Catherine Waters on Victorian Special Correspondence

Please join us at the next Media History seminar for a presentation by Catherine Waters and a response from Joanne Shattock. The seminar will take place on Thursday February 26 at 18.00 in Senate House, Room G35 (ground floor).

‘“Doing the Graphic”: Victorian Special Correspondence’:

In an 1868 article on ‘Our Own Correspondent’ devoted to explaining the identity of this ‘mysterious and apparently ubiquitous functionary that figures every morning under the above designation in the columns of the newspaper’, the Leisure Hour sought to clarify the role of the Victorian ‘Special Correspondent’:

We are not speaking now of the regular correspondent, who, residing constantly in some foreign capital, gleans from the officials of the Government such information as they choose to impart, and as much more as he can; but of him who is the special messenger of the London press, and is ready to start to any quarter of the globe at a moment’s notice.

The article attempts to distinguish between the foreign correspondent – based in one place and charged with keeping the public at home abreast of political affairs transpiring elsewhere – and the roving reporter whose exceptional duties were aptly designated by the adjective ‘Special’. But the distinction is at the same time obscured here by the use of the common by-line, from ‘Our Own Correspondent’, for both journalists.

In her seminal study of Victorian News and Newspapers in 1985, Lucy Brown distinguished the foreign correspondent from the war correspondent, and argued that ‘the phrase “special correspondent” had no very precise meaning’ in the nineteenth century, but that it nevertheless described someone who was working on a particular assignment and who typically presented his investigations ‘in a series of letters in successive issues’ of the newspaper (216-217). It is perhaps in part because of this lack of precise definition that no major study has yet been devoted to Victorian ‘special correspondence’ (as opposed to war correspondence) – a project that I am now engaged in.

War correspondence was certainly one key form of ‘special correspondence’ and Joel Wiener notes that the term ‘special correspondent’ ‘came to be used synonymously with “war reporter”’ during the Crimean campaign (The Americanization of the British Press, 98.n3). But Victorian ‘Specials’ had to turn their hands to cover all manner of events in any location as required by their newspaper. What distinguished their journalism was its mobility, versatility and descriptive power: an ability to observe and seize upon events wherever they happened, rendering them for the press in sufficiently graphic prose so as to transport readers through vivid eye-witness accounts. ‘Special correspondence’ was a new technology – like the railroad or the telegraph, both of which it was associated with – that brought the world closer, shrinking space and conveying readers to distant places. This paper will seek to define Victorian ‘special correspondence’ and to consider some of the ways in which these ‘letters’ despatched from elsewhere helped to create a geographical imagination at home.

Information about both speakers can be found here:

All welcome! (Note: Matthew Philpotts’ talk has been postponed.) Future seminar dates can be found on the IES website: