Tuesday, 7 July 2015

An old friend in Lichfield is
celebrating 200 years today

The Lichfield Mercury was first published 200 years ago today on 7 July 1815 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

An exhibition marking 200 years of the Lichfield Mercury opened at the weekend [4 July 2015] in the Dyott Chapel in Saint Mary’s Church in the Market Square, Lichfield.

The exhibition runs until the end of next week [18 July 2015], and the first 200 visitors have been presented with a collectable “2015” teaspoon courtesy of the sponsor, the Lichfield company Arthur Price.

Over 40 years ago, in the early 1970s, I began working as a journalist as a freelance contributor to the Lichfield Mercury, its sister title, the Rugeley Mercury, and another local newspaper, the Tamworth Herald.

At the time, I wrote features on local historic families and was commissioned to write about local charities. It was mainly on the strength of those features and reports in the Lichfield Mercury that 40 years ago this summer Gerry Breen and the late Major Austin Channing offered me my first full-time job with a newspaper, and I joined the staff of the Wexford People in July 1972 as a sub-editor.

For a short time after, I continued to contribute occasionally to the Lichfield Mercury and to visit its new premises in Bird Street – and the King’s Head, just two or three doors away.

The Ma Ma Thai restaurant at No 17 Bird Street ... once the home of the Lichfield Mercury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No 17 Bird Street now houses the Ma Ma Thai restaurant, but this Grade II listed building is an important part of Lichfield’s architectural heritage. This beautiful building was lovingly mentioned by the late Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in 1974 in his Staffordshire, in which he talks of its “nicely enriched window lintels and rather a wild door surround.”

By then, the Lichfield Mercury had gone over to what we called “photo-type-setting,” – an early form of computerised production of newspapers.

I was welcomed back in 1974 to see this process, and to learn about how the pages of the newspaper were designed and made up. I probably thought then that I was going to find a fulltime position with the Lichfield Mercury and return to live in the cathedral city. I never did, but I was always grateful for those early opportunities and that generous sharing of skills and insights – they later proved useful when I was with The Irish Times.

For all its modernity, the Lichfield Mercury was an old newspaper with a long history.

The first Lichfield Mercury and Midland Chronicle, as it was then known, was published by James Amphlett 200 years ago on this day, 7 July 7 1815, with a cover price of 6½d (about 3p). Two of the four broadsheet pages in that first edition were devoted to reports on Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo a few weeks earlier on 18 June 1815. It was printed on a press owned by the proprietor. Amphlett had previously published the Staffordshire Mercury, which was described by the New Monthly Magazine as “infamous” and “an organ of dissatisfaction.” It decided the new Lichfield Mercury “does not seem to promise stability.”

Amphlett moved the Lichfield Mercury to Market Street before he sold it in 1821 to John Woolrich of Lichfield. By 1823, the press was again in Bore Street, but in 1824 it was moved to premises at the east end of Sandford Street. In 1825, the newspaper was acquired by a consortium of local gentlemen, who described themselves as moderate Liberals. The paper, which published on Fridays, was edited by George Hinde, who later became its proprietor.

The next move was in 1830 to the house where Samuel Johnbson was born, now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. The paper was closed in 1833, although it would be revived almost half a century later. Meanwhile, the Lichfield Advertiser began in 1865 but it ceased publishing the following year. The Lichfield Chronicle was being published in 1877, when one of its proprietors, Frederic Brown, a printer, severed his links with it.

Brown went on to establish a rival newspaper on Fridays. He also named his newspaper the Lichfield Mercury. This second version of the Lichfield Mercury has been published faithfully each week since.

An early masthead of the Lichfield Mercury, which was revived in 1877

The new Lichfield Mercury was first printed in September 1877 from premises at 36-38 Bird Street. Frederic Brown was a Conservative, and between 1883 and 1897 there was a rival Liberal newspaper, the Lichfield Herald. When Brown died in 1901 and the paper’s ownership passed to his brother, Edward Brown, who sold it to WH Smith & Son in 1905.

The Lichfield Mercury was later acquired by Allison & Bowen, owners of the Staffordshire Chronicle. When Richard Bowen died in 1933, the newspaper was bought by a syndicate. Meanwhile, a Saturday paper, the Lichfield Times and South Staffordshire Advertiser, was started in 1926 and was still published in 1954.

The Lichfield Mercury was printed in the Bird Street premises until the mid-1960s, when printing was transferred to Tamworth. The old Bird Street premises were demolished in 1972, and the new editorial and advertising offices were opened at 17 Bird Street. Until 2010 or 2011, the Lichfield Mercury had offices in Breadmarket Street.

The former offices of the Lichfield Mercury in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Lichfield Mercury is now published by Tamworth-based Central Independent Newspapers, which are not independent at all but are owned by Northcliffe Media, the regional newspaper division of the Daily Mail. The Rugeley Mercury ceased publication in late 2010, but other titles in the group today include the Tamworth Herald, the Walsall Advertiser, the Sutton Coldfield Observer, and the Great Barr Observer.

The cover price of the Lichfield Mercury today is 80 p, but most homes receive it as a weekly free-sheet tabloid. It is published on Thursdays and is delivered to homes in Lichfield and other areas of south-east Staffordshire, including Armitage, Barton-under-Needwood, Brownhills and Burntwood, and has a circulation of about 35,000.

The exhibition in the Dyott Chapel in Saint Mary’s includes a tribute to Allan Williamson, former chief photographer of the Lichfield Mercury. The exhibition was opened by the oldest former member of the Mercury staff, Les Ashley, alongside the Mayor of Lichfield, Councillor Andy Smith, and the chair of Lichfield District Council, Councillor Norma Bacon.

The Editor of the Lichfield Mercury, Gary Phelps said: “We have been preparing for the anniversary for a long time, going through our archive and collecting together artefacts from the Mercury’s past to put together an exhibition which we think our readers will enjoy. From a journalistic viewpoint creating the exhibition has been very interesting, because we started out aiming to tell the Mercury’s story but pretty soon realised we were telling the story of the whole newspaper industry too.

“The Mercury has gone from broadsheet to tabloid, from paid-for to free, from typewriters to computers, from print to digital, from private ownership to being part of a massive group – all changes shared across the industry as a whole.”

This week’s edition [9 July 2015] will include a reprint of the very first edition, free with every copy of the newspaper. “We thought reproducing the first edition would be the icing on the cake,” says Gary.

Despite cutbacks and a shaky market for newspapers, the Lichfield Mercury continues to keep producing a robust local newspaper. I hope it has many more anniversaries to celebrate.

Read more here.