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David Finkelstein, ed, The Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press, Volume 2. Expansion and Evolution, 1800–1900

Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2020
Francesca Orestano
Bibliographical reference

David Finkelstein, ed, The Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press, Volume 2. Expansion and Evolution, 1800–1900. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2020. pp. V-XXXIII; pp. 1-849. With 93 illustrations, 12 colour plates, 10 tables. ISBN 978 1 4744 2488 2 (hardback), ISBN 978 1 4744 2490 5 (webready PDF), ISBN 978 1 4744 2491 2 (epub)

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1This hefty volume should be present in each university library, as a precious, and indispensable tool for students and scholars who investigate not only the British and Irish nineteenth-century press, but Victorian culture and technology, visual studies, advertisement and, generally, the complex and evolving relationship between Victorian readers and printed information. The volume is part of an impressive project that will also include The Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press, Vol. 1, 1640–1800, and The Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press, Vol. 3, Competition and Disruption, 1900–2017. The General Editors of the 3-volume publication are Martin Conboy and David Finkelstein. Finkelstein is the editor of the volume devoted to the Victorian era.

2For those who study the Victorian age, its history, cultural politics, and the unequalled technological progress that inevitably affected the public response to the written and illustrated page, this volume offers a very rich map of the press phenomenon in Britain and Ireland. It provides, first of all, as suggested by Finkelstein in his Introduction, a nuanced assessment not only of the daily newspapers, already investigated in several scholarly volumes, but significantly enlarges and defines the area generally defined as ‘press’ by taking into account weeklies, monthlies, and publications devoted to specialized areas. National and regional, at home and abroad in English-speaking communities, the press had such a relevant increment in the nineteenth century that no less than a full panorama of all these many aspects could account for its variety and complexity. The editor has gathered contributions that alternately draw the larger map or else zoom in on case studies, equally relevant and interesting.

3There are six themed sections focusing on key areas of the periodical press development throughout the century; in each section, keystone chapters introduce the general theme. The sections are: ‘Press and Periodical Economics’ (part I); ‘Production and Distribution’ (part II); ‘Readership and Distribution’ (part III); ‘Identities and Communities’ (part IV); ‘Legal Frameworks’ (part V). Part VI contains ‘Themed Chapters’ and a number of ‘Case Studies’, which add their prismatic substance to the keystone chapters. Considering the remarkable effort of which this book is the result, this review tries to give a faithful account of it in its entirety.

4In part I, devoted to ‘Press and Periodical Economics’ we find a keystone essay on ‘The Economics of Press and Periodical Production’ by Howard Cox and Simon Mowatt, which can be considered as the opening sentence to a long and complex discourse, and a worldwide scenario; it is followed by a ‘Case Study’ essay on ‘Newspapers and Advertising’ by Peter Robinson, who highlights the symbiotic relationship between newspapers and their advertisers. Part II, on ‘Production and Distribution’, contains two chapters that provide indispensable information on the technology that produced the printed page and the printed images. These chapters offer a useful starting point for those who investigate the Victorian print process and its gradual advancement from letter press into modern mechanised techniques for setting type and producing illustrations. The first chapter is by Helen S. Williams, on ‘Production’, and it details the history of printing machines such as the steam-powered cylinder press used at The Times until 1827, and the newer stop-cylinder machines that made the process ‘capable of throwing off One Thousand Impressions in the Hour’ (p. 71). Machines powered by steam were used until the end of the century, until electricity came into use. The story told by Williams is a fascinating one, in which to acquire more speed, hence more copies and more readers, was imperative. The Great Exhibition of 1851 prompted an article by Charles Dickens and Richard H. Horne on ‘The Great Exhibition and the Little One’ (Household Words, 5 July 1851) where the progress of England, among other areas in press technology, was emphatically cast against the stoppage of China: ‘But among all these wonders, nothing exceeds, and but few approach, the printing machinery of the “Illustrated London News”, which is the same as that used by the “Times”’.1 Indeed, illustrations were increasingly present on the page, and increasingly refined, detailed, visually enticing, as Rose Roberto writes in ‘The Evolution of Image-Making Industries and the Mid- to Late Victorian Press’. This essay—that ideally complements the chapter by Williams—starts by highlighting the eventful removal of the ‘taxes on knowledge’, that boosted the economics of the press industry especially from the second half of the century onwards; it focuses then on the wood engraving trade, and the image making process that enhanced the readership of The Penny Magazine (1832–1845), and of Chambers’s Information for the People, which in the decade between the 1830s and 40s rose from 18,000 to 45,000 copies; remarkably, ‘among the most striking characteristics of The Penny Magazine was that about one-fifth of the content was illustrations’ (p. 90). That same process determined the world-wide popularity of The Illustrated London News and Punch, or The London Charivari, a treasure trove of images, often satirical, and engraved by great artists, such as Leech and Cruikshank. Wood engraving firms and professional engravers followed the art style of pictorial syntaxes until photographic methods became the foil against which the word-engraving trade and factory-system had to compete. These two chapters offer plenty of illustrations, showing machinery, tools, engravings, the headings of the magazines they discuss, thus complementing the essays with a visual wealth that is always effective and commendable. The case study, by Williams, details the story of John Cossar & Son and the Govan Press.

5The other side of the distribution had to do with the readership addressed by the press: what was the readers’ response to this unequalled, almost mammoth offer, to the enhanced production speed, to the increasing wealth of illustrations, to the diversification of subjects meant to attract both the erudite readers or the less educated? Paul Raphael Rooney writes the chapter of part III on ‘Readership and Distribution’ and investigates socio-cultural changes vis-à-vis the economics and policy of the press industry, which aimed at creating a class of new readers. To attract these new readers—not the existing public of the literati who read, for instance, the Quarterly Review—the publishing firms offered penny-press titles such as Tit-Bits (1881–1984) and Answers (1888–1955). The essay also explores the new spaces where daily newspapers and periodicals were to be found: the coffee-house readers seemed less receptive and numerous than the train passengers, who found bookstalls with plenty of periodicals at the new railway-stations. The fortunes of W. H. Smith & Son in England and Wales, John Menzies in Scotland and Eason in Ireland started from the station bookstalls in the 1850s, as well as in the ‘CTNs’, or confectionery-tobacconist-newsagent shops. Distribution networks grew in unison with late-nineteenth century cheap press firms, and with the acquisition of literacy from an increasing number of readers. The Forster Education Act of 1870 meant no doubt a watershed, but even before then, there were periodicals addressing a readership that included families, women, the young, and generally those who came from industrial towns such as Coketown in Dickens’s Hard Times. These were the Working Man’s Friend (1850–1), Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper (1853–67) and Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal (1832–1956), designed to appeal to autodidactic readers by promising to further their education. Penny publications such as the London Journal (1845–83) offered fiction, and recreational reading; and Dickens with Household Words (1850–1859) and All the Year Round (1859–1895), offered an attractive mixture of fiction, scientific information, travel writing, poetry, biography, and the record of important events. Moreover, ‘followers of particular political ideologies such as Chartism, Fenianism, socialism or feminism could consume titles produced from the standpoint of their discrete ideological perspectives’ (p. 131). With this increasingly diversified audience came a boost in the advertising contents, that promoted male and female clothing, cosmetics, toiletries. Adverts indirectly mirror the gender-specialized audience of such popular magazines. To round up the subject of distribution, whilst travellers found their favourite magazines in railway bookstalls, subscribers received their issues at home, thanks to newsboys employed in order to provide the delivery.

6Part IV on ‘Identities and Communities’ opens with a keystone essay by Joanne Shattock on ‘Cultural Agents and Contexts: The Professionalisation of Journalism’ followed by four case studies on ‘New Journalism’ by Philip March, ‘Letters to the Editor’ by Allison Cavanagh, ‘The Reporter’ by Stephen Tate, ‘The Byline’ by Steve Harrison. Whilst in 1825, according to John Gibson Lockart, to become the editor of a newspaper meant a ‘losing of caste’, ‘a new perception of authorship and the literary life emerged in the 1830s’ (p. 153, p. 154). In 1847, the influential voice of G. H. Lewes, in an article entitled ‘The Condition of Authors in England, Germany and France’ stated that literature had become a profession, and a respectable one, that allowed not only novelists but also editors and journalists to earn decent salaries. In 1884 Walter Besant established the Society of Authors, thus giving an institutional frame to the profession. And in parallel with this new attitude to journalism, a handbook by John Dawson, Practical Journalism, How to enter thereon and Succeed (1885), ensured that professional standards would be achieved. To be a journalist meant to exert an influence, and women were not slow in entering the arena, as Arnold Bennett’s Journalism for Women. A Practical Guide (1898) documented. This chapter, mainly focussed on the fin-de-siècle decades, traces the progress of the professionalization of journalism by evoking the voices of Lewes, Besant, Bennett and James Fitzjames Stephen, who relegated the profession of journalism to newspapers. The discourse on journalism, on the contrary, indicated that such a genre was increasingly considered on a par with modern literature: the era of the poor and despised ‘penny-a-liners’ was on the wane, although reporters earned the smallest wages in the profession. Defying the classist opinion of the Stephen family, in Between the Acts (1941) Virginia Woolf would consider journalism ‘history in the raw’. The four case studies that complement the line of this rich chapter offer relevant segments of the whole story, focussing on the new journalism, the reporters, the relationship established by the letters to the editors, and the anonymous pieces often signed ‘from our special correspondent’.

7Part V, on ‘Legal Frameworks’, has a dense chapter by Tom O’Malley on ‘Newspapers and the Law in the Nineteenth Century’ where the changes in the legal framework governing the press are carefully documented. The useful timeline placed at the end of the book provides full information on the main laws that regulated newspaper production. Throughout the century the legal argument mainly addressed the question of the freedom of the press, and the author reminds us that the concept of freedom was by no means applicable everywhere, and although ‘enshrined in British political culture, was . . . not for imperial export. Divide and rule was the first law of media control’; the Indian Press Act of 1857 and the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, ‘contained provisions such as “pre-publication censorship if necessary”’ (p. 203), and contemplated penalties such as fines, imprisonment, confiscation and deportation. Ireland fared no better than India, as to the freedom accorded to the press.

8Part VI contains ‘Themed Chapters’ that open up new scenarios: one is ‘The English-Language Press in Continental Europe’ by Diana Cooper-Richet, followed by ‘Transnational Exchanges’ by M. H. Beals. France, and the Canaries, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, in Constantinople and Smyrna, where an English-speaking community resided, had an expanding press that offered information to the local communities. The British Mediterranean—Cyprus, Gibraltar and Malta—also enjoyed an overseas press activity, and Galignani’s Messenger (1814–1895) was read everywhere. ‘Transnational exchanges’ were affected by the telegraph that gradually superseded the epistolary network after the 1840s. Correspondence networks ensured the spread of relevant news, often in twisted and indirect ways. The ‘scissors-and-paste’ method was often resorted to, in order to ensure information from distant overseas locations. Provincial newspapers in Scotland, Wales and Ireland frequently reprinted articles that discussed emigrants from their respective nations. The advent of the telegraph would change things radically: recirculation of information between distant corners of the world gave prominence to locations that hosted telegraph stations.

9A case study on ‘The Fight in Piccadilly: How False News Went Viral in 1895’ by Colette Colligan follows the news about the Piccadilly fight between the Marquis of Queensberry and Oscar Wilde; Cecilia Wadsö Lecaros focuses on British and Swedish periodicals; Amelia Bonea on Japan in Colonial India; Paul Raphael Rooney argues that ‘The Steamship Press’ was ‘an International Conduit of Information and Imperial Masculinity’. The Russian émigré press is the subject of Helen S. Williams’s case study; and another chapter by Joanne Wilkes argues that ‘Literary and Review Journalism’ was by no means superseded by the more popular and reader-friendly publications, but kept catering for a literate readership, offering to the public politically-oriented assessments. Women and the working classes were new entries in this debate-heated scenario. Aled Gruffydd Jones focuses on the ‘Vernacular’ periodical press in Wales, 1840–1914; Sheila M. Kidd on the Scottish Gaelic press; Regina Uí Chollatáin on the Irish-language press; Joan Allen on the denominational press; and Ian d’Alton on The Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette.

10It is of particular interest to find that case studies have taken into consideration specific genres, such as satire, investigated by Michael de Nie; the medical press, as in Sally Frampton’s rich case study, whilst Alex Csiszar and Matthew Wale respectively focus on scientific discourse and natural history periodicals, as products of the prominence given to scientific discourse and its dissemination. Melissa Score writes of the business press, and how financial news was affected by the telegraph.

11Martin Conboy in the essay on ‘The Press and Radical expression: Structure and Dissemination’ argues that in radical periodicals ‘the key distinguishing element was that of social class’, an innovative aspect of print culture. ‘These publications created identities of class as well as propagandising politically on behalf of new readers’ (p. 507). From the eighteenth century onwards, the radical press gathered increasing momentum, until Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow produced their own radical titles, even though London was the hub of such periodicals. The chapter by James Thompson on ‘The Political Press’ extends the discourse on the flowering of political culture in specialized periodicals, by tracing a rich historical fresco, rooted in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and followed by his case study on The Glasgow Herald. Parnell, Edmund Dwyer Gray and the Press in Ireland are presented by Felix M. Larkin; the Irish nationalist paper The Nation (1842–1848) is discussed by James Quinn. Another keystone chapter is by Andrew King. It deals with ‘The Trade and Professional Press’ that according to an 1860 estimate counted 125 journals that represented ‘not only classes but professions, arts, occupations, almost every ramification of study and industry’ (p. 559). The list is worth quoting: ‘Naval and Military — the Civil Service — Shipping — Commercial — Mercantile — Agricultural — Mining — Railway — Engineering — Architectural — Building — Banking — Law — Medical — Surgical — Chemical — Indian and Colonial — Religious — Educational — Literary — Arts and Sciences — Music — Insurance — Photography — Gardening — Sporting — Racing — The Turf — The Ring — Illustrated Newspapers’ (p. 559). The variety was impressive, and so the styles, tones, morphology, rank and influence. Press directories tried to compress it by listing prices, frequencies, addresses, publishers, but what the categories contained was often heterogeneous. This important chapter questions how press history is written, and how and what texts are selected to create it. Two case studies respond to it: ‘The Book Trade Press’ by Rachel Calder and ‘The Armed Services Press’ by Margery Masterson, addressing the full size—over 200 titles—and scope of military periodicals.

12Christopher A. Kent writes the chapter on ‘The Leisure and Hobby Press’ which had to fend against the charge of idleness by offering improving and respectable periodicals. The penny weekly Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation (1852–1905), produced by the evangelical Religious Tract Society, became a favourite. This well-detailed chapter adds a relevant side story to late nineteenth-century fiction: ‘Jerome K. Jerome, credited by some with inventing the “new humour” with Three Men in a Boat (1889), a celebration of lower-middle-class leisure pursuits, created two successful magazines’ (p. 609) on the same lines.

13In ‘Galleries without Walls: Art and the Mechanical Mass Culture of the Press’ Michael Bromley and Karen Hasin-Bromley demonstrate that the diffusion of art, thanks to modern print culture, was seen as promoting ‘improvement’ as well as consumption. ‘The Sporting Press’ is covered by Joel H. Wiener, who details that as spectator sports became more professional, so did those who wrote about them: sport journalism was on the rise, as we read in the case study on ‘Sport Reporting in the Times from 1800 to 1900’ by Jessie Wilkie.

14‘The Children’s Press’ by Frederick S. Milton is complemented by ‘Children and the News’ by Siân Pooley. Children’s literature had flourished in England since the times of John Newbery, and during the Victorian era had its Golden Age. The 1850s saw the launch of Samuel O. Beeton’s Boy’s Own Magazine (1855–74), for young urban working classes. These publications often dwelt on stories of ‘low-life crime’: dubbed ‘penny dreadfuls’, they would inspire much of today’s games, such as Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, set in darkest London. Boy’s Own Paper, begun in 1879 by the Religious Tract Society, successfully adopted different tactics. Finally, in 1880 Girls’ Own Paper was launched and soon reached a circulation of 250,000 copies per issue. Fostering charity and temperance, but also addressing a gendered readership, the children’s press is a chapter that has to be kept in the foreground of the Victorian press history.

15Kathryn Ledbetter’s chapter on ‘The Women’s Press’ reckons that it both ‘created and resisted the ideology that determined the terms of its existence’. Yet as argued by Laurel Brake, it was not gender neutral, insofar as the male reader represented ‘the default position’ (p. 688). Professional writers like Harriet Martineau, George Eliot and Margaret Oliphant were contributors, or even editors: but often anonymously, or under a man’s name. This chapter’s story is one that from the 1840s onward moves from domesticity, to social consciousness and the rise of feminism. Samuel O. Beeton was again on the forefront with Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine (1852–79), which addressed readers from different classes and focussed, in the main, on domestic virtues, and a miscellany of topics ranging from short fiction to hygiene, gardening and fashion, covered by his unfortunately short lived wife, Isabella Mayson Beeton.

16‘The Provincial, Local and Regional Press’, a chapter by Andrew J. H. Jackson, is complemented by two case studies on ‘The Provincial Nature of the London Letter’ and ‘William Saunders and the Industrial Supply of News in the Late Nineteenth Century’, both by Andrew Hobbs; and ‘The Irish Times: “The Protestant and Conservative daily newspaper”’ by Mark O’Brien. This is the last category addressed in this collection, and it would be difficult to find a missing item in such a rich, dense, and well researched volume. As a research tool, its value is enhanced by the ‘Key Press and Periodical Events Timeline, 1800–1900’, the Bibliography and by an accurately detailed Index. In conclusion, not only does this book keep the promise in its title, by offering a fascinating and scholarly history of the press in the English-speaking world during the nineteenth century: it also illuminates all those aspects, by no means collateral, which determine its character and expansion, without eluding further questions on our perception of a phenomenon marked by very diverse conditions and achievements.

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Electronic reference

Francesca Orestano, David Finkelstein, ed, The Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press, Volume 2. Expansion and Evolution, 1800–1900Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 92 Automme | 2020, Online since 01 December 2020, connection on 31 July 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Francesca Orestano

Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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