The recently launched British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/) makes it very easy to coast through the past, and particularly the nineteenth century, in search of the odd and the unexpected. Much easier to use than its predecessor, more accurate, and – through the subscription service – much more accessible to the individual user, it covers more papers, a longer period, and rapidly gets bigger each week.
It is also temptingly diverting. Choose a day, a place, and a page and see what happens. Friday the 29th December 1871 for example. 140 years ago. The Hull Packet and East Riding Times maybe, and let’s say page 7.
Amidst a wide range of local stories – including the meeting of the Bridlington Chamber of Agriculture, a school prize giving and successful school inspections (‘arithmetic is well taught, but reading, writing and spelling need care’), the Driffield Volunteers’ prize shooting event, and the distribution to the poor of roast beef and plum pudding – there are more dreadful national stories: a mutiny on a ship, murder and manslaughter, children drowning, railway accidents, a breach of promise suit, a panic in a church, a riot of ‘three thousand roughs’ at the changing of the Coldstream Guards, loan swindling, anti-income tax agitation, husband beating, unlicensed drinking, sinking ships, striking workers, and bribery in the police force.
But amidst this panoply of disaster, which can be found on most days, in most 19th century newspapers, there is also the odd surprise.
For example, there are details of an unseemly spat within the International Working Men’s Association between Karl Marx and the secular republican Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh called Marx a ‘spy for Bismarck’, and Marx responded characteristically, if somewhat churlishly: “I treated him with contemptuous silence. This was more than the grotesque vanity of that huge self-idolator could stand. My silence drove him mad”.
There was also a report, under the banner ‘The Premier and the Pantomimes’, that the Examiner of Stage Plays had been editing pantomime scripts by taking out ‘uncomplimentary allusions to Mr. Gladstone and his Ministers’. As a consequence theatergoers expecting to have a ‘hearty laugh at Mr. Gladstone’s spouting at Greenwich, Mr. Lowe’s iniquitous Match Tax or poor Mr. Bruce’s unhappy Licensing Bill’ were, it would seem, to be disappointed by the censorship of their ‘thick-skinned leaders’.
The paper recorded a meeting of the ‘Very “Peculiar People”’. This was a religious group that had been set up in the nineteenth century in Essex and London. Describing a meeting in a ‘dreary, earth-flavoured vault on Walworth Road’, the paper reports the “dancing” that had to be undertaken if one wished to become a pure Christian. A boy is ‘seized with frenzy…making the widest plunges and most absurd kicking, falling on the floor…’. A young girl is taken by a similar ‘mania’, pulling off her boots and dancing with ‘extraordinary contortions of the limbs’ with ‘gurgling, choking noises from the throat’ until she faints.
I know of the Peculiar People (since 1956, the Union of Evangelical Churches), but I had no idea what the paper was referring to in a further report, which was headed ‘More Rattening at Sheffield’. Mysteriously the report stated simply that:
“Last week the notorious ‘Mary Ann’ paid a visit to the grinding wheel, on the Rivelin, in the occupation of Mr. Samuel Marshall, manufacturer of scythes and sheep shears, and stole therefrom three scythe bands and three nuts. It is said that about two months ago the following sentences were written in chalk on the shutters of the wheel: – “Beware of ______ 6 a.m. and “Pay your natty money”. Mr. Marshall’s men state that several of their members are in arrears with their “natty”.”
Some searching elsewhere shows that the report relates to trade union activity in the Sheffield area, which had become highly militant in the 1860s both against employers but also non-union members, and including the use of explosives and even murder. This militancy culminated in 1866-7 in what was known as the Sheffield Outrages. ‘Rattening’ was the removal of pieces of machinery as a punishment for breaking union rules, and in particular not paying union dues, the ‘natty money’. This would normally have stopped a man from working in the short term. ‘Mary Ann’ was the signature used in anonymous threatening letters written to manufacturers deemed to be underpaying their employees. Five years later, then, the movement was still rumbling on. [For more on the Sheffield Outrages, see https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/libraries/archives-and-local-studies/publications/sheffield-outrages.html%5D
A day in the life of a provincial newspaper (and this was only one page) is, while often depressing in its accounts of disaster and despair, nevertheless an eye-opening experience and a gateway to the footnotes of the period. The British Newspaper Archive currently has 3,276,840 pages on its site, more than enough to make ‘On the Day’ a regular feature of this blog.