The small ads of the Evening Standard were used by Victorian lovers to send each other illicit messages

Newspaper small ads used by Victorians for their equivalent of ‘texting’

150 years before the advent of ‘texting’, the small ads of the Evening Standard were used by Victorian lovers to send each other illicit messages, beg forgiveness and arrange trysts.

Hundreds of anonymised messages between lovers, adulterous and courting couples were posted in the paper, often with pseudonyms, such as ‘lovely dimples’ , ‘cad’, ‘lion’ and ‘kitten’.

The anonymous ads dating from the 1870s-1890s have been uncovered by Dr Alun Withey, a historian at the University of Exeter, who found them while researching his next book on the history of facial hair. 

Dr Withey says the ads – posted by upper middle and upper-class men and women - suggest that London in the late 19th century was a ‘hotbed of sexual tensions’ and that the Victorians were far from being straight laced and prudish.

Without access to telephones, and with face-to-face contact or even letters often too dangerous, the small ads were the only way for unchaperoned lovers to communicate and arrange. Some appear to be meeting illicitly, because they are married or because families would have disapproved of their suiters. 

The messages were grouped together in the personal ads in the back pages of the Standard, but not under any heading. Here is a selection, unearthed by the historian:  

"CAD: utterly miserable and brokenhearted. I must see you my darling. Please write and fix time and place, at all risks. Can pass house if necessary unseen, in close carriage”.

“LION TO LITTLE DARLING. Is it to be, as you say, I am never to see you again? Oh, I trust they will be kind to you. I could part with the last drop of blood I have rather than to see you hurt. My being there will cause them to think what is not true. I shall go abroad. Good bye darling for ever, goodbye”.

"Regret it so much. So foolish – couldn’t help it – so completely. “Thy bright smile haunts me still”. Just like – eh! Oh, lovely dimples, when hall I?”

"BUNCLE promises inviolable secrecy. Can you mistrust him? Be pitiful and write"

 “ALWAYS AT ELEVEN: Dearest, I have obeyed your letter. Have mercy, you are breaking my heart. Never to see you, never hear – save to bid me “not come”. For God’s sake dear love, end this one way or the other. I cannot, cannot bear it. You are too cruel. 

 “ANNIE may return immediately. Come after dark”

“Dearest Ellie. Many thanks. I should not be surprised; but distance could soon be lessened. Do you believe I can help thinking of you? I wish I could write. Send a long letter on Saturday”.

 "TROTS, your loveful lines gratefully received. 'Tis useless to run any risks in writing. If discovered all must be over. We will always compensate ourselves for long absence. So cheer up!"

MISUNDERSTOOD BY MEMO: Do not say farewell: I am wretched and mystified. Can understand nothing, but that I long passionately for another August visit. Give me an address or come to me at once. Surely not for aye!

 KITTEN, I hope you are happy. I am most miserable. Do write to our house before Wednesday next; I cannot bear a year. Pray let me see you for old love, which is still stronger.

"JFS come home...your wishes will come true!"

 “A. Scot. How is it I have not heard or seen anything of you? I trust business keeps you away for I cannot bear to think it possible that we are parted for ever. But, if so, do not keep me in suspense for I am very unhappy just at present. Yours, Bell”

“WF – communicate with Alf through Shirley at once. Letter from CG, Paris. All can be made right.”

Dr Withey, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, said: 

“Today we're used to instant messaging, emails, texts and all manner of other ways of conducting our relationships and keeping up with friends, if necessary in complete privacy and anonymity. But, before all this, and before even the telephone, newspaper small ads offered young Victorian men and women perhaps their only chance to communicate with each other, where face-to-face contact was out of the question. 

“It's easy to see the Victorians as a straight-laced, buttoned-up, hard-hearted crowd, sent into a moral panic by so much as curvy, feminine chair leg. But a set of advertisements in the Standard in last decades of the nineteenth century paints a somewhat different picture, of a hotbed of sexual tensions! 

These were often small advertisements, usually only a few lines, and using pseudonyms. Sometimes they were declarations of love; others were to apologise...but some can only hint at the human tragedies that must have unfolded.”

Date: 14 February 2018

Read more University News