Times Change – But News Remains the Same

Award-winning journalist Mike Lockley delves into the past – and scans the pages of the very first edition of the region’s ever-popular Sunday Mercury from 100 years ago.

Contrary to rumours circulating our newsroom, I wasn’t part of the team when the newspaper hit the stands on December 29, 1918!

The inaugural publication, produced while the West Midlands was attempting to recover from World War One, proves some things never change. The front page (pictured) reveals a government split and in turmoil. The Coalition, however, claimed victory in the local and general elections.

And even a century ago, Birmingham streets were in the grip of a drug menace. Page five is dominated by news of “Doping in Birmingham”, with more and more individuals turning to “cocaine snuff and the opium pipe”.

A prominent local doctor warned: “There are people here taking drugs and I believe there are others who take snuff containing a percentage of cocaine.”

He spoke of the hidden danger of “alluring” cocaine crystals. “For a while (the user) feels a super-man, but gradually there is a change. Slowly but surely he becomes depressed. There is a load upon his mind and brain. The load becomes heavier as every minute passes and he goes down and down and down.”

One hundred years later, it is sadly apparent the GP’s comments went unheeded.

The war might have ended, but it still dominated our first issue through stories of shortages and ads for Keenegg powdered egg, war savings certificates and that Midlands favourite Bovril, the latter needed to beef up a nation weakened by the conflict.

“Recognising the urgent need of rebuilding the National Health,” the ad announced sternly, “after four years of war, Bovril Ltd are making every effort to still further increase supplies and to provide Bovril for all at the earliest possible moment.”

In a Sunday Mercury special, the “extraordinary adventure” of Spring Hill soldier Thomas F Hanley was made public for the first time. A private in the 1st Royal Warwicks, Hanley escaped from the German hospital where he was being treated for injuries sustained at Le Cateau and, with fellow soldiers, hid in woodland before making it back home.

The article stated: “Private Hanley says they ate snails, cats, dogs, birds they trapped and anything, however unlikely, that came to hand.”

Even back then, the Sunday Mercury provided showbiz exclusives, although the stars’ revelations were a little underwhelming. The headline “Actress Tells Secret” seemed to offer, at the very least, a kiss-and-tell confession. The story was less dramatic: “Miss Blanche Rose, a well-known actress, has darkened her grey hair with a simple preparation which she mixed at home. In a recent interview, she made the following statement, ‘Any lady or gentleman can darken their grey hair or make it soft and glossy with this simple recipe’.”

It was panto season, with audiences treated to The Babes In The Wood at Birmingham’s Theatre Royal, a production filled with gusto and a “generous measure of mirth”, our reviewer wrote.  Principal girl Vanwy Chard was a triumph and star in the making. “Her dainty feet are already tripping merrily up the high road to popularity,” the Sunday Mercury predicted.

The bulk of page six was taken up with the words and music to “The Heart Of A Rose”, “the song everyone is singing”.  The following week would provide a cutout-and-keep score for panto hit, “There’s A Tramp, Tramp, Tramp Upon The Highway”.

The nature of news may have changed little, but the advertising industry had yet to learn the worth of catchphrases and glitzy campaigns. Ads on our pages tempted shoppers with headlines such as “Weak Wasted Children”: they could be cured of a variety of ills including chronic diarrhorea and bowel complaints, by taking Dr Cassell’s tablets, a cure-all that also tackled nervous breakdowns, indigestion, “vital exhaustion” and even helped women during their “critical period of life”.

The back page showed local football teams were riding high. Nottingham Forest topped the league’s Midlands section, with Birmingham second. Notts County were fifth and Coventry City eighth after beating Leeds 1-0.

“Like the coalition candidates, Midland teams were at the top of the poll yesterday,” wrote “Jingle”. “The Old Year finished in a blaze of triumph for most of the Midlanders. Birmingham, Coventry, Notts Forest and Notts County were conquerors all and Stoke and Port Vale, in another sphere, added to the triumphs. Leicester Fosse were the only fly in the ointment.” They were beaten 2-1 by Bradford.

One big name was missing from the in-depth football coverage – Aston Villa. That’s because they didn’t resume competitive matches until August 1919. A note from the programme for their first comeback match stated: “Much has happened since the curtain was run down at the close of the season 1914-15 and during the interregnum Aston Villa has taken no part in what may be regarded as serious football. Except for the occasional charity match, the familiar claret and blue shirt has been absent from the playing arenas.”

And look who was top of the table down south – not Chelsea, the Arsenal or the Spurs, but Brentford!

The Mercury’s front page advert extolled the virtues of JB side spring corsets, “a corset which will support without a trace of injurious pressure”. And the restrictive lingerie was a snip at 9s/11d.

In those dark days, advertising gurus knew what women wanted. They wanted:

Beecham’s Pills, dubbed “the true woman’s rights, every woman is entitled to them”. The blurb added: “Dame Nature intended her daughters to be healthy in body and happy in mind”.

Danderine to ensure their hair was “soft, lustrous, fluffy, wavy and free from dandruff”.

Clarke’s Blood Mixture, gushingly endorsed by one Mrs Denham of Merthyr Tydfil, her portrait picture placed next to the startling headline “Ulcerated Wound”. “Hearing so much about Clarke’s Blood Mixture,” said the Welsh housewife, “I at last resolved to give it a trial and after a few days the improvement to my knee was great.”

A section, headlined Pars From Our Post Box, revealed what the public wanted from the region’s new Sunday paper.

“Let the Sunday Mercury cater for the ordinary reader,” wrote one correspondent, “the reader who has a wholesome taste, the reader who likes his sport and his play, the reader who likes to listen to anything heavenly or earthly so long as it is interesting.

“But for God’s sake don’t provide us with another ‘sensation saver’.”

“Descriptive accounts of local football matches and other sports and pictures of the same,” suggested a male Birmingham resident,

“Above all, keep it clean,” implored another reader. “Don’t let it degenerate into a dirty linen basket as the majority of Sunday papers do.”

But one new recruit pleaded for “spicy love and divorce and dope news”.

The Sunday Mercury has certainly delivered big news exclusives, sensation, spice, love and top sports coverage, week in, week out.

We delivered it all in our first issue and we’re still delivering it now.