Policy Papers

The Victorian information age: nineteenth century answers to today’s information policy questions?

Toni Weller |

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Executive Summary

  • Information policy has become a fundamental part of our information age; most government departments, institutions, and businesses have policies for the day to day management of email, knowledge collection, and information storage and privacy issues.
  • The terminology of information policy is relatively recent, but the ideas of management, control and processing of human knowledge have longer precedents.
  • The emergence of an explicit policy for information only became possible after a mid-nineteenth century shift in understanding which, for the first time, began to perceive information as a phenomenon in its own right, divorced from its content.
  • However, during this period, information policy remained informal, flexible and responsive to social drivers: in Victorian Britain, society informed policy, not the other way around.
  • It was the imperatives of national security and manpower management during the First and Second World Wars which produced the idea of a centralised, state-controlled information policy.
  • And it was this war-time model which was then further applied to the centralised management of welfare provision after 1945.
  • But it is increasingly clear that technological drivers and centrally imposed guidelines can miss the real needs of information policy and contribute to the significant mis-management of information.
  • Social and cultural demands are likely to be more appropriate drivers, with policy responses emanating from constantly shifting everyday needs rather than prescribed government or institutional wish lists.
  • Contemporary policy makers would do well to consider the earlier model of the Victorian era, which suggests that it is possible for a modern information policy to be more decentralised, local and fluid.


Information policy has become a fundamental part of our information age; most government departments, institutions, and businesses have policies for the day to day management of email, knowledge collection, and information storage and privacy issues.

The British Labour Governments of 1997 - 2010 displayed a very active interest in information policy. Throughout their time in office information policies, both proposed and realised, focussed on central registers of information on citizens, or so-called Transformational Government, including an NHS database of patients, ContactPoint, which was intended to record details on every child in England, and biometric ID cards and passports.

The new Conservative-Liberal coalition Government under David Cameron has promised a less bureaucratic approach, returning power 'to the people' rather than expanding that of the state, and has already abolished proposals for biometric ID cards. If this commitment really is carried out in practice, we may be about to witness a return to an older, nineteenth-century, ideology of decentralised information control.

A Victorian information perspective

The terminology of information policy is relatively recent, but ideas about the management, control and processing of human knowledge have longer precedents.

Studies of information in history (as opposed to the history of information technology) have shown that the way people understood and wrote about information changed significantly during the mid-nineteenth century. During the Victorian period, concepts shifted from a pre-modern recognition that knowledge or information existed but that it was intrinsically linked with content and context, to a recognisably modern understanding in which 'information' can be used divorced from context and provenance and discussed in both abstracted terms and as an subject in its own right, regardless of its precise content.

In a very general sense, there have always been information policies to govern the recording, storing, organisation or protection of knowledge. State secrets and insider knowledge have long been of intrigue. In 1832 the journalist and insider John Croker spent a few weeks 'in an ecstacy [sic] of exclusive information' while William IV chose his new prime minister. In wartime, the covert collection of military and strategic intelligence was controlled by the powers of the state with a very specific purpose, although the nature of these powers has changed as communication methods have become faster and more reliable. The Victorians themselves became increasingly fascinated by collecting statistics and reports on all manner of topics, aided by developments in printing, communication, education and literacy throughout the century.

However, such behaviours were never called information policy, nor were they thought of in those terms. For though during the nineteenth century attitudes towards information became both more explicitly acknowledged and more self-conscious, they also remained largely within the control of local institutions and individuals. As with many other policy areas in the Victorian era, there was no prescribed, top-down approach to information policy: indeed, in 1852 the then Prime Minister, Lord Derby, believed that it 'would be impossible ever' to enforce a national policy in England.

Institutions and individuals were becoming more aware of the increased amount of information being made available and disseminated through new media, as well as the new commercial value of such information. In 1829, the utilitarian philosopher Samuel Bailey argued that the acquisition of information had 'become an object of immense interest and importance.' By December 1853 The Times was describing 'an age of information', different to anything previously experienced. From the 1840s, periodicals such as the Illustrated London News and The Penny Magazine developed a deliberate editorial policy to disseminate, democratise and preserve information through their volumes; it was common for issues to be collected by working class readers to this end. Etiquette books became a way of disseminating not just behavioural maxims but also practical information on how to hire servants, how to buy a house, how to dance a waltz or carve a joint of meat, to the new middle classes who desired to be upwardly mobile but who lacked the aristocratic education and society in which such information was automatically shared.

This change of emphasis during the nineteenth century meant that for the first time modern information concerns emerged, particularly around personal privacy, accuracy of information, and the right to information. The huge press coverage of the Duke of Wellington's funeral in 1852 led his son to comment that such public dissemination of private information was 'formerly unheard of - and is an outrage!' Newspapers began to pay very sizeable amounts for telegraphed information provided by the Reuters Company - one contract of 1870 agreed payment of a colossal £200 per month. The accuracy and authenticity of public information became paramount. In 1850 Julius Reuter wrote in a letter to the banking giant Nathan Rothschild that he could 'guarantee the accuracy of the information' provided to the newspapers, justifying such large subscription fees.

This new recognition and fascination for information demanded new ways of controlling, disseminating, collecting and preserving it, and therefore more formal policies and procedures. Early information management techniques were established first of all by businesses, which by the latter decades of the century were introducing standardisation, bureaucracy and methods of information control into their daily practices.

These early information policies appeared gradually and organically across the country during the second half of the nineteenth century. They emerged locally, in editorial offices, in company boardrooms, in everyday discussion, in direct response to social concerns and issues rather than as a consequence of any national policy or guidelines. These organisations, which emerged organically out of Britain's industrialisation, were initially able to retain much company and client information through memory and verbal instruction. The earliest inception of the Reuters Company in 1851 had a team of just two: Julius Reuter himself and a twelve year old boy, John Griffiths, working in two rented rooms near the London Stock Exchange to organise, sort and communicate information to customers. This later developed into a network of correspondents across the globe, but significantly, all were chosen with an eye to their competence at gathering their own information in their respective areas. Reuter did not prescribe what should be sent to him or how it should be gathered; his correspondents had a great deal of local autonomy in their roles. They collected information, and used the new technology of the telegraph to send it back to the two rented rooms in London where Reuter could then sell it on to interested parties. By 1856 there were also small offices at Calais and Ostend which served the same purpose, but the local autonomy of correspondents and information gatherers remained intact.

Newspaper offices were similarly localised. Like Julius Reuter, The Times had used an informal network of 'News Gatherers' in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and this policy of local autonomy proved so effective that it was not unknown for the Foreign Office to have to ask the newspaper for the latest news from the Continent when official sources proved unreliable. In 1852, The Times declared that the 'first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of events at the time, and instantly by disclosing them to make them the common property of the nation'. This coincided not just with changing attitudes towards information access but also the abolition of the paper tax in 1851 which created a new mass audience for newspapers and for the 'intelligence of events'. The Illustrated London News, established in 1842, went even further by inviting readers themselves to contribute stories and, particularly images. A sketch of the eruption of Mount Etna in 1843 was published in the paper after being 'forwarded to us by an amateur contributor, who was for several nights a delighted witness of this magnificent and imposing spectacle'. In a way, the 'citizen journalism' of the internet and digital television age, where citizens upload images and commentary from their mobile phones, has its origins in the grass roots journalism encouraged by publications such as the Illustrated London News during the mid-nineteenth century.

Over the last decades of the nineteenth century, companies recognised that as they grew larger they needed to manage their information more effectively. New policies of management, organisation, storage and retrieval were introduced often using new technologies such as cabinet drawers, paperclips, letter boxes, ring binders, files and typewriters with carbon paper allowing for much more effective duplication of documents than having to write out multiple copies by hand. The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed a new discourse in management theory which accompanied such developments. However, information policies remained the remit of individual businesses and individual employers rather than following any national dictate: as a result of continual resistance to any large-scale plans for information control, policy remained gradual and localised.

The impact of warfare and welfare

The development of the early Edwardian welfare state and concerns over national security in the build up to the First World War meant that the state became more concerned with formalising policies for information collection and dissemination. The first forms of copyright policy can be seen in companies from this period. In 1918 a Reuters' company magazine praised South African legislation where 'the substance, as well as the form... is protected... The man who steals your news is as much a thief as the man who steals your purse'. Company magazines were used increasingly throughout the first half of the twentieth century as informal in-house vehicles through which company information was managed, collected and disseminated for employees, with some magazines amassing huge international circulations. But despite their potential for top-down, enforced policy directives, the content of company magazines remained diverse and often informal, and entertaining rather than prescriptive.

The most significant influences in the development of centralised, state-controlled information policy during the twentieth century were triggered by the dual areas of warfare and welfare. For the first time, there was a change both in the public's expectations of the role of government and in the traditional laissez-faire approach of the British government towards its citizens. As a result, the mid-twentieth century saw the emergence of a modern information state which began routinely to develop and enforce centralised information policies. The number of people employed in the civil service grew from just over 100,000 in 1902 to almost 550,000 in 1980, and there was a thirty-fold increase in national expenditure in the eighty years between 1898 and 1978. Purely in terms of administrative effort and expense, the collection, preservation, dissemination, control and management of information changed dramatically from its localised Victorian origins.

Defence of the realm was a significant accelerator of centralised control. National programmes of ID cards were introduced in both world wars to enable the government to monitor who was in the country and who was available to be called into service or to help on the home front. The National Registration Act of 1915 temporarily introduced national conscription into the British armed forces for the first time, in a move away from the historic tradition of voluntarism. The Act also established a national register of all men and women who were not members of the armed forces, introducing a system of forms, certificates and paperwork which required central management and control, adding to the function of the civil service. Individual identification emerged as a key theme for the twentieth century with national information policies playing a central role.

The Second World War called for a mobilisation of society on a scale which had never before been witnessed. The Emergency Powers Act of 1940 allowed government control over the organisation of labour for the war effort, the evacuation of children, rationing, recycling and the mobilisation of the armed forces. Arguably, the success of the war effort rested upon an efficient and co-ordinated approach to resources which demanded the centralised collections of information. Even after the war, the threats to national security posed first by the Cold War, then domestic terrorism by Irish nationalists and later religious extremists, were used to justify the growth of state information collection. The security services grew dramatically in this period, creating new forms, indexes, databases and collections of information on suspects, criminals, overseas developments and domestic threats. Surveillance has long traditions but it was in the post-war period that covert information gathering developed in such a centralised manner with statutory powers.

In times of national threat, citizens are more likely to allow their government such powers than in times of peace and prosperity. Yet information policy did not return to the localised autonomy of the nineteenth century after the First and Second World Wars. In fact it became even more centralised and divorced from local circumstances, in large part due to the changing role of the central state in providing welfare for its citizens. This standardisation was partly a necessary response to the decline of the Victorian tradition of local and personal contacts in business and society, but in the continuation of top-down rationalisation, the flexibility of information delivery, management, access and protection was removed.

It had already become clear during the depression of the 1930s that the unemployed would need to be supported from a system of national taxation and no longer on local poor relief paid for by local ratepayers, themselves also suffering from the impact of the depression. The 1930s saw the introduction of new registers of information, the most loathed of which was the introduction of means testing to investigate an individual's finances to see whether they qualified for state benefits. Reconstruction after the Second World War was also thought to require a centralised approach and the introduction of the Welfare State in the late 1940s called for the central collection of information on citizens to help provide benefits and services, rather than for their protection or national security, as in wartime. The relationship between state and citizen was shifting; the government was increasingly expected to provide for the ill, the poor and the elderly, as well as protect the nation from military threats. In return, the state expected individuals to provide information about where they lived, where they worked, their finances, and their domestic arrangements. This dynamic was not limited to the state but also manifested in the relationship between businesses and their employees. Thus the local, decentralised policies of the Victorian era have little in common with those of the post-war period.

These developments have been accompanied by growing public unease about how information is being used and protected, and by whom: issues of accuracy, security, data protection and freedom of information have become increasingly contested in recent decades. If by 1975 the government was claiming that more centralised organisation of information was 'making public administration more responsive to the needs of the individual citizen', it was also contributing to the mis-management of information. Computers, digital technologies, email, databases and the internet have contributed to faster and more comprehensive methods of collecting, organising, storing, processing, disseminating and controlling information at a national level. More recent legislation to stop and search, to track email and text messages, to monitor phone calls and internet usage at work, number plate and facial recognition, biometric passports, endless forms and paperwork to complete, loyalty cards and the now ubiquitous CCTV cameras have their origins in these twentieth century warfare and welfare changes, and public resistance to them can be traced back to the pre-twentieth century traditions of laissez faire and localised autonomy.


Modern information policies are so often linked with information technology that the two ideas appear almost synonymous. Ideas about the computer, the internet, or digital resources seem to influence policy decisions more than social concerns about access, privacy or preservation. In the nineteenth century the printing press, the railway and the telegraph all influenced the way information was understood and used within society, but these were not the main drivers. Since then it has become common to divorce technology from society when actually some of the most dynamic inputs into information policies come from cultural drivers: issues of personal privacy online, new forms of social networks, free dissemination of material over the internet, central registers of mobile phone numbers for marketing purposes. In the contemporary world, technological drivers and centrally-imposed policy guidelines can miss the real needs of those living in the so-called information society.

By the end of the twentieth century, as we entered the modern information age, these policies had become more fashionable than practical. As historians such as Richard Titmuss have suggested, by the post-war era the national Welfare State created by the Attlee Labour Government seemed to exist more for the benefit of the professionals who managed it than the individual recipients of welfare. More recent plans by the New Labour Governments for a national ID card scheme were driven, initially at least, by the argument that they would protect against terror attacks by non-British nationals. The scheme was one of the first to be scrapped by the new Conservative-Liberal coalition as an example of bureaucratic rhetoric rather than a meaningful information policy.

Meanwhile, scandals over the loss of large databases of personal information on a national level have become increasingly frequent in recent years. In November 2007 Revenue and Customs lost the personal details of 25 million people receiving child benefit, and the Driving Standards Agency admitted only a month later that it had compromised the personal details of 3 million learner drivers. Such events have demonstrated that information policy needs to be applied at a local level to have any real use or meaning.

The ongoing debates about the ownership of users' personal privacy on social networking websites such as Facebook have a powerful resonance: Should policy on the ownership of personal information reside centrally with the company or locally with the individual? In April 2009, Facebook offered its users a vote on the governance of their information, in a move labelled by some as a shift towards democratic participation and by others as merely a publicity stunt. Either way, the debate demonstrated the increasing tensions between information policy decided and enforced from the centre, and the local, social reality of that policy application.

The leading think-tank on information policy issues in Britain, the Foundation for Information Policy Research, has argued that such policies ought to be deployed at a more decentralised level, with 'the correct way to design such systems [being] to localise the data, in a school, in your local GP practice'. Contemporary policy makers would therefore do well to consider the Victorian model which suggests that it is possible for a modern information policy to be more decentralised, local and fluid. The historical context has of course changed- society and government have bigger responsibilities and roles in the twenty first century than they did in the nineteenth, but this does not mean there are no lessons to be learned. Policy emphasis should not be on vague all-encompassing statements, or on changing technologies, but should instead be responsive to local social and cultural drivers.

Further Reading

Jon Agar, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer (MIT Press, 2003).

Alistair Black, Dave Muddiman and Helen Plant, The Early Information Society: Information Management in Britain Before the Computer (Ashgate, 2007).

Daniel Headrick, When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850 (OUP, 2000).

Edward Higgs, The Information State in England: The Collection of Information on Citizens Since 1500 (Palgrave, 2004).

Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

Toni Weller, The Victorians and Information: A Social and Cultural History, (VDM Verlag, 2009).

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