Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The Times newspaper of 1798

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There lies before us one of the most eventful pages of that eventful year, in the shape of the “Times” newspaper, of October 3rd, 1798, reprinted from the original. The “Times” of that date, compared with its present size, was a veritable infant—not much bigger, when spread open, than a lady’s pocket-handkerchief—but within its little face we see clearly its present features in embryo.

The Americans, with that self-consciousness which is so characteristic of the nation, are for ever “making history,” and fidgetting themselves as to how they shall look in the pages of some future Bancroft. What a contrast to the dull Englishman of 1798, who “made history,” especially in that year, without being at all aware of the dignity of his occupation. Let us turn over our “Times,” for example, and the first thing that strikes our attention is the account of Lord Nelson’s Victory of the Nile. Our admirals then did their fighting better than their writing—a feature which some seamen of a later date seem to have reversed. The total annihilation of an enemy’s fleet is narrated by our hero in fewer words than a Yankee commander would detail the robbing of a hen-roost. Of the French fleet of seventeen line-of-battle ships only four managed to escape. They struck hard and heavy in those days without much boasting. In another part of the paper we have a glimpse of the rebellion in Ireland, a sighting of the Plymouth squadron sent under Sir Borlase Warren to intercept the Brest fleet which was sailing to reinforce the Irish rebels.

We see the working of the dogs of war in a far more vivid manner in these cotemporary pages than in those of after history. The Anson frigate sails so near the Hoche (French admiral’s ship), that they can see “on board the whites of the eyes of the marines,” with whom she is so crowded as to cause her “to sail badly.” From Ireland again we have tidings of Major-General Trench’s defeat of the rebels, “with great slaughter,” in the neighbourhood of Killaloe; and there is a charming picture drawn of the French Commandant of the town, cooped up with his officers in the Bishop’s Palace with that dignitary, himself armed to the teeth against the very rebels he had come to succour. Then there are the paragraphs of courts-martial, in which it is thought sufficient to say “some have been hanged, and various punishments have been inflicted on others.” Little paragraphs hint at the social condition of the period, and show what a robust habit the public had of expressing their opinions; everywhere physical force was in the ascendant.

A singular example of the license which roughs were allowed in those days, is given in a paragraph which states that a mob on the previous evening gathered round the entrance of the Admiralty in honour of the great victory; and adds:

They insisted on every person of genteel appearance pulling off their hats. Six officers passing along were ordered to pay the same compliment to the mobility, and, refusing to do so, the populace attempted to force their hats off. The officers drew their swords, and it is said that some persons were wounded.

This reads like a scene in a pantomime, or like some of those little Austrian or Prussian affairs we used to hear of in which the supreme contempt of the military for civilians and the civil law was so conspicuous. Imagine half-a-dozen officers of the guard showing fight with their falchions to roughs now-a-days! Public opinion in those times of forbidden utterance through the press, generally found means to express itself in these rough and terrible scenes; and they were blunt of speech also in the most “genteel places.” For instance, there appeared to have been an unusual amount of cat-calling and abuse of the musicians at Drury Lane that night, because having been wearied with playing “Rule Britannia,” and “God save the King,” they would not listen to a boisterous cry on the part of some individual for “Britons strike home,” a demand which was silenced by some one singing out in the gallery, “Why, damn it, they have, haven’t they?” The recording of such little episodes as these is strikingly illustrative of the strong stomachs which our ancestors had for forcible language. The reader cannot read far down a column without coming in contact with specimens of the violence of that age. We are told that

John Hanning, the seaman who killed one of the press-gang at Newhaven, was discovered hanging in his cell this morning,—

a hint at a double death caused by the working of the infamous press-gang law. The poor fellow was further followed by the vindictive usages of the times, for we are told that he was buried in the evening, in the cross roads near St. Paul’s, but that the stake commonly used on such occasions was dispensed with. The highwayman and footpad it is evident were then in full fashion, for there are no less than three highway robberies recorded as having happened on the previous day. Mr. Vernon of the Treasury, and another gentleman travelling in a post-chaise were stopped near Merton, by two footpads, and were robbed of all their valuables. It does seem rather strange, that three men, for there must have been a postilion, should have so quietly given in to two rascals on foot. Lieutenant Miller of the Horse Guards was stopped by two highwaymen,” and “Mr. Couvoisier, one of her Majesty’s messengers, at Maidenhead,” in the same manner.

An affair of honour is not wanting in this number of the paper to make the manners of the times perfect, for we are informed that one came off between Captain H—— and Colonel A——, on account of a supposed injury in Ireland; and there is a forcible abduction, too, of a Miss. Mitchell, by a gentleman in the county of Cork,—which really reads like a case we heard of only a few years ago.

We have a hint, too, of a project on foot which has since been realised, namely, a tunnel under the Thames; but, in this instance, between Gravesend and Tilbury. There appears to have been just the same style of glorifying the “spirit of progress” in those days as there is now, for we hear that—

Among the wonders of the present day Mrs. Siddons’s late achievements at Brighton, Bath, and London should not be forgotten. She positively performed at each of these places within the incredibly short space of ninety-six hours.

Four days and nights! Not so bad by Palmer’s mail; but how flat and slow seem the wonders of one age to that which follows. How near the chit-chat of a newspaper brings you to past events,—you can’t help feeling yourself a contemporary. What life and movement; what petty details, all of which, however, are necessary to fill up the picture of the time, and to clothe the bones which history picks so bare. It seems as though we were talking to our grandfather when we read of John Kemble as Zanga, in the “Revenge,” “finely marking the subtle and malignant spirit of vengeance” of the Moor; and one almost feels inclined to endorse the extravagant opinion of our grandpapas, with respect to the grandiose actors in the stilted dismal plays of that day.

Mrs. Powell did not disdain the unimportant character of Leonora—a bright face like hers would indeed have lighted up any character. We wish some of the actresses of the present day would emulate her disinterestedness.

The two great political figures of the period make their appearance in several parts of the paper. Mr. Fox, we are told by the opposition papers, “does not mean to attend his duties in parliament during the ensuing session,” whereupon we have the editorial remark—the “Times” in those days was no namby-pamby Conservative, but downright Tory—

However greatly the talents of this gentleman may be rated, the want of his counsel has not proved detrimental to the public service.

The Foxites, however, understood the sneer, and estimated it at its true value, for on turning to the advertising column we find that “the anniversary of Mr. Fox’s first election for Westminster will be held at the Shakespere tavern. The Honourable C. J. Fox, in the chair.” Where was the Shakespere tavern situated? We see that the dinner tickets were only eight shillings, although dukes and earls were to partake of it, and the time was four o’clock. We have the authority of the editor, that, on October 2nd, 1798, Mr. Pitt was not laid up in flannel with the gout, as it had been reported, for—

We saw him yesterday in the Park in perfect [sic] good health.

Even in the little paragraphs, the “we,” it will be seen, is retained, giving us a notion that even such scraps in those days were picked up by the editor himself instead of by penny-a-liners as now. In the gigantic “Thunderer” of to-day, with its abstract editor, we lose these little personal touches which bring us face to face with the demi-god that launched the dread bolts in those times.

As we write, the paper-boy comes for “The Times,” from which we have extracted a good pennyworth this morning, and we see him collecting his papers at door after door, all the way up the street. What a comment this upon a little paragraph in the “Times” of October, 1798, to the following effect:

The keepers of several reading-rooms in Fleet Street have been fined 5l. for lending newspapers for hire.

What meddlesome stumbling-blocks were placed in those days in the path of the poor politician.

Whilst the “Emperor of Germany” was deciding his politics in the face of the French Directory, and the “Grand Signior,”—what old world titles these!—was acting with “decision and vigour,” poor old George III. was at Weymouth, recruiting his poor shattered brain, and certainly the Court levelled itself to the meanest capacity in its amusements, if we may judge from the programme of the fête at Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, on the anniversary of the birth-day of the Duchess of Wurtemberg—which runs as follows;

To be played for at cricket, a round of beef—each man of the winning set to have a riband.

A cheese to be rolled down the hill—prize to whoever stops it.

A silver cup to be run for by ponies, the best of three heats.

A pound of tobacco to be grinned for.

A barrel of beer to be rolled down the hill—a prize to whoever stops it.

A Michaelmas goose to be dived for.

A good hat to be cudgelled for.

Half-a-guinea for the best ass in three heats.

A handsome hat for the boy most expert in catching a roll dipped in treacle and suspended by a string.

A leg of mutton and a gallon of porter to the winner of a race of 100 yards in sacks.

A good hat to be wrestled for.

Half-a-guinea to the rider of an ass who wins the best of three heats by coming in last.

A pig—prize to whoever catches him by the tail.

This was the age of Chloes and Phyllises, of Damons and Corydons, when shepherds piped to their shepherdesses on Dresden china tea-cups, and made love in the tender verses of noble poets. We see what the amusements of the country people were, and how they attracted royalty.

If we turn to the advertisements—the glory of the leading journal of the present day—we see on what slight beginnings its present prosperity was built. The first page, as at present, and half of the last page, contained then about as many as would go into one full column of the present journal. The nature of the advertisements of the last century differed but very little from those of the present day. “Elegant villas” and desirable mansions were advertised to let in much the same style as they are to-day. Even the public auction-rooms were the same—there was “Garraway’s” in the city and “Christy’s” in Pall Mall. Patent medicines cured all diseases as at present, and Dr. James’s powder was even then sold at “Newberry’s in St. Paul’s Churchyard!”

There are some noteworthy things, however, even among the advertisements. For instance, we see that a live male elephant and 1095 elephant’s teeth are to be sold at Garraway’s “by the candle.” This hints at a custom which dates from the time of Queen Anne, and was conducted this wise: a very small piece of candle was lit, and the biddings proceeded until it went out, the last bidder before which event took place, claiming the lot. The intense anxiety existing whilst the flicker of the mould or the dip was at the last gasp, induced much competition among the bidders, but it could hardly have been so satisfactory and decisive a method of sale as the sharp rap of the hammer.

There is something very illustrative of the times in the advertisement of “Miss Rutter’s Boarding School,” in which much stress is laid upon the instruction given in “useful and ornamental needlework.” We have seen the results of this careful training in the faded old sampler work framed in our grandmother’s houses. But the Miss Rutters’ pupils were indoctrinated into the useful as well as the ornamental, for we find there was a Mr. Rutter, who offers the “inestimable advantages to the young ladies” of the indispensable graces of domestic economy, and “a thorough knowledge in writing and arithmetic.” Possibly if the present generation of young ladies were to think a little more of these things, and less of a smattering in half-a-dozen languages, it would be better, especially for those bachelors who wish to know “How to live on two hundred a-year.” But the question arises, what has become of all those young misses of Miss Rutter’s academy, of Morden Lane, Surrey? Is there an old lady in a mob cap still living who can converse of the times of her youth? or are they all gone, “the old familiar faces” whose sayings and doings, goings and comings, are chronicled in this fragile, old, old paper, which seems to smile upon us with a smile of perpetual youth?

A. W.