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.


4 comments on “The Illustrated London News”

  1. John Howard says:

    I suppose we can’t say anything other than we are better off now but the comparison with the media and society of then and now, as you say, seems to point to the lazy habit of reporting what appears in social media.
    The rare instances of papers actually highlighting things that are unknown on social media, for instance the craziness of the MP’s expenses, only seemed to result in lots of chat but no real slaps on the wrist or even requiring payback into the public purse.
    Even the large companies seem to be more intent on dealing with the chattering of Twitter & Facebook at the expense of those that email or write in. It even has it’s own special phrase – Digital Engagement.
    Sorry for wandering off a bit

  2. Donna Poppy says:

    Chris, you may be interested to know that Alabama Street in Plumstead (upon which I live) was named after the CSS Alabama (a director at the National Maritime Museum, whom I asked about it, believed I was right to think this). When people ask me why my mainly Edwardian street was named after an American state, it usually takes me ages to explain …

  3. David Ronaldson says:

    As a brief aside, I always bought the December issue of the Illustrated London News, as they wrote Christmas in a very English way, which always appealed to the nostalgic fool in me.

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    Back in the old days (whether good, bad or indifferent) newspapers would only print proper news, so often a regional daily paper would only have 4 pages and a national 12 or 16. Take out anything to do with celebs and soaps and most of today’s red tops would have just as few.

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