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History of our land ingrained in walls of Belfast Telegraph

Former Belfast Telegraph editor Ed Curran, who worked in the newspaper’s offices for almost 40 years from 1966 to 2005, reflects on the history and significance of its Royal Avenue building as it goes on sale after 145 years.

Published 06/10/2015

Belfast Telegraph building in 2015
Belfast Telegraph building in 2015
Belfast Telegraph building in 1980s
Belfast Telegraph building in 1935

On my first day, almost half a century ago as a trainee journalist in the Belfast Telegraph’s landmark building in Royal Avenue. I climbed the old staircase to the editorial offices on the third floor.

 The stone steps were hollowed concave by the feet of generations of Telegraph staff who had used the building since it opened in 1886.

The editorial floor resounded to the clattering noise of typewriters. The air was thick with cigarette and pipe smoke. The desks of the journalists were a male preserve, a far cry from today’s newspaper, which has its first female editor.

In the pre-computerised world of the 1960s, the Telegraph was still produced much as it had been in the Victorian era. Looking back now, life in the Tele was very much upstairs, downstairs, with shades of Downton Abbey in the relationship between an austere editor and his staff. The Telegraph lunch room on the fifth floor had a special table in the middle, where only senior figures in the company could sit.

In contrast to the silence in today’s internet newsrooms, the whole building reverberated to the sound of telephones, typewriters, telex and linotype machines and, of course, the old presses rolling every afternoon on the ground floor.

If the managing director two floors above wanted to know if the paper was printing, he had only to put his ear to one of the columns which held up the boardroom ceiling and experience the vibration.

The Telegraph has always been much more than a compendium of daily news. Even in the 1960s, the staff numbered 750, of which only 20% at most were journalists.

Aside from its content of news, features and sport, the paper boasted the biggest marketplace in Northern Ireland, where cars, property and household items were bought and sold in their millions. Trades and businesses across this community depended on the paper’s pulling power in advertising to sustain their livelihoods.

Outside on the street, on my first day in August 1966, the vans in their familiar Telegraph livery were lined up from Library Street to Carrick Hill to carry more than 200,000 papers across Northern Ireland, with the help of 1,200 newsagents and  an army of 2,000 newsboys and girls.

To look back now in this iPad age of instant communication to the Telegraph offices I first encountered, is to recall a very different world. Long gone are the typewriters, the message boys and girls who ran between desks delivering journalists’ copy,  and the din of linotype machines, translating the words into hot metal pages for the paper, or the smell of bromide emanating from the dark room to which photographers would rush to develop their pictures by their own hand.

A newspaper is said to be the first draft of history, but it is also a mirror of the society it serves and since the late 1800s that has been the mission of the Belfast Telegraph. The new Telegraph building in 1886 reflected the growth of Belfast as the industrial revolution turned the city into one of the fastest growing in Europe.

Many early readers of the Telegraph worked in the rapidly-expanding and highly profitable shipbuilding, engineering, linen, tobacco and tea importing businesses.

Electrically-powered wire machines had revolutionised the transmission of news from around the world. As the public appetite for information became insatiable, newspapers were launching across the British Isles.

The Telegraph became a must-have daily purchase and its Royal Avenue base was at the forefront of  printing technology,.

Two new printing machines raised production of the evening paper to 40,000 copies an hour. There were stables close by for the horses required each afternoon to haul thousands of papers through the streets of Belfast on flat-bed trailers. The Telegraph  building, constructed by H&J Martin of red brick from Ormeau, granite from Castlewellan and sandstone from Dumfries, cost £7,800, the equivalent of millions today. No wonder the nearby Provincial Bank of Ireland, which financed the owners, William and George Baird, frequently reminded them to contain their ambitious spending plans, but to little avail.

The Baird brothers knew their newspaper was on a roll. As Belfast grew with the success of its great industries, so did the circulation and advertising of the Telegraph.

Very soon, the original building needed a further major extension. When readers complained that the Telegraph had too much sport on Saturdays, the Ulster  Saturday Night was launched in November 1894, on pink paper. Within two years the title changed to Ireland’s Saturday Night, to enable a Dublin edition with an emphasis on Gaelic games to go south each weekend by special train.

From that time until the 1970s anyone visiting the Telegraph building would have seen dozens of mechanical typesetting machines, which  took up so much room that a five-storey extension was required in 1898.

Old newspaper offices are special places, spanning the lives and times of generations, the bricks and mortar bearing witness to events, from the momentous to the mundane, from the global to the parochial. The Telegraph is no exception. The history of Ulster, before and after the partition of this island, is deeply engrained in its walls, as evidenced in the excellent history of the paper written by the late Malcolm Brodie.

In his book, ‘The Tele’, he recalls Sunday, September 3, 1939, the day the Second World War  broke out. As a 13-year-old boy he walked past the Telegraph on his way from church in nearby Clifton Street. “Newspapers captivated me as a youngster ... I wondered what was going on behind the scenes in that building with its famous clock, a landmark in the city.” Brodie’s book more than answers his curiosity about the paper and the building in which he worked so illustriously for so long.

The archives of Telegraph front pages, stories and photographs down the decades  are testimony to the often-troubled history of this society.  From the days of the great Home Rule debate — “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” — to the signing of the Covenant and the Easter Rising; from  the birth of Northern Ireland to the savagery of its sectarian conflict; from the tragedy of the Titanic to the slaughter of the Somme; through the Great Depression of the 1930s and from one world war to another. Through it all, the Telegraph headquarters were a daily focal point for imparting news to the people of Ulster.

The building survived destruction twice in its 129-year history, from the bombs of Nazi Germany in 1941 and, 35 years later, from the IRA. The scars of shrapnel from two huge German bombs which exploded just outside in Royal Avenue can be seen to this day on the old front porch alongside this inspirational inscription: “Despite severe damage, the Belfast Telegraph was published without interruption.”

In September 1976, the IRA achieved what Hitler could not,  severely damaging the old building, killing one employee and injuring many more. However , as in 1941, the paper was published the next day with a defiant editorial message for the bombers.

Hardly a week passed at the height of the Troubles without bomb scares and frequent evacuations of the Telegraph building.

However, there were also many proudly heart-warming occasions such as the emotional return of Mary Peters to Belfast with her Olympic gold medal in 1972 and of Barry McGuigan in 1985 as world champion, with receptions in the Telegraph board room before they set off down Royal Avenue to the City Hall past cheering crowds.

Nor did violence deter further expansion and investment. The glass-walled press hall was built and new state-of-the-art colour presses installed in the heart of troubled Belfast in the 1980s at a cost of £25m. The Telegraph launched its sister title, Sunday Life, and signed major contracts to print national newspapers.

At the same time, the Telegraph was an essential platform for news, comment and analysis during the most turbulent political times, leading to the subsequent peace process and agreement between unionists and nationalists.

In that respect, the code at boardroom lunches for local political, church, business and community leaders, as well as successive Secretaries of State, was one of strict confidentiality, all discussion totally off the record, and to my knowledge kept as such.

If the walls in Royal Avenue could talk, what a unique insight they might provide for anyone hoping to understand the past, the present and maybe even the future for Northern Ireland.

The Telegraph building, soon to be vacated by this newspaper and sold, stands testimony to those who worked there through  the most testing of times and who continued through all the difficulties and divisions in our society to produce a newspaper which displayed a sense of balance, fairness and integrity and which kept its head while many others were losing theirs.

 The editorials, drafted in the old leader writers’ room in October 1968 and passed for publication by my first editor, Dr John Sayers, stand the test of time today as Stormont struggles to find a new compromise.

“Good community relations are a basic condition of life. They must mean more than keeping the peace. All must be enabled to enjoy them.

“If Northern Ireland can’t be kept by fair means, it can’t be kept by foul. The enemies of Northern Ireland are a very small body of extremists of one kind or another. The vast majority of the population are responsible citizens, all of whom have a  contribution to make and all of whom must have equal rights.”

  • Ed Curran was Editor of the Belfast Telegraph from 1993 to 2005. ‘The Tele — a history of the Belfast Telegraph’ was written by the newspaper’s late sports editor, Malcolm Brodie, and is published by Blackstaff Press.

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