“THE WORST NEWSPAPER IN ENGLAND” an Interview with the Proprietor of the “POLICE NEWS.” Pall Mall Gazette 23 Nov 1886.
On perceiving that the readers of the Pall Mall Gazette who express their opinions on current topics through the medium of our Prize Puzzle Column had voted the Police News to be the “worst English newspaper,” one of our representatives betook himself to the office of the journal which has required so unique a distinction, in order to learn something as to its character, career, and circulation, and to discover what points its conductors could plead in defence of the publication. He was without delay introduced to the proprietor, Mr. George Purkess, who received the “verdict of the jury” with great good temper, not to say complacency, readily answered when put to the question, and urbanely volunteered much interesting information as to the history and position of his illustrated weekly calendar of crimes, casualties, and curious incidents.
THE PREMISES AND THE PROPRIETOR.
The office of the Police News (writes our representative) is situated in “the neck” of the Strand, and the presence of a small crowd, gathered in front of the pictorial placard (really the first page of the paper) descriptive of the new issue, caused it to be “spotted” yards away. The premises are not of the princely and palatial order. A small shop, in fact, does duty as a publishing office, and the editorial rooms on the upper floors are diminutive and dark, and certainly, late on a wet November afternoon, also somewhat dismal. The proprietor’s apartment is three parts office and one part sitting room. On the desk lie copies of Truth and Punch, while on the walls are a number of coloured pictures mostly identified in some way with the Police News. There are several sketches which have been given away with Christmas numbers of the paper -- for the Police News has invariably a Christmas supplement, devoted entirely (“for this occasion only”) to pity, charity, and love, with a slight admixture of mild humour. The proprietor is most enamoured of “The Clown in Love,” by one De Vochie, which was given away with the Christmas Extra for 1884. There are also excellent portraits of Gladstone and Disraeli, which have been issued with the paper at different times. The most interesting picture is a coloured illustration of “The crowd outside the office of the Police News,” from a volume entitled “London Sights.” The proprietor himself is a stout, comfortable- looking man of middle age, medium height, and dark complexion. He has just sold “a pretty house” by the Thames, and confesses that he “would be telling a lie” if he did not acknowledge that good fortune had been meted out to him in very generous measure.
WHAT THE PAPER IS LIKE
The Police News has long passed its majority, having been founded in 1863. It was originally published by Mr. Lee and Bulpin, who, after the lapse of two or three years, sold it to Mr. Purkess, who, as one of a family of publishers, had conceived that there was a “good thing” in it. Messrs. Lee and Bulpin, by the way, subsequently sought to establish a similar paper in the United States, but without success. Mr. Purkess possesses the file of his journal which was prepared by the late Mr. Charles Reade, who once wrote him a letter complimenting him on the paper. These volumes were indexed in a marvellous manner by Mr. Reade; in one instance there were as many as thirty-six pages of index. Mr. Purkess obtained the file for ten guineas. The Police News is a paper of four pages, about the size of a morning journal; the price a penny. The first page only is devoted to pictorial blocks. The remaining three pages are devoted principally to articles descriptive of the leading murders, suicides, offences, and casualties of the week. There is usually, besides, a brief “leading article” on some current topic of general interest, and there is a column of “Passing Notes” on events outside the region of police and law. In the issue of 30th ult. the Collins-Gosse controversy is alluded to, and literary “log-rolling” denounced; while a note on the death of Archer, in last weeks number, winds up thus: “We have clearly not much reason to boast of the taste or intelligence of a generation which makes heroes of mere horse-riders.” The staff -- an editor and sub-editor -- cut the bulk of the contents of the paper from the daily journals, and it is cast together with scarcely an attempt at an attractive arrangement. The illustrations on the front page are for the most part vivid representations of tragedies and horrors of all kinds. These are vividly portrayed and strikingly executed. Here are the titles of the illustrations that have appeared in the last five weeks: “Tragic Occurrence in the Borough,” “For Heaven’s Sake, stop and hear the Matter Explained,” with the reply “Never Mind, my dear Brother, the ‘Matter’ explains itself,” “Suicide in a Railway Carriage,” “Desperate Encounter between English and French Fishermen at Ramsgate,” “Gored to Death by a Bull,” “Fatal Accident at the Toxteth Workhouse,” “Suicide and Murder of Four Children at Fulham,” (several sketches), “The Girl in Boy’s Clothes,” (several sketches), “The Affray at Gerard’s Cross, Slough,” “Stabbing a Performing Bear,” “Shocking Discovery at Lambeth,” “Burned to Death through Reading in Bed,” “The Irish Poisoning Case,” “A Lunatic Baited by a Mob,” (several sketches), “A Runaway Horse in the City,” “Fatal Occurrence at Shadwell,” “Extraordinary Suicide,” “The Burglary at the Residence of the Comte de Paris,” “Fatal Gun Accident,” “Savage Assault,” “Double Murder at Lytham,” “Shocking Tragedy in Bloomsbury,” “Thief Captured by a Cabman,” “Suicide of a Woman at Islington,” “Tragic Murder at Paris: a Desperate Death-struggle,” “Sad Death at Bowes Park,” “The Late Fred Archer, Champion Jockey: Portrait and Scenes,” “Fatal Fire at Ramsgate, Loss of Five Lives,” “Wife Murder at Norwich.” Mr. Purkess assured me that he has half-a-dozen artists on his staff in London; and he produced a book containing the names and addresses of from seventy to a hundred artists in various parts of the country whom he employs on occasion. Whatever else his journal may be, Mr. Purkess claims credit for the fact that it is “the cleanest paper in the country,” bar none. He stated that he never permits to appear such pictures as disgrace the pages of the notorious New York Police Gazette, which was lying on a chair in the editor’s room; and he declared that even reports of indecent assault cases are rigorously excluded from the columns of the Police News. An examination of the last five issues discloses two cases of an indelicate nature, not to mention Divorce Court cases; but so far as can be determined by an inspection of these last numbers, Mr. Purkess’s paper is certainly freer than the ordinary daily and weekly journals from reports of the character described. This favourable impression, however, is scarcely strengthened when our glance is extended to the advertisement columns.
THE ILLUSTRATIONS. -- THEIR ACCURACY.
“I acknowledge it to be a sensational newspaper,” said Mr. Purkess, in reply to a question in which the reputation acquired by the journal was suggested, “but we are also credited with giving the best portraits published by any journal, not excluding the Illustrated London News and the Graphic. We take great trouble and incur considerable expense to secure good portraits. While I have given as low as sixpence, I have paid as high as £50 for a portrait. The £50 was paid for Wainwright’s portrait: only one man possessed it, and unfortunately I went to him, instead of allowing him to come to me. Mr. Plimsoll, I remember, wrote me cordially thanking us for an admirable portrait of himself which we had published. I know there exists a popular impression that our illustrations are largely imaginative, but as a matter of fact we are continually striving after accuracy of delineation. If a tragedy were to occur in London to-day, we would send an artist straightway to the scene; should a terrible murder or extraordinary incident be reported from the country, we would at once dispatch a telegram to one of the artists whose names are in the book I have shown to you, or, if we are not acquainted with an artist in the locality, we would advise a newsagent to instruct one on our behalf. Often artists will send up sketches without previous communication of any kind; sometimes they will warn us by telegram to expect a sketch. The artist of course always endeavours to get a view of the scene of the tragedy, outrage, suicide, or accident, and we always give a picture of the house in which the inquest is held; but naturally, in sketches of this kind, from the very character of the incident, the imagination must be given some freedom. Our artists always try to obtain portraits of the actors in the scenes which they depict, but when these cannot be had they are driven to work upon verbal or written descriptions of the persons portrayed. If people would only think of it, they would instantly perceive that the accuracy of our illustrations is one of the secrets of our success. We always have a large sale in the district of the tragedy, incident, or casualty which we illustrate, which is the best proof of the honesty of our drawings. Our principal blocks this week, for instance, relate to Archer; the sketches were done by an artist whom I specially sent down to Newmarket. The blocks ordinarily take forty-eight hours, but often they are finished in twenty-four, and sometimes, as in the case of the fire at Newmarket, published in this week’s issue, they are done in twelve hours. I believe that our sketches cost me something like £200 to £300 a year. Whenever I see a good thing I never stand on terms.” “I suppose the high-class illustrated journals look down upon you with contempt?” “Oh, there is a sort of jealousy on their part.”
AN ENORMOUS CIRCULATION
The paper is printed on the Tuesday under Saturday’s date. On the Wednesdays it is sent to the country, on Thursdays it is despatched to town agents. It is printed on the flat, from six stereo formes. The machines are kept at work until the Saturday, in order that whatever demand may exist may be adequately met. Six thousand pictorial placards are printed every week, 3000 of which are sent to agents in direct communication with the publisher’s office. Smith and Son send out the paper to agents whom they supply with other periodicals; but they do not show it on their stalls, and Mr. Purkess has not cared to open a hopeless controversy by asking them to do so. The wholesale price is 1s. 5d. For a quire of 26; the price of other journals is 1s. 4d. Per quire. “Our independent position enables us to demand higher terms,” explains Mr. Purkess. The paper is most highly circulated in Manchester and Liverpool; Birmingham and the Black Country stand next; then Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh) and the North of England about rank together in appreciation of the journal; the London circulation is only about one-eighth of the entire issue. The lowest weekly circulation ranges from 150,000 to 200,000 copies; it often runs much higher; and it has two or three times reached the enormous number of 600,000, as when the cases of Wainwright and Peace excited popular interest. The sale over the Bartlett case was not so good as usual, although Mr. Purkess declares that they had “some magnificent portraits.” He never seeks advertisements, but he generally has a column or two, for which he gets £20 a column. “People run away with the idea that the circulation lies entirely among the lower classes, but that is somewhat of a mistake. I have had even the name of a dowager-marchionesss on my subscription list; an earl has written me for a ‘Life of Calcraft,’ and I have a number of letters from reverend gentlemen asking for copies. The police are also purchasers of the paper. The police lend our staff every assistance; yes, even the higher officers. That, I suppose, is on account of the goodness of our portraits. My artists get into every court; for example, next week’s number will contain excellent portraits of Miss Scott and Mr. Sebright, taken in the Divorce Court. The paper, in fact, is found all over the world. Recently Mr. Du Val, the entertainer, sent me a copy which he had picked up in Hyderabad, where it was presented with a pair of slippers. There have been some half-dozen unsuccessful attempts to start rival journals; £20,000 or £30,000 must have been squandered in these fruitless efforts. I don’t advertise nor send out placards; people buy it for what it is worth; it seems to sell for some reason. Unless it had merit, it could never have lived.”
THE PROPRIETOR’S DEFENCE.
“Now, Mr. Purkess, I dare say you know what people say about your paper -- that it is a bad paper, which encourages the commission of crime, and generally tends to the demoralization of the people into whose hands it falls. What have you to say in answer to statements of that kind?” “Yes, I know the people talk in that sort of way,” replied Mr. Purkess, “but they are decidedly in error. We cannot get out of the fact that the paper is sensational, but still, barring the sensational illustrations, there is nothing in the paper to which objection can reasonably be taken. And as to the illustrations, why the Illustrated London News and the Graphic now publish portraits of criminals and scenes of criminality, which they did not formerly do. If such a policy is not bad for them, it cannot be bad for me.” “But, Mr. Purkess, the fact that they have become black would not make you white; and the popular impression is that your paper makes for criminality, that many of your patrons are apt to believe that they will have attained to the heights of heroism and glorification when their portrait appears in the Police News.” “Certainly not,” answered the proprietor, “it rather tends to prevent crime. Ten years ago, a murderer said to his friends, ‘If you would do me a service, keep my portrait out of the Police News.’ People really don’t like to have their portraits in the paper, and a prisoner will try all he can, by making a wry face or otherwise, to prevent my artists from securing a good portrait. As to the illustration of crime, what do Miss Braddon and other novelists do? Don’t they illustrate crime?” “Has the Police News ever led to the discovery of any crime?” “No, I can’t say that.” “But you say that, instead of being a standing incitement to crime, it rather elevates those who patronise it, and is really an encouragement to a good life?” “I won’t say it elevates them, but it does not add to the criminality of the country -- in fact it is a distinct deterrent to crime, because it warns people of the horrors of crime, and the results following upon the commission thereof.” “I know what people say,” concluded Mr. Purkess, ‘but as I replied to a friend who asked me why I did not produce some other paper than the Police News, ‘We can’t all have Timeses and Telegraphs, and if we can’t have the Telegraph or the Times, we must put up with the Police News.’”
DEATH OF MR. G. PURKESS.
We regret to announce that Mr. George Purkess, proprietor of the Family Doctor and this journal, died on Saturday morning at his residence in Avenue-road, Regent’s Park, from tuberculosis. A few weeks ago he underwent an operation, and was thought to be going on well. As late as Friday afternoon he was visited by his old friend, Mr. Arthur Swanborough, manager of the Royal Music Hall. Deceased was highly esteemed by a large circle of friends. Dec 7, 1892 IPN
The funeral of Mr. George Purkess, the late proprietor of the Family Doctor and of the well-known periodical familiarly known as the Police News took place on Thursday at Highgate Cemetary. Mr. Purkess was a Freemason and a liberal contributor to various funds. - Dec 17, 1892