Read All About It: Victorian Crime News

Image from a broadsheet

Just wanted to share some interesting bits from what I’m reading now: The Art of the English Murder by Lucy Worsley. It’s a very entertaining account of nineteenth-century attitudes towards crime and violence, and the enduring fascination that lawlessness holds for human beings.

She traces the relationship between crime and entertainment, from word of mouth gossip to broadsheets  (printed accounts of a murderer’s crimes and confessions). Literacy was spreading among the people of Britain, but this didn’t prevent those who couldn’t read from enjoying a vicarious thrill. Often their friends would read the broadsheets aloud, and some street sellers of crime news had interesting ways of enticing their customers. Worsley writes:

“Henry Mayhew, one of the co-founders of Punch, was also the compiler of a tremendous work of oral history gathered from the people on the streets of London in the 1840s. One of his interviewees was a street ‘patterer.’ Posted on a street corner, he kept up a lively constant ‘patter’ of verbal information, and worked with a partner to perform dramatic mini-reconstructions of crimes: ‘He always performs the villain, and I take the noble characters. He always dies, because he can do a splendid back-fall, and he looks so wicked when he’s got the moustaches on.’

“These two were ‘standing-patterers,’ who took up a fixed spot on a street corner. They were complemented by ‘running patterers,’ who moved constantly through the crowds, shouting out details of what was in their broadsides, emphasizing words such as ‘horrible,’ ‘barbarous,’ and ‘murder’. They made a vital contribution to the very distinctive aural landscape of the Victorian city.”

She goes on to add that these two kinds of performers were joined by singing or chanting patterers, who made songs out of their news reports.

Although I knew about newsies shouting, “Read all about it!”, I never knew that some street  newspaper sellers went so far as to act out the details of the crime. They must have been horribly fun to watch.

I also see strong parallels between these long-ago street hawkers and today’s wall-to-wall news on TV and the Internet. I guess it’s always been the case that “If it bleeds, it leads.”

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.



Image: By Probably a supplement of the Edinburgh Courant – Victorian broadsheet, Public Domain,


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