We are so used to 24-hour news with information arriving from all over the world minutes after events occur, it’s easy to forget that two hundred years ago news travelled at the speed of a galloping horse or a fast sailing ship. (The image to the left is captioned: Falmouth Packets, Cornwall to the World) But though news might take days, weeks or months to arrive, its impact on local people was no less profound.
The first edition of the West Briton newspaper was published in 1810 by John Heard from offices in Boscawen Street, Truro, heart of Cornish high society in the 1800s. It was a Whig publication designed to offer an alternative view to a rival Tory paper first published in 1803.
The term Whig entered British political life during the controversy of 1678–1681 about whether or not King Charles II’s brother, James, should be allowed to succeed to the throne on Charles’s death. Whig was a term of abuse applied to those who believed James should be excluded from on the grounds that he was a Roman Catholic.
Evolving during the C18th, the Whig party supported the great aristocratic families, the Protestant Hanoverian succession, and toleration for nonconformist Protestants. It drew support from emerging industrial interests and wealthy merchants. By the first half of the C19th the Whig political programme came to encompass not only the supremacy of parliament over the monarch and support for free trade, but also Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and expansion of voting rights.
The term Tory – originally applied to Irish Catholic bandits – was used in the C17th to deride those who believed in the principals of hereditary succession to the crown. Despite falling into disarray in 1688, a significant block of members within parliament remained bound together by support for the established Church of England, hostility to Nonconformists, and the principle of divine monarchical right.
The Tory power base was the conservative rural gentry which violently opposed the taxation required to pay for the wars with France that the Whigs, believing in free trade, would profit from. They returned to government in 1784. But after the French Revolution the Tories were increasingly seen as a party of reaction and eventually lost power in 1830.
(Whigs with their liberal views on community and social responsibility equate to American Democrats, Tories being conservative and believing in individual rights and justice, to Republicans )
Given such violently opposed political views, editorial battles between the rival newspapers were epic, being inflammatory and scathing.
In that first edition of the West Briton, Heard expressed concerns about the actions of Napoleon Bonaparte. What follows are abstracts from articles in his newspaper.
In April 1814 the paper reported the entrance of the Allied Army into Paris. The dethronement of Bonaparte was received in every part of Cornwall with demonstrations of joy. In Penzance and Newlyn the populace erected bonfires in several streets and wealthy neighbours donated barrels of beer to aid the celebrations.
Marazion and St Michael’s Mount were illuminated with the castle magnificently lighted to striking effect. The bells in the castle tower, which had not been heard for many years, rang out on this joyous occasion.
The fishermen of Mousehole showed their delight by burning an effigy of Bonaparte.
The proprietors of Crinnis Mine near St Austell celebrated the victory by entertaining all the (mine) captains, miners and work people in their employ. The captains dined together and were given twelve dozen bottles of wine. The work people were treated to a whole roast ox, a thousand loaves of bread and ten hogsheads of beer. In the evening the entire company enjoyed a grand display of fireworks.
(Bonaparte was sent to Elba, escaped, and rallied his army to fight the Allies.)
After his defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, unable to escape to America because of the blockading Bellerophon, Bonaparte stepped aboard the ship that had dogged his steps for twenty years to finally surrender to the British ending two decades of war.
In July 1815 Bellerophon , known to English sailors as Billy Ruffian, entered Plymouth Sound to take on water and provisions before carrying the ex-Emperor to exile in St Helena. Bellerophon was accompanied by the Slaney and the Myrmidon, both carrying the baggage of Bonaparte and his suite.
As soon as the ship dropped anchor, every boat in Plymouth took to the water filled with people wanting to approach. But acting on orders from the Government, guard boats stationed around Bellerophon prevented the curious from getting close.
Yet despite the losses of ships and men caused by the war, and the celebrations following his defeat, such was the aura surrounding Bonaparte that when at 6pm he appeared on deck every officer, British as well as French, instantly bared their heads as a token of respect.