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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

An ‘Extraordinary’ single sheet newspaper from 1779

The 'Extraordinary' London Gazette for Monday May 17th 1779.
The ‘Extraordinary’ London Gazette for Monday May 17th 1779.

It is just a sheet of almost A4 sized cotton paper and printed on one side by Thomas Harrison in Warwick Street.

This is one of the first newspapers published in Britain.

The London Gazette was government owned.

It published official information and during times of war would be the first distribution of despatches from commanding army and naval officers on the front line.

This issue for Monday May 17th 1779 reports on a Royal Naval victory at the Battle of Concale Bay in Brittany during the American War of Independence.

France was fighting on the side of the rebellious American colonists and this war was fought globally.

In this case British ships sailed from the Channel Islands to fight the French coming out of St. Malo.

Such reporting is the origin of  the expression ‘being mentioned in despatches.’

Sir James Wallace reports: ‘…at this time the enemy had brought down cannon, howitzers, and kept up so smart a fire, that our people thought it proper to burn two of their frigates, and leave the Cutter scuttled on the shore,’

Such violence and mayhem came at a price.

Sir James adds that HMS Experiment was ‘hulled in several places, and her sails and rigging much damaged by the shot. She had two men killed, and thirteen wounded. Two of which dangerously. The purser of the Cabot had his leg shot off, and two of her men were wounded. ‘

The London Gazette mentioned in despatches a Lieutenant Bailey, a Captain Gidoin, and a Lieutenant Wallace.

Their families in Britain would have been so proud to see their names ‘published by authority.’

I take great delight in handing round this original edition hand printed 238 years ago to my journalism students at Goldsmiths, University of London.

They find it absolutely enchanting. It is so tangible and evocative of the origin and beginning of British journalism.

This was the first draft of history.

A few thousand at three pence per sheet would be sold to the coffee houses and gentlemen’s clubs in London, and throughout the commodities and metals exchanges in the City.

They would also be delivered far and wide by Royal Mail coaches to the towns and cities in the provinces.

The London Gazette is regarded by most newspaper historians as being the first and longest established official paper.

It started as The Oxford Gazette in 1665 because that is where King Charles II and his court had fled to from the Great Plague of London.

It became the London Gazette when King and court were able to return to a capital free of ‘the awful contagion.’

Of course, truly independent foreign and war reporting would require a combination of publication free from government, and observers who were not part of the Crown’s military forces.

 

This is the first of a new column on the history of journalism for The Journal by Tim Crook, who is chair of the Professional Practices Board.