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

§ 7. The Times; The Walters

In this sketch of nineteenth-century English journalism, priority may be given to The Times because, undoubtedly, during the greater part of the century, it was foremost among British newspapers; its fame in other countries far exceeded that of any of its contemporaries; it was the first newspaper to be printed by steam-power (29 November, 1814); it was the first to send special correspondents—as Wotton said of ambassadors—“to lie abroad”; it was the first to commission one of its staff, W. H. Russell, as a war correspondent; it was the first to print what is known as a parliamentary sketch or leading article; it was the latest to oppose the abolition of the stamp and paper duties, or to lower its price in the various stages through which other ventures showed the way, until, recently (1915), it has been compelled, by pressure of competition, to take its place among the penny morning papers; finally, until a few years into the twentieth century, it was mainly the property, and always under the active control, of the Walter family. Early in its career, it adopted the policy of enlisting among its contributors men of eminence in politics, in science, in literature, in the arts and in religion. During the greater part of its existence, the pecuniary profits of The Times were very large, and it could procure information by means too expensive for its contemporaries. Such was its position, that most people believed it to be beyond challenge by any rival. The first John Walter was its first editor; he resigned his sceptre into the hands of the second John Walter in 1803. The Times had already achieved notoriety by certain libels, for some of which John Walter spent sixteen months in Newgate. His efforts to obtain news from the continent, and especially from France, brought the paper reputation among politicians and financiers; he was competing with the well-established Morning Chronicle under the editorship of James Perry, who had surrounded himself with a brilliant literary staff, and had effectively organised the reporting of parliament by relays of reporters who could produce their copy in time for publication in the next morning’s Chronicle. Perry’s method of organisation is still in force. John Walter the second learned by experience that the business of a proprietor interfered with editing, and he left much authority in the hands of members of his staff. Henry Crabb Robinson, sent out as foreign correspondent in 1807, was, in the next year, installed as foreign editor, and, some two years or so later, Dr. (afterwards Sir) John Stoddart was appointed general editor. The British press, as a whole, was violent in attacking Napoleon, who, in 1802, pressed the British government to

  • adopt the most effectual measures to put a stop to the unbecoming and seditious publications with which the newspapers and writings printed in England are filled.
  • The government admitted that “very improper paragraphs have lately appeared in some of the English newspapers against the Government of France”; but they repudiated responsibility, and suggested that the first consul might sue the newspapers in the English courts. There was a prosecution of a French newspaper published in London; but nothing came of it. The Times was among Napoleon’s most coarse and violent assailants. Indeed, in 1817, John Walter, for this reason, removed Stoddart, installing Thomas Barnes, already on the staff of the paper—the first of two editors whose fame has never been excelled. When lord Melville had been dismissed from office in 1805, Peter Stuart, proprietor and editor of The Oracle—brother of the more famous Dan Stuart, of The Morning Post—defended Melville in an article reflecting severely upon the House of Commons. There were long debates in the chamber, and, in the course of them, the chancellor of the exchequer said:
  • It was almost the common fault of those connected with the press that they assumed a loftier tone, and perhaps gave themselves more importance, than naturally belonged to them.
  • The Times has never been wanting in a sense of its own importance, and, whatever mistakes may have been made by it in the course of the nineteenth century, it has, throughout, been above suspicion of corruption. For the rest, The Times opposed the repeal of the corn-laws, until it was converted, not by argument, but by the magnitude of the demonstrations in Manchester and elsewhere, and by the wealth and local status of the men who took part in them. It opposed Stratford Canning’s policy of maintaining the Turkish empire against Russian attack, until it saw that Palmerston, heading steadily for war with Russia, had the country at his back. Later, in the Russo-Turkish war of 1876, it still supported the Turks; but, towards the end of the century, as the attitude of important British politicians differed considerably, in this respect, from that of their predecessors, it turned to the opposite side. These changes need not have resulted from a desire to discover what the public wanted, and to satisfy the want; The Times was neither always lagging behind the views of those classes for which more particularly it was written, nor always anxious to see which way it ought to jump.