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Thomas Latimer - reforming journalist

Page updated 1 December 2008

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Thomas Latimer became one of the 19th centuries leading reforming newspaper editors, from the pages of the provincial Western Times. It was the acquisition of the Western Times in 1901 by James Owen that led to the birth of the Express and Echo in 1905.

Latimer was born in Bristol on 9th August 1803. His family moved to London in 1807, where the young Thomas gained a basic education. As a young man, he was an enthusiastic walker and would walk to Brighton and back within 3 days, including a day by the sea. He reputedly walked from London to Exeter morning 'till night, in three days, a distance of 170 miles.

In London, he was apprenticed to a printer, and became interested in self education, to which end, he was instrumental in setting up the London Mechanics' Institute to give lectures in science and the arts, to London artisans.

In 1827, he obtained a post as a reporter with Thomas Besley's Exeter News and Devon County Chronicle. He reported from the Assizes at Exeter Castle and was witness to several executions at the County Gaol. These experiences deeply affected Latimer and he would fight for penal reform and the abolition of the death penalty for the rest of his life. His appointment with the Exeter News was terminated after a year and he had a spell in Plymouth. Latimer returned to Exeter in 1830, to work for Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth Gazette. Parliamentary Reform was in the air and Latimer was not shy in promoting it through the pages of the Gazette.

In January 1831, the Right Rev. Dr. Henry Philpotts was installed as the Bishop of Exeter. Philpotts was very conservative, and had gained a reputation as a bully and a hypocrite. Latimer, exposed the Bishop's dealings to the public. He wrote articles alluding to the Bishops political conniving to become Bishop of Exeter and his hypocrisy when voting for the Catholic Emancipation Bill, which he had previously opposed. The enraged Bishop pressured Woolmer to quietly drop Latimer from the Gazette. However, Latimer was soon snapped up by the Western Times, in Fore Street, and a golden age of Exeter journalism commenced.

It was Latimer who was the first to introduce a steam press to newspaper production in Exeter. The 300 copies per hour with two men working the old manual press was increased to 1400 copies, allowing the price of the Western Times to drop from 7d to 4½d, and circulation to rise from 1,624 in 1837 to 2,163 in 1839. In the 1840's circulation rose to 3,500.

The 1832 cholera outbreak saw the Bishop absent himself from Exeter, giving Latimer dozens of column inches of copy. The Bishop was accused of having "run away from the cholera and abandoned his sacred duty of visiting the sick." (Lambert 1939)

"Our Diocesan is at Teignmouth with his family, for fear of the cholera at Exeter, it is reported. It is said his Lordship will not return to his palace whilst the cholera rages at Exeter. If his episcopal duties had not called him to Exeter, we should have fancied his Lordship's presence would have been most useful where the cholera is. The worthy Mayor of Exeter is indefatigable, though he is one of the unpaid, and we should have hoped, so well paid as his Lordship is, that he would have assisted at the cholera board, especially at such a time as this." - Western Times.

In 1835, Charles Dickens was sent down by the Morning Chronical from London to cover the general election. He met Latimer at the hustings in Exeter Castle, and the two men became firm friends after Dickens rested his notebook on Latimer's back, as the two sheltered from a heavy rainstorm. The friendship would later prove invaluable as Dickens would feed Latimer with the latest news from London.

Latimer tirelessly campaigned for penal reform, voting reform and the rights of the common man over that of the gentry. In 1835, he campaigned to save Edmund Galley from the gallows for murder, after the judge misdirected the jury and his, so called, accomplice confessed that Galley was not present at the crime. Galley was acquitted, but was still transported for life to Australia. Latimer's efforts through the Western Times scored only a partial victory for the innocent man.

Thomas Latimer also campaigned to have the City Corporation and Improvement Commission, among others, reformed and for them to be more democratically accountable.

In 1848, Bishop Phillpotts took Latimer to court for defamation, after the Western Times reported a speech by Lord Seymour, MP for Totnes, attacking the Bishop and accusing him of lying about the dismissal of the Reverend James Shore, from his living near Totnes. Shore had been ordained to the Church of England, but through a variety of circumstance, had taken the oath to become a dissenting minister, breaking the letter of the law and incurring the Bishop's wrath. Many predicted a year of hard labour for the reforming editor, and despite a partial summing up by the judge, the jury found in Latimer's favour and he was acquitted of the charge and welcomed back to the office of the Western Times by a crowd of several thousand. The crowd then swept down to Palace Gate and give three groans for the Bishop, as church bells rang out across the city - Phillpotts, quickly returned to his home at Anstey's Cove. Latimer summed up the case with "The result establishes this fact, that no matter how high a man may be in station, or lofty in bearing, whether lay or clerical, peer or prelate, on all public matters his conduct may be freely discussed."

The Western Times had gained a reputation for championing the yeoman and working man, under Latimer, and even after his retirement, Thomas Latimer continued in his reforming editorials and articles. It was during his retirement, some 40 years after the event, that Latimer took up the case of Edmund Galley again, and after a long campaign gained a pardon and £1,000 compensation for the, now very, elderly Galley. Even his rival newspaper, Trewmen's Exeter Flying Post printed a tribute to Latimer over this case - "Many times and oft has the veteran penman of the Western times issued his broadsheet advocating the claims of the wronged and oppressed, and pleading in the cause of justice. Making known Galley's injustice and long-suffering is no isolated case in his labours."

Latimer died on January 5th 1888. Paradoxically, a memorial stained-glass window to Thomas Latimer was installed in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral, close to a window dedicated to his episcopal nemesis, Bishop Phillpotts. Both windows were destroyed in the 4th May 1942 bombing raid.

Thomas Latimer

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