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Victorian Perception of History: As Portrayed by the Newspapers of the Times

Updated on February 27, 2020
Nathanville profile image

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

The Steam Age, Staple Hill, Bristol, England
The Steam Age, Staple Hill, Bristol, England

History Through The Eyes of 19th Century News Media

In Britain and America

Victorians and Americans in the 19th century writing about their own history can make for some interesting reading. This article showcases a few of the newspaper articles of the time on contemporary 19th century history and historic events; or at least historic events as portrayed in Britain and America newspapers.

These along with other Victorian era newspaper articles were saved by George Burgess 1829-1905 (my great-great grandfather) and stuck into his Victorian Scrapbook containing over 500 newspaper articles.

His scrapbook, which was compiled during his lifetime, includes many American newspaper articles from the early 19th century; which he collected while living in America from about 1844 to 1857. Most of the later newspaper cuttings are predominantly from British Victorian newspapers.

As part of my genealogy research into Victorian life I’ve transcribed the full collection of the 19th century newspaper articles from his Scrapbook, and published them to my Nathanville genealogy website for free viewing online. The link to these fascinating to read 19th century newspaper articles is given below.

Daily Life in Victorian England
Daily Life in Victorian England
An exceptional book that is in-depth and invaluable, Dailey Life in Victorian England really gets to grips on what life was like during this historic transitional period in history. A period in time when England is being transformed from the old provincial society that dates back to the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the modern urban power we know today. The impact of increased women rights and rapid scientific and technological advances on society; and the influence this had on morality, leisure, health and medicine.

In Your Own Image

The first datable reference to King Arthur appears in the 9th century manuscript, Historia Brittonum (History of Britton). The manuscript, in a few lines, just refers to a warrior leader fighting in 12 battles around the end of the 5th century (just after the Romans left Britain); a Romanised Britain who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons.

It was the Medieval Historians who embellished and romanticised the story of Arthur; and wrote it in their own image; one such 12th century book being the ‘Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. From that time Arthur was elevated to a stereotype medieval king, complete with castle and knights.

In today’s world, when I correspond with Americans at great length many see the world in their own image, rather than acknowledge a European perspective; which is very frustrating.

So I’m sure it was no different during the Victorian era; an age of enlightenment, technological advancement and scientific discoveries. I’m sure people in Britain, America and elsewhere at that time tried to make sense of the rapidly changing world by viewing their understanding of its history from their perspective (in their image); rather than trying to understand how it really was.

Realism vs Romanticism

Romanticism vs Pragmatism

One thing we can recognise from the Victorian era (which is just as prevalent today) are the Romantics and the Realists; each distorting the views and image of history.

I am a Romanic, I think my upbringing as a child in a slum has given me a deep appreciation for all things beautiful e.g. nature. At that time my father was unemployed and we lived in a house that had nothing more than electricity; with water from a cold tap in an outhouse, and an outside toilet with no sewage.

Even though we had nothing but nettle soup for two weeks (at one point) they were happy times; my parents saw to that. So to move to a house at the age of 10 that had a bathroom and indoor toilet with hot and cold running water was like moving to a palace.

However, although I am a romantic at heart, I like to think of myself as also being pragmatic; the best of both worlds. I’m happy and content with my lot but I ensure my wife and son want for nothing. My great-great grandfather (from his writings) seems to have been the same. Although he was born into a working class family in 1829 his parents ensured he had a good education and did an apprenticeship in stonemasonry (which he completed in America). It was while in America that he also learned the skills of phrenology; which became his profession for the next 40 years; until his retirement. In his writings, he had a good sense of humour, and a love of life; and he ensured his children wanted for nothing.

History of Ideas: Romanticism

19th Century Newspaper Extracts

From Britain and America

Immediately below are eight Victorian era newspaper articles covering historical events:-

  • A Dutch Witness
  • British Aristocracy
  • Wife to John Bigler (1805-1871), Governor of California
  • England’s progress during ten years
  • Deaths of English Kings
  • How to Hear the Gospel and the Expense of War
  • Dr. Franklin and the Barber
  • Futility of Freedom

The other newspaper articles, individually showcased here are:-

  • List of principle events in modern history
  • Statistics on human life and world population
  • UK population 1861

Victorian Newspapers

Free to View Online

Follow this link for over 500 Victorian newspaper articles, transcribed and originals.

Historic Events Portrayed by the Victorians

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A Dutch WitnessBritish AristocracyWife to John Bigler (1805-1871), Governor of CaliforniaEngland’s progress during ten yearsDeaths of English KingsHow to Hear the Gospel and the Expense of WarDr. Franklin and the BarberFutility of Freedom
A Dutch Witness
A Dutch Witness
British Aristocracy
British Aristocracy
Wife to John Bigler (1805-1871), Governor of California
Wife to John Bigler (1805-1871), Governor of California
England’s progress during ten years
England’s progress during ten years
Deaths of English Kings
Deaths of English Kings
How to Hear the Gospel and the Expense of War
How to Hear the Gospel and the Expense of War
Dr. Franklin and the Barber
Dr. Franklin and the Barber
Futility of Freedom
Futility of Freedom

List of Principal Events in Modern History

Published in a 19th Century Newspaper

Below is just part of a longer list going back to the Punic Wars in 218AD. On Nathanville (link below) as well as both parts of this article I’ve also included on the same page another related newspaper article entitled ‘Chronological Table of Events in Ancient History’. For each event listed in these articles, where possible I’ve added hyperlinks to other websites for further information.

I guess to the Victorians these articles were the equivalent to a simple encyclopaedia freely available by their publications in Victorian newspapers and therefore of great educational value.

List of Principal Events in Modern History, published in a 19th century newspaper
List of Principal Events in Modern History, published in a 19th century newspaper
The Nineteenth Century: The British Isles 1815-1901 (Short Oxford History of the British Isles)
The Nineteenth Century: The British Isles 1815-1901 (Short Oxford History of the British Isles)
This volume in a series of British History by the short Oxford History of the British Isles covers a period in history when Britain was at the peak of world power; the Colonial Days which along with the French, Spanish and other Western European countries is an era not to be proud of. However, this book sets out and describes force and complexity of the times and how British cultural history interplays with the politics and economics during the 19th century between 1815 and 1901. Topics examined includes women and domesticity, the interplay of religion, intellect, science, art, architecture, literature, theatre and music.

Statistics of Human Life and World Population

Article Published in an English Magazine c1859-1880

This newspaper article was published in an English Magazine called 'Once a Week' that ran from 1859-1880; although if you look up the world population figures quoted in the magazine e.g. 1 billion people it becomes clear the magazine was using out-of-date information that would have previously been published prior to the 1850s.

Statistics of Human Life and World Population published in a Victorian Newspaper
Statistics of Human Life and World Population published in a Victorian Newspaper

UK Population Tables - Census 1861

Has News Reporting Changed Since the Victorian Period?

How does contemporary newspaper reporting on history in the making and on historic event par up with Victorian newspapers.

Has contemporary newspaper reporting become more informative than news reporting in the 19th century?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Arthur Russ


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