outside Strongi’th’arm’ the engraver’s shop, she saw an omnibus travelling quite fast in their direction. Her coach driver waived at the ‘bus driver but he either didn’t see the signal or ignored it. She later described what happened to the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court:

 ‘She saw the omnibus coming along very fast, and her impression at that moment was that the omnibus would run into the carriage. In an instant afterwards she found the pole of the omnibus across her chest and the head of one of the horses in her lap. It was a miracle she escaped serious injury’.

That a collision took place was not in doubt but when it came to court, and the omnibus driver – Roberts – was charged, a debate ensued as to whose fault it was.

After Lady Thesiger had given her testimony Mr Bingham heard from several other witnesses who corroborated her version of events. They deposed that the carriage was travelling at a sedate 5 miles and hour while the omnibus was doing nearly twice that. We might note that neither vehicle was going very fast by modern standards.

Roberts offered an alterative explanation of what had happened. He said the he’d been going downhill at ‘a moderate pace’ when the carriage had moved over to the wrong side of the road and into his path. The coachman had not indicated what he was doing and by then it was impossible for him to avoid the collision. It wasn’t his fault; it was Lady Thesiger’s driver’s.

He brought witnesses that backed him up including a local baker who had seen the whole thing unfold. He refuted the evidence about the speed of the vehicles, arguing that it was carriage that was moving more quickly. He said that the carriage driver should have waited until it was safe to cross the street and not have simply turned into the flow of the traffic.

Mr Bingham now had a couple of things to consider, one of law and one of fact, as he put it. The point of law was who had the right to cross the road in this case, while the fact referred to whether the coachman had given a signal or not, and if this signal had been seen or ignored by the omnibus driver ‘because he had more weight of metal with him’.

I think by that he meant simply that the omnibus driver was larger and so less bothered about a collision because it wasn’t his vehicle that was likely to get damaged by it. As someone who drives up and down the motorway several days a week in a small car I am quite aware of the careless driving of some larger vehicles who clearly think they are unlikely to come off as badly as me if I fail to avoid hitting them when they’ve pulled out in front of me.

So in the end the magistrate reserved judgement so he could make some enquiries. He promised an early verdict and was back in court the very next day to deliver it. He gave a lengthy explanation of his judgement which basically concluded that had the omnibus driver acted carelessly or wilfully then it would have constituted an act of ‘wilful and  perverse recklessness’ and he could impose a penalty. However, Mr Bingham didn’t believe that had been proved in court and so he dismissed the complaint but said that the Thesigers could of course take this before the civil courts.

Interestingly at that moment Sir Frederick was also in the courts, as a defence lawyer in a libel case. He lost that one too.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 24, 1850; The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 25, 1850]

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

The sad story of an elderly seamstress and her Majesty

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In the light of yesterday’s happy announcement of a royal engagement I thought I’d feature a (sort of) royal story from Victorian London’s Police courts.

In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.*

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

*(and now my gym!)

for another story that feature Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”