Early Belfast News Letters from 1738 give a glimpse of Ulster life, a century after the Plantation

First surviving copy of world's oldest English language daily, Belfast News Letter, from October 1738. The paper was founded the previous year, in September 1737, but all the first 13 months of editions are lost
First surviving copy of world's oldest English language daily, Belfast News Letter, from October 1738. The paper was founded the previous year, in September 1737, but all the first 13 months of editions are lost

You might have noticed on page 7, and in earlier papers this week, our reports from 1738 (see link below).

Perhaps you spotted a rude word used in the story about a drunken soldier in Scotland.

Or maybe you saw, beneath that report, the ad in which a man called Patrick Dougherty from Co Down publicly rejects liability for his wife, who has eloped.

It is the first surviving example of many such adverts taken out by spurned husbands in the 1700s.

The early News Letters are a fascinating snapshot of life in Ulster almost 300 years ago. The familiar names that appear could be out of a current edition of the paper.

In fact, today we report on another Mr Dougherty (William Nigel), this time a primary school principal in Ebrington who has cause for celebration, having been awarded the MBE, rather than anxiety about paying debts run up by an estranged spouse.

My use of Ulster, above, might have annoyed some people who assumed I was referring to six counties rather than nine. But I wasn’t.

I used the term deliberately. There was no Northern Ireland in 1738, and nor would there be for the better part of 200 years.

We ran a 1738 report this week that referred to Killibegs, which is presumably how they then spelt Killybegs in Donegal.

Yet the papers in the 1730s do not refer much to Ulster (there are two or three such references), nor to the north of Ireland.

They refer to ‘this kingdom,’ which meant the kingdom of Ireland (an odd term because it was subsumed into the British crown).

A striking feature of early News Letters is the all Ireland reportage.

See the dramatic account of the robbery of a priest in Rosscrea (now spelt Roscrea) in Co Tipperary that we reproduced this week, and is on our website (there will soon be a section on the site where all 1738-39 reports are placed together).

The greater flow of north-south news then shows that the northern part of the island became less Irish in outlook after partition in 1921 and also after the Troubles.

The frequency with which 1730s News Letter reports come from a particular location tends to depend on how far it is from Belfast. There is more news from Monaghan than there is from Cork, and there are roughly as many reports from Dublin as there are from Scotland.

There is plenty of news from the Americas, but even more from France. There is barely any from Africa, which was largely unknown, few references to China, and references to India mostly come via the Dutch East India company.

Russia, however, is much in the news in 1738, with reports from Ukraine and conflict with ‘the infidel’. Three centuries later, some global faultlines seem unchanged.

Many newspapers do On This Day columns from 50 or 100 years previously, or even further back.

This newspaper is perhaps the only publication in the history of papers to have been able to do a daily On This Day column from 28o years ago, in which we reproduce what was being reported then.

This is because no daily newspaper in the English language has ever reached 280. There are papers that are older than us, but none is daily — most are weekly titles.

There are also one or two daily papers in other languages, such a German, that are older, but we are the oldest daily in this tongue.

By one classification, The Times of London is the oldest English language daily paper in the world, because while we are half a century older, it was a daily from its launch (1785). We became a daily in the 1800s. At first we were published twice a week, Tuesday and Friday.

The best description of us is: Of English language daily papers in the world today, we are the oldest.

Not all our retrospective columns are labelled ‘On This Day 280 Years Ago’, because some reproductions fall on a day when the News Letter was not published in the 1730s. Those days, we entitle it ‘On This Week 280 Years Ago’.

The 1730s papers are a tantalising glimpse into life 125 years after the Plantation. Sadly it is just a glimpse. There is a small batch of surviving News Letters from October 1738 until summer 1739.

Almost all other editions of the paper, from September 1737 to the early 1750s, are lost, perhaps 1,400 of the first 1,500 News Letters.

It is painful to think of the snippets of news that are lost.

For example, the surviving News Letters from the 1730s have reports on Dean Maturin, Dean of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, and one on the satirical writer Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s nearby.

There are likely to be other reports on Swift, who did not die until 1745, but we will not know because papers from that year are lost.

There are also News Letter reports on performances of operas by the composer Handel in London in 1739, and so there was almost certainly an account of the 1742 premiere of his Messiah in Dublin, but those papers are also lost.

There are only four surviving News Letters from 1738, two from October and two from December.

There are another two from both January 1739 and February 1739, and then an intact batch from March 1739 to the autumn.

Next week we serialise the December 22 1738 paper, which is January 2 1739 in the modern calendar. On the relevant weeks in January and February we will serialise those four editions too.

From March, when the old batch of surviving 1739 papers begins, we will serialise those each day, 280 years after publication.

The dating of the papers is baffling to the modern reader. Papers from January, February and early March 1739 are dated 1738. This is because in the old Julian calendar, which was replaced in 1752 with the current Gregorian calendar, the new year began on March 25.

The calendar went from December 31 1738 to January 1 1738, and so on until March 24 1738, the day after which was dated March 25 1739.

This has confounded people ever since. An early News Letter dated March 1738 is wrongly thought earlier than the October 1738 first surviving paper, but it isn’t: it is March 1739 in today’s calendar.

The News Letter itself made this error on its centenary in 1837, when it got confused by the quirks of the Julian calendar.

This is unsurprising: in 1837 only people aged 90+ would have had any memory of the Julian calendar.

So enjoy our coming On This Day or On This Week serialisations.

Meanwhile, I reiterate my appeal, made previously, for people to search their attics for some of the lost News Letters from the 1730s, 40s and 50s.

I am convinced that some of them still exist. During renovations in 1984, Dobbins Inn in Carrickfergus found a 1768 News Letter in a long covered fireplace.

No doubt other ‘lost’ News Letters are buried somewhere.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Excerpt from Dec 23 1738 News Letter