The Mercury reaches its 125th birthday

In 1843, 125 years ago this week, James Dare drew from his hand-printing press the first copy of Weston's first newspaper, The Westonian. It was a little quarto

In 1843, 125 years ago this week, James Dare drew from his hand-printing press the first copy of Weston's first newspaper, The Westonian.It was a little quarto sheet of our pages, and was only to be published monthly, but he must have looked upon it with excusable pride. There had been no printing press in Weston until he had introduced it two years earlier, and now, in his growing little business in Victoria Street (later to be Richmond Street), he had become a newspaper proprietor.The paper on whose first issue James Dare looked on that April day so long ago survives as The Weston Mercury & Somerset Herald. It has held its place in public favour against the challenges of many rival publications down the years. Most interesting, too, is that despite the wholesale newspaper mergers and take-overs of recent years it is still independent of any combine, and remains in the proprietorship of the family who founded it.Moreover, in its editorial policy it has always endeavoured to maintain the high ideals expressed by its founder in the first issue of The Westonian. In those days the law of libel was in less strict regard than it is today, and national and provincial papers endeavoured to boost their sales by most violent attacks upon people in the public eye,James Dare promised nothing of this for his Weston readers. He wrote: "The idea has somehow or other arisen that this publication was to be conducted after the manner of a certain scandalous and disgraceful pamphlet, which appeared some time back in Bath and Bristol, with the name of which we will not pollute our columns. Now, we do most solemnly deny any such intention - the sanctity of domestic privacy will never be invaded by us; we have too much regard to our home to make our paper subservient to the malignity of the slanderous, and too much hatred of such characters, to lend ourselves to those whose only pleasure is in the real or fancied infirmities of their fellow creatures."James Dare, one imagines, was editor, sub-editor, reporter, type-setter, proof reader, advertising and general manager of his little newspaper. He was not a novice in newspaper production. Born in Bridgwater, he served his apprenticeship in the printing trade there, and later opened his own business. But there was little scope in Bridgwater. He moved to Bristol and gained considerable experience on the now defunct Bristol Mercury. Then, in 1841, he started a printing business at Weston.In those days there was nothing like the range of town and country events that fill the pages of the Mercury's editorial diary today and keep a large staff of reporters and photographers busy.There was little local news in the first issue of The Westonian. The major item was a paragraph on an inquest held at the Plough Hotel on Mary Dyer, a 75-year-old resident whose clothes caught alight when she was standing before a fire. She became "so dreadfully burned as to baffle all medical aid".There was also a report of a Parish Church vestry meeting at which it was announced that the Rector, the Ven. Archdeacon Law, had offered to bear half the expense of erecting upper galleries on each side of the organ in the church, to accommodate schoolchildren, providing the parishioners paid the other half.There was also the complaint that the town was 'in a curious predicament' through being without any Poor Law guardians, Messrs Harrill and Sperrin having resigned.Weston's first local newspaper advertiser was George Afflick, who kept a small dingy, one-storied fruit shop with an old-fashioned bow window and red tiled roof, in High Street.His advertisement, which appeared on the front page of the first issue of The Westonian, read: "Wanted to purchase, a few Bushels of Choice English Apples".George Afflick was a local antiquarian, and he sold curios as well as fruit. His premises seem to have been an 'Old Curiosity Shop' and a general meeting place. Here is a description of it as it was well over a hundred years ago:"At the door, in all probability, is a distinguished patron and kind friend of the establishment, Major Smith, dressed in his black surtout and plaid trousers. A few other loungers are about, cracking nuts, and what is very generally 'cracked', the news of the week, from the gossip at home to the war tidings abroad. Among them, it may be, is the Rev David Williams, Rector of Bleadon, the eminent geologist, with huge build and farmer-like countenance, and head full of the strata and antiquities of Somerset ...."James Dare's newspaper prospered. Within nine months of its first appearance its format was changed to a large sheet of four pages, and in March, 1844, Dare announced the removal of the business to more commodious premises 'adjoining Richmond House, three doors from his late residence'. In April, 1845, the paper was further enlarged and its title changed to The Westonian and Somerset Mercury.A few years later the title became The Weston Mercury and Central Somersetshire Herald and it was published weekly instead of monthly. In the Seventies came the change to The Weston Mercury and Somersetshire Herald which title is still retained, except that the 'shire' dropped a few years ago.In the second year of his publication of The Westonian, James Dare had a circulation booster in a local murder story. On a June night in 1844, Joel Fisher, the landlord of the Devonshire Inn, now the London Hotel, cut his wife's throat with a carving knife.The story filled columns of the little quarto paper and fed the public appetite for weeks. Three separate editions of the paper carried the story of the inquest held at the Plough Hotel. James Dare himself sat on the jury and, as was customary in those days, viewed the almost headless and much battered body of the murdered wife.From the way he handled the story it was obvious he had little to learn from modern newshounds.There was, for instance, the dramatic description of the burial of the victim in the burial ground at the parish church, together with biographical details of the leading personalities in the drama and aa account of Fisher's life and behaviour in Shepton Mallet gaol, where he awaited execution.James Dare even managed to obtain a drawing of the murdered by a self-taught artist, J H Kingdon, and had a woodcut made from it. It was the first illustration ever to appear in a Weston newspaper.Although he was not Weston-born there was no questioning James Dare's local loyalties. His editorials expressed his faith in the growing resort's future, and his comments on local affairs were often trenchant.He was quick to rebuff any slight on the town as, for instance, when a Cardiff paper referred to Weston as being no more than 'a quiet little village'.James conceded that Weston could not boast the mercantile bustle of Cardiff but, he went on, "in Weston fashionable society is ever stirring, and what with lounges, bazaars, theatrical entertainments and four bands of music daily pouring forth their harmonious strains, we think the 'quiet little village' may be fairly entitled to rank with any other town and watering place in the kingdom".Mr Dare in his zeal was overgilding the picture a little, since the 'four bands' were but small groups of itinerant musicians who played at various 'stands' up and down the sea front, and who were dependent upon the proceeds of passing the bag around. As for the theatrical entertainment, a report in the same issue in which Mr Dare made his comment hinted that this was but the offering of a party of strolling players, who had that week pitched their small tented theatre in a field near St James Street. James Dare remained in chief charge of the Mercury until the late sixties when he engaged a young journalist from Dorset, William Bryant Frampton.In 1871 Mr Frampton married the oldest of Mr Dare's five daughters. The paper's founder left his son-in-law to mange the business and went into retirement at a picturesque thatched farmhouse, 'The Cottage' at Cheddar. In retirement Mr Dare was familiar figure in the Mendip country as he rode about in his four-wheeled carriage. In extreme old age he moved to Chippenham where he died in 1892. He was buried at Weston cemetery.William Bryant Frampton was 25 when he joined the Mercury staff in 1868. When he died in his ninetieth year in 1932 he had been the Mercury's senior proprietor for nearly half a century, and associated with it for well over 60 years.As a young journalist he soon put his stamp on the paper. He was its editor during some of Weston's more important years of growth, years in which big decisions were taken. Like James Dare he was not out to curry favour with anyone. His editorials were often scathing, and campaigned strongly for what he thought was in the best interests of Weston, even though popular opinion might be against him.An example of this was the sea front scheme about which I wrote recently. I described it as the most far-sighted self-sacrificing scheme in the local authority's history, and that nothing done before or since for the improvement of Weston compares with it. Since it was a heavy charge on the rates there was fierce opposition to it. W B Frampton was for it, and his persistent campaign to get it accepted had much to do with the fact that eventually the scheme went ahead. But for him it would probable have been delayed for a generation. When it was finished, at his own expense and in collaboration with Edwin Knight, the then chairman of the Town Commissioners, who had ardently sponsored the project, he published a booklet history of the undertaking.On one occasion when Mercury editorials had attacked certain townspeople and traders on their attitude to town policy, the traders deputed one of their number to call on Mr Frampton and deliver an ultimatum. It was that if he did not drop his campaign they would all withdraw their advertising. Mr Frampton's rely was: "Tell them I'll see them damned first, and if you aren't out of this room in five seconds you'll find yourself kicked downstairs!"In 1884 when James Dare severed all connection with the business the Mercury was conducted by Frampton with a steering partner, William J Dare, the founder's youngest son. There were many changes as the business developed, and for years the Mercury was printed in a building on the site of Farmer King's old farmhouse, which used to stand in Alexandra Parade at the corner of Orchard Place. Then came the building of the present offices in the Boulevard, which were opened in 1885.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on April 5, 1968


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