Penny-a-liner or the march of roguery.
Returning to the metropolis after a few years working in various country theatres, I embraced a new calling, that of a line reporter in connection with the daily and weekly press. A very independent and creditable employment and, because of its independence, especially agreeable to me. An account of this pursuit may perhaps be of some interest as this is how I began my journalistic and radical political career.
Calling in the forenoon at the offices of the various metropolitan coroners and obtaining from their clerks a list of the inquests with the places and hours at which they would be held that afternoon or evening, I assisted thereat by taking notes of the evidence and results. On returning home I wrote out a concise statement of each case, sending copies to each of the daily newspapers. This occupied me far into the night. Next morning I anxiously noted the insertion of my communication, counting the number of lines and booking the result against each publication. On the Friday the accounts were sent in, charging for each line three halfpence; a very Irish origin for the term “penny-a-liner.”
For a copy of superior interest or of intelligence obtained by superior vigilance, or good fortune, it is the custom to mark it with the words “exclusive,” intimating that you did not send a duplicate to any other paper; and when the weekly account was sent in that item is left uncharged, being marked “exclusive” and the remuneration being left to the conscientious liberality of the editor.
Ordinarily, a reporter of average merit and industry can earn from three to five pounds weekly, and frequently much more; nor had I ever a reason to complain of the pecuniary result. Of course I supplied the evening as well as the morning and weekly journals with copy of various species of intelligence; and one Saturday on calling at the office of The British Traveller for payment of my week’s account I was told that the editor (Mr. Willett) desired to see me. I left that office with the permanent appointment of sub-editor with the valuable benefit of a seat in the gallery of the House of Commons. On my own suggestion, it was my daily business to write an epitome of the Parliamentary proceedings down to an early hour of the evening. I would then rush down the gallery stairs, jump into a gig and by the aid of a fast trotter make my way over Westminster or Blackfriars bridges to reach the office in Black House Court, Fleet Street. With all due haste I would scribble out my copy to enable the publisher to get out a special edition somewhat earlier and with somewhat later intelligence than any other paper.
One Saturday afternoon I received information of a horrible murder committed some twenty five miles from London. It was at a time when London was murder-mad, not being long after the murder of Marrs and Williamson and when people went to bed with the expectation of having to struggle against the application of the Burke’s pitch plaster over their mouths. It came to me at the time when it could not be used for our paper, and I asked Mr. Willett if he had any objection to my sending the information to the Editor of The Times; and with his consent I did so.
My messenger brought back a note of thanks and a request from Mr. Delane that I should step round to Playhouse Yard and see him. I went and being told that as it was Saturday and all the staff were beyond his immediate reach, and that he was unable to avail himself of my information unless I would kindly undertake the work. According to his request and receiving for my guidance, “a full report by three o’clock on Monday morning and spare neither labour nor expense to secure its superiority over all other newspapers”
Mr. Delane handed me on account, and I started on my errand. Procuring a good horse I was on the spot that night; called on the coroner; borrowed his deposition, copied them and returned before midnight. It fortunately happened that I was first in the field, no reporter having attended the official investigation, and early on Sunday I visited the locus in quo and had a ground plan taken; after which I called on the several witnesses and obtained much additional evidence which had then to be arranged and re-written, all of which occupied me until long after dark. When I remounted my thoroughbred and galloped to Ludgate Hill, my nag fell and threw me over his head, as St. Paul’s stuck two But I was no worse for my tumble; and, too well pleased with the success of my enterprise to make mountains of molehills, I walked to The Times office sent in my report and got home and to bed as quickly as I might.
On Tuesday I sent in my account of expenses and the balance of the The next morning I received a note from Mr. Delane requesting me to call on their City agent, who handed me together with a flattering expressions of goodwill. This was a lump of money for thirty-six hours labour; but The Times had two columns of good sensational matter, and exclusively, for no other morning paper had even a paragraph upon the subject. Nor do I believe that this liberality of the leading journal in my case is to be considered very exceptional. I have heard of many similar instances; one just now recurs to my mind. An East India man was wrecked on the Goodwin Sands and a gentleman, procuring a list of the passengers saved and lost, posted it to London with the information, which he placed at command of the manager of The Times and was paid for his expenses. And the policy of this liberality is manifest if it be remembered that the leading journal cannot afford to be second in respect of important intelligence and that the notoriety of its generous treatment gives it the pas of all its contemporaries!