Thomas Barnes and The Times 1817-1841

Reginald Watters offers a profile of one of the founding-father of modern journalism; Thomas Barnes brought tremendous dash and energy to the conduct of his long professional career.

One evening in 1816, Charles Lamb and his sister sat up late with two or three friends discussing the rival merits of Dante and Shakespeare. It was a debate in which Lamb was at a disadvantage, for, as his first biographer Talfourd recalled, ‘he was unable to read the original, and Cary’s noble translation was not then known to him’. But one of his friends, a man in his early thirties, attempted to make good the deficiency.

‘The face of the advocate of Dante, heavy when in repose, grew bright with earnest admiration as he quoted images, sentiments, dialogues, against Lamb, who had taken his own immortal stand on Lear, and urged the supremacy of the child-changed father against all the possible Ugolinos of the world.’

Talfourd’s description catches in amber the live enthusiasm and generous spirit of Lamb’s opponent:

‘I think I see him now, leaning forward upon the littie table on which the candles were just expiring in their sockets, his fists clenched, his eyes flashing, and his face bathed in perspiration, exclaiming to Lamb,

“And do I not know, my boy, that you have written about Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s own Lear, finer than anyone ever did in the world, and won’t I let the world know it?” ’

Lamb’s opponent was Thomas Barnes, the young journalist who within a year was to assume the editorship of The Times. Talfourd’s glimpse is tantalisingly brief, but it surely gives us something of the personality which enabled Barnes to become the first great editor of that paper, his vitality and confidence, his breadth of outlook and his healthy regard for the worthiness of an adversary. And, finally, the driving wish to let the world know what he knows.

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