The history of the Daily Dispatch

Glyn Williams looks back at the illustrious past of this Eastern Cape newspaper

In the beginning…

The East London Dispatch and Shipping and Mercantile Gazette appeared on September 10 1872, as a subsidiary of a King William’s Town newspaper, the Kaffrarian Watchman. East London was then little more than a shipping and forwarding agency for the strategically situated capital of Kaffraria, King William’s Town. It did not become a municipality until 1873 when the three villages of east and west East London and Panmure were amalgamated.

The first editor, Massey Hicks, aged 24, had promised publication on September 10, and he kept to his deadline, despite at least one major difficulty. He and his partner, a Mr Rowles, had bought a wood-and-iron cottage in Smith Street to house the press and newspaper office. The builders were still busy when the printing equipment arrived from King William’s Town by ox wagon along the only road connecting the towns by way of Mount Coke. 

Massey Hicks persuaded Mrs J Dempster, who lived next door on the corner of Smith Street, to allow them to use her kitchen as a press room. “This was only one of the many kindly acts performed by the Dempsters,” wrote a correspondent who knew them.

The house that gave birth to the Daily Dispatch was demolished before 1909, while Mrs Dempster was still alive, but living in Bulawayo. She was a frequent visitor to East London, and in fact spent three months in East London in 1909 as she approached the end of her life.

The newspaper was a four-page tabloid. It cost threepence and it sold out. The proprietors did not even keep a copy for their files, though there is one in the South African Library in Cape Town. How many copies were printed and how Mrs Dempster managed to cook the family’s meals with a press in her kitchen are not recorded. As was customary in that period, the front page carried only advertisements – news did not make the front page of the Dispatch until November 1 1955, when its lead story was about troubles in the then French-ruled Morocco. Most other reports on page one was of foreign origin – a far cry from today, with the Dispatch adapting to an emphasis on regional news in the digital age.

Changes made by new editors

In June 1874, the newspaper was bought by Thomas William Goodwin, a printer from England, who became its new editor. Alfred Webb also acted as editor around this time, but was never formally appointed. Goodwin continued to show enterprise and initiative, publishing East London’s first almanac and presenting a copy to every reader in December 1874.

Page size was increased to 33cm by 52cm on January 12 1875, and from September that year all pages carried the date.

WF Lance
WF Lance

The third editor was Mr William Lance, an attorney, who formed a partnership with Mr Goodwin on November 7 1876. The burst of energy often shown by a new broom resulted in a decision within 14 days to publish twice a week. An office to receive advertisements and subscriptions was opened on the east bank in December.

A decision to site the terminal of an East London-Queenstown railway line at the east bank’s “German village” was a blow both for the west bank and for King William’s Town, which was to be served by a station some distance away, at Blaney. The printing works were moved to Caxton Street on May 10 1877. Not long afterwards, Thomas Goodwin broke away to found his own newspaper, the East London Advertiser. 

The Dispatch employed newsboys for street sales from November 1877. A vicarious nod to its established place in the community was made when an election committee supporting Mr Sprigg and Mr Blaine presented a copy of the March 26 1879 issue free to every resident of East London. That same year the Frontier Advertiser was assimilated and the newspaper became the East London Dispatch and Frontier Advertiser.

1879: a momentous year

1879 proved to be a momentous year with yet another change of ownership and editor. Henry Hebbes took the helm in September and there was a move to bigger premises in Terminus Street on December 12. Cryptically, the Dispatch recorded: “We bid good-bye to the overwhelming afflictions of Commercial Square with the greatest cordiality.” The building housed the first public clock in the town, which was still functioning in 1902, when the building owned by harness makers J Sanderson was demolished with scant regard for its historical significance. The first three editors had short reigns but Henry Hebbes was in the chair from 1879 to 1898. The newspaper was owned from 1879 to 1894 by WA Richards and then by one of East London’s most successful mayors, David Rees, from 1894 to 1905.

Will Crosby, editor from 1898
Will Crosby, editor from 1898

Will Crosby, the Dispatch’s first professionally trained editor

In 1898, Will Crosby became the first of the Dispatch’s professionally trained editors. Crosby, who was to retire as editor 14 years later, was a hardy character, a pioneering and adventurous journalist. He was born at Colchester, Essex, on April 23 1855 and died in East London on July 30 1923 after a remarkable career. 

After leaving school and working on local newspapers, he worked for two years for the Yorkshire Observer in Bradford, which was the birthplace and training ground of a later Daily Dispatch editor, Vernon Barber. He was only 20 years old when he arrived in Port Elizabeth to join the Eastern Province Herald as a reporter, where he said he received his first lesson in South African journalism from George Impey.

Two years later, Crosby was running the Queenstown Representative

Two years later, at 22, he was running the Queenstown Representative, with Francis J Dormer. When the first Anglo- Boer War started, Crosby and Dormer decided one of them had to enlist. They tossed a coin – and Dormer had to go. Crosby bought him out a few months later.

Crosby carried on under “disadvantageous circumstances”. He was to admit that “things did not go as well as one might expect” and he sold his interests in the Representative in 1880, though “Queenstown was a place I would always love.” He married and settled in Tarkastad, where he started the Tarka Herald. In 1884, he disposed of the goodwill and left Tarkastad with his printing plant for Aliwal North, where he founded the Border News.

Crosby is bitten by the gold bug and starts another printing business in Joburg

Will Crosby was one of thousands bitten by the gold bug when the precious metal was discovered on the Witwatersrand. “Aliwal North was a very fine place but there was no money there,” he said.

When the goldfields were proclaimed in 1887, he bought a pair of horses and left Aliwal North, again taking his printing press with him. He bought a corner site at Ferreira’s Camp (which was to become Johannesburg), and started another printing business in a tent. One document stated that he bought the site for fifty pounds but Crosby said when he retired completely from business that he bought an erf in Johannesburg on credit for 200 pounds.

He started the Rand’s first newspaper, The Diggers’ News and Witwatersrand Advertiser, which he developed from a tiny sheet on his old handpress into a thriving daily. He sold it in 1888.

Will Crosby’s abilities and character made a swift impression on the Johannesburg business fraternity. Shortly before Christmas 1887, 22 bowler-hatted men met at the Corner Dining Room to consider establishing a mutual building society in Johannesburg. Crosby called the meeting to order and he was elected chairman. It marked the birth of the Johannesburg Building Society. Crosby was offered the chairmanship but declined.

Crosby is officially designated a pioneer of the Witwatersrand

A document recording the early years of the society stated that “family afflictions prompted Crosby to return to the Cape in 1890”. But before he did so, Crosby, who was said to be involved in mining ventures, continued on his adventurous way.

He moved to Pretoria, where he managed the bilingual Volksraad newspaper for a short time, Barberton, Komatipoort and Delagoa Bay, which he and other young men appropriated somewhat bizarrely in the name of England before heeding an official telegram advising them to get out of Mozambique.

He was officially designated a pioneer of the Witwatersrand, a rare honour. His next career move was to Cradock in 1890 where he founded the Midlai News, in association with the Butler brothers. He stayed there until 1898 when he became editor of the Daily Dispatch after an approach by David Rees, whom he had met in Bulawayo. Rees was unhappy with the progress of the Dispatch and felt it was time for change. He considered Crosby an enterprising and experienced journalist.

Crosby turns the Daily Dispatch into an afternoon daily

It was Crosby who took another big step in the evolution of the Daily Dispatch, turning it from a bi-weekly to an afternoon daily. The first issue of the East London Daily Dispatch was published on January 5 1898. It was the first penny daily newspaper published in the Eastern Cape. A report published in 1906 stated: “The success of the Daily Dispatch has been phenomenal and today it can boast of a circulation larger and more widely distributed than any colonial paper published outside Cape Town.”

Crosby considerably improved the newspaper, making extensive use of South African and world news sent by cable and telegraphic services. A direct cable had been laid between Cape Town and Britain in 1884, which cut the cost of overseas communications, but little use had previously been made of the service, apart from market reports.

Most of the European news published came by mail, which was received about 23 days after posting in Britain. Vernon Barber considered Crosby a vigorous editor not afraid to speak his mind, with a friendly and kindly disposition that was antidote to his outspoken views.

Typographically, he was of the conservative old school. The Dispatch adhered to small headlines of the same font, with a rash of similar words or phrases in adjoining columns; for instance “latest war news”. Barber credits Crosby with making the greatest improvements in the layout, and in the service provided by the Daily Dispatch in its first 50 years, but he was less complimentary on his merits as a businessman. Barber said he was warm-hearted and generous but too happy-go-lucky to manage an enterprise.

Crosby had decided to publish a morning as well as an afternoon edition of the Daily Dispatch with war looming in South Africa in November 1899, and this was continued throughout the war, adding considerably to expenses. It could have led to David Rees’s decision to sell the newspaper when the war ended.

David Rees

Rees, who was born in Wales on February 17 1857, died in East London on December 26 1926. He was an extraordinary self-made man. Rees came to South Africa at the age of 24. He was employed by the Cape Government Railways in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth before moving to East London at 28.

He blossomed in the East London of the 1880s. He resigned his job, opened his own company as a cartage contractor to the railways, and plunged into its business, social and administrative life with an extraordinary energy.

The name of David Rees was everywhere. He became president of cricket, football, cycling and rifle societies, chairman of the harbour board, and president of the agricultural society. He was a member of the Beach Hotel Company, and had property in the city, and in the Cape and Transvaal. He was mayor continuously from 1890 – when he was only 34 – to 1896 and again in 1899. 

Rees embarked on developing and revitalising the city in a sustained bout of energy that emphasised not only his vision but his ability to convince the Doubting Thomases and to take them with him, even if it sometimes required patience and persistence. He advocated electric lighting for East London in 1888, but he did not get his way until 1895 when he convinced the council to borrow what was then the considerable sum of 75,000 pounds to get moving on much-needed modernisation.

Despite the usual moans and groans from ratepayers about paying for a new Town Hall, costing all of 12,000 pounds, David Rees again managed to get his way. He laid the foundation stone in February 1896. “No mayor did as much as he did,” says historian Dr Keith Tankard, of Rhodes University in East London. “He was fortunate that East London was prospering during his time in office, but other mayors had also been in office when the going was good but had not capitalised on it as David Rees did.”

During World War I, he and his wife devoted themselves to the collection and administration of Distress Funds. He was later awarded the honour of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services. He lived in some style at Park House in Park Avenue, which was then in a fashionable area of the city. He was said to be fond of a good animal “and his coaches and horses are the subject of much favourable comment”, according to a contemporary report.

A biographical item in Men of the Times (Old Colonists of the Cape and Orange River Colony) refers to him, somewhat obviously, as having “much energy and a great capacity for work”. A sketch shows a long, intelligent face, high forehead, a droopy moustache and brooding eyes. His obituary published on December 28 1926 was accorded the usual single column heading. The Daily Dispatch reported he had been taken ill suddenly and suffered much pain with an internal malady, which seems as if he could have suffered a heart attack.

The report referred briefly to his importance: “Few men in East London have had so much to do with the building up of the port and town.” He was “vigorous”, it said. It acknowledged his past association with the Daily Dispatch. “He took great interest in the Dispatch and staff” even after he had severed connections with the newspaper.

When Rees took over the Dispatch, it was laboriously set by hand and printed on a double-feed Wharfedale flat press. After a move to premises in Buffalo Street, HO Parsons was sent to an industrial exhibition in Johannesburg where Linotype machines were on display. In a decision typical of the progressive outlook shown by Rees throughout his life, the Dispatch bought four of the type-setting machines that were to make hand setting as obsolete as the Linotypes were to become with the arrival of computers. They were excellent machines, three of which were still being used to produce the newspaper in 1950.

HO Parsons, a master craftsman and autocrat

HO Parsons, the composing room foreman who was both master craftsman and autocrat, was to become a bulwark of the Daily Dispatch for 44 years. He zealously read every line of copy sent to him for setting with conscientiousness that emphasised his loyalty, dedication to task and concern for the welfare of the newspaper.

HO had learned his trade with Grocott and Sherry, Grahamstown, and had worked on an early Rand newspaper, the Morning Star. Parsons, who served on the board of directors for nearly 20 years, had been given extraordinary powers by Sir Charles Crewe on what should be printed in the Daily Dispatch, but as the years wore on he became inflexible and resistant to change.

Barber made no secret of his admiration of Parsons’ many fine qualities but he also said that it took some time to persuade Parsons that the Dispatch “was behind the times” and was suffering as a result. Parsons died suddenly in November 1937, not long after he had been given additional responsibilities at the Dispatch. HO was succeeded by his son, TO (Scrubby), who joined the staff in 1912 when he was apprenticed to Jock Symons, another long-serving employee, who had been engaged to run the first rotary press. He also became a director of the company, serving until his death in 1960.

Sir Charles Preston Crewe and Will Crosby form a partnership

Early in 1903, Sir Charles Preston Crewe, the Hon AJ Fuller and Will Crosby formed a partnership to take over the business. Sir Charles bought Mr Fuller’s shareholding shortly afterwards and he and Crosby continued to run the newspaper.

Sir Charles was to have a most significant influence on the Daily Dispatch over the next three decades. He created the Charles Crewe Trust and the RO Crewe Trust for charitable purposes. They controlled 70 percent of the newspaper’s shareholding. All the other shareholders were Daily Dispatch staff members. This financial arrangement prevailed until 1978 when the Crewe trustees felt it would be wiser to sell the shares and diversify. The trust holdings were bought by the directors, who also secured the minority shares.

Sir Charles, who was destined to become one of South Africa’s most distinguished men, was born in London on January 11 1858. His father, Captain Frederick Crewe, of the l7th Madras Infantry, was a member of an old Cheshire family, the Crewes of Crewe Hall, and his mother was descended from a Huguenot family which had settled in Britain.

He arrived in South Africa in March 1878, at the time of the Gaika-Galeka war. He joined the Frontier Mounted Police, which subsequently became the Cape Mounted Riflemen (CMR), was engaged in campaigns on the Border, and fought in every important engagement in the Basuto war. He was present at the capture of Moirosi’s stronghold and was mentioned in despatches.

Sir Charles joined the old Kaffrarian Bank at King William’s Town in 1881, and the Cape Police two years later. In 1885, he went farming in the Barkly East area and in 1887 he married Helen, the eldest daughter of JM Orpen, of Avoca, New England.

In 1896, Sir Charles entered politics. He helped to organise the South Africa League and he contested the Aliwal North seat at a general election in 1898, losing by two votes, but he became a member of parliament for East Griqualand before the end of the year. When the Anglo-Boer War started, Sir Charles recruited and organised various defence regiments and returned to active service early in 1900. He raised the Border Horse, which became part of a mobile column under his command. He received several mentions in despatches and was awarded the CB for his services.

He settled in East London when the war ended. He represented the Aliwal North constituency from 1904 and was appointed joint whip of the Progressive Party, led by Cecil Rhodes.

A year after he had acquired controlling interest of the Daily Dispatch, Sir Charles accepted an invitation from the prime minister of the Cape, Dr Starr Jameson, to become colonial secretary, along with the portfolios of defence, police and education. He later took over from Arthur Fuller the additional portfolio of agriculture.

The Jameson government was defeated in 1908 but Sir Charles was returned as member for East London, which he represented until he resigned in 1919, retiring from active politics. At the start of World War I, Sir Charles was appointed director of war recruiting and he helped to raise the first South African infantry brigade and other units for service overseas. He was knighted in 1915.

Sir Charles commanded a unit in the German East African campaign with the rank of brigadier-general. He was national chairman of the 1820 Settlers’ Association from 1920 to 1932, and was then unanimously elected honorary life chairman.

Barber said that one of the first improvements made by Sir Charles when he bought the controlling interest was to establish a process engraving department to make blocks for the commercial side of the business. It was only in the 1920s that it began to make pictures for editorial. The respected craftsman Harry Aldous, who started with the Dispatch as an apprentice and who was in charge of the process department for more than four decades, retired in June 1976 after 50 years' loyal service.

Fair treatment for all races

A historic document was found when changes were being made to the old Daily Dispatch library in the 1960s. It was addressed to Sir Charles and came from Cecil Rhodes, who said he would be happy to lend 500 pounds to help the Daily Dispatch buy some new equipment, as long as the newspaper adhered to its policy of fair treatment for all races – an early indication of the liberal values that were to stiffen into active opposition of apartheid policies.

There was an echo of this when Donald Woods was appointed editor in 1965. In his letter of appointment from the chairman and managing director, Mr ID Ross-Thompson, he was reminded the Daily Dispatch had a long-standing tradition of adhering to the Rhodes policy of fair treatment for all. Sir Charles’ farming years at Barkly East and his knowledge of Border agriculture were undoubtedly factors that helped to induce him to extend the circulation of the Daily Dispatch from East London into the country areas, laying the basis of today’s wide regional coverage and support.

Crosby retires

It was another year of change at the Daily Dispatch in 1915. Crosby, who had been in failing health for some time, retired just as the Dispatch took over the Daily Representative in Queenstown, but he continued to serve the community.

Crosby chaired the East London Hospital Board from 1918 to 1923, served as a justice of the peace, became life president of the South African Press Union, was president of such organisations as the Border Agricultural Union, Border Rugby Union, East Anglian Society, and the East London Manufacturers’ Association, and was chairman and co-founder (with Mr Ellender) of the East London Club. He was president of the Buffalo Rugby Club in 1912 when its players won every competition in all leagues. A bequest to Frere Hospital resulted in a children’s ward being named in his honour.

Mr and Mrs Crosby had seven sons and a daughter.

The Daily Dispatch moves to Caxton Street

Sir Charles turned the Daily Dispatch into a limited liability company, and the incumbent editor, BH Dodd, became one of the shareholders. There was another move, this time to a building in Caxton Street, abutting Station Street, and originally a wool store, which coincided with the acquisition of a modern and fast rotary press.

Another two Linotypes were bought, and there was an increase in the size of the page to 24 inches by 19 inches. The make-up of the pages remained prosaic, with single-column headlines that were often dull with repetitive words. They were not to change until 1924, probably because of the influence of a young man from Britain who had joined the staff, Vernon Barber. The newspaper began to be typographically liberated. Different typefaces were used in the single-column headlines. Then came double-column headlines and introductions, along with greater use of illustrations.

Editor BH Dodd took over in 1912
Editor BH Dodd took over in 1912

Dodd takes over from Crosby in 1912

Dodd, a former teacher who had found little stimulation in school work, took over from Crosby in 1912. He joined the staff in 1901 at the age of 30, and although Vernon Barber assessed him a man of retiring disposition, there was no argument about either his energy or writing ability. In the years just after the end of the Anglo-Boer War, he was often the only member of the editorial staff, and he worked long, grinding hours doing whatever was required of him, whether it was reporting, editing copy, or writing a leader.

He had gained an MA at Glasgow University with honours in the classics and English literature, could read and write Greek, was fluent in Latin, and was a store-house of knowledge, which he would reveal grudgingly. He was a scholar who conversed with difficulty, was virtually unknown to his fellow directors outside the office, and found it embarrassing to confront members of his staff when errors were made.

“Bill” Dodd certainly had staying power. He was to edit the Daily Dispatch for 26 years until 1938, but he hardly had time to put up his feet before he was persuaded to become editor of the Daily Representative when many young men were joining the services on the outbreak of war. He would stay at a Queenstown hotel during the week, and return to his home in King Street, Southernwood, East London, at weekends. The house was later occupied by his daughter, Alison, who became curator of the Ann Bryant Gallery. He died in December 1951.

Dodd launches the first Chiel column

Dodd’s influence looms large over the Daily Dispatch. He introduced the first Chiel column, which he presented along with the Robbie Burns quotation “A chiel’s amang you takin’ notes, and faith he’ll prent it,” which adorned the popular column for many years. It exemplified his literary knowledge.

The original Chiel was Francis Grose, who was born in Richmond, Surrey, in 1731. He ran through a fortune left by his father and became a soldier and writer. Grose was collecting material for a book on the antiquities of Scotland when he met Robbie Burns who wrote the humorous poem that included the line “A chiel’s amang you...”

Chiel compilers over the years have included Dodds, Munay McPherson, Donald Woods, Dick Baker, George Farr, Jac van Wyk and Robin Ross-Thompson.

During Dodd’s editorship, in July 1928, the company installed a new Foster rotary press which arrived to some excitement aboard the Clan Grant, but a wise management decided to retain the old Hoe press as a standby – in case something went wrong. The Foster was to serve the company well until it was replaced in June 1967. It had hardly bedded down when the world suffered the most severe economic depression of the 20th century. These were tough times for the Daily Dispatch, as they were for thousands of other companies, and it called for measures unprecedented in the newspaper’s history.

The Dispatch experiences its most difficult financial crisis

With a severe fall-off in advertising and revenue, Sir Charles felt he had no option in 1931 other than to call for a temporary reduction of 10 percent in all salaries. He said it would save 2,000 pounds a year. Although the cut was unpopular, there was no indication of serious dissent. Jobs were scarce and millions of people all over the world were struggling to survive.

Sir Charles said in his appeal that he preferred to call for a 10 percent sacrifice rather than make anyone redundant. Other economies were also made. The paging was reduced and less use was made of expensive wire services. The judicious cut-back in expenditure was a success in that it enabled the company to get through probably its most difficult and protracted financial crisis, albeit caused by external circumstances.

BA Steer becomes the sole proprietor

Sir Charles had selected BA Steer, who was then in the civil service, as his private secretary during World War I when he became director of recruiting. In 1917, Steer was appointed business manager of the Daily Dispatch. When Sir Charles drafted the company’s articles of association in 1921, following the purchase and incorporation of the Daily Representative, he named Steer as life governing director to succeed him in the event of his death. Sir Charles died on July 21 1936 at his home in Woodleigh, East London, and Steer became the sole proprietor for 16 years.

GL Steer, journalist son of Bunny Steer, was commissioned by the directors to write a biography of Sir Charles at a cost of 500 pounds. He completed it late in 1939. Lady Crewe died in April 1938. Vernon Barber was a Steer devotee. Barber said he placed implicit trust in his executives and did not interfere with them unless there had been a divergence from principle or policy. He had vision and sound business sense, Barber said, and the newspaper moved ahead under his control. The capital of the company was doubled without the shareholders being asked for any extra money.

ID Ross-Thompson takes over from Steer

The position of governing director fell away when Steer died on July 16 1952 and Mr ID Ross-Thompson, a distant relative of Sir Charles’s, who had worked with Steer for 25 years, became chairman and managing director of the company. He also became joint trustee with the Standard Bank of the Crewe Estates, thus, in effect, exercising the authority of governing director. 

Ivan Denis Ross-Thompson had been born in India, where his father, Colonel IF Ross-Thompson, commanded the 26th Punjab Regiment. He attended an English public school favoured by parents in the colonies, Haileybury, near Hertford, and joined the Standard Bank in London. He transferred to the East London branch in 1926 and two years later became a shareholder and director of the Daily Dispatch. He joined The Kaffrarian Rifles during World War II, and was transferred to the intelligence department in 1941. He was with the cipher section throughout the Abyssinian campaign, and later in Madagascar.

Ross-Thompson retired in July 1984 after 56 years with the company, which included a record 32 years as chairman. He did not neglect community input, being president of East London Rotary Club and East London Golf Club, and served both the 1820 Memorial Settlers’ Association and the SA National Tuberculosis Association.

Vernon Barber, editor from 1938
Vernon Barber, editor from 1938

Vernon Armitage Vernon Barber becomes editor in 1938

Vernon Armitage Vernon Barber, a Yorkshireman frequently referred to as Jock, became editor in 1938. When he retired at the end of 1963, he was just one year short of beating the 26 years BH Dodd had held the editorship.

The influence of this tough, noisy and gregarious newspaperman was profound. On January 6 1941, he presided over the installation of a new telex system connected to the South African Press Association in Johannesburg which was able to receive news and sports reports from all over the world at 60 words a minute.

Page layout was modernised and he made the change to front-page news on November 1 1955. His quarter of a century in the hot seat included the war years 1939–45, with its staff shortages, the era of apartheid from 1948 on, and the exit from the Commonwealth. Journalists constantly complain of space problems but Barber, along with other South African editors, faced extreme difficulties. Paper restrictions imposed from April 28 1942, meant that the Dispatch could publish no more than six pages on four days of the week. Barber announced that from May 4 1942 it would not possible to publish sports items, or angling, bowling or golf notes.

Barber faces the crisis of a complete power failure

Barber faced another crisis on November 21 1953 when East London had a complete power failure after more than 12 inches of rain fell in 36 hours. On November 22, for the first time in its history, the Daily Dispatch appeared as a single sheet, issued to readers with due apology. The page was assembled by hand from individual letters cast in metal and printed on a hand-operated press.

Management decided to make sure it would never happen again. Standby generators which were secured in case of another breakdown in the main supply were to prove their worth repeatedly, even if there has never since been a power shutdown of such proportion.

1960: another era of considerable change and modernisation 

The 1960s proved to be another era of considerable change and modernisation for the Daily Dispatch. On May 21 1961, a service was inaugurated for readers who wanted to phone in their advertisements, and at the end of the year the Daily Dispatch started a daily page specially for women. This was destined to end during the feminist era of the late 1980s, just as an earlier experiment with an edition for black readers was abandoned in face of dislike for what was considered separatism.

There were a number of significant events during the year that Barber retired. On April 1 1963, the selling price of the Daily Dispatch was increased from two and a half cents to three cents. It was the first increase since December 1949.

The newspaper’s first colour advertisement

Before the month was out – on April 24 1963 – Daily Dispatch staff succeeded in modifying the press to print the newspaper’s first colour advertisement. The advertisement, published on page three, was an extraordinary achievement on the Foster press, which had been installed in 1928 and was not designed to print colour. Technical director Binks Arnold, who worked on the modifications, still recalls it as a masterpiece of innovation.

The Daily Dispatch acquires the building at the corner of Cambridge and Caxton streets

On November 12 1963, the Daily Dispatch acquired the building designed by Sir Herbert Baker at the corner of Cambridge and Caxton Streets formerly owned and occupied by the Union Castle Company to house accounts, advertisements and circulation staff.

In November 1964, Don Kenyon joined the Daily Dispatch as cartoonist. This talented Xhosa-speaking Transkeian, whose brother, Basil, captained a Springbok rugby team, decided to retire as a magistrate and to give full rein to his artistic talents. His cartoons were to grace the newspaper for more than two decades, they were to appear in a book on South African cartoonists, and he was to be honoured with a posthumous exhibition of his work at the East London Museum.

It was a measure of Don Kenyon’s talents, and his qualities of integrity, that he remains the unique Daily Dispatch long-time cartoonist. Many others tried to fill his shoes, either as Daily Dispatch staff or as freelances, but he proved a difficult, perhaps impossible act to follow.

Murray McPherson became the new editor at the age of 57 but he had to retire with eye and heart problems after a year in office. He was a gentle and scholarly person, which are some of the attributes of the ideal editor, but plainly his health was not good enough to withstand the rigours of the job.

The appointment of Gordon Qumza to the editorial staff in 1963 could be seen as a portent of change in South Africa. Qumza, who was a key member of the reporting staff for many years until he retired, was awarded a grant by the US Government International Education Exchange to tour America for four months. He played rugby for Transvaal for three years as flyhalf and centre and had been a national selector on the African Rugby Board of SA.

The growing need for better communications culminated in June 1964 with the installation of an automatic telephone service.

Donald Woods
Donald Woods

Donald Woods becomes editor in 1965

Then came an editor who was destined to become internationally known, and certainly the most famous in the Daily Dispatch’s 122 years. Donald Woods became editor in February 1965, at the age of 31. He was born on December 15 1933, of Irish stock at Elliotdale, Transkei, where his father owned a trading station. He was educated at De La Salle College, Christian Brothers, Kimberley, and the University of Cape Town, where he studied law for five years before becoming a journalist.

He started on the Daily Dispatch and then spent two years working on newspapers in London, Wales and Canada before returning to the Daily Dispatch in June 1960. Before he became editor he had rapid all-round experience as reporter, sub-editor, political correspondent, parliamentary correspondent, columnist/leader writer, assistant editor and deputy editor.

Woods recruited staff from overseas as well as from various parts of South Africa and during his editorship, the newspaper grew from 18,000 circulation to 33,000 by 1977. It became one of the most profitable in the country, after the Sunday Times and The Star.

Photographer Don Watson makes his mark

Photographer Don Watson, who joined the staff in the 1960s, made his mark with some excellent work before deciding to join a national magazine in Cape Town. He distinguished himself as one of South Africa’s top feature photographers. Other cameramen who worked on the Dispatch in the 1960s and 1970s included John Woodroof and Les Bush, both of whom were to become award-winning nationally known photographers.

The Daily Dispatch became the first newspaper in South Africa to have a proper leader page with a mix of leader or editorial, Chiel, and feature articles. Woods made his decision after discussions with Glyn Williams, chief sub-editor of the Western Mail, Cardiff, Wales, who had been visiting East London. The Daily Dispatch leader page was similar to those of other South African daily newspapers – a mix of entertainment-type ads and fill-in edit material, with editorial taking whatever space was left over.

Woods worked to persuade a management ever mindful of advertising revenue to take the advertisements elsewhere and give him a full page every day. The first such leader page was published on March 2 1966. It was a not insignificant step forward for the Daily Dispatch, which gained immeasurably in prestige, and the example was eventually followed by every other national newspaper.

More improvements followed

There were other improvements. Archie Taylor, who later left for Natal, was an excellent news editor with overseas experience. The late Phil Jones, an extremely good page layout man, came from Wales and did fine work before joining the Rand Daily Mail, and later the Sunday Times. Jones, an asthma sufferer for much of his life, died a comparatively young man after a heart attack, his potential still not fulfilled.

Glyn Williams was appointed night editor in April 1966. Woods built up a strong editorial team, with George Farr as his deputy, the experienced Ted Holliday as assistant editor, Fred Croney as chief sub-editor, David Denison as his deputy chief sub-editor, and rugby authority Percy Owen as sports editor.

Donald was staunchly anti-apartheid. He saw early on the inevitability of the failure of apartheid, the growing isolation of this country and majority rule. He is also loyal to concepts of justice, to organisations that do right and to friends who do likewise. He developed a friendship with another charismatic man, Steve Biko, that was to change his life. Donald was persuaded that Biko was fighting for the upliftment of blacks, without the aid of whites, but without violence. Woods saw him as a prime minister of a future South Africa.

Steve Biko dies in police detention

When Steve Biko died in police detention, Woods had already come to the conclusion that the whites-only parliament was irrelevant. He had gone to Jimmy Kruger, the justice minister, and urged him to take great care of Biko while he was in detention. He had pleaded with Kruger for his release. He said he was not a man of violence.

Kruger received him politely at his home on a Sunday, but Donald, already well known because of his fierce anti-apartheid stance and brushes with various police officers and government ministers, became more of a marked man. Woods had said even in his earliest days as editor that he felt his ongoing campaign against the government and apartheid would one day land him in trouble, but he rationalised it would be he who would face the music. That was more acceptable, he felt, than the newspaper itself being banned, with all the consequences of a gap in the life of the Border, loss of jobs, even perhaps the collapse of the company.

When Biko died in detention, Woods was extremely upset. Biko’s death marked a watershed in South African history and Woods, with his political vision, saw it where many did not. It was the beginning of the end for apartheid, as it concentrated even more the world spotlight on South Africa, and made certain much greater isolation, and the boycott of the country, institutions and goods. On the day of Biko’s death, Woods and Glyn Williams worked through lunchtime designing the page one for the next day with John Horlor, then managing director of Demaprint, the colour printing subsidiary. Donald suggested a big colour picture of Biko and the words "A hero of the nation" in English and Xhosa. It was a significant departure from the style of the Daily Dispatch, and is regarded as one of its more historic issues.

Woods is banned for five years

Woods was on his way to the United States when he was arrested at Jan Smuts Airport, Johannesburg, on November 19 1977 and banned for five years for writing and speaking publicly about government responsibility for the death of Biko. There were only two words in the main headline the next day: "Editor banned". There was no need to say which editor.

He and his family were subject to considerable harassment by agents of the government. Shots were fired at his home. A package containing a T-shirt sent by a well-wisher was intercepted by security police, opened, and the T-shirt impregnated with acid. His youngest daughter, Mary, was injured when she put on the T-shirt. Slogans were daubed on the walls outside his house.

Woods and his family flee to London

Faced by both persecution and the prospect of five years of isolation, virtual house arrest, and subject to constant security police surveillance, Woods, his wife Wendy and five children escaped to Lesotho and subsequently London, as told in the 1988 Universal Studios film Cry Freedom. He lived in exile in London until his return to work as associate director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg.

In exile, he wrote six books on the South African issue and briefed 37 heads of government, urging strong pressure against the apartheid state. He also helped to raise funds for the education of more than 100 young exiles, and to campaign for the release of South African political prisoners. He was awarded four honorary doctorates – from Brandeis University and the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and Richmond College and the University of Kingston in London – and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. He became the first private citizen in history to be invited to address the United Nations Security Council. He was given the freedom of the city of Atlanta, Georgia, and also of Osaka, Japan, and in 1996 had a London street named after him in a major housing development now officially named Donald Woods Gardens.

Donald Woods had been one of the young lions appointed as directors in the 1960s. With Frank Streek as general manager, Woods became editorial director. George Farr was his alternate, Terry Briceland was marketing director and Len Beacom technical director. Another young director, accountant Peter Eastwood, who emigrated to Australia, was replaced by Ian Kaye-Eddie.

Charles Beningfield and Joe Kelley, two fine leaders and craftsmen

In the composing room there were two fine leaders and craftsmen in the day works manager Joe Keeley, who learned his trade in Britain, and the night works manager Charles Beningfield, who later became managing director of The Representative, Queenstown.

Beningfield recalled that 1972 was the last full year of the hot metal era at the Daily Dispatch. He said that during one steamy December evening in the composing room, editor Donald Woods, a cricket fanatic, announced he was going to plan the make-up of the back sports page. With deadline looming, Beningfield told night foreman John Verheul, who later took charge of a Dispatch commercial printing subsidiary, that he would work on the page with Woods. Beningfield worked to Woods’ instructions amid good-humoured banter but had to inform the editor when he announced himself satisfied that his layout filled only half the page.

Beningfield became the dutiful works manager with his eye constantly on the clock when Woods said he would quickly go to editorial and get some sports pictures to fill the empty space. He told the editor there was no time, and he would have to fill the space with a dummy advertisement for the first edition. Beningfield said a disgruntled sports sub-editor was still working on the replate at half past two that morning with the editor having long departed to bed. He told the story with the emphasis on the humorous, pointing out that in the hustle of getting a newspaper to bed, even the best of intentions can go wrong. He emphasised the calibre of Donald Woods – a brilliant writer and formidable journalist who has achieved much. “We are all very proud of him,” he said. “He was an immensely popular member of the family.”

Senior staff given the opportunity to study overseas

This was again a period of considerable change. Senior staff was given the opportunity to study overseas by Frank Streek as general manager. Streek himself, Briceland, Beacom, Eastwood, Kaye-Eddie, John Horlor, George Farr, Glyn Williams, Fred Croney, Phil Farrant, Binks Arnold, David Denison and Jac van Wyk attended intensive management courses at business schools in the US and Europe. Woods also widened his horizons with visits to Britain and the US.

The knowledge and experience was to serve the company well in the decades ahead. Farrant, for instance, was to spearhead the company’s move into electronic publishing – a task taken on by John Churchill when Farrant retired. The Dispatch was first in the field in the country with the optical reading of typed copy, which was basically a primitive electronic precursor to today’s computers, although it was found to be rather clumsy in practice and gave way to the successful Hastech system in February 1986.

Dispatch was the first newspaper in SA to offer full-colour facilities

Woods was editor when the company took the bold step of being one of the first newspapers in South Africa to offer full-colour facilities to advertisers and readers. It was decided to buy an additional press and set up a subsidiary company, Demaprint, managed by John Horlor, on the west bank of East London. A Swedish-designed Halley-Aller press, made under licence by Baker Perkins in England and generally considered the Rolls-Royce of offset machines, was bought for R587,501 and commissioned in 1972, the Daily Dispatch centenary year.

Full-colour advertisements and news or feature pictures were printed up to 10 days before publishing date. This required close co-operation between advertising, editorial and Demaprint, and strict adherence to deadlines. After the advertisements and editorial pictures had been printed at Demaprint, the newsprint was re-reeled and taken to the Daily Dispatch for use on the scheduled day. Considerable skill was required both at Demaprint and at the Dispatch to ensure correct register when the news and advertisements of the day were printed around the colour advertisements. It was pioneering work in South Africa by the Daily Dispatch, which was looking ahead to the day when instant run-of-press colour for advertisements and editorial would be available on a daily basis.

The decision to buy the Halley-Aller was not without one significant casualty. The financial director, Peter Eastwood, who was against the move, left the company and emigrated to Perth, Australia. It had been considered Demaprint would contribute to company profits with a combination of work for the Dispatch and full-colour contract work for other companies. The insistence on quality at all levels from negatives and colour separations through to finished product resulted in excellent work, which was commended both locally and nationally. But in a rapidly changing environment, with more companies acquiring full-colour presses, it became more difficult for Demaprint to secure sufficient work in a region away from the main urban conurbations. In practice too, the exercise of double printing and re-reeling with considerable wastage of newsprint and ink was to prove costly.

But Demaprint was not the only problem that would face the Dispatch after it had registered an excellent after-tax profit of R251,882 in the financial year 1969–70. The company’s ventures into building and glazing, to move away from over-reliance on the publishing industry, had seemed promising but were to prove troublesome by the mid-70s. There was one notable success. A small security company, Night Hawk Patrols, which had been developed under Donald Card, was sold profitably for R87,000 in 1973. A decision by Ross-Thompson to retire as chairman and managing director in February 1975 was a precursor to management upheaval that would coincide with the financial problems facing the company, stemming from investment outside the publishing base. Frank Streek, who had been with the Dispatch since 1960, first as assistant manager and then general manager, was appointed chairman and managing director when Ross-Thompson retired in February 1975.

Unprecedented turmoil at board level

Unprecedented turmoil at board level followed shortly afterwards. Streek resigned from the company as from December 31 1975, although he took leave from August of that year. Ross-Thompson returned from retirement to resume as chairman and managing director. A short announcement in the Daily Dispatch stated that Streek was to practise as a specialist consultant to newspapers. He later emigrated to Canada. Ian Kaye-Eddie was appointed managing director in August 1976 but he too resigned in November of that year, before emigrating to Perth, Western Australia.

Terry Briceland brings stability and direction at a difficult time

Marketing director Terry Briceland, who took over as managing director in January 1977, was to give the company stability and direction at a difficult period. When he retired as executive chairman of the Dispatch, he had been with the newspaper for nearly 40 turbulent and testing years, 18 of them as managing director. Under his leadership the newspaper grew. The goals of surpassing the circulation of the Evening Post, the Eastern Province Herald and then the Weekend Post, all operating in a richer and more populous region, were achieved. Briceland, who was born in Durban, joined the Daily Dispatch in 1956 after working with the Argus Group of newspapers. He became advertisement manager in 1960 and marketing director in 1966.

Alan Beaumont is selected as financial director

Alan Beaumont was selected as financial director. Beaumont, a chartered accountant, who had been in charge of John Orrs in East London, was to prove crucial to the financial direction of the Dispatch over the next two decades. Briceland was also instrumental in securing the services of Bernard Payne as advertisement manager, in succession to the long-serving and faithful Andy Heunis. Payne, who had had experience on newspapers in Wales, New Zealand and the US, proved to be a true professional with particular expertise in classified advertising, which he developed significantly, together with an excellent deputy in Val Sonnenberger. His loss was felt when he decided to return to Britain in 1983, and there was something of a vacuum in the advertising department until Angus Robinson arrived to show the strength and experience that had been nurtured in the Cape Times.

Trevor Falkenberg – an expert in the use of colour in newspapers

There was quiet strength in the competent and diplomatic Trevor Falkenberg who had the difficult task of compiling each day’s dummy and trying to reconcile the often conflicting demands of management, editorial, works, advertisers and clients. Falkenberg became an expert in the use of colour in newspapers.

Early during their management, Briceland and his fellow directors made two crucial decisions – to close the Demaprint press on the West Bank and to free the talent within the company. Briceland said they gave competent people initiative and room to move, telling them that if they took reasoned decisions and they proved to be wrong they would not be castigated. The closing of Demaprint stemmed a financial drain, as did evacuation from the investment in the building industry. The winding down of RAH Bruce and Sons, Umtata, which began in 1975, culminated in a final liquidation in July 1977.

The company bought a new Harris press with full-colour run-of-press facilities for R1.5-million and concentrated on moving into a new era of high-tech publishing. This spelt the end of the Demaprint venture. Sufficient outside contracts could not be secured to enable it to stand alone and the press and other equipment were sold in March 1983. John Horlor resigned as director in June 1983.

George Alfred Farr becomes editor in 1978

In 1978, George Alfred Farr became editor, Donald Woods having gone into exile in England. George Farr was born on December 5 1919 at Aliwal North and was educated at Queens and Selborne Colleges. He was the first recipient of the Crewe scholarship at Selborne. He joined the Daily Dispatch on January 2 1937, when he left college. He was to serve a remarkable 50 years with the company.

During the war he was an officer with the Natal Field Artillery (2nd Field Regiment SAA) and was awarded the Military Cross in 1942 for gallantry in the defence of Tobruk when he was wounded and taken prisoner. The then Lieutenant Farr, who was later promoted to major, spent the remainder of the war in prisoner-of-war camps. Farr rejoined the Daily Dispatch after the war and became chief sub-editor, assistant editor and deputy editor before succeeding Woods. He became a director of the company in 1965 and was later appointed vice-chairman.

George Farr had the difficult task of consolidating the Daily Dispatch editorial staff and leading it through a period of considerable pressure after the department had undergone its most traumatic period in history, with the banning of Woods. It was of course unprecedented to have an editor banned, and to lose him into exile. Woods and his family had obviously sacrificed much in the fight against apartheid.

Farr tackled the job with typical grittiness and tenacity. He was editor for nine years through the pressure-ridden years of the late 1970s and 1980s, as a government under siege both internally and externally imposed severe restrictions on the reporting of turbulent events. Towards the end of his editorship the situation became even more difficult as the government imposed a state of emergency that coincided with considerable upheaval in Ciskei and Transkei, which the National Party government had decreed were independent states.

 In 1985, the Daily Dispatch sports a new-look masthead

Even amid the pressures, technical changes were not neglected. On September 10 1985, the Daily Dispatch sported a new-look masthead in lower case. Readers were advised it was time for a change to a more modern look; lower-case letters were easier to read than capitals.

Glyn Williams, editor from 1987
Glyn Williams, editor from 1987

Farr retires and Glyn Williams becomes editor in 1987

George Farr, who had been in failing health for some time, retired as editor early in 1987 but remained a director of the company. He died the following year. The deputy editor, Glyn Williams, became editor in May 1987. Williams joined the Daily Dispatch in April 1966 as night editor after working for newspapers in his home country, Wales. Williams, who had met Donald Woods when they were both with the Western Mail, the Welsh national morning newspaper, as sub-editors, had been chief sub-editor of the Mail for five years. He had also worked for six years on weekend editions of a national Sunday newspaper, the Empire News. Williams subsequently became an assistant editor on the Dispatch, and was appointed deputy to Farr when he became editor.

In addition to his work on the Dispatch, Glyn Williams launched the successful weekly Indaba inside the company stable. Leslie Xinwa, who went on to a successful career in broadcasting, edited Indaba for a while. Williams’s basic editorial policy for the Dispatch was the company could not bring out a London Times or a Washington Post – it had neither the staff nor the capability – but that it could produce the best newspaper in the world for the Eastern Cape: in other words, regional news got priority, national news was next, and then came international. 

The Daily Dispatch is banned for three weeks in Transkei in 1979

Williams was editor during a period of great change in South Africa as white rule gave way to the black majority. The Daily Dispatch had long been used to pressure in various ways from the national government but the situation worsened with the arrival of the so-called independent states of Transkei and Ciskei, with autocratic leaders in Kaizer Matanzima and Lennox Sebe, respectively.

They tended to treat their countries as personal fiefdoms and were notoriously touchy to press criticism, and even accurate reporting on events they would rather had not been recorded. The Dispatch was banned for three weeks in Transkei in 1979 by the personal edict of Matanzima, who had objected to a factual report written by the man in charge of the Umtata bureau, Peter Kenny. Matanzima ordered that Kenny be escorted out of Transkei immediately.

Matthew Mooneiya was also unceremoniously ordered out of the homeland. No reason was given for the expulsion. In May 1980, Sydney Moses, who was at the Umtata bureau, was jailed briefly by the Transkei authorities. Moses, who again was merely doing his job as a conscientious journalist, successfully sued the Transkei government for wrongful arrest.

Sales of the Dispatch suffer

Lennox Sebe stopped short of banning the Daily Dispatch but sales suffered when he stopped all government employees reading the newspaper. It was generally acknowledged by other South African editors that the Daily Dispatch faced more intense and complex problems than any other daily newspaper in the country. As a former editor of the Cape Times, Tony Heard, wrote: “The Daily Dispatch has always been between the rock and a hard place.”

In February 1990, the situation changed with the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of political parties. There were new military leaders in Transkei and Ciskei, who had taken power away from the Matanzimas and Lennox Sebe. In Transkei, General Bantu Holomisa was to prove more amenable to the press but the Ciskei’s Brigadier Oupa Gqozo was to prove touchy and difficult after an initial honeymoon. In addition there were considerable third-force activities, adding to the upheaval in the region. There was less harassment from the FW de Klerk government but there were newer pressures from the newly freed political and trade union groups who often had hazy ideas on press freedom and non-partisanship.

The Dispatch experiences turbulent times

In turbulent times, shots were fired at Daily Dispatch delivery vans. Loads of newspapers and vans were hijacked and set alight. Daily Dispatch offices in Umtata were occupied by 15 members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) for a week during January 1993, at the same time as they threatened retailers and distributors with reprisals if they sold the Daily Dispatch. The PAC blamed lack of coverage of its activities for its militant action, although it had never made a formal complaint. The problem was solved when Briceland and Williams had a protracted meeting with members of the PAC in Butterworth.

A delivery van was hijacked near Butterworth during the same month, and another van was stopped from entering Transkei by a group of political militants. Early in February of that year, a Daily Dispatch delivery van was burned out at Ilitha, Ciskei, when gunmen fired shots at the driver, David Hendricks, and destroyed his load of newspapers. It was also a period of considerable labour difficulties as political groups adopted militant tactics that enforced boycotts, go-slows and stayaways. Daily Dispatch staff was forced to join the stayaways, resulting in many delivery problems.

Circulation manager Henry von Dresselt and his staff showed the greatest resilience in coping with these additional problems. During this tense and most difficult time, the newspaper stuck to its task of trying to print the news as objectively as possible. The staff continued to show their loyalty and, on many occasions, their bravery – sometimes in situations of extreme danger, such as the Bisho massacre in 1992.

Despite considerable difficulties, the Daily Dispatch continued to grow

Despite the many considerable difficulties, the Daily Dispatch showed its resilience by continuing to grow and prosper. On November 19 1992, an All Media and Products Survey revealed the Dispatch was the most widely read newspaper in the Eastern Cape with 172,000 readers every day. Profits in the year to June 30 1992, were up 11 percent to R2.56-million. Despite the political turmoil, unrest and tough economic conditions, Dispatch Media still managed a 5 percent increase in earnings in the first six months of the financial year 1992–93.

Fred Croney retires at 65

There was also inevitable sadness with the departure of long- time staffer Fred Croney, who had officially retired in 1987 at the age of 65, remained as special assistant to the editor until July 1992. His dedicated and hard-working association with the Daily Dispatch spanned more than 40 years. During his career he was racing editor, sports editor, news editor, chief sub-editor and assistant editor.

Croney, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for service with the Royal Air Force during World War 11, never shirked a task and remained cool under the most extreme pressure. Editors Woods, Farr and Williams all acknowledged how much they owed to his support.

Les Gardner, editor of the Mercury (King William’s Town) for 22 years and a doughty journalist who was a compendium of knowledge on South African sporting history, died in 1991, aged 77.

Len Beacom retires in 1993

The warm-hearted technical director Len Beacom, who had celebrated the 40th anniversary of his joining the company on May 8 1992, decided to retire in May 1993 at the age of 67. His successor was the conscientious and dependable Binks Arnold, a long-time member of the Dispatch staff whose ability to stay the course was exemplified by running 10 Comrades and ten Two Oceans ultra-marathons.

Beacom, who had joined the Dispatch as a machine minder in jobbing department, had been technical director for nearly 30 years. Before he retired, Beacom, who was born in Harrismith and educated in Bloemfontein and Ireland, masterminded a move to recycled newsprint. He recalled that a press room was constructed to house a new three-deck Viceroy rotary that began rolling in June 1967 at a total cost of R479,000. The press room was adjacent to the editorial western wall, which was buttressed temporarily with beams. Although the news editor’s room was perfectly safe, there was some apprehension as it seemed bereft of the previous supporting building and overlooked the diggings.

It was an opportunity not to be missed by pranksters on the staff who enlisted the aid of cartoonist Don Kenyon surreptitiously to paint realistic cracks on the strategic wall. The first entrant to the room halted, and then beat a hasty retreat to safer quarters until he too was let in on the joke.

Beacom recalled too the historic night in the press room when dignitaries were assembled to see the rotary producing its first sparkling new colour. Amid the excitement the protective door of an inking roller running at thousands of revolutions a minute inadvertently had been left open. A staff member bending to make an adjustment brushed the roller slightly for an instant and his overalls were ripped completely off, leaving him standing in his underpants. The man, shocked but otherwise unhurt, said: “Thank goodness they were junk overalls.”

Beacom avowed that he and Donald Woods saw a flying saucer at night on the outskirts of Cathcart when returning from a business trip to Queenstown. An article on it duly appeared in the Dispatch. Beacom said the craft landed in a valley. They stopped the car and Woods said: “Let’s go down and have a look.” Beacom quickly said: “You go down and if you don’t come back, I’ll be able to tell people what happened to you.” There was no further investigation, and they returned to East London, convinced it had been a flying saucer, though without confirmation.

He also recalled the episode of the cake that had been brought in to editorial to celebrate a birthday. It was duly handed to an editorial assistant for cutting up in preparation for morning tea but the refreshments came and went without the cake. When the assistant was finally located, the mystery of the disappearing cake was solved when he said: “But you told me to cut it up for the boys.”

The Daily Dispatch is sold to Times Media

There were changes in the financial base as control moved from the Crewe Trusts to directors, to a listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, de-listing, and finally the sale of the Dispatch, one of the last two independent daily newspapers (Natal Witness, Pietermaritzburg is the other) in South Africa to Times Media (the present-day Tiso Blackstar Group). The listing of 14.5-million shares at 75 cents each on the JSE took place on the black day of November 19 1987, when there was panic on the floor with blue chips going at bargain prices but with no buyers.

The Daily Dispatch, which was used to crises, took it in its stride and reckoned the timing could have been worse. The shares had already been 13 times oversubscribed, though it took many months for the shares to recover as they dropped to 45 cents. With little trading in the shares, which did not reflect the underlying value of the investment in the pay-TV channel M-Net, Briceland said it was felt in 1993 that de-listing was the best option. This took place in August of that year and the publishing interests were bought for R21.5-million by a consortium of Terry Briceland, Alan Beaumont, Times Media and Standard Merchant Bank.

At the same time Dispatch Media sold all its shares in M-Net to Nasionale Pers Beperk for R24.6-million, representing a price of 635 cents a share. The company had an effective 3,863,888 shareholding in M-Net and M-Net Holdings, whose only asset was a 61 percent shareholding in M-Net. Minority shareholders in the Daily Dispatch received 310 cents a share.

In 1993, Glyn Williams retires 

In August 1993, Glyn Williams retired as editor and editorial director at the age of 65 after 27 years' service. During a retirement speech he acknowledged the debt he owed to all members of staff throughout the building, though in particular in editorial his deputy, Robin Ross-Thompson, his two assistant editors David Denison (sport) and Fred Fitzgerald (night), and a relatively unsung heroine, secretary Shelagh Butler. For years Williams discussed the composition of page one and any problematical stories late at night by phone with the patient Fitzgerald. Williams said he was sometimes so tired that he eventually got a telephone installed in his bedroom and took the calls lying down on his bed. One night, when Fitzgerald was reading a long but boring story with political complications, he was startled to hear the normally placid Fitzgerald shouting “Hello . . . hello . . . hello” down the line. He had fallen asleep on the night editor. Williams says he believes he had the presence of mind to say: “Right, Fred, I’ll leave it to your judgment.”

Gavin Stewart becomes Williams’s successor

Williams’s successor was Gavin Stewart. Stewart joined the Daily Dispatch from Rhodes University, Grahamstown, where he had been professor and head of the department of journalism. He had previously been a senior lecturer in journalism at Natal Technikon. Stewart, who had worked on a number of newspapers, including the Natal Witness, Golden City Post, the Northern Reporter, the Sunday Times and the Rand Daily Mail, studied at the universities of Natal, Witwatersrand and South Africa.

Terry Briceland and Alan Beaumont sell their majority holdings to TML

There was another big change in 1995 when Terry Briceland also reached retirement age. He was the last of the directors who had been appointed early in the 1960s. He and financial director Alan Beaumont, who announced he would retire at the end of 1996, decided to sell their majority holdings to Times Media Limited (TML). They said they felt TML, with which the Dispatch had had a relationship of more than 20 years, was the only organisation that offered the necessary professional criteria as acceptable new owners.

Basil Haddad joins the company in 1990 and introduces significant changes

Beaumont stayed on as managing director for a year before handing over to the new MD, the company’s financial director, Basil Haddad, who had joined the company in 1990. Haddad, who also became a director on the board of Times Media Eastern Cape, the Port Elizabeth-based subsidiary of TML, announced another new direction in company policy when he said the Dispatch would employ a human resources manager to improve relations with staff and to allow management to concentrate on producing a better product. His new board included Binks Arnold (technical), Les Martin (financial), Angus Robertson (advertising and marketing), Gavin Stewart (editorial) and Henry von Dresselt (circulation).

Another link was broken when Mickey Belchers died in 1996 at the age of 84 after a 61-year-long association with the Dispatch. He had been appointed non-executive chairman of the board in 1984 after serving as vice-chairman. He retired as chairman in 1993. In a tribute, he was described as a man of integrity with a razor-sharp mind. Despite the changes the Daily Dispatch continued to reach new heights, with sales of 39,147 in the period January to June 1996 – the highest in its history, at a time when the circulations of most other newspapers in South Africa were declining. The continuing quality of the staff was emphasised when chief reporter Louise Flanagan received the national 1995 award for courageous journalism for her investigations into third-force activities in the Eastern Cape.

The Daily Dispatch continues to stay abreast of technological changes

The Daily Dispatch continues to stay abreast of technological changes with an electronic picture desk in editorial, computerisation of the photographic department, and a revolutionary move to page layout by computer through the Quark system early in 1996. It is ready for the 21st century. On September 10 1997, the Daily Dispatch gave birth to Dispatch Online, the internet version of the newspaper. Despite a slow start, the site managed to amass more than 100,000 pageviews per month within a year.

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