A “letter to the Times”: the YouTube of the Crimea

In their range and number, the letters to the editor during the Crimean War were truly extraordinary. The Napoleonic Wars elicited only a smattering of letters like these. Pamphlets, not letters, were the preferred medium for debate in the Napoleonic Wars, and such pamphlets presented fewer democratic opportunities for writer participation. The closest thing to the kind of public epistolary debate concerned the erection of a monument to Nelson following Trafalgar. During the Crimean War, though, the letters to the editor were not about memorializing the past but about affecting the present. Even women clearly felt empowered to write and to act by the conditions of the war; after all, Florence Nightingale was the real hero of the day. And Nightingale’s Crimean mission was itself a product of the press, instigated after a reader of Thomas Chenery’s 12 October 1854 Times report of the horrific hospital conditions at Scutari (which described how much better the French were managing things with the aid of their Soeurs de Charitée) wrote a fuming letter to the editor: “Why have we no [English] Sisters of Charity” (“Sufferer”). With Nightingale as a model, “A Yorkshirewoman” sending in a letter on the matter of “Mits and Socks for the Army in the East” feels emboldened to dispense with the usual formality of submitting requests through the intermediary of the paper’s editor, instead addressing her note “To the Women of England”. Her brief missive is a jewel of practical advice. After giving the directions to which the said items should be sent, she adds:

Crochet work is quicker than knitting, perhaps not more effective. At the joining of the thumb with the hand the thickness should be double to prevent wear. The best division of labour is for the mits to be done by ladies, while (the yarn being furnished) the poorer women of the town or village do the socks at 4d. a pair for labour, and others do it cheerfully gratis as their mite in this great cause. The brown drab yarn is about 2s. a-pound, which will make eight or nine pairs of mits.

Here is a woman speaking with authority, proving that while the source of the science of economics is indeed in the home, it need not rest there. The “Yorkshirewoman”’s tone sounds much like that which Nightingale used to good effect. In addition to such one-off contributions from the public, the war created a new kind of private editorialist who vied with both Russell and the leader writers. This development arose when certain correspondents to the paper began to make such frequent appearances (in their own letters and in references made by others) as to gain their own name-recognition. E. Elers Napier, for example, a military man and member of a great military family (which included his stepfather, Admiral Charles Napier, commander of the Baltic fleet during the war) had nineteen letters published in The Times by the war’s conclusion. Before the war, he had submitted the occasional military-themed letter to the editor (a total of six, beginning in 1848), but the Crimean experience seems to have struck him as demanding a new and unrepeated level of involvement (fueled, perhaps, in part by his surprising inability to find active duty during the conflict, in spite of his efforts). Coming from an army man, Napier’s contributions make a certain kind of sense. He tends to write in a manner that draws attention to his military expertise and experience, even when addressing the topic of the fund that he started to provide warm clothing and newspapers for the troops.

More surprising is the case of “A Hertfordshire Incumbent,” the name under which Joseph Williams Blakesley, a former member of the Cambridge Apostles (along with Alfred Tennyson, Richard Chenevix Trench, Richard Monckton Milnes, and others), became famous. As the Dictionary of National Biography records, As vicar of Ware [Blakesley] became widely known as the Hertfordshire Incumbent, whose letters in The Times newspaper examined social and political subjects of the day. The letters greatly increased his reputation, and in 1863 he received a canonry at Canterbury from Lord Palmerston, with whose political views he fully sympathized. In 1860 Palmerston had offered Blakesley the regius professorship of history at Cambridge in preference to Dr. Woodham of Jesus, despite Blakesley’s lack of credentials as a modern historian. (Venables)

This entry testifies to the degree to which Blakesley owed his success in life to the name he earned as a writer of letters to the editor; these letters seem to have stood in place of other credentials. But it fails to note that the letters came out of his response to the Crimean War. While Blakesley had long served The Times as an anonymous reviewer of books, the first letter by “A Hertfordshire Incumbent” was not published until 30 November 1854. It was on the favorite public theme of “The Climate in the Crimea.” A total of thirty-three more letters on the war followed, many of them well over a thousand words in length (not coincidentally, roughly the same length as most of the leaders in The Times). They covered a broad range of topics, including the weather, road and hut construction, troop movements, geography, and mosquitoes.

And the correspondence did not end with the conflict. Initially, the “Hertfordshire Incumbent” expanded his reach to other Russian matters. Yet as the war retreated into history, he proved himself willing to contribute on any number of subjects, among them India, wages, the militia, education, and (of course) religion. In all, eighty-four letters are ascribed to him in The Times’s searchable database, the final one published in April of 1872.

Thus Blakesley turned himself into a kind of Simon Schama— as modern as it gets. He seems to have demonstrated such wide expertise of all matters Crimean that other writers would turn to him (rather than to the newspaper’s leaders) for advice. So one “A. T.” concludes a letter to the editor about the political fate of the Crimea in the wake of Russian defeat with the comment, “On the advantages attending this arrangement I will not attempt to dilate; they appear to me manifold, but I confess I shall be glad if this communication should affect the notice of your excellent correspondent, the ‘Hertfordshire Incumbent’. ”In effect, the “Incumbent” became an additional (and presumably unpaid) leader writer for the newspaper, and over the course of the war, his letters assume the attending tone, minus the editorial “we.”
I observe that the attention of the public is beginning to be turned to the changes which may take place in the wants of our forces in the Crimea on the approach of Spring,” one letter begins, before sounding a warning against precipitous optimism on this front (13 Feb. 1855). Yet popular should not be mistaken for populist. A scholarly quality pervades his correspondence throughout; the “Incumbent” never shies away from demonstrating his book learning, and frequent references to historical events (“When Munich invaded the Crimea in 1736, he established posts all along his route from the lines of the Ukraine” [16 June 1855]) help explain Palmerston’s feeling that he would make a suitable candidate for the Cambridge professorship.

If The Times had the ability to change the course of the war through its leader columns, so, in his own smaller way, did the “Incumbent,” as he demonstrated in a remarkable exchange that takes place in the newspaper in the spring of 1855. It begins when the “Hertfordshire Incumbent” addresses a question to the British public instigated by a fear Chenery had expressed in a column about the troops’ summer water supplies (no doubt itself more noticeable for the many reports of thirsty soldiers Russell had contributed in the previous summer). The question might be seen as an early example of what has recently been called “crowd-sourcing”:

Can any practical engineer among your readers inform the public whether it would be feasible to set up speedily an apparatus for distilling the sea-water on such a scale as to render the failure of the springs in the neighborhood of the camp an unimportant matter? In these days of steam-engines, gutta-percha tubing, and energetic contractors, I should fancy this might be done, and the fluid distributed to any part of the plateau occupied by the allies, without the necessity of withdrawing a single soldier from his proper duty. (11 May 1855).

The “Incumbent” thus uses the newspaper as a clearinghouse for ideas. And it works. By the following day, the paper had already published a reply by Henry Williams, stating the possibility of erecting the suggested apparatus and enclosing a testimonial of the effectiveness of the equipment from a ship already using it in the Crimea (12 May 1855). Two days after this, Napier confirms the validity of the “Incumbent”’s fear by quoting from Alphonse Rabbe’s 1854 History of Russia. And on 16 May, “J. A.” sends in a letter from an officer in the East, written on 30 March, further confirming the problem: “I am afraid we are likely to run short of water. . . . S ome one ought to write up to The Times and propose to send out some of the distilling engines that they have on board of most of the steamers, so that we could use sea water in case we are hard pressed”. The next day, though, the problem appears to have been solved. Williams writes back:

I think it will be satisfactory to you, and to those of the public who take an interest
in this matter, to know that the Admiralty yesterday sent an officer to inspect one of the machines while in operation, and that the gentleman devoted many hours to a careful examination of it. It seems, therefore, probable that the Government will take prompt measures to ensure a supply of pure, wholesome, aerated water at Balaklava. (17 May 1855).

Through the combined voices of the paper’s “Own Correspondents,” its leading private correspondent, and the British public both at home and in the Crimea, potential disaster has been averted.

The sense one gets from reading about the influence of the press during the Crimean War is that this representation of newspaper reading as solitary and private, while no doubt often strictly true, ignores those communal aspects of the experience that did not depend entirely upon the imagination. Indeed, illustrations of the day often show groups gathered around a newspaper, much as we fantasize about families huddled around radio broadcasts during World War II. The distinction matters, because it suggests that the dialogue fostered by the newspapers took place not just interiorly but also in the outside world in a manner that could easily be translated into the back-and-forth in the pages of the press. Consider two of John Leech’s cartoons for Punch, both of which indicate that the papers were part of dialogues that began as soon as they were read. The later sketch, drawn after the “Crimean Correspondence” had erupted in the press, shows a domestic scene with two ladies at tea . One holds up a newspaper. The caption reads: Young Lady (reading Crimean Correspondence). “i must tell you that i have quite abandoned
poor brown bess, and that with my beautiful minié—”Elder Lady (interrupting hastily). “there—there—my dear, go on to the next letter. we don’t want to hear about his bessies and minnies—these soldiers are all alike!”

The joke lies in the fact that Brown Bess and Minié were the respective names for the older and newer styles of gun (musket and rifle) used by the army. But the sketch also demonstrates how the newspapers were appropriated by their readers and made to conform with their own fantasies about the war, and it hints that the prevalence of the familiar letter format helped make accessible (even if only through misreading) the most foreign of correspondence.

An earlier Leech cartoon, composed just as the debates in the press were beginning to emerge, also emphasizes newspaper reading as directly constitutive of community. A “big cut” titled “Enthusiasm of Paterfamilias, On Reading the Report of the Grand Charge of British Cavalry on the 25th,” it uses visual drama in lieu of written dialogue to express its meaning. The picture shows a middle-class British family in their drawing room, gathered around a table set for tea and
Punch 28 (Jan. 1855): in front of a hearth that occupies the right margin of the sketch. The “Paterfamilias” of the cartoon’s title stands squarely upon a disheveled hearth-rug, poker aloft in place of a sword, as he reads aloud what one assumes to be Russell’s famous account of the glorious but foolhardy charge of the Light Brigade from a Times newspaper that he holds in his other hand. He is surrounded by his cheering children: a young son (on a chair) and elder daughter stand directly behind their father, peering over his shoulder to read along with him. A boy on the left of the image seems ready to charge forward himself, as he steps up from chair to table, butter knife in one hand, broken plate in the other. Another girl, standing beside him, waves her handkerchief (or perhaps a napkin from the table) aloft in her excitement, while her older sister looks on with an expression that is harder to read. Even the baby
watches, although he appears as interested in the slice of bread that he holds to his mouth as he is in the antics of his father. Only two figures (or three, if one counts the just-visible daughter in the background who seems to have turned her head to the wall) can resist the imaginative pull of the father’s enthusiasm. In the foreground, a mother sits lamenting, holding a handkerchief to her bowed head—whether to ease a headache brought on by the disturbance or from concern over
the brutality of war, it is impossible to say. But it is her eldest daughter, occupying the very center of the picture, who anchors the composition.In contrast to the whirlwind around her, she stands completely still, a point emphasized both by the full-frontal angle from which we see her and by her resolutely (or protectively?) crossed arms. Her head is framed in place by the map, presumably of the Crimea, that hangs above the sideboard behind her. And the diagonal movement of the composition—from her brother’s bent knee, to her sister’s forward leaning
back, and through to the “sword” in her father’s hand—also points to her centrality. All these factors combine to highlight the expression on her face: her uplifted eyes, furrowed brow, and especially the clearly defined tear that can be seen on her cheek.

Thus for all that it seems to celebrate the “Grand Charge,” the effect of the image is to register a mixed response to the events, which were as easily seen as disastrous and further proof of Crimean blunder.In a wonderful discussion of the sketch (in the context of her reading of Tennyson’s famous poem), Trudi Tate shows how it demonstrates what she calls the “ fantasy investment in war,” the way in which people at home can turn the reports in the papers into a form of participation, whether by joining in with the action or by opting out of it.

Leech’s sketch reminds us that the war abroad was fought in part to feed the fantasies of those at home. As George Eliot would wryly remark in The Mill on the Floss (1860), “It is doubtful whether our soldiers would be maintained if there were not a pacific people at home who like to fancy themselves soldiers. War, like other dramatic spectacles, might possibly cease for want of a ‘public’.” Yet while Leech is making fun of his “Paterfamilias,” he does so affectionately; he wants us to recognize that such fantasizing is constitutive of national identity. And, of course, our recognition of this fact is aided by the way in which we are pulled into the experience of reading, the cartoon itself appearing in the magazine we hold before us. But in the Crimean context, the newspapers played a novel role in the process, offering “Paterfamilias” a way out into the world from within the confines of his home; the printed map on the wall—a pictorial analogue to the printed paper—occupies the compositional space in which one might have expected to see a literal (rather than a literary) window onto the public sphere. And the “Paterfamilias”—or his daughter—could pick up a pen as easily as a sword or poker. He soon would. As Karl Marx noted derisively in complaining of the British bourgeoisie’s decision to oust Aberdeen from his seat as Prime Minister (following the revelations in the press of the dreadful mismanagement of the war effort) and to replace him with their hero, Palmerston, “The truly English Minister! His rule of conduct, his source of information, his treasury of new measures and reforms, were the interminable letters of ‘Paterfamilias’ in The Times” .There is some irony, though, in the fact that Marx made this pronouncement from his Stateside perch as correspondent for the New York Tribune.When Habermas declared “the world fashioned by the mass media” to be “a public sphere in appearance only” he based his conclusion in part on what he saw as the troublingly unidirectional modes of communication of what he then (in the 1960s) called the new media. These exhibited what he identified as a “Don’t talk back!” attitude . I have suggested that the importance of letters to the editor during the Crimean War allowed the newspapers to function (at least to some extent) as a real public sphere, in which voices were brought into communication with each other—more like what we today would call a part of the new media: the blogosphere. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that because of the role of the press, the amount of public participation in the media saw as exponential an increase during the Crimean War as has been attributed to internet technology during the present conflict in the Middle East, in which (to give an example that holds interesting parallels to the publication of soldiers’ letters I have detailed) videos shot by soldiers in Iraq and uploaded onto YouTube are then collected and rebroadcast by the television media as documentary specials. Even Russell seems to have recognized that the newspapers were dissolving distinctions between private and public voices of the war. After he had finished his duties as Crimean point-man for The Times, he submitted (in response to a critical letter from “A Guardsman”) his own “letter to the editor,” from the “Late Special Correspondent in the Crimea.” “I beg to reiterate my former statement, and to deny the accuracy of the ‘Guardsman’s’ assertion,” Russell insists. It is as though he himself acknowledges his participation in the free-flowing, democratic medium of the newspapers of the day.

This entry was posted in A Level History, British Empire, CONTEMPORISMS, Crimean War, Empire and Expansion, History, Victorian and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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