Daily Dispatch: The Early Years (1872-1899)

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

The East London Dispatch and Shipping and Mercantile Gazette appeared on September 10 1872, as a subsidiary of a King William’s Town newspaper, the Kaffrarian Watchman. East London was then little more than a shipping and forwarding agency for the strategically situated capital of Kaffraria, King William’s Town. It did not become a municipality until 1873 when the three villages of east and west East London and Panmure were amalgamated.

The first editor, Massey Hicks, aged 24, had promised publication on September 10, and he kept to his deadline, despite at least one major difficulty. He and his partner, a Mr Rowles, had bought a wood-and-iron cottage in Smith Street to house the press and newspaper office. The builders were still busy when the printing equipment arrived from King William’s Town by ox wagon along the only road connecting the towns by way of Mount Coke.

Massey Hicks persuaded Mrs J Dempster, who lived next door on the corner of Smith Street, to allow them to use her kitchen as a press room. “This was only one of the many kindly acts performed by the Dempsters,” wrote a correspondent who knew them.

The house that gave birth to the Daily Dispatch was demolished before 1909, while Mrs Dempster was still alive, but living in Bulawayo. She was a frequent visitor to East London, and in fact spent three months in East London in 1909 as she approached the end of her life.

The newspaper was a four-page tabloid. It cost threepence and it sold out. The proprietors did not even keep a copy for their files, though there is one in the South African Library in Cape Town. How many copies were printed and how Mrs Dempster managed to cook the family’s meals with a press in her kitchen are not recorded. As was customary in that period, the front page carried only advertisements – news did not make the front page of the Dispatch until November 1 1955, when its lead story was about troubles in the then French-ruled Morocco. Most other reports on page one was of foreign origin – a far cry from today, with the Dispatch adapting to an emphasis on regional news in the digital age.

Changes made by new editors

In June 1874, the newspaper was bought by Thomas William Goodwin, a printer from England, who became its new editor. Alfred Webb also acted as editor around this time, but was never formally appointed. Goodwin continued to show enterprise and initiative, publishing East London’s first almanac and presenting a copy to every reader in December 1874.

Page size was increased to 33cm by 52cm on January 12 1875, and from September that year all pages carried the date.

WF Lance

The third editor was Mr William Lance, an attorney, who formed a partnership with Mr Goodwin on November 7 1876. The burst of energy often shown by a new broom resulted in a decision within 14 days to publish twice a week. An office to receive advertisements and subscriptions was opened on the east bank in December.

A decision to site the terminal of an East London-Queenstown railway line at the east bank’s “German village” was a blow both for the west bank and for King William’s Town, which was to be served by a station some distance away, at Blaney. The printing works were moved to Caxton Street on May 10 1877. Not long afterwards, Thomas Goodwin broke away to found his own newspaper, the East London Advertiser.