“It is a fact, however disgraceful to human nature, that an old harpy living in a court near Exeter Change has not less than five little girls in her hovel who she dresses out with all the frippery of meretriciousness and upon whose prostitution she supports an uncertain and even wretched existence – yet such is the force of habit she prefers wickedness and misery to honest labour and competency”
Not the opening of a Gothic novel but a story in the first ever edition of The Observer – the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world – first published on 4 December 1791, 225 years ago last Sunday. As you can see, even then, scandal was what people wanted to read with their Sunday breakfast – one wonders how many people went straight to Exeter Change in order to check the veracity of the piece…
Other stories in the first issue included the Duke of Bedford laying the foundation stone for the new Theatre Royal Drury Lane (it burned down in 1809) and a gentleman who died after being gored by ‘a tormented over-driven ox in Cheapside’. Plus the tantalising snippet that
“The unfortunate man who was driven so inhumanly by the mistaken mob a few days ago proved to be, not Oxley the mail-robber, as was supposed but a poor lunatic who had escaped from his keeper.”
They had a major coup in 1812 when their reporter Vincent Dowling was present at the assassination of the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the Houses of Parliament and was able to give a first-hand account:
‘The deed was perpetrated so suddenly that the man who fired the pistol was not instantly recognized by those in the lobby, but a person passing at the moment behind Mr Perceval promptly seized the pistol and which the assassin surrendered without resistance.’
The ‘person’ was in fact Dowling himself.
While The Observer is now regarded as a Liberal newspaper, it was anything but in its early days and was the last newspaper to accept subsidies from the secret service. It still maintained some editorial independence though, defying an injunction to report on the trial of the so-called Cato Street conspirators. The proprietor William Clement was fined the enormous sum of £500, which he refused to pay, but the precedent was then set for newspapers writing about ongoing cases.
Another precedent was set in 1891 when The Observer employed its first woman editor, indeed its only woman editor to date. Rachel Beer was not just the first woman to edit the Observer, she was the first woman to edit any national newspaper. She was born into the wealthy Sassoon family (the poet Siegfried Sassoon was her nephew) and married Frederick Beer, whose father had bought The Observer in 1870. Frederick suffered from ill-health and Rachel eventually took over as editor.
In 1895 she bought The Sunday Times and edited this too for several years, becoming the first and perhaps the only person to edit two rival Sunday papers at the same time. As an editor her major coup was exposing the forgery at the heart of the Dreyfus case.
Beer continued to write for both papers, having leader columns written in indecipherable handwriting delivered at the last minute by her footman, no doubt much to the annoyance of the sub-editors.
Another pioneering woman who worked for The Observer was CA Lejeune, employed as a film critic from 1928 (having previously worked for the Manchester Guardian) at a time when it was fashionable not to take the art form seriously. Other celebrated writers for the paper have included the spy Kim Philby, who used his post as their Middle East editor as cover for his work as an MI5 agent, and George Orwell who reported on the end of the war from the Hotel Scribe in Paris.
You can look back at past issues of The Observer and read articles by Vita Sackville-West, Arthur Koestler, Kenneth Tynan and many others – the full Observer archive is available online with your Westminster library card. And very fascinating they are too! Don’t forget we also have the archives of The Guardian, the Times, the Illustrated London News and many other periodicals.