How Was Gossip Spread So Easily in the Regency Era?

First, permit me to say, as journalism was one of my majors for my undergraduate degree, the types of newspapers available during the Georgian era has always fascinated me. I have several digital copy files of The Morning Chronicle and of The Morning Post, as well as The Times and The Post. I do not see much in any of these papers which might make any of them what we now call a “gossip rag,” like we now think of fully displayed at the checkout counters of your local grocery store.

There were columns in each paper about the royals and the fashionable sect. Generally, these were about who had arrived in London, who had left, who was giving a ball or an extravagant supper, etc. I have seen such listings in The Morning Chronicle, so I must imagine such was true for the other major papers of the day.

Criminal Conversation (adultery) cases were chronicled in most of the major papers, and, if a Parliamentary divorce was granted, there were records of those actions.

I was told that The Morning Herald contained more gossip than many of the others, but, unfortunately, I have never come across any copies of that particular newspaper.

Cartoons in print shop windows were more commonplace. From a book I read about the way some publishers reported criminal conversation cases and divorce trials, I had the impression that these were published as self standing small pamphlets rather than as part of a newspaper. As I understood it, there were pamphlets, etc., available at local coffee shops and tea shops or chocolatier or even pubs. They could be found at gaming hells, private clubs for gentlemen, etc.

Zoe Archer at Unusual Historicals tells us: “Just like today, when we have a huge range of tabloids to choose from, the Londoner in search of scandal had a range of rags and broadsheets, including The Tatler [sic], The Flying PostThe British ApolloThe Observator, and The Female Tatler. Some were published for years. Others folded within weeks or months. The periodicals were themselves the subject of scandal, such as The Female Tatler, whose authorship by ‘Mrs. Crackenthorpe’ was debated, and, for a time, there were two Female Tatlers, each claiming to be real.”

“Almost all of these scandal sheets claimed their purpose was to be instructional and morally edifying. Mrs. Crackenthorpe claims:

“When we daily hear of unaccountable whims and extravagant frolics committed by the better sort, we must expect those of inferior classes will imitate them in their habits of mind, as well as body, and the only way to correct great men’s foibles, is handsomely to ridicule ’em; a seasonable banter has often had a reclaiming effect, when serious advice from a grave divine has been thought impudence.

“No doubt this is a case of protesting too much. As soon as people stop misbehaving, then there is nothing left to publish, and the tabloid folds up shop. And besides, reading about scandals is just plain fun.”

When the Bridgerton series came out Vogue magazine ran an article involving whether a gossip column could be feasible in the Georgian era. It says: “Yes: Regency, or late Georgian-era England, was booming with ‘scandal sheets,’ or newspapers strongly focused on personalities and juicy stories. Multiple factors led to this golden age of gossip: In 1695, London got rid of their ‘Licensing Act,’ which previously limited the number of printing presses that could exist. Then there was the shrinking importance of the monarchy. In 1688, parliament significantly limited the power of the king and his court. So by the 1700s, more people could print more things, and they could print them about powerful people to boot.

“Come the late 1790s and early 1800s, a few additional societal factors played a part: One, a massive population boom—London went from under a million people in 1801 to around one and a quarter million in 1820. With that came a rise in crime, but also general debauchery like drinking and gambling. Two, there was a greater focus on arts and culture—a lover of beautiful things, the Prince Regent spent lavishly on paintings, buildings, and public works. Suddenly you had an aesthetics-focused society with a seedy underbelly and a weakened monarchy. The final accelerator? Little to no libel laws and, in 1814, the arrival of the mass-producing, industrial printing press.

“So what did these gossip rags say? Let’s examine some of the juicier entries. According to an article by Stella Tillyard in History Today, in 1769, various newspapers reported that “an assignation at the White at St. Albans between L—G— and certain great D—e, was disconcerted by the forcible intrusion of my lord’s gentleman.” This makes no sense to us now, but at the time, readers were used to public figures only being identified by their initials. ‘Readers would easily have identified the great Duke as the King’s brother the Duke of Cumberland, and his lover as the society beauty Lady Grosvenor, and looked forward with salacious anticipation to the next chapter,’ wrote Tilyard.

The Morning Post also exhaustively chronicled the balls of London’s social season, which ran from Easter to the early summer. An account from the Prince Regent’s June 4, 1811, fête in the drawing room at St. James’s Palace, detailed exactly who danced with who: ‘The first couple who tripped on the light fantastic toe were Earl Percy, and the accomplished, and deservedly celebrated beauty, Lady Jane Montague, daughter of the Duchess of Manchester,’ the paper wrote. (Two years later, the Duchess of Manchester left her highborn husband for a footman.) They even wrote a bulleted list: Earl of Digby with the Countess of Jersey, Lord Mark Kerr with Lady Elizabeth Clive, Lord Charles Somerset with Mis Metcalfe, and so on.”

All that being said, from my reading of Roger Wilkes’s SCANDAL: A SCURRILOUS HISTORY OF GOSSIP 1700 – 2000, it seems newspapers focused only on reporting gossip and scandal did not begin to appear until the 1820s. The term “scandal sheet” did not come into the language until the 1890s. Pamphlets, yes, columns in newspapers, yes, broadsheets, yes, but entire newspapers, no.

Book Blurb from Amazon: Newspaper and magazine gossip is a potent and sulphurous brew – much derided and much devoured – that long ago became part of the daily diet of millions. The raw ingredients are scandal, rumour, glamour and scurrility, and the best is shot through with (preferably illicit) sex, disclosure and danger. How and why has this happened, and where will this obsession lead us? “Scandal!” takes us from Regency London, where muck-raking scandal sheets were hawked in the streets, to the modern free-for-all where tabloid and internet gossip rule. From the madness of King George to the madness of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica, this book goes behind the scenes to look at the mechanisms that disseminate gossip and the power and influence that it continues to exert.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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