The Illustrated London News

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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.

8 comments on “The Illustrated London News”

  1. Trace Turner says:

    This reminded me of the Harper’s Magazines that my father collected. A quick Google search tells me that Harper’s was a monthly and their early editions pirated English content.

  2. Richard Burton says:

    I did my dissertation on the ILN and The Graphic. Can’t remember which one had its morgue in a basement of an office block on the South Bank, the one that used to be in the LWT ident, but i spent a lot of time there! I was looking at how artists used physiognomy in depicting the locals getting trashed in colonial wars. Not pretty. My mum was furious with me for having a go at the Empire. Which I find odd even now, she thought I was getting above myself.

  3. Ian Luck says:

    It’s almost as fascinating as the sensationalist ‘Illustrated Police News’, which featured some of the classic ‘Orrible Murdahs!’ of the victorian era. Well worth a look. It’s tone was similar to some of today’s ‘Red Top’ newspapers, where the nature of the reportage actually proved a hindrance to the forces of law and order.

  4. Interesting to learn that in 1867 the ILN carried a weekly crossword. It’s commonly (mis)reported that the ‘first UK crossword . . . appeared in 1922 in Pearson’s Magazine’ (Tony Augarde’s ‘Oxford Guide to Word Games’, 2003, and Astle’s ‘Puzzled’, 2012).

  5. Brooke says:

    Admire the draftsmen who could produce such detailed etchings each week.

  6. Denise Treadwell says:

    I have made an etching at art school, nasty chemicals that environmentalists would say you are destroying the earth!

  7. Helen Martin says:

    How did August creep into Jan. to June?
    January 1867 should have had a visit by Canadian dignitaries to push for passage of the British North America Act, the document which we used in place of a constitution until 1982 and which came into effect 1 July 1867, hence Dominion Day upcoming. We had to learn Sections 31 and 32 which detailed the respective powers of the federal and provincial legislatures. (Ocean fish are federal, fresh water fish provincial, but the salmon are federal wherever they are.)

  8. David Ronaldson says:

    Until its demise, I always treated myself to the Christmas edition of ILN and possibly a bag of roasted chestnuts, though the latter may be me romanticising.

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