June 18, 2009 / 2:04 PM / 10 years ago

Remember, you read it here first -- centuries ago

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Think the heinous crimes, disastrous wars and seemingly never-ending financial scandals of recent years are something new? Then think again.

Courtesy of the British Library, readers can now immerse themselves in vivid newspaper accounts of a 19th Century society that appears to have changed little from today’s chaotic world.

Evocative descriptions of children as young as nine smoking and getting drunk, a banking collapse in 1878 and first-hand reports of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 can all be pored over for free online.

Some of the period’s most celebrated authors, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray are also represented, as is one of its most infamous villains: Jack the Ripper.

The digital archive, made available for the first time, comprises more than two million pages of 49 national and regional newspapers dating back to 1800.

Then as now, public drunkenness was often a problem, with sunshine and public holidays triggering a rise in public disorder.

Under the headline “Whit Monday and Drunkenness,” The Penny Illustrated of 1874 reported: “In the afternoon and evening it was impossible to walk along the streets of London without meeting drunken men — many of them inclined to be violent and disorderly.”

Children who have been labeled feral and antisocial in the press today, appeared to display the some of the same characteristics more than 100 years ago.

The Graphic, on June 13, 1871 reported: “Boys and girls, some as young as nine, working in brickyards were often seen smoking and drinking beer — drunkenness and brick-making seem inseparable.”

The collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank, one of Scotland’s largest, with 12 million pounds of debt, also rings a loud bell today.

The Aberdeen Weekly Journal, in February 1879, reported how one of the bank’s directors, James Nichol Fleming, absconded on his yacht.

The paper described him as a “polished, gentlemanly man, a noted agriculturalist and breeder of Ayrshire cattle and Clydesdale horses, and a daring speculator in ships, public companies and blockade-running.”

He was eventually caught and jailed.

With the Ashes series against the Australians coming up, could the following extract from a previous series be an omen?

Picked from the Graphic, published in April 1877, the report said: “The news from the Antipodes, with details of certain matches, is very interesting, showing that the Australian cricketers have shown much excellent form against the English Eleven.”

The archive can be searched at newspapers.bl.uk/blcs/ and stories can be downloaded for a small fee.

Editing by Steve Addison

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