16 February 2019

Reuter’s statue in London
is a reminder of the need
for journalistic freedoms

The statue of Paul Julius Reuter (1816-1899) at the Royal Exchange in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Tucked away in a small corner in the City of London, close to the statue of George Peabody at Royal Exchange, a fine granite sculpture by the Oxford-based sculptor Michael Black commemorates Paul Julius Reuter, the 19th century pioneer in communications and news delivery.

I stopped to visit this monument earlier this week as I was walking back to Liverpool Street Station from a meeting of trustees of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Paul Julius Baron von Reuter (1816-1899) was a German-born, British entrepreneur who was a pioneer in telegraphy and news reporting, a reporter and media owner, and the founder of Reuters News Agency.

Reuter was born as Israel Beer Josaphat in Kassel on 21 July 1816. His father, Samuel Levi Josaphat, was a rabbi; his mother was Betty Sanders. While he was working in a bank as a young man in Göttingen, he became friends with a local physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss, who was experimenting with the transmission of electrical signals by wire.

Reuter moved to London on 29 October 1845, calling himself Julius Josaphat. In a ceremony in Saint George’s German Lutheran Chapel in London, he converted to Christianity on 16 November 1845, and changed his name to Paul Julius Reuter. A week later, in the same chapel, he married Ida Maria Elizabeth Clementine Magnus from Berlin, the daughter of a German banker.

Back in Germany in 1847, the former bank clerk became a partner in Reuter and Stargardt, a Berlin book-publishing firm. Reuter later became involved in the Revolutions of 1848, challenging the authority of the German Confederation with protests demanding freedom of the press and a national assembly. The distribution of radical pamphlets by the firm at the beginning of the 1848 Revolution may have brought official scrutiny to Reuter.

When the movement was suppressed later that year, Reuter left for Paris and worked in Charles-Louis Havas’s news agency, Agence Havas, now known as Agence France Presse.

In Aachen, Reuter set up an organisation that used carrier pigeons to send messages between Brussels and Aachen. This was before telegram became available, and Reuter had found the missing link to connect Berlin and Paris. The carrier pigeons were much faster than the post train, giving Reuter faster access to news from the Paris stock exchange.

As telegraphy evolved, Reuter founded his own news agency in Aachen, transferring messages between Brussels and Aachen using carrier pigeons and so linking Berlin and Paris. The pigeons were speedier than the post train and gave Reuter faster access to financial news from the Paris stock exchange. Eventually, pigeons were replaced by a direct telegraph link.

A telegraph line was between Britain and Europe was being set up, and so Reuter moved to London, rented an office near the Stock Exchange, and founded the international news organisation that bears his name in No 1 Royal Exchange in the City of London on 19 October 1851.

The Reuters News Agency, which he founded, originally used carrier pigeons to send dispatches. But later, combining journalism with the telegraph, it became a ‘news-wire service,’ using the telegraph to send news stories to subscribing newspapers. Over the following decades, his agency became the leading source for breaking news across Europe, with wire connections to Asia and North and South America.

On Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1857, Reuter became a naturalised British subject. But the Irish connection is more interesting than this. In 1863, he privately erected a telegraph link to Crookhaven, Co Cork, the farthest south-west point in Ireland. When ships from America approached Crookhaven, they threw canisters containing news into the sea. These were retrieved by Reuters and telegraphed directly to London, arriving long before the ships reached Cork.

On 7 September 1871, Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and elder brother of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, gave Reuter the German title of freiherr (baron). Two decades later, in November 1891, Queen Victoria gave Reuter and his male heirs the right to use that German title in Britain as Baron von Reuter.

Reuter died on 25 February 1899 at Villa Reuter in Nice. He was buried in West Norwood Cemetery in south London.

This bust of Paul Julius Reuter near the Royal Exchange in London is next to the Royal Exchange where he founded his Reuters news service. This granite monument set there by Reuters to mark the 125th anniversary of the Reuters Foundation and was unveiled by Edmund L de Rothschild on 18 October 1976.

The words on the front of the sculpture read:

Paul Julius Reuter

Born 1816 Kassel, Germany. Died 1899 Nice, France. Founded the world news organisation that bears his name in No. 1 Royal Exchange Buildings in the City of London, near this site, on 14 October 1851.

On the back of the sculpture, the words read:

The supply of information to the world’s traders in securities, commodities and currencies was then and is now the mainspring of Reuters activities & the guarantee of the founder’s aims of accuracy, rapidity and reliability. News services based on those principles now go to newspapers, radio & television networks & governments throughout the world. Reuters has faithfully continued the work begun here. To attest this & to honour Paul Julius Reuter this memorial was set here by Reuters to mark the 125th anniversary of Reuters Foundation & inaugurated by Edmund L de Rothschild, TD, 18.10.76.

The Reuters News Agency Reuters News Agency has been part of the Thomson Reuters conglomerate since 2008.

At a time when journalistic freedoms are under assault from President Trump and other world leaders, and when ‘Brexit’ is coming to typify isolationism and nationalism, Reuter’s statue was a good reminder this week of one of the key founding figures in modern journalism.

Reuter should be remembered not only for his innovations but as voice that spoke out for civil liberties, human rights and religious freedom, and who understand the need for different voices to speak to one another internationally.

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