How Victorian newspapers helped shape the look of Britain’s towns and cities

The Scotsman office in Edinburgh, 1926. Image: Getty.

In the game of rock, paper, scissors, paper is more powerful than rock. And so it was in the second half of the 19th century, when influential local newspapers shifted stones, bricks and mortar to build the townscapes that endure to this day.

Around the British Isles, and across the world, purpose built newspaper offices towered over main streets and market squares – at the heart of of the towns and cities they served. In the UK they became an increasingly common sight from the 1860s onwards, when the end of newspaper taxation led to a boom in local publishing.

At the same time, they had an effect on the construction of other public buildings. The act of reading newspapers was considered so important that the biggest room in new public libraries was designed and built specifically for this purpose.

Today, as print circulation and profits fall, local papers are abandoning town centres. Many are selling their landmark buildings and moving to cheaper premises in the suburbs, while some reporters do their work from cafes.

In November 2018, the Bath Chronicle gave up its shopfront home and moved into offices inside a local college. Earlier in the year, the Swindon Advertiser moved more than two miles to a building out of town.

Like redundant churches, these empty or converted buildings are a sign of social change. The Scotsman’s landmark building on North Bridge, Edinburgh, is now a hotel. What was once the home of the Blackburn Times is now a pub.

The Blackburn Times they are a changing. Image: author provided.

In the mid-19th century, local newspapers were a far more popular product than they are today. When the gentlemen of Preston, in the north of England, decided to build their own club premises in a Georgian square in 1846, they made sure that the largest room in the building was the one for reading the news.

Working class men were equally keen. In 1851, a group of Carlisle newspaper readers attracted national attention when they opened a purpose-built news room. By 1861, Carlisle had six working-class reading rooms, with around 1,000 members.

Carlisle reading room. Image: UCLAN/author provided.

The design and use of pubs was also influenced by the Victorian newspaper. A sign in the “news room” of Liverpool’s Lion Tavern is still there today, demonstrating how pubs saw the availability of newspapers as an attraction worth advertising.

Landlords even paid skilled public readers to bring the newspaper alive in crowded pubs with readings. One Liverpool licensee, John McArdle, “performed” the paper himself, with Irish nationalists coming to his pub in Crosbie Street every Sunday night to hear him read from The Nation.

Building an industry

From the 1850s, when taxes on newspapers were abolished, local papers overtook London papers in sales and readership, as my new book recounts. It was then that booming provincial newspapers began to carve their names in stone, literally, with purpose built offices, proclaiming their importance to the local economy and culture.

One of the first was built by the Hereford Times in 1858. It was in an Italian style with elaborate scrollwork, roof line statues and an ornate cupola, engraved with the newspaper’s title. Such pretentious classical elements were also used by The Times in London. As media historian Carole O’Reilly wrote, this was the architectural language of “power, wealth, authority and taste”. Statues of the pioneering printers Gutenberg and Caxton were common, as were town crests, proclaiming local identity.

The 1858 home of the Hereford Times. Image: author provided.

Newspapers’ place at the centre of the town symbolised their place in readers’ lives. In the front office, people queued to announce rites of passage in the local paper – births, marriages and deaths – or to consult the fullest archive of local life, the bound back copies of the newspaper.

Another type of landmark building, the public library, would have been much smaller if Victorian newspapers had not been so popular. News rooms were specifically mentioned in the 1850 Public Libraries Act which started the growth of public libraries. Magazines and newspapers were more popular than books, and so were given more space by architects and early librarians. The manual on how to run these new institutions suggested giving half of the public area to newspapers.


Newspaper popularity also meant a place was needed where you could buy them, and the newsagent shop arrived in the 1860s, adding a messy but popular new look to the streets, with shocking front-page images in the windows and jumbles of billboards on the shop front outside.

Today, those newsagents, libraries, pubs, and of course the newspapers themselves, are all in decline. But the legacy of their boom time in the Victorian era remains – in the architecture and buildings of the towns and cities whose inhabitants once placed enormous value on their local news.

The Conversation

Andrew Hobbs, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, University of Central Lancashire.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.