Read CHAPTER XI of A Tale of One City: The New Birmingham, free online book, by Thomas Anderton, on

The fourth estate.

I cannot say how it may have been in other large cities and towns, but certainly the newspaper mortality in Birmingham during the past half century has been quite distressing. I think that without difficulty I could reckon up from twenty-five to thirty papers and journals that have been first published and last published in the period named. I do not propose to say much or to give a list of the dear departed. They were born, they struggled for existence, and they died in the effort. That is all that need be said of most of them.

There is, however, one defunct paper to which I must make a short reference, partly because I remember something about its birth and death. I refer to the Birmingham Daily Press, which first appeared in May, 1855. If my memory serves me, the Act of Parliament repealing the newspaper duty had not passed and become law when the Birmingham Daily Press appeared. Its first issues were, I believe, marked “specimen” copies, which would seem to show that the new penny paper was really published in anticipation of the passing of the Act.

Anyway, the Birmingham Daily Press appeared in the year mentioned, and considering that it was altogether a new venture, and that much had to be learned by experience, it was a highly creditable production. It soon made its mark, too, and became popular and largely read. And no wonder. It supplied a real want. Its contents were readable and useful, and its pages contained smart and attractive articles and papers that excited notice and were much appreciated. Mr. George Dawson was connected with the paper. Mr. William Harris was editor, or co-editor, of it, and on its staff and among its contributors were some sharp and able writers.

With all these merits and recommendations it will be asked, why did not the Birmingham Daily Press succeed? Well, I do not think I can quite answer the question. I can only say that judging by what I have observed and heard literary excellence, good reporting, and able editing will not make a paper commercially successful. If a newspaper is to succeed in paying its way and making a profit, its business management must be in experienced and competent hands. A daily newspaper is apt to be a deadly drain if its expenditure exceeds its receipts as the daily loss has to be multiplied by six every week and this tells up large in the course of a year.

There can be no question that the Birmingham Daily Press had a fine start, and a splendid chance. But the chance was not turned to the best account, and the promising start ended in a lamentable finish. This, too, in spite of the fact that the paper became really well established. Indeed, Mr. (now Sir John) Jaffray was heard to say that for a long; time the Birmingham Daily Post, which was started some two years or more after the Birmingham Daily Press, could make no impression, so firm a footing had the latter paper obtained in the town. But Messrs. Feeney and Jaffray had put their hands to the plough; they pegged away with the Birmingham Daily Post till it did make an impression, and the proprietors being able and experienced in the matter of newspaper business management, they stood very firm when they did begin to feel their feet. They drove the town not from pillar to post, but from Daily Press to Daily Post. They established their position, and that position they have gone on improving unto this day.

As for the unfortunate Daily Press, it fell into a very serious decline, and finally expired somewhat suddenly in November, 1858. Its successful rival remarked in a not over sympathetic paragraph that “it went out like the snuff of a candle leaving behind it something of the flavour of that domestic nuisance.” I remember poor George Dawson, who had lost a good deal of money through the failure of the Birmingham Daily Press, thought the Post’s spiteful little obituary notice the unkindest cut of all. For victors to crow over the vanquished in such language he thought was worse than ungenerous, it was mean.

I will not now pause to say anything in detail concerning the Birmingham Daily Gazette, started in 1862, the Daily Mail in 1870, the Globe in 1879, the Echo in 1883, the Times in 1885, and the Argus in 1891. I must, however, just note that the most important new journalistic venture in recent years was the production of the Birmingham Morning News, which was started in 1871. This daily morning paper was established on lines which should have led to a permanent success. There was plenty of capital at its back.

Mr. George Dawson whose name it was thought would be a tower of strength took an active part in its editorial work. It had an excellent staff, and, in a journalistic sense and as a newspaper production, it was a credit to itself and to the town.

The Birmingham Morning News was carried on for some four years at a very considerable loss, and just when it seemed to be about to turn the corner and get into a more profitable groove, its capitalist proprietor gave it up in disappointment and disgust. For one thing, he found it difficult to get all the influential help he wanted in the news department, and he was probably getting a little weary of putting money into a basket that seemed to have no bottom to it. Yet it was believed by those well experienced in newspaper management that another year would have seen a favourable turn in the fortunes of the paper. The costly ground baiting which is necessary in a newspaper establishment had been done, and the expensive seed which has to be sown was about to come up when the proprietor resolved to plough the paper up and so add another to the formidable list of local newspaper failures.

In the grave of the Birmingham Morning News were buried many hopes. The proprietor hoped to make a fortune. Mr. Dawson hoped to make an income and secure a still wider influence through its medium. Its rivals hoped it would not succeed, and by its death and burial their hopes were realised.

One little incident in connection with local journalism I must record here as being something almost unique. I refer to the astounding sketch Mr. H.J. Jennings for many years editor of the Birmingham Daily Mail wrote of himself in 1889, and the circumstances that led to its publication. After many years’ connection with the Daily. Mail, Mr. Jennings went over to another local evening paper, the Daily Times, and by way of giving it a fillip he published in its columns a series of papers on “Our Public Men.”

That these sketches were not entirely flattering to the subjects of them will be readily understood. Mr. Jennings always was a smart, spicy, and sometimes even brilliant writer, but he could not help being more or less cynical. He rather liked to stick the toasting fork into his subjects, and then hold them pretty close to the bars of a decidedly hot fire. The result was that many of them burned and smarted under the ordeal. One of the victims went so far as to propose that this self-appointed censor of public characters should be fought with his own weapons, and have a taste of his own nasty physic. In a word it was suggested that someone should draw Mr. H.J. Jennings’ portrait on his own lines after his own manner.

Mr. Jennings promptly took up the gauntlet that was thrown down and immediately proceeded to write a sketch of himself, which appeared in the Birmingham Daily Times of May 29th, 1889, and was, perhaps, one of the most daring and audacious feats of contemporary journalism on record. If he had entrusted his task to his most bitter enemy it could hardly have been more scathing than it was.

Mr. Jennings certainly did not blunt his steel when he proceeded to operate upon himself. He did not spare himself, but dug the knife in and turned it round. It was, indeed, a singularly curious piece of biography, written with all the pungency and point its writer could command, and it need hardly be said that such a sketch silenced the guns of some of his foes and made something of a sensation in the town.

This clever and amazing article was a sort of dying swan’s song so far as Mr. Jennings and Birmingham were concerned. If I remember rightly, soon after its appearance he severed his professional connection with the town. He went to London and joined the staff of a financial journal. Whether he has made his own fortune or the fortunes of others by his London work I do not know and need not enquire. I will be content to record the remarkable achievement I have mentioned in connection with his Birmingham journalistic career.

One special reason why I am devoting some consideration and space to the Birmingham press is because I wish to refer to one local publication which had something to do, indirectly at least, with the making of Modern Birmingham. I allude to the Birmingham Town Crier. This serio-comic, satirical little paper was started in the year 1861, and was for many years a monthly publication. On its first appearance it created some stir by its original and, in some respects, unique character, also by the general smartness and humour of its contents.

When it first appeared many were the guesses made as to its promoters and contributors, and, so far as these came to my knowledge, not one proved correct. Certain quite innocent men were credited with being contributors to the new paper, and some of these did not deny the soft impeachment. The general guessing, however, ranged very wide, and included all sorts and conditions of men, from the Rev. Dr. Miller, then rector of St. Martin’s, to the bellman in the Market Hall. Considering that the Town Crier was started with a purpose, as I shall presently show, and that it exerted some influence in its own way upon the progress of the town, it is, I think, fitting that the story of its early beginnings should be told, and I am in a position to tell the tale.

As all the first contributors of the Town Crier have ceased most of them long since ceased to have any connection with the paper, there can be no harm now in referring to its original staff, if only as a little matter of local history. I may, therefore, place it on record that the contributors to the first number of the Town Crier, which was published in January, 1861, were Mr. Sam Timmins, Mr. J. Thackray Bunce, Mr. G.J. Johnson, Dr. (then Mr.) Sebastian Evans, and the present writer, Thomas Anderton.

Some two or three months after its first appearance the late Mr. John Henry Chamberlain joined the staff, and a little later still Mr. William Harris became one of the “table round.” With this staff the paper was carried on for many years, and with more or less success, according to the point of view from which it was considered. Being of a satirical character it, of course, often rapped certain people over the knuckles in a way they did not appreciate. They naturally resented being chaffed and held up to ridicule, but as there was nothing of a malicious or private character in the sarcasms published any little soreness they created soon died away.

One reason why the Town Crier came into existence was because it was felt that there were certain things, and perhaps certain people, who could be best assailed and suppressed by ridicule. They could be laughed and chaffed rather than reasoned out of existence. Certainly the paper was not established with any idea of profit, nor for the gratification of indulging in scurrilous personal attacks. It only dealt with public affairs and with men in their public capacity. Indeed, I may say that all the men connected with the Town Crier at its starting were interested in the good government and progress of the town, and they used the influence of the paper for the purpose of removing stumbling blocks, and putting incompetent and pretentious persons out of the way.

As so much interest has lately been created by the descriptions given of the Punch dinners and the doings of the Punch staff, I may state that the promoters of our local Charivari also combined pleasant social intercourse with their journalistic functions. The monthly dinners of the Town Crier staff remain in my memory as being among the most delightful and genial evenings I have ever spent in my life. We met at each other’s houses, and after a nice satisfying dinner we proceeded to pipes and paths of pleasantness, and to planning the contents for the next number of our paper.

Large and hearty was the hilarity at these monthly meetings, and I think I may say that the talk was interesting and smart. Mr. J.H. Chamberlain was often positively brilliant in his little sallies of speech, whilst Mr. J.T. Bunce would put in dry, sententious words of wit and wisdom. Mr. G.J. Johnson laid down the law with pungent perspicuity, and Mr. William Harris was amusingly epigrammatic. Mr. Sam Timmins on these occasions was ever ready with an apt remark, very often containing an apt quotation, and Mr. Sebastian Evans smoked and laughed much, made incisive little observations, and drew sketches on blotting paper.

As we were all more or less interested in or concerned with the most important matters that were then going on in the town, there was much to be said that was worth saying and hearing. Even in the wheels that were within wheels some of the Town Crier men had spokes. A bank could not break without some of us being concerned in the smash, and I remember to my sorrow that when the Birmingham Banking Company came to grief I was an unfortunate shareholder.

I do not think it necessary to say much more concerning the early days of the publication in question. Its first promoters became busy, and, in some cases, important men as time went on, and gradually they had to give up their connection with a periodical whose pages for some years they had done so much to enliven and adorn. The Town Crier, I think it will be admitted, did good work in its own peculiar way, and those who remain of its early promoters (and the small number has been thinned by the death of Mr. J.H. Chamberlain and Mr. J.T. Bunce) need not be ashamed to speak with the enemy at the gate I mean, to own their former connection with a publication which was not regarded as being discreditable to its contributors, or to the town.

One matter in connection with the publication of the Town Crier may be mentioned as being curious, and perhaps a little surprising. It is this: that during the many years that the paper was conducted by its original promoters it steered clear of libel actions. In only one case was an action even threatened, and this was disposed of by an accepted little explanation and apology. We often used to hear rumours that Alderman, Councillor, or Mr. Somebody intended wreaking vengeance upon writers who had belaboured or ridiculed him; but these threats ended in nothing, and the first proprietors of the Town Crier never had to pay even a farthing damages as the result of law proceedings. This is something to record, because papers of a satirical character necessarily sail pretty close to the wind in the way of provoking touchy people to fly to law to soothe their wounded feelings and pay out their supposed persecutors.

I confess I often used to shiver slightly in my shoes when I considered the possible consequences of what I myself and others had written in the Town Crier. The law of libel is a wide-spreading net, anything that brings a man into ridicule or contempt or damages him in his trade or profession being libellous. To criticize adversely a painter, actor, or singer is necessarily damaging, and is really a libel, but to sustain an action real damage must be proved, or it must be shown that malice and ill-will have prompted the objectionable adverse opinions. But, as we know, there are certain pettifogging men of law who are ever ready to encourage people to bring actions for libel for the mere sake of getting damages. I believe I have thus stated the case correctly, but I am not a “limb of the law,” not even an amputated limb, or a law student. I speak from what I have seen in the Libel Acts and in the judgments I have read. Having been one of the Press gang for many years, I have never thought my liberties quite safe, and have often felt that any day I might be brought up to the bar for judgment. But I escaped, even when I was writing for the Town Crier, and have escaped since. But let me not boast. Before these lines are read my ordinary clothes may be required of me.

On the shelves of my small library are some bound volumes of the early numbers of the Birmingham Town Crier, in which are some pencil marks. If I should sooner or later have to retire to live en pension at Winson Green, or at the Bromsgrove or other Union, I hope to be able to take these cherished books with me to look at from time to time, and to keep green my memory of past pleasant days.