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British Print Media, 1860s–1960s

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Authored by Adrian Bingham
Published on 31st May, 2022 15 min read

British Print Media, 1860s–1960s

The hundred years from the 1860s to the 1960s, covered in this collection, was in many respects the golden age of the print media in Britain. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a number of social, cultural, and political developments combined to provide the platform for a huge expansion in the market for newspapers and magazines: these include Britain’s rapid urbanisation and unprecedented levels of economic growth, and the associated emergence of an increasingly prosperous and literate public; the gradual development of a more liberal political environment that encouraged greater levels of discussion and debate; and technological innovations that facilitated the more efficient production and distribution of reading materials. Over subsequent decades a wider and wider range of publications emerged to serve different audiences and target specific consumer and leisure interests, and the reading habit spread throughout the whole population. This pattern of expansion and diversification only stalled in the second half of the twentieth century as new media forms, particularly television, started to compete for the public’s attention. This essay will provide a brief overview of the changing environment for the print media in this period, before introducing the main titles in the collection, and outlining some of the types of content that can be found. In combination, these publications can be used to shed light on many different aspects of British history in this era of dramatic political, social, and cultural change.


The British Print Media

In the mid-nineteenth century a recognizably modern press industry started to emerge. Journalism was transformed by the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s, which allowed news to be circulated across nations, and eventually around the globe, with far greater speed and precision than ever before. News agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters were established to collect and disseminate information to subscribing newsrooms. Steam printing and the rotating cylinder press enabled newspapers and magazines to be reproduced cheaply and efficiently, while new techniques of wood-engraved illustration made it possible for various types of graphic art to be printed alongside the columns of text. The development of photography also revolutionised possibilities for illustration, although it would take some decades before these could be effectively reproduced on newsprint. The rapidly emerging rail network allowed periodicals to be distributed across countries and regions to create a proper national mass market. At the same time, the political and economic climate was becoming more favourable for press proprietors and entrepreneurs. The so-called "taxes on knowledge" that the state had levied since the eighteenth century on print publications, paper, and advertising, were reduced in the 1830s and then abolished between 1853 and 1861. As industrialisation and the expanding empire powered Britain to a dominant position in the world economy, growing prosperity gave more and more families the small amounts of disposable income needed to regularly buy newspapers and magazines. In this buoyant economic environment the rise of branded consumer goods provided important new streams of income for the press. Retailers were keen to find ways of reaching their target audiences, and attractive newspaper and magazine advertisements, with illustrations and slogans, provided one of the most effective ways of doing so. Many publications were able to generate as much money from advertising as from customer sales.

The burgeoning press industry responded to this evolving environment with several waves of innovation. In the 1840s and early 1850s a series of successful launches – Lloyd’s Weekly News (1842), News of the World (1850), and Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper (1850) – established the market for the popular Sunday newspapers, drawing heavily on sensational crime and court reporting to spice up a diet of political, sporting, and entertainment content. In the early 1850s Lloyd’s Weekly News became the first British newspaper to reach a circulation of 100,000, while in 1896 it also became the first to break the coveted one million circulation barrier.[1] In the twentieth century, the News of the World became Britain’s best-selling newspaper, and its astonishing peak circulation of 8.44 million copies in June 1950, when it was read by half of all adults in Britain, will never be matched.[2]

In the periodical market, Punch (1841) and The Illustrated London News (1842) were similarly influential, but with a different approach: they exploited the new technologies that enabled the reproduction and printing of illustrations. Punch magazine found great success in providing humorous and satirical content for a middle-class audience, and did much to develop the genre of the modern political cartoon. The weekly Illustrated London News soon came to dominate the market for visual news, with initial sales of 60,000 copies rising to nearly 200,000 a week by 1856. The manner in which it broadened the presentation of topical information beyond text is demonstrated by its production of over 1000 engravings depicting the Crimean War in 1854.[3] The Illustrated London News’s popularity sparked the formation of a number of rival publications seeking to feed the growing appetite for sketches and cartoons. 

Another wave of innovation came in the 1880s and 1890s, decades that saw the rise of what the poet and critic Matthew Arnold called the "new journalism".[4] This period was characterised by the adoption of more concise and brighter writing-styles, a greater focus on "human-interest" and private life, and the adoption of "American" techniques such as interviews and bold headlines. Penny weeklies such as Tit-Bits (1881) and Answers (1888) found great success by providing a miscellany of intriguing facts, serialised fiction, jokes, puzzles, and competitions. New local and national evening newspapers, such as the Evening News (1881) and The Star (1888) provided punchier political reporting while also exploiting the growing interest in organised sport through match reports and results. Other periodicals targeted specific demographics such as youths (Comic Cuts (1890), Girls’ Friend (1899)) and women (The Gentlewoman (1890) and Home Chat (1895)). Perhaps most far-reaching of all was the emergence of the popular daily press, pioneered by Alfred Harmsworth’s Daily Mail (1896), and quickly followed by the Daily Express (1900) and the Daily Mirror (1903). In this period photography gradually replaced line illustrations in the pages of newspapers and magazines. By the time of the First World War (1914–18), readers expected the news to be interspersed with photo pages, and even if the worst of the horrors were censored for a domestic, war photography brought home aspects of the conflict with an unprecedented immediacy.

The growth of the print media continued apace after the First World War as circulations increased, pagination levels rose, and the demand for advertising space intensified. Britain was a nation of readers, consuming more newspapers, books, and magazines per head of the population than any comparable country: by the early 1950s, some 85% of the adult population saw a newspaper everyday, on top of high levels of magazine and Sunday paper consumption. The press had become an industry of real economic significance: its net output by the mid-1930s was higher than both shipbuilding and iron and steel, and it employed 80,000 direct employees.[5] But fresh challenges were emerging from new media forms competing for the public’s attention. The rise of cinema in the early decades of the twentieth century was supplemented by the gradual spread of radio after the foundation of the BBC in 1922. Symbolic of this shift was the rise of the listings magazine Radio Times, launched in 1923 and soon the nation’s most popular magazine, with a circulation of 8.1 million copies in the late 1940s.[6] By the Second World War, radio had become the main source of breaking news, and by 1944 over 16 million people were tuning into the BBC’s 9pm news programme. Television offered even greater competition. An experimental service had been launched in 1936, but it was not until the 1950s that television ownership spread throughout the population; from that point it captured the popular imagination. By 1961, a survey found that the average UK adult spent 13 ½ hours a week watching television, almost two hours a day.

The new media forms of the first half of the twentieth century did not signal the inexorable decline of print media, but it did spell the end of the long period of growth, and changed the dynamics of the industry. To survive, print publications had to provide readers with content that they could not find elsewhere. While illustrated magazines for a mainstream audience struggled – Picture Post, launched to great acclaim in 1938, closed in 1957 – many newspapers and magazines found ways to survive, whether by providing greater depth than broadcasting could offer (seen in the rising circulations of papers such as The Times and the Guardian, as well as news magazines such as The Economist, New Statesman and Spectator), by responding to the needs of specific target audiences (the still buoyant women’s and fashion magazine sector), or through a populism or radicalism that went beyond the respectability that still constrained BBC and ITV (tabloid press, celebrity magazines, counter-cultural publications). Such editorial strategies survived at least until the end of the century, when the emergence of the internet posed a new, and even more difficult, set of problems.


Titles in the collection

The titles available in this collection illustrate various aspects of this broader history of the print media. The Graphic (1869–1932) was launched by William Luson Thomas as a competitor to the Illustrated London News. Thomas had worked for the Illustrated London News but believed that there was room in the market for a publication which drew on a wider range of artists, and spoke more directly to contemporary social problems. The Graphic showcased the work of a number of notable illustrators, including Luke Fildes, Hubert von Herkhomer, Frank Holl, and Frederic Leighton, and together they make a significant contribution to the development of the social realist tradition in art. The Graphic’s Christmas edition, printed in colour, was particularly popular, and could generate sales of around 500,000 copies.[7] The Graphic’s success led to the introduction of a sister newspaper, the Daily Graphic, in 1890, which the following year printed the first half-tone newspaper photograph (of George Lambert, a Liberal parliamentary candidate).[8] Through the Daily Graphic, and its later rivals the Daily Mirror and the Daily Sketch (1909), photography became fully integrated into newspapers as well as magazines.

The Sketch (1893–1959) and The Sphere (1900–1964) are two further titles in the collection that reflect the expanding market for visual news. The Sketch was launched as a sister title to the Illustrated London News, and was initially overseen by one of the News’s previous editors, Clement Shorter. Describing itself as ‘A Journal of Art and Actuality’, The Sketch was designed to be a lighter companion to the News, and focused on leisure, entertainment and society gossip. In 1923 it became the first paper to publish the short stories of crime novelist Agatha Christie; it also showcased the work of authors Algernon Blackwood and Walter de la Mare, and the cartoonist William Heath Robinson. Clement Shorter went on to launch The Sphere in January 1900 as an illustrated weekly in direct competition to the Illustrated London News and The Graphic. Britain was at that time involved in the South African War (also known as the Boer War) and there was a strong focus on news from empire and overseas. Shorter declared that "The centre of The Sphere will be London but its surface will hold pictures and thoughts from all lands… showing things as they are and not how they might be."[9] One of the magazine's most noted contributors was the Italian artist Fortunino Matania, who drew everything from the 1911 Coronation to scenes from the First World War. Indeed, the war increased the appetite for news and illustration to such an extent that existing titles could not meet demand. The Illustrated London News responded by producing a separate publication, Illustrated War News (1914–18 and 1939), another title in this collection.

Other titles included here responded to the rise of specific leisure interests, or catered for particular social groups and communities. In the late nineteenth century, the increasing organisation and professionalisation of sport led to a significant growth in audiences at matches and events, and generated an associated enthusiasm for sporting information, commentary, and results. The Sporting and Dramatic News (1874–1970) met this demand, as well as providing content about the burgeoning theatre sector. Over the course of the twentieth century the dramatic content receded, and the magazine became more preoccupied with country pursuits, including equestrian sports and hunting. It also included one of Britain’s first regular chess columns. The Tatler (1901–1965) was another of Clement Shorter’s ventures, this time aimed at providing an elite audience with news about society, the stage, fashion, and travel. The publication had high standards of printing, illustration, and advertisement suitable for its wealthy audience, and featured glamorous aristocrats, fashionable entertainers, and prominent public figures on its front pages and photographic spreads. The Bystander (1903–1940), founded by George Holt Thomas, was aimed at a similarly urbane audience, and included some notable short stories, including early works of Daphne Du Maurier. It merged with The Tatler in 1940. London Life (1965–66) was a short-lived reinvention of The Tatler for the ‘swinging sixties’: while aimed at a similarly well-heeled readership, it drew its energy from the creativity of a young generation pioneering modern new types of fashion, music, and photography. Britannia and Eve (1929–1957) was formed from a merger of two existing publications, a ‘Lady’s Pictorial’ (Eve, 1926–29) and a leisure and fashion title for a mixed sex middle-class audience (Britannia, 1928–29). Broader in scope than Tatler and the Bystander, it included content on the home, health, beauty, motoring, and education, although it was also aimed at an aspirational readership with a significant disposable income. Characterised by an admiration for Art Deco illustration and design, Britannia and Eve also featured short stories by authors such as W. E. Johns.

Using the collections

This diverse collection of titles provides a wealth of searchable content on a vast range of topics. At one level it is a repository of information about events and individuals across the period from the 1860s to the 1960s. There are records and pictures of political meetings, military battles, glamorous parties, sporting contests, and dramatic performances; interviews with and articles from politicians, diplomats, socialites, designers, and authors; the latest advice about fashion, domestic life, childcare, and social etiquette; advertisements for a huge range of consumer products and services. More broadly, though, these titles provide insights into the attitudes and opinions of the period, and particularly into how contemporary thinking was shaped by social identities such as gender, class, age, and ethnicity. What sort of content was deemed appropriate for different target audiences? What shared expectations come through in the language, content, and tone of various articles? How did these publications help to define respectability, style, and good taste? How did they become channels for the encouragement of consumption and the articulation of different lifestyles? There are many different options for exploring this content, whether comparing specific titles over a defined period, studying how representations shifted over time, or contrasting how representations varied when produced for different social groups. Such is the depth of this rich and eclectic resource that it is difficult to think of a topic – political, social, cultural, economic, diplomatic, military, environmental – for which there will not be relevant – and probably unexpected – material. Happy searching!



[1] Dennis Griffiths, Fleet Street: Five Hundred Years of the Press (London: British Library, 2006), pp. 107–8.

[2] Adrian Bingham, Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life and the British Popular Press 1918–1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.19.

[3] Jeremy Black, The English Press 1621–1861 (Stroud: Sutton Publishing 2001), p.199.

[4] Matthew Arnold, ‘Up to Easter’, Nineteenth Century, 21 (May 1887), pp 638–9.

[5] Political and Economic Planning, Report on the British Press (London: Political and Economic Planning, 1938), p.3. 

[6] David Reed, The Popular Magazine in Britain and the United States, 1880–1960 (London: British Library, 1997), p. 209.

[7] ‘William Luson Thomas’, Spartacus Educational,

[8] Eric Cheadle, ‘Picture Editing’ in W.W. Hadley (ed.), The Kemsley Manual of Journalism (London: Cassell, 1950), 79, 81; Dennis Griffiths, The Encyclopedia of the British Press, 1422–1992 (London: Macmillan, 1992), 286.

[9] ILN Archive Spotlight, ‘The Sphere’,

Authored by Adrian Bingham

Adrian Bingham

Adrian Bingham is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Sheffield. He has written extensively on the history of British journalism, including Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life and the British Popular Press 1918-1978 (2009) and, with Martin Conboy, Tabloid Century: The Popular Press in Britain, 1896 to the Present (2015).

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