Ben Lowry: The Belfast News Letter and its coverage of the fascinating 1700s

A 1738 News Letter
A 1738 News Letter

The plaque unveiling yesterday to mark the establishment of a United States consul general in Northern Ireland 220 years ago highlights how important the 1700s was in the history of this island.

We talk about the Scots Irish and how significant they were in the formation of early America (as they clearly were, partly because they were early settlers) but they were more Scots than Irish.

They were people who in many cases were only in Ulster for a century or so, from the early or mid 1600s to the 1700s.

In 2013 and 2014 I serialised the earliest surviving Belfast News Letters from 1738 and 1739 in a daily ‘On This Day From 275 Years Ago’ column.

In that nine-month volume of newspapers, there are two advertisements for boat journeys out to America.

Most News Letters from the 1740s are missing, but by the 1750s (from which many editions do survive) the adverts show that the boats were sailing out from Ulster much more frequently, about every month or so.

By the 1770s, on the eve of American independence, the boat departures seem to be almost weekly in summer.

The pre 1800 News Letters are a fascinating window into that exciting time.

No other newspaper that is still publishing as a daily in the English language daily can shed light on the 1700s in the same way.

Even The Times (of London) merely stretches back to 1785.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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