10 Rather Shocking Images From A Victorian Tabloid

10 Rather Shocking Images From A Victorian Tabloid

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An Illustrated Police News banner
Image © The British Library Board

First published in 1864, the Illustrated Police News (IPN) was the tabloid paper of its era — a sensationalist rag, which, as the name suggests, printed dramatic illustrations of the juicy scandals, tragedies, accidents and murders of its day. Unfortunates were torn limb-from-limb by unhinged animals, lovers killed one another in jealous spats, and quite a few things were blown up. Matter-of-fact headlines accompanied the melodramatic vignettes, most of which we can assume were sketched with a flourish of artistic licence. Still, even all this time later, it's difficult not to be lured in.

We've torn out 10 images from some of the earliest issues of the paper, to give you a flavour of the kind of lurid stories the person opposite you on the newfangled London Underground might've been reading.

1. Deptford bakery smashed up in bread riot

Rioters smashing up a bakery
Image © The British Library Board

A group of unemployed men in Deptford transformed into an angry mob, when denied food relief — taking matters into their own hands, and smashing in the windows of local shops in order to plunder the goods inside. One baker, a Mr Sammond, decided to cut his losses, and hastily handed out loaves, to save the rioters getting smashy-smashy with his premises. Other proprietors weren't so lucky, and the rioters left a trail of destruction in their wake.

2. An ice skating tragedy in Regent's Park

Dozen of people falling through the ice
Image © The British Library Board

Around 200 skaters plunged into the icy waters of a lake in Regent's Park in January 1867, prompting the horrific scene above — and the death of some 40 people. The image is so vivid, you can almost hear the melee, and it hits home all the more, perhaps, because modern day Londoners still love to take to the ice (though these days, certainly not on a lake). The tragedy prompted new safety measures, which ensured that when another similar accident happened a few years later, everyone survived. We wrote a piece on the accident here.

3. Unhinged students kick in a policeman

Students beating up a police officer
Image © The British Library Board

Policemen are often seen on the receiving end of a bashing in the Illustrated Police News, and this example above shows a group of students from Paddington's Civil Service Training College blithely kicking in police constable Mitchell. The brouhaha started, believe it or not, when the students were caught throwing snowballs (making it the second story in a row that begins with wintry hijinks, and ends painfully). Not taking too kindly to being nicked for it, they leapt on the helpless bobby: "Buller came and gave me a thump on the side of me head and knocked me against the door. Rutherford and seven or eight others got me... They then caught me by the collar, and hammered my head on the staircase," Mitchell told the court. Seems these Civil Service students were not so civil.

4. Drowned by a dog in the Surrey Canal

A young man being pulled into a canal by a dog on a lead
Image © The British Library Board

Relatively newfangled canals were frequently the setting for tragedies in the Victorian news, and the story above is one of 'boy's worst enemy'; a 13-year-old drowned in Peckham's Surrey Canal, after walking along the tow path, and letting his pet retriever swim in the water alongside him. Not thinking things through, the teen had tied the lead tightly around his wrist, which was to prove fatal when the dog yanked him into the canal and repeatedly dragged him under, until he was dead.

5. A prison gets blown up

A prison wall exploded
Image © The British Library Board

As forerunners to the IRA, the Fenians frequently terrorised London with attacks — and in December 1867, they infamously blew a 60-feet gash in a wall at Clerkenwell House of Detention. "The concussion was so terrific," writes the Illustrated Police News, "that the windows in all the houses of the neighbourhood was smashed... hundreds of women rushed about in a half-frantic state, followed by their young children, screaming and calling for help, while men, pale with alarm, left their work, and intermingled with the dreadful scene of confusion that prevailed." In fact, this wasn't so much a terrorist attack, as a bid to free some of the prisoners inside. That didn't happen; instead 12 innocent people perished, and a prisoner inside the jail was injured by a flying brick.

6. Plunging to death from the Crystal Palace

A man plunges to his death from a great height
Image © The British Library Board

"He shouted loyally 'Good bye, chaps.' He was standing on the rail that surrounds the gallery at the base of the great tank, and was waving his cap. Instantly he threw his cap up into the air, and sprang from the gallery." Thus 43-year-old workman Thomas Jennings ended his life from high up on the North Water Tower of the Crystal Palace. Suicides were regularly covered in the news (the more shocking the better), and although in today's tabloids depicting such a thing would be considered beyond the pale, it was par for the course on the front page of the IPN.

7. Grappling with bears at London Zoo

A man tussles with bears in a bear pit
Image © The British Library Board

We've all been there. You're at London Zoo. You drop your hat in the bear pit. You climb down to fetch it. It's what any self-respecting hat owner would do. These were the actions of an unnamed countryman, who, arriving at the bottom of the pit, was seized by a bear and then another two, who began dragging him towards their cave (presumably to invite him for dinner). "Excited visitors threw sticks at the bears in the vain hope that the animals might release their hold... but in this they were doomed to be disappointed," says the IPN. Objecting to 'throw themselves down also' (well you would, wouldn't you), the kidnapped man was eventually saved by a keeper. Still, it's enough to put you off watching Paddington for a bit.

A horrific carriage accident at Hackney Marshes

A carriage tips over, spilling the passengers off the side of a a bridge
Image © The British Library Board

Before there were car accidents, there were horse and carriage accidents, and a tragic one occurred at Hackney Marshes in August 1867, when a horse pulling a phaeton containing a young family got spooked, went AWOL, and tipped them into the Hertford Union Canal (then the Duckett's Canal). The article reports that one of the young girls drowned, while another was not in a good way. "The carriage was completely destroyed, and the horse so much injured that it had to be killed," ends the piece. Brutal.  

Young girl attacked by rats

A girl in bed covered in rats
Image © The British Library Board

"Mr O Brien... was sitting at supper, when piercing cries were heard from the nursery..." Rats have historically been a prime pest for Londoners; when it wasn't flea-carrying rodents sparking the Great Plague, it was millions of the blighters chewing their way through buildings. The hellish image above shows Mr O Brien's 15-month-old daughter being attacked by a mob of them: "The poor child had been horribly gnawed about the head and arm." The rats were soon dispersed by dogs, but the girl was badly hurt — the IPN suggesting amputation of an arm may be necessary. Being a Victorian was tough.

Her Majesty's Theatre burns

A fire rages through a grand theatre
Image © The British Library Board

Theatre fires were all-too-common in times of yore, thanks to the use of naked flames, paired with lax health and safety measures. And so, as Her Majesty's Theatre went up in flames on 6 December 1867, this was to be the second time the grand theatre was razed to the ground. "The total ruin of this magnificent edifice may be considered as a disaster more melancholy than the burning of the Royal Italian Opera," mourned the IPN, referring to the 1808 fire that'd seen the destruction of Covent Garden's Opera House. 18 fire engines and 102 firefighters were called to the conflagration at Her Majesty's (currently His Majesties for obvious reasons), but the wrecked theatre had to be rebuilt the following year — the same one that still stands in the Haymarket today.

This article was researched using the wonderful British Newspaper Archive.

Last Updated 24 January 2024

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