Headlines from 1811: Riots, cuts and a snake-eating cow

As four million pages of historical newspapers dating back three centuries go online, what were people preoccupied with 200 years ago in 1811?

The British Library's online collection will be the largest collection of online papers and include titles from across the UK and Ireland.

Most of those are local regional titles and a trawl through the archive from 200 years ago reveals a treasure trove of history.

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Media captionRory Cellan-Jones reports on the largest collection of historical newspapers to be published online

One report in the Manchester Mercury would not appear too out of place in a tabloid newspaper today - although two centuries ago the potential for eye-catching headlines had not been fully explored. The newspaper reports on a curious case of a cow in a village near Hull which died of a mystery illness.

"The servant on opening her afterwards found a snake about a yard long with its head close by the cow's heart - half of the snake appeared in a state of mortification," the report reads.

National concerns are well represented. In 1811, George III had been declared mentally incapable to rule and his son became regent. Newspapers carried regular notices pertaining to the King's health - how many hours he had slept and whether or not he had "taken his exercise walking" being the standard fare.

The country was also embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars, and news from the front can be found in the form of poignant extracts from letters from army and naval officers printed in the papers.

In December, there were the notorious Ratcliff Highway murders - two vicious attacks within 12 days of each other that resulted in a number of deaths. These shocked residents of London's East End, as well as the rest of the nation on account of the fact that the murders took place within the victims' own homes.

Under the headline of "Horrid Murders!!!" one newspaper states that alarm spread after it was reported that the perpetrators of the first murders were "foreigners". The crimes put law and order very much at the forefront of many people's concerns.

As events of 2011 start to be viewed with end-of-year perspective, the library's archive reveals that the preoccupations of the nation at the beginning of the Regency were, in many ways, not so different than they are today. They also reveal the different spellings in 1811 for some common words.

Rage against the machine

Image caption Rawfords Mill near Huddersfield, was attacked after being the first of its kind to introduce mechanisation

2011 has been marked by large-scale protest - public sector strikes, the "occupy" movements on Wall Street and at St Paul's in London - and social unrest with this summer's riots.

In 1811, textile workers began organising themselves into a resistance force against the march towards capitalism. Skilled artisans - "stockingers" and "croppers" - who came to be known collectively as the Luddites saw their livelihoods being threatened by a new class of manufacturer who was driving the Industrial Revolution with the introduction of industrial machines.

Early outbreaks of dissatisfaction and the government's response is recorded in the Liverpool Mercury, 27 December.

"By the latest letters from Nottingham, Derby, and Leicester, we learn, that in the neighbourhood of Loughborough, three frames had been destroyed, but that during the middle of the week, the counties were tolerably tranquil... Government are adopting more effectual measures to suppress these riots. The Gazette on Saturday night contains a proclamation directed to the Magistrates, and all civil officers in the towns... where any riotous proceedings have taken place, directing the apprehension of any person concerned, and offering £50 to be paid upon the conviction of each and every offender."

In a note about raising funds for a church in Radford, near Nottingham, the Sussex Advertiser records a letter from the parish presenting a,"melancholy picture of the distress of that parish, which it states being composed of stocking and lace manufacturers, is not only grievously burthened with the poor, but by the adverse times a great number of working people are totally thrown out of employ".

The riots, the letter from the churchwardens states, are "in some measure accounted for" by the fact poverty has hit many hard and prevented them from discharging "their church and poor rates".

Absent fathers

Prime Minister David Cameron said earlier this year that absent fathers should be "stigmatised" by society. "Runaway dads", he said should feel the "full force of shame" for their actions. This is by no means a new issue.

In 1811 when Thomas Crompton ran away from his wife and family little did he know that the Manchester Mercury would be on to him. Under the headline "Runaway Husbands from Bury, Lancashire" the paper names Thomas Crompton, George Booth, Robert Wardle or Leach, William Kay - all but one hatters by trade - as runaways.

"The above persons have left their Wives and Families Chargeable to Bury. Any person apprehending any of the above persons, and lodging them in any of his Majesty's gaols shall receive Two Guineas reward for each on application to the Churchwarden or Overseers of the Poor of Bury."

The issue of runaway husbands was one that became so prevalent during that century that newspapers in the 1870s started to report incidents of lashings being meted out as punishment.

The Great Comet

Image caption The Great Comet was first spotted in France

Asteroids, meteor showers and other celestial bodies have continue to enthral throughout 2011, but not as much as the Great Comet of 1811, which was visible to the naked eye for more than 250 days. Amateur and professional astronomers debated the nature of the Comet in the newspapers' letters sections.

One such was Andrew Ure who founded Scotland's Garnet Hill observatory - second only to Greenwich in reputation at the time. Writing in the Caledonian Mercury in September he "begs leave" to publish a series of observations on "this leading object of curiosity" to share with other astronomers and the public. His concern was that misleading details of the Comet's orbit or "curve line" were making their way into the public consciousness.

"Those who form their judgment of its route, from the mysterious notice, copied from the French papers, into the Philosophical Magazine of last month, and from thence into a late Glasgow Herald... Incorrect measurements would mislead the computer into inexplicable confusion."

Writing in the Hull Packet in October when the Comet was at its brightest, one reader takes issue with a leading almanac - a popular prediction book that listed astrological events - for not mentioning the Comet. "That to overlook a Comet, with a tail of 33 millions of miles, was a gross breach of trust," he writes, accusing the authors of ignoring the rural folk who relied on the almanac and spending too much time concerning themselves with events in Europe.

"During a very extensive journey I lately took in various parts of the kingdom, I found it a matter of general complaint, particularly in farm houses and cottages, that the Comet that appeared before all men's eyes is not to be found in the Almanac. Those reverend Conjurors, Francis Moore and John Partridge, either from ignorance, or neglect of duty, have preserved a profound silence respecting this interesting stranger, at the very time that they appear to have been peeping into every Court in Europe for wonder events or prophecies. Enough to shake the faith in eminent astrologers."

War up-close

Image caption The Peninsular War was key to the development of the British Army

In 1811, the Peninsular War between France and Spain, the UK and Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula had been raging for almost four years. The Battle of Albuera, in Spain, which was fought in May, was one of the war's most bloody battles. Casualties were high on both the British and French sides.

The Lancaster Gazette's captured the heroic deeds of one officer, Ensign Thompson, who is believed to have been called upon to surrender the colours that he held. He refused and was killed. In June, the paper's poetry corner published To The Memory Of Ensign Thompson, killed at the Battle of Albuera.

Only With My Life

Thompson! though certain forms to thy sacred dust

Denied the storied urn, and sculptured bust:

For such a cause, content with words to raise;

With empty words, a monument of praise

Yet! as the turf which covers o'er the slain,

For ever verdant shall they deeds remain,

Yet! on thy grave the warrior shall read,

And venerate the spot where Thompson bled.

Extracts of letters of officers printed in newspapers provided readers at home with vivid details of war. An "extract from a letter from an Officer of Rank" from Peniche [Portugal], 22 March 1811 published in the the Manchester Mercury on 23 April paints a picture of the horror of war as experienced by civilians.

Describing how "thousands have perished from hunger", he writes:

"One example that will speak more than a page... From one hovel was drawn the father, mother, son, and daughter, dead. An infant child had yet survived this scene of horror, though with worms of three or four inches crawling in its flesh; the child will be saved. Infant children who have lost their parents and wretched parents who have lost their children - wives their husbands, and husbands their wives, are now expiring themselves if not saved by the recent providence of Government - fill the hospital but were recovered. How are they to reach their houses, and subsist till the lands produce again?"

Curiosities from around the world

Image caption William Bullock, a collector of curiosities from Liverpool, set up the London museum

Today the public is spoilt for choice with free entry to the nation's museums. For Regency London, however, there was only one show in town - Mr Bullock's Museum in Piccadilly. The museum contained exhibitions of curiosities from Africa and the Americas, amphibious animals, fishes, insects, shells, minerals and botanical subjects - including items brought home by Captain Cook. In February, the Morning Chronicle was excited to note that the finest collection of Birds of Paradise in Europe had been acquired by the museum.

"...valuable and daily increasing Museum in Piccadilly, cause it to be constantly crowded with respectable visitors; indeed we never remember to have witnessed an Exhibition that has met with such general and deserved encouragement and patronages as this."

Might of the Navy

Image caption The British warship Hermes rams the French privateer La Mouche off Beachy Head

The state of the nation's Navy has been heavily debated in 2011, with defence budget cuts leading to the decommissioning of ships and job losses.

The former head of the Royal Navy Admiral Lord West described the the UK as becoming a "different nation by default" as a result of the cuts.

In 1811, the Royal Navy had enjoyed a worldwide naval supremacy over the French. In December of that year, the Morning Post sounded a confident note with the publication of a "mail from Heligoland", talking up the prospects of "brave Tars" being given further chances to engage with the French on the high seas.

"A Mail from Heligoland [off the German coastland] arrived yesterday. By this conveyance we are informed that Bonaparte is making extraordinary exertions to fit out his navy... our brave Tars will be rejoiced at the prospect thus afforded them, of having another French fleet to fight and conquer; and for our part, we only hope that Bonaparte will expedite the sailing of his ships as the sooner they sail, the sooner they may be expected to reach British port - their inevitable destination, if they fairly venture out."

But, even at that time, budget cuts were never far from mind. Earlier that year, Britain had invaded Dutch-held Java, conquering the colonial capital of Batavia.

"[This] will give us the immediate means of reducing a considerable naval force, kept up at great expense, the wear and tear of which - not to speak of the mortality, being always very considerable in the seas," the writer went on.

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