Today (May 14) in London History – the world’s first pictorial weekly newspaper

The world’s first pictorial weekly newspaper – the Illustrated London News – debuted on this day, May 14th, in 1842. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London Calling.

London Walks connecting. Here’s some London History – your London fix – for May 14th.

Wait for it…

Constipation pills.

And Old Parr pills.

They were the launch pad.

They were what got the world’s first pictorial weekly newspaper – the Illustrated London News – up into orbit.

Launch date – the first edition of the ILN – was today, May 14th, 1842.

Ok, some background.

The creative – I suppose you could call him that – who came up with the idea of the Illustrated London News and made it happen – was a young man – he’d just turned 30 – named Herbert Ingram. He was the son of a Boston butcher. That’s Boston in Lincolnshire, not Boston, Massachusetts.

Herbert’s father the butcher died before Herbert was a year old. What a terrible time that must have been for his mother, Jane Ingram. She’d lost her husband, the breadwinner. He’d left her with two small children – one of them, Herbert, still a baby – to somehow provide for and rear. Somehow she managed. Herbert learned first hand – learned from the get-go, learned from personal experience – the deprivations suffered by the poor.

Herbert’s education – well, it’s what you’d expect. He went to the local charity school. He was apprenticed to a local printer. 

He wasn’t without ambition. Wanted to be more than a provincial printer. Came to London when he was 20 years old. Worked two years as a journeyman printer. In 1834 he moved to Nottingham and opened a little all purpose printer-news agent-book seller’s shop. 

Being a small fry local, provincial businessman – a newsagent – no way Herbert Ingram was going to nest in that beleaguered, forlorn little tree for the rest of his life. He wanted to make money a lot faster than he could make it as a newsagent and small-time printer.

Which brings us to constipation pills. Herbert Ingram discovered them. More importantly, he discovered that they sold. They moved. So to speak.

And then he added Old Parr Life pills to the repertory. They sold too. It was pure quackery. Old Parr was said to born ten years before Columbus “discovered” the New World. Yes, you can take it as read that I’ve put that word “discovered” in inverted commas. Anyway, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. When Thomas Parr was a ten-year-old boy.

If the legend can be believed, that ten-year-old boy didn’t die until 1635. Yes, Old Parr was said to have lived for 152 years.

And the secret of his longevity? The regular taking of the Life Pills he, Parr, had concocted. God knows what was in them but they were still kicking around – still on the market – in the 19th century. And sure enough, they were best sellers as well. Herbert Ingram teams up with a Manchester druggist and businessman and became the sole distributor of Parr’s Life Pills. Ingram’s printing background came in handy.

He produced an entirely fictitious history of Old Parr, his life story. He got an engraver to work up a portrait of the old boy. Ingram had the moxie to attribute the portrait to Rubens. People fell for it. How did that American hustler P.T. Barnum, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

The Old Parr Life Story booklet sold in the thousands. And with it, no end of the Life Pills. 

Herbert Ingram was getting some capital together. And then one day he had a moment on the road to Damascus. It dawned on him that a newspaper sold well when it contained a picture or reported a shocking crime.

And that indeed displaying sketches and caricatures in his shop window drew people like flies to sugar water.

Illustrations in a shop window, an image or two in a newspaper, those were the first two legs of the eventual tripod. The third leg was his realisation that a lot of his customers were always eager for London news. 

Ingram put one and one and one together and got three. That was the conception moment for the Illustrated London News, the world’s first pictorial weekly newspaper.

Ingram came to London and set up shop. The first premises were at Crane Court, off the Strand. So right smack dab in the centre of London. 

He announced the imminent arrival of the new publication by sending 200 billboard men out on the streets of London. The big signs they carried – the placards – read: The Illustrated London News. 30 Engravings. Price 6 Pence.

The first issue sold 26,000 copies. 

That was about 5,000 copies more than the Thunderer, the Times, sold.  And the Times of course had a half-century headstart on the Illustrated London News.

By the end of the first year the ILN’s circulation was 60,000.

A decade later it was 130,000. It reached 200,000 in 1860. It was a huge success.

Just for fun I had a look at the very first edition. It was a complete ragbag – but delightful. Coverage ranged from the destruction of the City of Hamburg by fire to The Roehampton Murder to the Awful Steam Boat Explosion to Fashion and Sporting News to Her Majesty’s costume ball (it was amply illustrated of course) to a story about the obnoxious – their adjective, not mine – income tax and how it had its fangs firmly in the neck of the country to Fine Arts to Horticulture to the improvements at Piccadilly to Births, Deaths, Marriages, Bankruptcies, the Imperial Parliament, news from abroad   in addition to the Hamburg fire – incidentally the ILN was pleased to report that none of the warehouses and other buildings destroyed in the Hamburg Fire were insured by English Fire Offices. Bad luck Hamburg, lucky break City of London. )

To say nothing of hopelessly lame, benighted jokes such as, “A minister a short time ago held forth to his female auditors in the manner following: Be not proud that our blessed Lord paid your sex the distinguished honour of appearing first to a female after the resurrection, for it was only done that the glad news might spread the sooner.”

And curiosities such as: “The musket ball that killed Nelson is now in the possession of the Rev. F. W Baker of Bathwick, near Bath. A considerable portion of the gold lace, pad and silk cord of the epaulette, with a piece of coat were found attached to it. The gold lace was as firmly fixed as if it had been inserted into the metal while in a state of fusion. 

And some Irish news – remember it was the Hungry Forties – that first issue of the ILN informs us that the total number of emigrants who have embarked at Londonderry during this season is 4344. Of these, 1815 left for the United States and 2529 for British America. [Aside, so I learn that in 1842 they were referring to Canada as British America]. The story goes on to add that there were 18 vessels employed in the conveyance – yes, that’s the word they used. And it closed, “the effects of the temperance reformation among all the parties have been most remarkable.

And the big picture: Ingram’s paper outlived Old Parr. By a decade. It just made it into the 21st century. In a greatly reduced state. In 2003 – 161 years old and badly decayed, barely hanging on, down to just a couple of issues a year – it was pretty much in the condition Old Parr must have been in when he was 152.

As for its founder and proprietor, his end was pretty unhappy as well. He got into difficulties – difficulties of the Harvey Weinstein variety. Yes, in his fifties in mid-Victorian times. Decided he needed a holiday. He and his eldest son went to the American midwest. They booked a passage across Lake Michigan on the steamer Lady Elgin. A bad storm came up. Visibility went down. A schooner struck and sunk the Lady Elgin. 300 people drowned. Among them, Ingram and his son. His son’s body was never recovered. Ingram’s body washed ashore. His remains were repatriated to England. He’s buried in Boston. There’s a statue of him there. And two lifeboats were subscribed for in his memory, named after him and presented by his wife.

Nothing to add except it’s maybe just as well Ingram didn’t know what fate was storing up for his youngest son. He was killed by an elephant while on a hunting expedition in Africa.

You have to be pretty hard-headed to say something like this – but I can be from time to time – so here goes: Herbert Ingram’s end and the deaths of his sons, those stories would have been fodder for the cannon of the Illustrated London News. 

But let’s get this into a different key. Time for some numerology. Today’s the 14th. So, naturally, we need to hear from Eugene Ionesco. Here’s what he said 

about 14. “When I was born I was nearly 14. That’s why I found it easier than most people to realise what life was all about.” Can’t help but wonder did Ionesco’s mother, 13 years into her son’s gestation, did Ionesco’s mother wonder, “is this what pregnancy’s all about?”

And for a Today in London recommendation, well, this isn’t a place you can set foot in – but you can certainly lay down any number of digital footprints – it’s what I do every day and I enjoy it immensely – I’m talking about a visit to The British Library’s collection of historical newspapers.  As they themselves put it, that collection is one of the wonders of the world. It contains newspapers from 1603 to the present day, from both Britain and further afield. There are over 600,000 bound volumes of newspapers (occupying 32 kilometres, or 20 miles, of shelving) and over 300,000 reels of microfilm (occupying a further 13 kilometres, or 8 miles, of shelving). And now you can see a lot of it online. Welcome to the musket ball that killed Nelson and the white elephant walking through the streets of London (that’s coming in tomorrow’s podcast), and waving goodbye to those Irish emigrants in Londonderry, shipping out to a new life in the United States and British America.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The walking tour company invariably dialled up by those who know. Numbered among those who know, many many Londoners. We get more Londoners and their patriots than we get tourists. So there’s some sage, time-honoured advice for you, “when in London,  do as Londoners do.” 

It’s a perfect fit, savvy, discerning visitors, tack-sharp Londoners and elite guides. Guides who are well-connected, experienced, accomplished professionals:

barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Let alone London Walks’ Delta Squad members: the creme de la creme of Blue Badge, Westminster and City of London professionally qualified guides.

And on that happy note…good night and see ya tomorrow.

When we’ve got a white elephant to track down. 


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