Periodicals are considered a quintessential element of the Victorian era.

Rising literary rates and improving technology meant that the number of publications operating in England soared. Indeed, the word “journalism” only came into English in the 1830s, which according to Anne Humpreys shows recognition of the mediums increasingly “important role in the doings of the government and the society at large” (Humpreys, 2023). 

Victorian newspapers were divided into categories based on their publishing frequency, for example, a daily would have a paper out each day, while a quarterly every three months. In general, the less frequent the publication, the larger, more expensive, and higher regarded it would have been. D.B Walker notes that “Hazlitt once claimed that ‘To be an Edinburgh Reviewer (a particularly prominent quarterly) is, I suspect, the highest rank in modern literary society.’ By contrast, ‘our daily and weekly writers are the lowest hacks of literature,” wrote John Stuart Mill in 1829′” (Walker, 2018, p147). The Bolton Journal and Guardian was a weekly. 

A Victorian paper was an eclectic mix of fiction, adverts, public forum, and news. Given the dominance of periodical publications over bound books, it was common practice for a writer to sell their work to a newspaper. The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals indicates that “many, probably most, of the eminent poets, novelists, and essayists were first and primarily known through the periodicals.” Also, perhaps surprising to the modern reader, the amount of reader submitted material was vast; it wasn’t uncommon for a news story to include an attached opinion piece that a reader had sent in. James Taylor says: 

“Readers were not just passive consumers of information and opinion; rather they were encouraged to write to newspapers – ‘answers to correspondents’ columns dispensed advice, while the practice of publishing letters gave readers the opportunity to respond to coverage of financial topics, and to one another” (Taylor, 2012). 

The Making of a Great Illustrated Newspaper. Illustrations for The Illustrated London News, 25 December, 1909. Volume: 135 , Issue: 3688. page 34

There are a number of trends across this period, one being the increased prevalence of advertising. T Nevet says that 

“The increased cost of news-gathering, together with the higher production costs resulting from longer and faster printing runs on more elaborate and expensive machinery meant that newspapers became even more financially independent on advertising.” (Nevet, 1982, p. 76). (See The Victorian Printing Press – Victorian Bolton for more details.) 

Hand in hand with that was the increase of sensationalist news to draw in readers, a trend which accidentally birthed investigative journalism in 1866. In that year, the Pall Mall Gazette ran a story,A Night in a Workhouse’, in which journalist James Greenwood disguised himself as a poor person in a “stuff-brown coat… which had faded to the hue of bricks imperfectly baked… altogether… too small and made to meet in over the chest by means of a bit of twine” (Greenwood, 1866, p2) to gain entry and publish a story on the workhouse. 

The resulting piece was a sensation, with Stephen and Rubery describing it as the “first news story to go viral” (Stephen et al, 2021). While informative pieces on the subject had been written before, they’d never been done from a first-person perspective like this, and part of the fascination was that someone respectable would deliberately put themselves through this. Its success led to a string of copy-cat publications, effectively kick-starting investigative journalism as we know it today. 


Anon. (n.d.) The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals, 1800-1900, [Online] Available from: [Accessed: 9 May 2024].

Donovan, S., & Rubery, M. (2021) Doing the amateur casual: Victorian investigative journalism and the legacy of James Greenwood’s “A night in a workhouse”. Victorian Studies, 63(3), pp. 401-430. Available from: [Accessed 16 May 2024].

Greenwood, J. (1866) A night in a workhouse by an amateur casual. Pall Mall Gazette, [Online] Available at: [Accessed 1 May 2024].

Humphreys, A. (2023) Journalism. Victorian Literature and Culture, [Online] 51(3), pp. 439–442. Available from: [Accessed 1 May 2024]. 

Mitchell, S. (2009) Victorian Journalism in Plenty. Victorian Literature and Culture, [Online] 37(1), pp. 311-321. Available from: [Accessed 1 May 2024].

Nevet, T. (1982) Advertising in Britain: A History. London: Heineman. 

Taylor, J, (2012) Watchdogs or apologists? Financial journalism and company fraud in early Victorian Britain. Historical Research, 85(230), pp. 632–650. Available from: [Accessed 1 May 2024].

Walker, D. B. (2018) Periodicals in transition: Politics and style in victorian higher journalism. [Online] PhD thesis, University of Arkansas. Available from: [Accessed 1 May 2024].