Want to know how to navigate the Victorian Web? Click here.

Introduction: ‘Improving Magazines’

The mid-Victorian period was characterized by the emergence of a wide variety of illustrated magazines. In the 1860s the emphasis was on the development of literary journals such as The Cornhill Magazine, Good Words, Once a Week and The Argosy. Directed towards a large middle-class audience, and designed to appeal to an educated taste in illustrated fiction and poetry, these texts were intended to amuse and entertain. In the fifties on the other hand, there was a growing interest in the publication of ‘improving’ magazines for the ‘working and industrial classes’.

Among these were The Band of Hope Review (1851–1937) and The British Workman (1855–92). Set up and edited by the Methodist reformer and Temperance campaigner, Thomas Bywater Smithies (1817–83), both magazines are publications of high quality; combining thoughtful and sometimes outspoken articles with large and impressive wood-engravings by some of the outstanding artists of the period, they represent a particular notion of Victorian paternalism in which the key messages are expressed in words and images, and in the interaction between them.

Though eclipsed by the fine achievements of The Cornhill and its competitors, The British Workman and The Band of Hope are complex documents. Essentially ephemeral and usually only surviving in the form of bound volumes, they have never been the subject of sustained analysis. The following entries provide a series of introductory frames in which to interpret them.

The British Workman: Contents and Contexts

The British Workmanwas set up by Smithies in 1855 and published under the imprint of S. W. Partridge & Co. of 9, Paternoster Row, London. The publisher, Samuel William Partridge (1810–1903), was a hymn-writer and Evangelical preacher who went on to issue similar types of books and magazines for most of the nineteenth century, although The British Workman was his signature publication. Smithies edited the magazine from 1855 until his death in 1883; editorship was then assumed by the chief assistant, Samuel Reeve. The British Workman was rivalled by magazines such as The Miner and Workman’s Advocate (1862–65) and The British Workwoman (1865–96), but outlived the first and was consistently of a higher quality than the second.

The format established by Smithies was simple but impressive: issued in the form of a large broadsheet measuring 16½ by 12½ inches, The British Workman consists of only four pages, with the front sheet entirely devoted to a large wood-engraving featuring one or two figures in a well-defined setting. Further illustrations were positioned on the back page, and the pages themselves are divided into four dense columns in the manner of a newspaper. The articles typically combine moralising poems in celebration of homely virtues, the good works promoted by philanthropists (who are invariably figured as heroes) and other ‘improving’ articles about courage and overcoming adversity. The tone is relentlessly didactic, although it is interesting to note that it is rarely pious in the manner of Strahan’s Good Words. Functioning as a mouthpiece for Methodism, which is primarily concerned with the realities of the here and now, the emphasis is the practicalities of living a good and useful life, ‘thrift, kindness to animals [and] religious observance’ (Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism p. 80), with a particular emphasis on avoiding the evils of drink.

Smithies was a prominent member of the Temperance Movement (Stringer-Rowe, p. 45) and the magazine can be linked to the development of non-alcoholic drinking houses for the working man. Sometimes known as ‘The British Workman Movement’ and propelled by middle-class anxiety, this was essentially a campaign to set up places where workmen could drink without getting dangerously drunk. Many such institutions were established in all parts of Britain, and the magazine may have played a part in espousing the values of teetotalism that allowed them to flourish. The link was clinched by the fact that workman were said to have gathered to read The British Workman at the (non-alcoholic) bar: a sign of the efficacy of its message.

It would also been read by the domestic fireside. Issued as a monthly and sold at just one penny, it could be afforded by all except the destitute. Nevertheless, its early circulation was modest, and Smithies had to cover many of its early losses from his own pocket. Indeed, its range of appeal was limited by the editor’s assumption that his readers possessed a high level of literacy; the language employed in the Workman is practically indistinguishable from the lexicons employed in The Cornhill Magazine and Once a Week, and there are few concessions to the limited educational attainment of its proposed readership.

This lack of an obvious adjustment to the needs of its working-class audience can be interpreted in various ways. Viewed from a Marxist perspective, it could be argued that the deployment of a middle-class discourse is a clear signal of the editor’s lack of engagement with his readers, whom he views, according to this argument, as ‘a problem’ which is treated from without rather than within, and only addressed in his own language, rather than the language of his audience. This is the essential condition of all paternalism, and there is no doubt that Smithies regarded himself as a Good Samaritan, a middle-class improver trying to bring about change. Yet it could also be argued that his use of undifferentiated Standard English is a clear sign not of a lack of understanding, but of lack of condescension. In presenting the material in ways that demand a good level of education and are not patronising he asserts a strong belief in the worthiness of his audience, a stance which closely reflects new developments in the 1850s and '60s. In the 1840s, when Chartism was developing and political agitation and the fear of revolution a clear possibility, it was commonplace to approach the working classes as an inexplicable phenomenon and a threat to social stability; in the '50s, on the other hand, the reformers’ attitude was far more positive than it had been. This is the approach Smithies adopts; indeed, his speaking to working people as intelligent readers is another expression of the idea, as voiced by John Robinson, that society should value rather than denigrate the working poor. In Robinson’s words, in The Social, Mental, and Moral Condition of the British Workman (1859), the workman is:

The very backbone, sinew, and muscle of the empire … By the sweat of his brow our leviathans are reared, our Atlantic cables laid, our railways constructed … Talk not of the British workman [as] a slave, [or] a serf [and] acknowledge and publish far and near the greatness of his power, the depth of his influence, the magnitude of his importance. [pp. 5-6]

Robinson’s assertion exemplifies the directness and honesty that is also the guiding principle of The British Workman. Neither Robinson nor Smithies regard their subject in terms of equality and studiously avoid the trickier questions of suffrage and workers’ rights; but their attitude is otherwise both respectful and unsentimental.

Related Material

Works Cited

British Workman, The. Ed. J. B. Smithies. London: S. W. Partidge & Co., 1855 –92.

Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism.Ed. Laura Brake. Gent: Academia Press, 2009.

Illustrated Books, Original Art-Work & The Pre-Raphaelites. Ian Hodgkins & Co. Ltd, Stroud, 2012.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; New York: Dover, 1975.

Robinson, John. The Social, Mental, and Moral Condition of the British Workman.Blyth: For the Author, 1859.

Stringer-Rowe, G. Thomas Bywater Smithies: A Memoir. London: Woolmer, 1884.

Last modified 29 December 2012