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© 2018 Andrew Hobbs, CC BY 4.0

Karl Marx’s 1855 predictions of a ‘revolution in the provincial press’, ‘emancipation from London’ and ‘decentralisation of journalism’ largely came to pass, for the next eighty years at least. The second half of the nineteenth century was the golden age of the provincial press. More copies of provincial newspapers were sold and read between the early 1860s and 1900 than any other type of newspaper. In most news rooms and reading rooms, no other type of publication required so many multiple copies to meet reader demand as the local paper, and it was this print genre that was most often recalled from the childhood homes of oral history interviewees. While local papers had to compete with other newspaper genres for popularity among upper-middle-class readers, they were pre-eminent for readers lower down the social scale. None of this is apparent if we conduct impressionistic studies using low-circulation London newspapers, read by small but powerful minorities.

Local papers were the most popular type of newspaper for two reasons: they appealed to local identities and their networked national structure was the fastest news delivery system available. Local newspaper publishers and journalists consciously set out to promote local identity, seeing this as part of their cultural role, whilst also aware of the commercial benefits. Content exploiting local patriotism could not practically be provided by London papers. An extra vocabulary of place was available to the local press, literally so in the case of Lancashire dialect, whose untranslatable nuances could add depth to any piece of writing. Football reportage, with its focus on local supporters, gave readers the opportunity to read about themselves. Unlike the Daily Mail, for example, the local press could provide local football information and infrastructure, for both the amateur and the professional game. Local papers were exclusive providers of other local — or locally relevant — content, such as market prices, Parliamentary speeches by local MPs, or prize winners at agricultural shows. Furthermore, non-local news could reach readers more quickly if it was telegraphed to hundreds of local newspaper offices throughout the nation and then printed in newspaper form and distributed across small areas. The alternative, of telegraphing the same news to London newspaper offices and printing and transporting newspapers hundreds of miles by rail, was much slower.

These competitive advantages have been confirmed by evidence from the readers themselves. They often used local papers for purposes that publications from elsewhere could not fulfil, and incorporated them into local politics, social movements, commerce and culture, and used them as local public spheres. They also used them more personally, for leisure and as extensions of their social networks. Local papers were better able to fulfil these functions because there were more of them, providing more opportunities, across the nation, for Janowitz’s ‘democratisation of prestige’, the mundane glamour of appearing in print under the gaze of one’s neighbours. But there was more than a logistical, quantitative difference between readers’ uses of the local press and of publications from elsewhere — there was also a qualitative difference, enabling readers to write in their own dialect, to discuss local issues, and to feel connected to the people and places given status in the local paper. However, as regards local identity, the local press played only a small part in the formation and development of sense of place. Even at the height of the local newspaper’s powers, it was only one among many factors ‘producing locality’. Local identity was more significant to the newspaper than the newspaper was to local identity.

The forty-five years covered by this book encompass a fast-changing, dynamic period in periodical print culture and reading behaviour. In Preston as elsewhere, more titles were published, more copies were sold, and established publications grew in their physical dimensions and in the number of their pages and editions. New genres appeared, such as the provincial evening newspaper. The local press diversified, with more periodicals and specialist publications serving particular religious denominations, leisure interests and occupational groups. Local papers adapted their content to a larger, more socially diverse readership, with shorter articles, shorter paragraphs and more variety in their non-news articles. Newspapers’ address shifted from middle-class to classless, as new working-class readers influenced journalists’ language; the boundaries of ‘us’ were expanded to include readers previously represented as ‘them’, expressing more consensus and less conflict. Rising literacy and cheaper newspapers encouraged more reading, more public places in which to read and an exponential increase in shops from which to buy papers.

News was at the heart of the most dynamic changes in the reading world of a provincial town like Preston. The rise of the news room, and the even greater rise of the newsagent, eclipsed any other changes in the circumstances of reading. The comparative significance of newspapers in the public life of a town is illustrated by the contrast with the far fewer institutions dedicated to the reading of fiction, such as circulating libraries. Facilities to read and discuss the news were thought attractive enough to be offered as benefits for members of clubs and societies, and to be used as bait to lure men into churches and political parties, pubs and temperance halls. As the pace of publication quickened and news rooms, newsagents and a purpose-built newspaper office appeared in the town, newspaper-reading began to change the appearance and routines of Preston — and most of the newspapers being read were provincial ones, particularly those published in Preston.

While news was widely available at the beginning of the period, it was often heard rather than read, or read from a newspaper owned by somebody else, in a public place. As time went on, more hearers became readers, and more readers became purchasers. News rooms became integrated in the activities of political parties, clubs and societies, and, with the opening of Preston’s free library, became available to all if they so desired. Meanwhile, reading the newspaper at home became more common at the end of the period, first for lower-middle-class readers and then for working-class readers, with a consequent decline in the use of middle-class news rooms (and a decline in the second-hand value of papers and periodicals). Yet, at the end of the period, when newspaper-reading was becoming part of the domestic routine of even working-class readers, reading a newspaper in a public news room was still a normal activity, and one that often involved discussion.

Consequently, there may indeed have been a decline in one type of bourgeois public sphere, that of the middle-class news room. However, other public spheres such as Co-op reading rooms and political clubs flourished, where a variety of reading material encouraged promiscuous reading and where discussion was the norm. The decline in ‘non-aligned’ news rooms unattached to specific creeds is consistent with evidence from readers’ letters, which suggests that newspaper readers ranged more freely across political and religious lines at the start of the period than at the end. The local public sphere splintered. Certainly by the turn of the century, if not long before, most readers used the press to confirm what they already believed, rather than to engage in genuine debate. However, the growth of political clubs with reading facilities in Preston and the opening of the public library suggest that motives of education, and of political persuasion, continued in the era of the commercial press. It may be that some historians have overestimated the political and self-improving motives of readers of the early nineteenth-century political press, who may have been as keen on the crime news as the political interpretation of it. Conversely, they may have underestimated the political use of the later capitalist press.1 Perhaps its commercial nature was less the end of the bourgeois public sphere, and more the rejuvenation of a boisterous, democratic working-class public sphere.2

Many of the dominant paradigms in press history and the history of reading are peculiarly unsuited to the study of the local press. A focus on centralised modes of cultural production misses a nationally networked phenomenon such as the local press, and dismisses local phenomena as unimportant. The anachronistic and confused concept of the ‘national’ newspaper would not have been familiar to the creators and readers of nineteenth-century newspapers, and it has hindered press scholarship; further, by concentrating on the London daily, a print genre that was part of high politics, diplomacy and elite culture, we have ignored the more popular genre of the local weekly, which was relatively insignificant in these areas of human endeavour. Scholarship on ‘significant’ literary figures has taken little account of their writings in the local press, since the low status of local newspapers at the time often led famous writers and intellectuals to hide or downplay such work.

A number of misconceptions about the metropolitan and provincial press have been challenged in this book. First, that provincial newspapers were parochial during this period.3 Content analysis shows that national and international news, and non-news items, almost matched local news in most of Preston’s papers. The idea that metropolitan newspapers were national papers in this period has been dealt with in Chapter 1; in fact, London papers circulated mainly in south-east England, and to local elites elsewhere, and contained little news of British events outside the south-east. The idea that newspapers contain only news is demonstrably false, as shown by the examination of content related to local identity in Chapters 7–9, including sport, poetry, serialised fiction, history, geography, biography, book reviews, maps, portraits and other illustrations. As Laurel Brake, Margaret Beetham and others have demonstrated, newspapers cannot be dismissed as shallow, transparent, ‘sub-literary’ texts. In fact, newspapers are as complex as novels, made by many authors, using many genres, for a variety of motives, most of them concealed or unconscious. Many of the authors of each issue never met nor agreed with each other, and readers’ responses were routinely incorporated into the text.4 The example of Hewitson has shown that provincial editors and newspaper proprietors were far from anonymous. The nameless metropolitan editor was the exception rather than the rule in Victorian journalism. Another misconception, that profit replaced politics as the primary motive for newspaper publishing in the late nineteenth century, has found no support in the case study of Preston, or elsewhere in provincial journalism.5 A complex mix of motives continued to motivate the launch, purchase and continuation of newspapers, and many papers were founded chiefly for political reasons into the twentieth century.

Turning to misconceptions about newspaper readership, the bound file copies kept in news rooms, and the demand for second-hand copies, complicate ideas about the ephemeral nature of newspapers. There is some truth in the idea that readers’ political views can be inferred from a paper’s political stance, but users of news rooms and reading rooms read promiscuously, and technically superior papers or those with specialist content, such as farming news, were read even by those who disagreed with the papers’ politics. Historical readers were much more complex than implied readers. Finally, Chalaby’s assertion that ‘the popular classes and the elites’ have never read the same papers is contradicted by the presence of the Times even in working class news rooms; further, a divide between a ‘quality’ press and a ‘popular’ press is harder to sustain when examining local weekly and evening papers.6

The argument presented here — that readers preferred the local press because, among other reasons, they liked to read about themselves, people they knew, and the places they loved — is, of course, open to challenge. Even when one accepts that the local paper was the most widely read type of newspaper in the second half of the nineteenth century, the significance of this phenomenon can still be questioned. People may have read the local press, but perhaps it had little impact on them, on their society, and on the nation. This can be addressed in two ways: first, the local press may have been a small part of most people’s lives, but the reader evidence suggests that other newspapers and periodicals had even less significance for them. Second, we have seen that, for some readers at least, the local paper was integrated into their daily routines, their sense of self (as an exiled native of Carlisle, for example) or their way of doing business. At a community level, this study does not claim that the local press was indispensable in local society, but that the information circulated by local newspapers became increasingly important as the Victorian state and associative culture developed. They were not essential, but local Victorian society would have been very different without them. Rightly or wrongly, people believed that the presence of a local paper gave status to a town, enhanced local democracy, elevated the public events it reported and held leaders and criminals alike to account. Objections to the study of the local press on the grounds that it was nationally insignificant are based on misunderstandings of the national nature of the local press, of how national culture was produced and reproduced at local level, and of the English nation itself, as no more than a small group of powerful individuals living within fifty miles of Westminster.

It could be argued that a faster news service and lower price were the main attractions of the halfpenny local paper, and no doubt these were important. International news, particularly of wars, increased newspaper sales significantly. However, journalists and readers alike saw local content as valuable, and the circulations of local (but not regional) papers continued to rise until the 1950s, despite London newspapers and radio being able to deliver non-local news more speedily and cheaply.

Can this examination of reading Preston’s local press be generalised to other places? This is a weakness of any case study, and if local distinctiveness is as important as I believe it is, then this objection applies even more. The distinctive (yet far from unique) character of Preston must be taken into account when extrapolating the findings of this research, but only two aspects would make the local press unusually popular here: the tradition of wider political participation, and lower literacy rates (the oral history material demonstrated a link between poor literacy and a preference for the local paper). Even after these phenomena had disappeared, the traditions established by them could have persisted. However, only two minor differences were detected between Preston and a comparator town, Barrow. As an old, established town, the boosterism of Preston’s newspapers was more muted than in the striving new town of Barrow (except when reporting the 1893 Preston North End crisis). Further, as a de facto county town and market centre, Preston’s press may have had less need to appeal to working-class readers until the late 1880s, unlike that of Barrow, where there were not enough middle-class readers to go round.7 However, secondary literature from elsewhere suggests that Preston was broadly similar to other places in its print culture and reading behaviour. Only further studies will test this point, and the eventual aim must be to synthesise the scholarship on the London and the provincial press. Only when such work has been done can we begin to approach a truly national history of print culture, rather than the distortedly London-focused account we have at present.

This book helps to explain many seemingly anomalous aspects of nineteenth-century press history. The greater popularity of the local press is unfathomable without a recognition of the importance of place to the majority of the population. The lack of a truly national press in the nineteenth century, and the difficulties with the notion of a national press, explain the seemingly odd strategies of newspaper publishers, such as partly printed sheets, the daily ‘newspaper’ issued by the Central Press and printed on one side of the paper only to aid speedy typesetting, the group of Catholic local papers with syndicated content published by Charles Diamond, or the ability of a syndication agency in the northern industrial town of Bolton to commission Tess of the D’Urbervilles from Thomas Hardy. Equally, the lack of a national press, and the high value placed on local news, explains the methods of popular London papers in the twentieth century as they developed national news-gathering, distribution and sales operations. These methods included the opening of ‘secondary’ centres of ‘national’ newspaper production in Manchester and Glasgow and the resort to regional and occasionally local editions, paradoxically achieving national status by becoming more local. Sense of place, combined with the effective national system created by the provincial press, also explains the attitude of provincial readers such as J. B. Priestley’s father in Bradford, a teacher who never read a London newspaper, finding all he needed in the Bradford morning paper. These provincial morning dailies were to suffer the most when the London dailies began to become genuinely national in the twentieth century, because they contained the least local content of any provincial genre.

This study has implications for the disciplines of media history, the histories of reading and publishing, and perhaps even for present-day provincial journalism. It demonstrates that an acknowledgement of the importance of place to media audiences can cast new light on audience behaviour. It suggests that some theories of the nineteenth-century newspaper are applicable only to London publications, representing a minority of the field. Chalaby’s chronology of pre-repeal political ‘publicists’ being replaced by post-repeal commercial ‘journalists’ is too simplistic, especially as the same individuals were often involved.8 The provincial press, like the London press, adapted to the new market conditions post-1855, but current knowledge of the diverse nature of this adaptation is too limited to say anything beyond the fact that it did not fit the London pattern suggested by Chalaby.9 The same is true for recent formulations of New Journalism as the death of the Liberal educational press ideal.10 The tradition of direct political control of newspapers continued longer in the provinces than in the capital, and the greater provincial diversity of newspaper genres, allied with innovations in style and content around the country, meant that recognisably New Journalistic approaches could go hand-in-hand with ‘old-fashioned’ didactic style and content. Equally, a slight decline in readers’ correspondence and in the level of conflict displayed in the Preston press does not in itself constitute evidence for a decline in the public sphere.11

For the ‘history of the book’ and its sub-discipline, the history of reading, the name ‘book history’ becomes positively misleading when attempting to encompass the nineteenth century, in which newspapers — particularly provincial newspapers — were far more widely read than books. Subsuming newspapers and periodicals under nineteenth-century ‘book history’ is rather like subsuming aviation history under stage-coach history. Sources and methods more suited to the history of bound volumes of text produced by individual authors, pre-eminently the novel, need to adapt to capture the distinctive nature of newspaper publishing (decentralised, produced by multiple authors, most of them anonymous) and newspaper reading. The focus on books has understandably led to a concentration on London as a publishing centre, with the unfortunate consequence that place, and sense of place, has once again been downplayed. For the publishing histories of specific genres such as fiction, poetry and history, more material was published in aggregate in local weekly newspapers than in books or magazines. For reading, as Secord has demonstrated, ‘each experience of reading becomes more generally revealing the more locally it can be situated.’12 When book history starts from readers rather than books it is better equipped to recover the print culture of past ages, as opposed to the texts we retrospectively value.13

I now realise that I experienced Victorian local journalism myself, when I started work as a reporter in 1984, because later, when I began to study it, so much was already familiar to me: the daily routines as a reporter; the rolled-up exchange newspapers from around the country, connecting my paper to a national network; the newspaper’s organisational structure, job roles and job titles; the district offices (feeling autonomous but marginal, small centres, yet subjugated to a larger centre); the jargon; the Press Association news arriving in the ‘wire room’; the contributions from village correspondents; the slightly racy freelances who dropped in; the moonlighting for ‘the nationals’ in Manchester; and the news values that dictated what was a story, what was not, and which one might be sold to a London news desk for some extra cash.

Our attitude to the readers — they were tiresome but were always politely entertained — was also Victorian. I met, and later read about their Victorian forerunners, the ones who queued for the early edition of the evening paper outside the office on the main shopping street; the ones who, like me, believed there was something magical about seeing your name in the paper; those who wrote letters in green ink; those who drank with us on a Friday afternoon; those who, I later realised, politely used me for their various agendas, sometimes to fight battles, sometimes to right wrongs. I experienced the changing worth of the paper throughout the day, its original significance symbolised by the flurry of calls from readers as soon as the paper came out and the delivery vans had sped off to the four corners of the circulation area, down to the stack of unread papers on the greengrocer’s counter at day’s end, used to wrap my cauliflower.14

In the Victorian building where I worked, I was aware of the demarcations, the differing cultures and atmospheres of each department: my news room; the ‘stone’ where the ‘comps’ (compositors) assembled the pages; the print room where the men wore inky overalls; and the uninteresting advertising offices, whose occupants believed that it was they who provided what the readers actually wanted. Later, I put my ignorance of the business side of journalism into practice, running a small local magazine. It soon went bust in a very Victorian way (under-capitalised and incompetently managed, by me), but not before I learnt that we had created a community among our readers, expressing and reflecting their feelings about the place where they lived. After that I worked on a broadsheet ‘national’ in London, where I was shocked at the ignorance of some journalists about their own country; they felt that, because they lived at the centre, there was no need to know the periphery.

Those London journalists reminded me of a university friend who was determined never to return to his small provincial town; instead, he made his way to the centres of power. The last time I saw him we argued; he thought lives lived in the provinces were worth less than those at the metropolitan centre. But for me, like most Victorian reporters moving from place to place (or present-day football fans who follow their lower league club around the country), every place mattered, had meaning, was sacred to those who lived there. The local press made money out of those feelings, with the help of the advertising-led Victorian business model. That business model is now broken, and perhaps if British local newspapers had left the Victorian era sooner, they would have been better equipped to enter the twenty-first century. I have no answers from history, beyond the banal: it doesn’t have to be this way, some things change, some things stay the same. The internet has changed the economics of local journalism, but what has not changed is the desire for local lives to be celebrated, validated and recorded, as they were in Victorian local newspapers.

1 Aled Gruffydd Jones, ‘Constructing the Readership in 19th-Century Wales’, in Serials and Their Readers, 1620–1914, ed. Robin Myers and Michael Harris (Winchester/New Castle, DE: St Paul’s Bibliographies/Oak Knoll Press, 1993), p. 160; James Curran, ‘The Industrialization of the Press’, in Power without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, ed. James Curran and Jean Seaton (London: Routledge, 1991), 32–48.

2 David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 12–13.

3 Anon., ‘On the Parish’, All The Year Round, 29 December (1860), 273–76.

4 Laurel Brake, ‘The Old Journalism and the New: Forms of Cultural Production in London in the 1880s’, in Papers for the Millions: The New Journalism in Britain, 1850s to 1914, ed. by Joel H. Wiener (London: Greenwood, 1988), p. 1; Margaret Beetham, ‘Ben Brierley’s Journal’, Manchester Region History Review, 17 (2006), 73–83 (p. 76).

5 In contrast, Rachel Matthews believes that ‘the provincial newspaper is, and always has been, a commercial venture to its core’: Rachel Matthews, The History of the Provincial Press in England (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), p. 4, But two Preston examples contradict this commercial focus: the Anti-Corn Law League subsidised the launch of the town’s main nineteenth-century newspaper, the Preston Guardian, while its rival, the Preston Herald, was subsidised by the Conservatives from 1860 into the twentieth century. And from the Conservative local papers edited by Alaric Watts in the 1820s to the Carnegie-Storey syndicate of Radical evening and weekly papers in the 1880s, a political mission was an important aspect of the nineteenth-century local press.

6 Jean Chalaby, The Invention of Journalism (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), p. 179.

7 There were 828 middle-class Barrow residents in 1911, in a population of 63,770: Caroline Joy, ‘War and Unemployment in an Industrial Community: Barrow-in-Furness 1914–1926’ (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Central Lancashire, 2004), p. 31.

8 This was also true of Manchester wholesale newsagent and publisher Abel Heywood. For an analysis of his career which offers a convincing narrative of the development of the nineteenth-century newspaper press, see Brian E. Maidment, ‘The Manchester Common Reader — Abel Heywood’s “Evidence” and the Early Victorian Reading Public’, in Printing and the Book in Manchester, 1700–1850, ed. by Eddie Cass and Morris Garratt, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society 97 (Manchester: Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, 2001), pp. 99–120.

9 Jean Chalaby, Invention.

10 Mark Hampton, Visions of the Press in Britain, 1850–1950 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

11 Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Oxford: Polity, 1992).

12 James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 338.

13 Paraphrasing Robert J. Mayhew, ‘Review of William St Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period’, Journal of Historical Geography, 31 (2005), 199,; cited in William St. Clair, ‘Following up The Reading Nation’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 6, 1830–1914, ed. by David McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 704–35 (709),

14 For more on discarded texts as grocery wrappings, see Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 231–34,