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
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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 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
In the interests of progress, typesetting machines
had been installed and later these were followed by
the installation of linotype machines.
Belfast News-Letter claims the first genuine world
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.
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
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.
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
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.