Historic Newspapers

Genuine Newspapers from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
British Empire in Plymouth
Presentation Box
I was very fortunate to receive a gift box with three Victorian era copies of 'The Times'. The connection to the British Empire was apparent almost straight away with even the most cursory glances at the classified advertisements. Of course, in the Nineteenth Century, the front page of the Times was always filled with classified ads - there were no lead articles or blaring bold font titles to draw you in. All you had was the newspaper frontispiece, the date, the price and a page full of advertisements. These classifieds reveal their own perpective on the priorities and activities of the age of the newspaper in question. They are full of advertisements for ships seeking passengers to head off towards colonies like Australia, New Zealand, Sierra Leone, St. Helena and India, etc... The quantity of ships looking for passengers is quite extensive in all the newspapers I had received. Obviously, this was a prime way of ensuring that ships had their quota of passengers on their journeys to all corners of the world. The newspapers make it clear that the tentacles of trade and migration looked very different in the Victorian period than they do today. These days the flows of travel follows flight paths and the location of airports. In the Nineteenth Century the flows of travel were actually more fluid if more time consuming: Anywhere connected by the Oceans and seas could be a viable destination but the length of time to get there would have been measured in weeks and even months rather than hours and days. Other advertisements which appear regularly are ones looking for tutors, especially for foreign language tuition, jobs, especially looking for servants, and rewards for lost items being recovered. There are many more obscure advertisements and you wonder who placed them and whether they were successful or not? Reading through them really puts you in touch with the immediacy of the era.

I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that these are actually genuine newspapers. At first, I had assumed that they were facsimiles or reproductions as they seemed in such good condition. I received a copy from 1841, from 1857 and 1900. The 1841 has less pages but other than that the format and quality was remarkably similar to the 1900 copy published sixty years later! Innovation was obviously not necessary if you had a winning format. Of course, newspapers were disproportionately far more important in the Victorian period than they are today. Now, we have many more alternatives for sources of information but in the Nineteenth Century newspapers were one of the only ways to discover what was going on in the wider world. The Times pioneered the concept of foreign correspondents sending reports back to Britain. Over time, there would become a real premium for newspapers to be the first to report on the big international stories. Employees would wait at the docks to rush the copy to the printing presses. The newspaper which could get their newspapers on to the streets first with big stories would sell far more than their rivals who were left to pick up the crumbs. Scoops were essential.

British Empire in Plymouth
Imperial Events
The Times was really a newspaper of record and so reported information on stocks, shares, politics, appointments, births, deaths and legal notices. The 1841 paper has an interesting account of a by-election in Liverpool. The Conservatives had a comfortable victory with a majority of 7! Yes, just 7! They received 184 votes compared to the Whigs receiving 177. You get a real understanding of the restriction of the vote by looking at figures like these and this was after the Great Reform Act of 1832. All the papers had an interesting account entitled 'Military Intelligence' which mentioned the movements of ships and troops around the Empire in surprising detail. They explain the movements of ships and units on a day by day basis. Obviously this was before the idea of restricting militarily sensitive information and censorship. I assume they felt that their enemies would not be buying these papers. It does show the prevailing Laissez Faire attitudes of the era. Governments felt that they should not interfere in the flow of information no matter how sensitive it might be. If there was any censorship at all it was expected to be self-censorship. It was felt that the natural patriotic duty of the correspondent would come to the fore. However, William Russell during the Indian Mutiny showed that revelations of incompetence trumped ideas of national solidarity.

The money markets threw up some interesting asides in these papers also. They were very keen on tracking the volume and value of imports and exports throughout the Empire. The price of cotton in India or rice in Hong Kong is to be expected but it was very interesting to read about the detailed prices of opium in the papers. They went into considerable detail about the quality of opium crops in the Indian sub-continent. Opium was still an incredibly important crop and was used as an export to China - forcibly so after the Opium Wars. It is interesting little glimpses into the world economy of the Nineteenth Century that makes these newspapers so valuable. Of course, I knew that opium was traded, but it is still fascinating to see just how open and socially acceptable the trade was.

British Empire in Plymouth
The 1900 paper gives detailed lists of casualties from the Boer War. It still gives the detailed troop movements, but they made space available for each and every casualty. This was a convention that lasted up until the Great War when the casualties became so over-whelming that it was felt to be damaging for morale for people to see just how many soldiers were dying on a daily basis. These days, soldiers who died in Iraq or in Afghanistan have their names read out in Parliament and recorded in Hansard. I wonder if this would be the case if the casualty lists mushroomed to the levels of the early Twentieth Century conflicts. Speaking of Afghanistan, the 1841 paper has an interesting aside mentioning that Afghanistan appears 'undisturbed' as the Mohammedans see that the British force is superior to them. This wishful thinking would be revealed in all its gory detail given what was about to unfold in Afghanistan with the destruction of almost the entire army in the country. Hopefully, parallels with the British modern day forces in Afghanistan are not forthcoming. The Indian Mutiny was covered with remarkable detail and freedom. By 1857, the telegraph was speeding up the reporting of events from around the Empire and by the 1900 Boer War edition, the speed of reporting is very rapid indeed. The newspaper I have is dated March 2nd but it is reporting in considerable detail about the relief of Ladysmith which occurred just the previous day on March 1st despite the fact that Ladysmith was located thousands of miles away. People could now find out about victories and defeats within 24 hours of their occurrence rather than the weeks or months in previous conflicts. The world really was shrinking as the infrastructure of Empire and the age allowed news to travel along the telegraph cables and railway lines. The prevalence of military articles and informaiton in all these papers makes it clear just how important the military was as an institution to the nation.

British Empire in Plymouth
Broadsheet Format
Letters to the editor further reveal the priorities of the times. It should be noted that they are incredibly formal in their style. It can be quite difficult for a modern audience to get to grips with the verbosity of style but it is worth persevering with. Once again, military affairs take up a great proportion of the letters. The 1841 paper is concerned with deteriorating relations with the United States and concerns that the Royal Navy is falling behind in being able to service its global obligations. The 1857 paper has some interesting articles about the awarding of Victoria Crosses earned in the Crimean War. Evidently one witness to the occasion was writing to complain about the standard of the scaffolding to view the awarding of the medals to the recipients and another wrote to explain his pride in being wounded in the service of the nation and goes into considerable detail about the wounds received. Articles like these would have been very topical given the extent of warfare raging in the Indian sub-continent and help illustrate the level of service and patriotism prevalent in society at large.

In general, these make for a fascinating read. I have just three copies from the one newspaper spread out over the lifetime of Victoria. Imagine how many newspapers were published just in her lifetime! Each newspaper casts a glimpse on to the topics and priorities of the day. They are remarkable sources that tell you far more than just the facts of the major events. Whilst reading these I was reminded of the Somerset Maugham story where a planter in Borneo is reliving World War One vicariously through the newspapers which are delivered to his plantation bundled up and many months late. He refuses to look through the pile of waiting papers and informs his servant to lay out one fresh newspaper each day. He reads the horrors unfolding on the Western Front on a daily basis, but several months removed. He is sorely tempted to read ahead and find out what happened but never lets himself fulfil his curiosity. Instead, he relives history day by day. You can give yourself an opportunity to do something similar with these papers. You can order your own genuine papers and pretend that it is the publication date and imagine what the world was really like on that particular day.

Plymouth in British Empire
Website for Historic Newspapers

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by Stephen Luscombe