Bob Clarke's 'From Grub Street to Fleet Street: An Illustrated History of English Newspapers to 1899' (#booksthatgooglegivesyoudirectionsfor) is a fantastic guide to the development of English newspapers but importantly also very funny. Clarke has a gift for bringing some of the more absurd features of the early profession.:
What was Grub Street?
Grub Street is a metaphor for the hack writer. The word ‘hack’ derives from Hackney, originally meaning a horse for hire and later a prostitute, a woman for hire. Finally, it was applied to a writer for hire, a newspaper writer or a literary drudge. Paid by the line, scratching a precarious living from the lower reaches of literature, including journalism, the Grub Street hack received no public acclaim, other than the sneers and jibes of his more successful contemporaries who, by a mixture of ability and sycophancy, had found the security of a patron.
Surely one of the best newspaper correction in history belongs to the Reading Mercury in 1765 - as provincial papers would print pages as news came in during the week they could end up with corrections on page 2 for content on page 1.
Page 1 - The following melancholy accident, we are informed, happened on Friday last, at a principal Inn on the road to Reading, viz. As a Gentleman was going up stairs he met the Landlady coming down, when he insisted upon a kiss, which she complied with; but the Gentleman not content with that, attempted to put his hand into her bosom, which she resented, and pushing him from her, he unfortunately fell down the stairs, broke his neck, and expired soon after.
Page 3 -The story propagated about town (and which is inserted in the former part of this paper) of a Gentleman attempting too great a freedom with the Landlady of a great Inn on the road to Reading, and that she pushed him down stairs, whereby he was killed, is without any sort of foundation, no such circumstances having happened or been attempted; but is supposed to arise from envy; on account of the great resort of genteel company to the said Inn.
The wonderful reason 'The Times' is 'The Times'
It was founded by John Walter as the Daily Universal Register in 1785. Because the title was so long, people tended to ask for ‘the Register’, and were likely to end with the Weekly Register, or the Annual Register, or even Harris’s Register, the list of Covent Garden whores. So in 1788 Walter remained his paper The Times.
Some traditions started early
Finally, there was the series of semi-pornographic newsbooks produced by John Crouch: The Man in the Moon (1649-50), Mercurius Democritus (1625-43); and Mercurius Fumigosus (1654-55), which contained a mixture of genuine news and dirty jokes disguised as news.
Embedded Journalists (or chaplains) in the Prison System
Fuller accounts were to be found in the threepenny or sixpenny broadsheets of Dying Confessions that were hawked about the street after, and sometimes during, the execution. Many of these were the work of the Ordinary or Chaplain of Newgate. The Ordinary would try to obtain a full account of the life and crimes of the prisoner in the condemned cell under the pretense that the prisoner ought to confess all his sins to make his peace with God. If that did not work, he would travel in the cart with the condemned man from Newgate to try and wring some serviceable copy out of him. Naturally the publicity value would not be so great if the prisoner was reprieved. The Rev. James Villette once tried to prevent the last-minute reprive of a fifteen-year-old boy by telling the hangman to get on with it, as it was too late to worry about such details.
The whole thing is well worth the read if you ever find yourself with a copy.