The country’s first ‘penny’ title, the Evening Advertiser in Swindon is celebrating its 150th birthday. Here we take a look at how it all began and how its founder, William Morris, used the paper to support the cause of the common man…
The Swindon Evening Advertiser was born out of one man’s quest to create a more just society.
William Morris hated the gross inequalities of Victorian Britain and wanted to create a paper that would act as a mouthpiece for the poor.
Born in 1826, Morris grew up in what is now Wood Street in Old Town, where his father, James Morris, owned a bookshop and newsagent.
William’s interest in journalism was sparked by his father, who would read the weekly London newspapers aloud to his son. At the time, newspapers were expensive because of a stamp duty imposed by the government, and were read only by the elite.
However, William spotted a loophole in the tax laws.
The tax applied only to papers published every 28 days, so he decided to publish monthly.
The first edition of the Swindon Advertiser and Monthly Record, as it was originally called, hit the streets on February 6, 1854.
Morris, who was 28 at the time, not only wrote the stories from an office in his father’s shop, he also edited the paper and even delivered it. The four-page paper which featured a train speeding through the countryside on its masthead cost a penny, and was an instant hit.
The second edition doubled in size, and also contained advertisements from local businesses.
The fashion for cheap “penny papers” spread rapidly across the country.
The government responded by changing the tax laws, allowing the embryonic Adver to become a weekly, and production was moved to Victoria Road.
Morris, who remained in the editor’s chair for 37 years, used the paper to support the cause of the common man, penning many a stinging attack on the landowning gentry.
His most excoriating editorial was provoked by an incident in the winter of 1861.
The landowners held a feast at Coate Water during which whole oxen were roasted.
Morris discovered that, while the poor starved, the gentry were using lumps of meat as footballs on the frozen reservoir.
The editorial was the final straw for Morris’ opponents, who burned an effigy of him in the market square.
Infuriated by this attack on their champion, Morris’ supporters set about the landowners.
Morris’ other passion was animal rights, and he used the paper to campaign against badger baiting and other cruel practices.
He also found time to write several travel and local history books.
In 1861, Morris invested in a steam-powered press and the paper increased to eight pages.
It still cost one penny, and boasted 8,000 readers.
When he died at the age of 65 in 1891, the paper passed into the hands of Morris’s three sons, William, Samuel and Frank.
The paper now sells 25,000, copies a day, but luckily for its employees, is no longer hand printed.
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