WHEN 24-year-old George Simpson produced the first issue of his newspaper in January 1816 he could have had no idea that 200 years later it would still be providing news and entertainment to Wiltshire readers.

The scion of a family of Staffordshire potters who had moved to Truro in Cornwall, Mr Simpson, with financial backing from his father, launched his Simpson’s Salisbury Gazette on January 4, 1816.

It is not known why Mr Simpson chose to set up his new venture in a city where he was not known and was in direct competition with the already established Salisbury Journal, but he found premises in the magnificent medieval Halle of John Halle, now the location for the city’s Odeon cinema.

He immediately fell foul of local opposition and, following an undefended libel action in which he submitted to judgement for damages and costs, he loaded his printing press and other equipment onto wagons and headed across Salisbury Plain to try his luck in the market town of Devizes, which was still benefitting from the recent completion of the Kennet and Avon Canal.

The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, as it was now called, was published from number 10 Market Place, and first appeared on July 1, 1819 and it has hit the news stands every Thursday ever since. 

The printing works were established at the rear of Number 14 Market Place where they stayed until production moved to Swindon in the 1950s.
The offices moved to various locations, including the historic Parnella House, until it too settled down at Number 14, where it was to remain until January 2013.

The founder was a retiring man, devoting his whole energy to newspaper production. He began by being strictly impartial to party politics, as the newspaper is today, but in 1836 the paper came out in favour of the Conservative cause, which it championed for nearly a century.

Mr Simpson held the reins for more than 50 years before handing over to his son, also George, in 1869. George Junior entered his father’s newspaper office as a boy, learning the business in every department so that, by the time he took over, he knew every inch of newspaper publishing, from reporting to distribution.

By contrast to his self-effacing father, George Junior was a public spirited man, who served as Mayor of Devizes in 1875. He ran the paper until his retirement in 1886 when he, in turn, handed over to his son who, to avoid confusion, we may dub George III.

George Simpson III took over control of the paper in 1886 and was its guiding light for many years, although he became mainly concerned, in later years, with the printing and management side of the business.

He was a dedicated countryman for whom country sports were a great obsession. In 1914 he formed a private company, George Simpson and Co Ltd, and went to live in Forest Row, Sussex, though he retained control of the newspapers until he sold out to Westminster Press Ltd in 1932.

His relinquishing of the family business may have had a lot to do with the death of his son, another George, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, during the First World War.

Passing with the Gazette to Westminster Press went the Wiltshire Telegraph, a popular Saturday “pink paper”, which had been published from the Gazette office since it was started in 1877 as a venture of the third George Simpson.

In 1933 the Telegraph incorporated the Devizes and Wiltshire Advertiser, which had been founded in Devizes in 1858 by Charles Gillman, another town mayor. The Telegraph and Advertiser were merged with the Gazette in 1942.

It was in 1895, during the lifetime of the second George Simpson, that there came to the Wiltshire Gazette a young man, John James Slade, who was to have a profound influence on the Gazette. He joined the reporting staff and learned all that there was to know about Wiltshire archaeology, antiquities and country seats.

This expertise virtually guaranteed him elevation to the post of editor in 1914 where he fostered the paper’s literary aspects, his weekly County Notes being avidly read by many beyond the county boundaries.

Another stalwart of the Gazette was James Edward Stone, who was manager of the paper for 35 years from 1906 to his death in 1941. The merger of the Advertiser with the Telegraph and then the Gazette brought G O Wheeler, editor and managing director of the Advertiser, into the Gazette office as editor of the Telegraph and Advertiser.

On Mr Slade’s retirement in 1935, Mr Wheeler succeeded to the editorship of the Gazette, a position he held with distinction for 11 years. He steered the Wiltshire Gazette safely through all the trials and tribulations of the Second World War.

In 1946 the editorship passed to David More, who had been associated with the Westminster Press Group since he joined the London office in 1929. At the end of 1949, Mr More succeeded Hubert Harrison as editor of the Swindon Evening Advertiser.

He, in turn, was succeeded at Devizes by Bryan Taylor, previously sub-editor of the Lincolnshire Chronicle.

In the 1990s Westminster Press put their newspapers up for sale and the group was taken over in a management buy-out under the name of Newsquest.

The group was swiftly taken over by the US-based group, Gannett, the owners of many regional papers and television stations in the States as well as the country’s only national paper, USA Today.

The editor of the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald, as it has been called since the printing presses moved to Swindon in the 1950s, for the last 20 years has been Gary Lawrence, who is now the regional editor for all the papers in Newsquest’s midlands division, based in Oxford.

But he is by no means the longest-serving member of staff in recent years. The Gazette had until recently a reputation for staff staying put for many years. At the funeral of George Simpson II in 1900, three of the six pall bearers averaged 38 years’ service.

Denis Kingman, whose effortless prose delighted readers of the Gazette and its sister paper Wiltshire Times, retired after 55 years. Not far behind were John Leech, who was reporter, columnist and sub-editor for 45 years, and veteran reporter Terry Gaylard, who covered everything from inquests to Devizes Town football matches also for 45 years, retiring in 1990.

Nigel Kerton, who retired in 2012 after 45 years in the reporting game, started out in a newspaper office in Weston-super-Mare, where his family had moved when he was a teenager, before returning to his native Wiltshire to work from the Marlborough office of the Gazette & Herald in Kingsbury Street for the rest of his career, only interrupted by a ten-year stint on the Western Daily Press.

There was much excitement among the Gazette’s male readers and advertisers when an attractive young blonde reporter, Lesley Fox, arrived in the 1970s. But Ms Fox was not just a pretty face and her reporting and writing talent graced the pages of the G&H for 25 years before she took redundancy.

Much to the delight of her erstwhile colleagues, she returned as a sub-editor for some years before her retirement.

Of the many photographers who spent their working lives at the Gazette perhaps the most illustrious was Colin Kearley, who worked for the Wiltshire papers for 40 years and was not just a superb photo artist but inspired great affection among colleagues and readers alike and was a great source of news to the reporters.

Over the years, the Gazette has covered thousands of stories, some of them major national ones that occurred on its doorstep.

Perhaps one of the strangest took place on the doorstep of the Devizes office when, in 2001, Kennet District Council revealed its plans to fell five London Plane trees in the Market Place.

Whatever the merits of the case, the scheme caught the public imagination and there was a huge outcry against it.

Despite a petition of 1,500 signatures and well attended demonstrations, the council’s contractors turned up at 5am one Sunday morning and all but one tree, saved by a local chef who heard the din and climbed up into the branches, were reduced to chippings. The Gazette’s coverage won it the national accolade of Weekly Newspaper of the Year.

Much has changed in recent years, not least the closure of the offices in Devizes, Chippenham and Marlborough, while printing is carried out at the state-of-the-art print centre in Oxford.

And in 2007 the paper, which had been a broadsheet since its inception, was redesigned as a compact. To mark the occasion the paper cteated its own crop circle in a field near Devizes, with the permission of the owner.

In 2001 the paper went fully online and in over the last 15 years the audience has grown hugely. The paper is now a fully-fledged 24 hour a day, seven day a week paper.

But whatever the changes the quality of reporting remains as high as ever and many local people rely on their Thursday Gazette to provide them with news, views and comment from all over the county.