What made them special?


Far from merely reporting the news, the Specials sought to ‘picture’ it, to transport readers imaginatively to the events described, collapsing space and time in the process. The rapid spread of new communication and transport technologies at mid-century, such as the telegraph and railway, made this mobile practice of journalism possible. The innovative status of the profession was recognised in its day, with the Graphic reflecting in an article on Russell, Forbes and George T Robinson:

The War Correspondent is essentially the product of modern ideas, and owes his existence partly to the mechanical discoveries of this century, partly to the extended views of popular freedom which gained currency during the forty years’ peace which intervened between Waterloo and Alma.

(‘Three War Correspondents’, 11 February 1871, p.130)

The War Correspondents, Archibald Forbes, Phil Robinson and William Simpson, asleep on the battlefield during the Afghan War of 1879. [Published in the Sketch, 8 February 1893, p.80] © National Portrait Gallery, London

‘The War Correspondents, Archibald Forbes, Phil Robinson and William Simpson, asleep on the battlefield during the Afghan War of 1879’, The Sketch, 8 February 1893
© National Portrait Gallery, London [CAP00501]

The role of the Special Correspondent and the Special Artist became an exalted position within the hierarchy of the press, but the lifestyle that went with it was demanding and peripatetic. William Simpson described how

[t]he Special must resign all ideas of comfort when on the war-path. When darkness has stopped a battle, I have had to find a bed where I stood, and my supper was a crust I chanced to have in my pocket. I have an old Scotch plaid that has often smelt powder, and I prefer it to a great-coat, as it makes a blanket when a bed is not to be had.

(Notes and Recollections of My Life, hand-written memoirs, 1889, p. 296, National Library of Scotland)

Similarly, George Augustus Sala discussed the creative rigours and hardships experienced in the course of a Special Correspondent’s career:

His life! It is to rise early or sit up late, completely as the exigencies of his situation compel him; to fear no peril, top shrink before no difficulty; to be able to recall the exordium of Burke’s speech at the trial of Warren Hastings in the middle of a bombardment; to write his letters on a drum, on the deck of a steamboat during a gale, on horseback, in the garret of a house on fire, on the top of an omnibus, or on the top of Mont Blanc. Some Specials can write very well standing up in the coupé of an express train; others can indite their matter on mantelpieces; others in the dark; and others in bed.

(‘The Special Correspondent: His Life and Crimes’, Belgravia, April 1871, pp. 220-21)