The Press: Jeremy Black Charts Its Growth in Victorian Britain. (New Agendas)

Article excerpt

One of the many ways in which Victorian London was at the centre of British life and that of the British Empire was by the provision of news. Much of the news was of course made in London, but much was not; whichever was the case, it was London newspapers that spread information and orchestrated opinion. Through its press, London created the image and idiom of Empire, shaped its opinions and laid claim to the title of the `fourth estate' of the realm. Aside from this political function, the press also played a central economic, social and cultural role, setting and spreading fashions, whether of company statements or through theatrical criticism. In what was increasingly a commercial society, the press played a pivotal role inspiring emulation, setting the tone, fulfilling crucial needs for an anonymous mass-readership in a society in which alternative means of spreading opinion, such as the church, appeared increasingly weak or redundant.

The press was itself affected by change, by the energising and disturbing forces of commercialization and new technology. It was to be legal reform and technological development that freed the Victorian press for major growth. Newspapers had become expensive in the eighteenth century, in large part due to successive rises in Stamp Duty. In the mid-nineteenth century these so-called `taxes on knowledge' were abolished: the Advertisement Duties in 1853, the Newspaper Stamp Duty in 1855 and the Paper Duties in 1861. This opened up the possibility of a cheap press and that opportunity was exploited by means of a technology centred on new printing presses and the continuous rolls or `webs' of paper that fed them. Web rotary presses were introduced in Britain from the late 1850s. The Walter press was first used by The Times in 1868 and by The Daily News in 1873, while The Daily Telegraph purchased the American Bullock presses in 1870. Mechanical typesetting was introduced towards the end of the century, linotype machines appearing in newspaper offices in the 1890s.

New technology was expensive but mass readership, opened up by the lower prices that could be charged after the repeal of the newspaper taxes, justified the cost. The consequence was more titles and lower prices. The number of daily morning papers published in London rose from 8 in 1856 to 21 in 1900, of evenings from 7 to 11, while there was a tremendous expansion in the suburban press. The repeal permitted the appearance of penny dailies. The Daily Telegraph, launched in 1855, led the way and by 1888 had a circulation of 300,000, while that of The Daily News rose from 50,000 in 1868 to 150,000 in 1871. The penny press was in turn squeezed by the halfpenny press, the first halfpenny evening paper, The Echo, appearing in 1868, while halfpenny morning papers became important in the 1890s with The Morning Leader (1892) and The Daily Mail (1896), which was to become extremely successful with its bold and simple style. The Echo peaked at a circulation of 200,000 in 1870.

In comparison, an eighteenth-century London newspaper was considered a great success if it sold 10,000 copies a week (most influential papers then were weeklies) and 2,000 weekly was a reasonable sale. Thus an enormous expansion had taken place, one that matched the vitality of an imperial capital, swollen by immigration and increasingly influential as an opinion-setter within the country, not least because of the communications revolution produced by the railway and better roads. The development of the railways allowed London newspapers to increase their dominance of the national newspaper scene. Thanks to them these papers could arrive on provincial doorsteps within hours of publication.

The public among whom literacy rates were rising sought cheap, entertaining reading matter. As in the previous century, this was only partly provided by the expanding press. A literature of chapbooks and almanacs had then been more popular than newspapers, and in the Victorian age much of the press did not provide the lurid tales that were sought by many. …