Whenever you see those vivid black and white press illustrations depicting the Jack the Riper murders, there is a very good chance that they came from The Illustrated Police News, a newspaper which had been founded in 1864 and which was aimed very much at the masses.
It was one of England’s very first tabloids, specialising in lurid headlines accompanied by vivid and sensational illustrations that left little to the reader’s imagination.
Duelling nuns, owners eaten by their pets, tragic suicides and brutal murders were the sort of stories that the Police News revelled in, and, in the case of the Jack the Ripper atrocities, many Victorians learned of the latest outrages in Whitechapel from its pages.
In this article we look at the newspaper and at its colourful and unrepentant proprietor George Purkess, who died of Tuberculosis on this day, 10th December, in 1892.
ENGLAND’S WORST NEWSPAPER
In 1886, the Police News received the ultimate accolade when the readers of the Pall Mall Gazette voted it ‘the worst English newspaper.’
According to the Pall Mall Gazette, in an editorial published on Tuesday 23rd November 1886, George Purkess – “a stout, comfortable-looking man of middle age, medium height, and dark complexion” – the proprietor of The Illustrated Police News, accepted the “verdict of the jury with great good temper, not to say complacency” and he was more than happy to grant an interview to a Gazette reporter at his offices on Strand in the course of which he readily answered any questions that were put to him and “…urbanely volunteered much interesting information as to the history and position of his illustrated weekly calendar of crimes, casualties, and curious incidents.”
ENCOURAGING THE COMMISSION OF CRIME
When the reporter put to him the charge that he published “…a bad paper, which encourages the commission of crime and generally tends to the demoralization of the people into whose hands it falls,” Purkess met the accusation head on and with frankness. “Yes, people talk in that sort of way,” he commented, “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.
If such a policy is not bad for them, it cannot be bad for me.”
The Gazette journalist, however, was not to be so easily fobbed off with the proprietor’s “every one else is doing it, so why not me?” defence.
“But, Mr Purkess, the fact that they have become black would not make you white,” he argued, “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.”
IT DISCOURAGES CRIME
“Certainly not,” Purkess parried, “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.”
His newspaper, he argued, acted as a “distinct deterrent” to crime, “because it warns people of the horrors of crime, and the results following upon the commission thereof.”
He also observed that the sales spoke for themselves. “I don’t advertise.. people buy it for what it’s worth; it seems to sell for some reason. Unless it had merit, it could never have lived.”
Indeed, the circulation figures that Purkess quoted the journalist were, to say the least, hugely impressive with an average weekly circulation of between 150,000 and 200,000 copies; although, if a particularity big story was being covered, he said, he had known sales to hit 600,000 copies a week.
The largest readerships were in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool; followed by Glasgow and Edinburgh. London, interestingly, achieved the lowest number of readers, accounting as it did for mere “one eighth” of readers.
LURID HEADLINES AND CAPTIONS
The paper cost one penny, and readers would be enticed by such lurid headlines and captions as, “Gored To Death By A Bull, ” “The Girl in Boy’s Clothes, ” “Shocking Discovery in Lambeth” and “Fatal Fire At Ramsgate: Loss of Five Lives.”
One of the intriguing things about the illustrations that appeared in the Police News is the amount of details that they contained.
Their reporters and illustrators were almost like the live, rolling news channels of today.
“We take great trouble and incur considerable expense to secure good portraits,” George Purkess boasted to the reporter from the Pall Mall Gazette.
“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 straight away to the scene; should a terrible murder or extraordinary incident be reported from the country we would at once despatch a telegram to an artist..”
IMPRESSIVELY ACCURATE DEPICTIONS
Purkess was eager to attest to the accuracy of the depictions and provided a little insight into the various methods employed by his reporters and artists to faithfully bring a scene to their readers.
“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 descriptions of the persons portrayed.”
One method that the artists employed in murder cases was to either visit the mortuary and sketch the victim there, or, if that was not possible, they would obtain copies of the photographs of the victims that the police had circulated to workhouses and other establishments to see if anyone could identify them.
ILLUSTRATION OF MARY NICHOLS
An example of these methods is clearly detectable in the coverage the paper gave to the murder of Mary Nichols, whose portrait in the Police News, is so close to the photograph we have of her that artist must have either seen her in the mortuary, or else had seen the mortuary photograph of her.
THE BEST PORTRAITS PUBLISHED
In his interview with the journalist from the Pal Mall Gazette, Purkess was at pains to point out that his paper was “…credited with giving the best portraits published by any journal”, and he went on to opine that, “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.”
Furthermore, he made the point that:- “We always have a large sale in the district of a tragedy, incident or casualty which we illustrate” and, as he justifiably stated this “is the best proof of the honesty of our drawings…”
You can almost picture the artists from the Police News, skulking around the various sites in the aftermath of the individual Whitechapel Murders, sketchbooks in hand, jotting and sketching the scenes as they unfolded.
As such, these drawings provide us with a terrific insight into the streets where the Jack the Ripper murders occurred, almost acting as windows through which we can look back at the streets of the East End of London in 1888 in the aftermath of the crimes.
WE MUST PUT UP WITH THE POLICE NEWS
For sure, George Purkess and his team of artists and reporters may not have been high-brow, but they most certainly knew their target readership and they, quite literally in many cases, aimed straight for its jugular to entertain, inform and terrify, but also to sell more and more copies.
As George Purkess put it, demonstrating admirable self-awareness, in the concluding paragraph of the Pall Mall Gazette article, “…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.’”
THE DEATH OF GEORGE PURKESS
George Purkess died of Tuberculosis on Saturday 10th December 1892 at his home near Regent’s Park in London. His death merited the following brief paragraph in his own journal in the following Saturday’s edition.
He was buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Copyright Notice. The images on this page have been sourced from the British Newspaper Archive of the British Library and have been used under their Terms and Conditions. The images remain the copyright of the British Library Board and may not be reproduced without their prior consent.