Back to Articles
Two hundred and ninety five years separate the publication of the Ludlow Ledger and the appearance of the first newspaper to be printed and published in Ludlow. In 1719, William Parks, fresh from his apprenticeship with Stephen Bryan in Worcester, moved to Ludlow and leased premises which are now 4 Bull Ring. With the help of a small press, some type and an assistant, he established Ludlow’s first printing operation and published Ludlow’s first newspaper the Ludlow Postman [Fig. 1]. This was a brave move for a newly qualified printer especially as Ludlow was at the time not nearly as large or vibrant a town as Worcester and Ludlow’s wool trade had collapsed many years previously. Only leather-working and gloving underpinned the Ludlow economy. William Parks however was born near Bitterley on April 23rd 1699, the son of a Yeoman, and was more than likely educated at Bitterley Grammar School. Consequently, he knew the area well and was counting on there being enough of the sort of patronage left in Ludlow to support a weekly paper.
Provincial newspapers had entered a boom period in the early 18th century following a change in the strict publishing laws that had strangled printing in Great Britain outside the capital. By the time of publication the Ludlow Postman was one of only 24 provincial newspapers, joining many much larger and more prosperous towns such as York and Chester, and even beating Birmingham which did not have a local newspaper till 1724.
Park’s equipment was basic. The wooden English Common press [Fig. 2] had changed little since Gutenberg’s first presses started ‘rolling' in 1480’s and, although there had been some improvements to wooden presses by the Dutchman Blaue, none reached the provinces until later in the century. As a result, printing a newspaper was a laborious task, made even more so by the fact that the size of the page was larger than the platen used by the press to imprint the text on the page. The difference is sizes meant there had to be two impressions per page. (This remained the norm until Stanhope invented the iron press in 1800 and a raft of improved presses appeared on the market, the most well know being the Albion Press.)
It is not known how Parks funded this venture. The estimated cost of a press, type and other sundries sufficient for a small printer at the time would be several hundred pounds - a considerable sum. There is speculation either that his former master Stephen Bray either set him up, with an intention to expand his own Worcester-based business, or that one or two of the subscribers listed in Parks’ earlier publications funded the new venture. Either way, on Friday October 9th 1719 the first edition of the Ludlow Postman was published. A modest six pages long, its contents range from a full page introduction in which Parks’ appears to apologise for ‘newswriters imposing falsehoods upon the world,’ and then stands up for them by stating “The World is eager of being acquainted with the news as soon as possible; and therefore we [to please them] are apt to catch hold of reports that sometimes do not prove true.” No change there, then!
The Postman also included news from Great Britain and other nations. Much of this was derived from the papers of larger cities. It also contained the first account of Ludlow society by covering a recent marriage in the town, “which resulted in music and dancing which was prolonged (to the great uneasiness of Mr Bridegroom) till 3 a clock”. The description of the racaus wedding night and the grand ball at the castle the previous night “which continued with myrth till very late” would maybe have gone unnoticed except for Parks’ mention of the hostess Madam Crofts who apparently took exception and in the second issue Parks was forced to apologise. Whether or not this was the first incident in the struggle for Parks to keep a loyal readership (and his failure to do so led to the eventual demise of the paper) or not is one for speculation. However, it is clear that he attracted few advertisers and by later issues he was publishing spoof letters lampooning the local dialect and customs. Perhaps Parks had grander ambitions than a local paper because by 1721 the Ludlow Postman was closed and Parks had moved to Hereford where he published two books before moving to Reading in 1723 to publish the Reading Mercury.
In 1726 Parks emigrated to America, then considered to be the land of opportunity. It certainly proved to be so for William Parks as within a year he had started a printing business in Annapolis, Maryland and became the postmaster. This was a shrewd move as one of the perks of being Postmaster was he could send out all his printed material free of charge. After printing some government material he was invited to be the first ‘public printer’ for the government of colonial Maryland and was subsequently commissioned to print all Government documents. The newspaper bug must still have been in Parks however for he published in 1727 the Maryland Gazette which he published continuously until 1734, At the same time he started a printing business in Williamsburg, Virginia where he also became the first official ‘public printer’, postmaster and founder of Virginia’s first newspaper the Virginia Gazette.
Parks was not always so fortunate and in 1737 the Maryland authorities accused him of neglecting his work and terminated his contract. However, his work in Virginia was receiving high praise and his business expanded. A meeting in 1742 with Benjamin Franklin, one of the America’s founding fathers, discussed the paucity of paper and resulted in Parks returning to Virginia to set up a paper mill, the first such venture south of Pennsylvania. At its height, his business employed nine assistants, one of whom must have been a bookbinder as most books printed by Parks were also bound on the premises. Indeed he advertised in his newspaper bookbinding “done reasonably in the best manner” and one “who binds old books very well and cheap”. During this very productive time, Parks had managed to build up a large estate of property in both Maryland and Virginia and in 1750 he decided to return to England to restock his Virginia business with equipment. This move proved fateful as he contracted pleurisy on the journey and died at sea. He was buried in Gosport, presumably where the ship docked. His businesses continued after his death, run at first by his widow and then sold on, possibly to one of Parks’ assistants.
William Parks will be remembered more in the United States as he will be here in Ludlow. He was the publisher of four ‘first’ newspapers, official printer to two colonial government, postmaster, and paper mill owner. According to his will he was also the owner of two slaves, one he named Worcester and the other Ludlow.
My personal interest in William Parks began many years ago when one of my American clients, who specialises in early Americana, sent me a copy of one of William Parks’ imprints for restoration. Having discovered his Ludlow roots, I decided to reprint the Ludlow Postman on our 1865 Albion press [Fig. 3]. This proved to be more difficult than initially thought, as the paper used for newspapers in the eighteenth century was of very poor quality I could not find a single complete copy that was either in good enough condition to produce a facsimile or was robust enough for the owners to allow out for photographing. As a result, I took the decision to reset all the type and redraw the woodcuts on the heading from the fragments that I had managed to track down. This facsimile copy is now available from The Bindery Shop, 5 Bull Ring, the room right next door to William Parks’ first print shop.