Today (December 4) in London History – A Great Newspaper is Born

The oldest Sunday newspaper in the world arrived on December 4, 1791. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s been described as the most iconic jump-cut in cinematic history. I’m talking about the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey. The ape-man, in triumph – he’s just used it to kill an enemy – flings his weapon, a bone, presumably a femur, into the air whereupon the bone transforms into a space station. Thereby propelling the timeline of the narrative forward by four million years.

Now I’m going to marry that to a personal story. Me as an 11-year-old kid – long time ago, now – on my paper route, flinging the rolled up and rubber-banded paper onto the customers’ front porches as I cycled by.

Now many years later I’m going to deliver a newspaper again, fling it toward a porch. But instead of that action propelling our timeline forward, it’s going to propel it backward. Quite a ways but nothing like Kubrick’s four million years. 

Back 231 years, to be exact. To be even more exact, back to this day, December 4th, 1791.

And our newspaper isn’t the Telegraph Herald in small-town America circa 1958. It’s the Observer. And we’re in London. The Observer, the Sunday paper I have delivered and read here in London. The oldest Sunday newspaper still published.

And for the record, the Observer was already a grizzled veteran – 60 years old when the New York Times – pitched up.

Now all of that information is readily available on various Internet timeline ticker tapes. But we can do better than that. We can go the extra mile, as the cliche has it. We can go back to 1791 and read that first issue of the Observer. See what’s in it. See what would have been the talk of the town that day in 1791.

First thing to note is that the paper was free. It made its money by advertising. So let’s start with a couple of the ads. They mainline us right back to that period in London history. So, for example, Mr Smith at the corner of Golden Square. He’s got a remedy for gout, rheumatism and scurvy. He’s promoting it with testimonials from satisfied customers. Among them, John Andrews, the Master of the Nottingham Coffee House in Covent Garden. What John Andrews has to say sounds almost too good to be true. 

Sir, For 40 years I was afflicted with both gout and scurvy. I had pains and dizziness in the head for upwards of 20 years, accompanied with almost a loss of sight. I had likewise a bad digestion, a violent pain in the loins, an obstruction of urine, and my face was full of blotches for near 40 years. I had besides a loss of memory and generally confined to my bed every six weeks for that period. When I applied to you, Sir, you may remember I was not able to walk, nor could I walk any for three years before. After being under your care for only a few days, I was so far recovered as to walk more than 12 miles with some friends to dinner, which I had not done for many years. In a few weeks I was entirely cured, and am now a living evidence of your great merit, ready to answer all questions concerning my wonderful care.” John Andrews.

My goodness, I don’t know what John Smith of corner of Golden Square put into that potion of his but it sure packed a wallop. A miracle cure. 

And then there was an ad for a new Jest book, to be published the next day. The book was titled The Witticisms, Jests and Saying of Dr Samuel Johnson. What’s more it was embellished with a representation of Dr Johnson in high glee at the breakfast table of Mrs Thrale. Well, I, for one, would have taken that bait.

And then there was Sarah Chandler of the parish of St Andrew in the Wardrobe who was cured by Dr Howell of falling fits.

Wonder what falling fits were?

And how the good doctor effected a cure.

The most revealing ad was J. Burgess’s. His business was at the Foreign Warehouse, Savoy Steps, No. 107 Strand.

The ad was headlined Fine New Smoked Salmon, New Sturgeon, Pickled Oysters and new Cods’ Sounds. Cod sounds? Yes, I also wondered about that. Turns out the Sound is the swim bladder of a fish. Formerly the Sound was a highly prized delicacy.

The body of the ad begins, J. Burgess respectfully informs the Nobility and Families in general, that he has just landed a large Cargo of fine new Smoked Salmon. And we learned that he’s got Dutch Herrings and German sour krauts. And Parmesan cheese and French vinegars and Truffles. And that in a few days he’ll have choice parcels of new bologna and German sausages, with and without garlic, and wild boars’ headS. Well, you can see what’s going on here. Mr Burgess is importing high-quality foodstuffs from all over the continent and he’s got to get the word out to his customers that those delicacies are waiting for them at No. 107 The Strand.

Now what about some of the news items.

There’s a great deal in the paper about the whereabouts of the Quality, the top people. For example, we’re informed that the Duchess of York on Friday had a large party to dinner at York House. And afterwards they had a private concert. And that the Duke of Bedford will, next Monday fortnight, lay the foundation stone for a New Theatre in Drury Lane. And that when it’s completed the theatre will rival the first buildings in Europe.

And there was news from India. The first Marquess Cornwallis was beating a hasty retreat to Bangalore. Poor Cornwallis, he could be counted on to botch things up. Yes, it was the same Cornwallis who was defeated at Yorktown, which signalled the end of the American War of Independence and, yes, victory for the Americans and the loss of the colonies for the British crown. It was a world changing event, never to be forgotten, not least because of that image of the defeated British army marching away, flags furled, and the British band playing “The World Turned Upside Down.”

As for local news, London news, well we learn from that first ever Sunday Observer that “the gentleman who was gored by a tormented over-driven ox in Cheapside died of his wounds and bruises. The Observer thundered, “when will the magistracy put a final end to the barbarous and dangerous treatment of the dumb creation?” Well, in this case a member of the dumb creation put a final end to a dumb London gentleman. In Cheapside, no less. London’s main street. 

And there was rather a lot about prostitution in that first edition of the Observer. We learn, for example, that “an old harpy, living in a court near Exeter Change, has not less than five little girls in heer hovel, whom she dresses out with all the frippery of meretriciousness, and upon whose prostitution she supports an uncertain an even wretched existence – yet such is the force of habit, she prefers wickedness and misery to honest labour and competency.”

Returning to that subject later on in the issue, the Observer tells the tale of “a west country gentleman, not much acquainted with the ways of London, expressed great surprise, a few nights ago, at the flocks of chicken prostitutes which he observed before Somerset House, and which he actually mistook for the pupils of some large boarding school. One of the young misses, however, soon convinced him of his error, by granting a favour, which will probably retard his journey home for some time.” That’s a time honoured them, isn’t it. The country bumpkin comes a cropper in the fleshpots of the great metropolis. You can make of that last sentence what you want. My hunch is the young lady gave him a keepsake which is going to require a visit to a doctor and a dose of mercury. How’s the saying go, one night with venus, a lifetime with mercury. 

What else? Well, we also learned that “last night about half past eight, an active citizen – love that smug, sneering euphemism – an active citizen was detected picking the pocket of a Gentleman in Holborn; a mob was soon collected, and the poor wretch was used most unmercifully. Talk about crowing. 

I’d dearly like to know was that active citizen off on a cruise in a couple of months. I ask because of the following item. It reads:

“The next fleet of transports sails early in the month of February. The convicts in the different county jails and prisons in this metropolis are very numerous.” 

And as it happens there was an item about Botany Bay. It’s worth quoting in its entirety. Goes as follows: “The wretched, though predominant feature of Lord Sidney’s administration, should rather be called Bottomless Bay; it is in fact, a gulf of national property, and grave of natural-born subjects – the very way to it turns out to be, the way of death.

Botany Bay was devised by Lord Sydney, for Cousin Philip, who would be a governor. Before his departure, he is said to have offered an exchange with the Governor of Tothil-fields; but the latter knew too well the sweets of domestic life, and rule of suspected persons, to accept the horrors of foreign starvation and the government of convicts. Philip was therefore obliged to emigrate. He is said, however, to have formed a strong offensive and defensive alliance with the native kangaroos.” You like your sneering heavy-handed, there it is. 

Anyway, that’s about it except to say that first Observer was in many respects akin to a small local paper today. There were those announcements that you get in a local rag: births and deaths and marriages. Everybody knew everybody else’s business. London was a small town in 1791.

Anyway, there you are. You’re now up to speed with the goings on in London on December 4th, 1791. We can make our way to a coffee house and you’ll be able to hold your own in a conversation with the locals. 

And on that note, a Today in London recommendation.

I think it has to be a tour of Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the West End’s most iconic theatre. It would be good form to take that tour given that we touched down there in 1791, heard about the Duke of Bedford laying the foundation stone for a theatre in Drury Lane. That one will have been the present theatre’s immediate predecessor, but so what. The lineage is the important thing. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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