Henry Hawkins’s Newspaper Heist of 1892

By Stephan Pigeon

“March of Education.” Punch Historical Archive [London, England] 17 May 1879: 227. Punch Historical Archive, 1841-1992. Web. 3 Aug. 2018. Gale News Vault.

In the nineteenth-century newspaper marketplace, journalists and editors prized access to the latest news. Consistently delivering desirable correspondence and the most up-to-date information meant a dedicated readership. An edge on competitors meant greater sales and profits.

While many British newspapers paid for updates and intelligence through a news agency or supplied their own correspondents, some papers relied on reprinting news from articles that had already been published. Without an effective copyright in news, texts regularly circulated throughout the press. While cutting out an article and reprinting it – known as ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism – was a handy method to deliver the latest information, it still meant waiting for another paper to publish the news first. For some newspaper proprietors, this was not sufficient.

In 1892, The Times, which had an extensive network of foreign correspondents, took note of certain newspapers reprinting their news and intelligence items at an unreasonably early hour after they had released their edition. While reprinting from The Times’s columns was common, the general manager, C. F. Moberly Bell, believed that it was impossible for the newspapers in question to have reprinted their materials in the usual way, after The Times had reached newsstands. It was typical for evening papers to copy from morning papers, but in this instance, The Times saw their independently collected articles alongside other morning papers. Considering the time involved in page arrangement, typesetting, printing, and delivery, the speed at which the suspected reprinting took place simply did not add up.

To get to the bottom of the matter, The Times solicited Detective Holmes of the City Police to investigate as to how their news content was reprinted so quickly by their competitors. The scheme, as it turned out, was simple. They discovered that John Sawyer, who was employed as a delivery man by Messrs. Farington, newsagents at Fetter Lane, was responsible for collecting 100 early copies of The Times each morning between 4:20 and 4:30 am which were meant to be sent to newsagents and railway stations for the early morning mail in Ireland and Scotland. However, from that bundle, Sawyer delivered a single copy to his accomplice, a young journalist named Henry Hawkins, who in turn made a business of supplying other papers with the most special and exclusive news items. Upon his arrest, Sawyer immediately turned on his partner as witness for the prosecution at the Old Bailey. He explained the ruse to the authorities with Hawkins as the mastermind.[i]

According to Sawyer, Hawkins had solicited him twelve months earlier to be his inside man. Each morning he supplied an early copy of The Times to Hawkins at 131 Fleet Street. Sawyer testified that he was hesitant to participate, but that Hawkins promised that he would “make it worth his while.”[ii] The job was lucrative for the carman, who earned 8s. a week for the unlawful delivery. On occasion, Hawkins asked Sawyer to obtain a second paper for an additional 5s. The arrangement lasted for seven months until Hawkins feared that the authorities were monitoring his activities and the duo desisted their swindle.

Still thirsty for news, two months later they resumed their activities but moved the delivery to a new location a few blocks away at 57 Fleet Street – the offices of Express News Agency. It was a crime in plain sight. If Hawkins was not present for the delivery, Sawyer simply left the paper on the window ledge or in the doorway for anyone to see. In his investigation, Detective Holmes observed that after receiving the paper, Sawyer separated away the foreign intelligence section and passed it to a boy who then ran the paper down the street to Dalziel’s Cable and News Agency at 222 Strand. The boy was not charged in the matter, but the implication of Dalziel’s agency was significant.

Dalziel testified that Hawkins approached him with a proposal to supply an early copy of The Times’s foreign intelligence for 15s. per week. However, four months into the agreement, Hawkins decided that the agreed price was not sufficient and doubled it to 30s.[iii] Dalziel initially accepted the change, but, perhaps aggravated with the sudden increase, contacted The Times about the matter. This became the major break in the investigation. Under examination, Dalziel professed that his agency had paid for early copies of The Times supplied by Hawkins, but he was unsure as to how many he received and professed that he did not know they were acquired improperly. His motivation, he explained, was to wire the foreign intelligence to his agents in America.[iv]

Henry Hawkins’s lawyer, Mr. Geoghegan, claimed that while his client’s conduct was not entirely proper, “as in love and war, so he believed, all was fair in journalism.”[v] He explained to the jury that it was common knowledge that early copies of newspapers could be obtained in London and The Times was just one of many that circulated on the market. Defending his client’s actions, Geoghegan reasoned, “the telegrams sent to the provincial papers of the telegraphic news in the Times simply gave an outline of that news and did not give details […] anyone who desired to see the details would go to the Times for themselves.”[vi] That those outlines were based entirely on information that the papers in question had no right to possess was immaterial.

Despite his lawyer’s reasoning, the jury convicted Hawkins of simple larceny but recommended him to the mercy of the court on account of the fact that he was not the one who physically stole the newspapers.[vii] He received the minimum sentence of six weeks’ imprisonment without hard labour.[viii]

What is revealing about this case are the attitudes towards the value of news. It was a desirable commodity but an expensive one to procure independently. Throughout the press, newspapers clipped and reprinted materials. While there was an informal courtesy of the trade, The Times found it endlessly frustrating to see their expensive and specially obtained news and foreign correspondence reprinted by their competitors without investing capital or labour in procuring the material. Moberly Bell believed that the only way to eliminate the practice of reprinting the news – and the temptation of stealing early copies – was to establish a copyright in news with substantial penalties for infringement. As one commentator put it, “The pirate plunders not in the public interest, but his own, and after each fresh raid he opens his paper radiant with triumph because he has cut down the cost of production.”[ix]

Stephan Pigeon is a PhD candidate in History at McGill University.
Follow him on Twitter @digitalpigeons.

[i] “Important Journalistic Prosecution: Alleged Theft of Early Copies of “The Times”, The Journalist (November 1892), 4-5; “Prosecution of the ‘Times’,” The Illustrated Police News etc. (October 22, 1892).

[ii] “Important Journalistic Prosecution: Alleged Theft of Early Copies of “The Times”, The Journalist (November 1892), 4.

[iii] “The ‘times’ and Foreign Intelligence,” Citizen (16 November 1892), 4.

[iv] “Prosecution by the ‘Times’,” Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (October 22, 1892), 9.

[v] “Early Copies of The Times,” Glasgow Herald (17 November 1892).

[vi] “The Theft of Early Copies of the ‘Times’,” The Journalist (December 1892), 3.

[vii] “Early Copies of The Times,” Glasgow Herald (17 November 1892).

[viii] “Early Copies of the Times – Inciting to Steal,” Reynolds’s Newspaper (20 November 1892). In a similar case of March 1890, the Lowestoft Borough Police Court, the newsvendor John Everett was charged with having stolen 113 copies of the Colchester Mercury from the printing works of Messrs. E. and F. Wright. Caught in the act of stealing, Everett was sentenced to three weeks’ hard labour, see “Stealing Newspapers,” The Newsagent (March 1890), 31.

[ix] Frederick Wicks, “Literary Theft,” The Journalist (May 1892), 6.

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