Angus B. Reach

Angus Bethune Reach (Scottish Highland name, “ch” pronounced “k”) was born in Inverness in 1821 and became a prolific writer, journalist and dramatist. In his early twenties, after a short period working for the Inverness Courier newspaper, he followed his family when they moved to London where his long association with The Morning Chronicle would begin.

Charles Mackay, another contributor to their “Labour and the Poor” series, was sub-editor at the time and they became firm friends thereafter. His initial application for employment was unsuccessful due to his lack of short-hand skills, a prerequisite for working as a reporter on a newspaper. This he would soon rectify as Charles Mackay in his Forty Years’ Recollections notes in his half-chapter dedicated to Angus Reach:⁠—

Prior to the year 1841 the business of newspaper reporting was not to be considered among the fine arts, or one that required much literary ability. The great things needful for a reporter were quickness, facility in short-hand, and the faculty of abridgment so as to omit judiciously from the speech of a long-winded orator, all irrelevant matter, and all needless repetitions, to give if necessary the spirit without the form of a speech, and to be able to finish in print the sentences which too many public speakers are unable to complete when addressing an audience. The reporter was never called upon to describe anything he saw or to indulge in language of his own. His business was to hear and not to see, to reproduce the meaning and the language of others, whether in Parliament, in the Courts of Law, or in public meetings. Some of the best reporters of that and a previous time were short-hand writers only, and had no more pretensions to literature than a scene-shifter had to tragic or to comic power. To obtain a connection with journals of the highest class it was of course an advantage to a man to be something better than a short-hand writer, for the Parliamentary reporters being for the most part engaged by the year, and Parliament being in recess at least half that time, he who in the Parliamentary vacation could review books or write notices of new pieces or new actors at the theatres, was of greater value to his employers than he who was but an echo of what he heard. But beyond these two spheres of usefulness, the reporter was seldom or never required to travel. His work was almost purely mechanical, and matters of description were left to a very inferior class of men known as “penny-a-liners,” who were paid by the job, and often personally unknown to the editors to whose journals they contributed. It was their interest to spin out their reports to the greatest possible length, and to tell the story of accidents, fires, robberies, murders, and executions which formed the specialties of their business with a plethora of words and phrases that was always wearisome and often abominable. But a change was approaching. In the year 1841, a young Scottish gentleman named Angus Bethune Reach arrived in London from Inverness, and presented a letter of introduction at the Morning Chronicle office. He was just of age, and, finding his native town in the Highlands too small for the exercise of his literary talents, determined to launch into the wider sea of London, and try his fortune on the daily press. He had had some little experience on the Inverness Courier, and the letter he brought addressed to myself was from Mr. Robert Carruthers, the accomplished editor of that journal. It was a desperate venture on which he had entered, but he had a strong heart to surmount strong obstacles. And his very obstacles did him good service. His father, once the leading solicitor in Inverness, had fallen upon evil days, from the exercise—it was reported—of a too generous hospitality in the entertainment of distinguished strangers, who arrived in the “capital of the highlands,” and in his old age had found it necessary to break up his home and with his wife to accompany his son to London. It is usually hard work for a young man in the metropolis without other profession than literature to maintain himself; but poor Angus Reach had a threefold burden—to him no burden because his love, his hope, and his consciousness of genius supported him. There was unluckily no vacancy for him on the Chronicle. If there had been, he was too young and inexperienced for political work, and for the work of reporting in Parliament (for which there was always a demand in those days when every London morning paper had its own staff of reporters) he was disqualified because he was unable to write short-hand. This disqualification he immediately set himself to remove, and in the meantime, thanks to one sympathising spirit who knew his worth, and had the means in a humble way of pushing him forward—he procured occasional employment—in describing those events of minor importance, but of general interest which the public liked to read, and very speedily played havoc with the small penny-a-liners on whom the Chronicle as well as other papers had formerly been compelled to rely. His father, too—Mr. Roderick Reach—a shrewd and able man, with an excellent literary style, found employment as the London correspondent of the Inverness Courier, of which he was once the proprietor. Mr. Roderick Reach was among the first to enter into this walk of journalism, which has since been so largely trodden, and by means of the wayfarers in which the public of the provinces are kept so much more fully informed of the minor doings of the notabilities of the metropolis, and of all the gossip and small talk of fashion than the Londoners themselves. There was at last a vacancy in the reporting department of the Chronicle, consequent upon the death of the gentleman who attended the Central Criminal Court, and Angus Reach, pre-informed by myself, was the first candidate in the field. The office was not one of great emolument, but it was a certainty; and Reach, to the great joy of himself and family, obtained it. He had now got his foot on the first rung of the literary ladder, and his upward progress was both steady and rapid. A fortunate accident led to his advancement to the Parliamentary gallery, where he acquitted himself with distinction. One of the ordinary staff had been suddenly called upon to leave London on business of importance to remain absent for two or three weeks, but had begged hard to be excused for domestic and other reasons, to the great annoyance of the editor. The difficulty was to procure a substitute during the day, and it so happened that Reach was in the writing room busy in transcribing his notes. His name was suggested and found acceptance. Being asked how long it would take him to get ready, he promptly replied, “half an hour or less.” “That’s a man to get on!” said Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Easthope, “a true Scotsman, always ready.”

This fortunate circumstance raised him at once from a subordinate to a superior station, and secured him the favour of those who had power to advance him still higher.

In the capacity of a narrator of events which largely interested the public, he was constantly employed; and introduced a style till then unpractised, except in the editorial articles, by means of which he brought before the reader’s mind a vivid picture, such as a novelist would paint, of every occurrence that passed under his eye—rapid, correct, graphic, and full of life and animation. Under his influence the reader could but see what he saw, hear what he heard, and share all the emotions and excitements of an actual spectator of the scene. This was an immense advance upon the old reporting style. It immediately found imitators in other journals, and picturesque reporting became thenceforward the fashion, and has so remained to this day, when the picturesque threatens to be swallowed up by the sensational.

Following his work on the “Labour and the Poor” series where he investigated the Manufacturing Districts he travelled to France to report on rural life in connection with The Morning Chronicle’s extended investigation into Agriculture and the Rural Population Abroad. He would go on to publish “Claret and Olives” based on these travels in France. He became a great friend of Shirley Brooks who also worked for The Morning Chronicle on their “Labour and the Poor” and “Agriculture and the Rural Population Abroad” investigations and who would go on to become editor of Punch. This friendship continued during Angus Reach’s prolonged and debilitating illness, Shirley Brooks undertaking Angus Reach’s writing commitments and handing the payment for these to Angus’s wife for their ongoing support. Other writers such as William Makepeace Thackeray would give benefit lectures on their behalf. In 1856 Angus Bethune Reach died, his life and his untimely death recorded in the following obituary piece published by his early employer:⁠—

The Inverness Courier, Thursday, December 4, 1856.


We have this week to record the death of our townsman, friend, and long our valued correspondent—Mr Angus Bethune Reach. This event took place at London, on Tuesday afternoon, the 29th ult., after a long illness, the circumstances of which have been of so sad a nature, that we cannot call the final catastrophe by any but a friendly name. These circumstances are already known to our readers; Mr Reach could not long cease to delight the public with his happy, genial essays, and the cause remain concealed; and for nearly two years his familiar name has been missed, where it was once so often seen and so much respected. Let us not seek to examine too closely the gradual eclipse of so bright and gentle a spirit; although our friend is now no more, we are permitted to think of him as the living, lively, warm-hearted associate and distinguished man of letters that he used to be.

Mr Reach was but thirty-five years of age when he died, having been born on the 23d of January 1821. Yet it is sixteen or seventeen years since he became a contributor to this journal. He was then a lad at college, fresh from the classes of the Inverness Royal Academy, devotedly attached to literary studies, and already a proficient in the art of catching those phases of character or events which are transferable to paper, and he was a master of expression. Of all the juvenile compositions which have been submitted to us as journalists, Mr Reach’s required the least “licking into shape”—to use a Virgilian phrase—and though, as he grew in years, he added reflection and observation to his writings, his style underwent very little change. If we remember rightly, Mr Macaulay was the theme of Mr Reach’s first printed essay; the illustrious reviewer was then in the hey-day of his popularity at Edinburgh, and naturally attracted the attention of the young litterateur. Sketches of Professor Wilson and other Edinburgh celebrities followed, and on returning to Inverness to spend the holidays at his father’s house, he became all but a regular member of the slender literary staff of the Courier. This was in the year 1840. His father, Mr Roderick Reach—an eminent solicitor in Inverness, and a man of rare intellectual parts—afterwards removed from the North to London, where he commenced the world de novo. His warm interest in the Highlands, which no transfer of abode could alienate, led him to become our first London correspondent, and so highly were his admirable letters appreciated, that, in a very few years, almost every paper in Scotland followed our example, and added to their original matter a weekly letter from the metropolis. Mr Angus Reach, however, remained in Scotland, and devoted a small sum of money of his own to the prosecution of his studies at the University of Edinburgh. In 1842 he repaired to London, with the intention of attaching himself to the public press. The only introduction which he brought with him was a letter which had been written by Dr Charles Mackay to ourselves, acknowledging a friendly critique, by Mr Reach, in the Courier, of Dr Mackay’s poem the Salamandrine—a slender basis, indeed, on which to trust for earning the means of livelihood! Dr Mackay was then, however, sub-editor of the Morning Chronicle, and having tested his young critic’s capacity for ordinary newspaper work and for shorthand reporting, procured an engagement for him as what is called an “outsider,” or reporter of general public meetings, as distinguished from the meetings of Parliament. The connection once formed was never broken as long as Mr Reach could wield his pen, and it is to the credit of the managers of the Morning Chronicle, that they continued to regard him as one of their staff until long after all hope of his recovery was banished. Thirteen or fourteen years does not seem a long period for a young man to have been employed on a leading journal; but it is significant of the uncertainty London press as a profession, that several years ago there was not a single contributor to the Morning Chronicle whose connection with it was not formed subsequently to that of Mr Reach.

Our townsman had not been long in London when he formed additional literary engagements. His frank manner and genial disposition soon won the friendship of all with whom he came in contact, and they readily led him into those fields where they themselves reaped reputation and profit. The London miscellanies of the day opened their columns to him, and starting, as he did, with the general principle of affixing his name to all his productions—the name or initials of Angus B. Reach, in a very few years, became familiar to every reader of the current magazine literature of England. His facility in dashing off readable, even instructive, papers on almost any subject was something marvellous. We have known him frequently to sit down after breakfast, and write the greater part, if not the whole, of a quiet reflective article for a magazine—then visit some new exhibition or novelty in London, about which a paragraph had to be written for the Chronicle—block out the points of a review, or, if the book was one of no great note, actually write the critique as it was to appear—and finish the day by producing half a column of lively and graphic criticism on the opera of that evening. This facility of composition was fatal to him. The bent of the mind became fixed in that direction, and it was with great difficulty afterwards that he could apply his mind to a long-sustained effort. In striking contrast to his career was that of a fellow-townsman, an attached friend, and a collaborateur on the Chronicle—Mr Alexander Mackay, the author of “The Western World,” who was also prematurely called away some years ago. They commenced their life in London nearly together, and both were men of fine intellect and indefatigable industry; but while the one was winning a fleeting celebrity in periodicals that were cast aside as soon as read, the other was making a long-sustained effort for rewards of a more lasting character. Both have had their reward; and though it is to be regretted that Mr Reach devoted himself so exclusively to periodical literature, every one who has read his many genial essays, dashed as they were by a fine love of all that is poetical and true and lovely, must give him credit for many hours of pure and elevated enjoyment. It would be wrong, however, to say that Mr Reach made no effort at success in a higher range of literature. In 1848-49 he published, in monthly parts, a romance which has gone through several editions—Clement Lorimer. The story is a wild one of Italian revenge, and the treatment of it is singularly bold and striking. Some passages may rank in the highest class of animated descriptive writing, and the work promises to be long a favourite. In 1850 appeared a still more ambitious work—Leonard Lindsay, or a Story of the Buccaneers—a two-volume novel, which displays the same remarkable power of description, and greater skill in conducting narrative and dialogue than the first. The only other volume which he lived to produce, and which may be ranked in a superior category to the hurried shilling miscellanies constantly issuing from his pen, is his popular work on Southern France, “Claret and Olives.” It contains the essence of a very careful examination of the vine-counties of France, conducted in 1850 on behalf of the Morning Chronicle, in connection with their celebrated inquiry into the state of labour and the poor in England and Europe. Mr Reach took a large share in this great work, having reported specially on the manufacturing and coal districts of the north of England, as well as on France. Dr Charles Mackay, Mr Alexander Mackay, Mr Henry Mayhew, and Mr Chevalier, were among those employed along with Mr Reach in this gigantic undertaking. Mr Reach meditated two other works, springing partly from this inquiry: one a companion to “Claret and Olives,” which he thought of calling the “Rhone and the Garonne;” and the other, an essay on the manufactures and manufacturing population of the North of England. On the latter subject he wrote a long and very interesting pamphlet, which was published by the Messrs Chambers.

It would be endless to enumerate the publications to which Mr Reach’s ready pen periodically contributed. Latterly, besides his duty as musical and art critic, and the principal reviewer of the Morning Chronicle, which he never sacrificed to his other avocations, Mr Reach was one of the regular writers in a great many magazines and newspapers. He wrote largely for the Messrs Chamber’s publications, Bentley’s Miscellany, and a great number of London periodical magazines—the Illustrated London News, to which he gave a weekly summary of gossip called “Town Talk and Table Talk,” besides frequent literary articles and Christmas tales; the Era, the Atlas, the Britannia, the Sunday Times, a weekly paper in Sheffield, and one in Durham—were all recipients of his productions; he was for some time the London correspondent of the Glasgow Citizen, and from the date of his father’s death, in 1853, until successive paralytic strokes had prostrated his powers, he was the correspondent of this paper. In an intermediate position between these contributions to the weekly and daily press, and the more important works alluded to above, are those amusing miscellanies which some years ago were so popular, such as “The Natural History of the Bore,” and “of the Humbug,” the monthly serial “The Man in the Moon,” which he conducted along with Mr Albert Smith; “A Story with a Vengeance,” written jointly with Mr Shirley Brooks, &c., &c. One and all, they are sparkling, pleasant, readable works, containing a great deal of shrewd observation and good sense, and seldom surpassed in pointed epigrammatic expression. Had the same power been devoted to the production of only two or three works in the course of Mr Reach’s brief career in London, few names would have stood higher in the estimation of the world, among the authors of the present day. Personally Mr Reach was one of the most amiable and generous men that ever came before the public as a man of letters. We say this in all soberness, and from, we believe, a competent knowledge of the circumstances of his career, and of his private character. When his life comes to be written, it will be seen that there have been few more touching scenes in the republic of letters than the self-sacrifice and filial devotion of Mr Angus B. Reach. Nor will it be easy to find an example of an author who wrote so much and said so few unkind things of his contemporaries. Living as he did for a while in the very heat of an uninterrupted fire of wit, this is great praise. He threw off squibs and pasquinades as profusely as any one; but it would be hard to find a bitter one, and impossible to find a malicious one among them all. Hence all who knew, loved the man; and their friendship grew with their knowledge of him; and when the clouds gathered round his chamber at last, it was cheering to see with what heart and unanimity friends rallied to his side, and fought his battle to the end. Conspicuous among these were Mr Shirley Brooks, an old and a fast friend, Dr Charles Mackay, Mr Albert Smith, Mr Thackeray, and Mr Munro, sculptor. These and many others interested themselves to the last in Mr Reach’s circumstances—they got up amateur theatrical performances, delivered lectures, and laid siege to Downing Street in his behalf. They never laboured in a worthier cause, and they showed themselves thereby disciples of the same school of which he was a conspicuous ornament. Let us hope that their efforts will not be relaxed now that he is removed from among us, until his widow, who has watched over Mr Reach during his protracted illness with the most devoted care and attention, be placed in a position of comparative comfort and independence.

Yesterday Mr Reach’s remains were to have been laid beside those of his late father in the cemetery at Norwood, and the chief mourners named are Mr Shirley Brooks, Mr A. Munro, Mr Albert Smith, Mr T. Holmes, and Mr Carruthers of Inverness. It was not expected that Dr Mackay would be able to attend.

The Inverness Courier, Thursday, December 4, 1856.

Here is an advertisement for one of the upcoming lectures by William Makepeace Thackeray mentioned in the above:-

The Morning Chronicle, Monday, December 8, 1856.

Mr. W. M. Thackeray and the late Mr. Angus B. Reach.—Our Edinburgh readers will be glad to learn that they will have another opportunity of seeing and hearing Mr. Thackeray for a single night in February next. Mr. Thackeray last winter delivered in London a lecture on “Humour and Charity,” for the benefit of Mr. Angus B. Reach, who was then in a hopeless state of ill health, and whose melancholy and premature death we recorded a few days ago. This lecture Mr. Thackeray has generously intimated his intention of re-delivering here, in behalf of Mr. Reach’s widow, and will take the opportunity of doing so when he returns to fulfil his engagements for delivering the lectures on the Four Georges, in Dundee, Aberdeen, &c., and also for re-delivering them in Glasgow. It must be gratifying to Mr. Reach’s many friends in his native country to know that his talents, industry, and amiability so fully enlisted the sympathies of his literary colleagues in London on his behalf as to make them all eager to show their sense of compassion for his misfortune and respect for his memory—Mr. Thackeray giving neither the least generous nor least ample aid.—Scotsman.

The Morning Chronicle, Monday, December 8, 1856.

The Inverness Courier also reported on the funeral:⁠—

The Inverness Courier, Thursday, December 11, 1856.

The remains of Mr Angus Bethune Reach were deposited, on Wednesday last, in the beautiful cemetery at Norwood. Had those who took charge of the last tribute to Mr Reach felt that a large attendance of friends at the funeral would have been fitting, the procession would have been a long one, for the applications upon the subject were very many. But it was considered, and those who read these lines will, I trust, concur in the decision, that with reference to the circumstances which clouded the last years of our friend’s life, a private interment was more appropriate than a ceremonial. The offers to attend were, therefore, thankfully declined and the body of Angus Reach was followed to the grave by four gentlemen only—Mr Carruthers, and Mr Alex. Munro, from your own town; Mr Albert Smith, whose literary association with Mr Reach was explained in the admirable biographical sketch published in the Courier last week, and Mr Shirley Brooks, whom, in the dedication to Clement Lorimer, its author describes as “his dearest friend.” No union of men who better knew and loved him whom they were consigning to the earth could have followed his remains. The day was melancholy in the extreme, with cold wind and continuous snow and sleet—the snow fell fast upon the bared heads that bent over the grave, while the service of the Church of England was read, and the body of Angus Bethune Reach was laid to rest with that of his father and sister. But the Norwood Cemetery is the most beautiful of all our metropolitan resting places; and it will be hard, when summer returns, to find sweeter scenery than surrounds the grave of one whose touch, ever graphic, was never so masterly as when depicting the loveliness of nature. Requiescat.

The Inverness Courier, Thursday, December 11, 1856.

Many years later Charles Mackay dedicated half a chapter to his good friend Angus Reach in his Forty Years’ Recollections which was printed in 1877. The chapter is titled Newspaper Work. Angus Bethune Reach.