IFLANET home - International Federation of Library Associations and InstitutionsAnnual ConferenceSearchContacts

63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Newsletters and newspapers: the circulation of news in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries

Henry L. Snyder
University of California at Riverside,
Riverside, California, USA


My interest in newspapers stems from my work as an historian. I am a specialist in British history in the 17th and 18th centuries. When I began work in English archives in the early 1960s I kept running across material relating to the production and dissemination of newspapers in the reign of Queen Anne. When I explored the printed sources I discovered this manuscript material was new and important and published it. Then I began to use newspapers and periodicals for my studies and discovered intriguing new information about authorship and press control. This, too, found its way into print. Along the way I came across manuscript newsletters and this opened up a whole new and valuable source to me, a source that I found was little known and less understood.

My current interest was developed in another fashion. Soon after the conferences that were held in 1976 that led to the creation of the Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalog (ESTC), I read of the publication of the minutes and sent for copies. In reading them I found that the participants had decided to eliminate periodicals from the ESTC because of the differing cataloging requirements and the complexities of describing them, especially holdings. This prompted me to writing a letter to the organizers protesting their omission. The response was an invitation to join the advisory board. A year later, in 1978, I was asked to become the director of the ESTC for North America. My life was changed forever, whether for better or worse is not relevant to my paper today!

The scope and format of the ESTC was already decided when I took over and not then subject to change. But over the years as I became more and more involved I did persuade my colleagues to make modifications. We extended it backwards in time from 1701 to the introduction of printing in England, ca. 1473, at which point the ESTC became the English Short Title Catalog. For the earlier period we enlarged the format of the record to full AACR2 requirements. And then finally, I persuaded my colleagues again to expand the scope, this time by adding serials. It was agreed so long as my team undertook the full responsibility! I had come full circle with the ESTC. And I want to share our goals and progress with you now.

Let me begin by describing briefly the early history of news publications in England and how they led into the newspaper. The first printed news publications were broadsides, single sheet material. The earliest surviving is a fragment only announcing the British victory at Flodden Field in Flanders in 1513. Throughout the 16th century news bulletins continued to appear. By the last decade of the century they were becoming more numerous and took the form of news pamphlets. England was at war on the continent from 1589 to 1604. The public was eager for information about the conduct of the war where England was aiding the Northern provinces in the Netherlands in their rebellion against Spain. The news pamphlets supplied this need. They seemed to appear in a steady flow, and a handful of printers, notably John Wolfe, was primarily responsible for their production. These news pamphlets have a very special interest for scholars now, because they are recognized as a major source employed by Shakespeare in writing his plays. Plots, events, names, at times extended quotations or paraphrases all reveal all Shakespeare incorporated them into his texts. This was all commented on at some length over fifty years ago. But they have been studied in greater detail and with closer attention to their use by Shakespeare in a recent Ph.D. dissertation which I hope will one day see its way into print.

The first English newspaper or coranto was not published until 1620. It was published not in England but at The Hague. From 1620 to 1642 some 349 separate issues of English corantos or newsbooks have been identified, but Folke Dahl, who published the standard list, was frustrated to find that for the period May 1625 to 1631 he was only able to find twenty-five of the 250 newsbooks he believed were published. In all he was able to locate 349 different issues. But they were widely scattered, 100 of them, for example, were dispersed in thirty-seven different libraries and archives. Sixty-four unique issues were found only at Belvoir Castle. These newsbooks have general been treated as monographs not serials and are so recorded both in the major online databases and in the Short Title Catalog. Accordingly we have cataloged them as monographs in the ESTC.

It is with the English Civil War that the production of news publications as serials actually begins. Our serials cataloging begins then with the period after 1640. With the outbreak of the English Civil War censorship was temporarily abandoned. Moreover, the public thirst for news in this tumultuous period spawned the first considerable periodical press in England. Once the Parliamentary forces instituted firm control censorship was resumed and the number of periodicals severely curtailed. The relaxation of censorship did not occur again until the period of the Popish Plot, 1678-1682, and a similar phenomenon regarding the periodical or newspaper press prevailed. In 1682, when the government was once more firmly in control, this outburst was squelched. Even the Glorious Revolution did not bring substantial change because the new regime of King William found control of the press as vital as did its predecessors. Only when it was forced to abandon censorship by contesting political forces in 1695 was the press finally and irrevocably unleashed. An admirable recent bibliography compiled by Carolyn Nelson and Matthew Seccombe provides a detailed listing of the later seventeenth century newspaper press, providing both titles and holdings. The total number of title entries comes to 711.

It is the eighteenth century periodical press that has yet to be adequately surveyed. The great explosion in the periodical press that began in 1695 continued relatively unchecked right through to the end of century and beyond. It is the eighteenth century that defined the format, the content and the frequency of publication that characterizes the newspaper in the English-speaking world to this day. The first daily, the Daily Courant appeared in 1702. The first provincial newspaper probably appeared in the same year, although whether in Bristol, Norwich or Exeter we cannot say, no copies from this year survive. The features we find in today's newspapers - the editorial, the essay, advice to the love-lorn, the news, advertisements, all came into being before the first decade of the century was over. Not only the features, the format of the newspaper was also a product of the first half of the eighteenth century.

Newspapers proliferated so rapidly in England after the beginning of the eighteenth century, that the government of the day considered reimposing censorship again. The heat of party fever which reaches a fervor in the election of 1710 it was not to see again for over half a century, and the deep divisions in public opinion about the conduct and impact of the War of the Spanish Succession, were the catalysts. But formal censorship was not practical, given the volatility of parliament and the nature of shared government which became a reality by the end of the seventeenth century. Instead the government resorted to a tax to control the press; a half-penny for each half-sheet, a penny for each full sheet. Most London newspapers were half-sheets, although the evening newspapers tended to be quartos, a bifolium.

The government reckoned without the ingenuity of the publishers, especially the provincial newspapers publishers. The act said nothing about a six page newspaper, that is, a sheet and one-half. Consequently the provincial newspapers went to this format and escaped taxation altogether. And even the London press was only dampened temporarily. The press wars continued as acrimonious as ever. The government of Robert Walpole tried again in 1727, now covering the loophole that had been created. The publishers responded in two ways. They increased the size of the sheet - with the cooperation of the paper makers - so that it corresponded in dimensions to that we are familiar with today. They also reduced the size of the type so that they could cram more news onto the sheets. Thus was the modern newspaper in typography and format created. And even though the tax finally lapsed in 1832, the impact is still with us in the newspaper we buy off the newsstands. And we must recognize the economies of printing an issue on a single sheet rather than multiple sheets. The requisite number of copies could be printed much faster.

Even though censorship lapsed in 1695 they were other mechanisms the government could use to intimidate the press. General warrants were employed to seize press and paper stocks and incarcerate those involved. This threat lasted until the furor over the North Briton by John Wilkes in 1763 which ultimately led to the abolition of general warrants. Libel suits where another threat. Under English law the judge, not the jury, determined the existence of libel and the courts generally sided with the Crown. It was not until 1792 and Fox's Libel Act that the responsibility for finding libel was transferred to the jury.

The threat of government action was such that newspapers and their predecessors until well into the eighteenth century focused primarily on foreign news and were very circumspect in reporting domestic news. And the privilege of parliament which protected the secrecy of debates, originating as a defense against intervention by the crown, prohibited their printing. No account of debates were printed at all until the Anne's reign at the turn of the eighteenth century when summary accounts began to appear in annuals, then in 1711, monthlies, and finally in the 1740s compilations devoted strictly to debates.

Because of the restrictions on printing political and parliamentary news, another medium was used to circulate this information to the public, manuscript newsletters. I don't need to tell this audience that newspapers from the hand press era are generally quite rare. Few complete runs survive. Sometimes not a single issues survives. But their scarcity pales when set besides that of newsletters. The newsletter has a long and honorable lineage. A continental innovation, it was produced on a wide scale throughout Western Europe, by both official and private entrepreneurs, by the end of the sixteenth century. Continental newsletters also circulated in England. But it was not until after the Restoration (1660) that their production began on a regular basis in the British Isles.

The initial impetus was taken by the government. The secretaries of States were responsible for intelligence, both domestic and foreign. They had a built-in network of informants through the members of the embryonic diplomatic service abroad and the post office in the British Isles. There was a quid-pro-quo. In order to assure themselves of a steady supply of reports, the news they received had to be summarized and sent out to the members of their intelligence system. In this manner the Secretaries' news service was born. It remained their monopoly for nearly two decades, first the work of one newswriter, then two when the two Secretaries entered into competition with each other, about 1666. The birth of the Whig opposition in the late 1670s, coinciding with the development of the coffee house, and the introduction of the Penny Post in 1680, created the conditions for a whole series of rival, unlicenced newsletters by Whig writers, capitalizing upon the demand for news.

Even after the Revolution of 1688 and the lapse of censorship in 1695 they continued to flourish, because of the other means the government employed to restrict political and parliamentary news. Withal how the newsletter flourished, how they were prepared, how purveyed, the extent of the circulation, even the names of the writers, remain shrouded in mystery. The newsletter reached the height of its influence between 1689 and 1714, because of the almost continuous series of war in which Britain was engaged, the demand for news about the wars, and the intense political debate, the battle of the parties, which characterized the period.

Newsletters were an international medium. The Hague was the center of news production because of the permissiveness of the government, and the decentralized nature of the Dutch Republic. But the major purveyors were French Huguenots, exiles from Louis XIV's Catholic Majesty. English newsletter writers took their information from continental letters. English newsletters, in turn, were sent to the continent. There were no copyright restrictions.

The best known writer was John Dyer, who flourished through the period I have described. He was a right-wing Tory, even a Jacobite. But his letters were avidly read, by Whig and Tories alike. The spicy and tart nature of his letters, like Westbrook Pegler or Walter Winchell in the United States in mid-century, was a major draw. And he had good gossip, unobtainable through any printed source. He also included snippets of parliamentary debates, though he was hauled before the House of Lords more than once and admonished and forbidden to continue. The compromise reached was that he would circulate his letters only outside London. He continued to include the parliamentary news until his death in 1713.

After 1714 it would appear circulation declined rapidly. The proliferation of newspapers, especially in the provinces, the relaxing of restrictions on domestic news, the end of England's involvement in continental wars for four decades all took their toll. They survived for a time as manuscript tails to printed newspapers, but by mid-century even these had disappeared.

When I began to study these newsletters I learned from the standard bibliographies that very few survived. William T Morgan, the respected compiler of the most detailed bibliography of Anne's reign said he could locate only four. My searches were much more successful. I found some 1,500, in some cases three to five copies for the same date. This reflected their wide circulation. In all I found more than 5,000 (the number may be up to 7,000) now for the period 1666 to 1714. From them we can write about their nature with some degree of confidence.

One curious discovery I made was that the several series were paraphrased and summarized in what is usually described as Narcissus Luttrell's diary, a publication for the 1666 to 1714 printed in 6 volumes by the Clarendon Press in 1859. It soon became clear to me that Luttrell subscribed to several series, and his diaries consisted of no more than extracts. Nothing was original to him. In fact the originals are far more important because they include information and names Luttrell omitted. So, too, the diary of Thomas Hearne (1705-1735) I found contained extensive verbatim extracts from Dyer. In other words scholars had been citing these newsletters for more than a century but were unaware of the source of the information.

But back to the printed newspapers. When I began to write a program for entering them in the ESTC I had to first determine how many were published and where they could be found. This was not an easy matter. The only publications that treated the whole of the period from 1640 to 1800 in any detail were The Times Tercentenary Handlist of English and Welsh Newspapers (TTH), which appeared in 1920, and the lists in the successive editions of the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (CBEL), the most recent of which was published between 1969 and 1977. We have gained information on Caribbean, American and Canadian newspapers from other sources. I estimated 3,500 serial titles in all, the majority of which were newspapers. But title changes, dictated by AACR2 will run that total up over 4,000.

Under AACR2 rules a new record is to be created each time a serial changes title. Thus the Dublin Gazette for which some forty-six numbered issues have been identified will actually be recorded as three separate titles, for nos. 1-10 were published as The Dublin Gazette, nos. 10-40 as Dickson's News Letter and nos. 41?-46? as The Dublin News Letter, all published in 1727. The London Gazette which started in Oxford as The Oxford Gazette in 1665 and then was moved to London in 1666 will generate two records, though the numbering runs continuously. Seventeenth and eighteenth century newspaper publishers were not concerned by the precise rules and definitions imposed by twentieth century catalogers!

When the non-juror Charles Leslie started his Rehearsal in 1704 to combat the fiercely Whig Observator, he entitled the first issue The Observator. The second issue was the first to bear the masthead The Rehearsal, as did the third and fourth issues. For the fifth and sixth he used The Rehearsal of Observator, &c., reverting to The Rehearsal for number seven, ten, twelve and thirteen. The alternate title was employed, however, for eight and nine, eleven and fifteen through fifty. It was only with issue number fifty-one and succeeding issues that the definitive The Rehearsal was consistently employed. This lasted until the newspaper ceased publication with number 398 in 1709. There is one other aberration. Number fourteen is headed The Observator's Tryal and Defence This Good Day! Fortunately there is an escape clause in the AACR2. Changes between two names within a year permit us to employ a single record. But the odd number fourteen would have to be noted. And, indeed, CONSER, the national serials database, does permit separate records to be created for special issues, even if they are also included in the record for a run of the serial. In the case of The Rehearsal then, two records, one serial, one monograph, would be created. The problem does not end there, however. Unsold issues of the newspaper (and some reprints) were bound up periodically with a special title page and sold as four separate volumes. This composition also qualifies as a monograph and will be entered in the ESTC.

Title changes are not the only factors that spawn new records. Under AACR2 rules each version of the title must have its own record. As an example, consider the Mercurius Politicus, a relatively long-lived newspaper dating from the Civil War. Fortunately through its run of 616 numbers of a period of eleven years the title seems to have remained uniform so that only a single record need be created. However, it has been filmed separately by two commercial publishers. Under AACR2 rules each film version must have its own record. Finally a hard copy facsimile version was also published in 1972 by Cornmarket Press. This version will generate a fourth record. The record itself, will be identical in all four cases, except for those fields which distinguish one version from another. But here we diverge from AACR2. The ESTC is a union catalog. We believe it is an aid to the researcher to have all formats of an identical title included as part of the same record. So we create a record for the title, essentially a record for the original issue, and we had a note in the 533 field for the facsimiles, identifying each one. I have long felt that the addition of citations to facsimiles is an important asset of the ESTC. It tells the scholar where a copy of the text - original or facsimile - can be accessed most easily.

A third factor we must take into consideration is that when a newspaper begins a new number system, or starts over again with number one, a new record is triggered. For example, we must determine how to deal with the Votes of the House of Commons, which were numbered separately for each session and were issued only when Parliament is in session. Hence there is a break every year. In Nelson and Seccombe each year receives a separate identification number. But if we follow this practice and create a record for every year, we would generate over 100 records for the Votes alone! It is our current expectation that we will create a single record and deal with the numbering problem in the holdings section. At the same time we must note that, like The Rehearsal, the Votes were not only sold individually, daily as they were published. They were also bound up at the end of each session with a new title page and sold as a set. Thus each session is listed as a separate monograph in the ESTC. Finally, included and numbered among the Votes were addresses of the Commons to the sovereign and other special issues. Many of these have already been entered in the ESTC and Wing as monographs. AACR2 rules provide for listing individual issues of a periodical of this kind as well as runs. We may well follow this procedure and then eliminate the records in the ESTC database. This will require analysis for each occurrence of this nature in order to make a determination.

The ESTC is a union catalog. We will add all the holdings information we can elicit. Where will we get the information to build the file? We created the records for some 400 titles when cataloging the Thomason Tracts in the British Library to provide access to a microfilm set. Parenthetically, let me note that there were 310 entries in Nelson and Seccombe for those titles. By following AACR2 we found that there are ninety-two title changes which will led to additional records. In like manner we cataloged the single most important eighteenth century collection, the Burney collection again through a microfilm set. Microfilm sets are a valuable source. We are fortunate that early American newspapers were also issued in a microform set which had been cataloged by the American Antiquarian Society. Their records will be incorporated in our database, adding nearly 1,000 more.

There are two major national surveys that are of particular value. The British Library in cooperation with the Library Association created Newsplan. Dividing the British Isles into ten regions, editors were appointed to compile a record of all the newspapers published in those regions and also record the longest available runs as a preliminary to microfilm. Most of those volumes have now been issued. Newsplan is not a union catalog, however, and in the case of titles where only partial runs or scattered issues are located in any one institution it does not provide the fullest composite record which our project hopes to create.

In the United States the United States Newspaper Project has a similar goal, to record all the surviving titles and holdings of newspapers published in the country. The project is being conducted on a state-by-state basis. I direct the California project. It is a massive effort and attempts to be exhaustive. Over 100,000 records have been created in the national serials data base, CONSER. Holdings are entered in OCLC. But this project has little relevance for us. As I have noted early American newspapers have already been cataloged. The project does not record the presence of foreign titles which is our special concern.

Our discussion to this point has focused on identifying and recording the many titles which appeared in our period. The existing sources are incomplete and conflicting. No comprehensive survey has heretofore been attempted. But what is true of titles is even more true of locations. While it is unlikely that newspapers and periodicals are to be found in all 1,500 repositories reporting to the ESTC, we must also note that the holdings of only a select number of institutions is recorded in the few existing surveys.

Insofar as catalogs or lists focused on the pre-1801 period are concerned, there exist for the United Kingdom only two surveys, both devoted to the provincial press and only covering the first half of the century. Yet a library like St. David's University College, Lampeter, records eighty-four titles, practically all of them published in the seventeenth or first quarter of the eighteenth century. Robert Munter's survey for Ireland is again limited to the period to 1750.

In the United States the situation for British publications is not much better. Crane and Kaye, published two-thirds of a century ago, is limited to sixty-two institutions. It is essentially limited to the Northeast with one institution in Texas and three in California. Some years ago an update was projected by Robert Gosselink (Waterloo University) and Nancy Lee-Riffe (Eastern Kentucky University), but that project was subsequently given up.

There are, however, two general union catalogs of periodicals, one for the British Isles, and one for the United States, that do add substantially to the above. They are The British Union-Catalogue of Periodicals and The [U.S.] Union List of Serials. Each has its limitations. The last volume of the former was published in 1962, the latter in 1965. Moreover, they cover all periodicals or serials in any language published at any time up to the time of compilation. The Pre-1801 material can only be found by a time-consuming page by page search of each multi-volume work. They do not provide full details of holdings and, in particular, cannot be relied on for early printing, most of which is housed in special collections departments and not in main serials collections.

The Center has developed a sophisticated database for managing serials projects. Utilizing the CUADRA STAR software on a UNIX-based system, it has created a database of all available information on the existence of California newspapers in California, holdings sites, facsimiles, and references sources, to identify, monitor and record the surviving California titles in repositories in that state. We are creating a parallel database to control the English serials project. The information recorded in the reference works already cited plus other relevant sources will be entered in the STAR system. It currently contains XXX entries, some of which are undoubtedly duplicates. This will give us a checklist from which to work.

At first we intended to create the records in CONSER, the national serials database, maintained by OCLC. But the record, designed for current publications, is limited to title, frequency, place and date of publication and a limited number of cross references. Consequently we decided to create them in RLIN for loading into the ESTC, so that we could follow relevant rare book cataloging rules. In STAR we can record in addition citations to published and unpublished sources that will help to illuminate the history of a specific title. As we can download and upload MARC records into the STAR database we can add the full ESTC record to the file as it is produced. Once the project is completed, The STAR database can then be used to produce a union list, together with reference citations that will form a valuable new research tool for accessing early English periodicals.

So we are contacting institution by institution those libraries we know to have major collections. We will have to do the same in Britain and Ireland. After that we will ultimately have to revisit or contact all the institutions that have contributed to one of the three constituent parts that make up the English Short Title Catalog. The basic record construction and listing of major collections is going rapidly. The completion will be long and drawn out.

We currently have 1,500 records in the database. When we load the early American titles it will jump to 2,500. That may be as many as 60% of the whole. We are making good progress. That goal scholars have long sought, a union bibliography of English newspapers and periodicals, in a form which may be constantly updated, is within our grasp.