Newspapers often enjoyed grand town centre premises as befitted the self-important Fourth Estate.
- Credit: John Crockford-Hawley
I am sat at my desk reading the inaugural edition of Weston’s first newspaper - The Westonian - published Saturday 1 April 1843 by local entrepreneur James Dare who had printing workshops in Richmond Street and Orchard Place.
It ran to eight pages and sold for two old pence at a time when men laboured for £1 a week. Those papers were not cheap but were hugely influential; the equivalent of today’s social media, television and radio all wrapped into a single communication package.
Competition arose on 5 February 1845 when Joseph Whereat published the first edition of The Weston-super-Mare Gazette at the Columbian Printing Office, adjoining the Public Library in Regent Street. At 3d it also contained eight pages of news, opinion, gossip, train times, births deaths & marriages along with revenue producing advertisements.
There’s something satisfying about thumbing the genuine article rather than staring online at digitally enhanced perfection: slightly torn, curled edges, brittle to touch and turning brown with age and spilt coffee (or was it sherry?).
The language, though condescending, verbose, sexist, class conscious and far from inclusive, was of its age and gives real insight into a small Victorian town on the cusp of mass discovery.
And surprise, surprise media moaning was as much part of early newspaper letter writing as it is today, though the language employed was often more offensive and accusatory than any modern editor would permit. Good old days?
In 1855, The Westonian was supplanted by The Weston Mercury and from thence onwards the town had two mass circulating organs of dissemination.
- 1 Where is the best fish and chips shop in Weston-super-Mare?
- 2 Music acts to perform next to Weston's Birnbeck Pier
- 3 Beauty spot damaged as visitors use nature reserve as toilet
- 4 Somerset holiday park owners urge tourists to use common sense
- 5 Beautiful three-bedroom penthouse, with panoramic views over Weston
- 6 Covid-19: Number of Delta variant cases in North Somerset
- 7 Somerset votes for two unitaries instead of one by clear margin in poll
- 8 Woman dies at Weston cemetery
- 9 New date for Trucks at the Beach announced
- 10 Freedom Day: Should we come out of lockdown on June 21?
After WW2 people turned increasingly to magazines, wireless and television, and large broadsheet newspapers - ideal for armchair reading or even hiding behind to avoid conversing with fellow train passengers - began to feel the competitive pinch.
Amalgamation is often the precursor to annihilation and, though huge numbers of local titles have been lost across the country in the past half-century, the Mercury has survived. It bought out the Gazette in 1951 and for the past 70 years has been this area’s only paid-for local rag.
James Dare took on William Frampton as a young reporter and then Frampton took on Dare’s daughter, a marriage which eventually gave the Frampton family ownership of the Mercury until sold in 1988 to Community Media Ltd which later became part of Archant.
Newspapers often enjoyed grand town centre premises as befitted the self-important Fourth Estate. Buildings had to be large enough to house printing presses, store paper, employ a myriad of journalists and type setters, and be physically and psychologically at the heart of things.
The Mercury commissioned Weston’s premier architect - Hans Fowler Price (1835-1912) - to design a suitable office in Waterloo Street and, true to form, his drawing board gave us something memorable.
More than any other individual, Price was responsible for creating the Weston style of architecture. With almost 900 projects to his credit, including gentlemen’s mansions, semi-d’s and terraces, churches and chapels, schools and theatre, shops and market hall, masonic lodge and pier clock tower, hospital and sanatorium, he always used the combination of local grey carboniferous limestone, imported creamy Oolitic Bathstone and timber sash windows.
His style was solid but never stodgy and, though of a Low Church tea-total persuasion, his pen produced some wonderful touches of exotic exuberant embellishments, none more so than in the School of Science and Art, Walliscote School and the Mercury Office (conveniently located almost next door to his own business premises at 28 Waterloo Street).
The word ‘iconic’ is over-used but perhaps could be rightly applied to the Mercury building. Price designed the entire street, from Gerard Road to the Royal Hotel, as our version of Baron Haussmann’s wide tree-lined Parisian boulevard, with the strategically placed Mercury office at the point where the road narrows.
The Mercury project was completed in 1885 in a style that’s difficult to pinpoint. Some claim Price’s inspiration for the tower came from Spain’s Saragossa Cathedral (Google it and look for similarities).
There’s certainly more than a touch of exuberant Dutch Baroque, or is it Portuguese Manuellian? Whatever, it’s all good fun and when passing do stop to glance at the heraldic beasts, now somewhat weather-worn but still not beyond giving the odd growl.
The structure sits comfortably within the Great Weston Conservation Area and since 1979 has been a Grade Two Listed Building. What of its future? It can’t be demolished and frontage alterations would need to be handled with great care.
Local newspapers no longer print on-site, are digital in production, employ fewer staff and consequently require smaller premises. It was inevitable that our Mercury would one day downsize - to where I know not and neither do I know to what use this delightfully quirky bit of Weston history might be put. Time will tell.