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.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.