Aspect 3: Newspaper accounts and reporting
Newspapers can be the most useful source available to the historian but, at the same time, they can present problems. Newspapers had existed in the 18th century and earlier, but it was only in the 19th century that they became common.
County, city and area newspapers emerged during the 1820s and 1830s. These were usually published weekly and contained columns of news on all the towns in the vicinity, local trade and market prices etc.. They often filled up any spare space with national news, or an interested story, like a murder trial, in another region. The suspension bridge disaster, being a major story, was reported in local newspapers throughout the country. In the majority on cases, these newspapers in other regions printed verbatim the reports that could be found in local or national papers. So mistakes and inaccuracies were often disseminated throughout the nation. Great Yarmouth did not have its own newspaper at this time and the local population would have relied on papers printed in Norwich - The Norfolk News, Norfolk Chronicle and to some extent the Norwich Mercury, or in Bury St. Edmunds - The Bury Post, Bury and Suffolk Chronicle, and the Bury Herald.
Many would argue that the most famous of all national newspapers is the Times which was established in the 18th century, mainly to report on the financial dealings in the city of London. Distribution of, what might be called a 'national' newspaper, was problematic, and although originally other forms of transport were used, the development of the railways in the 1830s and 1840s led to far faster communication and delivery on a national scale. The Times became the main vehicle for national, financial and parliamentary news. The Times prided itself on getting the news fast, and was, as far as the evidence suggests, the only national or London newspaper that sent its own reporter to Yarmouth, other major London papers, such as the Morning Chronicle and Illustrated London News relied on syndicated text from regional papers. Reporting of events in Yarmouth on May 2nd was greatly enhanced by the telegraph line that had been laid along the new railway in 1844.
Reporters, self-censorship and political bias
Many of the regional papers employed local men, on a part-time or freelance basis, to write the weekly news columns for their district or small town. This was the case in Yarmouth, and unusually, two of the town's 'reporters' were sworn onto the Coroner's jury - Edward Garrod and Joseph Davy. Joseph Davy was also an auctioneer in the town and held other public offices. It is important to be aware that many of the jurors knew the Cory family very well. They and others were part of the the traditional Tory political elite in the town. While there is little evidence that this elite closed ranks with regard to the disaster, the fact that no criticism of, and only praise for, Charles Cory can be found in the local newspaper contrasts with the more forthright views expressed in London newspapers. We can surmise that many reports were at least self-censored but can gain some insights into the tensions in the town from The Times reporter, who as an outsider, had nothing to lose, while remaining professional in his reports.
Examples of the tensions that existed during this period of anxiety for town and how they were reported are provided below:
Edward Garrod and the Coroner
Edward Garrod, the local reporter for the Bury Herald clearly stood up to the Coroner W.S. Ferrier. Their exchange early in the proceedings, was reported in the Norfolk News, and his carefully worded response in a letter was printed the following week. The Times reporter, is less guarded, and clearly Garrod had indicated that Ferrier was probably drunk. This incident, together with the fact that the Town Council had refused to pay for an engineer to produce a report on the cause of the disaster, clearly appalled the Times reporter, leading him to remark, "... I must say that very little sympathy, comparatively speaking, is evinced for the sufferers, and the enquiry before the coroner is conducted in anything but a decent manner."
The Warnes letter
Soon after the accident the Bury Post published an anonymous letter that was to shock both the town and the wider public. Written by Charles Warnes, a solicitor's clerk, it incriminated him in manslaughter if not murder during the fall of the bridge. Both the local and national papers were quick to re-print the letter and, being a small town, it soon became common knowledge who the author was. Even today, the letter is shocking and illustrates that, what we might call tabloid journalism today, existed in the 1840s. Here we reproduce the letter and the examination by the Coroner and jury as reported by the Norfolk Chronicle. When criminal punishment was severe, and bearing in mind that earlier in the year a particularly gruesome murder had occurred in the town, Charles Warnes is surprisingly given the benefit of the doubt despite contradicting himself during his time in the witness box.