Here is the news

Here is the news

Margaret Powling surveys the history of newspapers, and remembers her own family’s role in the trade

Margaret Powling, an antique columnist, who researches social history, historic houses, costumes and accessories.

Margaret Powling

an antique columnist, who researches social history, historic houses, costumes and accessories.


If you wanted to know what was going on, at home and abroad, in the reign of Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar, c60BC, you wandered down to the Forum in Rome and read the news bulletin of the day. Called Acta Diurna – a government announcement literally about ‘daily doings’ – it was affixed somewhere convenient, a pillar or wall, and in style was direct, much like newspaper journalism today. It was, in fact, the world’s first newspaper.

Until the advent of printing – first in Europe and then here in the UK – all information was, by necessity, communicated orally or was handwritten, a long, laborious process. The breakthrough in news coverage and distribution came when William Caxton (c1422-c1491) an English diplomat, merchant, and retailer of printed books introduced the printing press to England. In collaboration with a 15th century scribe, Collard Mansion, and after seeing one in action in Cologne, he set up a printing press in Bruges before similarly setting one up in Westminster in 1476.

A 17th century London coffee house, with patrons catching up on the news
A 17th century London coffee house, with patrons catching up on the news

Being able to print the news – even though it was only one sheet of paper, printed on one side – was a breakthrough as remarkable as Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s internet in 1989. However, the vast majority of people were illiterate and they relied heavily on town criers for their news; by the 16th century, though, those early ‘news’ papers, if not exactly flying of the presses, were at least available to those who could read.

In England, and while printing was now possible, the right to print was being strictly controlled by the Star Chamber – privy councillors and common-law judges – and this was probably the reason that the first newspaper in the English language, Corrant, was printed in Amsterdam in 1620. Such strict control was eventually relinquished after the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641. Between 1640 and the Restoration in 1660 around 30,000 ‘news’ papers were printed and some can be seen in the British Museum.

A wounded British officer reading The Times’s report of the end of the Crimean War, in John Everett Millais’ painting Peace Concluded
A wounded British officer reading The Times’s report of the end of the Crimean War, in John Everett Millais’ painting Peace Concluded

The first English newspaper to contain domestic news was called Diurnal Occurrences and related the activities of Parliament. It was followed in 1665 by The Oxford Gazette which became The London Gazette and which was the official paper of the government, still published today (its archives are available for free online at www.thegazette.co.uk).

So where did one read these newspapers when there wasn’t a WH Smith in every high street? Our growing taste for coffee coincided with the emergence newspapers. Putting the two together was a winning combination.

“Coffee houses were introduced to England in the mid-seventeenth century. The first in London, Pasqua Rosee’s Head, was opened in 1652 by a Turkey merchant, Daniel Edwards, in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill,“ says historian, Margaret Willes. “These houses were like clubs, where men (and only men) of similar mind could meet. In Pall Mall, Tories frequented the Cocoa Tree, while the Whigs favoured St James’s.” And it was in such coffee houses that for about one penny chaps could get their caffeine fix from the new bitter drink introduced from Turkey, exchange gossip, converse on all manner of subjects from politics and science to literature and commerce… and read the newspaper. Such places earned themselves the name ‘penny universities.’

The Daily Courant pioneered general interest news
The Daily Courant pioneered general interest news

“In 1702 [in the reign of Queen Anne] The Daily Courant was published. This was the first English paper to appear daily with factual news of general interest rather than political comment. It cost one penny,“ says writer WD Siddle. Those who could read were eager to learn what was going on both here and overseas, but in order to suppress the popularity of newspapers and public opinion they generated and which might be against government actions, a stamp tax was imposed, making the newspapers too expensive for many people to buy.

“Despite the tax, a total of over seven million copies of newspapers was sold during the year 1753,“ says Siddle. Therefore the government not only raised the tax but also imposed further restrictions on the press: writers and reporters were barred from the House of Commons and note-taking was disallowed. One or two smuggled-in reporters with exceptional memories were able to remember almost everything that was said, and wrote their accounts afterwards. But by 1803 such restrictions were relaxed and reporters were permitted entry to the Public Gallery.

What is considered the country’s oldest national newspaper, The Times, began life as The Daily Universal Register in 1785. In its early days it was, according to Liddle, “a rebellious newspaper. Papers did not have the same freedom to express their opinion as they have now. The first owner, John Walter, fiercely criticised the Government, and served several short sentences in Newgate Gaol as a result.” Thus, the nickname for the paper was ‘The Thunderer’.

The author’s family took over this newsagents in the 1950s
The author’s family took over this newsagents in the 1950s

On 29 June 1855, there appeared the first issue of The Daily Telegraph. It was founded by a British-born Canadian army officer, Colonel Arthur B Sleight. However, like a lot of new ventures, it suffered teething troubles. The Times had agreed to print the paper, but Sleight found he was unable to pay the printing costs, and so the owner of The Times, Joseph Levy took over the newspaper.

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Further titles then followed but I was surprised to learn that when Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) founded the Daily Mirror in 1903 it was to be a paper “for women run by women”. Of it he reputedly said, “I intend it to be really a mirror of feminine life, as well on its grave as on its lighter sides.” It wasn’t an immediate success and in 1904 Harmsworth decided to turn it into a pictorial newspaper. Furthermore, all the female journalists were sacked. With a drop in the price from one penny to one half-penny, and marketed as a newspaper “for men and women” circulation took off and by 1919 it was the largest selling daily newspaper in the UK.

Newspapers, first available in coffee houses, eventually became available in public houses and later in newsagent’s shops. As early as 1792, Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna opened a small news vendors in London, and after their deaths the business passed to their sons Henry Edward and William Henry. William Henry was the more capable and the business became the one we are all familiar with today: WH Smith. This business grew and by 1850 was recognised as the principal newspaper distributor in the country.

But before any newspaper is ‘put to bed’ (signed off by the editor so that printing can take place) there has to be news for it to publish. This may come from eyewitness accounts or from news’ gathering agencies around the world, such as Reuters, founded by Paul Julius Reuter in the 1850s. Reuters was the first news agency to report Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and telegraph this tragic event to the waiting publishing world.

From reporter to printing house; by road, rail and plane to wholesaler and retailer; to the newsboy on a bicycle. Eventually newspapers found their way into millions of homes each day in time to be read at the breakfast table.

The Times from 4 December 1788
The Times from 4 December 1788

Further reading:
Scenes from Georgian Life by Margaret Willes (National Trust)
The Story of Newspaper by WD Siddle (Wills & Hepworth, Ltd)

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