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16 January 2007

Devon Book 62

Exeter Working Papers in British Book Trade History; 12
A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
62: The spread of the newspaper

The newspaper publishers lead the way in the mechanisation of printing - as we have seen Latimer had introduced a steam powered printing press in 1835 - and this made it possible to increase circulation and contemplate the production of daily newspapers. The newspaper tax, one of the hated "taxes on knowledge" was reduced from 4d per copy to 1d per copy in 1836 and it was finally abolished in 1855, removing the last financial obstacle, and from that date the number of provincial dailies expanded dramatically. The first in the Westcountry was the Western daily press which appeared in Bristol on 1 June 1858. The first Devon title was published in Plymouth when the Western morning news appeared on 3 January 1860. It was joined in June the same year by the Western daily mercury, also in Plymouth. In Exeter the Western times began to appear twice weekly from 3 February 1863. On 7 February that year the Exeter and Plymouth gazette trumped it by bringing out its Daily telegram which was later to be absorbed into its parent title as the Devon and Exeter daily gazette on 1 May 1885. The Western times became a daily from 28 November 1866. One week later on 3 December 1866 the Devon weekly times launched its own daily the Evening express of the Devon weekly times and on 12 November 1885 Trewman's Exeter flying post launched its daily the Evening post, which was incorporated back into its parent title when it became a daily in 1887. By 1895 there were seven daily newspapers in Devon, three in Plymouth and four in Exeter, most of them developed from or associated with a weekly title.

The rapid growth in the newspaper industry was facilitated by a number of technical and commercial innovations. Material for the Western morning news was stereotyped in London and sent down to Plymouth. Such services were available for provincial presses as early as 1855, as can be seen from an advertisement in Hodson's booksellers, publishers and stationers' directory which states that "country printers, about to establish a local newspaper, may arrange for a portion being printed in London with first class illustrations". Such hybrid products did not meet with success everywhere. The first attempt at a daily in Exeter had been initiated by Sanders and Spender, proprietors of the Western morning news on 4 February 1863, a week of great changes for the Exeter press. The Western express was incorporated back into the Western morning news after 11 July the same year. Latimer commented that the public "didn't like shams. They don't like this central manufactory of sensation." He continued with an uncanny prediction of the emergence of the press barons: "If the promoters had their way, we should find a press hierachy established in London, controlling public opinion through the provinces. One can hardly imagine the limits which this position would give its owners ... Sanders will be elected to the peerage as Baron Bathbrick of Hackpressvil, Slowshire ..." (Lambert 203)

And there was in Exeter one man at that time who seemed to be on the way to such a position. It is strange how selective amnesia can affect official historians. The writer of the 150th anniversary of the Devon and Exeter gazette in 1922, beside granting the newspaper twenty more years antiquity than it was entitled to, chose to ignore the existence of Charles Wescomb, who purchased the Gazette after the death of Alderman Woolmer in 1857. Born in Exeter in 1821, the son of a bricklayer, Wescomb was appointed schoolmaster at Budleigh Salterton at the age of nineteen. After fifteen years there he returned to Exeter in 1855. He used his head for figures to build up a fortune by speculation in mining shares and acquired the Gazette after being called in as an accountant to settle the estate. He immediately set out to reinforce his paper's position as the organ of the Conservative party in Exeter, and himself as one of the party's leading political luminaries. He was soon elected to the City Council and within a couple of years was an Alderman. There were few political activities in Exeter in which he was not involved. His office in Gandy Street was the venue for political meetings and he was frequently at Pynes, the country seat just to the north of the City, to give advice when ministers stayed with Sir Stafford Northcote. At the same time he was using the Gazette to vilify Latimer and the Liberals, calling him the "Evil Genius", "a liar", "a great coward" whose "mendacity increases with his age". But Wescomb's sights were set on higher things. He had been adopted by the Conservatives of the Carlton Club and encouraged to develop his plans for a syndicated Conservative press. In 1868 he left London to direct the Globe and shortly after became proprietor of the Maidstone journal and the Edinburgh courant. The Gazette was now run by a deputy, dubbed by Latimer "Charley Wescomb's Organ-Grinder". Wescombe had been feted on his departure from Exeter and in his absence was nominated sheriff of Devon. He still returned regularly to his native city. On 4 May 1869 he accompanied the Mayor to Cowley Bridge to beat the bounds and on 6 May attended a meeting at the Guildhall at which the Council decided to adopt the Public Libraries Acts. The same evening he returned to London to attend a heated assembly of the adventurers in the Frank Mills Mine. At the meeting he was seized with a fit of apoplexy and died shortly afterwards in the early hours of 8 May 1869. The news stunned Exeter. The Exeter flying post wrote on 12 May "Mr. Wescomb is another victim to the characteristic passion of the age, the passion for work. Mines here, newspapers there, at Maidstone, at Edinburgh, in London, in Exeter, attending a town's meeting in Exeter and a mine audit in London tomorrow, and then probably travelling by a night mail to Edinburgh or back to Exeter - a man of iron constitution may perhaps live a life of that kind for a year or two." He was buried in St Sidwell's Church, Exeter and tributes were paid in sermons across the City to this most active and distinguished of citizens. But soon his tangled affairs began to unravel. Latimer had accused him in a set of satirical verses of not being unfamiliar with the practice of rigging shares, an accusation which had cost Latimer a £50 donation to the Albert Memorial Museum in an out of court settlement. But worse was discovered. His grand designs had been founded largely on borrowed money and he had died a bankrupt, owing money to a crowd of gullible Exonians. The rector of St Sidwell's in whose churchyard he now lay was owed the massive sum of £9,000. Apart from other large creditors, such as Sir Stafford Northcote who had lent him money to purchase newspapers to support the Conservative cause, he had made off with the life savings of several elderly widows who were left penniless by his untimely death. The crash of mining ventures in which he was involved was a final blow. To avoid scandal locally the affairs were gradually sorted out in the Court of Chancery in London, but the Conservative cause in Exeter was dealt a severe blow by the activites of this early newspaper magnate. (Lambert 201-8, Hoskins 1960, 113-5).

One means of spreading the local newspaper more widely was by the production of local editions with different titles but substantially the same content. Commonplace today, Latimer was one of the first to introduce this practice in Devon. In 1866 he set up a branch office in Tiverton and commenced publication of a local version of the Western times with the title Tiverton times and East Devon reporter. The practice can be seen at its most fully developed in south Devon at the end of the nineteenth century in the Western guardian series, established in Totnes in 1882, which produced at least seven local editions at various times, bearing such titles as Brixham western guardian or Paignton western guardian to indicate the area of distribution.

Specialist newspapers also began to see the light of day. In Plymouth the Naval and military record was published in Plymouth between 1886 and 1936 at which date it was amalgamated with the Army, navy and air force gazette. In Plymouth too the Christian echo: a weekly record and review of the christian churches in Devon and Cornwall enjoyed a somewhat shorter run from 1885 to 1888. Football held more attractions for the working masses and Plymouth, Torbay and Exeter each had a newspaper dedicated to the game which appeared during the season. Theey were all run by one of the daily newspapers in the town. The first to start was the Football herald, linked to the Western evening herald in Plymouth which ran from September 1899 to 1954. The Football express, associated with the Express and echo, ran from September 1906 until it was incorporated into the late evening edition of the Express and echo in 1947. In Torbay the Torbay football herald ran from 1924 to 1954. All three suspended publication during the two World Wars.

Amid this network of professionally produced newspapers with their wealthy proprietors and expensive equipment there was still room for small one-man publications. These were normally to be found in the smaller centres of population and had a smaller format and poorer typography than their more conventional rivals. There are two Devon titles which are worthy of mention. The Hartland and West Country chronicle is probably the better known, having been described as "the world's strangest newspaper". It was published from October 1896 to 1940 by Thomas Cory Burrow in the small and isolated community of Hartland in north Devon which had a populaton of 1,634 in 1901 and prided itself on being "farthest from railways". Burrow was born in Hartland in 1872. He set up as an ironmonger but had always been fascinated by printing. He constructed his first printing press from wood and even producd some of his own type. For example the display "C" for "Chronicle was fashioned from the brass heelplate of a lady's boot and the first issue, produced as a four page wrapper to the Methodist home recorder which he distributed, displayed an idiosyncratic assemblage of type from a variety of sources and was in places completely illegible with one page printed upside down. Fortunately his standards improved with time and by 1914 the paper contained up to 16 pages of evenly spaced type. He was his own reporter and sub-editor, he collected the advertisements, composed the type and printed it off. Although essentially a one-man operation he did employ apprentices, his sisters and even friendly neighbours on its production. As a result every incident in Hartland was minutely chronicled over a period of half a century. At first it appeared monthly but from 12 April 1906 it often appeared weekly although it became increasingly irregular during its final years. Although its fame spread widely - it was even received regularly in Ahmednagar in India - it was never a financial success and had to be subsidised from other printing and his ironmongery business. In the late 1930s it was produced less and less frequently and its last issue appeared on 17 May 1940. Burrow planned to revive the newspaper when in his 80s and actually purchased a new linotype machine but was taken ill. He died on 3 March 1956 at the age of 83. (Vanstone).

Cory was a local eccentric, famed among other things for his unruly beard. His counterpart in south Devon must have been famed for his splendid moustache. The South Devon weekly express had been published in the small market town of Chudleigh with a population of around 2,000 from 11 July 1855. In 1907 it was put up for sale by H.A.Crook and Son and purchased by Albert R.Holcombe who had been born in Chudleigh in 1871 and had worked on the Evening standard in London where he had been the rare combination of a Conservative and a trade unionist. Like Burrows he acted as reporter, editor, compositor and printer and each Friday he would distribute 450 copies of his paper. He had a strict sense of what was correct and would not attend parish council meetings because the council refused to send him official notice of their meetings. But he was involved in many other aspects of community life, being a keen rugby player and cricket umpire, and his bass voice was much in demand. He also initiated Chudleigh's first carnival in 1907. His independent ideas were evident during the General Strike in 1926 when he produced a shortened version of the Newton Abbot paper the Mid Devon advertiser. During the First World War he had to reduce the size of the paper and brought the price down to a halfpenny, which it retained until it ceased publication. In the 1950s Holcombe was proud to describe his paper on its masthead as "The only halfpenny one-man weekly newspaper in the world" and he was even featured on television. In his final years he was troubled by gout which occasionally caused his paper not to appear. Until a few weeks before his death he still worked ten to twelve hours a day. He did not wear glasses and could set up to 50 lines of type by hand in an hour. He used a 45 year old Wharfdale machine which at one stage was worked by a gas engine. The paper was all cut and folded by hand. After producing the issue of 10 September 1954 he became ill. Although he had started the next week's issue he died without completing it on 24 October 1954 aged 83. He had hoped to reach the centenary issue but his daughter could find no buyers and the machinery was eventually sold for scrap, much of the type passing into the hands of members of the British Printing Society who produced a special issue, belatedly described as a centenary commemoration, on 3 December 1965.

While there was a demand for newspapers even in smaller communities like Hartland and Chudleigh there was a limit to the numbers of newspapers that towns the size of Exeter and Plymouth could support. Trewman's Exeter flying post went weekly again in 1902 and when the Western echo and star was established as a new daily on 2 February 1904 it was only a short time before it absorbed the Devon Evening express on 1 October 1904 to form the Express and echo. Nevertheless the market was still overcrowded in Devon in the early 1920s. In Plymouth the Western daily mercury was incorporated with the Western morning news on 31 January 1921 while its weekly counterpart the Weekly mercury was amalgamated with the Western weekly news on 26 March 1921. In Exeter the last daily issue of the Western times appeared on 4 August 1922 after which it became a weekly, a process that was hastened by the printing strike in that year. The Devon and Exeter gazette struggled on as a daily until 26 February 1932 when its circulation had dwindled to around 2,000 at which stage it was absorbed to form the Exeter edition of the Western morning news (Royal Commission 1949, 64-5).

The 1920s saw the start of the inroads of the Harmsworth empire into newspaper ownership in the region. In 1920 Sir Leicester Harmsworth had acquired the Western morning news "eventually for my boys" and in 1921 he acquired the Western evening herald and the Western daily mercury. In 1921 the Torbay express and south Devon echo was started as a daily. The title was changed to the Torbay herald and express in 1925 after merging with the Torbay herald in which year he acquired a controlling interest in that paper and the Express and echo (Royal Commission 1949, 59). In 1928 Northcliffe Newspapers was formed as a controlling company for provincial newspapers but there was a lull in the campaign of takeovers until the period between 1937 and 1947 when the group acquired one evening paper and 18 weeklies in Devon and Cornwall (Royal Commission 1949, 61).

In a crowded market newspapers had to seek ways of attracting readers and the introduction of illustrations was one technical development. The Western times began to feature photographs weekly from 1927 but the daily Express and echo did not use photographs regularly until about 1932, although line blocks, usually accompanying regular advertisements had been a feature of newspapers from the nineteenth century.

The Express and echo has been the great survivor among the Exeter dailies. On 6 December 1924 it could not resist revealing to its readers that it was investing in new machinery with the excuse that they were apologising for slight smearing which resulted from workmen's dust entering the ink ducts. This was caused when the concrete floor was being drilled for the base plates of the three-reel press manufactured by the Stockwell Engineering Company which would be capable of printing a twelve paged paper at 24,000 copies an hour. It was also the opportunity for a short history of the paper whose origin has already been briefly mentioned. In 1901 James Owen and W.H.Reed entered into partnership to purchase the Western times, at that time a daily. The new company was registered as the Western Times Co. Ltd and the partners set out to modernise the newspaper which had lagged behind since the days when Latimer had installed the first steam press. It was set by hand and printed on an elderly two-feeder flat bed press.

A rotary machine capable of taking rolls of paper was ordered as well as three Linotype machines for mechanical typesetting. This was regarded as a "tremendous adventure" but they were not ahead of the field. The Linotype machine had first been used on the New York tribune in 1886 and in England for the Newcastle chronicle in 1889. By 1894 at least 250 machines were known to be at work in the provinces. In Plymouth there were eight linotype machines on the Western daily mercury and four on the Western independent. The operators of these machines worked 48 hours a week on the day shift or 42 hours on nights. The day shift at the Independent could earn £1 15s a week and the night shift on the Mercury £2 6s. On the Independent the number of case hands employed had fallen from twelve to five since the introduction of the linotype, causing some dismay amonst the employees. (Howe 493-9). On the Western times however two further linotypes were installed within two years and a sixth was added later.

The management felt that there ought to be an evening paper to make full use of the machinery installed and after unsuccessful negotiations over a merger with the Devon evening express, the Western echo and star was launched on 2 February 1904, the early issues appearing on a distinctive greenish paper. When, after eight months the Devon evening express was acquired by the Western Times Company, who merged the two evening paprs to form the Express and echo, the Devon weekly times was also aborbed into the Western times.

The merged company now had two offices, the old Western times office in Fore Street and the Express office at 226 and 227 High Street. Deciding to concentrate their printing operations in the High Street office they were faced with the problem of moving the 36 ton rotary press. It was dismantled after the Saturday evening paper had been printed, all through the night the parts were moved up Fore Street but only after the bed plate had been moved could the press be reassembled. It was ready for testing on the Monday afternoon but an old press had to do service for that evening's paper. Nevertheless the move of such a large piece of equipment in such a short time was a considerable achievement, though one which the company did not wish to repeat. When in 1911 the High Street premises was completely rebuilt internally, preserving the Elizabethan facade, the rotary press was not moved again. Encased in a specially built chamber it produced the paper each day from sterotyped plates brought over from temporary typesetting premises in a large loft adjoining the Exeter Theatre while the entire premises was demolished and rebuilt around it. The paper continued to prosper in the years before the war and in 1947 its circulation was 39311.

The individual who had seen the Express and echo through its history up to World War 2 was Exeter's only newspaper knight, Sir James Owen. Born on 29 August 1869 he first joined the Western morning news in 1889. He became the editor and joint proprietor of the Bideford gazette in 1894 and editor and managing director of the Western times in 1901. He had long been an exponent of the importance of evening newspapers and after establishing the Western evening echo, which merged to become the Express and echo in 1904 he became a leading light in Exeter. From 1905 he was a governor of the Royal Albert Memorial College and Library and in 1911 he headed the appeal committee fior the Univeristy College of which he was to become a vice-president in the 1930s. His keen interest in education was also demonstrated by his membership of the City Council's Education Committee and his governorship of Hele's School. His progressive ideas included a campaign to provide Exeter with an airport, his extensive travels having made him aware of the importance of this new form of transport. He was a tireless mayor of Exeter for four successive years during the First World War, receiving a visit from George V and Queen Mary in 1915, and becoming chairman of the local Food Control Committee. He was knighted for his serivces in 1918.

He was also nationally recognised in the newspaper world, becoming president of the Newspaper Society in 1922 and chairman of the board of management of the Press Association in 1923. In 1928 he was deputy chairman of Reuters and he was also chairman of the Newspaper Owners' Federation. Beside his newspaper interests he had a stake in the billposting side of publicity, having acquired the business of Messrs Hawkins Ltd and becoming managing director of the North Devon Billposting Company Ltd. Here too he became prominent nationally, becoming president of the British Poster Advertising Association. He remained an active contributor to the Express and echo, writing a "City talk" column each Saturday as well as accounts of his extensive travels. A link with eighteenth century newspaper publishers like Brice and Trewman was his masonic activity; he graduated to the position of master of the Lodge of Union no. 444 at Starcross in 1924. He was also active in charity work and in the Friends of Exeter Cathedral. (E&E 8 Jul 1939). A memorial service was hed for him in Exeter Cathedral on 11 July 1939, just before the outbreak of war.

His many-sided career shows to what extent newspapers and their proprietors had become part of the establishment in towns like Exeter; a far cry from previous centuries when theirs were strident voices trying to exert influence from the margins.

This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.