The News Letter is about to turn 280 years old

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall being shown a copy of the Belfast  News Letter from October 3, 1738, by John Killen, librarian at Belfast's Linen Hall Library. Picture by Brian Little February 2009
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall being shown a copy of the Belfast News Letter from October 3, 1738, by John Killen, librarian at Belfast's Linen Hall Library. Picture by Brian Little February 2009

The Belfast News Letter has a big anniversary tomorrow (Sunday) – its 280th birthday.

The oldest English language daily newspaper in the world was probably launched on a date equivalent to September 17 1737.

The calendar in operation back then was the so-called Julian one, which in Britain was replaced by the currently used Gregorian calendar in 1752.

We do not know for sure the date of the first Belfast News Letter because all editions from the first year of publication of this historic title are lost – the first surviving paper is from October 1738.

But by working back from edition numbers, and applying that to the fact that the paper was published only on Tuesdays and Fridays in its first decades, it seems likely the first edition was on Tuesday September 6 1737. That date in the old calendar is September 17 in the new one.

According to tradition the paper was launched on September 1 but that informal tradition seems to be wrong.

The News Letter is not the oldest English language newspaper – there are a small number of weekly newspapers that are older.

But of all the English language dailies in publication now anywhere on earth, this is the oldest of them all.

The Times of London did not begin publication until 1785, although it was a daily from its launch. We became a daily newspaper in 1855.

No English language daily paper has ever before celebrated a 280th birthday.

In the early 1700s, scores of newspapers were established across Europe and America but most had ceased publication within a few years, and almost all of them had folded within a few decades.

But the News Letter, established by the printer Francis Joy, has gone on and on and on.

It has reported on all major world events of the modern era, a time of almost incomprehensible change.

When Mr Joy began publishing in Bridge Street, Belfast there was no such thing as photographs or trains or cars or planes or TV or penicillin.

Some of those cornerstones of modern civilisation would not be invented for another two centuries.

Technology, including basic computers, was even further into the future, let alone innovations such as the internet or smart phones.

This paper has reported on all those advances over the course of three centuries, and taken advantage of them to produce more modern pages.

We have reported on joyful events and on tragic ones, the latter including the hanging of Francis Joy’s grandson Henry Joy McCracken in 1798 and yesterday’s Tube blast horror.

• Prince Charles, in the picture above, is being shown the first surviving Belfast News Letter from October 1738, which was 13 months after the paper was founded (all prior editions are lost).

If Prince Charles becomes king, he will be the 11th monarch on whom the News Letter has reported since 1737 (his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, is the 10th).

Over those same 280 years, the News Letter has reported on 76 prime ministers.

The latest is Theresa May. The earliest papers have reports on Robert Walpole, who was Britain’s first premier, and also on Downing Street, which even then was the PM’s base.

Ben Lowry: Thanks to our readers who keep us alive and vibrant