The Victorians were every bit as inquisitive as us

Chris Bowlby takes a closer look at the Victorian "age of information".

Illustration by Femke de Jong

The debate about information – who controls it, how much freedom we have to access it, how its use affects our privacy – continues to rage. Linked as it often is to new technologies such as computers and video surveillance, information is an issue that has a modern ring. But Dr Toni Weller of De Montfort University believes it is a debate that began, in many ways, with the Victorians.

In her book The Victorians and Information: A Social and Cultural History, she explores what The Times newspaper in 1853 called “an age of information”. What mattered, argues Dr Weller, was not only the advent of technologies (like printing, the telegraph and the railways) that made it far easier to share information, but also the attitude of people and government to information itself. “People became more aware of their right to information and their right to be informed,” she adds, while “public and private information become more clearly defined areas”.

This new interest in information took many forms. Etiquette books provided information about practical matters – how to hire servants, how to dance a waltz, how to buy a house or carve a joint of meat. These were things that aristocrats might learn automatically but many middle-class readers now felt they should know about. And just like today’s thriving market for celebrity gossip, the Victorians were obsessed with learning more about the lives of the famous.

“Private information became a public commodity”, says Dr Weller, though, as now, there was much debate about how far these revelations should go. She describes how press coverage of the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852 led his son to comment that such public use of private information was “formerly unheard of – and is an outrage!” 

The 19th century also saw the emergence of new information entrepreneurs who realised the commercial demand for international information that promised to be regular, reliable and exclusive. One such, Julius Reuter, founded the Reuters news organisation in 1851. Just two decades later, Reuters was charging clients as much as £200 a month to supply information – a huge sum at that time.

But Toni Weller notes too the informality with which the Victorians handled much of their new information. Successful journalistic enterprises such as the Illustrated London News relied on readers to supply some of its stories. So today’s ‘citizen journalism’ – when individuals blog or upload images from mobile phones – “has its origins in this grass-roots journalism”.

What was very different about the Victorian age was the limited role the state played in using information about its citizens. There was hostility towards official information-gathering, such as the requirement to register births and deaths, because people regarded it as overly intrusive. And the state itself was, by modern standards, reticent in its approach.

That all changed in the 20th century when, thanks to the demands of warfare and welfare, what Toni Weller calls a “centralised, state-controlled information policy” emerged. Officialdom wanted much more information about whom and what it could deploy at time of war, and it used the demands of national security to justify a newly restrictive approach towards what citizens should know. This new attitude was writ large across the Official Secrets Act of 1911, which was extensive in scope and appeared to associate good government with secrecy. It was only partly amended in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the growth of the welfare state broadened the range of information the state gathered about its citizens. And new forms of technology, especially the computer, made information more easily accumulated. 

So today the appetite for new information is one the Victorians would recognise. Nor would they be surprised by the continuing tension between citizen and state. Modern governments, “blinded by technology” may, says Dr Weller, have suppressed their guilty consciences. Yet disputes about ID cards or the computerisation of NHS patients’ medical records echo Victorian concerns about the border between public and private information, and the limits to what those in power have a right to know.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.

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