IN 1860, Queen Victoria ruled over a flourishing empire, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Charles Dickens was putting the finishing touches to “Great Expectations” and Totnes-born William Wills embarked on a tragic, but historic trek across unexplored Australia. It was also the year that the Totnes Times first saw the light of day.
Theodore Hannaford launched the town’s popular newspaper on April 7, 1860, and restricted the first edition to 500 copies at 1d each. He wrote a special editorial that set the template for the next 150 years:
“Many towns of far less importance than ours can boast of supporting their papers.
“Surely, it will not be deemed premature to try the experiment in a town where the inhabitants are possessed of so much intelligence that if they will but make use of our columns to express their sentiments our success will be quite certain!”
Public interest in the Totnes Weekly Times, as it was called, was promising,but the income from advertising was slow. After three months, the paper was even in danger of failing to reach its first anniversary, but the readers responded to Mr Hannaford’s call for more support. His target was reached, production continued and the Totnes Times has never looked back.
The man who started it all was a prolific writer. Theodore Hannaford was recognised as a journalist of considerable ability and had declined an offer to join the fledgling Western Morning News in order to create the Totnes Times. He had served six years as a town councillor and brought his innovative style to other public offices. Proof of his forward-looking approach was the fact that he made this one of the first journals in the country to use gas to drive the production presses. The ‘Totnes Gas Engine’ which powered the Mortimer Brothers’ works survived, incredibly, until 1969.
By June, 1861, the eight-page paper found space for news from London – a great asset in the days before radio and TV. However, a major setback occurred that year when the paper was involved in a major local controversy of its own. The Conservative faction in Totnes claimed that Hannaford had sold the paper to the Liberals during a turbulent period involving allegations of political corruption in the town. In order to demonstrate the paper’s independence, Hannaford suspended publication with issue No 139. Normal service was resumed when Hannaford’s nephews, Albert Mortimer and his brother T C Mortimer, joined their uncle and re-started the Times after the rumours had died down.
By 1880, the whole of the paper was printed locally for the first time, and the Western Guardian, which the two brothers had launched earlier, was also printed from the same location. In June, 1898, the Totnes Times and Western Guardian scored something of a West Country coup when a Linotype typesetting machine was introduced to replace the laborious ‘hand and stick’ system used for making up individual pages.
With the exception of Exeter and Plymouth, Totnes was the only town in the West of England to possess such a machine. The owners were so proud of having ‘the most remarkable machine of the century’ that they held a reception at their offices, with the mayor and corporation in attendance.
Mr Hannaford died in 1899. Mr T C Mortimer took over as editor and, as the circulation grew, he subsequently handed over to Mr F Chown. When the paper celebrated its golden jubilee on April 11, 1910, the composing room staff alone numbered more than 30.
When the last of the Mortimers died in 1914, it was the end of an era. The Times entered the 1920s under the ownership of Mr Harold Dutton Higgs, with a future mayor, Mr (later Alderman) Robert Drennan, in editorial charge.
In recent memory, nobody typified the Totnes Times more than Mr Arthur Claude Taylor, who spent 45 years with the paper. He joined as a teenager in 1927 and from then until his death in 1983 he was part of the fabric of Totnes as well as being its foremost newspaperman.
As long as townsfolk dress up as Elizabethans every Tuesday throughout the summer, his memory will be kept alive, for it was Mr Taylor who first gave the Chamber of Trade the idea to launch the Elizabethan charity market For 40 years, he worked with the St John Ambulance Brigade (as ambulance driver and county press officer) and gained their service medal with several
More improvements were made to the production process in 1938 with the installation of a Cossar rotary printing press. In July, 1939, Robert Drennan died and, with the outbreak of war only months away, the Times welcomed a new editor, Mr Percy Copplestone. He was to become well respected among local newspapermen as a member of the national executive of the National Union of Journalists – a role that took him all over the country in carrying out his duties. He also produced the centenary issue of the Times in 1960, which included a special message from the Queen. He eventually resigned when the paper was bought by Mr Eric Putnam, the owner of the Cornish Times at Liskeard. Claude Taylor then became editor of the Totnes Times and Western Guardian, and when the paper was taken over by Beaverbrook Western the editorship passed to Mr S Street.
Expansion continued, and in the early 1970s the paper started printing through the modern Webb Offset process. In 1976, the Totnes Times became part of West of England Newspapers, then owned by the Mirror Group, which used its regional newspapers as a training ground for young journalists.
In 1980, Mr Jim Oliver took over the editor’s chair from Mr Trevor Reid, who had held the post for three years. Mr Oliver, who was only the eighth editor in 125 years, had served five years in the wartime RAF as a navigator on night bombers and was formerly editor of the old Torquay Times. During his stewardship, the Totnes Times office moved from Fore Street to its present base at Willoughby House (now Tindle House) in Warland, in 1981. Sadly, he died while still in office.
In 1982, West of England Newspapers was acquired by a consortium of prominent West Country businessmen, with Sir Simon Day as chairman. At the time, the group comprised the Totnes Times, South Devon Times, Sunday Independent and nine other weekly titles.
The sale of the Plymouth-based group was forced by the Monopolies Commission after the parent company, Reed International, decided it wanted to acquire the Berrows newspapers group, which had interests in the South West.
In January, 1986, the West of England Group and its managing director, Mr Brian Doel, reached agreement over the sale of its local weekly newspapers to a new company – Devon and Cornwall Newspapers Ltd – which was set up under the ‘umbrella’ of the highly successful Tindle Newspapers group.
Mr Doel sat on the board of the new company, and the local titles included in the £750,000 deal embraced the Totnes Times, South Devon and Plymouth Times, the Ivybridge and South Devon Times and the South Hams Times.
Mr Ray (now Sir Ray) Tindle founded Tindle Newspapers from a modest start. As a young captain in the Devonshire Regiment, he fought the Japanese in World War II and bought his first newspaper with his £300 demob money. More titles were acquired and he became ‘chairman of the board’, creating a family empire that has grown to more than 230 newspapers throughout the country.
Sir Ray became president of the Newspaper Society and, in 1994, was knighted for his services to the industry.
For much of its history, the Totnes Times had been published as a broadsheet, but it reverted to a tabloid in the 1970s. A slightly deeper page was introduced in February, 1987. The change brought the paper into line with many other publications in Britain and this is the format that exists to this day.
Mr Trevor Drew, who had joined the South Devon Times as assistant editor in 1975, took up his post as editor in 1987, and was succeeded, in 2001, by Mrs Gina Coles, who served about five years. Mr Steve Harvey is the current editor.
With the support of its two sister titles – the South Devon Times and Brixham News – the Totnes Times is looking forward to celebrating its 150th year in 2010.