Newspapers as resources for social historians dr Roy porter



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NEWSPAPERS AS RESOURCES FOR SOCIAL HISTORIANS
Dr Roy PORTER

Fellow, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London


INTRODUCTION BY Dr Roy PORTER
Ladies and gentlemen, I am one of the users for whom you provide such excellent services as archivists and librarians so I would like to start with a thank you. I am a social historian who specialises in the history of medicine and my particular century of interest is the 18th century, which in Britain and in many other countries is the first real age of the development of the mass market newspaper. What I want to do is to say something about the ways in which I as a user find newspapers particularly helpful to the pursuit of social history, the particular value of newspapers as distinct from other kinds of evidence and the way in which the social historian sees newspapers as actually contributing to the development of an emerging modern society.
The first point I want to make is that it seems to me that historians have not as yet adequately exploited newspapers as a source of social history. Histor­ians rightly are worried when they confront the evidence of a newspaper because, they must ask 'is it good evidence?' In other words, when faced with a jumble of assorted insertions in a newspaper from the 18th or the 19th cent­ury, most of them anonymous, it is very hard for the historian to know what credit to give to these pieces of information. Are they true? Can they be checked against other sources? Are they pieces of journalism? Are they full of exagerration? Or are they the best evidence we actually have of many occur­rences that were taking place? Particularly taking place in parts of the nation and amongst social groups with which we are generally not very famil­iar. When we find evidence in a newspaper of a riot, and when we find a news­paper saying that 40,000 people took part in that riot, do we believe it or not? There is often no way of checking and that is one good reason why hist­orians have been sceptical about precisely the value of the sort of evidence often contained in newspapers. That scepticism is doubtless justified but if newspapers were properly exploited, that is to say if they were combed thor­oughly and systematically with a sceptical viewpoint and were checked against other sources of evidence which are indeed available, they might be found more reliable. Frequently we do have other evidence from bystanders, from police sources, etc., as to the size of a crowd at a riot, or frequently we have different estimates in different newspapers of the size of a riot. A radical newspaper would say that 40,000 people took part, a conservative newspaper would say that 10,000 people took part and we can roughly judge that the real number was somewhere in between. Newspaper evidence is not something that we can merely dismiss as journalism; it often does offer us a real insight into things which are going on.
Why newspapers are particularly valuable is that they frequently tell us about happenings which other more reliable, more easily accessible sources say nothing about, but in my paper, as a medical historian, I try to suggest that if one studied the history of doctors and medical practice in England in the

18th and 19th centuries using newspaper evidence heavily, one would actually get a different historical picture from the one that we largely get from trad­itional sources by looking at the medical elite, looking at the medical coll­eges or indeed from looking at the medical press. And in many ways the pict­ure we would get from studying the general press, London newspapers, provin­cial newspapers would actually, be more accurate than the ones that historians have generally taken as a result of looking at obvious sources of evidence, the lives and letters of the major doctors. We can by using newspapers act­ually probe more deeply in many ways into the fine texture of social history, than we can if we use merely literary evidence or official records or personal papers and such like.


I believe that this is particularly important for the social historian in that newspapers actually are part of that process of social transformation which we can see happening in England from the 18th century onwards, and accelerating in the 19th century, in other words the development of a society in which information and dissemination of information through the printed media became an increasingly important element of the operation of that society itself. News, the spread of knowledge, the dissemination of literacy, the popularis­ation of high culture through channels such as newspapers becomes an in­creasingly important part of our society. We see it all around us nowadays with television above all, but newspapers were the television of the 18th century, and historians, librarians, and archivist should be very well aware of the role played by newspapers in actually spreading new ideas, new fashions, new views, down through strata of society which previously may not have been able to afford expensive books, but which were able to afford buying newspapers which cost a penny or twopence or merely sixpence. And so in many ways newspapers open up a window on to the history of the lower middle classes and the lower classes in society, precisely because newspapers were the agents through which information and ideas and opinions actually got through to such people, and then helped to organise them as important forces in the develop­ment of modern society, and that is why newspapers are important, not merely as evidence of the world which has gone, but as agencies in the development of historical change. And it is in that way, with librarians and archivists making newspapers available and with historians seeing the ways in which newspapers are both evidence and agencies, that we can actually work together better to understand the development of our modern society.
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1. INTRODUCTION
This paper will not examine the history of newspapers or the periodical press as such. It will rather point to ways in which newspapers constitute inval­uable primary sources of information about aspects of society, economy and culture in times past. To some degree, of course, newspapers have been util­ized in this way (though it remains true that those scholars most familiar with newspapers have been concerned with newspaper history as such, rather than with using newspaper evidence to reconstruct the world which they ser­ved), and I shall point to studies by general historians which have exploited newspaper resources particularly well. All the same, given the richness of the record of the past contained in the press, it is curious that they have not been more systematically quarried. This is a situation which will surely change with their growing availability on microfilm [1].

In this brief illustrative account I shall not attempt a general survey. I


shall instead confine myself to my own field of research, which focuses around the social history of England in the eighteenth century. I shall thus say nothing about the newspaper as a source for political history [2]. I shall concentrate particularly upon what newspaper evidence can tell us about the medical history of the Georgian century - the ways in which people were con­cerned about matters of health, what kinds of doctors and hospitals they made use of, the medicaments which were on the market, their attitudes towards health and sickness, life and death. In the body of this paper, I shall exp­lore these issues in two different respects, (a) the newspaper as a simple mirror of its times - how the newspaper straightforwardly informs us of earl­ier attitudes and practices; and (b) the newspaper as an agent of change - how the newspaper as a medium for the exchange and dissemination of information was instrumental in generating socio-cultural transformation. First I will say a few words about the quality and reliability of the contents of news­papers as indices of social reality.


Contemporaries were always warning the public - sometimes in the newspapers themselves - not to believe what the papers said. This applied par excellence to advertisements ('promise, large promise' was the soul of an advertisement, remarked Dr Johnson), but to news items as well. We read reports in the press of men and women aged 130, or indeed of ganders almost as old [3]. We may be unsure whether their authors (and the newspaper printers) were particularly credulous, whether instead anything that was sensational and eye-catching was thought good copy, or whether the printer, desperate above all else to fill his paper, would simply print indiscriminately anything that was to hand. Clearly the historian must be on his guard. It is typically impossible to verify by reference to external sources most of the snippets of information inserted into the papers. The dilemma cannot be resolved that easily.
For example, we may read (time and time again in fact, for these reports are extremely common) of a traffic accident, in which passengers were injured, but that fortunately Dr ------ was soon upon the scene. He patched, bandaged, dosed and advised, and the injured were soon as right as rain, and full of gratitude to the expert skill and tender care of the practitioner [4]. What is the underlying truth? The incident may well have happened. The newspaper item was almost certainly written by the doctor in question. It was inserted as a puff, a piece of concealed advertising. The doctor may well have paid for its insertion [5]. Its glowing account of healing and gratitude should probably be taken with a pinch of salt (occasionally a correspondence follows in subs­equent numbers contesting the original version).
Or alternatively we read a paragraph on the advertisement page about another medical practitioner, praising his patent medicines or his skill as an oper­ator upon the teeth or with appliances for ruptures, and giving testimonials from satisfied customers who are listed by name. Is this fact or simply fiction? It is often impossible to corroborate the witnesses listed. But not always. Not infrequently, in fact, real, traceable people are listed in test­imonials - indeed people of quasi-official standing, whose names would carry weight: clergymen, parish officials, soldiers, sailors, etc. What do we make of that? Are their names being used without authorization? Or were they truly grateful patients who genuinely believed in the efficacy of some patent balsam, balm or bandage? Or were they basically prepared to have their name used, or anxious to see their name in the paper, in return for a free supply of the drug in question? Again, we can rarely say.
The veracity of such testimony was frequently contested at the time. In the 1770s, a dispute flared in the London newspapers between the uroscopical practitioner, Dr Theodor Myersbach and his opponent, the distinguished Quaker

physician, John Coakley Lettsora, who claimed the German was a dangerous fraud [6]. Myersbach had published extensive glowing testimonials of his 'cures'. Lettsom challenged them. Letters then appeared in the papers under the names of some of the people giving the testimonies, defending their accounts and vindicating Myersbach. This may prove the trustworthiness of the original reports. Or it may show thajt Myersbach's capacity to spin an expanding web of fiction was actually quite imaginative. We cannot say. We do know, however, in this case, that there really were some satisfied customers, since quite independent evidence exists (e.g. letters from David Garrick to his friends) recommending the urine-gazer.


Thus we cannot simply afford to take at face value all we read in the papers. Equally, we shouldn't follow the comparable procedure and assume that all that truly happened left its mark in the press. The pioneer historian of the prov­incial press, G A Cranfield, once remarked that if one read nothing but eigh­teenth century provincial newspapers, one could remain totally unaware of the fact that agricultural and industrial revolutions were in progress [7]. (Newspapers do indeed contain economic information, but it is mainly about international trade and prices rather than about developments in local ind­ustry or agricultural technology). Illustrating Cranfield's perception, Rich­ard Wilson has demonstrated just how little trace the campaigns launched by agricultural interests in the 1780s to legalize the export of wool have left in the provincial newspapers of the sheep-farming areas. Newspapers did not automatically register all that happened, and if used as if they were photog­raphic 'records' of the past, their evidence would prove deeply distorting[8].
Cranfield's and Wilson's points are important. But they require further disc­ussion. For the 'absences' of the newspapers may not simply be 'wrong', may not simply be failures to record what everybody saw was objectively happening. They may positively and accurately register a truth of their own, that the 'industrial revolution' was, indeed, not something which everybody saw erup­ting all around them, but rather is essentially a convenient shorthand const­ruct of historians with the benefit (or possibly the handicap) of hindsight. In that sense, the silence of the papers may be rather like Sherlock Holmes' dog that didn't bark. It may do more than point to the shortcomings of the press as a source of historical evidence; it may open up new perspectives on the consciousness of contemporaries.
I have been stressing why we should be sceptical about the evidence of news­papers. Even so, the press remains a nonpareil source for social history. Above all, because it fills us in on the thoughts and actions of certain ranks of society and certain kinds of activities which otherwise are badly under-recorded. We have ample access to the lives of the rich and propertied because these got recorded on paper (in estate records, legal deeds, letters, diaries etc.) and those documents have survived in shoals. We have some fair idea, collectively, of the lives of the poor, because enough of them fell foul of the official established welfare and judicial systems: their names and plights turn up in Poor Law disbursements, in hospital admissions registers, and above all in court records and the annals of crime. Do-gooders also began to undertake surveys of the lives of the poor.
We can write the annals of the rich and of the poor (even if they be short and simple). Oddly, it is often England's expanding petty bourgeoisie who have left least historical trace of themselves, those literate, middling folk who made up the nation of shopkeepers: silent and invisible because few of them kept extensive business records or left diaries, and because, being success­ful, prudent or law-abiding, few ended up upon poor relief or at the assize courts. For precisely this reason, the Georgian middle classes have suffered
historical neglect (E P Thompson has written of patrician culture and plebeian culture amongst the Georgians as if there was little in between) [9)].
Yet the middle ranks formed the newspaper buying classes, and their mark is abundantly left in the pages of the papers. They it is who are being enticed by advertisements to go along to the play or to subscribe to the circulating library, who have attic rooms to let or can make Chippendale chairs, who are donating their annual guinea to the voluntary hopsital, or are writing in to ask for a cure for sciatica; they it is who are asking readers to apprehend their serving maid who has run off with a silver spoon, or who collectively are being described as holding a parade and an illumination in honour of John Wilkes or the Battle of the Nile [10]. When the Georgian bourgeoisie at last finds its historian, the newspapers will come into their own as a kaleidos­copic source of miscellaneous information about their everyday lives. In that sense it is no accident that the rise of the newspaper coincides with the rise of the novel.
2. NEWSPAPERS AS MIRRORS OF THE AGE
Granted the problems posed by newspapers as historical evidence, can they offer a special window onto their times? I believe the information they record can prove of unique value, can significantly and accurately modify the received picture derived from other, more familiar, sources.
Partly this is because of its sheer abundance. Careful scanning of newspapers can demonstrate that phenomena which, from other evidence, we know happened occasionally, were not merely occasional or exceptional, but rather common­place. Take food riots for instance. Historians familiar with government sources and pamphlet literature have long been aware that when grain became scarce or dealers tried to raise its price at the market, buyers would some­times take the law into their own hands, seize the supplies, sell corn or bread at the traditional price, and deliver the proceeds to the owner. It is not until one looks at newspaper reports that one finds that this 'moral econ­omy of the crowd' or 'collective bargaining by riot' was indeed an extremely common occurrence, indeed a normal practice [11].
A parallel would be popular scientific lecturing. It has long been known that a small number of scientific popularizers - men such as William Whiston and James Ferguson - gave occasional lecture courses in the provinces. Biograph­ical sources reveal the odd series of lectures from year to year in Bath, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and so forth. Close scrutiny of newspapers for these and other towns, carried out some twenty years ago by A E Musson and Eric Robinson, and by other scholars subequently, revealed a very different situation. Such courses totalled not a handful but scores; far more lecturers existed than had been previously supposed (they often included local school­masters, physicians or Dissenting clergymen); and their subjects were far more varied [12].
An example such as this suggests a further point. Newspapers reveal not just quantitatively more activity, but a state of affairs qualitatively distinct from the received accounts. Traditional histories of education and learning told us that schooling was in the doldrums in Georgian England, for both grammar schools and the universities were in decay. That is true, but the conclusion is a mirage based upon a myopic focussing upon certain traditional institutions. Get away from those, and we see an abundance of engines of instruction advertised in the newspapers - commercial schools, mathematical academies, lectures in navigation and gunnery, evening classes, itinerant

lectures, scientific spectacles etc. Most of these, being ephemeral and one-off, left no record for posterity outside the advertisment or report in the local newspaper. Without the snapshot of local society the newspaper affords, we would have little sense of its rich and teeming culture [13].


The history of medicine offees important confirmation of this fact. Tradit­ional histories of medicine, based on 'official' sources such as the records of the medical Colleges, explained that there existed in earlier centuries an established medical profession, with a hierarchical structure ranging from physicians at the head, through surgeons, to apothecaries at the foot, pract­ising proper medicine; and beyond a small number of itinerants, charlatans and mountebanks, touting their nostrums to the credulous. Medical provision was limited and expensive.
This, however, is nothing but an ideal type which turns out to bear very little resemblance to reality. Numerous different kinds of source materials enable us to get at the reality, but not the least valuable is the testimony provided by newspapers. Eighteenth century papers positively bulge with med­ical items. Some indeed are the advertisements of itinerant 'quacks' such as James Graham and John ('Chevalier') Taylor. But many give notice of the practices and activities of perfectly regular and reputable doctors, listing their specialities (not infrequently, the cure of venereal infections). Some are resident; others - particularly dentists or oculists - tour on a circuit. Sometimes they recommend their own special cures (self-advertisement did not become unprofessional practice for doctors till at least the mid-nineteenth century). And scores of advertisements are printed for all manner of patent and proprietary medicines, many of them, as with Dr James' Fever Powders, marketed not by fly-by-night mountebanks but by reputable physicians [14].
A wholly different picture of the medical milieu thus begins to appear. Trad­itionally histories told us that medical skill was in short supply in the eighteenth century. Newspapers show that practitioners were ten a penny, competing against each other for custom. Traditional histories portrayed medical practice as highly 'professional'; the newspapers show it wholly emb­raced the techniques (such as advertising) of the market economy. Traditional histories said little of the patient; the press reveals just how active and important this figure was. Eighteenth century patients clearly bought up armfuls of proprietary medicines with which to dose themselves, on the strength of newspaper advertisements. Moreover, the correspondence columns of periodicals such as the upmarket and large-circulation Gentleman's Magazine are full of letters written in by the laity, seeking and giving medical advice. Newsaper evidence - trustworthy in this case because corroborated from other sources - thus helps to open our eyes to a very different medical reality: one that was open, one in which lay participation was crucial, one adept in the techniques of the market place, one fully integrated into that surge of 'commercialization', that creation of a 'consumer society', which historians have recently stressed [15].
In a parallel way, newspapers can also afford an important new window onto old outlooks and attitudes. Over the last decades French historians, in partic­ular those associated with the journal Annales, have attempted to go beyond the vagueness of studies of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, on the one hand, or the elitism of the 'history of ideas' on the other, and have instead pioneered l'histoire des mentalites. In general, English historians have not yet followed this lead, partly because of doubts about what would be the prop­er data bank for such an approach. But newspapers would afford a splendid body of commonplace attitudes, moral platitudes, and national, class and rel­igious prejudice upon which to construct such analyses of the common (though

literate) mind [16].


The evidence provided by newspapers of what people did and thought, and what it was thought worth recording, can also prove useful for testing our pre­existing notions about natural beliefs and cultural change in pre-industrial society. For example, we commonly refer to the age of the Enlightenment as a time of sexual permissiveness. Is that assumption a false perspective based upon studies of a small unrepresentative elite from Pepys to Boswell and Byron? [17] The witness of newspapers would suggest that license in erotic act and expression was quite common and may have raised few eyebrows. There is no shortage of bawdy in the Georgian press. The Weekly Courant for 26 November 1717 carries, for instance, the following advertisement:

'Any able young Man, strong in the Back, and endow'd with a good carnal Weapon, with all the Appurtenances thereupon belonging in good Repair, may have Half a Crown per Night, a Pair of clean Sheets, and other Necessaries, to perform Nocturnal Services on one Sarah Y-tes, whose Husband having for these 9 Months past lost the Use of his Peace-Maker, the unhappy Woman is thereby driven to the last Extremity.'

One would like to know the story behind that. The interesting fact is that it - with many similar insertions - was actually published.
Similarly, we are told that the age of the Enlightenment repudiated superst­ition and credulous belief in the supernatural. Does the evidence of news­papers bear that out? Hardly. For there are plenty of reports, through the eighteenth century, of cases of alleged witchcraft. A report in the Northamp­ton Mercury for 2 July 1770 mentions a farmer from Slapton who on the myst­erious deaths of a horse and two sheep accused a local widow of witchcraft. The villagers prepared a trial by ordeal for the woman, which was stopped only at the last moment. The newspaper report was scathing in its attitude to this benightedness.
Nearly forty years later, the same newspaper (28 May 1808) was still reporting cases of witchcraft accusations. The newspaper assured its readers that the woman in question, Ann Izzard 'is a very harmless inoffensive woman', but noted that 'the poor in general of the parishes of Great and Little Paxton, and some of the farmers also, really believe she is actually a witch.' In his splendid "Religion and the Decline of Magic", Keith Thomas surveyed the gradual decline of public belief in witchcraft and magic in the seventeenth century, before the availability of newspaper evidence. A follow-up story for the age of the newspaper would be invaluable. It could survey not just the evidence for decline (or longevity) afforded by newspapers, but the role played by newspapers in those processes. For the newspaper was not merely a mirror of its times. It was also an agent in changing them.
3. THE NEWSPAPER AND SOCIAL CHANGE
Victorian newspaper editors in particular celebrated the press as one of the great engines of improvment. The eighteenth century had fought and won the battle for the freedom of the press. Now the Fourth Estate, by its fearless championship of justice, liberty and truth, would guarantee the course of progress. It would be a mistake to take this often self-serving ideology at face value. Most eighteenth century London papers were under the control of political paymasters of one or other party hue; their provincial equivalents were typically owned by small capitalist printers for whom cash, circulation and copy rather than crusading were what counted [18]. Of course, there was a radical press; but the press was far from radical as a whole, and it is note­worthy that England, with its relatively free press, never had a revolution,

whereas so many nations where the press was censored or shackled, did. We should not expect that the press directly wrought socio-political transform­ation.


But to say this is not to deny that the emergence of the newspaper was instr­umental in social change. In many respects, it worked for greater integration of attitudes and activities throughout the land. Information of all kinds -from news of war overseas to .official proclamations to the latest West End fashions - now sped down more quickly, more certainly, to the dark corners of the land. The newspaper bridged the communications gap - and therefore the culture gap - between metropolis and province.
Moreover, the newspaper also helped bridge a class gap. It was a relatively democratic instrument of information, freely available to all those who could read and who had a few coppers to spare (or who were fit to be seen in a coffee house or a tavern or any other public place where the papers were for the asking). The coming of the newspaper helped to bring a certain political awareness to the whole nation, argued the radical journalist, William Cobbett. Describing the rural Surrey of his infancy in the 1760s, Cobbett wrote, [19]

'As to politics, we were like the rest of the country people in England, that is to say, we neither knew nor thought anything about the matter. The shouts of victory and the murmur of defeat would now and then break in upon our tranquility for a moment, but I do not remember ever having

seen a newspaper in the house.'

Things rapidly changed. Foreigners were soon calling the English a nation of newsmongers. All the same, if cheap printed material integrated all those who could read, and could afford a paper, it may also have helped to reinforce the divide between literate and oral culture themselves (although we must remember that bridging devices, such as reading newspapers out loud to the illiterate, were common).


The rise of the newspaper was the triumph of the new. People who in earlier generations might have spent their evenings poring over family Bibles and treasured copies of Pilgrim's Progress now developed a taste for novelty, for the ephemeral, and not least an absorption in the here-and-now, that taste for chit-chat, gossip and trivia which newspapers fostered. This is not to argue that the rise of the newspaper, harbinger of 'mass culture', diluted 'stand­ards'. It is, however, to stress that the newspaper was integral to two card­inal eighteenth century developments [20].
Firstly, the emergence of innovation as a dynamo of capitalism. News fanned a taste for the new. Fashionability increasingly became a desideratum in itself (and to some degree shed its pejorative overtones). And newspaper advert­ising, overt and concealed, became the medium through which the market for fashionable commodities broadened out from the local to the national.
This development is particularly conspicuous in the field of medicine. Before newspapers became common, the quack or nostrum-monger was dependent almost wholly on his personal presence as he toiled his way with his zany, monkey and portable stage from town to town. With the advent of mass-advertising in provincial newspapers, the nostrum-proprietor could instead establish one central manufacturing warehouse, advertise his wares the length and breadth of the country in the newspapers, and arrange for their delivery through the newsagents. Indeed, printers themselves commonly became the major outlets for fashionably advertised and gaudily packaged commercial medicines. John Newbury, newspaper proprietor and leading promoter of children's books, poss­essed the largest stake in the best-selling nostrum, Dr James' Fever Powders (notoriously slipping a puff for them in his best-selling "Little Goody Two

Shoes"). Analyses of the process of industrialization nowadays stress the importance of the quickening of consumer demand as a factor in commercial acceleration. Advertising was crucial in articulating that demand, and news­papers formed a key advertising medium [21].


Secondly, the newspaper played a major role in the triumph of 'culture'. Before the eighteenth century there were of course numerous 'cultures' - oral culture amongst the people at large, a powerful Protestant religious culture, a literary and artistic culture amongst the polite and propertied elite, and so forth. The eighteenth century witnessed an additional development, the mushrooming of a widespread commercial, urban culture, cashing in upon the fact that more people had more money and time to spare. The circulating lib­rary, the book shop, the print shop, the theatre, the concert hall, the assem­bly room, the coffee house, the shopping parade, the club - all these became fashionable resorts and foci of leisure activities, just as hospitals, schools and comparable charities became centres of conspicuous philanthropy [22],
All such activities were buoyed up by the advent of the newspaper. Papers could be read in places of resort such as the clubs and coffee houses. News­papers advertised the services of culture-instructors such as dancing-masters and musicians, and listed the attractions of theatres and concert halls, reporting upon performers and performances and listing who graced the aud­ience. The sayings of wits, the clothes of the fasionable, forthcoming attr­actions - all found their mention. The magic circle of the newspaper - being noted in it by name, or at least being one of its readers - came to be defin­itive of membership of the monde, whether it was the greater metropolitan and polite world, or merely in in-circle in Exeter or Newcastle. In so far as the secularized civil society depends upon cultural emulation for its cement, in so far as commercial capitalism depends for economic growth at least as much upon service industries as upon manufactures, the newspaper proved an indisp­ensable midwife for English's buoyant market society [23].
4. CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS
The newspaper is thus both a window onto the history of the birth of the modern world, and one important agent in that history. Scholars have given us a body of excellent histories, both of individual newspapers and of the press in general, in particular focussing upon their political content. Curiously, we lack any major study of the wider socio-cultural impact of the advent of the press (comparable, for example, to Elizabeth Eisenstein's pioneering anal­ysis of the cultural impact of the printing press as such) [24]. Such would of course be no simple task, since it would be in danger of merging into the much broader history of print culture as such, or of the rise of literacy, or of that growing separation of elite from popular culture which Peter Burke and others have analysed [25].
In one respect, the task of assessing the impact of the newspaper is relative­ly easy. For although some copies of some newspapers are irretrievably lost, we do possess a clear record of which towns hosted which newspapers from which date. In this sense, the congruence between milieu, medium and message is uniquely concrete in the case of newspapers: we can be sure (for example) of what a few hundred, or a few thousand, people in Worcester or Halifax were reading on a particular day - The Worcester Post-Man or the Halifax Advertiser. We can never have that kind of assurance with any other kind of printed matter.
There is alas of course a severe obstacle: the peculiarly ephemeral nature of
the newspaper itself. Library catalogues, subscription lists and the like often tell us who owned which works of theology, novels or history books; no-one saw fit to record their purchases of newspapers that way. The private journals of eminences from the past frequently give us their considered opin­ions on the latest novel or book of poetry. What readers actually made of the newspapers they purchased cannot so easily be read off from direct comments in their correspondence. But letters and diaries do contain a good spattering of casual mentions of reading the papers, sending them on to friends and family, even occasionally of writing to the editor in protest. And personal archival sources such as family recipe books or commonplace books often contain pass­ages cut out or copied out of the newspapers. Assessing the meaning of news­papers to their readers is a perfectly feasible research project. It has not been attempted. It would be pleasant if the joint efforts of librarians, archivists and scholars alike would make it a reality.
REFERENCES
1 One welcome project is the microfilming of Eighteenth Century English Provincial Newspapers by Harvester. Already published or shortly to be published are the holdings of Bath, Derby, Ipswich, Newcastle and Glouc­ester newspapers.
2 See for up-to-date discussions containing excellent bibliographies: Black, Jeremy, 'The English Press in the Eighteenth Century'. London, Croom Helm, 1987, esp. ch.5, and

Harris, Michael, and Lee, Alan, (eds.), 'The Press in English Society from the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries'. London and Toronto, Associated University Presses, 1986, esp. William Speck 'Politics and the Press', pp. 47-63.


3 There is a good sampling of this sort of stuff in: Morsley, Clifford, 'News from the English Countryside'. London, Harrap, 1979.
4 There are scores of instances of this kind of insertion, for example, in the early numbers of the Bath Journal, which I have used heavily for the generalizations about the medical content of newspapers which follow.
5 For puffery see Nevett, Terry, 'Advertising and Editorial Integrity in the Nineteenth Century', in: Harris and Lee (eds), op. cit. (ref. 2), pp. 149-67.
6 For what follows see Porter, Roy, '"I Think Ye Both Quacks": The Controv­ersy Between Dr Theodor Myersbach and Dr John Coakley Lettsom', in: Bynum, W F and Porter, Roy, (eds), 'Medical Fringe and Medical Orthodoxy 1750-1850'. London, Croom Helm, 1986, pp. 56-78.
7 Cranfield, G A, 'The Development of the Provincial Newspaper, 1700-1760'. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962, 26f, 90f, 211f.
8 Wilson, Richard, 'Newspapers and Industry: The Export of Wool Controversy in the 1780s', in: Harris and Lee (eds) op. cit. (ref. 2), pp. 80-106.


  1. Thompson, E P, 'Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture', in: Journal of Social History, Summer 1974, pp. 382-405.

10 Admirable on these social opportunities and pressures is Wiles, R M, 'Freshest Advices. Early Provincial Newspapers in England'. Ohio State University Press, 1963.


11 Thompson, E P, 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century', in: Past and Present, Vol.50 1971, and Stevenson, J, 'Popular Disturbances in England 1700-1870'. London, 1979.
12 Musson, A E, and Robinson, Eric, 'Science and Technology in the Indust­rial Revolution'. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1969.
13 See Hans, N, 'New Trends in Education in the Eighteenth Century'. London, 1951.
14 See for example:

Brown, P S, 'Medicines Advertised in Eighteenth Century Bath Newspapers', in: Medical History, Vol.20, 1976, pp. 152-68. Barry, J, 'Publicity and the Public Good: Presenting Medicine in

Eighteenth Century Bristol', in: Bynum and Porter (eds), op. cit. (ref. 6), pp. 29-39. For dentists see Hillam, F C, 'The Development of Dental Practice in the Provinces from the Late 18th Century to 1855' Ph.D. thesis, University of Liverpool, 1986.
15 For the Gentleman's Magazine see Porter, Roy, 'Laymen, Doctors and Med­ical Knowledge. The Evidence of the Gentleman's Magazine', in Porter, Roy, (ed.), 'Patients and Practitioners. Lay Perceptions of Medicine in Pre-Industrial Society'. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 283-314; the other essays in this volume offer important perspectives on patients' choices. For consumerism see Mackendrick, N, Brewer, J, and Plumb, J H, 'The Birth of a Consumer Society'. London, Europa, 1982. For the medical market place see Holmes, G, 'Augustan England. Professions, State and Society 1680-1730'. London, 1982.
16 See the discussion in Burke, Peter, 'Revolution in Popular Culture', in Porter, Roy, and Teich, Mikulas , (eds), 'Revolution in History'. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 206-225.
17 For up-to-date assessment see Rousseau, G S, and Porter, Roy, (eds), 'Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment'. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1987.


  1. See the discussion in Black, (ref. 2).

19 Quoted in Porter, Roy, 'English Society in the Eighteenth Century'. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1982, p. 241.


20 See the general discussion in Porter cjt, literature cited on pp. 400-01. (ref. 19), ch.6, and the
21 See the discussion in:

Porter, Roy, 'The Language of Quackery, 1660-1800', Burke, Peter, and Porter, Roy, (eds), 'The Social History of Language'. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 74-103.

See also Looney, J J, 'Advertising and Society in England 1720-1820. A Statistical Analysis of Yorkshire Newspaper Advertisements'. Princeton Univesity Ph.D. thesis, 1983.

22 Plumb, J H, 'The Commercialization of Leisure in Eighteenth Century England'. Reading, University Press, 1973.

Cunningham, H, 'Leisure in the Industrial Revolution'. London, 1980. For a specially good regional study see Money, J, 'Experience and Identity. Birmingham and the West Midlands, 1760-1800'. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1976.
23 See the excellent discussions in Cranfield, op. cit. (ref. 7), and Wiles, op. cit. (ref. 10).
24 Eisenstein, E, 'The Printing Press as an Agent of Change'. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979.
25 Burke, Peter, 'Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe'. London, Temple Smith, 1978.
DISCUSSION
Q. Andrew Phillips, British Library
I think that it is very interesting that you pose that question at the end. In a sense what I would like to ask you is; what particular difficulties and lacunae you find when approaching newspaper collections in libraries in which you worked because I think that there are some things which the librarians and archivists, if I can put it this way, could do something about. There are other things which maybe extremely difficult to do anything about, and I wonder if we could begin to look at where that divide might be from your experience as a user and historian.
A. Dr Roy Porter
Yes, can I very briefly answer that question. I think that there are lacunae which are irrepairable, there are just simply gaps in runs of newspapers, which we can do nothing about at all. Quite often I have found that detailed probing of librarians or the grapevine will actually reveal information which is valuable, but which is not readily available, for example; when looking in local record offices at runs of early provincial newspapers it is often very revealing to discover where that particular collection actually comes from. Because to discover that it was found in the attic of a farmhouse somewhere deep in the countryside and it had been there, been collected indeed by a tradesman or a farmer in the 18th or early 19th century, tells us a lot about something else, which is what people did with newspapers. Did people auto­matically throw them away, read them, discard them, or did they actually file them, bind them, treasure them, go back and reread them etc.. Now the more we know about how particular collections have actually come to be preserved the better, and I have sometimes found that there is somebody around who half remembers where a collection came from or something like that. But if that sort of information could be more systematically made available it would cer­tainly be a real help to historians such as myself.
Q. Unidentified
Question about the readership in the 18th Century, reading as much as has been suggested?

A. Dr Roy Porter


I think that the brief answer to that is by and large most probably no. But the second answer to that is we really do not know too much about that as yet because a great deal of work still remains to be done on the whole question of lower class literacy and not least the availability of newspapers and period­icals like The Spectator to ordinary people.
A lot of foreign visitors to Britain were very impressed in the 18th century by claiming that lower class workers, porters, cab drivers etc., in their spare moments were reading newspapers. Or that you paid a halfpenny to get into a coffee house and you sat and read the newspapers, and they all kept on saying, the English are great newspaper addicts. It looks as though maybe the habit of reading newspapers actually spread further down the social strata than we often believe. Certainly the newspapers were not primarily aimed at the lower class reader, that does not mean to say that they were actually reading them, probably not The Spectator but certainly one imagines that quire a few of the provincial newspapers that came out once or twice a week were read by lower class people, because quite frequently one sees jobs advertised in them etc., which lower class people would be actually applying for. So it sounds as though the provincial newspaper were often geared to quite a wide social strata.
Q. Unidentifed
It is important to distinguish between newspapers as a primary source and as a secondary source which is often mixed up - really in some aspects it is always a primary source if it reflects what people thought regardless of whether the facts are accurate or not. The impression that one gets from a newspaper, the so-called facts that are given and given over to people is as important per­haps as the accuracy or the validity of the facts themselves. So if you look at a newspaper critically as a historian and I look at it both as an historian and as an archivist, you have to realise that important distinction and you can know a great deal if you can keep that distinction in mind.
A. Dr Roy Porter
I think that is a very valid point in the sense that the newspaper is both a way of trying to get at reality but it is also creating a reality, a mythology of its own. If one wants to study the development of popular attitudes the function of the newspaper in actually creating opinion, fostering prejudice, mobilising particular political views is extremely important and sometimes one can actually see the tensions and the discrepancies between these two functions.
Obviously we need to know a great deal more about the newspaper and it is a problem because frequently we know who read which books because people made a note of it or kept the books in their library and we have library catalogues. We know far less about people's newspaper reading because they actually recor­ded that reading so much less it being that bit more ephemeral.
I do not believe that the task is hopeless and if we all reassembled in ten or fifteen years time then some of these questions would be much more nearly resolved.


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