From our own correspondent – what Wiltshire people were reading in the news … 200 years ago.

on Saturday, 05 March 2016. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People


Studio portrait of the Hon, B.P. Bouverie, vicar of Pewsey, seated and reading a magazine, late 19th or early 20th century (P551)

With foreign affairs much in the news lately, readers might be interested in taking the long view and discover what Wiltshire people were reading about the world this week 200 years ago. If you lived in Wiltshire in March 1816, this was a time where semaphore was the nearest thing to Twitter and mail travelled by boat and stage coach, and took a bit longer to end up in the junk folder. Although news travelled slow, it was not hard as you might think to follow international news. Your provincial newspaper, such as the Salisbury Journal (The Salisbury and Wiltshire Journal and General Advertiser for Wilts, Hants, Dorset and Somerset), mainly contained adverts, national (parliament) and international news, more adverts, and just a little bit of local news from surrounding counties. The main function of the newspaper was to bring you foreign and national news, rather than fill the papers with local stories. Given the relatively small population size, you probably knew most what has going on in your local area and all the local gossip, so you didn’t need to read about it. Your newspaper would have been weekly and unlikely to extend beyond four pages. Of course, there were two other essential conditions for your enjoyment, money – the newspaper cost seven pence (the average wage for a labourer was about four shillings and sixpence a week), and you had to be able to read. So unless you were in the minority of the educated and relatively wealthy, well you will just have to wait until someone passes the news on to you and who knows how accurate it will be by the time you hear it – just the sort of misinformation to cause a riot.

Unrest seemed to be the order of the day around the world in 1816. The Salisbury Journal reported on a “serious misunderstanding” between Spain and the United States, the Spanish demanding all of the American citizens who were concerned in the revolution in “South America.” They also insisted on some cessation of territory from the US to Spain. This is most likely a reference to the war of independence in Mexico (New Spain) which lasted until 1821. The Journal also reported that the leader of the “Mexican insurgents,” a man named Morellos, had been arrested. Happily there were no presidential primaries to report on in the US, but it was business as usual, strengthening the navy, creating a national bank and making peace treaties with Native American tribes on the North-West Frontier. Oh, and there was an increase in taxes to pay for previous wars. A bit further away the French were falling out with the Portuguese, who had taken the opportunity to seize Cayenne and French Guiana during insurrection along that part of the Atlantic coast of South America.

In North America the British government were clearly not worried about the sustainability of fish and other sea life, encouraging an increase in the fishery of cod and whales on the banks of Newfoundland. But it was not so good if you wanted to start a new life there, as the government also announced that it was no longer funding emigration passages to America.

This was all very interesting, but of course the news you most wanted to read about was in Europe and in particular, the French...

News from Europe naturally travelled a bit quicker, but if you were not paying attention you might easily be confused. Because newspapers were weekly, no sooner had you read on the second page about the “violent disturbances” and the “great excesses” that occurred in Tarascon in the South of France between Protestants and Catholics, but that it was all under control; then by page four you were told that the French government had made it worse and it was all kicking-off again! As no digital technology or modern print methods were available, the stories were not amended as further news came, but simply added as a separate story in the same edition.

Lucien Bonaparte by François-Xavier Fabre

Other France-related news included a message from the Duke of Wellington, who was busy lording it around Paris and had no intention of coming back to England until he had settled all the military bases; and for budding nineteenth century Archivists and Historians the exciting news that a letter had surfaced containing the last thoughts of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, five hours before she met her fate at the guillotine in 1793. Readers were assured that is was genuine, although there was clearly some doubt. The other main Franco – European news was of the attempt of Lucien Bonaparte, younger brother of Napoleon, to leave his self-imposed exile in Rome in an attempt “to create a disturbance,” but he was recognised in Florence and forced to return home, though the Journal’s correspondent thought he might be trying to flee to America. Lucien had a difficult relationship with his brother, supporting Napoleon to establish his rule, but then falling out with him. He tried to escape to America, was captured by the British and lived in Britain for some years (cheered by the British people for his opposition to Napoleon) before heading to Rome. When Napoleon escaped from his first exile, Lucien once again supported his brother, but after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 he returned again to Rome – but you would know all this if you had been subscribing to the Salisbury Journal every week. By 1816 it seems that Lucien was restless again.

Just in case things were getting all a bit too serious on the news front, rest assured you could always find a curious story. Thus Wiltshire folk could read of the following:

“There have fallen some days past upon the ground within a league of Paris, which is covered with snow, a great quantity of living insects such as caterpillars, spiders, beetles etc. We cannot conceive from whence so strange a cloud could have come in this season.”

Britain’s relationship with its other European neighbours continued to rely on the union between royal families. Of course, there is nothing we like more than a royal romance and a wedding and you will be pleased to learn it was no different in 1816. The Salisbury Journal was pleased to report on the completion for the arrangement of the union between Princess Charlotte of Wales and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who we are informed, is “very conversant in the English language.” What is more, the royal family were all travelling to Brighton, where the Prince was staying, for a gathering of nobility in the Royal Pavilion. It was also due to be attended by the Prince Regent. Now, if you thought this was going to turn into a night out for the boys, we are also informed that this was the first time the Prince Regent could “bear the fatigue since his confinement by the gout.”

Just in case diplomacy didn’t work, Lord Palmerston was busy asking parliament for an additional 73,000 military servicemen at a cost of £9,800,000. However, you would not want to interfere too much with the Dutch maritime fleet, who also helped bring news from overseas. Recently arrived by Dutch mail was news of the ravages of plague in Turkish provinces of Bosnia, where half of the estimated population of 1 million were thought to have perished where, according to our reporter “Christians suffered an equal degree to Turks.” Medicine in Wiltshire, though now including inoculation and vaccination, was still not advanced enough for you not to be fearful of such outbreaks.

By now you are probably bored with international news and some of it is clearly troubling, so how about closer to home. A highway robbery between Tilshead and Charlton where a young man called William Sperry junior was attacked and robbed having just disengaged from the Wiltshire Militia at Marlborough, would have caught your eye and warned of the dangers of travel on our county’s roads. You may also have been diverted by the discovery of a skeleton by men digging chalkstone near West Lavington. When it was removed the bones disintegrated on coming into contact with the air. The remains of a metal weapon found by the side of the skeleton is supposed to date back to the nearby Battle of Eddington in 878 AD, when Alfred the Great defeated the Danes.

If you are interested in sport, you are not going to find the stories in the back pages, but hidden away somewhere in the middle and will only concern curious feats. So, you will have enjoyed this story, again from Brighton:

“A novel made of playing billiards was undertaken by two gentleman of Brighton for a wager. They were mounted on horseback, and, however ridiculous the fact may appear to be, so great was the traceability of the horse, that the gentlemen played the balls with great accuracy. The game was decided in less than 20 minutes.”

Now for the travel section. In 1816 if you were keen for some adventure it was reported that two schooners “The Congo and the Dorothy are ready to sail in a voyage of discovery in the River Zaire, into the Heart of Southern Africa,” the expedition being led by “Captain Tuckey”. Of course, you probably wouldn’t get medical insurance and any medicine to combat tropical diseases is unlikely to be efficacious. You have been warned and, what is more, if you had read a Wiltshire newspaper a few months later in October 1816 you would have noted reports of the Irish born explorer James Hingston Tuckey and his ill fated exhibition. Many of the officers and crew died of fever, while Tuckey died on 14 October 1816, aged 40, in Moanda, on the coast of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And finally, no newspaper would survive without a variation of the talented dog story. This week, the Salisbury Journal proudly presents to you the story of a blind man “in a dilapidated state” who begged for money in several streets in London, and here is the trick: His dog walked around on its hind legs, carrying a hat lined with a tin in its front paws. Having collected money from the astonished crowd the dog then proceeded to take the money out of the hat and carry it across to his master. Naturally, the crowd puts more money in the hat to see the trick repeated again. You heard it here first … in 1816.

Terry Bracher, Archives and Local Studies Manager


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