Dr Andrew Hobbs, University of Central Lancashire
There were many more provincial newspapers than London papers in the nineteenth century, particularly after taxes on them were abolished in the 1850 and 1860s. All but the elite preferred the local paper to a London paper, and this was largely because the decentralised, networked, local nature of these publications enabled them to report, celebrate and validate readers’ lives, and the people and places they knew and loved.
That’s the argument of my new book, A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900. And here’s how I came to write it.
I was a teenager when punk rock exploded in 1976-77. I was drawn to its honesty, openness and liberating message of DIY – anyone could form a band, publish a fanzine or design a T-shirt, regardless of status, or ability. I played in a band and did a fanzine. And although punk came from the metropolitan centres of New York and London, this movement soon had multiple centres, as bands and fanzines sprang up in even the smallest town.
Then I went to Oxford, as a shy, immature, Northern, born-again Christian who loved punk. Not much overlap on that Venn diagram. I was flabbergasted to find so many people who hadn’t even heard of punk rock, let alone liked it. I didn’t have the confidence to challenge the assumption that Establishment, canonical, metropolitan culture was the only thing worth talking about. Matthew Arnold’s attitudes were alive and well.
I trained as a journalist and worked on a local paper in my hometown, Preston. I loved the job but soon got frustrated that many groups and aspects of local life were not represented in its pages. Its formula (dating back to Victorian times, I later learnt) failed to reflect modern life.
Lacking the skills to influence that paper from the inside, I left and started a local magazine that aimed to do what the mainstream press didn’t do. We tried to promote what Doreen Massey called a ‘progressive politics of place’, and a small community of like-minded people came together through the magazine, as readers and activists.
In the 1991 recession, casual sub-editing work dried up in the North West so I started doing shifts at the Observer in London. I was shocked at the ignorance of some (not all) London-based sub-editors, who didn’t seem to know the geography of their own country. I still lived in Preston, in a beautifully renovated townhouse, part of a housing co-operative I had helped to set up.
Around that time, I had an argument at a bus stop in Basingstoke, with an old Oxford friend, from another provincial town, who was intent on a career at the centre of political power – he wanted to make a difference. He admitted that he thought a life lived at the centre was worth more than one lived in the provinces. We never spoke again.
A few years later I got a job in Zambia, in southern Africa, working on sex education and HIV prevention (journalism gives you some very transferable skills). It was an education, and one lesson was that sex is a little bit natural, and a lot cultural. The more I learnt about Zambian culture, the more I thought about my own. I also came across the empty shells of various British colonial attitudes and practices, sedimented into Zambian office culture. I began to wonder how these ideas and activities had survived, and why.
With questions like these, no surprise I was drawn to history when I got back home, initially through a commission to provide historical research for a play, and then a part-time Masters. I was hooked. I loved every minute but one module in particular, ‘the North in the national imagination’, with Dave Russell, resonated, as it articulated so many of my experiences.
Next, a PhD on how the local press influenced local identities in the nineteenth century. This turned out to be a dead end – I couldn’t find any causal link between what was written about local identities in the newspaper, and the ideas or words of readers. Dave Russell, now my supervisor, suggested looking at the places where the local paper was read, and so the project broadened out to how readers used the local press, and to new kinds of evidence – records of reading rooms and libraries, auctions of second-hand newspapers, time capsules buried under foundation stones and images of local newspapers in advertising. I learnt that reading the newspaper in the 19th century was very different from our experience today.
Another breakthrough came from Graham Law’s superb book on serial fiction in local weekly newspapers (they were the main venue for new fiction for a couple of decades, which explains why Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles was commissioned by William Frederic Tilllotson, the owner of the Bolton Journal). Law pointed out that Tillotson saw the local press as a national network, as he pieced together syndicates with national reach for each novel. Of course, both local and national.
I’m not the first historian to take the Victorian local press seriously – journalism scholars including Aled Jones, Donald Read, Arthur Aspinall, Alan Lee and Lucy Brown got there first. And social historians have always used it as a source. But too much scholarship still assumes that, if you’ve written about London, you’ve written about England, or even Britain.
The receptiveness of many scholars in the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals (RSVP) gave me confidence, and RSVP’s Laurel Brake asked me to address the under-representation of the provincial press in the Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism (DNCJ), which I tried to do with the help of many contributors to the online edition.
For my PhD – and for my book – I used Preston as a case study, but the DNCJ work, and contributions to King, Easley & Morton’s Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals and Newspapers, and David Finkelstein’s forthcoming Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press volume forced me to look at the local press as a national phenomenon. So the book is much broader in scope – and significance, I hope – than the PhD.
I finished the book eight years after I finished my PhD, and I think it’s all the better for that gestation period. I sent a proposal and chapter to a prestigious publisher in 2012, but they wanted to see the whole manuscript before deciding, so I left it for a few years. I was about to try another publisher, but they had just accepted a book on the same topic – so I approached the open-access academic publisher, Open Book, as an experiment, and because open-access scholarship gets cited more. Not very noble reasons. I’m happy with the publisher, and the online edition has been downloaded more than 1,000 times in its first six weeks. The paperback edition is an affordable £23.95.
I will move on from the Victorian local press eventually, but still have some loose ends from the PhD to tie up. Andy Gritt gave me a compendium of Accrington literature, which came mainly from local newspapers. This, and Lawrence Poos’s encouragement to highlight historical writing in local newspapers, made me realise how important the provincial press was as a publishing platform. So, building on Graham Law’s pioneering work on fiction in the local press, I am now working on poetry and history in these publications.
The book comes from a mixture of love and hate. Hatred of ideas of unexamined ‘defaults’, snobbery and London-centrism, and love of Victorian local newspapers, their cultural democracy and ability to make the ordinary special, everywhere.
About the Author: Dr Andrew Hobbs is a senior lecturer in international journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, interested in provincial print culture of the 19th and 20th centuries. He is the author of A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900 (Open Book, 2018) and is currently working on a scholarly edition of the only known diaries of a provincial 19th-century journalist, Anthony Hewitson (1836-1912). Follow @HewitsonDiaries for daily extracts from the diaries.