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What’s New?

The crowd lives upon news and upon rumour. Elizabeth I recalled that, as a princess, she had asked her governess, “What news was at London?” On being told that it was rumoured she was about to marry Lord Admiral Seymour, she replied, “It was but a London news.” So in the sixteenth century “London news” was considered to be fleeting and inaccurate but, even so, the object of much curiosity. In King Lear the “poor rogues / Talk of Court news … who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out.” Shakespeare also invoked “the newes / Of hurly burly innovation” in Henry IV, Part One as well as “the new newes at the new Court” in As You Like It. It was often observed that, on entering a coffee house, the first and immediate enquiry was “What news? What news?”

The city is the centre of scandal, slander and speculation; the citizens are rumourmongers and backbiters. In the sixteenth century there were handbills and pamphlets and broadsheets devoted to the more sensational events of the day, and the street-sellers ensured that they were reported from door to door. In 1622 a weekly pamphlet of news was published in London, under the rubric of “Weekly Newes from Italy, Germanie, Hungary, Bohemia, the Palatinate, France and the low Countries etc.” Its success was such that it provoked the publication of many other weekly pamphlets which went under the common title of “Corantos.” The “news” was treated with great suspicion, however, as if the reports of London were based on faction or fractiousness. It was not an honest city and the editor of the Perfect Diurnal, Samuel Peche, was described in the 1640s as being “constant in nothing but wenching, lying and drinking.” He was, in other words, a typical Londoner.

There was one other aspect of London “news” which did not escape the attention of Ben Jonson. In his The Staple of Newes (1625) he suggests that news ceases to be “news” when it is printed and distributed; its essence is intelligence given in whisper or rumour, the kind of report that in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries could permeate all London within a very short period. Jonson had his own view, then, of the “stationer” or publisher of news, who

knows Newes well, can sort and ranke ’hem

And for a need can make ’hem.

In 1666 the London Gazette emerged as the most authoritative of the public prints. “It inserts no News but what is certain,” wrote one contemporary, “and often waits for the Confirmation of it, before it publishes it.” It was printed on single sheets each Monday and Thursday, and was sold on the streets by vendors known as “Mercury women” calling out “London’s Gazette here!” in Cornhill, Cheapside and the Royal Exchange. Macaulay described it as containing “a royal proclamation, two or three Tory addresses, notices of two or three promotions, an account of a skirmish between the imperial troops and the Jannissaries … a description of a highwayman, an announcement of a grand cockfight between two persons of honour, and an advertisement offering a reward for a stray dog.” It may be considered certain that the highwayman, the cockfight and the dog provoked the most attention.

It is some indication of the appetite for news in London that its first daily newspaper, Daily Courant, issued in 1702, predates by some seventy-five years the appearance of a “daily” in Paris. By the end of the eighteenth century there were 278 newspapers, journals and periodicals available in the city. Most of this astonishing number were published within the Strand, Fleet Street and those adjoining streets east of the present Waterloo Bridge and west of Blackfriars.

Fleet Street is an example of the city’s topographical imperative, whereby the same activity takes place over hundreds of years in the same small area. In this case, too, it was an activity that dominated the character and behaviour of those who took part in it, so that it can be said that the very earth and stones of London created their own particular inhabitants. In 1500 Wynkyn de Worde set up his printing press opposite Shoe Lane, and in the same year Richard Pynson established himself as a publisher and printer a few yards down the road at the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane. He was succeeded as Printer to Henry VIII by Thomas Berthelet who set up shop by the conduit, again opposite Shoe Lane, and in the early 1530s William Rastell began a printing firm in the churchyard of St. Bride’s. William Middleton printed at the George, Richard Tottell at the Hand and Star, John Hodgets at the Flower de Luce—all signs within the narrow and crowded thoroughfare.

“This part of London,” wrote Charles Knight, “is a very Temple of Fame. Here rumours and gossip from all regions of the world come pouring in, and from this echoing hall are reverberated back in strangely modified form echoes to all parts of Europe.” So it is an echoic as well as ancient place, a part of London from which that strange commodity known as news spreads in all directions.

In the eighteenth century news was disseminated largely by means of the daily and weekly journals provided by coffee houses and taverns. “What attracts enormously in these coffee-houses,” wrote Saussure “are the gazettes and other public papers. All Englishmen are great newsmongers. Workmen habitually begin the day by going to coffee-rooms in order to read the latest news. I have often seen shoe blacks and other persons of that class club together to purchase a farthing paper.” Another eighteenth-century account, by Count Pecchio, is of “English working men” in taverns for whom “are published a number of Sunday newspapers which contain an abridgement of all the intelligence, anecdotes, and observations, which have appeared in the daily newspapers in the course of the week.” “In the coffee-houses, as soon as the newspaper arrived,” wrote another commentator, “there was the silence of the grave. Each person sat absorbed in his favourite sheet, as if his whole life depended on the speed with which he could devour the news of the day.”

Here we have the image of the Londoner as “devourer” of the news, just as he was a devourer of food and drink. It is one of the first intimations of the “consumer,” one who can only experience the world by the act of ingestion or assimilation. A city is perhaps by its nature an artificial arrangement, so it creates artificial demands. Addison characterised as a definite London type “the Newsmonger” that “rose before Day to read the Postman” and was avid for the “Dutch Mails” and “inquisitive to know what passed in Poland.” There were those who followed the latest case of rape or divorce in the Sunday newspapers, with the same avidity as their medieval counterparts purchased ballads “o’ the newest and truest matter in London.” The search for fresh titillation or sensation is strong and enduring and, in a city where the inhabitants are surrounded by a bewildering variety of impressions, only the most recent can be entertained. That is why, in a city of fire, the latest news is “hot,” especially at the coffee house “where it is smoking new.” “Our News should indeed be published in a very quick Time,” commented the Spectator, “because it is a Commodity that will not keep cold.” It must be shouted out like “Fire!” to arrest the attention of the passers-by.

London itself was like a newspaper, as Walter Bagehot observed, where “everything is there, and everything is disconnected,” a series of random impressions and events and spectacles which have no connection other than the context in which they were found. In reading the newspaper, the Londoner was simply continuing with the normal perceptions of urban life; he “read” the public prints and the city itself with the same idle curiosity, as if the newspaper confirmed that vision of the world which London had already imparted to him. The very form of the city was imprinted in the pages of the journals—a man called Everett of Fleet Street sold his wife to one Griffin of Long Lane for a three-shilling bowl of punch (1729), a boar lived off the rubbish of Fleet Ditch for five months (1736), a man found frozen and standing upright in the same ditch had been drunk and fallen into the mud (1763), bread and cheese were thrown to the populace from Paddington steeple according to annual custom (1737), the wife of one Richard Haynes was delivered of a monster with nose and eyes like a lion (1746), a grave-digger was found smothered to death by his own exertions in an open grave (1769), a man stood up in the church of St. Sepulchre and shot at a choir of charity children (1820), a man named James Boyes walked in front of the congregation in a chapel at Long Acre and proclaimed himself Jehova Jesus (1821). And so it goes on, endlessly, the “news” conveying the accidents and disasters of the city in columns of print like thoroughfares. It was well known to the firemen of London, as one of their greatest hazards, that a crowd would spring up immediately around any great conflagration in order to witness the course of its destruction.

That is why, in a period of growth and uproar, the news itself became more strident. The sale of early nineteenth-century newspapers, for example, was a raucous affair. “Bloody News,” “Horrible Murder!” and “Extraordinary Gazette” were bellowed out “with stentorian lungs, accompanied by a loud blast of a long tin horn” by porters and costermongers who kept editions of the papers under their hatbands. The advent of the steam-printing press also allowed the newspapers to imitate the “resistless force” of London, with all its energy and expansiveness. Two and a half thousand copies of The Times could be printed every hour and the whole process came to the attention of Charles Babbage, the inventor of the prototype computer, who remarked that the great rollers of the steam press devoured sheets of white paper “with unsated appetite.” Charles Knight noted that the courts around Fleet Street are “bustling and vivacious” with the production of more news to ever larger readerships—“the fingers of the compositors cease not; the clash and clang of the steam press knows no intermission.” Sales of newspapers amounted in 1801 to sixteen million copies; thirty years later it had increased to thirty million, and the figures continued to rise.

Ford Madox Ford in The Soul of London, published in the first years of the twentieth century, remarked that in the capital “you must know the news, in order to be a fit companion for your fellow Londoner. Connected thinking has become nearly impossible, because it is nearly impossible to find any general idea that will connect into one train of thought.” So the consciousness of the Londoner is composed of a thousand fragments. Ford recalled that, as a child, “the Sunday paper … was shunned by all respectable newsagents” and that he had to walk two miles to pick up an Observer from “a dirty, obscure and hidden little place.” But Sunday sales soon became as large as, if not larger than, daily sales. The hegemony of “news” in London was maintained and increased throughout the century as new techniques of printing and lithography were introduced. Perhaps the most significant transition, however, took place in 1985 when News International moved its production of the Sun and The Times to Wapping. This sudden and clandestine operation destroyed the restrictive “Spanish practices” of London printers, while the employment of new technology facilitated the expansion of other newspaper organisations which moved from Fleet Street to sites south of the river and to Docklands itself. The echoic force of Fleet Street has gone for ever. But “London news” is still paramount. As one twentieth-century social observer, Lord Dahren-dorf, puts it, Britain “is run from London in virtually all respects.”

To the history of rumour and of news must be added that of craze and of cheats, again mediated by the collective agency of the crowd. The popularity of fashions and delusions and false prophecies has always been most intense in the capital. The gullibility of the citizens is perpetual. The various bubbles of the eighteenth century encompassed the South Sea financial disaster as well as a fashion for Italian music; “how ill a taste for wit and sense prevails in the world,” Swift wrote, “which politicks and South-sea, and party and Operas and Masquerades have introduced.” When Mary Tofts was believed to have given birth to a succession of rabbits, in the autumn of 1726, “every creature is in town, both men and women have been to see and feel her … all the eminent physicians, surgeons and man-midwives in London are there Day and Night to watch her next production.” The seventeenth- and nineteenth-century craze for tulips in the West End was rivalled only by that for the aspidistra in the East End of the early twentieth century. In the early part of that century, too, there was a fashion for china cats “and forthwith no home was complete without a cat.” A living cat caught “the news” in 1900: it was the cat that licked a stamp at Charing Cross Post Office, which then attracted crowds wanting it to perform the same feat over and over again. The cat became a “stunt” which, in the words of one journalistic practitioner, represented “the creation of the temporary important.” A captured elephant called Jumbo was responsible for songs, stories and a range of sweets known as “Jumbo’s chains” before fading out of public memory.

Yet all the fashions of London are transitory. Chateaubriand noticed this in 1850 when he remarked upon “The fashions in words, the affectations of language and pronunciation, changing, as they do, in almost every parliamentary session in high society in London.” He remarked how the vilification and celebration of Napoleon Bonaparte succeeded each other with extraordinary swiftness in London, and concluded that “All reputations are quickly made on the banks of the Thames and as quickly lost.” “A catch word in every one’s mouth one winter,” wrote Mrs. Cook in her Highways and Byways in London, (1902), “is quite forgotten by next summer.” Horace Walpole remarked, on the same subject, that “Ministers, authors, wits, fools, patriots, whores, scarce bear a second edition. Lord Bolingbroke, Sarah Malcolm and old Marlborough, are never mentioned but by elderly folk to their grandchildren, who had never heard of them.” To be “out of sight” in London was to be “forgotten.” In 1848 Berlioz wrote that in London there were a great many “whom the sight of novelties only makes more stupid.” They watch the trajectory of events and careers “with the eye of a postilion at the side of the railway track reflecting on the passing of a locomotive.”

And so the history of London is also the history of forgetting. In the city there are so many strivings and impulses which can only momentarily be entertained; news, rumour and gossip collide so quickly that attention to any of them is swift but short-lived. One craze or fashion follows another, as the city talks endlessly to itself. This transitoriness of urban affairs can be traced back to the medieval period. “Certainly by the fourteenth century,” G.A. Williams noted in Medieval London, “nothing lasted long in London.” And forgetfulness itself can become a tradition; on the first Tuesday of June, ever since a benefaction in the late eighteenth century, a sermon is preached at the church of St. Martin within Ludgate upon the theme that “Life is a bubble.” It is highly appropriate that London should celebrate its transience in a permanent fashion. It is a city endlessly destroyed and endlessly restored, vandalised and renewed, acquiring its historical texture from the temporary aspirations of passing generations, an enduring myth as well as a fleeting reality, an arena of crowds and rumour and forgetfulness.

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