Victorian London - Publications - Newspapers - the cheap press


This is the age of large undertakings and fractional profits. Strange and paradoxical as it may appear, one of the commonest applications of capital in the present day is that in which tells of thousands are sunk, and tens of thousands more are set afloat, with the prospect of being recovered in farthings and fractions of farthings. Never was there a greater faith existing in the force of numbers and the accumulative results of "small profits and quick returns." This phase of the times is discernible in nearly all those departments of commerce which have to do with the necessaries and requisites of every-day life; but in none of then is it more patent and prominent than in the department of newspaper literature, which in our day is accounted as indispensable almost as food and raiment.
    Turn we to some of the illustrations of the principle above adverted to, which meet us in the highways and thoroughfares of the metropolis.
    "'Standard!' gentlemen, here you are! forty-eight columns for one penny—all the news of the day—arrival of the Bombay mail, storming of Lucknow, slaughter and flight of the bloody-minded Sepoys — hextrornary trial—horrid murder at Portsmouth! Coroner's inquest and verdict — Debates in Parliament, gentlemen, and all the foreign news—Only a penny—forty-eight columns for a penny!" Such is the cry which cascades in at the omnibus window as you stop at one of the intermediate stations. It is hardly at an end when a voice in a different key bursts in with—
    "'Telegraph!' Daily Telegraph, gentlemen! big as the 'Times' — all the news of the whole world for a penny! Four leaders, gentlemen, and city article — acquittal of Signor Bernhard — 'strornary scene in the court  — all for a penny, gentleMEN!"
    "'Hevening Star,' 'Hevening Star!' ge-entlemen," sings another shrill pipe. "Lord John's speech last night in the House—telegraphic despatches from Paris ! Arrival of the American mail at one o'clock to-day, and the last news from Jonathan and the loco-focos! One penny, gentlemen—only a penny!"
    In the midst of this rival clamour your omnibus drives off, bearing, perhaps, half a dozen of the penny papers along with it ; but it does not drive off till another, or it may be several others, have driven up, all of which are besieged in their turn by a heavy battering train of penny artillery — not without a breach made in the citadel of the pocket.
    The same thing takes place elsewhere. Wherever the current of population pours in full volume, there the cheap news-mongers mingle with the flow, and lift up their voices in praise of their wares, and they do all this the more actively that their profit is but a farthing, or the fraction of a farthing on the completion of each of their transactions. You would imagine that such a trade could never remunerate the vender that it would be impossible for him to earn even a crust; and so it would, were he to stand dumb-mouthed, and merely exhibit his broad sheets silently for sale. He knows better than that he knows that there are thousands who will buy a thing that is pushed into their hands, and puffed under their very noses, who, from one end of the year to the other, would never step out of their way to get it. Therefore, he pushes and puffs, and bawls and declaims incessantly, and brings that conviction home to them which they would never entertain if left to themselves. In the exercise of their difficult and sonorous function these cheap news-mongers manifest a remarkable variety of talent. We may regard them as a comparatively new race of industrials, seeing that their appearance in London streets was not even so early as that of the penny daily papers themselves, of no long standing, but is a phenomenon which has grown out of the exigencies of the cheap newspaper-press, which, it is presumable, owes much of its standing and prospects of permanency to the exertions of this class of advocates. A vast number of' them are boys of tender age ; some are mere infants ; but the most energetic and successful are lads in the predicaments of hobbledehoyhood, who have themselves to maintain, and perhaps others as well. Besides these, there are old men past work, cripples and maimed warriors, and craftsmen out of employ, anxious to turn a penny by any means in their power, Not very long ago, anything in the shape of a penny newspaper would have been regarded as trash — trash was, in fact, the mane for everything, published at a penny or twopence, and hence the origin of the term " trash-shops," which the small emporiums of cheap literature, and especially of cheap newspapers, still retain. But what is the character of the penny newspaper of to-day? Read it, examine it, and then decide. If you describe it candidly and fairly, you will have to use terms very different from the term "trash." The newspaper which is now hawked about for a penny, though as to material it be flimsy and shabby enough, is such a document as our fathers had no conception of possessing at any price. It is the result of labours so manifold, of investigation so extended, of communication so rapid, of intelligences so cultivated — all concentred to one purpose — as would have seemed to them a consummation to be dreamed of, perhaps, but never accomplished. How, then, does the penny newspaper pay, seeing that the expense of its production must necessarily be so great? The answer lies in the magical word "numbers." It circulates and sells by tens of thousands; its great circulation justifies the proprietors in demanding and receiving a liberal price for advertisements, the receipts of which go a long way towards defraying the entire expenditure. What is wanting is made up by the sale; for though but all infinitesimal profit, hardly expressible by figures, is realized on each copy, there is yet a remunerating profit in the sum total. The manufacture of newspapers may be looked on as a species of paper-staining by machinery : all the difference being that, in the publisher's process, the paper is stained with news and political essays and the current opinions of the hour.
    But we have not glanced at the cheapest news yet. The cheapest news of all appears in the form of our  "Parish Weekly Gazette." By the Friday afternoon of every week this gazette makes its appearance, and is hawked about the suburban streets at the charge of one half-penny. The hawkers in tins case are a countless troop of small boys, who would probably be doing nothing except mischief, unless they were thus employed. They are as clamorous at the omnibus stations and along the highways as their elder brethren of the broader street; and, what is more, they penetrate the shops and private dwellings of the parishioners, and thus establish a private connection, a sort of "paper walk," which they can nurse up into something worth retaining by the exercise of a little care and diligence. What profit they can derive by the sale of half-penny papers is more than we can tell ; but candidates are not wanting for the office, and during the two last days of the week they swarm along the thoroughfares of the Parish at all points. Again, looking at the character of the half-penny weekly, where is the trash? There is nothing that deserves the name. There is, on the contrary, much that is useful  — a summary of the week's news — of the Parliamentary debates of the doings in the parish vestry, and a mass of correspondence or notices on local matters of general or parochial interest. There is, is addition, a well-digested leader or two, on the political phases of the hour, and there are reports of the lectures, athenaeums, and mechanics' institutes, and other associations peculiar to the parish. And lastly, and by no means least, there are hundreds of advertisements from traders and shopkeepers in the neighbourhood, who find it to their advantage to publish their announcements in an organ of this kind, rather than in one whose larger circulation is scattered through different and distant localities. In point of moral tone, the parish halfpenny weeklies — and there are many of them in the metropolis — rank perhaps as high as any class of newspapers : there is, in fact, nothing in them to startle the sensibilities of the most fastidious ; they are intended, and they are adapted; to lie on every table.
    Another form of cheap news is one which, originating in London, is never circulated in London. Some few years ago, an enterprising genius conceived the idea of printing a newspaper in London, leaving the first page of it blank, for the reception of local news, and which might thus answer the purposes of the whole kingdom, or any part of it. He executed this plan, and for a time reaped the profit of it ; but his invention was not patentable ; the ruse was soon discovered ; others took the business in hand, and he lost his monopoly. At the present moment, some hundred or so of country newspapers are thus got up, and the majority of them are sold in the country towns and surrounding districts at a penny. The country publisher receives his sheets wet from the London press on Friday morning by rail, by which time he has prepared the single front page, with its local news and advertisements, and is in a condition to go to press at once, and bring out his weekly on Friday night or Saturday morning. The consequence is, that the small country printer, whose whole establishment, perhaps, consists of himself and a boy, is thus enabled to supply his neighbourhood with a newspaper superior in all respects to anything of the same kind that could be produced out of London. The paper is got up in a capital style — contains all the important and interesting news of the week —  has one or more political articles, well and ably written, together with reviews of books, literary sketches, and, in the absence of Parliamentary details, a continuous tale by some popular author. The small country printer can do all this at a minimum of cost, as be needs not to buy a single sheet beyond the number he can circulate or sell. By this ingenious plan numbers of small towns in out-of-the-way districts are supplied with an amusing local paper, and the means of local and district advertising.
    Before the stamp-duty was taken off  newspapers, and when Mr. Cobden, Mr. Milner Gibson, Mr. Charles Knight, and their co-operators in the cause of cheap knowledge, were advocating the interests of the pence-paying portion of the public, that which told with greatest force against them was the assertion that the cheapness of newspapers would lead to the demoralization of the press — that all sorts of scurrility, blasphemy, sedition, and abuses of every kind, would be current among the common people. Experience has shown a directly opposite result. The predictions of the prophets of evil were not verified ; and while we may congratulate the populace on their having' the "cheapest news " at command, we can do so without any misgivings on the score of declension in the morale of newspaper literature.

The Leisure Hour, 1858

   IT is scarcely thirty years since a periodical was issued from the press, which at the time of its appearance, and long afterwards, was accounted one of the marvels of cheap literature. That periodical, as will at once be divined, was the Penny Magazine.' In one sense it was not original, being in fact more or less an imitation of a popular publication brought out a little time before in Paris, by M. Emile de Girardin, under the title of Le Journal des Connaissances Utiles. But it was new to the English public, and very speedily obtained a wide-spread reputation and very general support. People marvelled that such a work could be issued at such a price. True, the Magazine was published under the auspices of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and was conducted by an editor, Mr. Charles Knight, whose valuable knowledge and experience were wholly at the service of the enterprise. And still it seemed incredible that eight large pages of printed matter, well written and well arranged, adorned too with woodcuts by no means deficient in merit, could be sold to the public at one penny, without entailing a ruinous loss upon the proprietors. Great was the astonishment accordingly, and great the satisfaction among the friends of popular progress, at the continued success of the new periodical. The more reflective saw that a new era was dawning, and that tlae printing-press was entering upon a fresh stage of its development, in which results were to be produced, such as in olden times could scarcely have entered into the most hopeful anticipations of Koster, of Faust, of Guttenberg, of Schoeffer, or of Caxton.
    And they were right. The Penny Magazines may fairly be said to have been the pioneer of the cheap press, clearing the way for the long line of popular periodicals which followed it. But what great advances have been made since Mr. Knight's useful and meritorious publication first saw the day! The literary marvel of 1832 was the ' Penny Magazine.' In 1861 it is the penny daily newspaper. If the one caused astonishment and admiration in its time, what are the feelings which must be excited when we contemplate the other !-the latest result of the great invention, which is silently effecting mightier changes than were ever accomplished by any other human agency.
    It is no figure of speech to say that the penny daily newspaper of to-day is one of the most remarkable products of our modern civilization. - Glance at its well-filled columns and its massive pages. You find there telegraphic intelligence from all quarters of the globe, transmitted with a rapidity that rivals the wonders of Eastern romance; you find correspondence from the chief cities of the Continent, from America, from Asia, from Africa, from Australia,. from every spot in which events are passing that afford interest to English readers: you find a complete record of domestic events, the proceedings in parliament and in the law and police tribunals, the movements of the royal family and of the court, the exploits of the army and the navy, the progress and development of the Volunteer corps, the speeches delivered at public meetings, at dinners, and at provincial gatherings, criticisms upon the latest productions of art and literature, besides daily comments upon home and foreign politics, and the social topics which claim the attention of the public writer. Nothing is wanting to place the penny paper on the same level with its high -priced contemporaries, which but a few years ago enjoyed the exclusive monopoly of public support. Not only does it contain intelligence of every kind quite as complete and quite as early as its rivals; but the remarks it offers upon that intelligence are distinguished by equal knowledge, equal ability, equal force of expression, and by a loyal, temperate tone, against which even Conservatism can. bring no accusation.
    The idea, indeed, that a penny paper must necessarily be an incendiary paper has long since passed away. In the days of Pitt and Castlereagh it might have been entertained perhaps with some show of reason, but in the days of Palmerston and Gladstone it is utterly out of date. The cheap newspaper is universally supported without being either a torch of revolution or a firebrand of discontent. It makes no appeal to vulgar political passions, does not in any way pander to popular prejudice, or base its claim to favour upon ignorance and credulity. There are no fierce invectives in its columns against the sovereign, no vindictive tirades against the aristocracy, the clergy, or the wealthier classes, no misleading interpretations of the rights of capital and labour, no houndings on of the employed against the employer; in a word, the views it puts forward, though expressed in bold, vigorous, and outspoken language, are in accordance with the advanced state of public opinion, and are such as meet with endorsement by the great majority of liberal thinkers. As in religious inquiry the day has passed for the scurrility and profaneness of Tom Paine to find favour, so in political discussion all sympathy with the eloquence of Orator Hunt, or the coarse abuse of Cobbett, has completely died away.
    The advantages to the great mass of the community of a cheap daily paper, thus conducted, it would be difficult to overestimate.
    Almost every man who can read is enabled to do so in the present day, and learn thus something of what is occurring in other districts besides those in which he chances to pass his days. And this is no mean advantage either to individuals or to the state. It may be quite true that the information so obtained is superficial and imperfect; and if we were to accept the popular dictum, that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, we might consider this a case in which its truth would be fully illustrated. But there is something far more perilous than knowledge, however small, however superficial, however imperfect, and that is-ignorance. The working man who reads his penny paper every morning may not have the most enlightened views upon political or social topics; but his opinions are at all events likely to be far better than those of his comrade who never opens a journal at all, and who lives on from week to week in the narrow circle of manual labour and uninspirative domestic intercourse.
    Let a time of national trouble and commotion arise-provoked it may be by war, by a bad harvest, by insufficiency of employment-which of the two men is likely to prove more dangerous? The one will be guided by his mere instincts or passions, and will be ready to listen to any declaimer who promises to ameliorate his condition. The other will have obtained some knowledge of the causes of his - misfortunes, and will be slow to adopt any remedies which do not to some extent meet with the sanction of his better sense.
    We do not wish to push this comparison too far. It is honest Sancho, we think, who says that, ' a hungry belly is an evil counsellor;' and there can be no doubt that many well-instructed men, under the pressure of a personal calamity, are apt to attribute that calamity to wrong causes. But such men are at all events more accessible to reason and argument than those whose minds are utterly uncultivated.
    It would not be difficult, we think, to show that the penny paper is effecting among working men, and a portion of the middle classes, what no other form of popular literature could effect. It brings them, if we may say so, face to face with the rest of the community. In reading day by day his penny journal, the operative or the small tradesman feels that he is admitted, as it were, into the confidence of contemporary history. Nothing is a secret to him. He feels that he is no longer standing outside the barriers raised by wealth and exclusiveness. He, too, knows what is passing in Parliament, what is taking place abroad, what is occurring at home. He feels that no measure will be adopted by the legislature, in the discussion of which he has not to some extent a voice; that no public event can happen in which he does not, as it were, play a part.
    And let no one think it is a slight thing to have accomplished such a result as this. When all classes of a great community are brought into relation with ·each other, when the highest and the lowest alike feel that they have a stake in the nation's welfare, one great cause of disaffection is removed, and the very foundations of patriotism are strengthened.
    But we need not dwell upon this theme. In the publicity given to every event by the press lies the very essence of our national freedom. The penny daily paper has extended that publicity as it never was extended before, and is exerting thus an influence which, vast as it already is, may be considered as yet only in the infancy of its development.
    One feature in connection with the penny daily paper, which to some extent accounts for its widespread influence, is the facility with which it can be obtained. In the outskirts of London, at all the railway stations, the very earliest travellers by the morning trains find the news-boy at his post, provided with his budget of journals, until an ever-increasing demand has exhausted the supply. It is the same at the omnibus stations. It is the same at the metropolitan railway termini. Nay more, if we go away from the capital to any part of the country, the penny paper is just as accessible. In Manchester, in Liverpool, in Nottingham, in Birmingham, in all our provincial towns, it is to be obtained without difficulty, and within a comparatively few hours after publication. Ere its weary editor and sub-editor, have left their beds you will meet with it at Bristol, at Devon, at Lincoln, even at Exeter in the distant west, or at York in the far-off north.
    Wherever sold too, it is still a penny paper, no charge being added whatever the distance it may have travelled after leaving its publishing office in Fleet Street or the Strand. In the good old days- and not very distant days either-people had to wait for the slow action of the post ore receiving their London journal. When it arrived, too, it came saddled with an additional penny, the charge for transmission.
    This system is already almost a thing of the past. Private enterprise has gone far ahead of state regulation. The real post-office for newspapers is now at 184 Strand, and the directors of that establishment, Messrs. W. H. Smith and Son, although no government officials, have business under their exclusive control, rivalling in extent and importance with that of a department of State.
    They are in fact the great newspaper carriers of the country. They have an establishment in the Strand, which, although a palace externally, is one of the busiest of hives within. They have almost an army of employés, clerks, sorters, messengers, &c., besides an immense number of light carts somewhat similar in size and aspect to those used by St. Martin's-le-Grand. You will not see many such carts in the London streets during the time when those streets are most animated and bustling. But if you are an early riser, a very early riser be it understood, you will meet with them in every direction, and will form a good idea of the speed at which they can proceed through metropolitan thoroughfares, which a few hours later allow no vehicle to advance except at the pace of the snail.
    These carts are laden with the very earliest impressions of the morning newspapers, and are pro ceeding to the various metropolitan termini to catch the first departing trains.
    A smart race it is sometimes ; for a press of matter, or unusually late debates in the House, may retard the publication of the daily papers, and then if country customers are to be supplied at their usual hour, it must be quick work indeed with the vehicle which has charge of Messrs. Smith and Son's despatches. But it is seldom that there is any failure on the part of. the great newspaper carriers. Their carts leave Fleet Street or the Strand at the very last moment, but they reach the North or South Western as the case may be, ere the clock has quite struck the hour of departure, fling their burdens into the carriage appointed to receive them, and have a full half-minute to spare before the train in waiting swiftly glides away from the platform.
    It is in this manner that the provincial districts are supplied with the London journals before even the metropolis itself has obtained its own copies, thanks to the agency of Messrs. W. H. Smith and Son.
    Into the details of management adopted by this firm it is of course not our province to enter. We need scarcely do more than point out that their transactions must necessarily be on the largest scale to allow them to undertake the carriage of newspapers to all parts of the country free of charge to the public. Some idea of the, magnitude of their business, and of the rate at which it has increased, may be formed when we state that at the commencement of the year 1858, the number of copies of The Daily Telegraph taken by this house amounted to about 8,000 a day. In December, 1860, the number taken daily of the same paper had increased, we believe, to nearly 25,000 copies.
    A more striking illustration of the extraordinary development of the cheap press could not be found, perhaps, than in these figures.
    In connection with the transmission of newspapers to all parts of the country, we must not overlook one of the sights of ' the City,' which cannot fail to strike a stranger with amazement-we mean, of course, the General Post Office about 6 P.M., especially on a Friday evening, when, in addition to the ordinary business, as one may say, the weekly papers are being posted. Enter we St. Martin's; time, 5.50 PM, Bradshaw style. 
    Here come the porters from the various news-vendors. Puffing, panting, straining under huge sacks of papers, they chase one another up the stone steps of the portico. Troops upon troops jostle up, and it is as much as beadle and police can do to keep the way clear. Thicker and thicker they come. The usual slit for papers won't serve now. A whole casement is, torn away to admit the news, by the sackful. Baskets large as a crockery crate fill every minute, and vanish, while empty ones come forth in turn. The porter inside seizes the sacks, and pours their load out.
    ' Mind your eye,' cries Pat, as he bangs his bag right in, and himself almost with it.
    ' Look out, old fellow,' another cries, who, having only one paper well bound up, can take excellent aim at the man inside.
    A roar of rough laughter succeeds the lucky stroke. Commend us to the pillory rather than to that unlucky wight's post. 
    ' One!' goes the clock.
    ' Quick, quick, you're too late,' sing out a mob of lungs; and the stream of cords, fustians, canvas, and shirt-sleeves, runs apace. 
    ' Two!' goes the clock.
    Sackful after sackful pours in.
    ' Gallop for your life.'
    ' Run along, little one.'
    ' Three!'
    ' Four!'
    More and more furious still.
    ' Five!'
    A last rush is made, and a score of sacks go in together.
    ' Six!'
    The stroke of doom. The easement flies to. So nicely timed have been the movements of the rogues, that the chase ceased exactly as the clock struck.
    No; a solitary, wet, red-hot face gets to the spot one tick too late. Poor fellow, he deserved to win, for he has galloped hard. He throws down his freight, and falls back breathless against one of the stone pillars of the hall. Used up quite is he, and so mortified as Lain to let tears roil down his moist cheeks. 
    Listen to the urchin marching up and down, and mocking his distress
    ' Yesterday's Times half-price! Yesterday's Times, half-price!'

The Busy Hives Around Us, 1861