The Illustrated London News
The Illustrated London News first appeared on Saturday 14 May 1842, as the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine. It appeared weekly until 1971, then less frequently, and finally ceased publication as late as 2003, although the company continues today as a content and digital agency which holds the archives of the magazine.
By 1863 the magazine was selling more than 300,000 copies every week, enormous figures in comparison to other British newspapers of the time. They were collected bi-annually into immense hardback volumes, and I have one from January to June 1867 (although I don’t have a bookshelf big enough to fit it).
It offers a revealing glimpse of London life. Here is the Victorian era as it would wish to be seen, filled with military parades, grand projects, ceremonial processions and royal visits. Openings of halls, schools, monuments and museums feature heavily, and there’s a tone of moral improvement over every article.
It’s a more cosmopolitan place than we recall. There are almost as many articles about Paris as London, and dignitaries visiting from far-flung lands always get a spread. One page shows an extraordinary sea mammal, part dolphin, part whale, and talks about its great rarity while pointing out with some sadness that a ship’s crew killed it.
There’s plenty that’s missing, too. No stories covering the lives of the poor appear unless there’s been a terrible disaster. One article shows the aftermath of a mass fall through the ice on Regent’s Park pond, and another has a train derailing from a bridge. ‘The distress in the East of London still continues’ notes one article on soup kitchens. Lots of the pieces of London we still recognise were just going into place, like the unveiling of Landseer’s lions at the base of Nelson’s Column.
And this first magazine of its type set the agenda for the world’s magazines. There’s fashion for the ladies, a weekly crossword, music, sport and arts reviews along with the weather. There are also regular columns for ‘Law and Police’, ‘Foreign & Colonial Intelligence’, ‘Country News’ and ‘Metropolitan News’, which features everything from society balls to roadworks. There are tide tables, lighting up times and adverts of a kind – though without pictures – for ‘the season’s new brilliants’, ‘waterproof mantles’ and ‘the Fitzroy Pocket Weather Glass’.
What the magazine notably lacks is any humour, joy or colour. A world before photography is entirely open to the interpretation of the artists involved, so we can’t entirely trust what we’re seeing – although given the Victorian obsession with moral absolutes, I guess the etchings are pretty accurate.
There are also no opinion pieces, whereas modern magazines are made up of little else. And while the articles on parliamentary candidates attending mayoral dinners are dull, they’re perhaps more enlightening than articles on the underarm sweat patches of a footballer’s wife at a drunken Ascot bash.