Former Islington Gazette editor talks about the good old days for paper’s anniversary

The Islington Gazette centenary dinner at Cafe Royal, Regent Street on September 28 1956

The Islington Gazette centenary dinner at Cafe Royal, Regent Street on September 28 1956 - Credit: Archant

A couple of weeks ago at Gazette Towers, a dusty framed photograph was discovered at the back of a storage cupboard. In it were dozens of immaculately dressed journalists and sales staff at a dinner in Cafe Royal, Regent Street. The date – September 28 1956.

Islington Gazette editor Tony Allcock

Islington Gazette editor Tony Allcock - Credit: Archant

The occasion – the paper’s centenary do. After picking our jaws up off the floor at the thought of that many people working on one paper, we decided to try and piece together the paper’s past for the 160th anniversary. And who better to turn to than the longest-serving editor Tony Allcock, who served from 1974 until 2011. Tony, now enjoying his retirement, was kind enough to pen a brief account of his time at the Gazette, which helpfully revealed to us it wasn’t always that well staffed...

It all happened in 1856. Oscar Wilde entered the world. So did Sigmund Freud, Keir Hardie and George Bernard Shaw. Queen Victoria was on the throne. A peace conference settled the Crimean War. Big Ben was cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry. And – on September 20, 1856 – the Islington Gazette was born.

The first edition was published from above a pie shop opposite the Grand Theatre in Islington High Street, close to the Angel junction – which was very busy even then, but the traffic was horse-drawn.

Islington Gazette front page, September 20, 1856

Islington Gazette front page, September 20, 1856 - Credit: Archant

The edition was a modest four pages and cost a halfpenny. It described itself as “A Journal of Local and General Intelligence”.

Amazingly it was a big hit – 10,000 copies were printed and all were sold.

Now, 160 years on, the Gazette has experienced many highs and lows in its fortunes and battled on through two world wars.

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Different owners have come and gone – and Islington has changed almost beyond recognition.

Yet the Gazette has survived it all to become London’s oldest and longest established local newspaper and remains a bastion of news and free speech.

I joined the Gazette’s staff in November 1966, aged 18, as an apprenticed junior reporter – being paid the princely sum of £9 a week.

I was hired by then editor, John Seedle, a huge Pickwickian character standing 6ft 4ins tall and weighing in at about 20-plus stone, who continually puffed on a pipe that belched out acrid tobacco smoke.

I had written about 100 letters to newspapers all over the country begging for a job.

At last I had been summoned to my very first interview – ironically at my own local newspaper.

I came to the interview prepared for a grilling.

But the boss was very affable and seemed more nervous than me.

The interview was short and the next day I was offered the job.

When I started work in the Gazette’s cramped office above a bank in Upper Street, I found this novice was part of a small team – and I was one of just two reporters.

A few months later the other reporter got the sack for moonlighting for a news agency and national newspapers.

For a while I was the only reporter. Talk about being thrown in the deep end.

Little did I know that more than 40 years on I would still be proud to be working on my beloved Islington Gazette.

My vivid memories of those early days are the clickety-clack of manual typewriters, the endless drinking (and making) of tea and the fog of cigarette and pipe smoke that had yet to be outlawed in the workplace.

I remember frequent visits to the printers to see our hard-crafted words of copy being typed all over again into monstrously huge Linotype machines by printers and converted into “slugs” of hot metal type – and then jammed into pages of type on the “stone” where the compositors worked their magic.

The thrill of seeing the finished newspapers roll off the presses never diminished.

Now newspaper offices are mostly silent, with quiet computers and computer keyboards being the editorial tools of the trade and e-mails and the internet dominating communication where once the telephone was king [not sure this is completely true! – current ed].

It is all much more efficient and the journalists have much more control over how their work ultimately appears on the newsprint.

But it’s probably not quite as romantic these days.

I was born and bred in Islington and the borough is a great and unique place.

So I feel very honoured and fortunate to have spent 36 years of my career as the Gazette’s editor.

There were tough times and great challenges and I met so many fascinating characters along the way – among my workmates and among the ever-changing mass of all human life that makes up Islington’s population.

The Gazette’s history is an auspicious one and it still has a very important role to play in the life of Islington people in the 21st century.

In congratulating the paper on its 160th anniversary, I hope the Gazette has a future at least as long as its past.