Home  »  Volume XIV: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part Two The Nineteenth Century, III  »  § 1. Eighteenth Century Newspapers

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

IV. The Growth of Journalism

§ 1. Eighteenth Century Newspapers

TO pass from the conditions recorded in the chapter entitled “The Beginnings of English Journalism” to those with which the close of the nineteenth century was familiar, is almost like being carried on the magic carpet of oriental romance from the middle of the Sahara to the bustling, electricity-lighted thoroughfares of a modern European capital. The chapter to which reference is made treats of the handwritten letter in which some, more or less professional, observer, for the benefit of a few known subscribers in the country, detailed whatever gossip he was able to pick up in the taverns and streets of London. His lineal descendants are still to be seen in the writers of the London letter which figures in the columns of nearly every daily provincial paper, and finds, latterly, a counterpart in several of the journals established in London. The information in these London letters differs, for the most part, from that which is to be obtained in the ordinary news columns, and has nothing in common with the reasoned leading article, in which is discussed the uppermost political incident of the day. The chapter above referred to took its readers from these manuscript letters through various experiments in printed news-books and sheets of intelligence, issued by, or in behalf of, groups of politicians, or news purveyors, to the establishment of The London Gazette and the few occasional journals which made their appearance towards the end of the seventeenth century. The transition from a small pamphlet containing some definite piece of news, and bearing an appropriate title, to the sheet published periodically under a distinctive and regularly repeated name, carrying not one but a great variety of collected items of news, was, in itself, great; but, when the change was brought about, the convenience and attractiveness of it ensured permanence.

There was even a public ready for the news writer. Howell, in his Familiar Letters, tells that the ploughman, the cobbler and the porter would spare no effort to educate their children, and the records of the university of Cambridge show numerous instances of the sons of husbandmen being entered as students. Apart, then, from the necessity to the merchant and trader of being acquainted with current events, it is natural that the country, as a whole, should wish to be supplied with news. Dr. Johnson characterised English common folk as more educated, politically, than the people of other countries, and this because of the popularity of newspapers. The extent of the influence of the cheap newspaper in the early part of the eighteenth century is shown by the petition of publishers against the legislation described by Swift as ruining Grub street by the imposition of a tax which extinguished all halfpenny newspapers and many of the more highly priced. It was urged that halfpenny newspapers were used very largely throughout the country as a means of teaching children to read, and that, without them, there would be a failure in this respect. In these conditions, statesmen could not fail to recognise that the newspaper press might be made to serve their purposes, and they did not hesitate to employ men of marked ability and political knowledge to supplement or give finish to the work of the professional inhabitants of Grub street. For these higher services, payment was made, sometimes in coin—Swift says that he refused £50 offered to him by Harley in 1710–11—and, otherwise, by state or church preferment, or by admission to social comradeship. Publishers of newspapers, also, found it to their profit to employ writers who could mix the useful with the pleasant.

The growth of journalism in the eighteenth century was expedited by Palmer’s establishment of a series of stage coaches, leaving London at stated hours and carrying parcels as well as passengers, distribution being thus much more rapid and regular than when it depended upon the older waggon. Meanwhile, newspapers had to struggle against the hand of authority. Prosecutions for libel were numerous, and daring writers had to stand in the pillory, besides being imprisoned and fined. Parliament, in especial, was jealous of the news collector; though, now and again, some member might protest that the constituencies had a right to know how their parliamentary representatives spoke and voted, leading politicians and the houses, as a whole, resented, as breaches of privilege, any account of their proceedings, and Cave, one of the earliest and most celebrated of parliamentary reporters, recorded the discussions as if they took place in China, referring to individual statesmen by entirely fictitious names, which, like those employed in Gulliver’s Travels, were, doubtless, understood by very many readers. Nor were prosecutions for the publication of parliamentary reports confined to London. Quite early in the eighteenth century, some of the leading provincial cities and boroughs could boast their own newspapers. The Newcastle Courant was established in 1711, and its publication continued into the second half of the nineteenth century. The Liverpool Courant was printed in 1712, Berrow’s Worcester Journal in 1709, The Salisbury Postman in 1715, The York Mercury about 1720. Manchester, somewhat late in the field, had a newspaper, The Gazette, in 1730. Cave, in 1722, sent reports of the proceedings of parliament to The Gloucester Journal, whose owner, thereupon, was brought into direct conflict with the house of commons.

Some of the journals in this intermediate period were, in fact, collections of essays; and the writers of the chief among them, such as Swift, Addison and Steele, are dealt with in other chapters. Johnson’s essays, for the most part, were, like those of Goldsmith, written as the literary attractions of news-sheets; it being recognised that the public, while eager to buy current news, wanted, also, some more substantial and lasting literary food. Like similar efforts of journalism at the end of the nineteenth century, they were composed with rapidity, recording momentary impressions aroused, probably, by some piece of current gossip; being, in this respect, entirely removed from the earlier essay associated with the name of Bacon. Through the whole period, however, is to be noted a constant progress in the collection and dissemination of news.

Charles Lamb divided books into two classes, one of which is literature, and the other not; and, perhaps, it may be said that some journalism is literature and other is not. A sketch of journalism in the nineteenth century must include both, whether or not it attempts to differentiate between them. In any reasoned survey of the period, it is impossible to ignore among newspaper writers a changing attitude which synchronised with a change in their readers. The journalism of the beginning of the century was, mainly, intended for the wealthy and educated classes, though underneath it was a stratum of popular writing struggling against authority which gladly would have suppressed it; at the end, with the exception of a few weekly reviews—and, perhaps, of a few penny daily papers, and of The Times—journalism appealed to a lower average of social standing, and, making allowance for educational progress in the nation, to a lower average of literary appreciation. The enormous circulations of which to-day certain newspaper owners loudly boast result, largely, from an endeavour to cater for classes whose education has been restricted to the elementary school, or who, of more advanced schooling, always run with the crowd—possibly a tendency natural to democratic times. Writing so near to these developments, it would be premature to pronounce judgment upon them.

As to amenities, journalism, in many ways, has improved during the century. No journal in the front rank would now apply to a rising statesman language such as The Times, in the early forties, used about Macaulay, when it referred to him as “Mr. Babbletongue Macaulay,” and said, “he was hardly fit to fill up one of the vacancies that have occurred by the lamentable death of Her Majesty’s two favourite monkeys.” One may suppose that Sir Walter Scott had such conditions in mind, when, having dissuaded his son-in-law Lockhart from journalism, he wrote: “None but a thoroughgoing blackguard ought to attempt the daily press, unless it is some quiet country diurnal.” Dickens’s sketch of Eatanswill journalism was very little of an exaggeration. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether, in the closing years of the century, there was such intimate connection between journalism and writers upon whose work time will impress the hallmark of literature, as in the first half of the century. The newspaper work of Coleridge was done in the last years of the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the nineteenth.