2016 marks The Daily Telegraph‘s 150th birthday. Its original name was The Daily Telegraph & Courier.

At the time of its launch in June 29, 1855, the telegraph had just been invented. It was the newest technological development and made a great name for a newspaper of the time.

Christopher Howse examined the paper’s letters to the editor through the centuries: 19th, 20th and 21st. His article is a must-read for history buffs.

When the paper started, London had no sewer system. This was the Telegraph‘s first cause. Thanks to the pressure the paper put on Parliament, Peter Bazalgette began working on designing the capital’s extensive and efficient network, still in place today.

The letters to the editor reflected the gravity of the crisis. Howse explains:

Michael Faraday, the scientist, had taken a steamer from London Bridge to Hungerford Bridge and published his findings: that the whole river was “a real sewer”. In the Telegraph, Mr [Francis] Francis [a celebrity of the day] retorted rather impatiently that “everyone who has been on the Thames, or seen it, or smelt it, has known the state of it for years”.

Subsequent worries of the British public were, surprisingly, similar to those of today — policing, pub hours and public transport (emphases mine):

readers began inundating the paper with questions like: “Where are the police?” (They often ask the same question today.) They demanded that pubs should stay open longer on Sundays, that an elephant called Jumbo should be saved from export to the United States, that street muggers who garrotted pedestrians by night should be dealt with severely, that omnibuses should be made roomier, that sea-bathers should emulate the ancient Greeks in unashamed nudity. All this was while Victoria was consolidating her Empire and WG Grace [cricketer] was benefiting from 100,000 shillings donated as a testimonial by readers.

I was shocked to read that muggers garrotted their victims.

Similarly surprising was the rough reputation Green Park (and St James Park) had — and would continue to have for the next century — until after the Second World War:

A man troubled by prostitutes wrote indignantly on November 17 1855 under the nom-de-plume “A Pedestrian”: “It is my business every evening to cross the Green Park, being the nearest way to Piccadilly from Westminster. I am constantly annoyed by prostitutes who frequent the paths as soon as it becomes dusk.”

Two things are notable in his letter. One is that Victorians were not at all too prim to discuss prostitution in a family newspaper. Second, poor old Mr Pedestrian’s troubles with prostitutes clearly came in for much mockery. “I have complained to the Police till I am tired of doing so, the only answer I get being: ‘Then you should go another way’.”

People often wrote using pseudonyms, especially when voicing concerns over crime:

A year later [1856], burglary in Hampstead was the problem, and a letter appeared on November 6 under the same headline: “Where are the police?” Using the name “A Constant Reader”, in a way that letter-writers are not allowed to do in the present day, the author of the letter averred that “within the last few weeks no less than two or three burglaries have been committed in this hitherto quiet and rural district, and, as usual, no police-constable was within hail at the time”.

A case of daylight assault was described in that year by another reader, from Marylebone, known only as “WA”. A friend had taken a shortcut to Edgware Road in London via Chapel Street (“one of the lowest streets in London,” according to WA).

“When she arrived at about the middle of this street, she was seized hold of by a man in a flannel jacket. She immediately requested him to leave her alone or she should give him into the custody of a policeman. Instead of complying, the man tried, with all his force, to drag her down a court, and she cried out to some persons standing by to assist her. Instead of their doing so they seemed to admire the scene. She appealed for help, protesting that she knew nothing of the man, but without avail. This scuffling must have occupied some time, as her clothes were partly torn from her body. During the struggle she kept crying out for the police, but none was forthcoming.

Wow. The Victorians were no different to us.

Howse takes the reader through letters on another Telegraph campaign — unfortunately unsuccessful — saving Jumbo the elephant from being taken to the United States by Barnum and Bailey. He looks at correspondence from Oscar Wilde, T S Eliot and Kingsley Amis. In the intervening decades, people wrote about swimsuits, working women, public transport and summer heat.

Of course, the majority of the letters would have been about politics, war and the economy.

However, Howse’s article paints a social portrait of Telegraph readers’ concerns, mostly forgotten in history books. It’s a revelation. It serves as proof of Ecclesiastes 1:9:

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun.

Advertisements