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Newspapers in the Regency

Outside The Times, from Twice Round the Clock, engraving based on drawing by William O’Connell. Click to see bigger

You might wonder at the idea of a newspaper publisher being the hero of a regency-set novel, but once I learned of John Walter II and what he did, I knew I had to at least try to tell the story.

Newspapers in the 1700s and early 1800s practiced a form of “advocacy journalism,” a term we’re hearing more of in the US these days. Papers took sides, and most were paid to take sides; Government and Opposition parties would pay a stipend to a paper, and would expect the paper to print their point of view, to the point of reprinting word-for-word something a party leader had written.

That’s what tripped up Walter’s father, the first publisher of what we now know of as The Times of London. Walter Sr. was paid (some say £300 a year) to take the Tory side, but when the prince of Wales and the duke of York sued him for libel over one of the snarkier items he had been given and subsequently published, his backers deserted him and he was thrown in prison for two years. Prison was different then: Walter continued to edit the paper from his cell.

This was how the game was played then, and I can’t know how they felt about it. But I use something like this story to motivate Will, the hero of A Note of Scandal, into pledging to find a way to profitably publish a paper without taking bribes (or “consideration,” as it was called). Declare yourself beholden to no one, tell your truth, and count on an increase in readers to cover the cost.

John Walter II did something like that when he took over running the Times. It was a costly experiment, but it was also a good time to try it. England was at war with Spain, France, and America during this time, and the public thirst for news was high. But the government controlled the mails, and government workers received the foreign papers and reports and translated them (often to England’s glory), and then gave them to the papers. Walter had to develop his own methods to obtain non-adulterated papers and hire his own men to translate them.

Inside The Times, from Twice Round the Clock, engraving based on drawing by William O’Connell

Suddenly, his mail would go missing, or he wouldn’t get the papers he’d specially ordered until days after the reports had been printed in other papers. He lodged protests and wrote angry letters complaining to officials about the mails, apparently to little avail. So he started having papers mailed to friends and to false addresses, so the government wouldn’t know they were really going to his editors. Eventually, he used private blockade-running ships (“not containing contraband”) to carry news from Europe. (The History of the Times, v.1, p.107)

Walter was the first to send a full-time “special correspondent,” a reporter, to cover the wars in Europe and file dispatches solely for the Times. These dispatches read nothing like the foreign reporting now; they’re more like letters and carry little of what we might call breaking news. But they were a start, and Walter found the public hungry for it—circulation numbers shot up. And so did the paper’s reputation for solid reporting.

Foreign Office, Sep. 18, 1813

“Mr. Hamilton presents his compliments to Mr. Walter, & is directed by Lord Castlereagh to request he will have the goodness to tell him if he has received any Intelligence of the reported defeat of the French near Dresden which is now in Circulation.”

(The History of the Times, v.1, p. 108)

A good case could be made that Walter, and his chief editor, Thomas Barnes, were the fathers of modern journalism of the sort I practice. And while my character Will is nothing like Walter personally and shares only a sliver of backstory, I’m glad I got to tell a story in which the reporter is not the bad guy. And have a bit of history to back me up.

[UPDATE: See also a post by Cheryl Bolen at The Beau Monde blog on newspapers in the Regency; see listing of London’s dailies in the comments]

Some sources:

“Newspapers” entry from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, via web, http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Newspapers

Twice Round the Clock, or The Hours of the Day and Night in London, chapter two: “Five O’Clock a.m.—The Publication of the ‘Times’ Newspaper.” George Augustus Sala, 1859, via web, http://victorianlondon.org/publications/sala-2.htm

“Newspapers and Publishers at the Dawn of the 19th Century,” via web, Georgian Index, http://www.georgianindex.net/publications/newspapers/news_sources.html

“The ‘Tuppeny Press’ and the Birth of the English Newspaper,” via web, South Central Media Scene, http://www.south-central-media.co.uk/tuppenny_press.htm

Masters of English Journalism: A study of personal forces. T.H.S. Escott, 1911, T. Fisher Unwin

The Story of The Times. Oliver Woods and James Bishop, 1983, Michael Joseph Ltd.

William Cobbett: A study of his life as shown in his writings. E.I. Carlyle, 1904, Archibald Constable & Co.

Advice to Young Men, and (Incidentally) Young Women, in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life. William Cobbett, 1862, Griffin, Bohn, and Co. (via Project Gutenberg)

The History of The Times: “The Thunderer” in the making, 1785-1841. 1935, The Macmillan Co.

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2 Comments

  1. Rosemary Shields wrote:

    We’ve read about 19th century yellow journalism: “You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war,” William Randolph Hearst. So I’m glad to know where modern journalism got its start. What a great idea for a novel! Thanks, Nicky

    Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  2. nickyp wrote:

    You are welcome! As a former Hearst employee, I’m well familiar with that sad story.

    Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

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