In the Media

The readers' editor on? murder most foul, then and now

PUBLISHED April 14, 2012

'It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World." So begins George Orwell's 1946 essay "The Decline of the English Murder" ? words proudly quoted by the NotW in its final issue, ignoring the point that far from praising popular journalism, Orwell was actually satirising this nation's peculiar fixation with the ghoulish murder stories that appeared in the papers every Sunday.

Orwell maintained that the English relished only a certain type of murder. "The murderer should be a little man of the professional class ? a dentist or a solicitor, say ? living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall? he should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience."

I was reminded of these words last week when the Observer reported that the murder rate in London had halved over the past decade. There were 222 homicides in 2003, but the figure had dropped to 113 by last year. This good news might suggest that the capital now offers fewer opportunities for tabloid tales of blood and treachery, but in fact the figures reflect faster response times from paramedics rather than any diminution in murderous intent. Modern medicine is saving more lives.

What the story didn't reveal was the nature of the murders, but society's strictures have changed so much since Orwell's time that I would hazard that few adulterous dentists end up in the dock for murder nowadays. His essay went on to decry callous killings "without depth of feeling" and he would certainly have condemned the modern spate of gang knife murders as possessing little of the style of the furtive domestic poisonings that once filled the public prints.

Today's New Review carries a double-page spread on the killing of Harriet Staunton in 1877 (the Penge Murder) and includes a picture of a small publication that recorded the whole story, promising "the life and trial of the four prisoners". Readers quick to condemn what they perceive to be unscrupulous practices in journalism today might pause for a moment and reflect on what total fabrications were served up in these pamphlets during the 19th century.

Henry Mayhew, in his riveting London Labour and the London Poor ? brilliantly abridged from four volumes by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (OUP) ? reports on the brisk trade in "gallows" literature on the streets of London, promising the "Last Dying Speech, Confession and Execution" of the condemned. He tells of the "death hunters" who sold these bogus accounts and who boasted of their ingenuity in beating the newspapers because: "We gets it printed several days afore it comes off and goes and stands with it right under the drop."

When there was no actual murder to sell, these "patterers" simply invented the assassination or injury of a prominent figure. With no internet, television or radio for the public to verify their claims, they happily put the Duke of Wellington to death twice, once by a fall from his horse and once in "mysterious circumstances"; they had Emperor Louis Philippe shot and another time stabbed. One told Mayhew he considered poisoning the Pope "but was afraid of the street Irish". He broke Prince Albert's leg or arm (he was not sure which), but would not injure Queen Victoria ? "it wouldn't go down".

So popular were these penny dreadfuls that the established press, while not resorting to fictional murder, could ill afford to ignore the appetites they fed, as Mayhew noticed: "It is very easy to stigmatise the death-hunter when he sets off all the attractions of a real or pretended murder? he does, however, but follow in the path of those who are looked up to as 'the press'. The Observer, in costly advertisements, boasts of its 20 columns (sometimes with a supplement) of details of some vulgar and mercenary bloodshed ? the details being written in a most honest deprecation of the morbid and savage tastes to which the writer is pandering."

Orwell joined the Observer 100 years later, lured by the opportunity to shape its liberal future, but ? who knows ? its lurid past might just have been an attraction, too.