Newspaper Work

In 1877 Charles Mackay published his two-volume “Forty Years’ Recollections of Life, Literature and Public Affairs from 1830 to 1870” and dedicated two chapters to The Morning Chronicle, one of the years from 1835 to 1844 and the other of the final years of the newspaper. Another related chapter details some of the newspaper work he undertook and discusses Angus B. Reach who was both a friend and fellow Morning Chronicle journalist and who penned the Manufacturing Districts letters during the “Labour and the Poor” investigation.

Forty Years’ Recollections, Charles Mackay, 1877.


It was one of my duties to open all the letters addressed to the editor, to consign such as were silly, worthless, or irrelevant to the waste-paper basket, to mark for publication such as were well written on points of general interest, which contained valuable information, and which made suggestions that were worthy of consideration, or which preferred well-founded complaints of grievances that it was of public importance to redress. Whenever any subject, political, literary, or social, was prominently before the public, the letter-writers, always active, pertinaceous, and buzzing about the newspapers like flies at a horse’s head in hot weather, redoubled their useless and provoking energies. None but those who have had some experience in the matter can imagine the vast heaps of drivelling inanity and offensive silliness sent in the form of letters to an influential journal, and which the writers, though their lucubrations are ill-spelt, ungrammatical, incoherent, and ill-reasoned, each and all think good enough for publication. On any great public question, such as Free Trade and the Repeal of the Corn Laws, or any important and stirring debate in Parliament, the letter-writers, as far as my experience went, had very little to say; but on small social questions they generally burst forth like one of the plagues of Egypt. A cheating case at whist at one of the clubs produced letters that might be counted by the thousand; and the famous dispute of Lord Cardigan, then Lord Brudenell, with one of his brother officers, about wine in a black bottle at the regimental mess at which he presided as colonel, produced, literally and without exaggeration, a cart-load of waste-paper during the three weeks that the public interest in the trumpery matter continued unabated. Sometimes, however, though rarely, a letter would come from one of the most prominent men of the time, from Lord John Russell, from Lord Brougham, from Daniel O’Connell, whose name for many years appeared oftener in the public journals, for praise or blame, than that of any contemporary, or from others equally noted, which, of course, received immediate attention. The Rev. Sydney Smith addressed his famous letter to the Pennsylvanians, through the medium of the Morning Chronicle, and brought it to the office himself. It had no caption in heading as originally written; and I asked him, in printing-office parlance, how the letter should be headed. “Head it, ‘Pay me my money,’” he replied, “or simply, ‘To the Pennsylvanians.’” The letter was afterwards republished in his collected works. Another letter with which about the same time he favoured the Chronicle was addressed to Sir Robert Peel. There had been a shocking railway accident, which had excited much indignation against the practice of railway officials of locking people in the carriages, so that they could not easily extricate themselves in case of danger. So much discussion had ensued in the newspapers—a discussion in which Mr. Sydney Smith took part—that the subject was mentioned in Parliament. Sir Robert Peel, remembering the hard rubs he had from time to time received from his reverend opponent, took occasion to ridicule one of Sydney Smith’s letters, and to attribute the interest he took in the matter to “personal fear.” Thereupon the canon of St. Paul’s rushed into print with the following characteristic letter, which is here reprinted verbatim et literatim from the original MS., without correction of its offences against orthography:⁠—

To Sir Robert Peel.

“a Cruel attack upon me Sr. Robert to attribute all my interference with the arbitrary proceedings of Rail Roads to personal fear.

“Nothing can be more ungrateful, and unkind: I thought only of you and for you—as many Whigg Gentlemen will bear me testimony who rebuked me for my anxiety. I said to myself and to them our lovely and intrepid Minister may be overthrown on the rail. The Lock’d door may be uppermost he will kick and call on the Speaker, and the Sergeant at arms in vain—nothing will remain of all his graces, his flexibilities, his fascinating facetious fury, his Social Warmth, nothing of his flow of Soul, of his dear heavy pleasantry, of his prevailing Skill to impart disorderly Wishes to the purest heart, nothing will remain of it all but an heap of ashes for the parish Church of Tamworth. he perishes at the moment that he is becoming as powerful in the drawing-room of Court as in the house of parliament, at the Moment when Hullah (not without hopes of ultimate success) is teaching him to sing, and Melinotte to dance.

“I have no doubt of your bravery Sr. Robert though you have of mine, but then Consider what different Lives we have led, and what a School of Corage is that Troop of Yeomany at Tamworth, the Tory fencibles: who can doubt of your Corage who has seen you at their head Marching up Pitt Street through Dundas Square on to Liverpool Lane? and looking all the while like those beautiful medals of Bellona frigida and Mars sine Sanguine, the very horses looking at you as if you were going to take away 3 per cent. of their oats. After such Spectacles as these the account you give of your own Corage cannot be doubted. The only little Circumstance which I cannot entirely reconcile to the possession of this very high attribute in so eminent a degree, is that you should have selected for your uncourteous attacks Enemies who cannot resent and a place where there can be no reply.

“I am, Sr, yr. obt. St.

Sydney Smith.”

“June 20th, 1842.”

In another letter to the Chronicle, in which the reverend gentleman had written ‘skipping spirit,’ the words were printed ‘stripping spirit.’ He wrote to set the matter right; but the printer and the printer’s reader could make nothing of the words—so all but illegible was the manuscript—but ‘stripling spirit.’ After this second failure the facetious canon gave up the contest, confessing that the fault was entirely his own; that he had wasted several of the best years of his life at the university; that he knew something of Horace and Homer, but that he could not spell decently; could not write a hand that a printer could read; and could not work out correctly a simple sum in elementary arithmetic.

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.

The story of men of letters who are not born to the inheritance of fortune, and are compelled to earn their bread by the rewards of literary labour, is generally a sad one. A man can make a shoe, or dig in a garden, or plough in a field, sell cheese or cloth, or follow any other trade or occupation day after day without interruption or fatigue. It costs no more effort of the mind or body to sell a thousand cheeses or a thousand bales of cotton, than to sell one; but far different is the case of the author, successful or unsuccessful. There is always a market for commodities; but if a man by any possibility could write a thousand editorial articles in a week, where would be the market for more than one or two of them? Even popularity has its drawbacks, for if once the cry is raised against a popular author that he writes too much, his popularity is from that moment on the wane. But he who writes for bread must continue to write for bread or die, whatever may be the outcry against him for the crime—so serious in critical eyes—of writing too much. Happily it is not necessary in the great fight for daily bread which those who without fortune to aid them, are bound to fight if they enter the lists of literature, to sign their names to all that they write, or the reiteration of some names would be prejudicial to themselves and perhaps distasteful to their readers. But, in the first exuberance of youthful success, and the consciousness of power, this prudent consideration is apt to be disregarded, and the young aspirant, aspiring too much, never thinks how delicate are the tissues of the brain, or that, if he overwork the fine faculties the exercise of which gives him subsistence in the present and promises him fame in the future, he runs the risk of even worse than death. And as for signing the name, it is, at the outset of a literary career, the one thing that the youthful author most desires. It is an advertisement, an aid to his business if he do his business well, and a proof of the growing popularity on which he expects to thrive. This was especially the case with Angus Reach. No amount of work seemed too much for him, and however apparently overburthened, he seldom refused any task that came in his way in any department of journalism or literature. He had not been three years engaged in the hard and well-nigh exhaustive work of the Morning Chronicle, which involved the sitting up till long past midnight and often till daybreak, before his hand was seen in half-a-dozen magazines and periodicals. Every subject seemed equally familiar to him. If never exceedingly good, he was never exceedingly bad, but always respectable and up to the required mark. He was as punctual as the clock, and always performed what he promised by the time he promised. Whether he wrote descriptive and always excellent accounts of daily events; whether he reviewed books in any department of literature; whether he criticised a play or an actor, an opera or a prima donna; whether he wrote an original article, a sketch, a parody, or a skit; whether he wrote prose or verse, or whether he took the longer flights of fancy and imagination, and the hard work necessary to produce a novel or romance; he was always sure to write something that was interesting, readable, and creditable to his head and heart. It was said of his amazing fertility and facility, by a friend, half in jest and half in earnest—“that if Reach were asked to write a great historical tragedy and given a month for the task, he would undertake it without hesitation, and astonish his employer by bringing it to him cut and dry in less than ten days.” The calls upon his purse were heavy, and were rendered still heavier when he took to himself a wife; and he never found himself in a position with all his industry, to refuse a literary job of any kind, or to be able to say that he was fully a week before the world, and could lie fallow for that time without production. If the day could not suffice him he drew upon the night. If the night were not enough, he drew upon the day, drew upon the hours of sleep, exercise, and recreation, and ate his dinner writing. And when sleep claimed the necessary rest for the brain, he bribed sleep away by copious libations of strong tea or coffee, borrowing time as it were at usurious interest. He wrote—besides articles uncountable, and that have never been collected, and possibly never will or can be—three good novels, “Clement Lorimer,” the “Book with the Iron Clasps,” and the “Buccaneers.” He also made an extended inquiry for the Morning Chronicle into the condition of the working classes in the midland districts of England, especially of Sheffield and the neighbourhood; and one still more extended and interesting, into the condition of the wine-growers and vine-labourers in the Garonne, which was afterwards republished in a volume entitled “Claret and Olives,” and dedicated to one whom it pleased him to call his “earliest and kindest literary friend.” For about fourteen years he carried on this galloping trade, always ready and willing, always facile, always delighting his readers and delighting in his work, always needing the rewards of his work so laboriously but pleasantly earned, but never thinking—or if thinking never allowing the thought to stop him—that the pitcher was going too often to the well, that the mind was not like the widow’s cruse, inexhaustible, and that it had to be continually replenished if it would continue to outpour, and that like bountiful earth it required now and then to lie fallow for the sake of its own fertility. “Let not the strong man rejoice in his strength.” Here was, if ever, a strong man, and one who rejoiced in his strength, bold, buoyant, hopeful, defiant, thinking no evil, and ready for all that fate or fortune might impose upon him, cultivating the intellectual at the expense of his physical faculties, and taking no heed of the body without whose aid the mighty, the majestic soul is nothing,—at least in this world.

One day—he was only thirty-five years of age, and had been about fourteen years in London—he went into the shop of Colnaghi, the print seller in Pall-Mall, on some business of art criticism for the Morning Chronicle. He had not been there many minutes when he suddenly felt a strange sensation in his head as if something had snapped in his brain with a loud report, succeeded by a dizziness, a half swooning, and a general haze, confusion, and mistiness of thought. The sensation passed off in a few minutes and he thought of it no more. But it was the death warning, though he did not know it at the time. Had he taken a holiday, had he climbed the mountain-top, rowed his boat on the river or the lake, taken a voyage to the Antipodes, or set off on a walking excursion through the glens of his native Scotland, or done anything but write, he might have repaired the evil which he had done to the delicate organism of the brain, repaired the broken or snapped string of the harp of intellect, and prolonged his useful days. But he treated the warning as of no account; did not, in fact, suspect that it was a warning; had no one to tell him that the alarm-bell had sounded; and went on recklessly, hopefully, triumphantly as before. But not for long. After a couple of months there was a second warning, louder than the first, and he had to retire from the battle-field of his business, a wounded soldier of literature. The Morning Chronicle was mindful of his merits and his labours, though all or nearly all were not expended in its service, and paid him his salary as of old, in the hope of his recovery. Months passed. He grew no better, some of his friends thought worse, and his spirit began to chafe at the thought of accepting unearned money. His wife in this emergency came to the rescue and established a Berlin wool and stationery shop in Albany Street, Regent’s Park, and appealed to her helpless husband’s friends for support and patronage. One of his literary friends (I will not mention the name of this prosperous person—now no more) took so much pity on his former colleague and partner in many literary enterprises, as to buy all his stationery, and especially his sealing-wax, of his unfortunate brother. But the poor shop came to a sudden end. A shop like everything else requires time to grow, and it was expected by poor Reach’s nearest and dearest connections, though not by poor Reach himself, who was by this time beyond hoping—almost beyond living—that the shop would grow up, like Jonah’s gourd in a night. The Morning Chronicle salary was by this time becoming a dubious and precarious reliance. The Chronicle was not over prosperous; and it was not in the bond to maintain even a good servant beyond a certain reasonable time and a certain reasonable hope of his recovery. There were ominous rumours that the salary must surcease, collapse, end, and vanish into good wishes. At this juncture Mr. Shirley Brooks—who himself owed his connection with the press and with the Morning Chronicle to the good offices of Angus Reach—volunteered to perform the duties of the sick man in addition to his own, if the salary of the sick man were continued. This noble arrangement lasted for nearly a twelvemonth, and might have lasted longer, only in the meantime poor Angus Reach died of softening of the brain, in the early prime of his manhood, in the very fructification of his genius; died of intemperance in work and of ignorance of the fact that the body is the soul’s labourer, and that if the labourer be neglected or badly used, the work must suffer or stop. In the case of poor Angus Reach the work stopped, and literature lost one who in happier circumstances might have added to it a great name, and written it on enduring stone or brass; not as John Keats said in his melancholy epitaph on himself—“in water.”

Forty Years’ Recollections, Charles Mackay, 1877.