W. H. Smith is often seen as the archetypical mid-nineteenth century newsagent that used Britain’s fast-growing railway network to distribute metropolitan newspapers to the British provinces. This article provides new perspective on the company by focusing on its distribution of the news. Using several collections of digitized newspapers, it focuses on the increasingly fast and wide distribution of the Queen’s Speech by W. H. Smith around 1850. Coverage in the British press shows how the firm organised provincial papers and two emerging technologies, the railway and telegraph, to create a system dedicated to the distribution of the news. This system, shaped by W. H. Smith’s commercial interests, was vital for the integration of the British imagined community, enabling the almost simultaneous consumption of news on a national level. Applying a media archaeological approach, the second part of this article uses W. H. Smith’s nineteenth-century distribution network as a springboard for discussing how the present-day distribution of British digitized newspapers is shaped by the commercial interests of two large publishers and how this system shapes research in media history.


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pp. 598-625
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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