Daily Archives: 11/07/2011

Scandal sheets

Like everyone else, I’m following the ongoing saga of News of the World.  I particularly liked the Telegraph’s headline, ‘Goodbye, cruel World’, although I’m also intrigued by the more arcane ‘Should Rupert Murdoch’s papal knighthood be rescinded?’ from the Catholic Herald.  But as a historian, I’m sad when anything 168 years old bites the dust.  Shouldn’t there be a preservation order or something?

The News of the World has been a scandal sheet for a very long time.  Wikipedia quotes the following story, which must date from the late 19th century:

Frederick Greenwood, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, met in his club one day Lord Riddell, who died a few years ago, and in the course of conversation Riddell said to him, ‘You know, I own a paper.’ ‘Oh, do you?’ said Greenwood, ‘what is it?’ ‘It’s called the News of the World—I’ll send you a copy,’ replied Riddell, and in due course did so. Next time they met Riddell said, ‘Well Greenwood, what do you think of my paper?’ ‘I looked at it,’ replied Greenwood, ‘and then I put it in the waste-paper basket. And then I thought, “If I leave it there the cook may read it”—so I burned it!’

That’s the trouble with servants.  First they learn to read – and then you never know what they might get up to.

We’ve always loved scandal – whether it’s gossiping around the well or the water cooler.  The original term ‘gossip’ meant a godparent, one of the sponsors at a baptism.  This meaning, which the Oxford English Dictionary traces back to 1014, applied equally to men or women, but gradually it became associated with women.  Gossips were the women who attended a woman in childbirth (1600), or ‘A person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler’ (1566).

A lot of women’s work was boring but sociable, collecting water, washing clothes and so on – see here for my post on doing the laundry – so it’s not surprising if women spent some of this time gossiping about their neighbours.  But there are other sorts of watering holes, and plenty of male gossips drink at the local pub.


This sort of shared gossip about the neighbours can be a way of drawing the community together.  Everyone knows each other’s business, and what goes around, comes around.  It’s not necessarily very nice – neighbours cruelly punished people, such as cuckolds and scolds and homosexuals, who subverted the rules of the village – but there’s nothing quite like chucking bad eggs at a bad egg to make the rest of the community bond together.

There are other sorts of gossip that are much less egalitarian. The juicy scandals that servants told about their masters, the scurrilous dirt about the mistress that made life as a scullery maid that much more bearable, this sort of gossip is asymmetric, because servants know more about their masters, than their masters know about them – and I’ll bet Greenwood’s cook knew just what was going on, when she raked up the ashes from his study.

Some gossip like this had a political agenda.  Gossip about Marie Antoinette, however false and misogynistic, helped the fuel the French Revolution.  In a more general sense, digging the dirt on the rich and powerful is a sort of rebellion against the system.

Sometimes the gossip served a more practical purpose.  In early Australia, convict women were assigned to the free settlers to work as domestic servants.  If they got pregnant, they were returned to the Female Factory to live and work there until the baby was born and nursed.  There’s no doubt that the gossip these women shared amongst themselves was important, warning other women which masters were sexual predators, which mistresses worked them too hard.

I wrote my first book over 20 years ago, a biography of a shady banker named Ben Boyd who came to New South Wales in the 1840s.  I came across a story that Ben had fathered a daughter by the wife of a Sydney merchant, Robert Campbell.  The story was supposed to come from one of Campbell’s servants.  I wasn’t able to substantiate it, and left it out of the book, even though I’m fairly sure it was true: the Campbells separated during the 1840s, and Ben Boyd fought a duel with one of Campbell’s closest friends for reasons that were never very clear.  But nothing made it into print.

And that is the problem, of course.  Most gossip is never written down where a historian can find it, so we are left with vague innuendo.  Kirsten McKenzie, in Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town 1820-1850 (2004), does a great job making sense of many of these mysteries – but it’s very hard.

Once gossip is in print, it’s available to the historian – though it could be dangerous for the publisher, then as now.  In 1854, Edward Hawksley, the editor of the wonderfully named People’s Advocate and New South Wales Vindicator, was gaoled for libel for accusing Captain FitzRoy, the Governor’s son, of cheating at cards.  When the FitzRoys, father and son, left Sydney 2 years later, Hawksley printed an advertisement on the front page of the Advocate:

TWO SUPERIOR STALLIONS…  One of them is known by the name of CAPTAIN… This excellent Horse stands 16 hands, light chesnut… and a sure Foal getter; he has stood several seasons at Parramatta and Windsor, and the purchaser can have a certificate of his performances at both places… he is also, very favourably known in Sydney and can occasionally be seen prancing up and down in front of the Café in George-street… in fact he would make a first rate fellow for a Circus – he has lifted a wooden candlestick with one of his fore hoofs when in the Stables at Parramatta, and besides doing a trick or two at cards, he can go through many other very extraordinary feats.

So as a historian, I am deeply grateful to scandal rags like the News of the World, which took our natural prurience and made it profitable.  Now the scandal has hit Rupert Murdoch himself, whose succession plans currently look to be on a par with those of King Lear.  And we are all riveted by the story.  Why?  Because we all enjoy a juicy scandal about the rich and powerful – it’s very much in the spirit of News of the World, when you think of it.