A trawl through 150 years of The Daily Telegraph produces some real surprises, says Robert Gray
How We Saw It 1855-2005: 150 Years of The Daily Telegraph by Christopher Howse, Ebury Press £20 How fortunate that a man of infinite sagacity and learning – one, moreover, who began his journalistic career on The Catholic Herald – should have been chosen to produce this volume in celebration of The Daily Telegraph’s 150th anniversary. Christopher Howse, faced with the gigantic task of rifling through some 46,000 daily editions of the Telegraph for our entertainment, proceeded upon two excellent precepts.
“My general principle for inclusion,” he writes, “has been the opposite of that in 1066 and All That, which was composed of all the history you can remember. I have taken that as read. There is no Battle of the Somme; no sinking of the Titanic; no hunger marchers; no Hiroshima; no moon landing; no assassination of Kennedy; not even the fall of the World Trade Centre.” Christopher Howse’s quest has rather been in the crevices and interstices of history, where he disinters the rarest gems.
My own favourite was an item from the Telegraph’s classified advertisements on June 21, 1873: “LECONS de FRANCAIS, en français – perfection, finesses – par deux Gentlemen parisiens. Verlaine, 8 Great Collegestreet, Camden Town.” Alas, soon after this notice appeared, the two Parisian gentleman quarrelled violently. Paul Verlaine departed to Brussels, whither his infuriating companion Arthur Rimbaud soon followed, only to be shot in the wrist by Verlaine.
The story illustrates the second of Christopher Howse’s precepts. Far from merely reprinting extracts from the Telegraph, he places them in the context of his own elucidating text. Since he combines a keen eye for the fascinating detail with a rich knowledge of the wider picture, and since his clear, readable style is seasoned with well-chosen illustrations, he has produced a delightful and continuously entertaining book.
Surprisingly for a newspaper which has for so long provided daily fodder for the stolid English middle class, The Daily Telegraph began as a radical venture, founded in protest against the scan dalous manner in which the Crimean War was being conducted. At first it was sold for 2d, which put it within the means of the better-off working class. In response the Times immediately reduced its price from 5d to 4d.
Yet in September 1855 the Telegraph was selling only 300 copies daily. Colonel Sleigh, the founder, boldly halved the price. The gambit came off: by January 1856 daily sales were nearly 30,000, and by 1877 they were 242,000, “the largest circulation in the world”.
The Telegraph’s radical origins were still evident in the election of 1874, when it supported Gladstone against the victorious Disraeli. It was Gladstone’s fulminations against the Bulgarian atrocities that persuaded the newspaper to adopt a more Conservative tone. Yet there is still, to this day, a bohemian element among the staff, albeit one which subscribes to family values during working hours.
Another feature of the modern Telegraph already established in Victorian times was the full reporting of sex cases. In 1885 the paper expended 170,000 words on the trial of W T Stead, who had bought a 13year-old girl in order to expose the traffic in minors.
In 1859, for instance, the Telegraph carried regular reports of rioting at St George-in-the-East, Stepney, where the Puseyite rector and his curate had been rash enough to introduce ceremonies which smacked of Romanism. Yet in 1867, when the Fenians blew up a street in Clerkenwell, killing 12 people, the newspaper gallantly advised its readers not to tar all the Irish, or all Roman Catholics, with the same brush.
At first, Howse’s book appears simply as a glorious potpourri of disparate detail. A report of Queen Victoria’s visit to the Emperor Napoleon III in Paris in 1855 notes that the Queen’s fingers were so loaded with rings that she found it difficult to use her knife and fork. In 1881 the Telegraph’s impression of the Brighton Railway Murderer, the first sketch of a wanted criminal to appear in the prints, leads to several wrong arrests before the culprit, Percy Lefroy, is apprehended. Subsequently, the newspaper has the satisfaction of publishing a luridly detailed description of Lefroy’s execution.
In 1891 Oscar Wilde opines that “waistcoats will show whether a man can write poetry or not”. That same year, though, British manhood is redeemed by a cycling marathon from London to York: the leaders completing the 200-mile journey in 21 hours 35 minutes.
Reports of the heatwaves of 1898 and 1911 inspire scepticism about the modern diagnosis of global warming. A warning not to talk about the terrible ‘flu epidemic of 1919 – “influenza is a disease that likes to be noticed” – reads strangely in the light of Howse’s gloss that 228,000 perished from the attack in Britain, and some 40 million worldwide.
After 7,202 people were killed on British roads in 1933 (compared to only 3,508 in 2003), the driving test is introduced, along with the 30 mph limit in built-up areas. The first Telegraph crossword appears on July 30, 1925, five years ahead of the Times. In 1935 the Telegraph’s radio critic hazards that one day all important happenings on Earth would appear on television. In 1940 the German Army is given a phrase book to use after conquering England: “Where is the cash?” “I confiscate it all.” In 1954 Roger Bannister runs the first four-minute mile, causing the Oxford Union to adjourn for three minutes 59.4 seconds.
Every page yields its own riches; in the end, though, this book adds up to more than a miscellaneous collection of unrelated facts. Christopher Howse has taken care that items from the modern period should echo those from the Victorian age. The reader’s final impression is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And his first impression on closing the book may well be that many a Christmas present problem has been solved.