Pithy people: 150 years of the People’s Friend

Charlotte Lauder is a AHRC-Collaborative Doctoral PhD student at the University of Strathclyde and the National Library of Scotland, researching Scottish national identity in nineteenth and twentieth century magazines. A key focus is the People’s Friend which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. She tweets from: @checkpointchaz

When talking about my research into the popular magazine the People’s Friend, the typical response I receive is, ‘my granny used to read that!’ For many Scots, this is their primary association with the People’s Friend and for me it is no different. My grandmother, born in Edinburgh in 1928 to Italian parents, held a subscription to the People’s Friend for most of her seventy-eight years. Throughout her lifetime, the People’s Friend was a popular women’s magazine that regularly included cooking recipes, household tips, and knitting patterns. It still publishes this gendered content in its weekly issues today and prides itself as the world’s oldest women’s magazine. However, the origins of the People’s Friend and its purpose is quite different. The Friend began as a monthly literary periodical, developing in the era of press expansion across the United Kingdom following the 1855 repeal of stamp duty. In this period, new, cost effective and mass-produced newspapers and periodicals were being established across Scotland. The People’s Friend began in Dundee in 1869, and was a key player in a team of popular publications owned by newspaper magnate and Liberal MP (1889-1905) for Dundee, John Leng. By December 1890, the annual combined circulation for his publications – the People’s Journal, the Dundee Advertiser and the People’s Friend – was over 5 million, with an average of 120,000 copies per week, and brand new offices on Fleet Street, the heart of the British metropolitan press industry.

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The People’s Friend originated from the success of its sister publication, the People’s Journal (1858), a newspaper for Dundee, Perth and Angus that published telegraphic news alongside fictional literature. By its second issue the People’s Journal was running poetry competitions and Christmas literary editions for readers. Such was the popularity of these and the appetite for working class literature across Scotland, that the People’s Friend was created to publish the surplus of original poetry, short stories and literary articles from amateur Scottish writers. Initially, it was modelled on contemporary periodicals such as Chamber’s Journal and Tait’s Magazine, by publishing similar intellectual content and articles. However, the Friend’s aim was more pragmatic: it dedicated itself to the encouragement of literary pursuits amongst its readers and to ‘promote self-improvement and studious, sober habits’ amongst the working classes, by publishing ‘Scotch stories, poetry, and other articles, written by Scotchmen’ that were deeply ‘Scotch in character’.[1] The Friend published and supported the careers of many notable novelists and poets such as Margaret Oliphant, David Pae, Annie S. Swan, Robert Ford, Alexander Anderson (the ‘Surfaceman’), Jessie K. Lawson and George Gilfillan. Ultimately, the Friend hoped to emulate the writings of Robert Burns or Walter Scott, who were featured on its bound volumes from 1890 onwards.

As the Friend celebrates its 150th anniversary, it is right to reflect on its longevity, and there are some key reasons for this. During its time under John Leng, the Friend published content that resonated with the values of late-Victorian Scottish society: Liberalism, Protestant literacy, education, temperance, self-improvement, work ethic, domesticity and industrialisation. Its subtitle, ‘A Miscellany of Popular and Instructive Literature’ and its headline banner give a nod to this identity. As the Friend has progressed, it has adapted to the changing Scottish literary market. From the outset, the Friend had a strong narrative of female empowerment: throughout 1869 it published articles in support of female seamstresses and dressmakers, medicine graduates and female suffrage; a popular poem was titled ‘Woman Rules – Not Man’.[2] From the 1890s onwards, women featured much more prominently. The number of stories from female authors increased dramatically, such as those from popular English author Adeline Sergeant who became an exclusive writer for the Friend between 1882 and 1887 and moved to Dundee to support her writing career. She became long-serving patron and supporter of the magazine. The Friend used New Journalism and the inclusion of illustrations and lithographs to appeal to its female consumer market, by publishing detailed step-by-step illustrations of clothes patterns, sewing instructions and cooking recipes.

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The Friend also capitalised on the Victorian market for amusement, entertainment and leisure pursuits. Half of its sixteen pages were dedicated to a mixture of puzzles, brainteasers, jokes, scientific articles, and pithy mottos to live by and inspire. There was also a correspondence column, known as ‘Friend In Council’, where, the Friend’s editor, the popular serial author David Pae, and sub-editor, Andrew Stewart, provided constructive criticism to contributors’ literary pieces and replied to an array of queries from readers which ranged from recipes for toothpaste to advise on the best bookshops in Dundee. Often these were scathing, for example, a reply to a prospective poet ‘G. B.’ stated ‘The subject of your poem – the People’s Friend – should have inspired you to write something better than doggerel. There is no hope for you as a poet if you cannot strike fire with such a splendid theme.’

Throughout its history, the Friend has published romantic stories of Scottish history, landscapes and moralistic tales alongside social realist stories and ‘urban fairy tales’, set against the backdrop of harsh rural and inner-city Victorian Scottish life. As long as the stories could be read by the fireside, and ‘did not corrupt the morals either of old or young’ they would find a place among the pages of the Friend. By 1905, the Friend was under the control of D C Thomson, who had bought the Dundee Courier newspaper in 1886 and merged with Leng’s publishing company around 1901. Since then, the Friend has adopted a more conservative outlook, featured women and domestic narratives far more prominently, and, by 1908, branded itself as ‘Scotland’s Favourite Home Journal’. Now in its 150th year of publication, the Friend’s legacy highlights the importance of Dundee as the city of Scottish popular journalism and magazine culture.


[1] ‘To Our Readers’, People’s Friend (PF), (13 January 1869), no. 1, p. 8 col. a.

[2] ‘Woman Rules – Not Man’, PF, (4 August 1869), no. 8, p. 128 col. c.


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