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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.

The Dispatch employed newsboys for street sales from November 1877. A vicarious nod to its established place in the community was made when an election committee supporting Mr Sprigg and Mr Blaine presented a copy of the March 26 1879 issue free to every resident of East London. That same year the Frontier Advertiser was assimilated and the newspaper became the East London Dispatch and Frontier Advertiser.

1879: a momentous year

1879 proved to be a momentous year with yet another change of ownership and editor. Henry Hebbes took the helm in September and there was a move to bigger premises in Terminus Street on December 12. Cryptically, the Dispatch recorded: “We bid good-bye to the overwhelming afflictions of Commercial Square with the greatest cordiality.” The building housed the first public clock in the town, which was still functioning in 1902, when the building owned by harness makers J Sanderson was demolished with scant regard for its historical significance. The first three editors had short reigns but Henry Hebbes was in the chair from 1879 to 1898. The newspaper was owned from 1879 to 1894 by WA Richards and then by one of East London’s most successful mayors, David Rees, from 1894 to 1905.

Will Crosby

In 1898, Will Crosby became the first of the Dispatch’s professionally trained editors. Crosby, who was to retire as editor 14 years later, was a hardy character, a pioneering and adventurous journalist. He was born at Colchester, Essex, on April 23 1855 and died in East London on July 30 1923 after a remarkable career.

After leaving school and working on local newspapers, he worked for two years for the Yorkshire Observer in Bradford, which was the birthplace and training ground of a later Daily Dispatch editor, Vernon Barber. He was only 20 years old when he arrived in Port Elizabeth to join the Eastern Province Herald as a reporter, where he said he received his first lesson in South African journalism from George Impey.

Two years later, Crosby was running the Queenstown Representative

Two years later, at 22, he was running the Queenstown Representative, with Francis J Dormer. When the first Anglo- Boer War started, Crosby and Dormer decided one of them had to enlist. They tossed a coin – and Dormer had to go. Crosby bought him out a few months later.

Crosby carried on under “disadvantageous circumstances”. He was to admit that “things did not go as well as one might expect” and he sold his interests in the Representative in 1880, though “Queenstown was a place I would always love.” He married and settled in Tarkastad, where he started the Tarka Herald. In 1884, he disposed of the goodwill and left Tarkastad with his printing plant for Aliwal North, where he founded the Border News.

Crosby turns the Daily Dispatch into an afternoon daily

It was Crosby who took another big step in the evolution of the Daily Dispatch, turning it from a bi-weekly to an afternoon daily. The first issue of the East London Daily Dispatch was published on January 5 1898. It was the first penny daily newspaper published in the Eastern Cape.

A report published in 1906 stated: “The success of the Daily Dispatch has been phenomenal and today it can boast of a circulation larger and more widely distributed than any colonial paper published outside Cape Town.”

Crosby considerably improved the newspaper, making extensive use of South African and world news sent by cable and telegraphic services. A direct cable had been laid between Cape Town and Britain in 1884, which cut the cost of overseas communications, but little use had previously been made of the service, apart from market reports.

Most of the European news published came by mail, which was received about 23 days after posting in Britain. Vernon Barber considered Crosby a vigorous editor not afraid to speak his mind, with a friendly and kindly disposition that was antidote to his outspoken views.

Typographically, he was of the conservative old school. The Dispatch adhered to small headlines of the same font, with a rash of similar words or phrases in adjoining columns; for instance “latest war news”.

Crosby had decided to publish a morning as well as an afternoon edition of the Daily Dispatch with war looming in South Africa in November 1899, and this was continued throughout the war, adding considerably to expenses.

Source: Glyn Williams, The History of the Daily Dispatch

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