Sooner or later, modernity has to come even to the oldest institutions – and so, the oldest continuous publication in the UK, and one of the oldest in the world, has gone online. The London Gazette is not just the country’s oldest newspaper: it is also the worthiest.
It contains no gossip, no interviews, no photographs, no inaccuracies, nothing but official announcements set out in bald detail, without commentary. It is a newspaper for the Leveson era, telling its readers only what the authorities decide that they need to know.
The Gazette owes its origin to the Great Plague that swept London in 1665. It was so virulent that King Charles II and his court decamped to Oxford for fear of contagion, and did not want to touch London newspapers. So they launched the Oxford Gazette. When the court returned to the capital, the Gazette followed. Never sold on the streets, it was posted to subscribers.
It was the first official newspaper of record, the outlet through which the King communicated with his subjects. It recorded when Bills that had passed through Parliament received Royal Assent, when writs for parliamentary elections or by-elections were issued, bankruptcy notices, military appointments and appointments to some public offices, the granting of awards and medals, and royal proclamations. When a new military appointment or an act of gallantry was recorded in the Gazette it was said to have been “gazetted”.
Sometimes, a birth or marriage is considered important enough for the Gazette. On 22 July this year, for instance, it noted that “this afternoon, at 4.24 o’clock, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a son at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.”
Whereas other newspapers find the volume of news to fill the available space, the Gazette adjusts its size to the volume of information the Government wishes to impart. A century ago, on 31 December 1913, there was not much that needed saying, so a one-page supplement was issued, containing a single item: “THE KING Commands that the Court shall wear Mourning for Two Weeks from this day, for Her late Majesty Sophie, Queen Dowager of Sweden. The Court to change to Half Mourning on Tuesday, the 6th January, 1914. And on Tuesday, the 13th January, the Court to go out of Mourning.”
By contrast, issue 17,028, dated 22 June 1815, was four pages of close type. It was a dispatch hand-delivered to the War Department, from Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, which described how a huge French army led by “Buonaparte” had attacked the Austrians, under Marshal Blucher, on 19 June, and how on the following day the Duke had drawn up his army “in front of Waterloo”, and had beaten the French, at terrible cost.
By going online, it will add nothing to the amount of unchecked gossip sloshing around the web, but it will offer readers an immense archive, a cornucopia of facts and small insights into the world as it used to be.