Jeremy Clay, who works as Features Editor on The Leicester Mercury, has written a fascinating article about the history of newspapers in Leicester – and has very kindly allowed us to publish his article on the BNA blog.
The news came late to Leicester. The town’s first paper – The Leicester and Nottingham Journal – was launched in 1753, a year that saw almost seven and a half million copies of newspapers published across England.
The four-page Leicester Journal, which ditched the Nottingham tag in 1787, was given to the odd outbreak of journalistic eccentricity. For want of anything to print, the editor once began serialising the Bible. He’d made a fair fist of the book of Exodus before things had picked up sufficiently from a newsgathering point of view to concentrate on more current events.
The Journal, a Tory paper, found a rival on its patch in the early 1790s, with the appearance of the short-lived Leicester Herald, published by a radical called Richard Phillips, who was jailed for sedition after selling copies of Paine’s Rights of Man. Thrillingly, he edited the paper from his cell.
Phillips, a strict vegetarian who later became a sheriff of London and was knighted by George III, was behind a stunt that became legendary among 19th century journalists, when the Herald staff, fighting a losing battle with a looming deadline, and with no copy to fill a page, threw a load of random type at an empty column, and told readers it was a story from Holland that had arrived too late to translate.
The story was told in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, September 1888, ostensibly in Phillips’ own words:
“One evening, before one of our publications, my men and a boy overturned two or three columns of the paper in type. We had to get ready in some way for the coaches, which, at four o’clock in the morning, required four or five hundred papers. After every exertion we were short nearly a column; but there stood on the galleys a tempting column of pie. [a jumble of type] It suddenly stuck me that this might be thought Dutch. I made up the column, overcame the scruples of the foreman, and so away the country edition went with its philological puzzle, to worry the honest agricultural reader’s head. There was plenty of time to set up a column of plain English for the local edition.”
The Herald closed in 1795, when a devastating fire swept through the offices. Among the items lost in the blaze were two of Philips’ strange keepsakes: the skull of Cardinal Wolsey, said to have been found nearby, and the coffin in which Richard III had been buried. Philips left for London after the fire; a sad day, no doubt, for Leicester’s purveyors of questionable relics.
Meanwhile, The Journal had to see off a threat from a paper furiously opposed to “French principles” called the Anti-Gallican, which was said to be “personal and virulent beyond precedent”. Like most outbursts of rage, it flared up fast, but didn’t last long.
The Journal had a proper fight on its hands with the arrival of the Whig-supporting Leicester Chronicle in 1810, whose proprietors announced they appealed ‘to the moderate and judicious of all parties – TO THE BIGOTS OF NONE’.
Titles came and titles went, but in 1836 a name appeared which in one form or other has appeared on Leicestershire mastheads ever since: The Mercury.
Today’s Leicester Mercury traces its history back to 1874. Like all newspapers in an internet age, it’s been through some tough times of late. But as yet, there’s been no need to resort to reprinting the Book of Genesis.
Read Jeremy’s blog post about the The Skeleton Who Caught a Burglar – the book that Jeremy wrote based on his research of quirky newspaper stories in the BNA.