Friday, 20 November 2015

The Rise of Printed Media in Victorian Britain

In the 1470's the printing press was bought to England from Germany by a man named William Caxton, and this began the printing revolution. Up until the 18th century the process of printing stayed the same. It was done manually, usually by two men, using the press manually slowed production down which meant you could only print around 200 sheets an hour. It wasn't until the 19th century that the press was automated, making the process much faster. The press typically used were wooden screw presses, a major development in the printing industry came, however, when the steam powered rotary press began to be used. The rotary press could produce 1,000 sheets per hour, in comparison to a mere 200 as before. In 1814 The Times started to use the rotary press and their circulation went from 5,000 a day to about 50,000. However, the steam powered rotary press did cause issues, the editor of The Times had the presses installed in the night and in secret. This meant that when his staff arrived for work the next morning, they were not needed anymore, putting his staff out of jobs. 

steam powered rotary press

 There are other factors in the mass circulation of printed media, but without the advance in the printing press itself, circulation of such high numbers would not be possible.  There were further advances in the press, including some that could make almost 20,000 sheets per hour, of course this new speed in production also lowered the cost of the papers, making them available to the working class as opposed to just the upper class, as printed media used to be. For example, in 1896 'The Busy Mans Daily Journal' was published and it would put you down half a penny, this paper sold 100,000. That paper is known most commonly today as The Daily Mail and still only costs as little as 60p on a weekday and the circulation is now around 1,700,000 daily. 

Distribution was another main factor in the rise of circulation for publications, newspapers could be sent anywhere in the country thanks to the good old steam train! Though this post is concentrating on the printing press, the railway had high importance to the rise of circulation and reading. So while railways helped distribute newspapers and printed media, it also created a new platform on which you could read (quite literally). A man named William Henry Smith created a group of railway bookstores that had around 15,000 subscribers. People could borrow books from one station and return it at another, these were known as circulating libraries. This meant so many more people had access to books and could read as and when they chose to. This group of bookstores is still prominent today, known as WH Smiths. 

what a WH Smiths newsstand would have looked like

 The fact that anyone had access to reading and the printed media did worry a lot of people, working class people became self educated through reading affordable newspapers and novels. This lead to a rise in authors who had something to say. We witnessed this with the likes of Elizabeth Gaskell and the chartist poetry we looked at. People were unhappy and they had a way of spreading the word and getting people on board from around the country. With Elizabeth Gaskells novel Mary Barton, it was also made clear that with such easy access to the printed word, upper class people were able to voice their opinions however much they may have been disagreed with. 

A famous circulating library of the time was Maudie's, and they held strong influence in society but not only over readers, but authors and publishers too because their lending libraries could reach so many people. Maudie may have actually helped the success of Darwin's On The Origin Of Species as he purchased and sold 500 copies of the first edition. 

The mass distribution of newspapers in particular, meant because they were available to everyone it made them all aware of political movements, as with the chartist movement, the newspapers bought everyone together. They could march through their towns sharing papers like The Northern Star or The Poor Mans Guardian and chant the poems and songs that were published within them. Even the spread of religious newspapers and journals rose, from The Christian Observer to The Church Of England Newspaper. While this may have been spreading the Christian faith and gaining churchgoers and income it would have also encouraged questions and queries about religion itself.  

Due to the circulating libraries, novels were usually published in three volumes, known as triple-deckers. This meant these libraries could make more income. But the population was rising in Britain through the 19th century, with the rising population and rising literacy skills as a result of self-education, there was a need for more affordable printed media, because of this idea Charles Dickens stopped with the triple-decker publishing and therefore made serialisation very popular. Dickens published small sections of a novel (Pickwick Papers) over 19 months, and he sold them for a shilling at a time, this mean that people would spend less on the overall novel. This particularly benefited the working class as they could own a whole novel for just £1! Dickens work had also created a rise in book sales for that very reason. 

Pickwick Papers

So during the industrial revolution the  advance in technology ended up majorly improving literacy rates and in turn, the selling of novels. None of this would have been possible without the mass circulation and popularity of newspapers as caused by the improvements made to the printing press. Today, the technology has of course progressed even more and is probably much faster and easier to print many more sheets in an hour. I read an interesting article online that claimed that the printing industry had changed so much that a "student using a personal computer is simultaneously doing the jobs of author, editor and compositor." It's interesting to think that the printing press has advanced so much that has now become available on a personal level but is overlooked as students, we simply recognise a printer as a means to an end. However, now looking at the history of the printing press, we actually have personal access to the thing that made all the texts we study in our Victorian Literature course available for us and many other people before us, to read. 

works cited: 

"Printing Yesterday and Today." Http:// N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. 


Taunton, Matthew. "Print Culture." N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <>

Barrett, Charlotte. "Victorian Publishing History." Writers Inspire. Oxford University, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. <>.

"Images of the Victorian Book: Publishing - Introduction." N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>

"Chartist Newspapers." N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.

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