Northern Ireland

News Letter's earliest surviving edition reproduced

The first surviving edition has been re-produced
Image caption The first surviving edition has been re-produced

The earliest surviving edition of the oldest English-language daily newspaper has been reprinted to mark its 275th birthday.

The 3 October, 1738, edition of the Belfast News Letter gives an insight into early Georgian Britain, Ireland and the world.

The paper was founded in September 1737 but its first 13 months have been lost.

Edition 113 - featuring 4,000 words without illustrations - has been re-produced inside Monday's paper.

The paper's current news editor, Ben Lowry, said: "It is a quite remarkable document, a key part not only of Irish history, but of world history."

He added: "There are hints of the serious, candid reporting that has held authority in the western world to account for three centuries.

"There are flashes of the lurid journalism that would fuel titles such as the News of the World, formed 105 years later, and lead to the soul-searching that has culminated in the Leveson inquiry into the press."

He said edition number 113, published on 3 October, 1738, or 14 October in the modern calendar, was a "gripping, often amusing and at points moving" window on the world.

For example, it contains the following passage:

Image caption Prince Charles, during his 2009 visit to Belfast's Linen Hall library, when he was shown the 3 October edition

"We have advice from Rome, that a young woman of Stassano, who had resisted a certain man's addresses for the space of 18 months, was surprized by him as she went to bring water from a Draw-well, and that seeing herself on the point of being ravished by him, she drew a knife out of her pocket and killed him."

Foreign coverage includes a report from the American colonies of Indian "murders" of "four more families" in Virginia.

Advertisements for coal and millstones suggest thriving commerce in the then town of Belfast, which would later become one of the UK's key industrial cities and build the Titanic.

News and advertisements fuse in early newspapers: edition 113 has two ads that seek information on the theft of horses in County Antrim.

Horse theft also features in a news report.

It reads: "A few days since the father of the noted Turpin was committed to Chelmsford Goal (sic), for having in his possession a horse supposed to be stolen out of Lincolnshire which, he pleads, was left with him by his son to pay for diet and lodging."

This is one of the thefts for which Dick Turpin was hanged six months later.


Turpin was not executed for his highwayman violence, but such criminality features in that October 1738 News Letter.

The edition opens with a report from St Petersbourg of the Czarina ordering "Te Deum to be sung for the victory obtained by the Russians, in the 10th instant over the Infidels".

There is no reference to the first ever prime minister, Robert Walpole, but the News Letter was covering politics from its launch.

By the 1780s it was closely reporting revolutionary France, and some offspring of the title's Presbyterian founder, Henry Joy, had radical sympathies.

Joy's grandson, Henry Joy McCracken, was hanged for his role in the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion, close to the then News Letter office.

In 1795, the News Letter had changed ownership, but given the still recent Joy link the execution must have been a challenging moment for the paper: it reported the execution factually, and without comment.

Sympathies change over the centuries and the paper is now pro-royal.