The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 1 (April 1, 1940)
Newspapers One Hundred Years Ago — Incidents From The First Ten Years Of New Zealand's Journalism
One hundred years ago, on the 18th April, 1840, the first newspaper to be published in New Zealand made its appearance. Printed in a raupo whare on the banks of the Hutt River where Petone now stands, the pioneer news sheet appeared within a month of the landing of press and type from the ship Adelaide.
The career of the “New Zealand Gazette,” like that of many of the early colonist newspapers, was short, but full of incident. Comprising four pages about the size of the present newspaper page, it consisted mainly of advertisements and local news, written in a racy style characteristic of its editor, Samuel Revans, who was a good businessman with but few pretensions to literary ability.
In politics our first newspaper was against the Government and its land policy and wholeheartedly in support of the New Zealand Company. Like so many other newspapers that have followed it, when its idol fell into disfavour among the settlers the “Gazette” also waned in popularity and, although it outlived its first rival by a year, its 363rd number was its last.
It was characteristic of early New Zealand journalism that the many journals which appeared had ephemeral lives, the average span of newspapers in the first ten years of organised settlement being only twenty months, consisting of weekly or less regular appearances. New Zealand, nevertheless, has always been well served with the news. In 1842, only two years after the founding of the colony, no fewer than nine newspapers were being published—four in Auckland, two each in Wellington and the Bay of Islands, and one in Nelson.
The Government of the day was rather intolerant of what we know as the freedom of the press, and the “New Zealand Advertiser and Bay of Islands Gazette” (for long names were fashionable in 1840) was the first to run foul of officialdom. Like the “Gazette” it was against the Government on the burning question of the day—the tardy allocation of land to the new arrivals.
Being published at Kororareka, the seat of Government, it had to be more circumspect than its southern contemporary, but, after making some mild suggestions of reform in its twenty-seventh issue, the editor was hailed before the Colonial Secretary, Mr. Shortland, to show reason why he should not be prosecuted under an old New South Wales ordinance for printing a seditious newspaper. The “Advertiser” did not survive the shock.
In spite of the many handicaps faced by the colonists, the early newspapers were surprisingly good. About the same dimensions as the newspapers of to-day, they consisted generally of only four pages, all hand-set and appearing mainly once a week. The average subscription was 6d. to is. a copy, or £2 a year. The “New Zealand Spectator” (Wellington), boasted of only 130 annual subscribers at this figure, and although publishers were willing to accept produce or other goods in lieu of cash, subscription arrears were a constant source of worry to them.
Advertising rates, judged by modern standards, were modest. “The Spectator” charged only 3d. a line, while the rates of a northern paper were 3s. 6d. for 12 lines. The bitter rivalry which often existed among contemporary papers, all too frequently exhibited by extreme rudeness toward each other in the literary pages, often extended to the commercial side and subscriptions and advertising rates were mercilessly cut.
The outspokenness of editors who were new to journalism, bringing down both official and unofficial wrath upon the papers concerned, must also have severely strained the financial resources of the pioneer papers, some of which, faced with the prospect of three or four simultaneous actions for libel, ceased publication and were seen no more.
Technical details too often proved almost insurmountable to the pioneers. For many weeks the “Spectator” (Wellington) was forced to appear printed on red blotting paper, which, by the way, took the ink very well indeed. Papers of varying shapes and colours were pressed into service by other publications in days of acute shortage.
The “Nelson Examiner,” which long bore the proud title of the colony's most literary newspaper, was once forced to appeal to its subscribers for supplies of treacle, essential in the inking of formes. Its readers raided their larders so that the popular “Examiner” could continue to appear. The “Otago Witness” was not so fortunate. Shortly after a fruitless appeal to its subscribers for paper it was forced to cease publication.
Another man-made difficulty triumphantly overcome resulted in the production in Auckland of what is probably the strangest newspaper ever to appear. The “Auckland Times” for its first ten issues was printed on the Government press, but Shortland, by then Lieutenant-Governor, again proved himself a thorn in the flesh of the Press. Whether it was the policy of the new publication of which he disapproved, or whether he feared that its printing bill would not be met, is not clear, but the result was that the “Times” found itself without press or type.
The proprietor, Henry Falwasser, was undaunted. He canvassed the town to secure all manner of type from many strange sources, including metal that was normally used in the printing of bills and posters. For the press, a mangle was employed to produce the weekly sheet, that is now treasured as a curiosity. The compression of the mangle varied, so that sometimes the print was black enough to be read from the back of the paper while at other times it was too faint to be legible.
Where it was readable at all it presented to the eye the strangest conglomeration of figures that could be imagined. Small capitals, italics, Old page break page 19 English and poster type appeared side by side in the one word, as the requirements of the langauge and the shortcomings of the office type boxes permitted. If a word which required a capital letter was found wanting it would, no doubt, be balanced later in the issue by a word which had more than one capital.
The “Times” was issued gratis to its readers while the emergency lasted, but by the time new type and a press had arrived from Sydney it had attained a fairly respectable appearance. It had a rival in the shape of the “Auckland Chronicle and New Zealand Colonist,” which, more fortunate than the “Times” in its printing arrangements, dubbed its contemporary “The Old Lady of the Mangle,” and was unkind enough to insert in its pages an advertisement which read: “For Sale, a Mangle: Apply to the proprietor of the ‘Auckland Times.’” However, the “Times” survived its snobbish rival by two years, so it had the last laugh.
Another instance of rivalry between newspapers is related by Dr. Hocken, who has interested himself in our early journalism. The “New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian,” edited by a committee of six gentlemen, aspired to a higher standard of journalism than its more racy contemporaries. The committee, therefore, felt very pained when an issue of the “Spectator” appeared with a highly scandalous advertisement of which they had had no knowledge. When, the following week, the maligned person retorted with an even more scandalous reply in the hitherto unsullied pages of the “Spectator,” the committee decided it was high time to have their printing done elsewhere.
The ex-printers of the “Spectator,” now jobless, retaliated by inaugurating an opposition paper, the “Wellington Independent,” which appeared twice as frequently as its rival, at half the cost, and with cheaper advertising rates.
The “Spectator” was not dismayed. Secretly it entered into negotiations with the owners of the press rented to the “Independent's” printers, bought it, and thus left the “Independent” impotent. Friends rallied round the stricken printers and, four months later, with type and press obtained from Australia, the “Independent” appeared again, to pursue such a vigorous existence that ultimately it absorbed the “Spectator,” which had fallen upon hard times.
The early newspapers had to depend almost solely upon local events for their news, for telegraphs, cables and inter-provincial communication were nonexistent. The arrival of a vessel from Home was therefore a big event in the life of the proprietor-editor-reporter-printer, who would row out in a small dinghy, board the incoming vessel and buy up all the English newspapers obtainable. Back in his office, the highlights of the news contained in them were digested, composed in type and appeared in the next issue off the press, to be eagerly devoured by the citizens.
Some strange characters appeared in New Zealand's literary world of those days, perhaps the most notorious of whom was one Dr Martin, who came to Auckland from Sydney to edit the newly-founded “New Zealand Herald and Auckland Gazette.” Within two or three months, so vigorous was his style, several libel actions threatened.
A Government official, Mr. Fitzgerald, entered the “Herald” office and seized certain manuscripts written by the editor. Failing to secure their return, Dr. Martin challenged Fitzgerald to a duel. When Fitzgerald refused to participate in this Martin labelled him in many quarters as a blackguard and a coward. The newspaper wilted under the strain of such unethical conduct on the part of its editor and ceased publication after only ten months’ existence.
The freedom of the Press was a somewhat doubtful privilege in days when men were prone to resort to direct action. The “New Zealander,” our first morning penny newspaper, was rather sympathetic to the Maori side of the Maori Wars, and one of its articles was construed by the naval men in port as a slight upon their honour. Carrying a stout hawser, a large naval party marched to the newspaper office.