"Of those papers for which there is the greatest sale, from four to five thousand are printed. It is not an exaggerated calculation to suppose that every paper has five readers, and that there are 250,000 people in England who read the news every day and converse upon it. In fact, after the 'How do you do?' and the state of the weather, the news is the next topic in order of conversation."
[Letters from England, vol 3, by Robert Southey, written as Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, pub. 1814]
In an age before the television or the internet, newspapers were the easiest way for a gentleman to keep up with current events. By 1790, newspapers had already been available in England for over two hundred years.
A daily newspaper would usually be four pages long, printed in very small black print. Pictures, rarely included, were black and white engravings. In November 1805, the Morning Advertiser printed "An accurate and authentic plan of the late Grand Naval Engagement between the British and combined Fleets off Trafalgar." The first use of illustration in The Times was for Nelson's funeral in 1806. However, in some newspapers, advertisements might be illustrated to draw a reader's attention. For example, an advertisement for the sale of a sailing ship sometimes included a small ship by the side, or information on a local coach could include the engraving of a coach and horses.
Often, when stories arrived in London they were already old news. Information from Paris took four days to reach London, and almost as long from Edinburgh and Dublin. News from America might take five or six weeks, and stories from Australia or India would not reach London until three or four months later.
By 1795 there were thirty-eight newspapers in London, seventy-two in the rest of England, thirteen in Scotland and thirty-two in Ireland, making a total of 158 newspapers. Of the London papers, fourteen were daily, ten were published three times a week, two twice a week and twelve were weekly papers. In 1818 "Leigh's New Picture of London" recorded fifty-one London newspapers published once a week or more frequently.
The tax charged by the government on newspapers increased the prices until they were beyond those with modest incomes. The Morning Chronicle cost six pence daily in 1801, six and a half pence in 1812, and seven pence in 1816. (four pence of which was tax)
Newspaper owners and editors were often biased in favour of their preferred political parties. Papers could change their political allegiance whenever it was bought by a new owner. A few newspapers were not interested in politics at all and concentrated on improving trade through advertising.
Middle-class gentlemen could visit their local coffeehouse or a library to read the daily newspapers, rather than buy a copy themselves. Working-class men and the poor would sometimes meet in a local inn or public house, where the vicar, schoolmaster, or another educated man would read the news aloud for the benefit of those who were illiterate.
Gentlemen and members of the peerage would subscribe to have a London daily newspaper delivered by mail to their houses in the country. Because of the time it took to deliver around the country, the evening editions of London daily newspapers were the rest of the country's morning paper the following day. Once the master of the house and his family had read it through he would then pass it on to a friend or neighbour. It was said that in some areas a single newspaper could pass between twenty people, and could even be resold down the line before being recycled.
What would you find in a newspaper?
The newspapers of the early 1800s were not so different from our local newspapers of today, except without photographs. If you'd opened the Morning Chronicle in 1812, it would have looked very much like this:
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