JOHN DILLEY’S WWI BLOG: A golden age for newspapers

Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.
Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

The Market Harborough Advertiser in the early part of the 20th century was part of a revolution in newspapers that led to a vibrant, local press in this small county town.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 there were two publications – the Advertiser and the Midland Mail (they later merged in 1923 to become the Harborough Mail) – and they were papers of record with a massively, entertaining twist.

It was a golden age of newspapers brought about by three key factors: the cut in 1855 of Stamp Duty – commonly referred to as a ‘tax on knowledge’ – which made newspapers cheaper; the introduction of the Education Act in 1870 which meant ALL children went to school until they were 12 and could learn to read; and the launch in 1896 of the daring Daily Mail, which introduced a quirky, human interest mix with hard news stories that would make people talk.

This was copied by the Market Harborough Advertiser and it is why throughout the early part of the war the newspaper – along with the rest of the regional press – flouted the Government’s censorship laws and used letters from the Front to describe the horror of the trenches in the kind of intimate language used by the lauded War Poets.

But things are different by March 27, 1917. This week’s Advertiser sums up the slow evisceration of the regional press by three key factors: a paper shortage which has reduced pagination; a reduction in staffing; and what today we would call war fatigue.

The results of this are evident in the Advertiser’s coverage of the war this week. Just TWO local stories are published and there is none of the depth, insight, patriotism or overt empathy that was the hallmark of such news accounts published in 1915 or 1916.

The Advertiser publishes a photograph of Lance-Corporal F V Collier, who readers are told, was killed in action on Sunday, February 15, 1917. He was 28 years old and we surmise that he had a wife Flo for there is a simple four-line memorial poem from her. It is the only addition to the coverage of this story.

The blow was great. The shock severe.

To part with one I loved so dear.

But God who knoweth all things best,

Hath given our loved one his long-earned rest.

There is also a story of a former Harborough man who has been recommended for the Military Cross. We learn Second-Lieutenant Percy Palmer, who used to live in King’s Road, was educated at Harborough Grammar School, and was an apprentice with the chemist Percy Stiles until he joined up aged 17 in April 1915.

Despite the detailed biography there is no hint of why he has been recommended for one of the highest honours for bravery.

Both of these stories characterise the plight of local newspaper coverage nearly three years after the outbreak of war. There are now only six pages instead of the usual eight to squeeze in all the advertising – which of course takes precedent over the news because that’s what pays the bill. This situation won’t change before the end of the war.

We don’t know how many staff are employed at the Advertiser but they have surely been affected in the same was as every other business with young men being called up to the Army. In this issue there is a story of a newspaper in Peterborough being told they have to give up more men from their staff. This apparently would leave one office ‘with a deaf reporter, a septuagenarian cashier, and an office boy’.

The lack of staff at the Advertiser is epitomised in the spelling mistake in the Military Cross story headline. In the early war years the checking was impeccable but this blog’s weekly review spots more and more errors creeping in to the 1917 editions of the Advertiser.

And there is the war fatigue. What more is there to say for Flo Collier? We don’t know if she has children or what becomes of her. But she has lost her man, cut down in his prime leaving her a widow, probably never to marry again. She now has a lifetime of loneliness ahead of her, like so many thousands of women of her generation. She is a wartime casualty that is never added to War Department lists.