A salute to the original First Lady of Fleet Street whose name has been forgotten

Elizabeth Mallet edited the Daily Courant

THE Post Office Horizon IT scandal on ITV last week is another good example of real-life drama captured on our TV screens.

I found 'Mr Bates vs the Post Office' compulsive viewing as it highlighted the traumas these Post Office people went through ... and still are. Hats off to Alan Bates who became a beacon of light for all the postmasters who lost their livelihoods and savings because of bureaucracy gone mad again.

And a touch of the forelock too for actor Toby Jones who plays him in the series. Brilliant acting. He captures our empathy. His newspaper reviews will now tip this excellent actor into the premier league of TV stars.

This new trend in real-life stories coming to our small screens is proving to be a winner. But I have always thought that there are so many stories still untold that could be. Even from our own patch Fleet Street. And especially from its history.

Take the First Lady of Fleet Street ... no, not Jean Rook, but the female editor of Britain's first London daily newspaper, Elizabeth Mallet. Most people would never have heard of her. And strangely, so little is known, even at a time in our history when so many people kept diaries.

The Daily Courant's first issue

The newspaper was The Daily Courant, published on March 11, 1702 and everyone thought Elizabeth must be a man. She even wrote pieces under a man's name. Women were very low in the scheme of life at that time, as history tells us. And nowhere more so than in London. They were second class citizens in many respects, especially in the workplace.

For those who might not know, there is a plaque at Ludgate circus on the site of the Old King Lud, where the paper was first put together and marks the birthplace of Fleet Street as the home of British newspapers. Just like so many others, we would probably walk by it every day without a thought.

I wish we knew more about Elizabeth, she must have been a formidable woman and her brushes with the establishment must have been many. But even historical researchers have failed to come up with her full story. Dates of birth, marriage and even death vary, and her family beginnings are guesswork. Even when and how she died is disputed. We just don't know. We know nothing of her friends, her finances, even where she lived. The First Lady became the Vanishing Lady.

With her husband printer David, she came from nowhere and dominated the trade in printed speeches from condemned murderers, rapists, thieves, and forgers — before their execution at Tyburn in the late 1600s. The speeches were a money spinner and sold like hot cakes at public hangings.

The couple had a little printworks in Black Horse Alley, off Fleet Street, near where the Poppins pub used to be, a favourite drinking haunt of many Expressmen and women for many years, but before my time. Our old friend and member of our parish Billy Montgomery used to speak of it fondly all the time ... perhaps he blew the doors off, eh? Know what I mean? 

One of our favourite Drone contributors Rick McNeill will remember it.

The speeches were single-sheet publications, often with an image of a hanging that was reused many times. It told of the birth, parents, life and crimes of the person who was on the scaffold. Sometimes, the handout would include poetry verses allegedly found in the criminal's cell, or a copy of a letter written to a loved one.

In fact, they were written by hack authors seeking to make a fortune out of the criminal's misery. They must have done a Saturday shift at Newgate Prison. 

Elizabeth's business was good for decades as hundreds of criminals were hanged every month. The speeches were read out to the crowd at hangings and later sold to them, along with the beers and cakes. But how people crowding into Tyburn heard them is a mystery, given all the noise of cheering and screams and children playing in front of the scaffold.

Tyburn was the main execution site for prisoners in the London area from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Marble Arch stands there now and a stone plaque on a traffic island nearby marks the place where the triangular-shaped gallows, nicknamed The Tree, once stood. They were 18ft high so the crowd could get a good view.

Cartloads of condemned prisoners would be wheeled from Newgate Jail to the hanging 'tree' at Tyburn on the corner of what is now Oxford Street and crowds would line the muddy tracks. Sometimes the route from Newgate would take them down Fleet Street and at other times, Holborn.

The judiciary often allowed them one last drink on the way and crowds would gather around the chosen pub on the route. Some condemned men were reported to have joked with the landlords about popping back for their change, or a top up, when they would be ghosts haunting the bar. The chosen inns were fitted with manacles cut into the walls, so they couldn't run anywhere, and people often cheered or jeered them when they came out.

Death in Britain's Stuart and Georgian periods was not a taboo subject like it is today. After all, over a third of all children died before the age of five and murders and plagues were rife.

Elizabeth's husband died intestate in 1683 as the business was growing. She now found herself with two presses and needed a man in the foreground, so she appointed her son, also named David, as an apprentice. But he proved useless, and she fired him, blazing on alone, still keeping out of the public eye. By the end of the century, she was publishing sensational stories and selling them directly to the public. She must have made a lot of money.

In 1701 she published serial news publications on the 'The New State of Europe' (today we can buy it in a leather-bound book from specialist publishers) and in 1702 launched the Daily Courant, a single news sheet of two columns that was a printed digest of news in the foreign papers (particularly from Holland) one side and adverts on the other.

It was published every day of the week, but not on Sundays, the Lord's Day. Courant, of course, is the Scottish word for newspaper. But we know so little about Elizabeth that we don't know if she was Scottish or not.

Dutch news was mostly used because at this time in world history The Netherlands was the centre of financial trade and financial exchange and the Dutch papers were an unrivalled source of information across Europe. Even our own government wouldn't argue with that.

Elizabeth was careful to leave her readers to make up their own minds on whether the stories were true and often offered reports that added or differed from each other. In one issue in March 1702, she highlighted stories on Cologne, Vienna and Warsaw from the Leiden Gazette and also the Haarlem Courant.

Both reported that French reinforcements had poured into the Siege of Kaiserwarth (a town of strategic importance on the Rhine) and that many troops had fallen sick but only the Leiden Gazette mentioned that the Bishop of Munster was raising additional forces and had ordered the French envoy to leave his territories.

Offering readers multiple accounts of the same news bolstered The Daily Courant's authority and gave critical readers the tools to draw their own conclusions by telling them by adding facts from other sources.

Elizabeth avoided news from London because publishing it risked government reprisals and would have been easily contradicted by clever lawyers. At that time the British Government would allow little free speech with their censorship. And those who broke their laws, were jailed ... or worse, even tried as traitors.

Writing under a male name, or just E Mallet, never giving her Christian name, she claimed only to provide the facts and to let the readers make up their own minds, saying in print: "Nor will the author take it upon himself to give any comments or conjectures of his own but will relate only matter of fact ... supposing other people to have sense enough to make reflections for themselves!"

Readers assumed she was a man named Edward Mallet, so the story goes.

Just 40 days into London's first daily newspaper more mystery surrounds Elizabeth. She suddenly sold it — but it was never reported why. She sold it to printer and bookseller Samuel Buckley and The Daily Courant continued to be printed until 1735 when Buckley merged it with his other newspaper, the Daily Gazetteer. He later became publisher of The Spectator. The Courant's name then disappeared, never to be seen again. Just like Elizabeth.

There are two plaques in London remembering our first daily newspaper ... and neither of them mentions her name as Editor and Proprietor. Shame.

The Full Monty: Tom Wilkinson in his raincoat

Farewell to a quiet star

So sad to hear of the passing of actor Tom Wilkinson, at 75, one of those stars we always recognised in films and TV but could never remember his name.

As he said himself: "I've always felt that actors should have a degree of anonymity about them. I am not interested in being a celeb. I can see it in other actors who love being famous. Me, I don't care for it at all."

Who can forget his performance in 'The Full Monty' and that raincoat, especially when he was queuing at the dole office and suddenly broke into a dance. Wonderful stuff.

For those who might not remember, the movie was about five jobless friends who become amateur strippers to boost their wallets  —  and self-esteem. Marvellous.

Come back Donald ...

WILL Coldheart Humza Yousaf ever stop shaking his dirk at the English? Most of us are sick of his arrogant and aggressive stance towards us in the south as his own country burns around him.

His economy is in tatters; the drugs and alcohol problem rife; jobless and homeless figures up, the NHS and schools in crisis; his party in disarray and suffering in the polls as murky money dealings in the SNP Budget hit the headlines ... and SNP voters realise Scots pay more tax than his enemy in the south. But he still wants to give us the boot.

He bashes on like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, who did the UK no favours when he released his part-fictional story of William Wallace in the Hollywood movie.

Everything, of course, is the fault of Westminster. Only Independence will save the Humza people and membership of the EU will be the icing on the cake, bringing wealth and happiness to his nation of just five million souls, half the population of London. Never mind the fact that the country was in the EU for 50 years and yet here they are today with the scent of failure, desperation and sheer ineptitude hanging over them.

When I arrived in Scotland to edit the Scottish Daily Express in the late 1990s, Donald Dewar was First Minister. A cordial, friendly man with a talent for diplomacy and a dream of devolution. He was a true diplomat, and a thoroughly nice bloke. Westminster was largely with him in his dream of more devolved powers for the land of Heather and Haggis.

He foresaw a Holyrood parliament that would be the intellectual life of Europe. And he told everyone that devolution would be a turning point when "democracy would be renewed in his country, and it revitalised its place in the UK." He did not want to break the union that he believed kept us strong in a dangerous world.

I had a few lunches with him and even joined him on a trip around Glasgow's wonderful Botanic Gardens. He was popular then, as Labour were. But always in the shadows was the spectre of a minority of Scots who hated the English with a passion. There was no reasoning with them.

Dewar's Labour party’s dominance in Scotland was rock solid. I never thought that there would be a time when it was not in power at Holyrood, either on its own or in some sort of coalition.

However, as I scratched the surface of life in the country for three years, I ran into anti-English hatred many times. We had stories of English children being bullied by racists; some taxi drivers would rant at me that Scotland would have its own army and take back their oil. One driver even stopped his black cab to shout through the little iron bar railings in the passenger area, that they would soon be free. Union Jack flag burning further north was common.

One morning as I walked near Sauchiehall in Glasgow, I looked in a butcher's shop to see a crowd standing around the butcher who was axing joints of meat as customers laughed and cheered and he screamed Wallace's Freedom speech.

I remember being invited by the Celtic management to a football match. England were playing Portugal that day in a World Cup qualifier — and thousands of Celtic fans turned up for their own game in Portugal soccer shirts.

The dreadful Alex Salmond was around then of course, making a name for himself. I would meet him at functions and disliked his sneering attitude towards the English and Westminster. It was my personal belief he hated them/us to the core.

He always grinned when he spoke of us, as if we knew ourselves we were a useless race, and he had been clever enough to see through us. You only had to watch his TV broadcasts (the English ones, not Russian). As time went on his popularity grew. He too would even use the Wallace Cry Freedom speech in his little outbursts.

But most Scots, especially in the newsroom, believed in the union ... and would call independence misty-eyed patriotism. Among the journalists I made many friends, even sang Scottish folk songs with them in the bar. We worked and played hard together. Many thought that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead.

I brought the Variety Club with Disney World prizes for the country's sick children; won prizes with the Express Garden at the RHS flower shows; fought hard to get bigger budgets from Richard Addis in London and moved into a flat in the famed Buyers Road.

It is around 25 years since the Scottish Parliament reconvened and for 17 of those the SNP has been in Government with the ghost of Wallace watching over them. Salmond took things slowly, following the devolution route but chipping away at it. He realised that there was a fear in the population of outright independence.

But as time went on his public speeches began to hint at devolution being a stepping stone to independence. When Nicola Sturgeon took up the burning chalice, the horrors of Brexit; the antics of Boris Johnson and even Liz Truss, kick started more dissent north of the Gretna Green bus stop.

Devolution became a roadblock to SNP dreams, even with a £1.5bn hole in the nation's budget. Nothing to do with free prescriptions, bus passes and the like on top of Covid, Putin and the world economy. It was all about Westminster austerity.

The truth now, I fear, is that although polls in Scotland show a reluctance for Independence, the ghost of Wallace remains and will always be simmering away under the surface of Scottish life. If only we had another Donald Dewar north of the border. And Gibson had never made that film. The English would be more receptive to talk.

The fact that a General Election this year will not give the awful and angry Humza time to show that his reign is sorting things out, makes no difference. Independence will always be just a scratch away. And an irritating sore for Westminster to scratch.

Waiting for her train at Crewe: Victoria Wood

Victoria's on the right track

What a refreshing change to see someone take a tongue-in-cheek, humorous look at grand old British Rail. That's exactly what Victoria Wood did when she took a round trip of Northern England from Crewe to Crewe in the BBC's Great Railway Journeys last week. Luke warm tea; rickety old carriages and station buffets were her target, even location scenes for the classic movie Brief Encounter. Wonderful stuff. Michael Portillo take note.

Rorke's Drift heroes: Caine and Baker

Heroes of the Neasden Depot

There was free tea all round in the Neasden Omnibus canteen as the workers crowded round their 65in TV on rows of chairs set out like a cinema for the showing of Zulu, the classic Michael Caine movie of British heroism on the small screen last week.

A 6ft, hand-written poster next to the set contained the message 'Eat Your Heart Out Lily Allen!'

Much to the anger of canteen tea lady Agness McTwerker and the staff at the depot, millionaire singer Allen has always complained that the film was right-wing colonialism and should not be shown.

The row was sparked a few years ago, when the notice board at Dollis Hill Underground station displayed an 'on this day in history' message about the 1879 battle between 150 British and colonial troops and 4,000 Zulu warriors, in which our lads won 12 VCs.

Agnes told me: "Lily Wassername should remember our heroes not dismiss them! It's a bloody dangerous world out there, Tel. We need heroes like Michael Caine and Stanley Baker, luv. Who would Wassername turn to if she was in trouble ... the bloody British Army of course! That's who!"


8 January 2024