What was the “agony column” of London’s “The Times” newspaper?

Sherlock Holmes in “The Red-Headed League” (image by Sidney Paget – PD-EXP)

Readers of Sherlock Holmes stories will remember that The Times’ “agony column” was the first thing Holmes read in the morning: the personal notices, which took up most of the first page of the newspaper. Holmes also posted his own notices to attract response from people who might be involved in the case he was working on. Perhaps Doyle’s stories influenced interest in the column.

The notices covered the gamut of human experience: cryptic messages to people who apparently were expecting to find them in the column, appeals for financial support, want ads, apologies, requests to contact the person via the newspaper, public announcements, etc.

The personal notices had appeared on the first page of The Times since its inception in 1785 and remained—or grew to be—a source of information and entertainment for readers. Newpaper readers in those days did not expect big headlines, and the papers did not waste space with them. The lower classes were often illiterate and not willing to pay a penny for a paper.

In 1896, the Daily Mail was launched, selling for a half pence and directed more to popular interests, and also to women. Afternoon papers were sold on the street, calling for headlines that newsboys could shout.[1] (George V was put “to sleep” with morphia when it became obvious that he would die, in order to allow the more serious morning papers to bring the announcement, rather than having it cried out on the street.[2])

The Times continued, however, with its first page “agony column”, the subject of novels, and also picked up by other newspapers. Finally in 1966, the paper gave in to the demand for first page news. It has not been the same since.

[1] Frank Harris, My Life and Loves, Volume two, chapter X.
[2] Elizabeth Longford, ed., The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes, Victoria and her descendants, George V.

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