Old News: December 1873 – What the Papers said 150 years ago

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Newspaper boy 1873 (© Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator)
Newspaper boy 1873 ( © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator)


As we are in the Christmas season, do you ever wonder what it was like for our families long ago? What was happening in the local papers 150 years ago? Read below for some of the stories covered in December 1873

Local Headline News

Inquest into the Death of William Ballentine

However, there was sad news in the papers too. The Inquest was held for an accident in the Ligoneil Spinning Mill in which an employee was killed. Local man William Ballentine (45) from McClelland’s Row, suffered fatal injuries when a steam-chest exploded.

The coroner, Dr Hume of Crumlin and a jury, foreman Matthew Arlow, listened to the medical evidence and that of the eyewitnesses.

The verdict of accidental death was returned. Subsequently a fund was initiated to “assist the wife and family of the deceased

Ligoneil Explosion - Newsletter 4 Dec 1873
Ligoneil Explosion – Newsletter 4 December 1873

Two Sailors Drown

Another unfortunate occurrence was the drowning of two sailors Samuel Lavell (25) and Robert Lyttle (44).

The men worked on a lighter (a flat-bottomed barge used to transfer goods and passengers to and from moored ships) transporting sand from the banks of Belfast Lough to the area around Conn’s Water Bridge. Sadly, a storm during the night flooded the small boat and both men lost their lives. Mr Lyttle left a family of 9 children.

Lives Lost in lough - Northern Whig 17 Dec 1873
Lives Lost in lough – Northern Whig 17 December 1873

A Daring Rescue

During the same storm the brigantine (a type of two-masted sailing vessel) named John Slater also got into difficulties.

The crew of the Larne-Stranraer ferry, led by their captain Mr Campbell, put their own lives at danger to rescue the crew of the stricken ship.

Four men in particular, who volunteered to man the lifeboat, were highly praised for their bravery – Hugh Richardson, William Collins, Michael Gillan and John McIntyre.

Belfast Lough Rescue - Northern Whig 17 Dec 1873
Belfast Lough Rescue – Northern Whig 17 December 1873
The sinking of the John Slater © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator
The sinking of the John Slater © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator

December 1873 Advertisements

Interestingly, advertisements in the newspapers of the time occupied the front page in place of headline news – probably reflecting the sponsorship of those advertising. As can be expected given, the time of year, the papers printed advertisements suggesting suitable Christmas gifts. As there were no photographs or coloured drawings, adverts had to be as eye-catching as possible.

Anderson & McAuley Advert, Newsletter 2 1873
Anderson & McAuley Advert, Newsletter 2 December 1873

Many of the items on sale seem unusual to us today.

Christmas Gifts - Newsletter 8 Dec 1873
Christmas Gifts – Newsletter 8 December 1873

While many are still firm favourites.

Christmas Toys - Newsletter 10 Dec 1873
Christmas Toys – Newsletter 10 December 1873

Visits to Decorated Store Fronts

Lots of shops urged parents to bring their offspring to see the decorated store fronts. Fabulous Christmas window displays continued for many years and were part of the festive tradition of the town. Sadly this tradition has all but disappeared in modern times…

Theatre Entertainment

The Theatre Royal on the corner of Arthur Street and Castle Lane (see link below to Belfast Theatre Royal, Built 3 Times, destroyed 3 Times), was showing for the first time “the great sensation drama, in five acts Innocent”. This starred Miss Virginia Blackwood and Mr G Murray Wood.

Theatre Royal Belfast 1880
Theatre Royal Belfast 1880

On 5th December the Carroll’s Choral Society preformed the ‘Ancient Mariner’ in the Music Hall. Tickets ranged from 4 shillings to 2s 6d.

Theatre News - Newsletter 13 Dec 1873
Theatre News – Newsletter 13 December 1873

The Belfast Musical Society had two ‘Grand Concerts’ in the Ulster Hall. While ‘Popular Concerts’ were held in the Victoria Music Hall in May Street. The Ulster Hall also hosted the “eminent mimic” Mr McCabe.

Amusements - Newsletter 5 Dec 1873
Amusements – Newsletter 5 December 1873

Events were also held to raise money for worthy causes.

Bazaar - Northern Whig 13 Dec 1873
Bazaar – Northern Whig 13 December 1873

Foreign News

The Ashantee War

Foreign news was also covered in our local newspapers. There was coverage of the Ashantee War. This was the third conflict during the 19th century between the native Ashanti people and English colonial forces.

Ashantee Report - Newsletter 1 1873
Ashantee Report – Newsletter 1 December 1873
Ashantee (Ashanti) Warriors © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator
Ashantee (Ashanti) Warriors © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator

The Siege of Cartagena

The siege of Carthagena also made the news. Radical southern Spanish rebels declared a short-lived independence from the First Spanish Republic.

The decimated city finally capitulated on 12th January 1874.

Carthagena Headline- Newsletter 4 Dec 1873
Carthagena Headline- Newsletter 4 December 1873

Cuban Unrest

Cuban unrest also made the headlines. The Cubans were involved in a long-running battle with their Spanish overlords, who still enforced slavery on the island.

With the capture of the American ship Virginius in October 1873, 53 of the crew were executed. As some of these men were British and American the episode took on an international aspect. Matters were finally settled by diplomatic means in February 1875.

Foreign News - Northern Whig 17 Dec 1873
Foreign News – Northern Whig 17 December 1873

Christmas Markets

As today, the Christmas markets were doing great trade, though perhaps not with the same produce we see today.

From early morning carts arrived from the countryside with fresh butter and eggs. The streets were thronged with shoppers and the sound of geese and turkeys filled the air. “Sellers on the whole congratulate themselves on the prices received

Christmas Market - Belfast Morning News 21 Dec 1873
Christmas Market – Belfast Morning News 21 December 1873
Christmas Market 1873 © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator
Christmas Market 1873 © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator

However, not everyone enjoyed the activities of the traders. One Lisburn resident complained of butchers’ stalls blocking the streets and the unpleasant sight of animal remains lit up like decorations.

“I can assure you the prospect of twelve of these, lighted some with candles and some with lamps, and adorned with the heads of the unfortunate beasts whose carcasses are displayed thereon, would astonish the wildest savage of the South Sea Islands”.

Lisburn Resident, December 1873
Lisburn Markets - Northern Whig 16 Dec 1873
Lisburn Markets – Northern Whig 16 December 1873

Court Proceedings December 1873

The Tichborne Claimant

One court proceeding that was covered in detail in all the newspapers was the trial in England of the ‘Tichborne Claimant‘. This was one of the longest and most unusual cases in Victorian legal history.

Tichborne Report, Newsletter 2 Dec 1873
Tichborne Report, Newsletter 2 December 1873

It centred around the disappearance of Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne baronetcy. This wealthy young man had left home on 1st March 1853 on a private tour of South America. However, in April 1854 news reached his family that the boat on which he was sailing, the Bella, had capsized off the Brazilian coast with no survivors.

However, Roger’s mother, Henriette, refused to give up hope. Encouraged by clairvoyants, she offered a substantial reward for news of her son. She placed adverts in English and foreign newspapers in desperate hope that her son had been rescued and was still alive.

In October 1865, a man named Thomas Castro, a butcher in New South Wales, Australia, came forward claiming he was the missing Roger Tichborne. The ‘Claimant’, as he became known, travelled to Europe to meet Lady Tichborne. On seeing him, Henriette immediately recognised him as her long-lost son.

Tichborne Headline - Newsletter 8 Dec 1873
Tichborne Headline – Newsletter 8 December 1873

There then followed a lengthy legal battle for Thomas Castro to be formally recognised as the Tichborne heir. Many old friends and servants supported him including the family solicitor, the family doctor and several of his former army companions. A few politicians also spoke in parliament on Thomas’s behalf.

The blended image (below centre) was produced by supporters to prove that Roger Tichborne (left in 1853) and the Claimant (right in 1874) were one and the same person

Blended image of Tichborne
Blended image of Tichborne

However, many others disputed Castro’s assertions. Apart from his mother, the rest of the Tichborne clan repudiated his claims. It was said he had no detailed knowledge of the family and spoke no French, even though the genuine Roger had lived in France as a child.

In fact, the opposition insisted that Castro was actually Arthur Orton, a butcher from Wapping in East London who had emigrated to South America and then Australia in the 1850’s.

The case dragged on in the courts and was reported exhaustively in the papers, with everyone seemingly, having an opinion. Eventually after two trials and hundreds of witnesses, on 28th February 1874 Thomas Castro was declared a fraud. The Claimant spent the next 10 years in prison.

Numerous books, articles and films have been made about the Tichborne Claimant. There is even an episode of The Simpsons (“The Principal and the Pauper” based on the Tichborne case when a stranger claims that he is the real Principal Seymour Skinner) – now that is enduring fame!

Local Court News

The local courts were busy too, with some folk apparently enjoying too much Christmas spirit as Mr James McCreevy was fined 40 shillings plus costs for “furiously riding his horse” in Bridge Street on Saturday afternoon.

Christmas Market 1873 © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator
Christmas Market 1873 © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator

Other offences and arrests were reported.

Court News - Newsletter 9 Dec 1873
Court News – Newsletter 9 December 1873

The Spirit of Christmas

A final example of the Christmas spirit occurred at The Belfast Police Courts on 19th December. Mary Ann Smith claimed that she had been assaulted by another woman, Jane Harrison. However, in tune with the season of goodwill…

“The claimant deposed that the prisoner struck her on the face with an iron, but she forgave her. The prisoner was discharged”

Assault - Northern Whig 20 Dec 1873
Assault – Northern Whig 20 December1873
Mary Ann Smith speaks with the Judge © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator
Mary Ann Smith speaks with the Judge © Copyright Microsoft Bing Image Creator
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