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.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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