Edinburgh Evening News 150 years: History of paper including Lloyd George, James Connolly and world war
The paper started life in “dingy” premises in Old Fishmarket Close, just off the High Street and next to Edinburgh’s central police station. The first edition appeared on Tuesday May 27, 1873, and consisted of four pages, each with six columns of densely packed news and adverts, all set by hand – and no pictures in those days.
Stories included reports on a hairdresser’s shop in the Pleasance destroyed by fire; a rally of miners from all over Scotland in Holyrood Park threatening strike action; the latest news from the Church of Scotland and Free Kirk general assemblies, and a short item about a “most successful” ball at Balmoral held for Queen Victoria’s birthday. The paper sold for one halfpenny and there were two editions every day from Monday to Saturday, one at 3pm and the other at 5.30pm.
The Evening News was founded by three brothers named Wilson. Hugh, the eldest, had previously been editor of the Manchester Evening News; the second brother, James, had been a reporter on the Manchester Guardian; and John, the youngest, had worked on the Glasgow Daily Mail. They believed Edinburgh needed a “progressive evening paper” and their chance came when a fortnightly publication called the North Briton came up for sale along with its printing plant and offices. They bought it and used these facilities to launch the Evening News.
The first edition included a statement of principles from the proprietors, promising not to print “anything offensive to correct moral feeling”, assuring readers the paper was “thoroughly independent of all parties” and declaring themselves “enemies to scurrility and slander”.
It said: “In a word, The Evening News will aim at being a newspaper worthy of Edinburgh and the district; prompt and accurate in its intelligence; the faithful chronicle of passing events; and an independent medium for commenting upon them.”
In the early months the Wilsons suffered heavy financial losses, but they and their staff of 20 were determined to carry on, and by the end of year the paper was selling 4000 copies a day and paying its way. Six years later it was doing well enough to move to bigger premises.
The staff had described the original offices as “situated in one of the dingy closes off the High Street, beside the police office, where the babel of noises from the cells considerably interrupted our journalistic labours”. The Wilsons bought a former warehouse in Market Street in May 1878 and the paper transferred its operations there the following year.
In the meantime, the paper had a narrow escape from financial catastrophe. It had started out keeping its money in the City of Glasgow Bank’s Edinburgh office – based in what later became the Merchant Company Hall in Hanover Street – but the bank collapsed in October 1878 and scores of businesses failed. However, the Evening News account had been transferred to the Union Bank just shortly before disaster struck.
The paper’s new offices were at 18 Market Street, with Cumming’s toy shop on one side, at the corner of Cockburn Street, and the Hotel Imperial on the other. This would be the Evening News’s home for the next 86 years, at different stages taking over the properties on either side.
When the Wilsons launched the News they had continued to publish the North Briton, converting it into a weekly, but with the move of offices they closed it and concentrated their resources on the increasingly successful evening paper. Sales of the News increased from 4000 in 1873, to 71,000 in 1898, then 100,185 in 1923 and 149,000 in 1948.
Communications in 1878 were obviously very different from today – Edinburgh-born Alexander Graham Bell had patented the telephone only two years earlier and it was a long way from becoming a feature of everyday life. Instead, reporters covering Liberal leader William Gladstone’s high-profile speeches during his famous Midlothian campaign – ahead of winning the seat in the 1880 general election – had to send their copy back to the office using relays of waiting cyclists or men on horseback.
For other events, particularly football matches, reporters would be accompanied by a boy with a basket of homing pigeons, which were sent back with the latest news attached to their leg. And there was also a pneumatic tube which ran underground from the General Post Office in Waterloo Place – now Waverley Gate – to the Market Street office with a constant stream of telegrams, keeping the paper up to date with events further afield.
It was soon after the move to Market Street that James Connolly, who would go on to become an Irish republican leader and key figure in the 1916 Easter Rising, worked briefly for the Evening News. He was born in Edinburgh’s Cowgate and left school at the age of 11 in 1879, becoming a printer’s “devil”, mixing tubs of ink, fetching type and cleaning the inky rollers.
The Evening News had a reputation for radicalism and backed Gladstone’s policy of Irish Home Rule at the 1886 election, which he lost. The paper also opposed the Boer War, which aimed to increase the British Empire’s influence in southern Africa. And it was one of the few newspapers to support Scottish Home Rule in the early 1900s.
By 1914 the paper was publishing seven editions a day, the last appearing at 6.50pm; sometimes there would be special editions even later to include reports on big political meetings or Scottish Cup draws.
At the start of the First World War, the Evening News helped Sir George McCrae to recruit the famous “McCrae’s Battalion” of sportsmen volunteers, including 18 Hearts players and 500 supporters.
And throughout the war, the paper campaigned along with James Hogge, the radical Liberal MP for Edinburgh East, for better war pensions and allowances for servicemen and their dependents. The paper wrote editorials calling for “utmost liberality from the state” and it supported Hogge in setting up a pensions advice bureau which helped thousands of people.
In 1920, the Evening News was taken over by United Newspapers, owned by prime minister David Lloyd George and a syndicate of fellow Liberals, who had come together two years earlier to acquire the London-based Daily Chronicle and Sunday paper Lloyd’s News. They sold the company seven years later, but the Evening News remained in the ownership of United Newspapers or its associated company Provincial Newspapers until 1963, when the News merged with the rival Evening Dispatch.
The Dispatch was The Scotsman’s sister paper but it had lost £2 million in the ten years since the two papers were bought by Lord Thomson – best known for his later ownership of the Times. The evening papers’ merger, on November 19, 1963, saw the News become part of The Scotsman stable, but it wasn’t a straight purchase, more of a swap – United gave Lord Thomson the News in exchange for the Sheffield Telegraph and its sister evening paper the Star.
And it was only the following year, 1964, that the News finally put news on the front page instead of adverts, though the Dispatch had been operating with page one news for some time.
The march of modern technology saw computer-assisted typesetting replace linotype machines in 1980; reporters gave up their typewriters for computer keyboards in 1987; and the same year a new purpose-built printing press hall was built in Newhaven Road to house state-of-the-art web offset colour presses.
That meant an end to the thunder of the presses at North Bridge which set the building vibrating when they started up, and the end of delivery vans queuing up to collect bundles of papers at the building’s lower entrance in Market Street.
In November 1995, the Thomson Corporation sold the Evening News and The Scotsman to the reclusive Barclay brothers, David and Frederick, owners of London’s Ritz Hotel. During their time in control, the papers moved from North Bridge to new purpose-built offices in Holyrood Road in 1999. The Barclays then sold the papers to Johnston Press in December 2005.
The offices moved again in 2014, first to Morrison Street for a few months until the new base at Orchard Brae House on Queensferry Road was ready. In October 2018, Johnston Press went into administration and the company was taken over by its creditors and renamed JPIMedia before being sold to current owner National World in January 2021.