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Cruel Deeds and Dreadful Calamities

The Illustrated Police News, 1864-1938


Linda Stratmann


London: The British Library, 2011

Hardback. 160 p. ISBN 978 0712358118. £20


Reviewed by Jean-Claude Sergeant

Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle, Paris III



Oddly enough, Dennis Griffiths’ Encyclopedia of the British Press ignores The Illustrated Police News while dedicating an entry to George Purkess, a bookseller and publisher, who in 1865 took over the control of the IPN whose first issue had been published in February 1864.

George Purkess was to transform this four-page weekly priced 1d into a thriving title offering the popular segment of society a rich diet of crime stories, court cases, natural disasters and unusual events, sometimes bordering on the weird, even gruesome, side.

Linda Startmann provides a thoroughly researched account of the history of the weekly through its various avatars until its demise in 1938. The physical appearance of the paper and its evolving lay-out over the years are precisely described as well as the technical processes involved in the engraving operations. The IPN was above all an illustrated newspaper of the same calibre as that of the Illustrated London News and it certainly was the quality of its pictures which appealed to the reading public who in their hundreds of thousands—its circulation was estimated at 300,000 at the end of the 1870s—bought their copies on the Saturday.

The main attraction of this lavishly illustrated book lies however in its presentation of the main categories of news which made up the core of the weekly whose masthead was complemented by the strapline “Law Courts and Weekly Record”. Out of the 120 illustrated excerpts chosen by the author, only 20 have been selected from the post-1892 collection of the IPN. Indeed, after the death of George Purkess in 1892 and the ensuing change of ownership, the editorial policy became much more politically committed. A number of articles and pictures celebrated for instance the British intervention in the Transvaal (1899) or were clearly critical of the bouts of industrial action organised by the trade unions, such as the London Tube strike of 13 February 1919. Away had gone Purkess’ empathy with the “unfashionable multitude” as Linda Stratmann puts it [31], which more often than not led him to suggest a link between crime and social deprivation. Although The Illustrated Police News was not a campaigning newspaper and was mostly content to hold up to its readers a mirror of society, magnifying its most disturbing, even abject, aspects, it was not without its views. For example, George Purkess explicitly opposed the Compulsory Vaccination Act (1886); he also regularly denounced the cruel treatment of animals and vivisection in particular while, on the other hand, constantly supporting capital punishment which he preferred to be carried out in private rather than in full public view in order to increase its alleged deterring influence on the mind of potential murderers. When the IPN published an artist’s depiction of the first execution in the US by means of an electric chair (19 October 1891), the accompanying comment objected to the introduction of a supposedly swift and painless way of carrying out a death sentence: “Why should the gallows lose its indefinable terror?”, asked the editor.

Linda Stratmann’s book includes a substantial section devoted to women represented in unconventional roles: two women fighting over a disputed lover, an American lady taking a photograph of a man, noose around his neck, about to be hanged (26 March 1898), “heroic” women putting robbers to flight or taking part in gun fight. But women also appear in other sections as murderers, seducers but above all as wives and mothers subjected to the tyranny of drunken men. Women were also identified with modernity when depicted in their cycling outfits. The author notes that in the 1890s the IPN had become pervaded by a naughtier spirit with girls rather than wives and mothers being given prime of place. The IPN was not above carrying adverts for French and American letters, which caused some frowning among the respectable quarters. In the 1930s the masthead regularly included two ears advertising an “Illustrated Catalogue of Birth Control Appliances” and “Free Sample of Female Pills”. The IPN had long been suspected of contributing to the debasement of the moral spirit of society. In 1886 it was even voted “worst English newspaper” by the readers the Pall Mall Gazette who blamed it for glorifying crime, an imputation dismissed by George Purkess who, when interviewed by a PMG reporter, claimed that his newspaper “[was] a distinct deterrent to crime because it warn[ed] people of the horrors of crime and the results following upon the commission thereof”. Coming from the Pall Mall Gazette, whose newly-appointed editor W.T. Stead was to become the most flamboyant proponent of the “New Journalism”, this holier-than-thou attitude was paradoxical at least. As Linda Stratmann points out, the IPN “anticipated by many years the wave of the ‘New Journalism’ ” by providing its readers with visual representations of events that appealed to their imagination and to which they could relate emotionally. The IPN was also keen to tap the growing interest in sports—boxing in particular—which gradually displaced all other categories of news so much so that in March 1938 The Illustrated Police News gave way to The Sporting Record which ran until 1979.

It may seem odd that the first news photograph was not introduced until 1936 but as Linda Stratmann insists, the strength of the IPN was the pictures it offered of unusual or prestigious events, most of which accurately documented, which relieved the hum-drum of ordinary lives. Photographs were no substitutes when it came to capture Sarah Bernhardt’s fall from a cliff (23 September 1897) or scenes of cruel treatment of female inmates at Hampstead Hospital (30 September 1871).

The reader emerges from skimming through the pages of this riveting book with the feeling of one who has completed a revisiting process of the past which is not without its gaps, however. The IPN’s graphic treatment of some outstanding crime stories—Jack the Ripper—and of disasters of international proportion—the sinking of the Titanic, for example—is one such gap. But this hardly affects the quality of this talented attempt to resurrect a leading popular title through its unusually long career.


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