Thursday, 19 January 2012

Fame, Fleet Street and the tragic widow

Along with being a book about crime and justice history, The Most Remarkable Woman in England explores aspects of the 1920s version of what today is known as 'celebrity culture'.

In many ways, clearly, the last couple of decades have seen a dramatic expansion in the ways for people to become 'celebrities', even if only briefly: 'reality' TV, casting shows and the Internet.

But while there is much that has changed in how unknown people now become well-known 'celebrities' overnight, the phenomenon itself is far from new. For example, the second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of a 'new journalism' which focused on dramatic, emotionally reported 'human interest' stories. This style was pioneered by the Daily Telegraph (founded in 1855) and the later growth of tabloids such as the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Mirror. Here lay the origins of Britain's sensationalist (and prurient) press culture that has often gone under the shorthand term of 'Fleet Street'.* 

The 1920s and 30s were in some sense a 'golden age' of press reporting: newspaper circulations were growing rapidly (especially among women readers) and the press did not as yet face competition from radio and television news. By this time photography had become a common feature in the papers, which may have helped to establish a more immediate (though imagined) connection between readers and those reported upon. Crime -- the more sensational the better -- was a favourite topic, and probably the main vehicle whereby 'ordinary' people became nationally-known figures. This is, of course, something that remains true.

Whether the subjects of these stories became popular or merely notorious depended a great deal on the specific circumstances of the case as well as the ways that journalists decided to spin the case. Beatrice Pace was fortunate in that, although suspected of (and then charged with) murder, she was consistently depicted as a sympathetic figure, even before her eventual acquittal and the sale of her life story to the Sunday Express.

Why and how that was so is a rather long tale and a major focus of my book.

But this is a good example of how the case was presented to the public at the more sensationalist end of the press spectrum, in the World's Pictorial News. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

To give some context: this article appeared in the midst of the lengthy coroner's inquest into Harry Pace's death: Beatrice at this point was (officially) not a suspect in the case. As was often true, the papers didn't get everything right: for example, the caption referring to the lad feeding the lamb refers to 'Kenneth' Pace when his name was actually Selwyn (often called 'Teddy'). This sort of error recurred often across the year or so that the case was in the news. The story about the 'suddenly' interrupted funeral is also not entirely accurate (as I explain).

I aim to present further such images in the future, but I thought this time around I'd also give some background.

My research into the newspaper reporting on the case was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the book, and it led me to other projects that I've been working on in recent years, such as a study of police powers, civil liberties and the term 'the third degree' in the 1920s: a couple of these articles can be seen here and here.

*Interesting overviews of this history can be found in Kevin Williams, Get me a murder a day! A history of mass communication in Britain (London, 1998) and Adrian Bingham, Family newspapers?: Sex, private life, and the British popular press 1918-1978 (Oxford, 2009)

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