Swan Lane Gazette

to see digital copies of the Swan Lane Gazette, click here.

When is a “magazine” not a “magazine”?

The Swan Lane Gazette and Journal of Agricultural Mechanics is a very mysterious publication. It may be that what we’ve digitised here is the only copy of it in existence: it’s not listed in the British Library catalogue or in the standard bibliography of Victorian periodicals and newspapers, the Waterloo Directory.

Swan Lane is a London street now between London Bridge and Cannon Street Station. In Victorian times it led down to Old Swan Pier where boat passengers would get off to avoid passing under the narrow and dangerous London Bridge (as was). It was where the Swan Lane Gazette was published, though its printer was the very well established firm of Collingridge in Aldersgate Street (a few hundred yards away). That Collingridge printed the Gazette explains how crisply it is printed and laid out on the page – not all printers would or could do such a good job.

The Gazette was started supposedly as the voice of agricultural engineers to record and propel “progress,” costing just 2d (less than 1p today) a month (or two shillings – 10p – a year). It compared itself to the famous professional and trade magazines of the day: the Law Times, the Lancet, the Economist, the Mark Lane Gazette (an agricultural paper) and so on.

And look how beautifully it advertises its address on the last page! The Gazette didn’t want to appear as just dull and useful: like so much involved in Victorian engineering (like the wonderful Crossness sewage pumping station), it wanted to be beautiful as well.

Its masthead (reproduced at the top of the page) is very elaborate and worth thinking about. The central lozenge between the two women depicts a high-tech steam tractor (which its chimney stack down) contrasting with an old-fashioned one (that would have been pulled by horses). Around the lozenge is the name “Agricultural Engineers Comp(an)y (Lim)ited” and the address “Swan Lane, London”.

The two women are the ancient Roman goddesses Ceres (goddess of the harvest – see the wheat on the right) and Pomona (goddess of fruit trees – see the baskets of what look like apples and grapes at her feet). Curiously they are looking behind them: Ceres is relaxed at gazing on cows in a field while Pomona is more thoughtfully reflecting on a farmer working his old-fashioned plough. In the frieze beneath them putti (naked little angels) are playfully working in a forge, no doubt making the the wonderful machines that agricultural engineers are inventing to ensure food is plentiful and cheap. The only real work going on here is being done by the old-style farmer with this plough! As usual with Victorian trade magazines, a future is envisaged where all the work is done by machines: work is old-fashioned. (there is more on this idea on p. 36 of the exhibition catalogue here).

Supporting frieze and the goddesses is the title of the magazine with its graceful swan “S”, while a swan spreads its wings at the very top too: the Swan Lane Gazette is the beginning and end of this divine, playful, charming, thoughtful enterprise!

The Gazette had only 8 pages and was smaller than an A4 sheet, but it was illustrated in a very orderly and attractive way: its four inner pages each had a machine at the top of a column and a description below it – complete with how much each cost to buy.

The issue also had a 4-page supplement which described the “grand annual Jubilee of the Agricultural World” and a one-page double-sided insert advertising a book called The Machinery of the Farm, compiled by the Agricultural Engineers’ Company and published by no less than W.H. Smith (the still well-known newsagent).

Obviously, we think, the Swan Lane Gazette was supposed to be the first number of new magazine. The date it gives under the masthead is January 1861, which meant it actually came out in December 1860 (monthly magazines still come out a month before they say they do). But what else do we know?

There is evidence that it ran to at least three numbers (issues 2 and 3 are announced in a local newspaper, the Cambridge Independent Press, on Saturday 09 March 1861, p. 6) but where issues 2 and 3 are we don’t know. My other researches in the British Newspaper Archive show it was quoted several times in 1861 as a source of reliable and impartial information about developments in agricultural machinery. The Bedfordshire Times and Independent (Tuesday 12 March 1861, p. 2) quotes a long paragraph from it on the use of windmills,  while the Lancaster Guardian (Saturday 09 March 1861, p. 2) and the Nottinghamshire Guardian (Thursday 14 March 1861, p. 6) both quote the same passage as each other on a new steam-driven invention. There are other similar uses of the Gazette in other papers as a quick search of the BNA will show.

With just two exceptions, readers of the publications that quoted it were certainly expected to treat it as a new example of a serious magazine in an important area of trade and commerce that had not been covered before. The two exceptions I have found comprise the German Agronomische Zeitung (the “Agricultural Times,” vol. 16, no 4, 22 January 1861,  p. 63) which noted the low circulation of agricultural journals in general and how they are of necessity “just advertisements” – like the “small” Swan Lane Gazette.

Wir zweifeln sogar daran, [the Swan Lane Gazette]  grosse Berbreitung finden wird, obgleich sie jahrlich nur 2 Shiling kostet; alle Monate erscheint eine – kleine! – Nummer. Dergleichen Journale sind blos Reklamen, konnen und wollen auch nichts anders sein.

“We even doubt that [the Swan Lane Gazette]  will find a large spread, although it only costs 2 shillings annually; one – small! ‑ number appears every month. Such journals are just advertisements: they can and shouldn’t be anything else.” [my translation]

The Mechanics’ Magazine and Journal of Engineering, Agricultural Machinery, Manufactures and Shipbuilding (vol. 73, 1860, p. 407) was much more damning. The Swan Lane Gazette was

New Zealander, 19 January 1861, p. 4 from the excellent Papers Past

“certainly the most absurd publication we ever saw, excepting only a shilling book called “the Machinery of the Farm” produced by the same people. We will only say of these publications that the former looks – and reads too – very much like a manufacturer’s circular, and the second exactly like a manufacturer’s catalogue.”

The Mechanics’ Magazine was right. In actual fact, the Swan Lane Gazette is fake as a “magazine” in the sense we use it today – it was certainly not like the Law Times, the Economist, the Engineer or the Lancet. Instead, if we read the Gazette with the slightest bit of suspicion we will soon realise that it was set up by a company to advertise its wares. My researches show that the Agricultural Engineers’ Company had been created in the autumn of 1859 to act as a distributor of agricultural machinery (especially those made by the company’s members) throughout the country and to the British colonies (there are adverts for it in Australian and New Zealand newspapers as well as British). Swan Lane was where the company had a warehouse to store the machinery until it could be sent out to purchasers by ship or by barge (agricultural machinery was huge – too big to be sent easily by rail).

Yet why was the Swan Lane Gazette designed to look like a magazine with a complicated masthead (which would have been expensive to print) and make all the claims about being like the Law Times and others, when it was really nothing more than a multipage advertisement for the company?

Obviously it wanted to appear authoritative – and quite a few newpapers were happy to treat it as such (or perhaps were paid to insert paragraphs which treated it as authoritative). Claiming to be an authority on a subject always helps your business in that area. But then again, it wasn’t the first “magazine” of its kind and nor would be it the last.

The publishing trade had had similar kinds of publications for a long time. The Mechanics’ Magazine had called the Swan Lane Gazette a “manufacturer’s circular” and that title recalls the very famous Publisher’s Circular which had been set up as far back as 1837 by a group of 14 publishers. The Swan Lane Gazette was exactly the same sort of thing: a publication that came out at regular intervals that was intended to promote the products of a group of manufacturers. As a new magazine though it wanted to establish its authority: confessing it was set up as a group advertising sheet like the Publisher’s Circular would have undermined its claim to give impartial advice.

The Agricultural Engineers’ Company that backed the Swan Lane Gazette comprised a small group of experienced and wealthy middle-aged  manufacturers of  (mainly) agricultural metalwork. As the relevant entries in Graces’s Guide tell us, all the firms involved were very well established, employing at least 100 employees each and usually a lot more (a considerable number for the time). To the right is an advert the company placed in a New Zealand newspaper that reveals the names of the men involved and the manufacturing business they owned (similar ads appeared in the British and Australian press as well).

Unlike the Publishers’ Circular (which lasted until 1959) the Swan Lane Gazette did not last long – 3 issues is all I have found record of, and only the first, the one here, seems to have survived. For all its attempts to establish its authority, it failed. And, despite the experience and wealth of the members of the Agricultural Engineers’ Company, the company itself only lasted a very short time.

The last time the Company appears in the press in is Bell’s Weekly Messenger on Saturday 27 July 1861 (p. 5):

The Agricultural Engineers Company have disposed of their interest in the company to Messrs Carter and Downing, the former of whom has been for many years connected with the establishment at “Swan-lane.”

The attempt by this group of wealthy men to corner the market for what they dealt in by cooperating in a warehouse and a “magazine” failed. Yet all the companies continued to be successful separately: this “failure” was only an incident in the lives of their firms, an incident that has left trace almost exclusively in this copy.

Can we imagine how a woman, a recent immigrant or a penniless young male clerk might have broken into the patriarchal business of agricultural machine manufacturing that we see here? What obstacles would they have had to face when confronting such solidarity between wealthy middle-aged white men and how could they have overcome them? A British Workwoman amongst such men? I’m not sure even Elizabeth Gaskell’s heroine Margaret Hale in her 1854 novel North and South would have managed to break in!

Yet against each story of what seem the boringly predictable collusions of white men, it is always possible to pit, at least in imagination, alternatives.

to see digital copies of the Swan Lane Gazette, click here.