Roger Guttridge tells the story of Dorset’s first newspaper and the ‘Sherborne Men’ who ‘rode Sherborne’ to distribute it
I wouldn’t want to worry any ladies of advanced years, but – following a 20-year abstinence – no sooner did John Delap resume his old drinking habits, than his wife fell pregnant … at the age of 68. Or so the story goes …
That story was perhaps the most eye-catching tale in the inaugural issue of Dorset’s first newspaper, which appeared on 22nd February 1737.
‘Her pregnancy, ’tis thought, was chiefly owing to the plentiful quantity of whisky her husband lately drank,’ reported the Sherborne Mercury.
‘They have had no child these 20 years past; for in the year 1715 the husband took an oath not to drink any of the liquor for 20 years, but the term being expired, he returned again to the use of it, and did not drink of it above a month when his wife was discovered to be with child.’
In a footnote, perhaps with their tongues in their cheeks, the paper’s owners promised that the recipe for this ‘fecundifying liquor’ would be ‘speedily published in the Mercury’.
The Delaps lived in Omagh, Ireland, and the tale was the nearest thing to a local news story in that four-page first edition of the Sherborne Mercury or Weekly Advertiser, to give it its full title.
Most of the editorial content in the early years was political news from the capitals of Europe, copied verbatim from the London papers.
A notable exception was a story on the famous raid by smugglers on Poole Customs House in 1747.
The reporter was barely able to disguise his astonishment as he described how, at 2am, a ‘numerous company of persons unknown, armed with blunderbusses, pistols, swords etc, came into the town, broke open His Majesty’s Custom House there, and forcibly carried off a large quantity of tea, which had been lately brought in by the Swift privateer, who took a smuggling vessel.
‘They told the watchman that they came for their own, and would have it, but would do no other damage. And accordingly did not.’
The Sherborne Mercury was founded by London printers William Bettinson and George Price, although Price’s involvement was short-lived.
London papers had been around for 100 years but the provinces had to wait until the 18th century for their own titles. The Salisbury Journal was launched in 1729.
The Mercury had no illustrations apart from decorative artwork around the masthead and depictions of Mercury and a galloping post-boy on the earpieces.
The paper was printed in Long Street, Sherborne, and sold for 2d (1p), a quarter of which went in tax.
Short advertisements were invited at 2s 6d (12.5p), with bigger ones ‘in proportion’.
A regular Sherborne
The Mercury offered ‘good encouragement’ to ‘any industrious, honest men of the villages near Sherborne that are willing to carry out this paper’.
The job was not without its hazards, however. In June 1737, the Mercury shared fears that distributor James Arnold was ‘either dead or come to some misfortune’ after disappearing, along with his papers, on the walk from Sherborne to Taunton.
A reward was offered for information.
Two years later hawker Richard Carrington died on his way to Warminster and his customers were asked to ‘send their respective debts to the Widow Carrington at Sherborne’.
The paper’s distributors were known as ‘Sherborne Men’ and their occupation as ‘riding Sherborne’.
They made up for the lack of local news in the Mercury’s columns by word of mouth, giving rise to a West Country saying that described a gossip or newsmonger as ‘a regular Sherborne’.
In 1742 and 43, the Mercury included a 206-page history of Somerset in weekly instalments, though whether the paper had permission to lift it from the Somerset pages of Thomas Cox’s Magna Britannica (1720-31) is unclear. Plagiarism was commonplace in those days.
In 1744 Bettinson found himself facing serious competition when the enterprising 24-year-old Robert Goadby launched the Western Flying Post or Yeovil Mercury. The Post was distributed deep into Cornwall, with Goadby appointing correspondents in every notable town between his Yeovil base and Falmouth. For a while the rivalry was acrimonious.
he Western Gazette
After Bettinson died in 1746, his widow Hannah continued to publish, but eventually sold the business to Goadby, who moved his whole operation to Sherborne and merged the papers to become the Western Flying Post or Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury.
The first combined edition appeared on 30th January 1749, and declared it was now ‘the most numerous and extensive newspaper in Great Britain’.
It included a rare front-page illustration featuring the forthcoming Hyde Park fireworks that would mark the recent Peace of Aix-la-Chappelle.
It was a challenge too far for the Sherborne printers, who placed the outer sections of the woodcut the wrong way round so that the clouds failed to line up (image above).
The paper continued to be known as the Mercury and it dominated local news and advertisements for more than a century.
Samuel Drew (1765-1833), the son of a ‘Sherborne Man’ in Cornwall, said it was ‘the only newspaper known to the common people’.
‘There were branch riders in different directions, who held a regular communication with each other and with the establishment in Sherborne,’ he said.
‘My father’s stage was from St Austell to Plymouth. He always set off early on Monday morning and returned on Wednesday.’
The Mercury saw off many rivals; an exception being Cruttwell’s Sherborne Journal, launched in 1764 by printer William Cruttwell to challenge the Mercury’s Whig affiliations. Cruttwell survived a bankruptcy threat in 1776 and his paper stayed in his family until 1828, remaining independent until absorbed by the Chard Union Gazette in 1841.
The Mercury, meanwhile, was itself finally bought in 1851 by the Yeovil Times, founded four years earlier by John Noake Highmore. This in turn was absorbed in 1867 by the most formidable rival of all, the Western Gazette, launched by Charles Clinker in 1863.
By the time I joined the Western Gazette as a trainee reporter in 1970, it was Britain’s biggest provincial weekly paper with a circulation of 77,500. Sister paper Pulman’s Weekly News added another 14,000.
The owners of today’s paid-for papers can only dream of such circulation figures.