Ciphers of The Times

Ciphers of The Times is an SSHRC-funded research project based in the McGill University Library and the Department of English dedicated to exploring the Victorian-era newspaper phenomenon known as the Agony Column. Characterized by anonymity, lack of censorship and encryption, the “agonies” were a widely popular form of print media in nineteenth-century England. Often communicated with an air of mystery and sometimes coded, the column featured the voices of desperate parents, forlorn lovers, cunning criminals and savvy detectives. Newspaper readers revelled in their dramas. Our joint physical-digital exhibition, which ran Spring 2023 at the McLennan Library, sought to recount stories of the Agony Column to better understand their influence on Victorian society and literature as well as their impact in the present. The project also featured a substantial digital component, where text analysis and machine learning were used to predict and differentiate syntactic and stylistic patterns between newspapers and novels. A machine-readable, multi-million-word corpus of text from both The Times and 200-plus Victorian novels is available on our GitHub Page.

For more information visit the Ciphers of The Times site.

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