A VICTORIAN VIRTUAL COMMUNITYby
It would be difficult to imagine a general-interest magazine duller in appearance, or more fussily backward-looking in content, than the nineteenth-century volumes of Notes and Queries. At a time when magazine illustration was reaching new heights and serialized novels were fascinating new audiences, the pages of N&Q carried neither pictures nor fiction. No celebrity editors of the Dickens or Thackeray sort ever adorned its title-page; no slashing articles on social or literary matters ever gained lasting, or even temporary, fame. Of the few names first associated with the journal--all of them male, all belonging to that "fretful and unreasonable race" known as "antiquarians" --none now strikes a chord even with most specialists in the period, let alone with general readers.1 Its closely-printed columns, packed with a bewilderingly fragmented array of minutiae about old manuscripts, obscure incidents, forgotten customs, and local lore, stubbornly resist elegant analysis, or even simple summary. In short, the early volumes of Notes and Queries would appear to offer few enticements to modern scholarly attention. Certainly these yellowing mid-Victorian pages seem a most unlikely site at which to locate the makings of a far-reaching revolution intimately connecting that time with the digital wonders of our own. But just there, nevertheless, is precisely where we should look for them.
No major historical development has only one point of origin, of course, and ancestral claims of a similar kind have recently been advanced by journalist Tom Standage. In his entertaining book, The Victorian Internet, Standage identifies the telegraph as the nineteenth-century precursor of today's electronic network, and for some good reasons. Technologically innovative, the telegraph ushered in an era of almost instantaneous long-distance communication that came to connect far reaches of the globe, spawned a rush toward large-scale commercial exploitation and rivalry, and captured the public imagination. Conspicuous and exciting as all this was, however, the telegraph alone during its brief reign made up only a small part, and that not the most important, of what has been called the information revolution of the nineteenth century, a broader set of changes in the way information was gathered, categorized, used, and shared.2 It is in the form of this last activity, the sharing of information, that most of us in recent years have come to experience the changes the Internet has wrought in our daily lives, and in no form more vivid, particularly for scholars and interested amateurs of all kinds, than in the irreducibly social one of the virtual community. First in electronic bulletin boards, and later in Usenet newsgroups and e-mail lists, these imagined communities organized around the exchange of texts have brought together widely dispersed participants into small online worlds structured not only by the technological medium itself but by the kinds of discourse taking place within them. If we seek Victorian analogues to this social revolution in the everyday exchange of information, we can find one ready to hand in the rapid and steady success, and the peculiar internal dynamics, of Notes and Queries. Unobtrusively coming into being only a few years after the widely hailed advent of the telegraph, N&Q provided access to an unparalleled flow of textual information within a community defined by the terms of that exchange. Just as importantly, it did so at a time when the social as well as technological barriers to such access, though slowly diminishing, remained formidable. Not for nothing did this humbly useful and occasionally contentious periodical, the first written entirely by its own readers, proclaim itself "A Medium of Inter-Communication." It is to the origins and strangely familiar workings of that medium and that community that I would like to direct attention in what follows.
The central figure in the story of N&Q is William John Thoms, a man every bit as bookish and unassuming as the journal he founded in 1849 and continued to preside over for the next twenty-three years. Thoms's father had been a clerk in the Treasury, and Thoms began his own career as clerk to the Secretary of the Chelsea Hospital. From his early years he devoted himself to what were then known as antiquarian researches, which in his case involved collecting mainly English and German early prose romances and lays and legends from medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, the successful publication of which helped lead to his election in 1838 as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. The Society was the oldest and most prestigious of a number of learned and literary societies of which Thoms soon became an active and enthusiastic member; for the rest of his long life he would enjoy a prominent position among his fellow antiquarians, and prove instrumental to the publishing activities of the new printing clubs (such as the Percy, Camden, and Shakespeare Societies) that sprang up in the late 1830s. Such groups brought together gentlemen amateurs pursuing researches into a variety of subjects--genealogy, archaeology, history, folklore, bibliography, philology, and so on--some of which would at length emerge as distinct academic disciplines. Through many of these groups, members exchanged books, manuscripts, and information, organized expeditions, and pooled their annual subscriptions to publish the results of their researches. Philippa Levine, in The Amateur and the Professional, has described the closely knit nature of the antiquarian community that operated through this collective self-help network of local and national societies (19-20). It was to be this community of enthusiastic amateur scholars who would form the core, as readers and authors, of the virtual community that emerged in the pages of Notes and Queries.
In 1846, Thoms began a regular column in the pages of the Athenaeum devoted to recording surviving rural legends, cures, proverbs, manners, and ballads, a subject for which he coined a term-- "Folk-Lore"--that would quickly assume the status of a household word. Thoms's concerns as a pioneering folklorist were explicitly preservationist, with a racialist tinge embodied in his choice of a Saxon compound to describe the sorts of things he believed to be in need of immediate rescue. The prime agent of their disappearance was, as he later put it, "the iron horse, [which was] trampling under foot all our ancient landmarks, and putting to flight all the relics of our early popular mythology" (1 July 1876, 42). Thoms's awareness of the progress of the railway mania was quickened by the progress of his own career. The year before, in 1845, he had secured a position as clerk in the printed paper office of the House of Lords, a position that had become available because of the need for additional clerks to process the government filings generated by the railway boom then sweeping Britain (Athenaeum, 22 Aug. 1885, 239). In his inaugural column in the Athenaeum, Thoms called upon his readers to help make note of this vanishing rural world before it disappeared beneath the onslaught of this transport revolution, a call that brought in a gratifying number of responses. Yet this same revolution, combined with the advent of steam printing, brought with it also new possibilities for the wide and rapid distribution of information, one of the first fruits of which was to be the Penny Post, established in 1840.
Thoms was quick to grasp those possibilities. As early as 1841, he and a colleague from the Camden Society, John Bruce, conceived of a journal devoted to the exchange of scholarly information, which they proposed to call, simply, The Medium, but the time was not yet ripe. Several years later, inspired by the success of the postal reforms, he revived the idea in the form of a threepenny weekly periodical through which the large and various tribe of bookish amateurs could ask and answer one anothers questions and offer previews of works in progress. Encouraged and supported by fellow antiquaries like Samuel Maitland, librarian at Lambeth, and by aristocratic acquaintances cultivated through his position in the House of Lords, Thoms approached publisher George Bell, who had begun to make a minor specialty of archaeological and antiquarian works. Bell cautiously agreed to bring out the work on a commission basis, priced at threepence, with a discount to the trade (Bell, 25; Reading Mss.).3 Its motto borrowed from Dombey and Son's Captain Cuttle--"When found, make a note of"--the first number accordingly appeared in November of 1849 under the title "Notes and Queries," and subtitled "A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc."
The choice of this distinctive subtitle speaks eloquently of both the kind of journal and the kind of audience Thoms was aiming for. The phrase "medium of inter-communication" has a curiously modern ring to it, of course, and it is interesting to see Thoms drawing analogies to other recent technologies. In the number for October 26, 1850, he described the new periodical as a literary railway by which the world of letters could travel (353), while some months later he would declare that in bringing out N&Q "we laid down those telegraphic lines of literary communication which we hoped should one day find their way into every library and book-room in the United Kingdom" (1 February 1851, 82). Nor was this self-conscious connection with technological innovation merely figurative. Printed by noon every Friday in London, copies of Notes and Queries could reach the larger provincial booksellers by railway in time to be distributed to subscribers the following day, while the text of the journal itself depended entirely upon a rapid and constant flow of small pieces of daily mail from all over Britain, which the editor would then fit together into a mosaic of facts asserted and facts sought.
As the readership and the writers of N&Q can be so closely identified with one another, the remainder of the subtitle is also of interest.4 In the 1840s the phrase literary men was both more and less inclusive than it would later become, including all men involved in literature, considered as the cumulative body of learning, poetry, and drama, but only incidentally comprising writers of fiction and usually distinguished from news-writing journalists.5 A man with connections to all these worlds, George Henry Lewes, caught the spirit of the phrase in his 1847 article in Fraser's Magazine on "The Condition of Authors in England, Germany, and France" when he characterized the most valuable core of literary men as those "who labour seriously at serious works" (March 1847, 35:294), particularly works of scholarship. This was, clearly, a gendered notion, and one that carried over into the gendering of this virtual community as "the literary brotherhood of this great nation" (N&Q, 1 June 1850, 1). Some few women--Isabella Banks, for instance--were frequent contributors to Notes & Queries during these first decades, and many others may have lain behind the anonymous initials under which most items appeared, but the only list of known contributors we have reveals a mere handful of women as active participants (N&Q 4 November 1899, 373-75). The appeal to artists was more hopeful than actual, and was eventually dropped altogether; though a few artists contributed anonymously to its columns, the deliberate exclusion of any illustrations whatever from the pages of Notes and Queries undoubtedly discouraged the active participation of the artistic community. This was expressly designed to be, from first to last, an entirely textual medium.
The central involvement of the antiquarian community in establishing Notes & Queries highlights the periodicals relationship to what one might call the knowledge economy of mid-Victorian scholarship. Then, as now, the revolutionary changes in the media for reproducing and distributing information gave a new urgency and complexity to the issue of who and how many would have access to that information. For antiquaries and literary men--those who, in Lewes's phrase, laboured seriously at serious works--such problems seemed increasingly acute: many older, long out-of-print books were locked away in aristocratic private libraries, while even the collection of the library of the British Museum under the new superintendence of Panizzi lacked a reliable finding catalogue. As Ralph Coffman Jr. has noted of this period, "The new milieu of burgeoning information exchange...coexisted with older, exclusivist institutions, where authoritarian access to knowledge persisted" (294). Such restrictions, and the long absence of well-equipped public libraries, lent added weight to the role of private libraries, their caretakers, and the networks of friends and colleagues who made use of them, networks formalized in printing clubs like the Camden Society. It is no surprise to discover that many of the antiquarians involved in the early years of Notes and Queries worked as administrators of such libraries, or that Thoms himself served from 1863 until his retirement in 1882 as deputy librarian to the House of Lords. Only scholars with considerable means were able to amass sufficient personal libraries of reference materials for purposes of substantial research, and many, like Thoms, were constant prowlers of secondhand bookstalls; on his death in 1885 Thoms personal library amounted to some 15,000 volumes. One of the key functions of Notes and Queries was to make public and routine the ad hoc sharing of information from these relatively inaccessible books and manuscripts, and even, through a kind of literary clearinghouse operated out of the back pages of the periodical, the borrowing, lending, and buying of the books themselves.
Genealogists there were, of course, in abundance--even, as the editor would soon complain, in superabundance. But their inclusion on the title-page, and that of the still more inclusive "Etcetera," is significant. With its appeal to ordinary readers interested in tracing their family histories, and shortly thereafter to anyone anywhere willing to contribute bits of local folklore, N&Q gradually broadened its community to include many more than the small set of antiquarians who originally formed its center. The periodical soon became a place where almost any reader, for the cost of posting a letter, could inquire about all sorts of matters, from the origin of common phrases to the histories of common things, or send an account of family legend or reminiscence or local custom. Alan Kidd has argued that the middle decades of the nineteenth century constituted something of a golden age for the serious amateur local historian, a time when the preservation of local history came to be seen as a special responsibility of the middle classes (3). Notes and Queries was perfectly situated to provide an outlet for these burgeoning amateur interests. Its readiness to function, in the words of its original prospectus, as "everybody's commonplace book," quietly but firmly cemented its popularity as a fixture of middle-class print culture.
The format that structured this "intercommunication" changed hardly at all right through to the end of the century, and looking at both format and content a bit more closely reveals something of the community's special modes of exchange. "Notes," conceived as interesting facts encountered in reading and study, usually occupied the opening section, and here, too, the preservationist aims of the journal were quite explicit: to provide a place where such facts could be recorded in public and, by being shared with other literary men, invite cooperation in their collection and assessment. When the journal first began, notes were supplied by Thoms himself and by associates like Maitland, Peter Cunningham, Albert Way, Thomas Wright, Bolton Corney, and John Payne Collier. The editor and his friends were worried at first that the whole experiment might founder on the unresponsiveness of readersthat while queries might be plentiful enough, it would prove difficult to persuade readers to routinely send in both notes on their own research and informative replies to others' queries, as unlike other periodicals, Notes and Queries did not pay authors for contributions. Luckily for the weekly's success, such fears reckoned without the vast untapped springs of eager pedantry that greeted its appearance. Notes poured in from all sides and from all over Britain, ranging from observations on libraries in the time of James I, to Coleridge's notes in the margins of Pepys' Diary (from an ms. in the author's possession), to an ancient Devonshire method of curing warts, a method to whose continued efficacy the contributor himself could solemnly attest. Called up by this self-described "cheap and frequent means for the interchange of thought" (1 November 1851, 337), the inrushing flood of notes, queries, and replies, once begun, never abated.
Notes on some subjects proved so numerous that they were often allotted separate sections. Shakespearian correspondence arrived in such quantities, particularly during the 1850s, that the editor at times despaired that the journal might be overrun by it, while folklore, too, usually got a section of its own. One of the most lively and widely-praised categories of notes at this period were those on techniques of photography. Even after photographers had succeeded in establishing a viable journal of their own, Notes and Queries encouraged enthusiasts to exchange detailed notes in its pages on their trials of different chemical mixtures, plates, and types of apparatus, while the advertising columns soon filled up with makers and sellers of photographic supplies. Thoms's friend Dr. Hugh Diamond was frequently given space to elaborate on his new method of photographing rare manuscripts, which he performed under the watchful and approving eye of Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum. Diamond was the first photographer to produce a negative of old mss. and official records from which copies could be made and distributed to scholars who lacked access to the originals--another example of how the journal's emphasis on preserving and disseminating information was explicitly allied with emerging technology, although in this case one that would lie unused for years (16 September 1876, 222; 4 November 1899, 365).6 The photographic contributions to the journal, like those on folklore and other popular subjects, were later gathered into a series of separate volumes entitled "Choice Notes from Notes & Queries".
Queries and replies to queries formed the bulk of the contributions, and these, too, ranged over a wide area, each query often generating more replies than the editor could possibly find room to insert.7 In this, the core of N&Q, we see a phenomenon that has become familiar to today's participants in electronic virtual communities: the topical "thread." What had up until then been a feature mainly of the correspondence columns in newspapers and a few other periodicals became, in Notes and Queries, the centerpiece of the entire publication. Threads could wind from one issue to the next for many weeks and months, or disappear for long periods only to suddenly re-emerge. The extraordinary diversity of the community's make-up soon brought varied perspectives to bear on many of these. One thread in 1850, for example, began with the query, "When was the last execution of a woman in London by burning at the stake?" Scholars at once replied with suggested dates, drawn from accounts in old books and newspapers. After the thread had run for a time, and a consensus reached on an approximate date of 1788, a quite different kind of reply appeared, assigning the date beyond all doubt to March 13, 1789. It read: "Having myself been present at the last execution of a female in London, where the body was burnt...and as few persons who were then present may now be alive, I beg to mention some circumstances relative to that execution." There followed an eyewitness account ending, "Thank God we now live in times when the law is less cruel, and more chary of human life," and signed simply "Octogenarius" (21 September 1850, 260-61).
Though comments on the contemporary scene were limited, national occasions like the death of Wellington or even the appearance in serial of popular novels like Thackeray's The Newcomes or Dickens's Bleak House, stimulated considerable remark, often in the form of notes concerning ancient precedents, curious literary errors, or speculation as to the real-life counterparts of fictional characters. Grumbles about such matters as the failure of "the much vaunted schoolmaster of modern times" to instill in students the distinction between the verbs lie and lay (23 October 1852, 388) reaped sympathetic replies, while anecdotal reports of remarkable local cases of longevity became so frequent over the years that in his own old age Thoms wrote a book challenging their validity. A query about why the marriage service in the book of Common Prayer identified the fourth finger of the brides hand as her ring finger led to such an exhaustive discussion over the course of the next four volumes that the editor firmly quashed a later attempt to revive it (27 June 1857, 520). Questions of etymology and pronunciation seemed to call forth some of the most vociferous and longest-running threads. Speculation over the origins of "humbug" (a word "presently so much in vogue" [13 August 1853, 161]) yielded a number of ingenious replies, while the debate over whether the poet's name should be pronounced "Cooper" or "Cowper," and that of the legal historian "Cook" or "Coke," occupied the better part of a year (1851-52, passim). The latter controversy sputtered to a close with a rough consensus on "Cooper" and "Cook," though with Mr. H.W.S.T. declaring that "nevertheless I can have no sympathy with the drawing room slang of the present day, the ridiculous perversions...[of] Broom for Brougham and Darby for Derby," thus starting yet another hare (3 July 1852, 17). As in their modern counterparts, such offshoots from original threads were a common feature. Discussion of the identity of the author of the eighteenth-century letters of Junius branched into so many related threads that they required a separate subject heading in the 1856 index of the first series and continued to run for year after year thereafter. Other queries, on the other hand, seemed to fall completely flat; no one seemed to know, for instance, why the inhabitants of the towns of Braintree and Bocking in Essex were traditionally thought to stand about with their hands in their pockets (17 July 1852, 54).8
As much as the more fanciful threads doubtless entertained readers, the bulk of the magazine's pages was devoted to the scholarly give and take of historical and technical information and argument that would find its way into countless books and essays. For scholars engaged in writing books of many kinds, N&Q provided a novel and congenial way of announcing new discoveries and testing their reliability, as well as an opportunity to gauge the possible interest of this reading public in a proposed work. Frequent appeals to publishers and scholars for collaboration in such projects as the creation of cheaper and improved reference books and the rescue of endangered manuscripts both reflected and extended the communitys self-awareness as a cooperative venture. Notes & Queries itself soon came to be regarded as a cumulative storehouse (or, in our terms, a database) of proven and increasing usefulness. Given the extraordinary volume and unparalleled variety of the contributions--the first series covering 1849 to 1856 contained between thirty and forty thousand separate items--the need for a well-designed textual search engine with which to make one's way through this massive jumble of erudition soon became apparent. From the first year Thoms saw to the compilation of half-yearly indices, later deputizing a sub-editor, the indefatigable James Yeowell, to create a copiously detailed general index volume for each series. These widely admired volumes--Lord Brougham declared that they made the periodical ten times more valuable (Index to 3rd Series, 1868, iii)--still make useful, fascinating, and (not infrequently) amusing reading. They also attest to the editors far-sighted understanding of the importance of his brainchild's function as a medium, not merely for the exchange of information, but for its storage and retrieval as well.
The freewheeling and at times rather
quality of much of the activity reflected in the journals pages derived
largely from its contributors' sense of freedom from the inhibiting
of privilege and deference that obtained in the world outside. Contributors
to Notes and Queries were frequently anonymous, though the identities
behind some initials and pseudonyms were widely known within the antiquarian
community and the names of a handful of celebrated scholars were
featured prominently in advertisements for the periodical. Although
of class and rank did make themselves felt within the journal--Thoms
highlighted any known contribution from a peer--this policy of anonymity,
as well as the informality encouraged by the format itself, had a leveling
effect on the tenor of the discourse. The young country curate with
an amateur passion for classifying the local gravel could, through this
new medium, converse on equal terms with the grand old gravel expert in
London. And because identity was so often constructed solely in the
text of the notes, queries, and replies themselves, certain initials,
or otherwise unknown names could earn their possessors a kind of virtual
fame within this virtual community. A retired antiquarian with the
memorably Dickensian name of Samuel Weller Singer, whose best known
up until the appearance of N&Q had been his History of Playing
Cards, found that his frequent contributions, as he later told Thoms,
to "call him into a new literary existence" (6 January 1877, 1-2).
Others believed that anonymity was essential to preserving the civility
of the journal's tone. In one of the occasional threads that on todays
e-mail lists are often known as "meta-discussions"--that
of the journal's policy in the pages of the journal itself--a contributor
signing himself "C." replied in this way to the suggestion that contributors
should sign their names to articles:
Those who please may, and many do sign, and others who give no name are as well known as if they did; but as a general rule the absence of the name is, I am satisfied, best. It tends to brevity--it obviates personalities--it allows a freer intercommunication of opinion and criticism. (6 December 1856, 457)
The responsibility for avoiding this fate lay, of course, with the editor, and the small italicized section in the back of each number entitled "Notices to Correspondents" offers a window into the editorial management of this weekly flow of intercommunication. A number of these notices are addressed to the community as a whole: time and again, Thoms pleads with contributors to keep their messages brief; to endeavor to write more legibly; to indicate to which query their reply pertains; to notice when a query has already been answered; to give precise citations of books referred to; to refrain from demanding of the editor how soon their contribution is scheduled to appear; to consult common works of reference before posting a query; and to choose as their pseudonymous initials some other letters of the alphabet than A, B, or C. The prolixity of contributors, as well as their sheer number, often led Thoms to resort to expanding the usual number of pages of the journal, though these periodic attempts to catch up with the flow of mail were only fitfully successful. To avoid the inevitable clutter of threads of limited interest to most subscribers (the eye-glazing minutiae of family trees were a prime offender in this respect) private replies, which might be forwarded if stamped envelopes were supplied, were strongly encouraged (1 January 1853, 2). In a feature also characteristic of N&Qs modern counterparts, such replies appear to have spawned a large network of correspondence of all kinds that began in the journal and was carried on privately outside it. Other editorial notices were of necessity addressed to specific individuals, for the journal's vast anonymous correspondence, despite Thoms's frequent urging, rarely came in the first instance with return addresses attached. These often curt messages provide clues to the frustrations peculiar to the editor's task in directing and sorting through this ever-rising flood of contributions. Thus Mr. H.I.G. is tartly reminded of the journal's policy against inserting material of a religious or polemical character likely to invite pointless dispute ( 7 September 1850, 239), while Old Mortality is wearily advised not to follow through on his proposal to send in his entire collection of gravestone epitaphs, "as we have awaiting insertion almost as many as would fill a cemetery" (20 May 1854, 483).9
Yet despite the generally equable tone of the discussion, on rare occasions the editor found himself a referee among combatants. As early as the fourth number, he felt obliged to caution correspondents that "they must tolerate each other's little peculiarities, and not espy offence in them" (24 November 1849, 63). In some cases, of course, offence was clearly intended, while the very anonymity of so many contributors could provide a screen for attacks against well-known scholars. In 1853-54, noted Shakespearian John Payne Collier, a close friend of Thoms and a longstanding contributor, was the object of a series of increasingly long and vociferous polemics from a young enthusiast signing himself AEB, who stopped just short of accusing Collier of forging the written emendations in an old folio upon which the latter's edition of Shakespeare was based. This ignited what in today's virtual community would be called a "flame war" that caused deep and bitter rifts in the ranks of Shakespearians, and for some months occupied a large proportion of the magazine's pages in related controversies distinguished by increasingly personal sarcasm and insinuation.10 Thoms at last stepped in with a rare series of editorials to plead for a suspension of the dispute and an end to the vituperative tone of many of the notes he was receiving for insertion, vowing despite a "strong indisposition to exercise our editorial privilege of omission" to "play the tyrant" where necessary (2 July 1853, 21; 17 September 1853, 262). This painful experience appears to have been a watershed in the periodical's handling of controversy, as well as one index of its expansion beyond an original core of antiquarian contributors to a more heterogenous and volatile community. Finding the parties to the Collier/Shakespeare debate unresponsive to his appeals, Thoms thereafter exercised much more extensive editorial control of the contents of the journal by flatly refusing to print submissions he considered ungentlemanly or inflammatory, despite the inevitable protests and ruffled feelings this policy would cause.11 After 1860, when the exposure of Collier's forgeries by Frederic Madden and others threatened to revive the controversy, any further comment on the matter from contributors appears to have been rigorously excluded from the journal's pages.
Notes & Queries was to prove
durable, making its quietly persistent way across the century, spawning
imitators as it went. With a characteristic contrariness that
seemed as quaint then as it seems forward-looking now, the periodical
ran directly counter to the growing trend toward professionalization and
specialization of the kind that would lead historians like E. A. Freeman
and F. W. Maitland (the son of Thoms's old friend) to distance themselves
from the antiquarian community in favor of an academic, scientific history.
It is largely thanks to that trend that the very word "antiquarian," once
a badge of distinction to men of the stamp that founded N&Q,
came to acquire the faintly musty, almost always pejorative meaning
that it has retained among academic historians ever since. Yet despite
these movements and the founding of specialist journals in various
continued to flourish precisely because of its inclusive ethos of
amateur curiosity and communal self-help. In 1863, when the journal's
ownership changed hands, the last part of the subtitle was changed to
Men, General Readers, Etc." to reflect and encourage this increasingly
unfashionable aim. By the last decades of the nineteenth century,
turned out to have been a prescient early model of the kind of large-scale,
collaborative information-gathering that went to make the Dictionary of
National Biography and the Oxford English Dictionary--to both of which
projects, unsurprisingly, the magazine's contributors lent essential
Today, as the periodical
begins a new century after 150
years of unobtrusively continuous publication, it finds itself jostled
on all sides by yet another information revolution, as electronic versions
of its original concept compete for the attention of amateurs and
In pondering the legacy of Thoms and his antiquarian crew, we are now in
a position to savor the irony that it was left to this determinedly
backward-looking group of men, much condescended to from their own time
to ours, to create in their virtual community such a distinctively modern
contribution to the emerging information society of Victorian Britain.
1The phrase comes from Leslie Stephen, whose
reliance on the antiquarians for assistance with the Dictionary of
Bibliography caused him some exasperation. This letter is quoted
in Gillian Fenwick's pioneering 1993 bibliography, Leslie Stephen's Life
in Letters (243); Stephen refers to them as "antiquaries," though the
term "antiquarians" appears to have been in almost equally common use.
(return to text)
2Margaret Steig appears to have been the
first to apply this phrase to the Victorians, in her influential 1980
History article, "The Nineteenth-Century Information Revolution."
Although Steig focuses on government involvement in the collection and
dissemination of information in the form of blue books, the census, and
other reports, the phrase is used here in the wider sense suggested by
her article's concluding remarks. (return to text)
3Bell's commission was the standard ten
deducted from sales. Interestingly, Bell specifically noted that
he did not anticipate the necessity of opening accounts with country
though the popularity of the journal would soon make this necessary.
I am indebted to Dr. Michael Bott, archivist at the University of Reading,
for locating the original letter from Bell to Thoms embodying this agreement,
in the Bell archives at Reading. (return to text)
4As in today's on-line communities, readers and occasional contributors must certainly have far outnumbered the most active participants. One such "lurker" was Charles Dickens, who informed Thoms that he was a "diligent reader" of the periodical (N&Q, June 1978, 206), while among the many occasional contributors were Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Douglas Jerrold, and Punch mainstay Shirley Brooks. Brooks would later deliver an amusing speech at the farewell dinner given to honour Thoms on his retirement from the editorship in 1872.(return to text)
5When in 1852 booksellers John W. Parker
and John Chapman sought the support of prominent literary men against rival
publishers' attempts to control prices, the great majority of the 121 authors
they contacted were scholars, scientists, and clerics, while only perhaps
a dozen were known to the public primarily as writers of fiction or
See Barnes 188-89. (return to text)
6The curious failure of libraries to take advantage of opportunities offered by these advances in photography was the subject of an 1884 address by Richard Garnett, Keeper of Printed Books as the British Museum, entitled "Photography in Public Libraries" (Essays). Diamond also pioneered photographic study of the insane (see Sander L. Gilman's The Face of Madness: Hugh W. Diamond and the Origin of Psychiatric Photography). (return to text)
7In a plea for briefer contributions and
private replies, Thoms put the matter this way: "A little, modest,
Query slips into print, and by the time it has been in print a fortnight,
we find that it has a large family of Replies, who all come about it, and
claim settlement on the ground of their parentage" (1
1-2). This same vein of donnish whimsy so characteristic of the man
is reflected in the caption reproduced beneath his photograph in the Jubilee
number for November 4, 1899:
Of him whose Photo here is--
He coined the word Folk-lore
And founded Notes & Queries
(return to text)
8 Apart from Shakespeare, Junius, longevity,
and photographic correspondence, some of the longest-running individual
threads in the first series (1849-56) included: books burned by the hangman;
books chained in churches; coach traveling in England; why judges wear
collars made up of A-shaped links; traditional cures for warts and whooping
cough; the presence of hourglasses in pulpits; the uses of mistletoe; and
the practice of giving thanks for the Gospel during the Anglican
Among the more intriguing threads in this series was one begun by
Augustus de Morgan, a frequent contributor, who outlined a computational
method for identifying a given work's author (8
Sept. 1855: 181-82)
that led to a lively exchange. (return to text)
9 The writer of the informative
tribute estimated that the number of gravestone
epitaphs featured in the
journal had thus far totaled 1600 (4 Nov. 1899: 373). (return
10 Dewey Ganzel, in the course of his belated effort to rehabilitate the reputation of the hapless Collier, gives the fullest account of this controversy. The acute discomfort of Thoms's position--torn as he was between loyalty to his old friend and his commitment to evenhandedness as editor--comes through clearly in the agonized hesitations and rewritings of his draft letter of September 1853 to A. E. Brae (the irascible "AEB"), which is preserved at the Huntington Library (MS. 27862). I would like to record my thanks to Professor Thomas Prasch of Washburn University for transcribing the Thoms correspondence at the Huntington for me. (return to text)
11 Stymied by this policy, one
disgruntled Shakespearean flamethrower, a clergyman named Arrowsmith, went
so far as to have a pamphlet privately printed that reproduced his rejected
contribution and denounced not only Thoms but also Singer, who had supported
Collier against the author in the matter of a disputed passage in
A copy of this peculiar production is now in the British Library (BL
(return to text)
12 Recently the Internet Library of
Early Journals project, sponsored by a consortium of universities, has
digitized the entire text of the first twenty years of N&Q and
made it available in searchable form on the World Wide Web at http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ilej/
Mr. Thoms, we can be sure, would have liked that.
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(copyright 2000 by Patrick Leary)