The Origins of Printed Gossip and Rumour in 18th Century Newspapers

Natalie Hanley-Smith – PhD candidate in History (University of Warwick)

An introduction into a very interesting – and entertaining – aspect of Hanley-Smith’s doctoral research. Were gossip ‘paragraphs’ simply entertainment for the upper-classes, or were they a very public way of exposing indecorous behaviour and deviation from social mores? Did they in fact facilitate discussion of the ‘rules’ of sexual and marital conduct and can we perhaps see in them a forerunner to the celebrity gossip so present in the media today?

This piece is adapted from Natalie’s presentation at the recent Warwick History Postgraduate Conference, 31/5-1/6 2018. Her doctoral thesis is currently entitled: ‘The Ménage à Trois and other Controversial Relationships, c.1780-1837’, and is supervised by Dr. Sarah Richardson & Prof. Mark Philp. Natalie is also working to organise a conference in February 2019 on the subject of ‘Constructions of Love and the Emotions of Intimacy, 1750-1850’, details of which can be found here.

Rumours and gossip about celebrity relationships – be they royals, politicians, actors, or musicians – feature heavily in today’s newspapers. Images of private moments caught on camera, often captioned by sexual innuendos, dominate the front pages of many national titles. Our media culture takes advantage of the fact that sex sells, and audiences from a variety of social backgrounds happily pay to be both entertained and outraged by the sex lives of those who are, in reality, total strangers to them. Several scholars have dated the origins of this obsession with sex and scandal to the second half of the eighteenth century [1]. Many have logically connected this with the expansion of mass media which occurred over this period. The number of different newspaper titles that audiences could choose from dramatically increased, as did thenumbers of magazines and journals. Newspapers were now meant to entertain rather than purely instruct, this new role made easier by the difficulties of prosecuting for libel. This enabled them to print freer discussions about sex and the private lives of public figures [2]. That said, in their developmental stages, discussions of sexual gossip that appeared in the papers were perhaps further removed from what we have today than historians tend to acknowledge.

On the 24th July 1786, Lady Melbourne wrote her friend, the Duchess of Devonshire, a letter, which, when read in its entirety, reveals a complex network of rumour and gossip as it progressed through upper-class circles, spurred on by newspaper reports. The subject was the Duchess’s sister, Henrietta Ponsonby, Lady Duncannon, who rumour had it had eloped with her lover, Charles Wyndham:

There have been some paragraphs in the news papers to say she [Ponsonby] was gone off but as there were as I thought no name or initials I was in hopes it would not be known who was meant, which indeed I did not know myself… Mr Greville came to me to ask me if I had mentioned it to you, as he met Ly Beauchamp coming to town who asked him the news in a very curious manner…[3]

This intersection between the printed press, elite society, and private life raises many questions about the role the press played in driving elite discussions and responses towards extra-marital relationships. To date, scholars have mostly examined contemporary discussions of elite sexual behaviour in relation to the role that they played in exemplifying class tensions, which formed part of the political upheaval that characterises this period [4]. The developing middle classes placed much emphasis on the importance of moral reform. Sex scandals highlighted the elite’s sexual incontinence and disregard for the sanctity of marriage; thus they could be used as political weapons to evidence elite private corruption. According to the values of classical republicanism, those with private vices were not deemed fit to hold public office [5]. Studies that put forward this argument tend to concentrate on cases that involved members of the royal family, politicians, or those that went to court for ‘criminal conversation’ trials. Although this approach has merit, it neglects the other ways by which breaches of marital conduct came to be portrayed by the press, and subsequently the other roles such discussions may have performed.

One such example is the comments that featured in gossip columns, or ‘paragraphs’ as they were called in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In her comprehensive study of the London Daily Press, Lucyle Werkmeister argues that the paragraphs originated in the West End newspapers, such as the Morning Post and Morning Chronicle, in the 1770s and 80s [6]. Elite sexual misconduct and indecorous relationships were a prominent theme in these paragraphs, which were most commonly written by other members of fashionable society. This trade in secrets was lucrative for newspaper owners, as some people paid to have their paragraphs printed, whilst others paid to have stories about themselves suppressed [7]. Other than Werkmeister’s book, which was published in the 1960s, and John Brewer’s discussion in his book on Martha Ray’s murder, gossip paragraphs remain a neglected source [8]. Examples from gossip paragraphs have at times been used indiscriminately to support the argument for the role of scandal in the middle-class’s challenge to aristocratic political supremacy – presumably because they often expressed similar attitudes of disdain towards the liaisons as did the moral reformers. However, this is clearly at odds with their authors and intended audiences. There are several examples in letters of the elite that confirm the esoteric nature of their intended audiences; as Lady Melbourne implied in the above letter, being the subject of a paragraph was a cause for concern, and other members of her circle did not even require the names or initials of those involved to make a guess at who the report was about.

Reports did not always anonymise their subjects, however they were at times tactfully ambiguous. In May 1784, Parker’s General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer reported simply that ‘the Duke of Bedford… resides in France with Lord and Lady Maynard the following summer months’ [9]. Such an account seems innocent, but for those in the know the paragraph acknowledged the beginning of an affair that most of upper-class society would thoroughly disapprove of. Lady Maynard already had a questionable reputation prior to her affair with the Duke: born Nancy Parsons, a woman of low social origins, she had carved out a career as a mistress to several political men, most famously the Duke of Grafton whilst he was Prime Minister in the 1760s. In 1776 she had married Viscount Maynard, an aristocrat around twenty years her junior. They spent the first years of their marriage touring Europe, which was where they met Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, who was at the time in his late teens. The trio spent the following three years in a rather unorthodox ménage – which their peers could read about over breakfast in the morning papers.

Printed discussions of relationships like the Maynard/Bedford ménage-à-trois appear to have had several purposes: they interacted with elite society by spreading rumours and notifying members of who was seeing who – which was important knowledge if one wanted to avoid making any faux pas during the season. For example, the Morning Post reported in 1786 that ‘all the unmarried Belles of Britain are preparing for the return of the young Duke of Bedford; but those better acquainted with the world of intrigue, know that the affections of his Grace are already fixed. Lady Maynard, in the Autumn of her charms, has him entirely to herself’ [10]. In this case, the paragraph acknowledged that the 5th Duke of Bedford was one of the country’s most eligible bachelors, but helpfully informed the ‘unmarried Belles’ – and importantly their mothers – that the Duke had baggage.

The paragraphs could function both as a vehicle for personal enmity and a warning to others of the consequences of pursuing indecorous relationships. As the reports became increasingly rude, they clearly intended to embarrass those involved. Descriptions of the Maynard/Bedford affair were filled with sexual innuendos: The World joked that whilst the Duke was ‘for the removal of his present erection in Bloomsbury-square – Lady Maynard is for letting it stand!’, whilst even The Times mocked Lady Maynard with a crude joke – ‘Q. Why is a news paper like Lady Maynard? A. Because it requires more persons than one to supply its wants’ [11]. The gossip paragraphs used well-known stereotypes, as resorting to images of sexual excess was typical in other forms of adultery representation. The paragraphs were definitely meant to provoke laughter – which both Gatrell and O’Loughlin have argued was extolled for its ‘disciplinary effects’ [12]. When added to the numerous examples of their mentions in elite correspondence – like Lady Melbourne’s letter – it seems likely that the gossip paragraphs functioned as an extension of the community policing of upper-class sexual mores. They operated by shaming those who were involved in illicit relationships whilst discouraging others from following their example.

Anthropologists have argued that gossip performs an important role within social groups, as it allows their members to exercise and debate the rules and moral values that form part of their collective identity [13]. In their early days, gossip paragraphs clearly provided a discursive space for members of the elite to highlight the many ambiguities surrounding the rules that governed sexual and marital conduct. As the affair was coming to an end in 1787, paragraphs discussed the display of marital unity between the Maynards. An account in the World and Fashionable Advertiser described the trio at a social occasion: ‘Vauxhall was very numerously attended last night; and amongst the most fashionable, were his Grace the Duke of Bedford, Lady Maynard and Lord Maynard – kindly joining arm-in-arm, till half an hour after one in the morning.’ [14]. In contrast to the depictions and discussions of criminal conversation trials, the paragraphs acknowledged that female adultery was not always a divisive threat to the marriages of those in fashionable society. The Morning Herald reported that Lord Maynard went to comfort his wife when the liaison was concluded: ‘Lady Maynard, who, a short time since, took her departure for Italy, is, we learn, so much indisposed, that her life is despaired of: – an attachment which she feels now neglected, is attributed as the source of her malady! Lord Maynard, if not already gone for Italy, will set out for the Alps.’ [15]. This paragraph performed a variety of roles: it kept members of society abreast of the gossip, whilst implicitly revealing the existence of an alternative set of mores that were specific to those who moved within fashionable circles. That said, the tone of mock concern implied to the reader that this behaviour was not desirable.

To conclude, newspaper paragraphs regarding rumours of elite extra-marital relationships appear to have started life primarily as esoteric discussions, intended to interact with upper-class society [16]. They were lauded for their entertainment value but also acted as an extension of the apparatus that regulated elite sexual codes that members were expected to adhere to. This reveals an interesting use of a source that today we would assume is very public for discussions that were intended for an exclusive audience. The use of a vehicle as uncontrollable as the press for spreading rather private messages inevitably led to increasingly wide audiences being aware of elite transgressions. As Jon Mee suggests in his discussion of Charles Pigott’s The Jockey Club (1792), gossip paragraphs were a source that provided evidence for radicals and reformers alike to challenge both upper-class mores and their political power [17]. In the turbulent political culture of the 1790s, elite gossip very quickly became used for ends which those who had originally exposed it probably had not intended. Was this the critical period that propelled printed gossip and rumour to the place that it occupies in today’s media?

The media’s use of rumour and gossip about high-profile individuals – often unsubstantiated but allegedly from sources ‘close’ to the individuals in question – to entertain as well as to explore attitudes towards sexual behaviour that it often implies should be viewed as “deviant”, is certainly similar to the role gossip paragraphs originally seem to have performed. However, there are distinctions to be drawn. Most significantly, such discussions are now intended for much larger audiences, no longer limited to members of any specific class – which begs the question of what the relationship is between print culture, attitudes towards sexual mores and concepts of social class in the present day. Furthermore, rumour and gossip now interact with more complex debates about whether those in the public eye have a right to privacy, or a responsibility to maintain an image of sexual propriety. It appears this particular style of reporting transformed at some point over the two hundred years, and now the gossip that gets printed in newspapers and magazines has a role much closer in nature to that of the scandal pamphlets that flourished several decades after the paragraphs first appeared.


[1] Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (London: Penguin, 2013); Matthew Kinservik, Sex, Scandal, and Celebrity in late eighteenth-century England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Cindy McCreery, ‘Keeping up with the Bon Ton: The Tête-à-Têtes series in the Town & Country Magazine’, in Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus (eds), Gender in Eighteenth-Century England: Roles, Representations and Responsibilities (London: Longman, 1997)Tom Mole, ‘Introduction’, in Tom Mole (ed), Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009),pp.1-19, (p.2).

[2] Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex, pp.282-348.

[3] Lady Melbourne to Duchess of Devonshire, 24 July 1786: Chatsworth, 5th-Duke’s-Group, 753.

[4] See for example, Anna Clark, Scandal: The Sexual Politics of the British Constitution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Cindy McCreery, ‘Breaking all the Rules: The Worsley Affair in Late-Eighteenth-Century Britain’, in Regina Hewitt and Pat Rogers (eds), Orthodoxy and Heresy in Eighteenth-Century Society (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2002), pp.69-88; Kinservik, Sex, Scandal, and Celebrity; Kathleen Wilson, ‘Nelson’s Women: Female Masculinity and Body Politics in the French and Napoleonic Wars’, European History Quarterly, 37:4 (2007), 562-581.

[5] Clark, Scandal, pp.11-12.

[6] Lucyle Werkmeister, The London Daily Press, 1772-1792 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1963), pp.5-7.

[7] Werkmeister, The London Daily Press, p.7, p.90.

[8] John Brewer, Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), pp.40-44.

[9] Parker’s General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (London, England) 15 May 1784, Issue 2339.

[10] Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London, England) 3 August 1786, Issue 4200.

[11] World and Fashionable Advertiser (London, England) 7 May 1787, Issue 109; The Times (London, England) 29 December 1788, Issue 1217.

[12] Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (London: Atlantic Books, 2006), p.5; Katrina O’Loughlin, ‘‘Strolling Roxanas’: Sexual Transgressions and Social Satire in the eighteenth century’, in Susan Broomhall (ed), Spaces for Feeling: Emotions and Sociabilities in Britain, 1650-1850 (Oxon: Routledge, 2015), pp.112-135, (p.132).

[13] See for example, Sally Engle Merry, ‘Rethinking Gossip and Scandal’, in Donald Black (ed.), Toward a General Theory of Social Control, Vol. 1 Fundamentals (London: Academic Press INC. LTD, 1984), pp.271-296.

[14] World and Fashionable Advertiser (London, England) 10 August 1787, Issue 189.

[15] Morning Herald (London, England) 21 January 1788, Issue 2260.

[16] Specifically those that were not embroiled in criminal conversation suits or divorce proceedings.

[17] Jon Mee, Print, Publicity and Radicalism in the 1790s: The Laurel of Liberty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p.136.

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