Norwich is almost certainly where the Provincial Newspaper industry began. Until the end of the seventeenth century, the Licensing Act restricted printing to London and the two academic presses at Oxford and Cambridge. When the Licensing Act lapsed in 1695, Norwich was a little slow off the mark; two West Country cities (Bristol and Exeter) got presses set up while Norwich lagged behind. But the city fathers were thinking ahead. They realised that a printing press was of little use if there was no suitable paper being produced locally. One of their number had a fulling mill for processing woollen cloth on his estate at Taverham, five miles outside the city, which could simply be converted to a paper mill. We have no information on the subject, but knowledgeable workers must have been brought to Taverham to make good white paper. A mill had already been established near Castle Rising in West Norfolk, but it only made inferior brown paper, used for packing. Taverham was the first mill in Norfolk to make white paper.
Once they had a paper mill set up (in 1701), they could start introducing London’s printers to the ‘printing quality’ paper, in the hope that one would see the opportunity it represented. One soon did so; his name was Francis Burges. Once Norwich had both its paper mill and its printer there was nothing to stop it racing ahead of its sleepy West Country rivals. The first Norwich newspaper was called the Norwich Post, and within a few years there was a handful of competing news sheets being produced by a number of local printers. The Norwich Mercury was therefore not the first of the Norwich newspapers, but it was an early one; quite how early I am not sure. It was being printed in the early 1720s, but under an earlier name it may have been produced a decade before that. It continued for nearly 300 years before finally being extinguished in the last years of the 20th century. It was throughout its long existence a weekly newspaper.
There was no national press in those days. There were London journals but they did not circulate outside the capital to any meaningful extent. There was a thirst for national news however, and it was this thirst that the provincial press sought to assuage. Although the advertisements were local (largely official announcements), the editorial matter was exclusively national and international. Local news was a long time in making an appearance, beginning with reports of Assize Court trials at Norwich and Thetford.
Perhaps its most important years were in the first half of the 19th century when it was edited by Richard Mackenzie Bacon. He was a pioneer of machine made paper in Norfolk, where he introduced the new Fourdrinier paper making machine to the mill at Taverham in 1809. He also invented the first rotary printing machine, but it was as a journalist that he earned his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. While remaining editor of the weekly Norwich Mercury, he published the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review in London. This was the first national music magazine in this country, and since England led everywhere else in such things, in the world.
By the 1980s the Mercury was but a shadow of its former self, being reduced to the status of a free paper, dependant on advertising for revenue. As it happened, my sister Margaret had a small part in the distribution process. Her job was to receive the bundles of newspapers for the city centre at my office in Surrey Street, and hand them out to the people who pushed them through the letter boxes. That was alright, but the laborious part of the business involved “back checking”, choosing addresses at random to check that they had indeed received their Mercury. She did the job for about a year before returning to her previous employment in teaching.