BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1785: The first edition of The Times newspaper is published
When a new advertising sheet appeared on the streets of London, no one thought it would grow into a national institution.
The Times newspaper was the brainchild of John Walter, one of the creative businessmen who were coming to the fore at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Walter was probably born in 1739 – the uncertainty reflects the paucity of records at this time – the son of a London coal merchant. His father died when Walter was 16, so he took up the family business before moving into insurance underwriting. He was bankrupted by the losses caused by a hurricane in Jamaica and the war with the rebel American colonists, whichh none of our British ancestors at this time called a ‘war of independence’, it was simply known as ‘the American war’.
Walter saw a way out of his financial problems with a new invention that he hoped would revolutionise the all-important trade of printing. A printer called Henry Johnson had invented a system of using fonts containing complete words rather than separate letters; this was expected to speed up composition and cut down on printing errors. Johnson had thought of it for printing lottery blanks but Walter bought the patent, intending to adapt it to general printing.
He set up in a building in Blackfriars and opened the Logographic Press. In order to have a daily advertisement of his revolutionary printing method, he launched a newspaper, The Daily
Universal Register, which carried a banner saying, “Printed Logographically”. It was four pages in length with four columns per page. Three years later the title was changed to The Times, which was catchier and less likely to be confused with other newspapers.
The first edition, on 1 January 1785, did not demonstrate the greater efficiency of the
logographic typesetting method over others. Printing delays meant it came out mid-morning rather than early and so was poorly distributed. This setback was quickly overcome and the newspaper flourished. The front page was advertisements – indeed, for another 180 years The Times was to have a front page of advertisements, not news. It was the advertisements, not the cover price of two-and-a-half pence that made a profit for the newspaper.
Advertisements showed the interests of the buying public: the first column announced comedy performances at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and at Covent Garden. Another column offered shipping advertisements, and ads for new novels featured prominently. It announced: “A News-Paper... ought to be the Register of the times and faithful recorder of every species of intelligence.”
In fact, it was mainly commercial intelligence that occupied the news pages, covering matters such as bankruptcy and import duties. Court news took up some space and there was an ‘ Ode for the New Year’ by the Poet Laureate Thomas Whitehead. There was always a column headed ‘ Poet’s
Corner’ that was often filled with a quotation from a contemporary play, calculated to please the theatre manager and encourage him to take advertising space.
In London, newspapers were sold by hawkers who cried out the names of their papers on their ‘walk’. They also distributed to booksellers and coffee houses.
It was a good time to set up a newspaper as a new Controller-General of the Post Office was improving mail coaches. Now they were fast, regular and carried arms to deal with highwaymen whose attacks had been eroding profits. With this system, the Post Office undertook the bulk of the distribution of newspapers outside London.
Your ancestors may well have started reading daily newspapers at this time. They didn’t have to buy newspapers in order to read them: they were passed around between families and colleagues, and their pages were often used to wrap products like cheese and butter, so a newspaper had a longer life than the single day of its printing, and quite humble people could see them.
The path of a newspaper publisher did not always run smoothly. Walter was imprisoned for 16 months in Newgate for a series of libels. He later claimed that his imprisonment had “produced a corpulence of habit, and I was frequently attacked by fits of the gout”, which indicates that he could have his own food and drink sent in, reflecting the luxurious conditions in which a wealthy prisoner might be kept.
Walter’s pioneering efforts to obtain Continental news, especially from France during a time of revolution and civil war, helped build The Times’ reputation among policy-makers and financiers in the early years of its life. Within seven years, it was selling 4,000 copies a day. The Times was relatively successful for Walter, but it was not until it came under the leadership of his son, also called John, in the early 19th century, that it became the best-selling and most influential newspaper in the country.
These were the days of the gentleman amateurs, working and publishing in all areas of science, though the word ‘scientist’ wasn’t coined until 1833. These people, often clergymen or doctors, described themselves as “natural philosophers”. One was James Hutton, a doctor of medicine from Edinburgh, who had put his expertise as a chemist to practical use by setting up a chemical works to extract valuable ammonium salts from soot. He turned to looking at rock formations, remarking that he had “become very fond of studying the surface of the Earth”. In 1785, he read a paper called Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the
Globe to the Royal Society of Edinburgh He postulated that the interior of the Earth was hot, and was constantly (but usually very slowly) pushing up new rock formations, with geological features forming over very long periods of time.
This idea became known as Plutonism from the name of the god of the underworld, and superseded a theory known as Neptunism, from the god of the sea, which believed that all the land masses had been precipitated from the oceans.
Hutton was later known as the ‘father of geology’ and was recognised for establishing the study as an accepted science.
His work was timely. It was clear that the
THE POST OFFICE UNDERTOOK THE BULK OF DISTRIBUTION OF NEWSPAPERS OUTSIDE LONDON
Earth was of impo ortance to the Industrial Revolut tion: the placement of cana als, the discovery and min ning of coal and iron deposits meant huge fortunes relied on precise measurements. Science had to sto op being a leisure pursuit forr clergymen and sta art serving commerce e.
Hydrogen balloon alloon
The wonder of th he age was the hydrogen ballo oon, with balloonists competing on how w high or how far these amazing devices could go. This year saw the first Channel crossing by balloon, a flight fr rom Dover, landing in the Forêt de Felmoness, which took two-and-a-haalf hours.
The addventurers were Frenchmman Jean Pierre Blanchard, a proffessional ballooonist, and Dr JJohn Jeffries. Jeffrries was bornn in Boston, Masssachusetts, but as a lloyal Briton he had fofought against the rebbel colonists in the recennt war and would nevver have been known as an ‘American’. Your ancestorrs may have heard whispers abbout the year’s great scanddal, as the profligatee Prince of Wales gott married. It was not a state occasion, as he was marryiing a twicewidowed CCatholic called Mrs Fitzherbert.
Maria FFitzherbert was 29 and from a Hampshire family of gentry. She had enraptured the future George IV, who was six years her junior, but refused to have sex with him without marriage. Thus they wed, at her house in Park Street, Mayfair.
As heir to the throne, he was forbidden to marry without the consent of the King and the Privy Council, who would certainly have refused as he was constitutionally forbidden to marry a Catholic.
As so often happened in his life, the Prince of Wales just did what he wanted and got away with it, and was happy for a while with the woman he called his ‘second self ’.
Some of your ancestors were disgusted by the Prince of Wales’ extravagance, debts and selfishness. Some had revolutionary sentiments and considered his behaviour a good reason to have no monarchy at all: the American colonists were doing it, why couldn’t Britain? However, most people were glad they had a monarchy, and viewed the behaviour of its most colourful member with wry amusement.
By 1785, mail coaches on the London to Edinburgh route were increasing in speed and regularity
The publisher John Walters was the founder and first editor of The Times newspaper
Jean Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries cross the Channel in a hot air balloon