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Magazines Mediating Empire

Essays in Magazine Media, No 2, November 2012

Richard Sharpe

 Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote about England. He tramped the streets of London and other cities of the country inquiring into life. He was interested in and wrote for magazines about workhouses (‘Wapping Workhouse’ published in All the Year Round in February 1860), the work of the police (‘On duty with Inspector Fields’, Household Words June 1851), working life (‘A Paper Mill’, Household Words August 1850), and he keeps coming back to the Thames (‘Down With The Tide’, Household Words February 1853 and ‘Chatham Dockyard’, All the Year Round August 1863). He integrated his journalistic revelations into his fiction, drawing from his reporting to describe in his novels and short stories the world as he observed it. He called for action in such works as Hard Times. Action not by the state but by individuals, for they should see for themselves just as he had seen the inside of workhouses, hospitals, prisons, slums, doss houses and betting shops. He was interested in character: what made people as they are and how they behave. His father, a government clerk, was imprisoned for debt and Dickens, at the age of 12, had to work in a blacking factory. How had fate dealt characters such a hand and how did they deal with it? That is the theme of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. He was not an insular man: he travelled to France, Switzerland, Italy and, twice, to America. But he showed little interest in Empire.

In the year that Dickens died, 1870, the British Empire was in full flow. It stretched from New Zealand, declared a British colony in 1841, through Australia, which had been colonised in the 1780s, through the whole Indian subcontinent. Britain took an active part in the colonisation of Africa. It had possessions in the Caribbean and controlled Canada. In fact, the foundations of this Empire had been firmly laid in the year 1759 when, in a world war, British land and maritime forces beat the French on land and on sea. In India the British and their Indian allies beat a French army at the Battle of Plassey. In Canada another French army was beaten in Quebec. And, to seal off these victories, a British fleet destroyed the French fleet in the battle of Quebron bay in Southern Brittany. The British fleet was to the west of the French in a howling gale coming in from the Atlantic. The French tried to shelter in the rocky bay but many of their ships floundered; and those that did not were shot up by the Royal Navy. France, without a home fleet, could not communicate with its colonial possessions nor reinforce them. The British Empire had shrunk slightly with the independence of the 13 states of British North America (1776), but expanded again as more possessions were added after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814.

There were several engines to the expansion of this Empire. There might be a threat from over the border of an existing colony which had to be dealt with. This led to the expansion of Britain’s Empire into the Sudan in the horn of Africa. There might be the threat of another Imperial power entering a neighbouring country: this led to three failed invasions of Afghanistan from India. There was always the need for good harbours around the world in which merchant ships and the Royal Navy could shelter from storms and repair. This led to the seizure of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa en route to and from India. Later there was the need for coaling stations as the navies turned from sail to steam. This led to the seizure of Aden. Finally there was the need to protect British capital, invested abroad and sometimes under threat. This led to the seizure of Egypt.

There were strong forces binding this Empire together. First was the Royal Navy, the largest navy in the world which protected the essential trade routes on which British commerce depended. Then there was “The Victorian Internet”, the world network of sub-sea cables over which telegraph messages flowed. These allowed the British to coordinate the Empire in commerce and military affairs. Britain owned the world’s sub-sea cable networks built by private companies and part financed or subsidies by the government. London was the financial centre of the world. Capital raised in London flowed to build railways in Patagonia, open up sheep farms in Australia, open gold mines in South Africa. Emigration from Britain created other bonds, especially as Scottish and Irish emigrants spread through the Empire. There was also a small colonial civil service, the officers of Empire who through their residences governed from their stations. By the end of the nineteenth century, magazines formed another of the ties that bound the Empire together; but not until the period after

Dickens decidedly did not write about Empire: he wrote about the past in Pickwick Papers, his first successful publication, and in A Tale of Two Cities (London and Paris). Otherwise he kept to a largely domestic agenda. Why would his focus be on Britain? Because, while he was writing, Britain was undergoing its most dynamic phase of development: By the time that he died, Britain’s wealth as a trading and banking nation had been surpassed by its industrial power. Industrialisation was the story behind Dickens’ stories.

In the year that he died, 1870, half of the steel in the world was produced in the UK. Britain led the world in manufacturing capital goods and infrastructure: steam trains for around the world, rails for around the world, steam engines for around the world. Britain was exporting expertise in building canals, railways and cable networks. Britain was also reforming itself. The old methods of buying a place in the military and civil service were abolished, and exams to test the merit of applicants were introduced. This helped to improve the quality of those administering and policing the Empire.
The government of the day also saw the need to develop a newly educated working class; it recognised the urgency of teaching them how to read, write and do arithmetic: the three R’s. This working class was required to understand engineer’s drawings, to make its own calculations beyond those entailed in traditional, craft-based production methods, and to report on what it had done. Each child would have elementary education paid for by the state, in schools erected and run by school boards.

These school buildings can still be seen around the UK. A hundred years ago they were populated by serried ranks of pupils, well drilled in the three R’s and much else. They are clean, not working as their grandparents would have been in mines, sweatshops or factories. They are taken out of the labour market, one of the objectives of education to this day.

The much else that they were drilled in, included the expanse of the Empire and what it was said to signify. On the wall of every school room or certainly in the hall of each school would be a map of the British Empire.

This one is from 20 years later, but you can see the purpose it has. You are part of this Empire. The goods coming into London’s docks are the produce of this Empire. Empire gives you what you have. And it is exotic: there are many people in it not like you. What do you know of them?

From about 1846 to 1873 the UK economy had experienced growth fuelled by its mercantile strength, its banking strength and its industry. This growth was based on the bonds of the Empire. In 1873 there came a shattering blow: the first industrial capitalist crisis of over production, and not the last. There was just too much steel and too many steam engines etc for the world’s economy to absorb. There was cut-throat competition between producers which lowered the rate of profit. They could not pay the same wages as they had in the past. Wages were cut, with little defence of wages since unions were weak. This Victorian depression went on, effectively, for 23 years, until 1896. Britain responded by focussing on the development of Empire. In 1873 Queen Victoria was given the title “Empress of India” by the British government: she had never been there, she never went there. But such as the power of British imperialism that she could be named Empress of an entire subcontinent.

It was not until 1896 that the recession really ended. It ended as a result of higher government expenditure on armaments, the development of what we would call today a consumer economy, and the reduction of wages so that profits rose again. Into this story walks George Newnes. He was a salesman based in Birmingham. He liked the quirky bits in newspapers, the unusual stories which he read to his wife over the breakfast table. He decided to launch a whole magazine made up of these quirky pieces. In 1881 he decided to project his interest and see if there was a market for it. There was. And it lasted until 1984. His magazine, Tit-bits, became a success. He engaged with his readers and the editor, talking directly to his readers about what was worth including and what wasn’t. He formed a conversation with his readers, creating a community which could read his magazine wherever and whenever they wanted and still be a part of this community. He found he had the ability to write fluently, edit a magazine and make money from it. He focused on real life,
jokes and humour.

With Tit-Bits Newnes had created a magazine of diversion.

Newnes made a fortune from Tit-bits. He moved to London in 1885 and started to build a publishing empire with his wealth and talents. His talents included writing well, seeing a market and serving it.

His next venture was The Strand, which became a national institution. He launched it in 1891 and it lasted until 1950. It was for the middle classes: “[it] confirmed their values and fostered and celebrated their achievements” (Jackson 2001 p88).

The location which the magazine takes its title from, The Strand, is significant in itself. This thoroughfare links the City of London (its interests in banking and trade) with the City of Westminster (its interests in government, politics and the law). The Strand had on it shops, restaurants, theatres, a railway station, hotels, banks, pubs and wide pavements along which to promenade.

The Strand
was monthly, cost 6d and included humour, fiction, real life stories, interviews and profiles. It was lavishly illustrated for the day. Writers included Conan Doyle with his masterful creation Sherlock Holmes. It had a regular pattern: title page; full-scale illustration of the first story; fiction story with at least one illustration per double-page spread; reporting story, often an illustrated interview, or a crime and criminals piece; humorous piece; fiction story; picture-based story, such as portraits of celebrities through their ages; and it often ends up with pages of illustrations such s images of watches through the ages.

The Strand
had “an editorial bias in favour of the timeless as against the timely” (Pound 1966, p64). It sold 300,000 copies in its first issue and 400,000 by 1896.

The Strand
told its readers that life was stable (in the end): there were bad things in life like crime but the forces in charge could deal with them. After all, each of Holmes’ cases was resolved.

It was part of the new journalism. The 1890s was the decade of the new. “The Eighteen Nineties were so tolerant of novelty in art and ideas that it would seem as though the declining century wished to make amends for several decades of intellectual and artistic monotony” (Jackson 1939 p15).

By 1896 the economy had recovered. It had been recast with the introduction of branded consumer goods, including the bicycle with pneumatic tyres, and heavy government expenditure on armaments. Wages were pushed down and profits were up. European society, particularly in the UK and France, entered La Belle Époque. Into this growing feeling of confidence Newnes launched Wide World Magazine in 1898 with its slogan “Truth is Stranger than Fiction”. It brought real life stories to its readers from around the world. The magazine lasted until 1965. There were stories from the empire and beyond. Police chased bandits in North West India; lady missionaries took Christianity to the heathen Chinese; how a woman in the USA outwitted the Apaches; how the Mecca pilgrimage is conducted; a woman’s experience as a “girl-diplomat” in Peru; a trial for murder in central Africa; and reports of seeing a sea serpent.

Newnes has established the third point of his triangle saying: the world is strange but understandable through people’s narratives.


Each of Newnes’ magazines took a different slice of the world and the work of human imagination and presented it in a different package for different readers with different interests. They mediated the world differently.

The move to consumer goods meant that these goods had to be advertised to readers in order to gain attention. This lowered the price of the magazine for the buyer. Newnes’ next venture, Country Life, carried advertising on its front cover.

He launched it in 1897 as a weekly and it reached a circulation of 41,000 in its first year. It is still published by IPC and currently has a circulation of 38,000. Country Life links the interests of those with a life in the country: they may be urbanites with a place in the country or true country dwellers, but another slice of life is taken for them.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) came to the fore in the 1890s. He was a true advocate of Empire. He was born in Lahore, in contemporary Pakistan, and observed the Empire in India and South Africa closely. He admired the Empire builder Cecil Rhodes and what he was trying to do in South Africa: extend the Empire and consolidate British interests. The 1880s and 1890s the scramble for Africa began: European imperial powers invaded parts of Africa to carve out Empires. Belgium seized the Congo. Britain tried to seize the Sudan but its army was defeated. In the late 1890s came revenge: General Kitchener led a Europe-equipped and officered army to invade the Sudan. There resulted the battle of Omdurman in 1898 in which a European-style army led by General Kitchener crushed the native forces defending their country. The USA was also on the move as an imperial power. It was dismantling the remnants of the old Spanish empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific and claiming it for its own. In response Kipling wrote his poem The White Man’s Burden. First published in American magazine, it was later published in The Times. It urged the Americans to take on the responsibility of being an Empire; to send out its best to civilise the “half devil, half child” of allegedly inferior peoples. To stop them warring among themselves; to stop famine, to bring light to their heathen world. But not to expect any thanks from them.

Kitchener was depicted as the sword of Empire, and Kipling as the pen, both imperial icons.

Kipling used the pages of the Covenanter magazine, theCivil and Military Gazette, Lippincott’s Magazine, McLure’s Magazine, MacMillan’s Magazine, the National Review, and the St James’s Gazette to spread a rendition of Empire in which contradictions were partly addressed and provisionally resolved – all of this in a suitably diverting manner. In so doing, he became as famous in his day as Dickens had been in his.


Jackson, P (2001) George Newnes, Farnham: Ashgate (this is the source for most of the Newnes material)

Jackson, H (1939) The Eighteen Nineties London: Penguin

Pound, E (1966) Mirror of the Century, London: Heinemann

Gilmour, D (2002) The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling London, John Murray

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