History of Grocott’s Mail

By Louise Vale

Grocott’s Mail is the oldest independent newspaper in South Africa – 146 years old in 2017.

The founder of Grocott’s newspaper was Thomas Henry Grocott. Born and bred in Liverpool, he was apprenticed to Mr. H. Sherlock, proprietor of the “Liverpool Mail” in May 1854 where he remained for ten years. In 1864, Mr. R.W. Murray, junior, of the “Great Eastern Star” (Grahamstown) was on a visit to England. He made Thomas Grocott an offer to come to South Africa and join the staff of the Great Eastern Star newspaper.

Thomas Grocott worked for the Eastern Star for several years. Some time during the next five years, T.H. Grocott married Eliza Jane Miller. Eliza was the daughter of Rev Miller, co-founder of the Baptist Church in South Africa. They had three children, Ida, Emma and William Ellington. Only William Ellington married – a Welsh woman, Katherine Hughes, whom he must have met whilst on an extended tour overseas which took him to the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Mediterranean, returning by sea along the East Coast.

The two daughters, Ida and Emma, built and lived in the comfortable house in which the Grocott family still lives in 2009 – 2A Milner Street. In 1869 T. H. Grocott went into partnership with J.V. O’Brien which lasted less than a year. T.H Grocott then started his own printing works on Church Square at number 52 High Street, Grahamstown – now known as Woolworths.

On the 11th May 1870, he printed the first edition of Grocott’s Free Paper – “An Advertising Medium for Town and Country” – despite the fact that five newspapers, plus the Grahamstown Journal, were already being published in the town.

The first editorial was clear – “Today we present the public with the first copy of GROCOTT’S FREE PAPER which will be published every Wednesday, and distributed freely all over the City, on the morning market, and in several Frontier Towns. We merely ask you to accept it, read the Advertisements, and then make large purchases.”

Soon after, steam power was introduced to power the machines. This allowed the paper from the 2nd January 1872 to become Grocott’s Penny Mail, a bi-weekly distributed on Tuesdays and Fridays as it is in 2009. The editorial for the first edition described the change as “the outgrowth of the Free Paper taking its stand as a regular news-sheet.”

It continued: “We are humble enough to recognize that the stand is not a lofty one, but we comfort ourselves with the thought that other papers have had just as humble beginnings and just as they succeeded in size and power, so may we hope to succeed.”

In January 1875, the Grocott’s Penny Mail was being distributed throughout the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State, the Transvaal Republic and to missionary subscribers in Kuruman, Bamangwato and on the Zambezi. “Everything will be done to make the Penny Mail a complete record of everything important to be known.”

The paper adopted the motto “Liberty and Progress” with the editor stating that this concept was “not according to the Dean of Grahamstown’s definition of the term but in a higher and better sense than he is able to conceive of.”

In July 1882, Grocott’s became a tri-weekly and the first newspaper in the country to publish serialised stories. In August of that year, he assisted in the founding of the National Press Union of which he was President from 1902 until his death in 1912.

In 1892, Mr Richard Sherry, who started at Grocott’s at a very early age and who “displayed acute business acumen”, was appointed partner in the firm and the company became known as Grocott and Sherry. Richard Sherry is an enigmatic figure, little of him is known other than that his wife (unnamed) died after they had been married a very short while and that he never remarried but dedicated his life to the company until his death in 1931.

At the turn of the century, a British printing journal stated: “He is critical to a degree, and no job ever leaves the printing department without being passed by him, the supervision of the entire establishment falling on his shoulders.” In the same year, William Ellington Grocott also joined the firm as a partner, his specialisation being books and stationery.

Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Industrial Arts Exhibition was held in Grahamstown in 1898 –171,433 tickets were sold over the month and on just one day 6,000 people arrived by ox wagon, coaches and train. At this exhibition Grocott and Sherry was awarded two medals of excellence and displayed a state-of-the-art business card printing machine – pedal powered.

Also displayed at the Exhibition was the first linotype machine which was promptly bought and installed in the printing works early in 1899.William Ellington Grocott was the first person to operate it. 1899 – 1902 marks a high point for Grocott’s Mail – the latest machinery; an editor, Mr A Wadds Wright, formerly employed by the Times of London, with an eye for layout; the Reuters News Agency in operation; and the outbreak of the South African War.

In October, the first double column headline was introduced with larger and bolder type on single column headlines and, by the end of the month, the first headline marched across the top of the page. As many as five editions a night were published to ensure that the latest South African War news was available and a steam whistle was installed on the roof of the premises – a shrill blast deafening all nearby – alerting readers to the latest issue.

Towards the end of 1899 and continuing until 1902, besides the daily edition, Grocott’s Mail also produced a Weekly War Summary incorporating telegraphed reports from its 18 war correspondents in the field. These editions were in high demand in London. December 1899 saw the establishment of the Christmas Cheer Fund to support widows and orphans of the First City Volunteers. This fund continues and supports primarily women and children facing difficulties.

1905 brought a fire that burnt down the front shop but not the printing works. The front shop was rebuilt in 1906 – the floor, the shelving, the glass covered cabinets, the windows, are the ones you see today.

Wars have always affected newspapers and the 1914-1918 war was no exception – Grocott’s Penny Mail grew to eight pages, large cartoons from Punch became a regular feature, as did periodical War Maps and special supplements. For a while the Penny Mail cost twopence and the name had to change – to Grocott’s Mail as it still is today.

Because of the shortages caused by the war, including paper, Grocott’s Mail was cut back to four pages. But 1920 was an historic year as Grocott and Sherry bought out the Grahamstown Journal. Together the two publishing companies had provided the public with a daily and so, despite paper shortages, the firm decided that readers would not be satisfied with less and Grocott’s Mail became a daily.

William Ellington Grocott and Katherine Hughes had three children. Thomas Hugh, William Vincent and Phyllis. On the death of William Ellington Grocott in 1935, his two sons Vincent and Hugh Grocott took over the firm. As with all the other men in the family, they were educated at St Andrews College whilst all the girls in the family went to the Diocesan School for Girls.

All the Grocott’s men who went into the business spent some time training overseas – some as experts in stationery and books, some in printing. They were also required to spend some time in the firm’s other offices – located in East London, Johannesburg and for a short while during the 1899 -1902 South African War, in London. These no longer exist.

All the Grocott family – men and women – were involved in the life and betterment of Grahamstown. They were variously deacons and wardens in the church, members of sports clubs, the Chamber of Commerce, on the boards of local banks and were always known to lend a hand, monetarily and otherwise, to those in trouble. In 1947 this help proved invaluable to Rhodes University.

Rhodes was struggling financially and did not have the money to pay staff salaries – the story goes that one night at 10.00pm there was a knock on the Vice Chancellor’s door. On the other side of the door were brothers, Vincent and Hugh Grocott, with a cheque to cover the next three months’ salaries.

No-one knows the exact details but Rhodes has never looked back. Because of the advent of the radio, the Second World War did not demand an increase in the volume of the newspaper and it remained much the same until 1965 when it reverted to being a bi-weekly paper once again. While Hugh Grocott never married, Vincent Grocott married Onah Amy Reed from Alexandria and they had two sons Arthur Kelvin Grocott and William Jeffrey Grocott.

Although Arthur trained to be a printer he did not enjoy being inside and so left the firm. 1960 saw Jeffrey Grocott join the business, and he spent three years in London completing his training and then returned to the firm. In 1964, Jeffrey (“Jeff”) Grocott married Anne Quinton (nee Theron) from Cradock and the couple have two stepchildren, Gary and Jennifer, and a daughter Diane.

Jeff become a partner in 1966 on the death of his father, and he and Hugh Grocott ran the firm until Hugh Grocott’s death in 1980. During the 1990’s the business ran into problems which resulted in the closure of the stationery and bookshop.

In 2003 Rhodes University was approached and asked to consider the idea of purchasing the firm. Jeff Grocott was determined that ownership should remain in Grahamstown and that the paper should remain an independent despite offers from national media houses.

Prof Guy Berger and Anthea Garman of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes saw the potential of Grocott’s Mail to strengthen and develop the education and training of journalism students in new and exciting ways, at the same time as the paper continuing to serve the Grahamstown community.

Money was raised from Atlantic Philanthropies and on the 1st September 2003 Grocott and Sherry became the David Rabkin Project for Experiential Journalism. Rabkin was a journalist on the Argus in Cape Town, who was later jailed for 10 years for resisting apartheid. He subsequently died in exile in Angola in 1985.

Ten years earlier, he completed his PhD which became a definitive study of the 1950s Drum magazine. In his thesis, he wrote of newspapers: “By their existence, their quality, circulation and survival, they are an index of the growth, sophistication and persistence of communities and nations.” That indeed is the history of Grocott’s Mail. The David Rabkin Project for Experiential Journalism strives to live up to the names of the Grocott family and David Rabkin.

In their traditions, it represents pioneering thought and action, excellence, generosity and a deep commitment to community and justice. The Project has two purposes: to produce a high quality independent newspaper that serves the community, and to develop new ways in which journalism is taught at university level.

The flagship is the Grocott’s Mail – between 60 – 70 students saunter through its doors every year to learn the hard lessons of accuracy, fairness and deadlines.

Grocott’s Mail continues to grow and evolve within the traditions that have sustained it over the centuries.

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