In 1887 Matthew Arnold described the ‘New Journalism’ of Victorian newspapers as something ‘which a clever and energetic man has invented’. Arnold felt that the ‘New Journalism’ had generous instincts but was marred through being ‘featherbrained’. Frank Harris edited The Evening News from 1883 to 1887 and increased its circulation from 7,000 to 70,000. He said something similar to Arnold. ‘Kissing and fighting were the only things I cared for at thirteen or fourteen and these are the things the British public desires.’ Over a hundred years later the phrase ‘New Journalism’ was borrowed to describe the American journalism of Tom Wolfe and others.

Not every editor was as cynical as Frank Harris.  Commercial considerations prevailed for all the newspapers but at the Pall Mall Gazette the editor W T Stead was committed to social reform and was famous for his campaign against child prostitution. His campaign had a positive impact. Because of legislation that was nicknamed the ‘Stead Act’, the age of sexual consent was raised from 12 years of age to 16. ‘New Journalism’ had a different style to the dry reports of Parliamentary debates that dominated the pages of The Times and The Telegraph.   The prose was defined by shorter sentences and paragraphs, and the radical newspapers focussed on human-interest stories.  Drawings taken from wood engravings were utilised, and headlines became bigger. The poet Algernon Swinburne was offended by the new and sensational prose. Neither did he care for stories about ordinary people. Swinburne dismissed the Pall Mall Gazette as the Dunghill Gazette.


Not all the newspapers had the same priorities but campaigning editors realised that they could make news and advance political activity and reform by identifying establishment skulduggery.   The periodical Truth was founded by Liberal politician Henry Labouchére.   Truth had one objective, to report financial and political scandals.  In 1887, T P O’Connor established the radical newspaper The Star.  He appointed the talented and principled editor Ernest Parke.  Radical editors, investigative journalists and the fashion for ‘New Journalism’ all combined to hold a neglectful establishment to account. These journalists and their editors felt justified in sensationalising the crimes of Jack the Ripper. They believed that the crimes of the Ripper and the failure of the police reflected an unacceptably unequal society.  As the murders of Jack the Ripper increased, so did the activity of the newspapers.  Extra editions appeared, and the Evening News, The Star and The Echo had to keep their presses operating twenty-four hours a day.


In the years between 1801 and 1821 the annual production of newspapers in Britain had more than doubled from 7 million copies to 16.3 million copies.  In the 35 years before the murders of Jack the Ripper in 1888 the number of newspapers in Britain increased from fourteen to 168.   This happened because more people wanted to read about the latest news and because newspapers became cheaper to produce and distribute. Education was valued by the Government because it was believed that it helped ordinary people to understand their place in society and the merits of their superiors. The education offered was basic and sparse but popular religious Sunday Schools made a significant contribution to the spread of basic literacy.

Before 1695 the content of newspapers had needed Government approval. This meant that there were none.  The first British newspaper, the Norwich Post appeared in 1701.  In the first half of the eighteenth century newspapers were expensive, as much as seven pence but despite the price the number of readers increased.  Newspapers and magazines could be rented from reading societies, and coffee shops and bars also lent newspapers to their customers for a penny.   In 1833 The Exchange Coffee House in Manchester took 130 newspapers a week.  In Liverpool its first newspaper appeared in 1855.

broadside ballads

By the time The Star arrived in 1887 to launch its radical political campaigns it could limit its price to a halfpenny.  The daily and Liberal newspaper Morning Leader also cost a halfpenny.  By 1888 The Times was able to reduce its price to three pence and The Telegraph was on sale for a penny.  Not only were more mills producing paper, they were more mechanised and had lower unit costs.  On the railways the trains could distribute papers at speed and at less expense. There were also more outlets. Newsagents led by the growth of W H Smith doubled in number.  Insulated cable wire was laid under the Channel and the Atlantic, which meant that telegrams could bring news quickly to newspaper offices. The telephone was patented in 1876 and used by journalists from 1879. Most important of all the stamp duty on newspapers disappeared.  In 1800 the stamp duty had been 4 pence per newspaper. Some proprietors published their newspapers without paying the tax. The Government offered a reward to those who reported proprietors that broke the law. The duty was reduced to a penny in 1836 and abolished in 1855.

The Metropolitan Police did not cooperate with journalists during the Ripper investigations for what they thought were sound operational reasons but neither was there empathy between the two professions.   In 1888 Fleet Street was already established as the centre of the newspaper business in Britain. Printing had begun there in 1500.   The journalists were noted for their consumption of alcohol and irreverence. Fleet Street was surrounded by pubs. The area was referred to as ‘little bohemia’. Policemen did not welcome bohemians.


At The Star the owner W T Stead and his editor Ernest Parke were unforgiving towards Sir Charles Warren, the head of the Metropolitan Police.  On the 13th of November in 1887 Warren had authorised police to halt a demonstration in Trafalgar Square of 30,000 against unemployment. The numbers of police and the extent of casualties are disputed but there were a lot of policemen, possibly as many as four thousand. The tactics of the police were provocative, and their implementation was heavy handed.  People were injured, and the newspapers prepared sensational reports to complement indignant editorials.

In 1883 in London there were fifteen morning newspapers and nine evening papers. By 1888 working class readers could choose between the Weekly Dispatch, Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, The Daily Graphic, Reynolds Weekly Newspaper, The Star and others. The radical newspapers regarded the Home Secretary Henry Matthews as an ineffectual ditherer and Sir Charles Warren as a military martinet. The Times and The Telegraph were conservative and more loyal to the Government.   In The Times letters from readers and the odd article suggested that the victims, because they walked the streets instead of staying indoors, were responsible for the crimes of Jack the Ripper.



The Times, The Telegraph and Observer relied on a sober style to appeal to their affluent and educated readers. To achieve commercial success in the popular market editors filled half the newspaper with what was regarded as ‘sensational coverage’ and used a lot of what was left to earn revenue through advertisements.   Advertising had been an established method of earning income from 1750, and by 1888 the advertisements were crucial to the financial stability of newspapers and magazines.   The advertising was relentless and fanciful.  Medical quacks advertising their services and dubious products were a reliable source of income for newspaper proprietors. The Victorian middle class was fashion conscious and provided an expanding market for new creations and inventions. A middle class home was packed with gadgets and ornaments.  Little of that consumption filtered down to the working class but this did not preclude an interest from the poor.  Readers liked looking at advertisements.   The Exchange And Mart was first printed in 1868. It had advertisements and also offered readers the opportunity to sell their own items.   Saturday papers that specialised in football were also popular.  Jack the Ripper may have been killing women but people, mainly men, liked to watch football matches. The FA Cup Final of 1888 was held at the Kennington Oval, and 19,000 football fans watched West Bromwich Albion beat Preston 2-1. The match programme sold for a penny. Referee Colonel Marinden had developed a passion for football at his Eton College.


The political agenda of newspapers in 1888 resurrected the political unrest of the 1840s. That unrest had settled as the economy improved but it returned after the economy faltered in 1876 and the Great Depression arrived.  ‘New Journalism’ was inspired by the need to make money but it would not have happened without social discontent.   More than any other journalist the right wing Tom Wolfe was associated with the American ‘New Journalism’ but its success depended on the radical social and political attitudes of the 1960s.

‘Penny Dreadfuls’ were popular in the 1840s and their success in serialising crime stories would have persuaded newspaper editors of the economic benefits of sensationalism. Pamphlets appeared after dramatic murders and sold as many as half a million copies. Reporting the crimes of Jack the Ripper created business opportunities. The sacrifice of poor, exploited and unfortunate women meant that some households not only had economic security and affluence but their members had a real interest in what was being advertised in the more expensive newspapers and magazines.                          

 Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.