I spent the past year reading news from 1861—every week throughout 2011, I read the Sunday papers that had been published on that day one hundred and fifty years previously.
I’ve always enjoyed browsing old papers and stumbling across weird and horrifying stories that caused a brief sensation the day they were printed but were entirely forgotten by the next day, and I thought it might be worth taking a rather more structured approach, to see if anything interesting emerged. I thought—correctly—that setting up a blog to which I would post a few of the more lurid and flavoursome stories each week would lend discipline to the enterprise and keep it going if my enthusiasm should flag at any point. I decided not to comment on or edit the stories, as I had far too much other work to do, and in any case, one of the main pleasures of reading the papers is in their strange Victorian turns of phrase and melodramatic language.
After fifty-two posts, I’ve reached the end of the year and of the project. The American civil war started, the British Empire almost went to war with the United States and Prince Albert died at the age of forty-two, but I skipped most of those reports. Far more fascinating were the stories of thefts, muggings, murders, industrial accidents, lunatics and—the leitmotif of the year—poor young ladies being burned alive when their enormous crinolines caught fire.
The number of crinoline tragedies was quite shocking—as many as two or three a week during the colder months—and some of the stories were really quite awful to read, with women running screaming through their houses and into the streets, entirely engulfed in flames and suffering a lingering death over the subsequent days as a result of their appalling burns. What a nightmarish way to go.
I included the most noteworthy ones in the blog, but there were dozens more. I’ve pasted all the crinoline stories into a single post here but it’s probably best not to read them all at once.
The main lesson I picked up from the project—which might not come as a surprise—was that 1861 was a truly miserable, brutal and unforgiving year in which to be alive. Anyone who believes that society is breaking down in the 21st century or that our spirit is being stifled by the welfare state or health and safety legislation should spend a year reading Victorian papers, with their murdered babies abandoned in gutters, young men crushed by unsafe factory machinery, servant girls starved to death in wealthy houses and all the rest of the commonplace cruelty, and reflect on how far we’ve come in a relatively short time.
God save the Queen!