Have I Got (Old) News For You

Written by Madeleine Roberts:
On Wednesday February 15th, John Page gave us a fascinating insight into the history of local newspapers. He based his talk largely on original copies stored in the Old Court Room in Axbridge and he covered the period from 1725 to the 1970s. The papers he had researched included the Weston-super-Mare Gazette, the Axbridge and Cheddar Gazette, the Bath Chronicle, the Cheddar Valley Gazette, the Isle of Wedmore and Mendip Journal, the Weston Mercury, the Somerset Mercury, the Central Somerset Herald, the Westonian and the Mendip Gazette. The Mendip Gazette was the only one of these to be published in Axbridge. In 1946 it was based at the Old Angel on the Square.

John explained that the size of the papers was determined by production costs and that following the imposition of a newspaper tax in 1712 which placed a charge of 1 penny on every sheet whatever the size, it was cheaper to produce a small number of large sheets than a large number of small sheets. As a result newspapers began life on a grand scale and gradually reduced in size as time went on.

Tax was also a contributory factor in determining the size and number of advertisements in the papers as each advertisement was subject to taxation.

Pictures had their own restrictions as, before daguerreotype was invented in 1839, illustrations could only be produced from engraved line drawings. None-the-less, whatever the difficulties and whatever the tax, advertisers were at the forefront of pictorial innovation. Significant among these were Bryant & May whose match boxes were decorated with quite superb line drawing portraits of famous people. Engraved drawings continued for some considerable time and in 1855 the technique was used successfully to portray the assembled delegates at the Vienna Conference.

Apart from describing the evolution of the papers, John selected a number of incidents that he hoped would interest us. The earliest of these was the story of Mary Norwood of Axbridge who had been seduced by James H—LL, a shoemaker also of Axbridge. Encouraged by him on the promise of marriage and assisted by two others, Samuel W—ks and Charity A—s, Mary had poisoned Joseph, her husband of 15 years, by putting poison in his milk. She was tried and found guilty and on May 9th 1765 she was executed. Large numbers gathered to watch as she was dragged through the town tied to a hurdle, after which gruesome event she was hanged and then tied to a metal post and burned. It was reported that many in the crowd found the incident too horrible to watch and looked away. What happened to her accomplices is not reported.

Bull running and bull-baiting had long been the customary way of celebrating November 5th in Axbridge and when in 1835 the Cruelty to Animals Act forbade bull-baiting, there were many in the town who resented it. The situation was not helped by the fact that the Mayor and assembled company continued to enjoy their own celebrations by holding a lavish dinner. So, in November 1838, Peter Fry compensated the masses for the lack of bull-baiting by providing a hog’s head of cider in the market place for everyone to share. It would be interesting to know how long this continued and when it died out.

In the 1840s, the railway reached the area and train timetables became a feature of the local press. The visitors who arrived on the trains were also a source of interest and lists of their names were commonly included in the local papers.

The middle of the nineteenth century was a time of great scientific enquiry and John had found an article that asserted that earthquakes could unquestionably be attributed to fluctuations in the air pressure pressing down on the crust of the earth. If only it were so simple!

Moving into the twentieth century, John had discovered that there had once been regular flights from Weston-super-Mare airfield across the Bristol Channel to Cardiff and back – much quicker than going by car.

In 1957, one forward looking council vowed to keep an open mind about the viability of a nuclear power station in Somerset. They were not so clear, however, about where the proposed location was to be. The article suggested that it might have been at Hinkley Point or possibly Inkley Point or even Hunckley Point.

Another local council was also forward looking. Cheddar Parish Council found no objection to a cable car being built in Cheddar Gorge. This suggestion was however later turned down by Axbridge Rural District Council only for the idea to surface again in our own times.

In 1968, the Rector of Axbridge, Kenneth Davis, unearthed the ancient Axbridge fire engine and this was subsequently restored at a local school. It is now proudly displayed in King John’s Hunting Lodge.

And finally it is worth commenting on the flowering of photography. By the middle of the twentieth century, photography had become an important reporting tool. On November 3rd 1972, a photograph of Anne Everton, a former secretary of the AALHS, appeared in the local press as she conducted an archaeological excavation at Oliver Cottage in Axbridge. Perhaps a copy of this should be kept for our own records as Anne was such a driving force in the Society for so long.

Group photographs were also used in 1974 to report the success of local youth activities. Kings of Wessex pupils who had gained their Duke of Edinburgh Awards were pictured as were Axbridge Brownies.

John’s talk highlighted the wealth of material in the Old Court Room that is available for research purposes and any member who is interested in gaining access should contact the Museum Trust.

Madeleine Roberts



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