‘Local news’ for ‘Local people’

The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio, 1310–11.
The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio, 1310–11.

I’m back!

After fairly consistently posting every single week since the start of my PhD, I’ve had my first real stutter. There are several reasons for this including my parents visiting from Cornwall, my house being rewired, the crippling man flu i’ve suffered and my first foray into being an assistant ‘event stylist’ for a Moroccan themed 50th birthday party (don’t ask – just book Blume for all your event needs!). That’s enough things to blame for my online absence, surely. Actually, the real blame lies with Durham University.

I was lucky enough to be accepted to speak at Durham University’s Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies Postgraduate Research Conversation  and, from the moment of acceptance, I went into a blind panic. PhD students will know that everyday of study is a succession of highs and lows and that periods of self assurance are often swiftly punctured by crippling self doubt and nothing quite brings the latter to the fore like presenting your work. But, I have a sadistic streak, where I know that forcing myself to work to a deadline with the pressure of an audience is terrifying, but essential for my work to actually appear and, even better, to improve.

Final preparation reading  and supporting documents for my talk at the Durham CNCS
Final preparation reading and supporting documents for my talk at the Durham CNCS

Anyway, it’s over now and it went well. So, I can go back to the relative safety of the blogging cocoon, where I can’t see the faces of my audience and therefore can blissfully babble on without realising how bored/irritated you are getting.

During my break from blogging, I have had many different snippets of ideas pop in and out of my head for a subject to write about, but none fully crystallised. Then, in a beautifully serendiptous moment, my study life and normal life coincided around the local press and I decided it was too fortuitous to ignore.

This week I have been focusing on the regional press in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, particularly in the Northeast. By the ‘regional press’, I mean provincial newspapers. I had my head in all sorts of potted histories of Newcastle’s newspaper output and only came up for air, when I received a notification that I was to be featured in one. My comedy group to be precise. The Journal were running a piece on our recent development funding from Channel 4 and I managed to get a mention of the PhD in. It is possibly the only time that a comedy groups’ plans get mentioned alongside c18th & c19th Capital Punishment in the North East!

A clipping from the article about Hot Gulp's funding. I am pictured swinging a light around my head on the Amble coast, in my role as Pastie Belafonte (The Human Lighthouse) in our sitcom pilot Seabastards.
A clipping from the article about Hot Gulp’s funding. I am pictured swinging a light around my head on the Amble coast, in my role as Pastie Belafonte (The Human Lighthouse) in our sitcom pilot Seabastards.

Having got over the initial excitement of seeing our name in print, I started thinking about the origins of The Journal itself. So, allow me to bore you – it will hopefully become relevant. The first edition of The Newcastle Journal was published on 12th May 1832. It was “founded at the request of local Tories”¹ and the opening issues’ editorial made it very clear that it would take a very strident and bombastic tone. In outlining its “plans, principals, plans and objects” the paper declared,

with these few words we launch our bark, and commit her to the waters. Her masts are up-her sails are trim-the breeze is auspicious-and if we mistake not, the haven of success is in view even at the outset. Our course lies straight-onward, and we shall not deviate from it. We nail our colours; they may be shot away; they shall not be pulled down.

Editorial from the first Edition of the Newcastle Journal published on 12th May, 1832.

This strident tone became commonplace, indeed the Editor John Hernaman’s language was often “so extreme that he was twice horsewhipped by those whom the paper had offended.”² Indeed, in reference to his rival papers, Hernaman’s opening editorial was classically English combining false humility and a particularly withering put down,

The Newcastle Journal, without laying claim to any very extraordinary merit, will far exceed those drowsy vehicles of slip-slop upon which the public have hiterto bestowed their patronage.

Editorial taken from the first ever edition of the Newcastle Journal 12th May 1832 p.4. Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive

One area where Hernaman’s claims to originality may seem odd to the unititated reader of c18th newspapers is in his boast that a key feature will be the,  “fulness and accuracy of it’s Local News”. This may seem a bizarre USP for a local paper, but to understand why this was an important claim, we must go back to the origins of the Newcastle Press and indeed the Provincial Press itself.

The first newspaper printed in the North of England, The Newcastle Gazette/The Northern Courant, was printed in Newcastle.  It was printed in 1710, just nine years after the earliest provincial newspaper, the Norwich Post established in 1701.

The Newcastle Gazette or Northern Courant- Saturday 23 December 1710 p.1 of 2. Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.
The Front page header of the Newcastle Gazette or Northern Courant- Saturday 23 December 1710 p.1 of 2. Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.

Although short-lived, this first title was soon joined by the Newcastle Courant in 1711 which remarkably, given the high failure rate in the medium’s infancy, survived as an independent title until 1876.

It is perhaps because of its natural associations with coal mining that Newcastle’s place as a centre of pioneering literary production gets waylaid, but it was a remarkably prolific place for newspaper and print production.

It is a little -acknowledged fact that, by 1800, Newcastle had become the most important printing centre in England outside of London and the university towns.

Helen Berry, Promoting Taste in the Provincial Press: National and Local Culture in Eighteenth-Century Newcastle upon Tyne – British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies Vol 25 (2002) p.1

This was no cultural backwater, but a thriving centre for industry and the obvious choice for the first newspaper in the North,

Throughout the eighteenth century wealth poured into the city, enabling it to support the growth of a commercial infrastructure, cultural activity and ‘luxury’ trades…Newcastle was therefore a natural location for the establishment of the first Newspaper in the north of England.

Frank Manders., History of the Newspaper Press in Northeast England. Taken from Newspapers in the Northeast: The ‘Fourth Estate’ at work in Northumberland & Durham (Wylam, 1999) p.1

These early provincial papers, Newcastle’s included, were almost completely devoid of local news, being almost exclusively filled with foreign news and goings on in London. A review of the earliest versions of the Newcastle Courant shows it to be much the same. Indeed, for their propensity to lift, wholesale, content from the London papers, the printers of these early provincial titles have often been labelled, rather snobbishly, as ‘scissors and paste’ men.

the early provincial papers were local papers only in the sense that they were printed locally and contained local advertisements. There was no systematic attempt to cover local news and most early provincial papers had scarcely any local news at all.

Clarke, R., From grub Street to Fleet Street; an illustrated history of English newspapers 1750-1859, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2004.  p.109

Newcastle Courant - Wednesday 01 August 1711 p.1 of 4. Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive
Newcastle Courant – Wednesday 01 August 1711 p.1 of 4. Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive

The relative paucity of local news was a key feature of the local press for many years. From reading the stated intentions of the Newcastle Journal in its maiden publication in 1832, (see above), you might think that this paucity carried on well into the nineteenth century. However, there was a slow and steady expansion in the coverage of local news across the eighteenth century.

Local news took a long time to develop. On April 13th, 1723 the only items of Newcastle news in the Newcastle Weekly Mercury were the price of butter and the departure of ships. Fifty years later an average of one-eighth of the space in the Newcastle Journal was devoted to items of news under the Newcastle by line.

Jeremy Black, Newspapers and Politics in the 18th century, History Today, Vol 36 Issue 10, 1986

one area where local news was guaranteed was in the reporting of crime. Phew, we made it back round to my intended topic and in less than 1300 words! But, just before it has too much relevance to my study – all this talk of ‘local’ things and the earlier comedy chat has reminded me of this classic League of Gentleman sketch. Think of it as light relief.

Right, where was I!..Crime was a key ingredient of reporting in the early local press. Esther Snell in her work on the Kentish Post identifies crime as an essential element in the newspapers’ coverage, arguing that the proportion of the paper given over to crime stayed fairly consistent as the paper expanded.³ Similarly, in his work on Colchester, Peter King has shown that crime reportage could led to perceptions of crime waves.

The study of what crime was covered and why is very much in its infancy, but what is generally accepted is that it was the newspapers were the dominant source through which people received information on crime.

By the late eighteenth century the newspapers were almost certainly the most widely read source of printed information about crime and justice.

Peter King, Newspaper reporting and attitudes to crime and justice in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century London. Continuity and Change 22 (1) (2007) p.74

Their dominance was in part due to the widespread nature of their audience. Although, traditionally understood to be middling and upper classes, recent historical work is showing that the readership came from a broader spectrum.

what is certain is that the number of people who read a newspaper, or had a newspaper read to them, vastly exceeded the number of copies sold, and that this readership – and audience -went a fair way down the social scale.

James Sharpe., Reporting Crime in the North of England eighteenth-century Newspaper: a Preliminary Investigation. Crime, Histoire & Societies 202, vol 16, no 1. p.25

One staple of crime reporting was the execution report and it is testament to its prevalence in the local papers that, in the 130 years of executions my PhD covers, not one goes without mention in the local newspapers – some even reach the nationals. The length and content of them is another blog post in itself, so for now i’ll wrap up with the first execution report in my period. It was a report of the execution of James Macfidum/Macfarlane, hung on August 27th, 1750 for

robbing Robert Hope, a boy about 10 years old, of all his clothes except his breeches, near Whickham.

An historical, topographical and descriptive view of the county palatine of Durham, by E. Mackenzie and [continued by] M. Ross: Volume 2

The report, from the Newcastle Journal* as with much crime reporting in the period was sparse and to the point. Astonishingly sparse given that he professed his innocence to the last.

The same day (i.e. last Monday August 27th) James McFidum alias Macfarlen was executed at Durham for robbing Robert Hopes a boy about ten years old. He died penitent, but denied his being guilty of the Fact for which he suffered.


1&2.Frank Manders., History of the Newspaper Press in Northeast England. Taken from Newspapers in the Northeast: The ‘Fourth Estate’ at work in Northumberland & Durham (Wylam, 1999) p.1

3.Esther Snell., Discourses of Criminality in the Eighteenth Century press: the presentation of crime in The Kentish Post, 1717-1768. Continuity and Change 22 (1) 2007 pp.12-47

* (Newcastle Journal in question was an earlier, separate paper from the aforementioned)

Distraction 1: Music to kill cops to.

It’s been so long, since the last post and i’ve listened to so many good songs and been to so many interesting exhibitions that i’m reluctant to restrict it to my regular two, but I will. My girlfriend always plays artists that I should know but don’t and being a curmudgeonly, reactionary in the body of a liberal looking, beardy hipster type, I invariably dismiss them on first hearing. However, as i’ve grown to learn, my first impression is almost always incorrect and so I am pleased to bring to you John Maus. No doubt you all know him and love him anyway, but I wasn’t aware of him and now love it. This is not my favourite track, but i thought it was befitting of the blog – especially given my last post

Distraction 2: Seabastards

Bit self indulgent this, but I thought given the nature of this post I’d include some of my comedy groups’ work. Here’s a short version of our sitcom Seabastards, pictured above in the Newcastle Journal article. It is about a fictional town called Roddigans’ Cusp. At the very least it’s proof that I don’t just sit and read about death all day everyday.

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