In Britain today, the print media faces an uncertain future due to the intense competition from broadcast news and the immediacy of social media. We still have, according to some, what is known as the gutter press. Depending on your political convictions, you can name your own suspects, but there are only a couple of titles which are regularly – and genuinely – idiotic. The word ‘tabloid’ has come to be a term of disdain, but we would do well to remember that it is, technically, simply a name for the format of the paper – a compact rectangular shape rather than the much larger broadsheet form, now all but extinct in weekday editions.
While newspaper coverage of politics diminishes the further you go down the journalistic food chain, one subject that can always find the front page is crime, and in 1864, enterprising publishers decided to capitalise on the public’s long-standing fascination with violent death and despicable deeds by producing The Illustrated Police News. The title suggests that it was something authorised by the police themselves, but it was nothing of the sort. Ever since printing became a cheap and practical way of spreading information, spectacular crimes and, most of all, executions, had been sensationalised by broadsides (left) – usually a one-sided sheet with a stylised illustration and perhaps a doggerel poem, or dramatic description. These would be sold for pennies to the crowds who gathered in their hundreds to watch murderers meet their maker. The Illustrated Police News was a rather more comprehensive version of those macabre souvenirs.
Key to the paper’s success was its visual impact. Bear in mind that photographs in newspapers were very primitive until well into the 20th century, so TIPN employed artists who drew their impressions of crime scenes and victims. These would then be made into etchings or engravings and the plates would be inserted into the set type.
The “Freddy Starr ate my hamster” school of journalism has a long and distinguished heritage, Here, in a front page from 1871, we have a perfect blend of lurid sexual sadism, suicide and a disaster in the peaceful Suffolk town of Stowmarket.
So how did TIPN treat crime cases which became nationally notorious? It had huge fun, of course, with the Whitechapel murders in 1888, and many of its illustrations have been used in books on Jack the Ripper over the years. The beauty of it, as far as TIPN was concerned, was that there was so much speculation and the police were so clueless that the artists could speculate away to their hearts’ content without fear of contradiction.
What was to become known as The Tottenham Outrage took place on 23rd January 1909, when two Latvian anarchists ambushed a car carrying wages for factory workers in Tottenham. In the lengthy pursuit of the hijackers, a policeman was shot dead and a young boy died after being hit by a stray bullet. I have covered the incident here but, needless to say, TIPN were quickly on the case.
Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson had been a senior member of the British high command in World War One, without ever having active service in the field. Born in Ireland, he was known to have Unionist sympathies, and when he was murdered by two IRA gunmen in 1922 TIPN, never less than patriotic, seized the moment.
The front pages of TIPN were, of course, its main selling point, but the inside of the paper was pretty much solid reading, interspersed with occasional smaller illustrations. One of the classic full page illustrations inside the edition was in 1934 and covered what was known as The Brighton Trunk murder. A petty crook called Cecil Lewis England had adopted the name Tony Mancini, probably because it had gangsterish sound to it. He was in a relationship with a prostitute, Violette Kaye. On the 10th May she disappeared, having apparently sent a telegram to her sister in law saying that she had gone away to work in Paris. Eventually the police became suspicious and eventually discovered Kaye’s remains in a trunk owned by Mancini.
At his trial, he claimed that he had found her dead body, but concealed it, fearing he would be accused of her murder. Mancini was defended by two celebrity barristers, Quintin Hogg, better known as Lord Hailsham, and Norman Birkett, who would achieve lasting fame as the British judge at the Nuremberg trials after WW2. Astonishingly, the jury found Mancini not guilty, but In 1976 he confessed to a News of the World journalist. He explained that during a blazing row with Kaye, she had attacked him with the hammer he had used to break coal for their fire. He had wrestled the hammer from her, but when she had demanded it back, he had thrown it at her, hitting her on the left temple. A prosecution of Mancini for perjury was considered but rejected due to lack of corroboration.
By 1938 TIPN had dramatically changed direction and had become more of a sports paper, with particular focus on racing (both horses and dogs) and football. It still had time and space, however, to report on the career of Herr Hitler. By the time Hitler plunged Europe into war in 1939 when he invaded Poland, The Illustrated Police News was itself no more, having become a victim of changing times and tastes.