BEFORE Basingstoke got its own newspaper in 1878 when John Bird started the Hants and Berks Gazette, it was served mainly by the Reading Mercury, Hampshire Chronicle, Hampshire Advertiser and Berkshire Chronicle.

The Reading Mercury was founded in 1723. The Hampshire Chronicle started in Southampton in 1772 and moved to Winchester in 1778, where it has been based ever since. The Hampshire Advertiser started life as the Southampton Herald in 1823 and became the Hampshire Advertiser in 1827. The Reading paper, the Berkshire Chronicle, started in 1825.

Of the four, the Reading Mercury provided the best coverage of Basingstoke news and appears to have been the favoured medium for Basingstoke advertisers. However, for most of the 18th century provincial papers like the Mercury were essentially scissors and paste affairs with news copied from the London papers by the local jobbing printer.

Basingstoke Gazette: Reading Mercury

READ MORE: Make a new year nomination for the A Place to be Proud of Awards

They were local papers only in the sense that they were sold locally and contained local advertisements. There was no systematic attempt to cover local news until the development of the local agency system.

Under that system the printer would appoint an agent, usually a shopkeeper, in each town in the paper’s catchment area. Agents were responsible for receiving the weekly copies of the papers from the paper’s newsmen, arranging for the delivery of the papers, taking in the texts of local advertisements and passing them to the printer and acting as a local reporter if a newsworthy event happened in their location.

They were also responsible for taking orders from their customers in their town and surrounding villages for the books and patent medicines supplied by the printer.

From 1772 until his death in 1791, William Ring, a grocer and tallow chandler and three times Mayor of Basingstoke, was the Basingstoke agent for both the Reading Mercury and the Hampshire Chronicle.

The back pages of the Hampshire Chronicle and the Reading Mercury show that in 1773 and 1774, Mr Ring was the Basingstoke agent for the sales of Pike’s Grand Antidote for the Itch, Dr Hooper’s Female Pills, Dr Henry’s Nervous Medicine, Dr Beckett’s Anti-Venereal Diuretic Essence, and Speediman’s Stomach Pills, which, according to a testimonial printed in the Reading Mercury on July 18, 1774, “By the blessing of God dispersed the wind in a very surprising manner” – which was probably also a surprise to anyone who unfortunate enough to be nearby.

SEE ALSO: Basingstoke woman to tackle London Marathon for learning disability charity

Other country papers that may have circulated around Basingstoke before the birth of the Hants and Berks Gazette included the Andover Advertiser (founded 1858), the Newbury Weekly News (founded 1869) and the Winchester Observer (founded 1870).

John Bird was born in 1845 at Coleford in Somerset, the son of a coal miner.  He served a printing apprenticeship with John Charles Tucker at Tiverton and at the age of 23 became joint proprietor of the Tiverton Gazette. He remained at Tiverton until Mr Tucker’s retirement in 1877 when he disposed of his interest in the Tiverton Gazette and moved to Basingstoke where he adapted a two-storey workshop behind a shop in Church Street as a printing works.

The first edition of the Hants and Berks Gazette was published on 5 January 1878 as an eight-page broadsheet costing a penny, “Printed by and for the proprietor, John Bird at his Steam Printing Works, Church-street, Basingstoke”. The front page comprised a column of news from the Quarter Sessions at Winchester and five columns of local advertisements. On the back page there was a summary of local and county news and a manifesto for the paper which began, “Nearly every town in England has its own local newspaper; why no attempt to establish a journal at Basingstoke should ever have been made is a marvel to some townspeople, and to many outsiders.

That a municipal borough of 6,000 inhabitants, with a large market, and a good agricultural district should not have induced sufficient local enterprise for the establishment of a weekly newspaper, argues that the rage for speculation has not yet reached its utmost limit. Having had our attention called to Basingstoke as a suitable opening for a local weekly journal, we have after due consideration set ourselves the task of supplying the long-felt want”.

The six inside pages were items of national and international news, features and advertising printed from pre-set stereographic plates supplied by a London news agency. As the paper developed, there was a considerable increase in the space given to local issues. Taking the issue for 4 February 1905 as an example, the amount of pre-set material amounted to just one and a half pages. The remaining six and a half pages were taken up by local advertisements and notices and news from Basingstoke and the towns and villages within about a 12-mile radius.

There were two attempts to establish newspapers in opposition to the Gazette before the First World War. In 1881 the Basingstoke Standard was started. This was an offshoot of the Conservative supporting Andover Standard. It appears to have ceased publication after the edition of 25 September 1886. 

The other paper was the Hampshire Observer and Basingstoke News which ran from 28 February 1903 to 11 March 1916. Later short-lived competitors included the Basingstoke and District Times in the early 1930s and the Basingstoke News in the mid-1960s.

In 1969 the Hants and Berks Gazette changed its name to the Basingstoke Gazette.