To be a Georgian…
Lucy Inglis, author of Georgian London blogs about the trials of 18 century journalism, the invention of the Penny Post and scandalous publishing.
There are few periods in London’s history to compare to the eighteenth century. Advances were made across the arts, sciences and industry on unparalleled levels. One of the most marked of these advances was the spread of literacy. It remains a truth of modern life that an education is the thing most likely to lift someone out of poverty, and the people of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century were quick to grasp this new reality.
The earliest postal service was monitored closely by the secret service, but the invention of the Penny Post in 1680 meant sending letters became cheaper and more accessible. Although, for many, the Post Office kept its shady image: the playwright John Gay was convinced that ‘those dirty fellows of the Post Office do read my letters’. Despite such doubts, letter-writing and the consumption of the new newspapers was swiftly on the rise.
A rapid and reliable mail service facilitated the new industry of journalism. Journalism was born earlier in the seventeenth century but heavy-handed censorship made is a dangerous career. Then, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, new ideas on personal freedom were flourishing, particularly through the ideas of thinkers such as John Locke and a series of acts were passed that resulted in much more freedom for writers too.
One of London’s most influential journalists is a name unfamiliar to most, that of Pierre des Maizeaux. Born in France to a Huguenot family, he left for Geneva with his parents upon the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, ending religious toleration in France and triggering the Huguenot disapora. In 1689. Maizeaux came to London but remained in close contact with the French Protestant community in Europe. He often worked from the Rainbow Coffee House on Fleet Street and was part of an intellectual community there who were pushing back the frontiers of new knowledge, such as John Theophilus Desaguliers and even Voltaire. Maizeaux’s lasting influence though, was in editing and disseminating the work of John Locke and writing the biography of Pierre Bayle, one of the leading lights in the Republic of Letters. Stanford University’s wonderful Republic mapping project shows the distribution of Locke’s thinking during the earlier part of the century, reflecting the contribution of men such as Maizeaux to the coming Enlightenment.
Not all of those working in London publishing had such high ideals though. Edmund Curll, an English contemporary of Maizeaux. Born in the West Country, he came to London at the end of the seventeenth century as an apprentice bookseller. When his old master went bankrupt in 1708, Curll came in to pick up the pieces. He was already trading in ‘scurrilous’ pamphlets, exploiting any scandal by working with writers and journalists and getting the news out there fast. He published everything from scientific and religious texts to pornography, including a text on the sexual uses of flogging, which landed him in the pillory. He also sold ‘cures’ for sexual diseases, containing mercury.
Curll did undertake to publish some serious works, but he was also guilty of literary piracy and the majority of his publishing output was low grade material printed on low grade paper. He outlived Maizeaux by two years, dying in 1747. Many in London’s thriving literary scene were not sorry to see him go, but his contribution to the modern press had been tremendous.
These two men, hugely different but both influential, were instrumental in shaping London’s early journalistic scene. A mixture of the high and low brow, the informative and the gossipy. Curll in particular had a hand in the birth of celebrity culture, and there were few lows he wouldn’t sink to in order to create a bestseller. Maizeaux is perhaps remembered more favourably by history, but Curll’s legacy is just as enduring.
Lucy can be found blogging and on twitter @lucyinglis
Read our review of Georgian London