The Rogue Compositor at The Times in 1882

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By Craig Pett
Craig Pett is based in Melbourne as Gale’s Research Collections Specialist in Australia. Craig promotes Gale’s Primary Source Collections to University and State Libraries in New South Wales, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, and sells other Gale databases to public libraries and schools. Craig is also an independent researcher in his own right, with a specialty on Jonathan Swift and eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish affairs.

This is the true story of a compositor working at The Times in 1882 who deliberately and maliciously inserted a ribald comment when setting the type for the newspaper. Who would have thought such a scandal could happen at such a newspaper? The Times of London, which began in 1785 and the archive of which was the first digitised primary source collection produced by Gale, has always been an establishment newspaper and is still known today as Britain’s ‘newspaper of record’. Scholars and researchers use the digital archive for purposes of studying contemporaneous reports of historical events, being reports that are written from the newspaper’s traditionally conservative perspective ─ which is something that would only add to the shock when these scholars stumble across this incident from 1882.

The edition of The Times in question was that for 23 January 1882, where the comment was inserted into the midst of a speech in the House of Commons given by Sir William Harcourt, the Home Secretary. This was a long and laborious speech printed in full on page seven. The type is small and the speech is set out over six lengthy columns across the page. What the compositor’s motive was is not certain. Maybe he did it for a lark, or maybe he was a disgruntled employee looking to take things out on his masters. Whatever his reason for doing so, in the middle of the speech he inserted the type, as if it was spoken by Lord Harcourt, of this ribald expression – which cannot be repeated here.[1]

Page 7 of The Times for 23 January 1882

Now, if you rush to the Gale digital archive of The Times to search for this profanity, you will be disappointed. It isn’t there. I scoured it myself. I searched for the words in every possible way, with all variant spellings. I then read through the entire speech. Twice. To no avail. I even checked with Gale’s Vice President of Primary Source Publishing, Seth Cayley, and he couldn’t find it either. So it seems that after the offending words were discovered, The Times reprinted its edition for 23 January 1882, and it is a copy of this reprint which is in the archive. However, four days later, in its edition for 27 January 1882, the following appeared on page nine:

From page 9 of The Times for 27 January 1882.

No one owned up and the perpetrator was not found, which in itself seems surprising. Surely if all compositors working on the edition for 23 January 1882 were interrogated by management, the one who set the type of Sir Harcourt’s speech could have been identified. But for reasons unknown this did not happen. Maybe there were several compositors who worked on it and they all feigned ignorance in order to protect the offender.

But there was more to come. Five months later the ‘rogue compositor’ struck again. Whether it was the same person or another compositor inspired by the first is not known. But in The Times for 12 June 1882, in the middle of a list of advertisements for books, was an advertisement for one entitled Everyday Life in our Public Schools. Underneath this title, in the course of the subtitle, was inserted a line which described the book in terms just as ribald as the comment inserted into the speech of William Harcourt. Again, though, if you search the digital archive, you will be disappointed. On this occasion The Times did not produce a reprint but in the archive copy the offending line is blacked out:

From page 8 of The Times for 12 June 1882

This infamous little chapter in the otherwise upstanding history of The Times ends there. The compositor in question was never apprehended (or if there were two, neither of them). It was reported that it soon afterwards became a rule that any compositor whose employment was terminated was to be paid out immediately, instead of serving out his notice period, which suggests that The Times believed the offender to have been someone who had been sacked and was serving their period. But if this was the case, there must have been two separate offenders ─ one in January and one in June ─ and why couldn’t they have been identified?

 

[1] For all the details of this incident: Fritz Spiegl, Keep Taking the Tabloids, London, 1983, pp 45-46.