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16 October 2014
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A short history of the Belfast News-Letter which has the longest history of any English language newspaper in the world.

article by Ruth Johnston

ML 1030
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The first issues of the Belfast News-Letter were produced in 1737 in the form of a letter of one or two pages and it has been published non-stop ever since. It is the oldest newspaper in the entire English-speaking world.

Francis JoyThe paper was founded by Francis Joy who was a pioneer of paper manufacturing in Ballymena where the first news sheets were produced on a twice-weekly basis. The business was later moved to Randalstown, before settling in Belfast.

In the earliest copy still in existence, issued on Tuesday 6th March 1738, there are reports from Hungary, Germany, Denmark and France. This was no mean feat at a time when international communications were so slow and difficult.

Among the many dramatic headlines and reports down through the years, was the trial and subsequent execution of the infamous highway man Dick Turpin, in March and April 1739, while closer to home there were reports on the terrible consequences of the potato famine and the mass emigration which followed it, on penal laws and on the discrimination against the Catholic and Presbyterian population.

Eventually the success of the News-Letter meant expansion was necessary. This meant a change of premises and the Belfast business moved from Bridge Street to High Street where, to this day, “Joys Entry” still bears the family name.

All the progress on the development of Belfast and further afield was faithfully reported. It was the first newspaper on this side of the Atlantic to report on the American Declaration of Independence.

earliest copy of the news letter picture of the earliest copy the News-Letter known to be in existence - March 6th 1738


Belfast was growing fast; John Wesley is recorded as having said he never “saw so large a congregation there before.” Water was being piped to taps on the streets, the Linen Hall had opened, as had the Belfast Academy, there was now a Harbour Board and the Linen Hall Library. All of these events were reported and made available to the reading public.

Although the Joy family were very successful in their reporting and had published the details of innumerable tragedies over the years, they also suffered a tragedy within the family circle. Henry Joy McCracken, grandson of Francis the founder, was executed in1798 for his part in the insurrection of the United Irishmen which was a mainly Presbyterian movement with republican doctrines. The execution took place three years after the Joy family had parted company with the Belfast News-Letter

By the time the Belfast News-Letter was taken over by a Scottish based company in 1795, the circulation had increased by over 50% and the price was two pence and one halfpenny. This was quite expensive for the time but it is believed that the paper was passed around from person to person or read aloud to groups who could not read.

All the parliamentary proceedings and discussions leading up to The Act of Union with Great Britain were reported on, as were the Napoleonic war, the great expansion in agriculture, and the growth in trade and industry in Ulster.

In 1804 Alexander Mackay became the sole proprietor and there has been a family connection through his descendants ever since. Alexander Mackay died in 1844 and this heralded the beginning of the Henderson family’s long involvement with the paper. James Alexander Henderson was married to Mackay’s daughter Agnes.

Under his management the paper increased in size and was published three days a week instead of two. In 1852 the paper published its first illustrations which were of the Duke of Wellington’s funeral. During the same year the new electric telegraph system made news from outside Ulster much more accessible.

1853 saw James A. Henderson and his wife gain proprietorial control of the newspaper and in 1855 it was decided to publish on a daily basis. J. A. Henderson died in 1883 and was succeeded by his son, another James.

There was much to be reported on as the Home Rule controversy dominated the political scene. The News-Letter published all the salient points of the debate and on the political personalities involved.

In the interests of progress, typesetting machines had been installed and later these were followed by the installation of linotype machines.


....the Belfast News-Letter claims the first genuine world exclusive.......

The boat carrying the first copy, to leave America, of the Declaration of Independence, hit stormy waters off the north coast of Ireland on its journey to London. The boat sought refuge in the port of Londonderry where arrangements were made for the declaration to be sent on horseback to Belfast, where it would be met by another ship for delivery to King George III.

Somehow,the News-Letter editor of the day gained access to the priceless document and duly published it on the front page of the August 23, 1776 edition.



Into the 20th Century:

Belfast became a city in 1888 and James Henderson became Lord Mayor in 1889. At the end of his year in office he received a knighthood.

These were historic times, all recorded and reported meticulously by the News-Letter. There was the continuing resistance to home rule and in 1912 there was the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Over the next two years the force had grown to 110,000 men, many of whom were armed. Dangerous times for reporting day-to-day occurrences.

1914 brought the death of Sir James Henderson. His two brothers, Trevor and Charles W. succeeded him in the management of the paper.

With the outbreak of Great War, the ongoing political controversy in Ulster ceased. The 36th Ulster Division was formed and went off to serve their country. At the beginning of July 1916 they went into action at the Battle of the Somme and thousands were killed. That year saw the longest columns of death notices the paper had ever published.

The Great War ended in November 1918 but the conflict in Ireland continued and the News-Letter was reporting on what was almost a state of anarchy. There was a lot of political unrest throughout the country and in Belfast there were both burnings and killings.

There was also industrial unrest and on one occasion in 1919 the News-Letter had to revert to hand setting and working by candlelight. Over this period the newspaper was changing. A photographic processing department had been established and a daily page of pictures now featured.

By 1930 the two Henderson brothers had retired but, because a private limited liability company had been formed, the board of directors included five members of the Henderson family.

The paper was steadily improved and modernised and sponsorship led the paper into involvement with sporting and commercial ventures, such as The Tourist Trophy Race, The Ulster Flying Club and the extension of air services. The paper also advocated the merits of Sydenham for an airport.

There were two sides to the 1930’s and this was not lost on the News-Letter. The main industries in Ulster of textiles, shipbuilding and agriculture had slumped. As a result of this there was a great deal of unemployment and extreme poverty.

All the newspapers of the day were experiencing a new form of competition; radio had now developed a regular public service. The News-Letter welcomed it by publishing several articles on radio and even how to build your own set.

September 1939 saw the start of World War two and even though the tragedy of the Great War was not forgotten, Ulster men and women entered all the services. The News-Letter staff formed a Home Guard detachment which was commanded by Captain R.L. Henderson.

Paper supplies were greatly restricted so the News-Letter had to become a much thinner publication while maintaining its reputation for news and commentaries. The newspapers of Belfast survived the air raids of April and May 1941. After a particularly heavy raid the News-Letter presses printed all three of Belfast’s morning papers.

After the war years the political situation throughout Ireland resurfaced once more. These conditions provided the background for reporting the news and politics of Ulster for many years.

New media:

Once again two brothers in the Henderson family joined the management of the News-Letter. Captain O.W.J. Henderson in 1947 and Dr. R.B. Henderson in 1951. They were both very interested in the new media development of television.

Dr. Henderson became general manager of Ulster Television and then chairman. He withdrew from the News-Letter in1958. Captain Henderson became a director of Ulster Television in 1958. He became managing director of the News-Letter in 1959 and then, in 1964, became chairman of the company when it became Century Newspapers Ltd.

The News Letter branched out into new publications; 1959 saw the launch of the T.V. Post. In 1962 it took on the overnight typesetting of Hansard to provide the Northern Ireland parliament with overnight publications. Ulster’s first Sunday newspaper appeared in 1965. All these developments meant a twenty-four hour, daily operation throughout the year.

1968 saw the start of what is now euphemistically called “The Troubles”. The News Letter like every other aspect of life in the province, commercial and otherwise, suffered the destabilising effects of this long destructive period.

The paper reported on dramatic and tragic stories and published pictures of the terrible destruction. Twenty one of the papers staff were injured in an explosion near their premises but still the paper continued to publish, making the unbroken history of the "Belfast News-Letter" stretch to almost 270 years by 2005.

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