Today I attended the unveiling of a blue plaque in Belfast city centre to honour Francis Joy, the founder of the News Letter at the invitation of Ben Lowry, the News Editor.
Among the prestigious crowd who attended the event at Joy’s Entry where the plaque has been fixed included former First Minister Lord Bannside, South Belfast MP Alastair McDonnell and Geoff Rowlings, the son-in-law of the late Captain Bill Henderson, a former owner of the paper.
Three former News Letter editors, Darwin Templeton, Austin Hunter and John Trew, as well as Chief Executive of Johnston Press Ireland Jean Long, were also among those in attendence.
Current editor Rankin Armstrong thanked the Ulster History Circle and Belfast City Council for their efforts in ensuring that the legacy of Francis Joy is commemorated in this way.
“Francis Joy was indeed an innovator, a pioneer, and an inspirational figure, who used the printing methods of 275 years ago to make an indelible impression on the pages of history,” he told the gathering on Tuesday morning.
“The paper he founded in 1737 has gone on to achieve the incredible feat of being the oldest, continuously published English language daily newspaper in the world.”
A plaque to Francis Joy’s grandson, Henry Joy Mc Cracken, a Presbyterian who was hanged as a united Irishman in 1798, is already erected in the same location, which is in the centre of Belfast.
Mr Joy was born on August 3 1697, in Belfast or Killead, Co Antrim. Family legend suggests he was descended from Captain Thomas Joy, a follower of Sir Arthur Chichester.
It is said that he founded the News Letter after apparently receiving a printing press in lieu of a bad debt.
Faced with a shortage of paper, Francis Joy went into partnership with two other printers, James Magee and Samuel Wilson, to take over a Ballymena paper mill in 1739/40 and then took over another two mills near Randalstown in February 1740/41.
He developed the family business to include papermaking, first in Ballymena and then in 1745 at Randalstown, where he installed a larger mill.
Mr Joy married Margaret, daughter of Robert Martin of Belfast, and had at least two sons by his first marriage: Henry Joy (1719/20-1789) and Robert Joy (1722-1785).
Joy twice petitioned the Irish House of Commons for assistance in his paper making, eventually being granted £200, a considerable sum, in 1749. He was the first to bring a ‘paper engine’, which speeded production into Ulster.
By now his sons Henry and Robert were running the printing business, having taken charge of the News Letter in 1745. Henry and Robert predeceased their father, with the Belfast News Letter being passed to Henry, Robert’s son. On 15 May 1795 the paper was sold to a Scotsman named George Gordon.
Francis Joy died in Randalstown on June 10 1790 at the age of 92, where he had moved on his second marriage in about 1745.
Chris Spurr, chair of the Ulster History Circle, said: “When he published Belfast’s first newspaper, the News-Letter, at the sign of The Peacock, Francis Joy ensured his place in history. That the date of this event is 1737 is remarkable, as is Joy’s long life, stretching almost the full length of the 18th century.
“Two hundred and seventy five years on, the Ulster History Circle is delighted to commemorate Francis Joy’s life and his enduring publication with this blue plaque. The Circle would especially like to thank Belfast City Council for generously supporting the plaque.”
The newspaper will be publishing a forthcoming special supplement to mark its 275th birthday.