Media History Seminar Programme 2017-18

We’re pleased to announce the provisional schedule for this year’s Media History Seminar, jointly run by the Institute of English Studies and Institute of Historical Research. The seminars will take place at Senate House starting at 6pm. Everyone is welcome.

“Media History” Programme 2017-18:

Session 1 (Tuesday, 28 November 2017):

Prof. David Trotter (Cambridge), “Media Theory before Media Theory: Lightning as Discursive Catalyst in the Human and Natural Sciences, 1880-1930”

Senate House Room G35

Session 2 (Thursday, 8 February 2018):

Prof. Kate Flint (USC)

Senate House, the Senate Room

(Note: this session will be run with the Nineteenth-Century Studies Seminar.)

Session 3 (Monday, 12 March 2018):

Prof. Aled Gruffydd Jones (EMIET)

Richard Price (British Library)

Senate House Room G35

Session 4 (Friday, 4 May 2018):

Prof. N. Katherine Hayles (Duke), “Cognizing Media:  Shifts, Ruptures, Transformations”

Senate House, the Senate Room

The arrangements for additional seminars will be published in due course. In the meantime, please save the dates.

This seminar is generously supported by the Media History journal, Queen Mary University of London’s English Department, the Institute of English Studies, and the Institute of Historical Research.


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:

October Seminar: Bill Bell

All are welcome to join us for Prof. Bill Bell’s talk at the next Media History seminar on October 23. The seminar will take place at 6pm in Senate House room G34 (ground floor). Here’s a brief description and bio:

“The Mahout on the Elephant: John Murray’s Paratexts”

In his influential study of the paratext, Gerard Genette describes the importance of textual embellishments to the way in which a work is received. Genette’s concept is predicated on the assumption that a work’s embellishments are not merely supplements to the text but are intimately connected to its meaning and its effects. The text, observes Genette, ‘is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions, such as the author’s name, a title, preface, illustrations.’ Such items, often regarded with indifference by the critic and historian, have a crucial hermeneutic function in that they ‘surround and extend the text, ultimately ensuring its presence in the world’. As Phillippe Lejeune observes, additional elements such as ‘the name of the author, title, subtitle, names of series, name of publisher, even the ambiguous game of prefaces,’ serve as ’a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading’. Based on extensive use of the John Murray Archive, this seminar will examine the use of a range of paratextual devices by the period’s most important publisher of works relating to travel and exploration.


Bill Bell is Professor of Bibliography at Cardiff University and a Research Fellow of The University of Goettingen. He was, with Jonquil Bevan, the founder of the Centre for the History of the Book in Edinburgh, of which he was director (1995-2013). He was editor of the OUP quarterly, The Library: Proceedings of the Bibliographical Society (2009-2014). He has held visiting posts at the Australian National University, University of Ottawa, Jadavpur University, and St John’s College, Oxford. He is General Editor of The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland and is co-author of Travels into Print: Exploration, Writing, and Publishing with John Murray, 1773-1859, forthcoming from Chicago University Press (2015).

Future dates for your calendar:

Media History Seminar Programme 2014-15

This year the “Media History” seminar run by the Institute of English Studies will be joining forces with the Institute of Historical Research’s “Media & Communications History” seminar. Unless otherwise noted, all seminars will take place at Senate House on Thursdays at 6pm. Here’s the schedule for the upcoming year:

“Media History” Programme 2014-15:

Meeting 1 (October 23, 2014):
Prof. Bill Bell (Cardiff)

Meeting 2 (November 27, 2014):
Prof. Lisa Gitelman (NYU) [NOTE: This talk will take place at Queen Mary University of London — details to be provided.]

Meeting 3 (February 26, 2015):
Dr Matthew Philpotts (Manchester)

Meeting 4 (March 12, 2015):
Prof. Garrett Stewart (Iowa)

Meeting 5 (May 7, 2015):
Dr Sabina Mihelj (Loughborough)

Meeting 6 (May 21, 2015):
Dr Bob Nicholson (Edge Hill)

More information about the talks will be provided later on. In the meantime, please save the dates.

This seminar is generously supported by the Media History journal, Queen Mary University of London’s English Department, the Institute of English Studies, and the Institute of Historical Research.