Writing News and Keeping Coffee-Houses

Michael Glover investigates the early modern sources of the English reputation as the most indefatigable writers of letters in the world.

Contrary to received opinion William Howard Russell, whose reports from the Crimea caused such a sensation in England, was not the first war correspondent. That title probably belongs to Henry Crabb Robinson who reported the British attack on Copenhagen for The Times in 1807 and was sent to Spain by his paper in the following year. He did not pursue the fighting very actively, but stayed at Coruna until, in January 1809, the war came to him and he was able to write a firsthand account of Sir John Moore’s last battle and the embarkation of the army.

Robinson’s expedition, however, was a unique mission, and for the rest of the war editors had to rely on official despatches, eked out by whatever scraps they could glean from stories told by merchant captains and the private letters of combatants. The former were based on dockside rumours, and the latter were scarcely more reliable.

In the short campaign of Vimeira in 1808, the Morning Chronicle reported as a fact that Sir Arthur Wellesley had completed his landing at Peniche by July 30th, whereas he did not start landing his army until August 1st, and did so at Figueira da Foz, seventy miles north of Peniche.

In the weeks succeeding this report the Chronicle further misled its readers by announcing that one of Wellesley’s brigades had landed at Setubal, on the other side of Lisbon. This was soon afterwards contradicted by the news that the same brigade had landed at Mafra, a palace several miles inland.

Once the army was actually ashore, the officers started writing letters in remarkable quantities. Many of them found their way into the newspapers; but, while the information they supplied usually gave accurate details of the position of the troops, their prognostications of what was likely to happen were almost invariably wrong, and their accounts of what had happened were seldom reliable.

As Wellington was to complain,

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