It rapidly became one of the most popular periodicals in the English-speaking world. It reached dizzying heights in the 1940s, with a readership of over 175,000.
This excerpt from the Punch website gives an insight into the creative process that went into making Punch – and offers an explanation for the sometimes rather Pythonesque style of humour,
As the brandy was passed around and the cigars were lit up, the editor would call ‘Gentlemen, the cartoon!’ One of the writers would then suggest what a wheeze it would be to draw Disraeli in the style of a sphinx, or Gladstone the lion fighting the Russian bear, and the unfortunate artist would have the do the best job he could.
To modern eyes, many early captions were a little less than economical. Some looked as if they had been cobbled together by a drunken committee. Now you know the truth. They probably had. It quickly became clear that creative minds were often not at their best at the end of an enjoyable meal, and table members wisely decided to consider the weekly cartoon before lunch, a tradition which continued until 1969, when William Davis became editor and decided that he did not want part of his magazine edited at the meal table.
It’s fair to say that Punch started off very radical, with views that even today would be considered very liberal. This might come as something as a surprise, considering the buffoonish nature of their eponymous character. Here is their opening statement, taken from the first issue in 1841,
As we hope, gentle public, to pass many happy hours in your society, we think it right that you should know something of our character and intentions. Our title, at a first glance, may have misled you into a belief that we have no other intention than the amusement of a thoughtless crowd, and the collection of pence. We have a higher object. Few of the admirers of our prototype, merry Master PUNCH, have looked upon his vagaries but as the practical outpourings of a rude and boisterous mirth. We have considered him as a teacher of no mean pretensions, and have, therefore, adopted him as the sponsor for our weekly sheet of pleasant instruction.
Gilded coaches have glided before us, in which sat men who thought the buzz and shouts of crowds a guerdon for the toils, the anxieties, and, too often, the peculations of a life. Our ears have rung with the noisy frothiness of those who have bought their fellow-men as beasts in the market-place, and found their reward in the sycophancy of a degraded constituency, or the patronage of a venal ministry—no matter of what creed, for party must destroy patriotism.
The noble in his robes and coronet—the beadle in his gaudy livery of scarlet, and purple, and gold—the dignitary in the fulness of his pomp—the demagogue in the triumph of his hollowness—these and other visual and oral cheats by which mankind are cajoled, have passed in review before us, conjured up by the magic wand of PUNCH.
How we envy his philosophy, when SHALLA-BA-LA, that demon with the bell, besets him at every turn, almost teasing the sap out of him! The moment that his tormentor quits the scene, PUNCH seems to forget the existence of his annoyance, and, cajoling the mellifluous numbers of Jim Crow, or some other strain of equal beauty, makes the most of the present, regardless of the past or future; and when SHALLA-BA-LA renews his persecutions, PUNCH boldly faces his enemy, and ultimately becomes the victor. All have a SHALLA-BA-LA in some shape or other; but few, how few, the philosophy of PUNCH!
Punch mellowed through time as its readership soared, but never lost the liberal spirit of its creators. Although ever silly and ever incivisve, it’s readership went into terminal decline in the 1980s, and after a rather optimistic but misguided relaunch by Mohammed Al-Fayed in the 1990s, Punch was eventually pulled from our shelves in 2002, having been haemorrhaging tens of thousands of pounds per issue for many years.