"Admiral Thornton has been crowned in the Bay of Biscay."
"On the 7th inst, the Prince of Wales was at Gibraltar."
"The highly respectable firm of Lutteroth and Co, of Trieste, has suspended payment."
"Messrs Deane & Son have invented a new and improved kind of revolver."
I am not omitting anything. Those are the news items in their unadorned entirety ... Well, I have perhaps omitted one important detail. The date on the newspaper is Saturday 21 May 1859. It is one hundred and thirty- six years old. The name of the newspaper is The Bristol Times and Felix Farley's Bristol Journal. I bought it in an antiquarian bookshop, and it cost me nearer a tenner than the fourpence mentioned on the cover. But it was well worth it. Here is some more ...
"The Princess Frederick William is expected to arrive at Osborne tomorrow (Sunday)."
"The Pope is said to have recently given absolution to the King of Naples by the electric telegraph."
"A woman, aged 50, a solicitor's servant, was murdered in Ledbury, on Tuesday night."
"The first flower-show of the season took place on Wednesday at the Crystal Palace."
"On Saturday, a man named Edmonds escaped from the model prison, Pentonville."
"On Wednesday Cornet Fellows, 1st Dragoon Guards, shot himself at Canterbury. Pecuniary embarrassment was the cause."
"On Wednesday a spinster named Clapperton, aged 42, obtained £100 damages against a fickle swain, named Charlesworth, aged 68, for breach of promise of marriage."
I have barely got two or three inches into the news section of the paper, and already we have covered international religious news, celebrity gossip, murder, financial scandal, prison escapes and technological breakthroughs. I suppose it all seems very remote, this stuff about the electric telegraph, the army rank of Cornet, breach of promise of marriage ... But however remote and strange to us, does this banal jumble of long-forgotten news remind any reader of anything? Anything at all?
Yes, well done at the back there! It's exactly the same as the news today! Nothing has changed! In 1859 they had exactly the same foolish jumble of news that we have today, the same marvelling at technological breakthrough, the same joy in scandal, the same obsession with the Royal Family! The only difference is that in 1859 they didn't have commentary by experts ... No Anthony Holden to condemn the Prince of Wales's presence in Gibraltar, no Michael Howard to defend the governor of Pentonville ...
You don't believe me when I say that nothing has changed?
Well, consider this. On the 9am news on BBC Radio 4 this very last Sunday, the three main news items were as follows:
1. A junior minister of whom nobody had ever heard had resigned in order to defend our immigration procedures against the EU.
2. A missing baby had been found in North Wales.
3. An ITN cameraman had allegedly been kicked by Eric Cantona on a beach in Guadeloupe.
To put it another way, according to the BBC, John Birt's huge global news-gathering service, the three most important things that had happened anywhere in the world in the previous 24 hours were the resignation of a lowly British politician, the recovery of a baby in Wales and a personal quarrel between two people on a beach in the West Indies. That was it. That was the state-of-the-art news. That was the cream of the BBC's global news trawling ...
Well, I think the Bristol Times in 1859 would have got it straighter. It would have relegated all that junk to the "General Intelligence", along with the breaches of promise, the suicides and the arrival of the Prince of Wales in Gibraltar. It's all one-line stuff. In fact, the more I peruse the Bristol Times, the more I think I shall stick to that paper in future. For items like:
"On Wednesday, at the Shire Hall, Gloucester, before the Rev R Smith, a woman was fined 50 shillings for attempting to take a small amount of brandy to a female debtor in the county prison ..."
We're still only on page 2 and already we have a drugs-in-women's-prison story! And it only occupies three lines!
Forget the BBC. Forget ITN. Forget Fleet Street. I'm staying with the Bristol Times, 21 May 1859. It should last me for days and days.Reuse content