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14 February 2019

The Black Wonder

Here is a remarkable image. It looks, at first sight, like a collection of prosperous mid-Victorian gentlemen: perhaps a gathering of local politicians, or merchants of some kind, preening themselves with civic pride. But then we see the caption that accompanies the image: ‘The Great Pugilists of England’. They are boxers, presented in their Sunday finest. But look again to the right, and there is something we might not expect: one of them is black, presented without qualification as an Englishman among Englishmen, someone to be admired.

Great_pugilists

'The Great Pugilists of England', Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 14 February 1863

The image comes from Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 14 February 1863, one of the newspapers we are digitising as part of our Heritage Made Digital programme. The man is Bob Travers, a lightweight, one of a number of black boxers who fought at this time when the sport was bare-knuckle, the brutal contests could last for hours, and rounds could exceed a hundred (a round ended when a fighter fell and had to come up to a line, or scratch, for the next to begin - if one failed to 'come up to scratch', the contest was over). The police were never too far away, ready to break up what were viewed as riotous assemblies. Most, if not all the black boxers who fought in Britain in the 19th century were, in fact, American, born slaves or the free-born sons of slaves who managed to cross the Atlantic to try their chances in a land where pugilism had an avid following.

The first such fighter may have been the man billed as the ‘Black Dynamite’, mentioned in a report in The Times on 27 April 1786. He was followed by the celebrated Bill Richmond, who came to Britain in 1777, became a servant to a peer, bought a pub near Leicester Square with his winnings as a fighter, and established himself as a trainer. His greatest protégé was another former American slave, Tom Molineaux, whose two fights with Tom Cribb in 1811 (both won by Cribb) was considered the very peak of the regency era of prize fighting. Other black fighters that followed in Britain through the 19th century, of whom we sometimes know little more than a name or a nickname, included John Augustus Edward Plantagenet Green, Frank Craig, ‘Massa’ Kendrick, Bob Smith, Sambo Sutton and James Wharton.

Bobtravers

Bob Travers, from Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 15 August 1863 (left) and 14 February 1863

Bob Travers was American too. Some confused contemporary sources tried to suggest that he was British born, but he was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1832, though he came to Britain as a child, when his father moved to Truro in Cornwall and ran a shop selling crockery. He was, apparently, Charlie Jones then, but a talent for fighting, nurtured by English middleweight Nat Langham, saw him enjoy some success over a 10-year career as a pugilist under the name Bob Travers. His earliest known bout was in 1854, his last in 1863. He is best known to boxing historians for his 1860 bout against the great Jem Mace, when Travers displayed some dubious tactics (falling without a blow having been landed) and was eventually disqualified. Referred to rather disparagingly in some sources as ‘Langham’s Black’, he was more impressively billed elsewhere as the ‘Black Wonder’.

There was only a very small black population in Britain in the 19th century. Few black figures came to the forefront of British consciousness: among them were political radical William Davidson, hanged for his part in the Cato Street conspiracy of 1820; the Chartist William Cuffay; Crimean War businesswoman Mary Seacole; circus entertainer Pablo Fanque (of 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite' fame); and the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Prominent black American visitors included abolitionist speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, and the Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. 

What seems notable about Travers, and some other black sportsmen of the mid-19th century that were reported on in the pages of the Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, Bell’s Life and other sports-focussed papers that sprung up at this time (Sporting Life, Sporting Telegraph, Sporting Gazette), is how they were taken entirely at their own merits. Of course in real life they were subjected probably to daily racial abuse. Someone such as Bill Richmond, with his social connections (he even served as one of a group of pugilists ushers at the coronation of George IV in 1821), was unusual. For those such as Travers who toured the country, appearing before rough audiences, there would have been much to endure. Even friendly accounts in boxing memoirs of the period use language to describe him that we would now find offensive.

But in the pages of the Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review things are different. Travers is one of us. More than that, he is an admired figure, a notable exponent of pugilistic science, an exponent of sporting virtue, despite what censorious authorities might say about the rough world of bare-knuckle fighting. Certainly his colour is referred to - he is variously labelled as 'The Black' or 'The Ebony Gentleman' in the characteristically florid style adopted for fight descriptions - but for most of the time he is simply Travers, or Bob.

The Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review was founded in March 1862 to capitalize on the growing public enthusiasm for sport. Established by the London printer Edward Harrison, producer of numerous penny serials and weekly periodicals, the sports and games it covered included athletics, hunting, yachting, cricket, rackets, bowls, billiards, wrestling, the ring, pedestrianism, aquatics, golf, billiards, chess, cribbage, and coursing. True to its title, the newspaper also included coverage of various kinds of theatrical performance, increasingly so in its later years until the title closed in 1870.

Travers_and_travers

Bob Travers in fighting attitude and private costume, Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 19 July 1862

It specialised in wood engravings of sportsmen, many of them derived from photographs, which were sometimes sold separately and lined the walls of many a home and public house. They were literally the pin-ups of their time. Such was the importance of the illustrations that a separate version of the journal with images only, Gallery of Engravings (not held by the British Library) was also published, while the journal maintained an index of its illustrations for easy reference. Travers was illustrated on several occasions, both in fighting mode and in elegant private dress.

Travers was not a great fighter, but he was a dogged opponent, and a smart one. He was not averse to taking a fall when the fight was no longer going his way. He certainly seems to have had a sound sense of self-preservation, particularly in his latter years as a fighter, when retirement beckoned. One indication of the dangerous world in which he operated is his fight with Jem Dillon in 1863, when the newspapers reported the shocking news that Travers had died of his injuries following fifty-three brutal rounds. Two weeks later, Travers enjoyed a Mark Twain-like opportunity to tell the press by a letter that reports of his death had been exaggerated – throwing in an advertisement for his pub for good measure (like Bill Richmond, he had opened a pub, the Sun and Thirteen Cantons, off Leicester Square).

Westerngazette

Bob Travers's comments on reports of his death, Western Gazette, 5 September 1863, via British Newspaper Archive

Travers retired from the ring at some point in the mid-1860s. Meanwhile boxing began to move away from its lawless roots. The Marquess of Queensbury’s rules, first set down around 1867, brought in some semblance of order and replaced bare knuckles with gloves. Travers was still around when the first world heavyweight championship fight, held in America between John L. Sullivan and James Corbett (the victor) in 1892, was fought with gloves. 16 years later Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion.

Maybe Bob Travers lived long enough to hear the news. We do not know where or when he died; he is last heard of in 1904. But we see him now in his prime, held up as an exemplar in the pages of the Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, taking his place among the great of England in his field. In the backwaters of the British sporting newspapers of the mid-19th century we can find some inklings of a society based not on race or class, but personal merit.

Notes

There is more information on Bob Travers on the Cyber Boxing Zone website, and in Kevin Smith, Black Genesis: The History of the Black Prizefighter 1760-1870 (iUniverse, 2003). On sporting newspapers of the period, see Mike Huggins, The Victorians and Sport (2004). On black Britons of the 19th century, see David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (2017). On boxing generally, see Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History (2008).

31 January 2019

The anatomy of news

“I hear new news every day”, wrote the scholar Robert Burton in 1628, “and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany Turkey, Poland, daily musters and preparations, and such like.” For Burton, this firehose of news amounted to a “vast confusion”, though his attitude seems to have been one of wonder rather than fear.

Burton was an Oxford man, but made regular trips to London. There he would have paid a visit to the Exchange, gathering up news and gossip from the merchants crowding the surrounding streets, before moving on to St. Paul’s Churchyard, perhaps stopping to buy a pamphlet from a hawker on the way. On front of the Cathedral he might have picked up some more pamphlets from the many booksellers lining the border of its square, or a copy of Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne’s new news publication, an innovative weekly format copied from the continent, although, somewhat disappointingly, it wouldn’t have contained any domestic news.

This short walk helps us understand how Burton perceived a world of overwhelming information. But what would he have made of the 21st century? Indeed, what would he have made of the 19th? Had he been writing, say, 250 years later, in 1872, Burton would surely have been overwhelmed by the number of titles available to him on a daily basis.

Coffeehouse

A late-seventeenth-century London coffee house (Usage terms: Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike licence. Held by © Trustees of the British Museum)

The 19th century is a new world for me, coming from a background of 17th century newspapers. And it is a different world. There’s the name, for one thing: the Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the word ‘newspaper’, to mean a publication of regular, periodical news, in 1688. My own work is on the first half of the 17th century, when the word ‘news-book’ was most common, as was a host of words and phrases like ‘coranto’, ‘weekly news-sheet’, ‘weekly pamphlet’ and ‘Mercuries’, with overlapping, shifting and slightly different meanings.

This naming change can be useful – it helps us to grasp the real intellectual and material differences between the news world of the 17th century and that of the 19th. Although the change was gradual and not always linear – changes and innovations often moved backwards as well as forwards – the march of progress was did eventual pick up pace. 17th century news looked very different, much like a few sheets of A4 paper folded in half, with news in a single column. It was called a news-book because it looked like a small book. The way information was organised was different, too: early 17th century news-books contained a series of paragraphs each from a particular place, recording all the news collected from that place. The invention of the ‘article’, a unit of news based on one particular subject or event, was not to happen for some time.

Columns

The evolution from one to eight columns

This categorical divide also continues with the data. I estimate there are 1,000,000 words in Early English Books Online’s entire periodicals collection. The British Library’s collection of 19th century news runs to hundreds of millions of pages (we wrote recently that the collection consists of 60 million issues, 450 million pages... perhaps four trillion words... twenty-six trillion characters…). The other seismic change is that a computer can be taught to read (with varying accuracy) 19th century news. For the 17th, it’s still very difficult.

This Optical Character Recognition is what allows me to load up the British Newspaper Archive and check if my great-great-granddad committed any crimes in 1839 (still can’t find anything), for example, or check Limerick hurling scores from 1887. This difference isn’t just trivial: it represents a complete step-change in the way we approach newspaper history. For one thing, the datasets increase in size, by orders of magnitude. I have created a dataset of about 15,000 rows, manually collected, by reading 17th century news and noting down bits of information in a spreadsheet. 15,000 rows, from about 400 newspaper issues, which took many months to create. Yesterday, a few hours, I created a dataset of N-Grams (basically combinations of words) from a single issue of one 19th century title.  It contained 150,000 rows.

150,000 rows of generated data, from one issue. Multiply that by about 250 for a weekday title, then by hundreds of titles, then by 200 years and the potential for ‘big data’ is rather astonishing. Of course, this data is not as rich with information as my humble spreadsheet, nor does it record any kind of fine-grained detail, but it does change the types of processing, computing power and storage needed, and most importantly, the types of intellectual questions that are and are not answerable. My 17th century dataset is like interviewing everyone in a small town, in some detail; the 19th century datasets we’ll be working with on our Heritage Made Digital newspapers project records the cosmos – albeit from far away. We don’t know much, but we know it about an enormous number of things. But the differences extend past volume: there is also a step-change in readership and scope.

The 19th century newspaper was everywhere. Some of the most popular 17th century newsbooks were probably printed in weekly runs of about 2,000; by 1863, the Daily Telegraph had a circulation of 120,000 per day. In 1628 Burton was overwhelmed by information in London and Oxford but elsewhere the firehose could be a drip, or a drought. By the 19th century news surged through the country’s arteries, veins and capillaries: at first everywhere within the reach of the train; eventually the telegraph, information finally travelling at the speed of light, in dots and dashes. It was the most pervasive cultural object of the century.

Newsgraph

Newspaper titles held by the British Library, year by year, 1621-1900

Even accounting for the reuse and sharing of copies this is a fundamentally very different type of cultural artefact. If I analyse every page of news in the early 17th century, I have a vast record of events, and the thoughts and feelings of a select group of people. In the 19th century, the newspaper is a reasonable proxy for the way society thinks. To me it seems as though news in the 19th century captures a good proportion of a collective consciousness. It is a reasonable (though problematic) way to infer societal change. Through the newspaper’s great reach we can understand historical forces. The articles and personalities in the 19th century newspaper can tell us about structures of power. Its advertisements identify trends, economic forces and the changing roles within the family. The words themselves and their frequencies can help us understand the use of language, or uncover drifts in sentiments towards political movements, ideologies and so forth. In the 17th century the readership is so small, such a small part of the diet of information ingested by both important and ordinary people, that the questions we ask of its remains are different. Not less important, certainly not less interesting, but surely of a different kind.

Yes, the 19th century news world feels like a different one to the 17th. A mostly new world, with some evidence of the ruins of its earlier civilisation: the old towers are fallen, though echoes of their presence remain. The vast confusion had been replaced with one infinitely greater. Our job is to find, research and understand the new techniques that are necessary to make sense of this information overload.

Yann Ryan

Curator, Newspaper Data

22 January 2019

African newspapers

We're delighted to be able to announce a significant new digital resource using newspapers from the British Library's collection. African Newspapers: The British Library Collection is being offered by the academic publisher Readex. The collection comprises sixty-four newspapers titles, all dating from 1901, that were published throughout Africa, chiefly in English.

African

The British Library has substantial collections of newspapers from the African continent, particularly for the period of the British Empire, almost none of which have been available digitally before now. Ranging from 1840 to 1900, the newspapers cover the period of European exploration, colonialism and the first steps towards self-governance. The newspapers contain news reports, articles, letters, advertisements, shipping reports and obituaries, providing an invaluable portrait of a continent in transition.

The available titles are still being added to, but the finished resource will include such titles as Central African Times, Egyptian Gazette, Times of Marocco and the West African Reporter. The territories covered include the countries now known as Djibouti, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, and the islands of Mauritius and Saint Helena. All are fully word-searchable and browsable.

Egyptiangazette

The Egyptian Gazette, from African Newspapers: The British Library Collection

African Newspapers: The British Library Collection is available to British Library readers at our St Pancras and Boston Spa locations, as one of the many electronic resources that we provide onsite. A few we can offer for free remote access to those with a British Library reader pass, including Readex's World Newspaper Archive: African Newspapers, 1800-1922 and Rand Daily Mail (which is partly based on the British Library's run of this key South African title), via our Remote eResources facility. African Newspapers: The British Library Collection is not available for remote access, but has greatly expanded the number of newspapers from this period of African history which can now be searched in depth via a single interface.

We have a mixed model for the digitisation of newspapers. For British and Irish newspapers, chiefly regional, we work with family history company Findmypast, which produces the British Newspaper Archive website. Recently we announced that the British Library has started digitising newspapers itself, concentrating on some out-of-copyright (pre-1878) newspapers published in London, whose physical originals are often in a poor or unfit state. And we work with academic resource providers such as Readex, Cengage Gale and Adam Matthew Digital, who create thematic packages which sometimes include British Library newspapers and periodicals and are marketed to educational institutions. It's a complicated picture, and not everything can be made accessible to anyone anywhere, but through through such collaborations we can make far more available digitally than we could ever achieve alone.