The Illustrated London News
It certainly wasn’t ‘Hello’ magazine.
‘Probably no paragraph of the Queen’s speech gave such unalloyed satisfaction to the vast majority of her subjects as that which touched upon her relations with the United States of America.’ This was the news that an agreement to arbitrate in the matter of the Alabama claims had been reached.
They were a series of demands for damages sought by the US against the UK for the attacks upon Union merchant ships by the Confederate Navy commerce raiders built in British shipyards during the American Civil War. Mainly it was about one raider, the CSS Alabama took more than sixty prizes before she was sunk off the French coast in 1864. We settled the matter by paying the US $15.5 million, ending the dispute and leading to a treaty that restored friendly relations between the two countries. It was an international arbitration that established a precedent.
Why should we be interested now? Because it happened exactly 150 years ago and made the headlines of the Illustrated London News, of which I have a copy. To today’s eyes it’s a dense and very dry newspaper, but it has its place in history because it first appeared on Saturday, 14 May 1842. And that made it the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine. It appeared weekly until 1971, but publication only completely ceased in 2003.
However, the company continues today as Illustrated London News Ltd., a publishing, content and digital agency in London. They own the archives of The Illustrated London News, The Sketch, The Sphere, The Tatler, The Bystander, The Graphic, The Illustrated War News, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, and Britannia and Eve. It’s an amazing resource for anyone planning a historical novel. And certainly one that would prove useful to lazy writers of Sherlock Holmes stories who can’t even get the currency of the times right.
Digitization is wonderful but for anyone interested in history it’s worth picking up a back issue – they’re not expensive, and give you a real feel for the times. In this same issue, local news includes the number of births registered for London that week (2299), there was an amateur performance by the Delaware Minstrels given at Bethnal Green workhouse, the plight of East-End children near the Ratcliffe Highway featured, and ‘Living Miniatures’, whatever they were, were appearing in the Haymarket.
The amount of reporting on London’s poor is striking; it’s a topic endlessly discussed and fretted over in the pages. Also it’s clear how much more connected the sovereign was to her subjects; people all over the world were following her actions, which had a direct effect on parliament.
There’s much more world reportage too – there was a large drawing of Arab workers building a Tunisian palace for the Paris Exhibition, and there are reports on virtually every government change in Europe. What’s missing in these pages is anything at all about the self or society. There’s a brief mention of a ball being held, but the rest of the magazine is about larger ideas affecting the world in politics, health, religion and technology. There’s no fashion, self-examination, well-being, nothing about how we feel and relate to each other.
Having seen that even Meghan Markle, a possible future member of the British royal family, is posting shots of herself on Instagram, I wonder – were we better off before or now?
The picture at the top shows Jumbo the elephant being led to the London docks, ready for sale to PT Barnum.