Belfast News Letter (partially lost editions of Northern Irish newspaper; 1737-present)
The Belfast News Letter (now known as News Letter) is a tabloid newspaper published and circulated in Northern Ireland. Having had its first issue published in 1737, it holds the distinction of being the world's oldest surviving English language daily newspaper. Ultimately, while the publication itself has survived the years, many of its older editions, especially between the period of 1737 to the early-1750s, no longer exist in any known archives.
Belfast News Letter's origins centre around the life and career of Francis Joy. Born in Killead in 1697, Joy lived a wealthy and successful life as an attorney within Belfast. However, his influence in Irish print media would begin in 1737, when as part of a debt settlement, Joy gained control of a small printing company. Joy decided that a newspaper would be a lucrative concept, in a period where Ireland was prospering with a population also keen to learn not only local news, but also from overseas. With his two sons, Henry and Robert, Joy founded the newspaper under the title of Belfast News-Letter and General Advertiser on 1st September 1737. By "1st September 1737", it should be noted that the newspaper ran during the last 15 months of the Julian calendar's usage in Ireland, which started a new year on 25th March and ended it on the following 24th March. Adjusted to the modern Gregorian calendar, the paper began circulating on 17th September 1737.
Originally established in Bridge Street, the newspaper had minor beginnings. Published twice a week, the paper originally consisted of one or two pages per issue. The typical paper was around 15 inches long, nine inches wide, and had three columns on each side. Aside from reporting on local Irish news, a key factor for its popularity was its information surrounding overseas affairs. For example, there was growing concern over the War of Polish Succession, particularly over whether the United Kingdom was soon to join it. Therefore, covering the War and other foreign events proved lucrative for the paper. Aside from this, the "General Advertiser" part of its original name enabled further income to be generated by enabling shippers and merchants within Belfast to promote their wares. One factor limiting its growth during the fledgling years was that a considerable proportion of rural folk simply could not read. Its existence therefore likely contributed towards a growing emphasis on education in Belfast, increasing the reading population and with it, the newspaper's viewership. Its original price of four shillings English currency, about four pence in Irish money, was also considered relatively affordable compared to alternatives.
In 1758, Belfast News Letter moved from Bridge Street to the vicinity of the High Street still known today as "Joy's Entry". 13 years prior, the newspaper encountered two new challenges, namely the establishment of rivals like the Belfast Courant, and the shortage of paper. To combat this, Joy built two paper mills in Ballymena and Randalstown, securing Belfast News Letter a steady supply. That same year, Joy passed down the business to his sons. The newspaper continued with its focus on international news, most famously becoming the first European publisher to report on the US Declaration of Independence. The opportunity arose when the document was on-board a ship intended for London, which had to divert to Londonderry in the wake of Irish storms. As arrangements were made to transport the document to London via horseback, Belfast News Letter's editor gained access to it, copying it down in a report praising the victors for achieving independence.
By 1789, both of Joy's sons had passed away. The founder, who outlived his kin, opted to entrust the business to Robert's son Henry. Francis Joy passed away on 10th June 1790, aged 92. On 15th May 1795, the Joy connection ended when Henry sold the paper to a group of Scottish investors led by George Gordon. Beforehand, Henry had advertised that the newspaper by January 1789 sold an average of 2,100 copies per issue, with a sharp rise in circulation in 1793 following France's declaration of war against the United Kingdom. Since the sale, Belfast News Letter has undergone various changes of ownership, and has also survived both World Wars, the Partition of Ireland, and the Troubles. By 1855, new issues were published from Monday to Saturday. In September 2013, with London-based newspaper Lloyd's List becoming online-exclusive having been in print since 1734, Belfast News Letter holds the distinction of becoming the oldest surviving daily English language newspaper. However, its future is threatened by the decline of local UK newspapers, with the paper, now known simply as News Letter, suffering continual annual declines in daily circulation, to around 8,958 copies per issue by the second half of 2021.
Alas, while the newspaper has survived into the 2020s, the majority of its early editions have been lost to time. News Letter itself commented that the first viewers were unlikely to foresee a newspaper's historical importance, especially considering most newspapers of the era would quickly dissolve, and so generally did not intend to preserve them. Out of The Belfast Newsletter's first 1,500 issues published between 1837 to the early-1850s, fewer than 100 are confirmed to exist within any known archives. Among those missing include every issue published in the newspaper's opening 13 months. The oldest copy was published on 3rd October 1738 (14th October 1738 under the modern calendar), and is situated at Belfast's Linen Hall Library. A few other 1738 and 1739 issues have also been preserved. One such issue caused confusion, when it appeared to have originated before the 3rd October edition, having seemingly been published in March 1738. The calendar switchover triggered the confusion; the "March 1738" issue is actually classified as published in March 1739 under the Gregorian calendar.
Online archives such as Irish Newspaper Archives and Find my Past provide access to many of the newspaper's surviving older issues. However, the archives also help illustrate that other sizable gaps in preservation exist. For instance, Irish Newspaper Archives seemingly implies no copies published between 1770 and 1783 survive. Meanwhile, Find My Past identifies four key lapses in surviving coverage, including from July-December 1868, May-December 1878, July-December 1880, and January-April 1883.
- Detroit Sunday Journal: Volume 2, Edition 51 (lost pages of tabloid newspaper; 1997)
- Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien (partially found editions of German newspaper; 1605-1667)
- Dictionary of Ulster Biography summarising the life and career of Francis Joy. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- Clifton Belfast summarising Joy's life and the formation of The Belfast News-Letter and General Advertiser. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- News Letter detailing its history since 1737. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- News Letter detailing the 283rd anniversary of its first issue, and noting the confusion of dates because of conflicting calendars. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- Volume 7 of The Library summarising Belfast Newsletter's success. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- BBC detailing the creation of the Belfast Newsletter, including its focus on international affairs and its survival over the years. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- Ulster Presbyterians and the Scots Irish detailing the rise of the newspaper, and noting its coverage of overseas affairs helped increase circulation. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- Find My Past summarising The Belfast Newsletter's history and noting gaps within its surviving 1800s editions. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- The Guardian reporting on Lloyd's List transitioning into an online-exclusive organisation. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- Press Gazette reporting on the decline of local UK paper circulation, with News Letter also suffering a reduction in average viewership. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- News Letter detailing the extent of lost early issues, and noting the confusion surrounding the supposed surviving "May 1738" issue. Retrieved 8th Mar '23
- News Letter declaring its October 1738 issue as its oldest surviving edition, and debunking the "May 1738" issue. Retrieved 8th Mar '23