Today (October 20) in London History – the Sunday Times

The Sunday Times is 200 years old today. 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.

The writer G. K. Chesterton once said, “journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”

Well, this Today in London History podcast largely consists of saying ‘the Sunday Times is 200 years old’ to people who never knew the Sunday Times was still alive. And could care less. Such is the anaemic, enfeebled state of our once mighty press.  

All of which is a sign of the times, so to speak. And it’s not just the press. I remember John, my former editor, telling me a few years ago that when he was the Foreign Editor at ITN the News at Ten was regularly getting 16 or 17 million viewers a night. And now it’s less than a tenth of that. There are nights when it’s hard-pressed to rope in a million viewers.

Well, as everybody knows, it’s a different ball game today. My generation, some of us still read newspapers – indeed have them delivered. And still watch, sometimes, the News at Ten. Not so, those coming after us. They don’t read newspapers, let alone buy or have them delivered. They get their news from the Internet.

So I suppose the Sunday Times deserves hearty congratulations for making it to the ripe old age of 200, especially given that its days in the old folks home have coincided with the arrival of the internet. 

That said, selling, as it does, about 650,000 copies each week, it is outperforming its main competitors. And indeed it sells about 75 per cent more copies than its sister paper, the Times, which is published from Monday to Saturday.

Well, the circulation of the Times and Sunday Times – that’s Rupert Murdoch’s problem – not ours – with the qualification that a thriving, healthy free press is a bulwark against totalitarianism. But even that qualification has to be qualified. The state owning and/or controlling the press there goes your bulwark. But a press that’s the bailiwick of just a few oligarchs – and in consequence putting out their party line as opposed to the state’s – well, woe betide that benighted land as well. 

Anyway, for just a few minutes let’s forget October 20th, 2022. Let’s take refuge in history, let’s betake ourselves to October 20th. 1822. 

We’ve got a brand new newspaper. 

The Sunday Times.

Let’s imagine that we’ve laid our hands on a copy. Two initial points spring to mind. First of all, if we’d been clever we would have guarded that Sunday, October 20th, 1820 edition of the Sunday Times like it was a Ming vase. It’d be worth more than a house today. A lot. And secondly, no, I don’t know where we got our copy. Where they were first sold. I’d very much like to know. We do know who edited that first edition and where it was edited. That first editor was one Henry White and he edited the very first number of the Sunday Times at 4 Salisbury Court, which is, appropriately enough, just off Fleet Street. Glad to say it’s marked with blue plaque. Now there’s a bit of a back story to all of that. But hold your horses.

Apparently about 3,000 copies were printed. We’ve got our hands on one of them. Actually, I’m looking at it right now.

That first edition is four pages long.

It’s got three headings. The topmost heading – it has of course the largest, most commanding font size – the topmost heading is just the name of our brand new paper: The Sunday Times.

The lowermost of the three top headings reads, left to right: No. 1      London, Sunday, October 20, 1822.        7d

So, how much were we out of pocket for our copy of that very first edition of the Sunday Times? How much was 7d in 1822?

Be just over £4 in today’s money. Not far off from the £3.50 you have to part with for a copy of the Sunday Times today.

It’s the middle of the three topmost headings that interests me the most, though.

It reads: Let it be impressed upon your minds, let it be instilled into your children, that the LIBERTY OF THE PRESS is the Palladium of all the Civil, Political and Religious Rights of an Englishman. 

How very interesting. Right down to the capitalisation – the words Editor Henry wanted to emphasise. Maybe you can guess: that phrase, LIBERTY OF THE PHRASE, is capped in its entirety. As are the first letters in the words Civil, Political, Religious, Rights and of course Englishman. As is that lovely, fancy, learned word Palladium. Palladium means something that affords effectual protection or security.

In which connection, let’s make a connection. Let’s make two connections. 

For starters, let’s find out what was going on in the world in and about 1822. 

Well, what do you know, it turns out that just a few months before the first-ever edition of the Sunday Times rolled off the presses a new, oppressive press law was rolled out in France. That new French law prohibits sale of newspapers unless they are approved by government. That heavy-handed, smack-down French law was a one-two punch because it required offenders to be tried in royal courts, where magistrates take orders from government officials. 

And another tyrannical measure from the ancient enemy just across the channel, just four months before that first edition of the Sunday Times, the President of the Council of French Universities was put in charge of all education and all teachers. In other words, a notable victory for the Clerical Party. Remember, prominently on that front page, part of the third heading down spoke of the Liberty of the Press being the champion of the Religious Rights of all Englishmen.

And sure enough, our section connection is that Napoleon was not long dead – he died in 1821 – and sure enough that first edition of the Sunday Times had a long piece about him. The Napoleon story begins, “He is fallen! We may now pause before that splendid prodigy which towered amongst us like some ancient ruin, whose frown terrified the glance its magnificence attracted. Grand, gloomy, and peculiar, he sat upon the throne, a sceptred Hermit, wrapt in the solitude of his awful originality. A mind bold, independent, and decisive; a will, despotic in its dictates; an energy that distanced expedition; and a conscience pliable to every touch of interest, marked the outline of this extraordinary character; the most extraordinary perhaps, that, in the annals of this world, ever rose, or reigned, or fell.” Well, I don’t think there’s much question but Napoleon and his works lowered and towered over the 19th century – marked it, configured it – the way Hitler has in the modern era.

Finally, a bit of perspective about that first edition of the Sunday Times, all four pages of it. It wasn’t the first Sunday paper. Indeed, generally speaking it was a Johnny come lately. A century before it pitched up there were twelve London newspapers doing their thing. The first Sunday newspaper was the Observer. The Observer took its bow in 1791.  And in fact, the Sunday Times began life on February 18th, 1821 as The New Observer. With that name it was obviously trying to hitch a ride on the success and recognition of a paper that had already been going for 30 years. We at London Walks have had plenty of experience of little shysters trying to help themselves to our name. Anyway, 18 months later it was reborn and rechristened as the Sunday Times. 

And so it’s been ever since.

What else was in that first edition? 

Under the headline ORIGINAL STRICTURES – a piece dedicated To Our Readers. The very first line of which was – these in other words are the very first words of the Sunday Times: “We this day submit to the public a new, and, we hope attractive and useful publication, the principal object of which is to instil an invigorating spirit, suitable to the character and exigencies of the times in which we live.”

And then it proceeded to instil an invigorating spirit with foreign news, stage news, births, deaths, bankrupts, agricultural news, news of West Indian piracies, police news, the price of bread, letters to the editor, sports news and two tales, headlined respectively, Horrible Outrage and Horrid Murder. As well as the Napoleon story of course. And there you have it, Happy 200th birthday, Sunday Times.

Now normally, I’d segue here to a Today in London recommendation. And that’s coming up. But it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the other goings on this day, October 20th. A bursting at the seams, cup runneth over day, October 20th. For example, today’s the day – well, the day in 1708 – that St Paul’s Cathedral was finally finished.  And on October 20th, 1862, one Catherine Wilson was the last woman to be publicly hanged in London. And on October 20th, 1927 London got a 16-foot-high statue of a naked woman holding a sword. And speaking of naked women, on October 20th, 1960 D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover went on trial at the Old Bailey. Wheeling out the Obscene Publications Act the state opened its case against Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What a farce for the prosecution that turned out to be. But that’s another story.

Four petits fours for you for October 20th.

And a Today in London recommendation: well, why not go find the death mask of Napoleon at the British Museum. Or if that’s too macabre for you, visit that hidden gem, the St Bride Foundation, home to the largest print and publishing library in the world. And just round the corner of course from where that first edition of the Sunday Times was edited and printed. I love how that 1891 trade paper put it,“most of the great morning and evening journals are issued within its [St Brides’] precincts, periodicals are printed by the million, books are manufactured by the ton. There is probably no place in the universe of the same size wherein so much printing is done.” Their supreme confidence in their grasp of the entirety of the universe. “there is no place in the universe where so much printing is done.”

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *