On 6th July 1885, a message appeared in the Evening Standard. This message was published towards the top of the second column of the front page of the newspaper, a column popularly known as the “agony column”. Now, this was not “agony” in the sense we know it now, troubled teenagers writing to “Aunty Mary” about their selfish boyfriends and problem skin. No; in an age before social media, texting and even common telephones, an age which was also bound tightly to strict rules of dating etiquette, this was a place for illicit messages between lovers who could not correspond easily in public.
Typical Agony Column Entries: Extracts from the Evening Standard: (left) 12th January 1889 and (right) 4th September 1888 (British Newspaper Archive)
These clandestine messages are full of codes and aliases ranging from basic initials to crazy pseudonyms to fully-fledged alpha-numeric ciphers, some typical examples of which can be seen above. The idea of cracking these codes has proved fascinating to readers across the centuries and some of them have recently been serialised by Jean Palmer as a puzzle book entitled The Agony Column: Codes and Ciphers (2006).
Those messages that can be more easily read arrange secret rendezvous, request correspondence and tell tales of unrequited love, drama and the inevitable, eponymous agony. Emma’s message to Jack (top) is no exception. She asks him to write weekly, to meet her at “the usual place” and ends with the weighty “very anxious”. What makes Emma’s message stand out from the rest, however, is that it is the first in a prolific series of messages between the couple. While most such agony messages were one-offs or appeared a handful of times over a couple of months, the Emma to Jack series would be published regularly in the same place, over the next five years.
Emma's Drama, Meeting at Charing Cross and Emma in a Relationship?
Extracts from the Evening Standard (top left) 10th July 1885, (top right) 21st Mar 1888, (bottom left) 1th Aug 1886 and (bottom right) 7th Sep 1888 (British Newspaper Archive)
This series of more than 50 messages, ranging from laconic meeting arrangements to lengthy diatribes, reveals a tumultuous Victorian romance, peppered with equal parts dramatic accusations and earnest declarations of love, sometimes even in the same message. One example from 1885 sees Emma warn Jack to "abandon those so-called Friends (Enemies)" lest he lose "everything in the world worth living for" and ends with a suggestion to meet on Friday at 10.30 (see above left).
Although it is difficult to identify Emma or Jack, if those were even their real names, their messages appear to tell us much about their relationship. Firstly, and most obviously, they were unable to conduct a public relationship, forced instead to correspond through secret letters and mysterious messages. It is possible that one or both of them was already married; Emma speaks frequently of "obstructions" to their relationship and once mentions that they can meet because "the Bos (sic) is going out" (see above left).
Emma's Jealousy: Extracts from the Evening Standard (left) 10th August 1886 and (right) 6th July 1888 (British Newspaper Archive)
Although not all those who used the Evening Standard were from the capital, it is clear from their correspondence that Emma and Jack were. They meet at "Charing Cross Station" and "the London Terminal" and speak of "The Fields", which may refer to the area of the city northeast of Charing Cross in which the churches of St Martin and St Giles-in-the-Fields can be found. Both also frequent "the stables" which seem to be outside London. Oddly, between 1885 and 1888 there are never any messages in April and May. It is possible that something about their yearly schedules either prevented messages during the Spring or allowed them to be together more freely, thus rendering the messages unnecessary.
We might surmise that Emma, at least, was fairly well off. She paid for frequent advertisements in the newspaper, arranged frequent train travel and suggested that she would drive to their meeting if the weather was wet, implying that she had personal use of a horse and cab. Emma's personality also seems to come through in her words which drip with classic Victorian melodrama. She is fiercely jealous of anyone to whom she perceives Jack is showing attention: after an episode in the enigmatic "M's garden" for instance, she warns him that "one false step will prove ruin and despair" (see above right). She also frequently admonishes Jack for "acting cruelly".
Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to judge whether or not Jack did act in this manner, or indeed, to determine much about Jack at all as the correspondence in the newspaper is overwhelmingly one-sided. He is frequently entreated by Emma to "write or wire" and this was probably his predominant method of communication with her. Only one message prefaced "Jack to Emma" appears in the Evening Standard during the time of their courtship and it is odd, asking about her identity in a way the real Jack would presumably not need to do. It reads instead like an outside observer trying to join the dialogue, commenting and maybe even ridiculing them. Rather than an unusual public reply from the "real" Jack, this message seems more akin to Victorian trolling.
Relationship Breakdown: Extracts from the Evening Standard, (top left) 7th November 1888, (bottom left) 12th November 1888, (top right) 29th November 1888 and (bottom right) 21st December 1888 (British Newspaper Archive)
Emma and Jack's long, torrid affair had already begun by the time of their first message in 1885 and appears to have reached its peak in 1888 when there were almost 30 messages. Sadly, by autumn of that year, things seem to have been going wrong for Emma and Jack as the messages intensify in both frequency and anguish. Emma seems increasingly desperate, pleading with Jack to meet while he apparently refused and eventually revealing that she has seen him with someone else. By 1889, the relationship was dying. Messages appear only in the spring, April and May, breaking the pattern established since 1885, and they are full of angst: "I am very sad", Emma writes on 18th May, "You are breaking my heart".
May seems to have marked the end for Emma and Jack, with no more messages appearing in the Evening Standard save for one attempt at rekindling in September 1890. These final messages, however, might also hold a clue to Emma and Jack's real identities. Underneath her message of 11th May, another appears, notifying "E. W*****D" that their telegram to "Jack Craven" has been returned; they are requested to write immediately to Kelly's Library, Vigo Street. This location was something like a modern PO Box, an anonymous postal address used by those who could not receive their correspondence at home or who simply had no London address to which they might be delivered. This might include secret lovers, criminals, activists or simply ordinary people. Messages to Kelly's Library were often collected and delivered by middlemen to further protect the identity of the persons involved. As Emma and Jack's relationship began to break down, it is not impossible that messages went unanswered and such an additional notice might have been posted. It is, of course, impossible to determine whether these messages are indeed related. However, the last message Emma sent, at least, referring to "the old original address, near Regent Street" , which perfectly describes Vigo Street, corroborates their use of the private courier service.
The messages posted in the agony columns of London's nineteenth century newspapers were not only read by their intended recipients but actually had a quite a wide following. According to Jennifer Phegley in her 2011 book Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England, even Queen Victoria is said to have counted reading the agony column as one of her guilty pleasures. In The Novelty of Newspapers (2009), Matthew Rubery explores how the agony column was also a particular favourite of contemporary authors, either as a plot device, or as a source of inspiration. Indeed Conan Doyle used it often in his Sherlock Holmes mysteries. In The Adventure of the Red Circle (1911), for example, Holmes can be seen cataloguing the articles from the agony column which Watson then describes as "surely the most valuable hunting ground that was ever given to a student of the unusual".
It is not surprising, then, that Emma and Jack's story captured the imagination of the general public, not only the trolling pseudo-Jack but also contemporary crime fiction author, H Freeman Wood. Originally from Yorkshire and employed as a newspaper editor, Wood had written several books based on the exploits of London's metropolitan police force. One such work, On the 3rd Ult., was serialised in the Leicester Chronicle in 1890, contains several overt references to the Emma to Jack series. Musing on courtship in high society, one of Wood's characters suggests that there would be "Emmas to Jacks and Jacks to Emmas in the agony column of a morning newspaper."
Later in the same novel, however, Wood's main player, D.S. Erne observes a junior member of the force cataloguing agony column entries. The cataloguer draws Erne's attention to the "E" section in his alphabetical index, ultimately to show him messages which mention his name. Before he gets to that point, however, he draws his attention to the "Emma to Jack" series. "Do you know this one?", he asks Erne, "The Tudor street gang?". "Ah", replies Erne, "the Tudor street people... they're waking up again". In Wood's novel, therefore, Emma and Jack were not necessarily secret lovers at all. Could they instead have been aliases for something far more sinister? Or is that just a fictional step too far?
To Be Continued....