A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900

A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900 Andrew Hobbs
Forthcoming in 2018

At the heart of Victorian culture was the local weekly newspaper. More popular than books, more widely read than the London papers, the local press was a national phenomenon. This book redraws the Victorian cultural map, shifting our focus away from one centre, London, and towards the many centres of the provinces. It offers a new paradigm in which place, and a sense of place, are vital to the histories of the newspaper, reading and publishing.

Hobbs offers new perspectives on the nineteenth century from an enormous yet neglected body of literature: the hundreds of local newspapers published and read across England. He reveals the people, processes and networks behind the publishing, maintaining a unique focus on readers and what they did with the local paper as individuals, families and communities. Case studies and an unusual mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence show that the vast majority of readers preferred the local paper, because it was about them and the places they loved.

A Fleet Street in Every Town positions the local paper at the centre of debates on Victorian newspapers, periodicals, reading and publishing. It reorientates our view of the Victorian press away from metropolitan high culture and parliamentary politics, and towards the places where most people lived, loved and read. This is an essential book for anybody interested in nineteenth-century print culture, journalism and reading.



A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900
Andrew Hobbs | Forthcoming in 2018
ISBN Paperback: 9781783745593
ISBN Hardback: 9781783745609
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783745616
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783745623
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783745630
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0152


Dr Andrew Hobbs is a former journalist who now teaches journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, UK. His research focuses on provincial print cultures and local and regional identities, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is an associate editor of the Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism, and wrote the chapter on provincial periodicals in the award-winning Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals and Newspapers (2016). Recent journal articles have examined the leading role of local newspapers in Victorian poetry publishing, and the deleterious dominance of The Times in nineteenth-century scholarship.


1. Introduction: Why were local newspapers so popular?
Karl Marx described the explosive growth of the British provincial press after 1855 as a ‘revolution’. This chapter quantifies that revolution (more titles, more sales, more readers than any other publishing genre), and asks why the local paper was so popular. The book’s argument is introduced: that readers preferred the local press partly for structural reasons, but mainly because it made their lives and the places they loved sacred and significant. This is followed by an examination of some myths about the provincial press (that it was an inferior, scaled-down version of the London press, it was not produced, or read, by powerful people, it is and was of only local significance, and that local newspapers were simple, banal, transparent texts), to establish its differences from its twenty-first-century descendants, and from the London press.
A brief literature review of newspaper history critiques its focus on politics, its neglect of social and cultural aspects of the press, its concentration on production to the detriment of reception, and its sidelining of the provincial press. Scholarship has focused on a few big lone trees, and ignored enormous forests of smaller trees. Preston is introduced as the case study town. The guiding concepts of the monograph are introduced, including the provincial press as a national entity, Stanley Fish’s concept of the ‘interpretive community’ and James Carey’s view of newspaper-reading as ritual rather than informational.

2. The readers
The experience of reading the local paper in the second half of the nineteenth century was different in almost every way from our experience today. This is the first of three chapters to introduce the people, places and times involved in reading the local paper. Studying the text of the local newspaper gives us some information about the type of readers being targeted. But the ‘implied reader’ deduced from the text, usually a middle-class man, is only part of the picture. Other evidence reveals that the illiterate and semi-literate in particular were drawn to the local paper, that women and children were readers, and that working-class readers eavesdropped and ‘poached’ across newspapers created for middle-class purchasers. Literacy was a communal asset, particularly at mid-century, available to those who could read and those who could not; similarly, reading the local paper was usually a communal activity. Local newspapers were one part of the social revolution stimulated by the swift spread of literacy, in which children became the experts, better able to use the technology of print than their parents. The spread of literacy was even swifter in Preston, going from below the national average to above it in less than two generations. This demonstrates how reading is geographically and historically specific.

3. Reading places
Reading matter changes its meaning according to where it is read. The same report of a football match can mean victory or defeat in rival towns; listening to a newspaper being read and interpreted by a Chartist in a crowded pub is different from reading the same paper in silence in an Anglican news room. This chapter takes an imaginary stroll around Preston, visiting the places where newspapers were read, in 1855, 1875 and 1900. Two types of reading location, the news room and the newsagent’s shop, were subject to dynamic change during the second half of the nineteenth century. News rooms grew in popularity, but commercial ones soon disappeared, as did free-standing ones used by middle-class readers. Working-class rooms continued, especially those above co-operative retail shops, while the opening of rate-funded free libraries provided the first cross-class newspaper-reading environments. The newsagent’s shop as a distinct category began to develop at mid-century, and numbers increased exponentially throughout the period, raising difficult questions of cause and effect between the growth of literacy and greatly increased production of reading matter, particularly of local newspapers. Taken together, the two trends - an evolving ecology of public news rooms, and a huge growth in newsagents - suggest a development from listening to reading, from public reading to private, and from communally owned to individually purchased newspapers. Reading the local newspaper was migrating rapidly into the home.

4. Reading times
This chapter explores a concept often theorised in literature and the history of reading, but rarely evidenced – the times of reading. It explores ‘the periodical-ness of periodicals’ (Mark W. Turner), through the day, the week, the month and the year. It describes how readers fitted newspapers and other reading matter into their routines and rituals, domestic and public, aided by publishers who worked hard to ensure that reading matter was in the right place at the right time. Domestic rituals of reading are surveyed, from the working man with his Woodbine cigarettes and his evening paper by the fire at day’s end, to the housewife looking forward to Thursday when her husband will read John Bull to her; and more public reading rhythms, including the daily and weekly ebb and flow of reading-room customers, the times of trains bringing papers from London and other big cities, and the edition times of the local papers. Newspapers were read more avidly during Parliamentary sessions and football seasons, while Christmas annuals and summer seaside specials marked holiday times. Reading was also affected by less predictable events, such as wars, elections, major sporting events and trade slumps. The Crimean War, Franco-Prussian War and Boer War all caused long-lasting changes in reading and publishing habits, with the first two helping to popularise new genres such as the provincial morning and evening paper respectively. The newspaper-reading routines of one reader, the Clitheroe weaver John O’Neil, are examined in detail for what they reveal about his use of periodicals to mark time and create rituals, and his sophisticated understanding of the temporal nature of news-gathering and publishing practices. The theories of Zygmunt Bauman, Julia Kristeva are used, alongside Uriel Heyd’s idea of short-, medium- and long-term reading of newspapers, challenging simple ideas of ephemerality.

5. What they read: The production of the local press in the 1860s
This is one of two chapters structured around two working weeks in the life of a reporter and later editor, Anthony Hewitson of Preston, Lancashire, who wrote the only surviving diaries of a Victorian provincial journalist. Census figures tell us that most mid-Victorian journalists lived and worked outside London, so Hewitson’s diaries offer an accessible overview of the marginalised mainstream of Victorian journalism, and the people and processes involved in its production. A comparison of Hewitson’s 1865 diary and that week’s editions of his newspaper tells us about verbatim shorthand reporting, objectivity, telegraphy, ‘paragraphing’ (proactively seeking news and gossip), working conditions, a reporter’s social status and the wide range of content published by the local press. He was a local correspondent for The Times and other daily papers, revealing the complex national networks through which news travelled. The diary entries bring to life issues of local print cultures, the dynamic newspaper publishing period of the 1850s and 1860s, the growing variety of local newspaper formats and the influence of politics, religion and class. This chapter adds significantly to our understanding of a ubiqitous but neglected figure in nineteenth-century print culture, the ordinary reporter.

6. What they read: The production of the local press in the 1880s
This is the second of two chapters structured around two working weeks in the life of a reporter and later editor, Anthony Hewitson of Preston, Lancashire, who wrote the only surviving diaries of a Victorian provincial journalist. By 1884 Hewitson was the owner-editor of his own weekly paper, and a week from that year’s diary reveals change over time in the economics of local newspaper publishing, local print ecologies and markets, the public visibility of most Victorian editors (far from anonymous), and their social position. Hewitson reviewed opera and literary periodicals for his paper, and wrote and published local history books, demonstrating newspapers’ links with book publishing. He dealt with a large corps of amateur and part-time contributors, from doctors who wrote poetry to secretaries of football clubs who submitted match reports. These and other contributors made the local paper a literary and cultural hub. Quantitative analysis of some literary genres printed in the local paper challenges 19th-century publishing history, suggesting that more poetry and history, for example, were published in local weekly papers than in books. More broadly, the chapter demonstrates the cultural richness of the local newspaper, and its openness to material written by non-journalists. It offers a provincial challenge to narratives of the New Journalism, previously based largely on metropolitan newspapers, and reveals significant changes in the local newspaper market, as highly capitalized publishers squeezed out owner-editors like Hewitson.

7. Who read what
Local and regional newspapers were more widely read and purchased than those produced in London, with the local weekly the most popular type of Victorian newspaper. This conclusion is based upon quantitative analysis of records from libraries and reading rooms, oral history material and auction prices of second-hand newspapers. Other evidence adds colour to these findings, and reveals how gender, class, politics and cover price were all factors in the choice of newspaper, and in the preference for newspapers over books. Readers identified with their favourite paper – in Blackburn there was standing room only at a series of weekly debates on the best local paper – and a public reading culture enabled ‘promiscuous’ reading of titles with opposing viewpoints, creating local public spheres, which splintered as newspaper-reading moved into the home at the end of the 19th century. Growing literacy and the more popular style of the late-century ‘New Journalism’ created a publishing and reading boom, with the local paper at the centre of this dynamic period. New genres such as the weekend news-miscellany and the halfpenny evening paper catered mainly for working-class readers, who were also increasingly addressed by traditional papers. The evidence of historical readers adds complexity and nuance to the limited insights gained from studying the ‘implied reader’ deduced from the text of the newspaper.

8. Exploiting a sense of place
This chapter proposes that the popularity of the local press was in large part due to its promotion of local identity. The local press wove itself into the fabric of provincial life, applying techniques not available to metropolitan publications. Newspapers did more than report their localities: they became part of the loop of making and re-making culture. A cross-class local identity guided the selection, mediation, interpretation and presentation of newspaper texts, including non-local texts. A brief analysis of the concept of local identity enables a survey of newspaper content, revealing the techniques used to promote and sustain local identity. Some techniques are so banal that they are rarely noticed, such as including the name of the town in the paper’s title. Others are more sophisticated, such as the rhetorical web woven by careful use of ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’. Illustrations, fiction, poetry, advertisements, history and geographically labelled news are surveyed. Readers saw the world mediated through a local lens, as when amateur foreign correspondents used local metaphors to describe Crimean battlefields or the wonders of Rome. This chapter acknowledges the contested nature of local identity, but questions the idea that ‘othering’ is essential to it. It demonstrates how the newspaper as a cultural form is well suited to the promotion of place identities, thanks to its iterative, repetitive nature, its power to roll together many disparate elements of local identity, thereby increasing their impact, and its ability to present highly constructed, artificial notions as normal and implicit, seen in its division of the world into ‘here’ and ‘there’.

9. Class, dialect and the local press: how ‘they’ joined ‘us’
The use of Lancashire dialect in the county’s newspapers provides a detailed case study of the techniques of place promotion used by local newspapers. Dialect was one way for the provincial press to negotiate the competing discourses of place (region or locality) and class. Initially, they used it divisively to demarcate class boundaries, but, as working-class readership grew, they used dialect in an inclusive way which promoted local identity and sense of place. The use of dialect in reported speech (emphasising class differences) declined over time, while its use in dialect literature and other literary contexts (playing down class differences) grew. Working-class writers were increasingly given the power to represent themselves in print. The placing of dialect in a range of texts suggests that journalists were influenced by the literary techniques of novelists, even when writing non-literary texts such as court reports. Dialect was also used as a rhetorical device to strengthen supposedly ‘commonsense’ arguments, and its untranslatable nuances could add depth. In these ways, publishers and writers in areas with a lively dialect tradition had literary advantages over less linguistically diverse areas, being able to call on an extra set of meanings. This chapter provides further evidence that print ran alongside, and stimulated, aspects of oral culture, rather than replacing them. It also shows how new working-class readers influenced the language of the press, as local newspaper editors expanded the boundaries of ‘us’ to include readers previously represented as ‘them’.

10. Win-win: the local press and professional football
This case study investigates the coverage of professional football in local newspapers, and explores how press techniques of capitalising on local identity were magnified when applied to another source of local identity, sport. Taking the newspapers of Preston, Lancashire as a case study, two ‘moments’ are analysed in detail: the early pinnacle of Preston North End’s Football Club’s success, when they won the FA Cup and the Football League championship in 1889, and when the club came close to financial collapse in 1893. The symbiotic and dynamic relationship of the local press and professional football benefited both parties, and the press took full advantage of the regional and local nature of the new phenomenon, adapting established techniques and adopting new ones to capitalise on local identity in its coverage. Sports coverage, particularly of football, enabled newspapers to package together many other elements of local identity into one topic, making town patriotism more intense and emotional. Football reporting was a particularly good example of newspaper boosterism and was well suited to combining identities at town, county, regional and national level.

11. How readers used the local press
Readers valued local newspapers, and used them to add meaning to their public and private lives. Three questions are addressed: how did readers use the local press? What uses were unique to the local press? And in particular, how did readers use papers to sustain local identities? A counter-argument is addressed: that readers may have preferred the local press for its ability to deliver news faster than the London press. However the evidence demonstrates that the local newspaper was valuable to readers chiefly for its local content. The first section of the chapter examines the problematic nature of readers’ letters as evidence, before drawing guarded conclusions from them. The second section examines how readers responded to the localness of the local press, and explores their perceptions that local newspapers had the power to make people and places special. The third section analyses the public uses of the local press, in circulating information necessary for Victorian society to function, and its private uses, particularly for sustaining local identities. The chapter shows that the local newspaper was still merely raw material when it came off the press. Readers completed the manufacturing process, as they brought local newspapers to life through their many uses.

12. Conclusions
A brief summary of the book’s argument is used to challenge some of the dominant paradigms in press history and the history of reading, including the focus on centralised modes of cultural production; the anachronistic and confused concept of the ‘national’ newspaper, and the supposed divide between a ‘quality’ press and a ‘popular’ press, untenable at local level. The advantages of the historical reader over the implied reader are outlined. The book’s evidence is reviewed to demonstrate the importance of place to most readers. Change over time is summarised, for example in the expansion of newspaper production and of places where newspapers were available. Many hearers became readers, and many readers became purchasers. Free-standing newsrooms expanded and declined, while those attached to membership organisations grew; meanwhile, private and domestic newspaper reading became more common. Local public spheres splintered, while readers still perceived the newspaper as having educational value. The author’s personal experience as a local reporter in the 1980s was remarkably similar to the Victorian journalism presented here; the industry has changed very rapidly since then, and is now in crisis, but the public demand for media that celebrate local identity remains unchanged.