Any traveller who has ten minutes to spare at a railway-station can playa good guessing game. Let him take up his position beside the bookstall and guess what newspaper each person will ask for as he or she hurries on to the train platforms. The schoolboy, the schoolgirl, the Guide, the Scout, the doctor, the nurse, the country laird, the city clerk, the clergyman, the farmer, the stockbroker, the housewife, the keen stamp collector, the enthusiastic gardener, the motorist, the footballer, will all ask for and will find the periodical desired.
Then let our traveller, as he sits in the compartment, guess which part of a daily or evening paper each passenger reads first. This one studies the list of situations vacant, another the leading articles, another the financial news, another the cotton market, another the cookery recipes" another the news from the East. Every age, profession, political party, and, religious belief finds the material it wants in the public Press.
The whole world has become a whispering gallery which gives up its secrets to anyone who will pay one penny or twopence. On one page on any day of the week we may find news of an Antarctic expedition, of a tidal wave in the Pacific, of bandits in Central China, of an election in America, of a geological find in Greenland. We cannot play our guessing game long before we can readily believe that in Britain alone upwards of 2100 dailies and an immense number of weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies are published.
How did this great multitude of newspapers arise?
To begin at the beginning we must go to Ancient Rome, and join a group of citizens and soldiers who are gathered round a pillar in the Forum on which is nailed a sheet of parchment. They eagerly read on this Acta Diurna news of battles, of elections, of public games, and of festivals, and when the intelligence is of special importance copies are sent to the provinces of the widely scattered Empire. That ancient newspaper was issued by the Government, and its direct descendant in this country is the London Gazette, which has been published every day without a break since 1712.
But the origin of the unofficial newspaper was somewhat different. It claims as its ancestor an important mediaeval person named tIie scrivener. He was a product of the days when few could write, and he was employed by a great man who wished to be kept in touch with the news of Court and town when he was absent on his country estate or travelling abroad. When the scrivener did his work well, and sent prompt and entertaining news, his patron showed his letters to his friends, and they in turn employed the talented scribe. The circulation list of those to whom he sent copies of his news-letters steadily grew, until at last a successful scrivener opened an office and employed clerks to copy out his letters.
This was the stage which had been reached in the Jacobean age, when Ben Jonson wrote his play The Staple of News, in which his scrivener hero says:
"This is the outer room where my clerks sit,
And keep their sides, the register in the midst;
The examiner he sits private there within;
And here I have my several rolls and files
Of News by the alphabet, and all put up
Under their heads."
There we have our first picture of an editorial office.
Specimens of these early news-letters may be seen in the British Museum and the Scottish National Library, but, interesting as they were to the men who received them, we can understand that such papers, written by hand, could be but few, and that no rapid advance came in journalism until the invention of printing made manifolding possible.
The first printed newspapers, published at regular intervals, were brought out on the Continent. But although Holland, Germany, and Italy were first in the field, England soon outstripped them in number and variety, mainly because there were fewer official restrictions in this country. Restrictions there were, and although the "Weekly Newes from Italy, Germanie etc." appeared in 1622, it was not until 1641, when the Star Chamber was abolished, that papers giving domestic news began to be published.
The troubles of the Civil War led to a great increase in the number of news-sheets. There was a Mercury for the King and a Mercury for the Parliament which the poet Milton edited for a year. After the Restoration the Government determined to check these partisan papers and passed a Licensing Act, but when it expired in 1682 there was a great outburst of publishing, and daily papers began to appear, their herald being the Daily Courant.
Early editors were quick to discover means of making their papers popular. Advertisements were a feature almost from the start, but in these days the editor acted as a go-between for employers and employed, as we call see from such advertisements as the following:
"If I can meet with a sober man that has a counter-tenor voice, I can help him to a place worth thirty pound the year or more;"
"If any noble or other gentleman wants a porter that is very lusty, comely and six foot high and two inches, I can help."
"I want a complete young man that will wear a livery, to wait on a very valuable gentleman, but he must know how to play the violin or flute."
"I want a genteel footman that can play on the violin."
It is interesting to notice that illustrations are to be found even in these early days. During the Civil War the Mercuries gave portraits of the rival Generals, and in 1746 the Gentleman's Magazine came out with a map of the country round Carlisle showing the route followed by Prince Charlie's army in its march south. A little later another periodical published a picture of a certain Edward Bright who weighed 42½ stone.
Then, as now, enterprising newsvendors dealt in sensation. To spread the news of something remarkable which had happened was the original cause of the so-called broadsides which next claim our notice. Such an illustrated pamphlet was that which appeared in 1587 describing The Valiant Exploits of Sir Francis Drake. In 1607 a broadside told of a Wonderful Flood in Somersetshire and Norfolk, and in 1683 another thrilled its readers with news of an island which had arisen off the French coast.
These broadsides, like the news-sheets, were hawked about the streets mainly by blind people, and the latest developments in their production were watched by everyone with the greatest interest. No doubt many would welcome the ingenious device of the editor of the Flying Post, who in 1697 brought out both an ordinary edition and an edition de luxe on better paper with a blank page, so that" if any gentleman has a mind to oblige his country friend or correspondent, with this account of public affairs he can have it for two pence that he may write thereon his own affairs or the material news of the day".
The editor of the first successful daily paper, The Daily Courant, announced in 1702 that he would make no comments on the news "supposing other people had sense enough to make reflections for themselves". But there were other editors who had not such a high opinion of the intelligence of their readers. They not only set themselves deliberately to make comments, but gradually in their hands the periodical Press became less a circulator of news and more a means of influencing public opinion.
This was the stage that had been reached when Queen Anne came to the throne, and there were special reasons why the demand for news and the need for persuasive writers came to a height in her reign. At no time before or since have party politics been waged so fiercely. Dean Swift declared that the very dogs and cats were either Tory or Whig, and a writer who could produce a readable paper on either side was sure of a ready sale.
Religious sects as well as political parties divided the nation. Addison's hero, Sir Roger de Coverley, used to tell that when he was a boy he had once
"had occasion to inquire which was the way to St. Anne's Lane, upon which the person to whom he spoke, instead of answering his question, called him a young Popish cur, and asked him who made Anne a saint. The boy, being in some confusion, inquired of the next he met the way to Anne's Lane; but was called a prick-eared cur, for his pains, and instead of being showed the way was told that she was a saint before he was born, and would be one after he was hanged."
Everyone knew that when the Queen died this religious question would once more crop up. Was the next king to be a Protestant Hanoverian or a Catholic Stuart?
On the Continent, too, great events were taking place in which England was involved. Marlborough was waging a campaign against the French, and while one party at Court plotted to continue the war, another plotted to bring about peace. This was the atmosphere of excitement in which newspapers increased by leaps and bounds and assumed new forms, and so important is the first half of the eighteenth century in the history of the public Press of Britain that there might well be busts of Defoe, Steele, Addison, and Swift placed over every newspaper office in the kingdom.