Today (May 4) in London History – “the most popular newspaper in the world”

May 4th, 1896 was the birth of the popular press in Great Britain. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


If there were such a thing as a Scouting Combine for the 365 days of the year – like one of those American NFL Scouting Combine put-em-through-their paces gatherings of prospective pro footballers – May 4th would be a day that would have all the scouts, all the coaches, all the talent spotters beside themselves with excitement. Have them salivating.

May 4th’s measurables are off the chart.

For example, It was on May 4th, 1905 that the Southwark parish church, originally known as St. Mary Overie – Overie – “over the river” – the name’s a combination of English and French – became Southwark Cathedral. 

It was on May 4th, 1979 that Margaret Thatcher became the UK’s first woman prime minister. 

It was on May 4th, 2000 that Ken Livingstone became London’s first elected mayor. It was on May 4th, 1926 that the UK’s first general strike began. It was on May 4th, 1483 that a 13-year-old King –Edward V – was received on the outskirts of London by the Lord Mayor. The boy-king was in the care of his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who would install him and his brother in the Tower of London for safekeeping. The princes in the Tower. Of course they never came forth from the Tower. And when the boys mysteriously disappeared, their loving uncle, Richard Crookback, had himself crowned king.

Yes, a lot of May 4th talent at the historic London scouting combine.

But I’m going to pass on all of those and make the first pick in my draft May 4th, 1896.

The day mass-market newspapers debut in Britain.

The paper was the Daily Mail. It seriously undersold its rivals – half the price they were charging. It was billed as the busy man’s daily newspaper. It had all kinds of innovation. Short, snappy writing for one thing. A woman’s page for another. They thought they’d sell 100,000 copies that first day. In fact,  it sold almost four times that many.

Four years later they were shifting a million copies a day and it was the most popular newspaper in the world.

And to give its proprietor his due, he and his team did their homework. There were 65 dummy runs before the publication of that first issue.

And now the time has come to name names. Well, name one name.

Alfred Charles William Harmsworth. Viscount Northcliffe he became. 

The Chief. The colossus of this country’s newspaper history. The greatest figure who ever walked down Fleet Street.

Let’s meet the Chief.

He was born near Dublin in 1865. You have to be haunted by the year of his birth – because he died in 1922. He was 56 years old. So young. Alexander the Great conquered worlds and died very young. The same could be said for Lord Northcliffe.

The family was Anglo-Irish. His father was a not very successful barrister. Had a drink problem. They moved to London when the future press baron was two years ago. I was delighted when I read in his biography that declining family fortunes necessitated another move, from St. John’s Wood to Hampstead. So in 1865 parts of Hampstead were places to which the hard-pressed middle classes would grit their teeth and move to. Turns out that a neighbour bought the local paper, the Ham & High. And when the boy was a mere stripling, 15 years old, he went to work as a reporter for the Ham & High. Which, incidentally, is now regarded as the finest local paper in the land. And he was writing for other papers. So this was a newspaper baron who had ink all over his hands. He learned the trade from the ground floor up.

One of the huge delights for me of this Today in London History series is the stuff I’m learning. So I find out that young Harmsworth had a roving eye. Well, more than an eye. He makes a maidservant pregnant. His mother forces her teenage son – he’s 17 – to leave the family home and take lodgings. He takes rooms in the Temple at 6 Pump Court. I can’t begin to tell you how pleased I am to have found that out. I guide Pump Court. And now I know that the greatest figure who ever walked down Fleet Street first walked down Fleet Street from Pump Court thanks to some wild oats he’d sown. 

For the record, the product of that youthful indiscretion was the first of four illegitimate children the Chief would sire. To his credit, he provided for all of them. 

Two other London locations. London locations because we’re London Walks, that’s what we do. We marry the people up with the places.

Harmsworth’s biographer D. George Boyce, writing about the formative years of the future press baron, says, “There is no specific reason why the young Harmsworth chose to make his career in journalism, except that it was a profession in which the less than completely educated could make their way if they showed sufficient talent and made the right contacts.”

That’s delighfully well put. “The less than completely educated.”

And the recognition that journalism was a field you could excel in, whatever your educational handicaps, if you had sufficient talent. And could make contacts.

In which connection, another London place in this tale was the steps of the British Museum. Meeting there with a contact, one Max Pemberton, the youthful but already very experienced Harmsworth, trusting his instincts, opined that what the newspaper world needed was “less British Museum and more life.”

He spoke of the ‘thousands of boys and girls … who are aching to read. They do not care for the ordinary newspaper. They have no interest in society, but will read anything which is simple and is sufficiently interesting’.

What young Harmsworth was discerning was a new, huge market.

And he quite rightly recognised that new market needed a new journalism. To wit: illustrations, short paragraphs, more space for human interest stories, and catchy headlines. It’s all so recognisable today, 130 years later. Alfred Charles William Northcliffe cast the template all those years ago. A template that by and large has stood the test of time – with profound implications for our culture, for our polity. 

One more address, Lord Northcliffe died at 1 Carlton Gardens. Which today is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The official residence of the Foreign Secretary. 

Somehow madly appropriate, that. Because as the supreme exponent of popular journalism Lord Northcliffe always put country first and simultaneously always regarded Johnny Foreigner with a wary eye.

Only one other thing to add, Northcliffe styled himself N to advertise his role as the Napoleon of Fleet Street. 

Wrest his crown, his sceptre and his habiliments from him – and don them yourself – Johnny Foreigner could be turned into something British and that was all to the good.

And what am I giving you in the way of a Today in London steer. Eezy peezy. Make the acquaintance of the St Bride Foundation. The foundation houses the history of print and the skills that made Fleet Street the undisputed home of printing and publishing in London.

And as it happens they’ve got an open house – a tour, really – coming up. On May 26th at 2 pm. The address is Bride Lane, Fleet Street, London. 

Sign-off time.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. This is the point at which I normally differentiate us from the competition by stressing that we’re the only walking tour company that fronts its walks with accomplished professionals: lawyers, doctors, archaeologists, geologists, historians, etc.

And fair dues, that. But there’s another equally important angle. The people who go on London Walks. They’re sophisticated, bright, savvy, discerning individuals. A lot of them are Londoners. Which of course brings to mind the old dictum, when in London do as Londoners do.

And the thing is, a walking tour is a companionable thing. You go on a London Walk you’re going to meet people you’re comfortable with, people who are on your bandwidth.

C’est tout. See you tomorrow. 

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