No.89 Early Newspapers

Sepia photograph of dark plaque, with text commemorating Lady Francis Wingfield and the founding of the Stamford Mercury, associated with the same building.
Plaque commemorating the founding of the Stamford Mercury in 1712, No.52 High Street St. Martin’s, Stamford, listed Grade II*. © Serena Cant

On a recent trip to Stamford I spotted a plaque commemorating the Stamford Mercury, first printed in 1712. It remains one of Britain’s oldest newspapers still in circulation, so I thought today we would have a look at how early newspapers form our principal source for early 18th century wrecks.

There are no extant issues of Lloyd’s List prior to 1740, although it was published earlier, so we need to turn elsewhere for our understanding of wrecks before that date. Records for major vessels – warships and East Indiamen – tend to be fairly well preserved in official documents. The wrecks of lesser vessels appear less often in such sources, but may crop up in the records of the Admiralty Court of the Cinque Ports or in intelligence reports in the Calendar of State Papers Domestic. Sometimes, too,  we find wrecks reported in the early years of the London Gazette, first published in 1665: it remains in circulation as an official paper of record (where honours and appointments are ‘gazetted’ today).

The arrival of regional newspapers in the early 18th century changed all that, although the concept of a national or a daily paper was yet to materialise, but a number of local newspapers sprang up around the country, typically printed once or twice a week. Such papers presented national and international news, together with local items of interest – sometimes engagingly jumbled together, juxtaposing news of an international peace treaty with informing the readership that Mr So-and-So had fallen off his horse . . .

Whether it was the mails from Holland with the latest news from the Continent, or local informants who kept the editorial office abreast of the latest county news, news offices depended on their correspondents – hence the adoption of this term to describe a journalist as early as our early newspapers (1711, according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

Shipwrecks were naturally newsworthy . . .

Among the earliest English newspapers I have seen are the Post Boy and the Flying Post, or Postmaster, dating from 1696. A report from Harwich of a ‘violent storm at SSE’ on 27 August 1696 detailed ‘eight colliers lost at the Gunfleet’, a notorious sandbank off the Essex coast. (1)

The coal magnates of Newcastle-upon-Tyne were alive from the beginning to the importance of news concerning the collier fleets, so from its inception in 1711 the Newcastle Courant became a key source for shipwrecks. Its first wreck appears in issue 12. Shipping was so important to Newcastle that not only were wrecks reported in the local area, but also the loss of any collier anywhere. An entry for May 1712 is typical:

North Shields, May 16. Yesterday sailed about 100 laden colliers and coasters, 3 of them, belonging to Yarmouth, run upon the Black Middens; Mr Can and Mr Baskfield got both off last night but Mr Scot is there yet; and in danger of losing his ship. (2)

As for the Stamford Mercury, this inland paper preserves the only record hitherto located for a wreck in far-away Cornwall in 1717:

There was lately driven on shore at Gonwallo [Gunwalloe], on the coast of Cornwall, the Wreck of a Ship of about 200 Tons, who had bulg’d on the rocks, and all her Crew were lost: she appeared, by some Writings found on board her, to be French, and to have come from Cadiz. (3)

This record comprises 50% of our knowledge of wrecks in English waters for that year: the other 50% comprises a warship recorded as hulked that year, the type of vessel more likely to leave a documentary trail from build to loss. The survival of this newspaper snippet could not demonstrate more clearly the value of early newspapers as a research tool for quantifying the potential archaeology of the English coastline.

(1) The Post Boy, 29 August to 1 September 1696, No.206

(2) Newcastle Courant, 17 May to 19 May 1712, No.126, p3

(3) Stamford Mercury, 28 November 1717, p262

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