19th-century newspapers resurrected online

Cahal Milmo
Thursday 18 June 2009 17:08
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Drunkenness and street violence are rife in a nation gripped by a financial crisis due to collapsing banks. Headlines are dominated by cross-dressing talent contest winners and the desire for revenge over Australia in the summer Ashes series.

It might sound like a summary of a typical news bulletin in 2009 but these were the issues dominating the news agenda up to 200 years ago in 19th century newspapers which were yesterday resurrected for public consumption in the very 21st century manner of being posted on the internet.

More than two million pages from 49 newspapers - many of them sporting long-forgotten titles such as the Brighton Patriot, the Northern Liberator, the Poor Man’s Guardian and the Illustrated Police News - are now available online after a five-year project by the British Library to digitise part of its vast collection of news sheets.

The result is a treasure trove of insights into life in Victorian Britain ranging from the grisly murders and sex scandals to the success of Vesta Tilley, the daughter of a Worcester theatre manager who became the world’s best-paid drag act, and the dilemma of how a respectable woman could bathe in the sea while preserving her modesty.

The archive is the beginning of a long-term project to digitise large parts of the vast collection of 750 million newspaper pages held by the British Library stretching into the 20th century. A laborious process of scanning each page and then running it through specialised word recognition software means that about four billion words of 19th century journalese can already be searched.

Ed King, head of the newspaper collection at the British Library, said: “The whole social context of the era was very different from what we know today. The railways were arriving and communications were getting better but places were still pretty isolated from one another.

“Newspapers were the way of finding out what was happening - the doings of each city or region were covered in enormous. As such, they represent a huge resource for all sorts of areas of study from economic history and family history to the history of livestock markets.”

The mass of data offers considerable proof of the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The spectacle of drunken men, women and children on the streets of Britain’s newly industrialised cities was a constant concern for those Victorian editors who believed they were presiding over the death of civilisation.

The Penny Illustrated Paper, one of the most popular papers of the era, highlighted concern in 1874 that the arrival of bank holidays was fuelling binge drinking. It wrote: “Nothing can really excuse such shameful excess. It does not speak well for this country that so many people cannot enjoy a holiday without having recourse to degraded forms of ‘pleasure’.”

In 1872, The Graphic complained bitterly about the way in which the coming of the railways had created a new subset of middle class women living in the countryside while their husbands worked in the city. In the absence of that “intensely feminine refreshment - shopping”, the paper worried that large numbers of women were turning to sherry to stifle their feelings of boredom.

The paper wrote: “Arrangements of society and the railways have banished our wives from all the amusements and excitement of town, and they are thrown upon their own resources with but very imperfectly educated minds. The result is an appeal to the bottle.

“If our wives knew anything of art, if they could draw, paint, model or write, we should hear far less of the sherry bottle.”

The spectre of financial ruin also loomed large on the 19th century landscape with regular reports of the collapse of banks. In 1866, Overend, Gurney & Co, a huge merchant bank known widely as “the bankers’ bank” ceased trading amid a credit crisis, leaving debts of £11m (about £900m in 2009). Until the collapse of Northern Rock last year, it was biggest bank failure in British history.

The Penny Illustrated described how news of the failure “spread rapidly, creating a panic the intensity of which is almost without parallel in the commercial history of the metropolis. An immense crowd soon gathered ... and the house was literally besieged with inquirers.”

Amid such turmoil, the papers looked to provide light relief for readers in the world of sport.

In 1877, the Graphic, whose reporters included George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, reported on the improvement in the ability of cricketers in Australia, suggesting that perhaps the time had come for the “Antipodean clubs” to send a side to tour England. The paper wrote: “It is by no means improbable that such an eleven would be able to hold its own against our best county teams.”

Within five years, the boot was firmly on the other foot. In response to the England side’s defeat by Australia, The Sporting Times famously wrote a mock obituary “in affectionate remembrance of English cricket which died at the Oval on 29 August 1882”. The article led to the tradition of the Ashes when in the following year a victorious English side was presented with the burnt remains of a bail in an urn by way of a trophy.

The newspaper archive joins a growing number of online resources based on scanned historical documents from the records of the Corporation of London to the passenger lists of Atlantic liners.

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