160 years of news: From the British Colonist to today's Times Colonist

The Times Colonist and its predecessor newspapers have been part of life on Vancouver Island from the days of hand-fed presses to the internet age.

With bloodlines that can be traced straight back to the British Colonist, founded on Dec. 11, 1858, the Times Colonist is proud to be the oldest newspaper in Western Canada.

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In its fourth year, the Colonist reported on the birth of a new city called Victoria. In its ninth year, it commented on the creation of a new country, one called Canada. In its 13th year, it reported that British Columbia would become a province in Canada.

In other words, the Times Colonist is older than the city, older than the province and older than the nation. It wears its history proudly — if controversially — by pointing to Vancouver Island’s origins as a colony in its name.

We have covered every prime minister Canada has had, every premier British Columbia has known and every mayor in Greater Victoria. We have reported in detail on seven British monarchs and 30 U.S. presidents and their policies.

The first known effort to found a newspaper in Victoria was by the pioneer Roman Catholic missionary of the northwest coast, Bishop Modeste Demers, who sponsored a publication called the Courier. Paul de Garro, a count from Paris who had left France in 1851, helped edit it. Two editions of the paper were published in French, but there was no support for it and it faded away.

The Victoria Gazette had a better run, starting in June 1858. It appeared twice each week until November 1859, under the auspices of the firm Whitten, Towne and Co.

The only early newspaper to survive was the British Colonist. The newspaper was founded by Amor De Cosmos, a man who might be described as a visionary, or as an eccentric, or, less kindly, as a nut case.

For a century and a half, the Colonist, the Victoria Daily Times and their successor the Times Colonist have been the primary — often the only — source of information for Victorians.

De Cosmos printed just 200 copies of the first British Colonist. It had four pages, printed on an old hand press. The cost was 25 cents, or a one-year subscription for $6. An advertisement of 12 lines would cost $5 a month.

The first copy went to the paper’s first subscriber, Edward Cody Johnson.

In 1863, De Cosmos sold the paper to a group of five employees under the name Harries and Co., as other morning newspapers started appearing. The paper moved into new quarters on the west side of Government Street across from Trounce Alley. There was a new press, but Jack (Pegleg) Larkin was still hand-cranking the rollers.

That was also the time of the paper’s first merger. The Chronicle had bought the one-year-old Press in 1862 after the two papers waged a costly war that left both on the verge of bankruptcy. The Colonist and the Chronicle merged under the name Daily British Colonist and Morning Chronicle, and David W. Higgins and T.H. Long became proprietors. The Chronicle name was dropped in 1873.

Also that year, the Colonist built a new four-storey building on Government Street, today the Bedford Regency Hotel. On Jan. 1, 1887, the Colonist dropped the word “British” from its nameplate and became simply the Daily Colonist.

By then it faced competition from the Victoria Daily Times, which made its first appearance on June 9, 1884, as an afternoon rival to the morning Colonist. In the days when newspapers identified themselves with political parties, the Times was the first Liberal paper in British Columbia.

Early shareholders of the Times were John Grant, an MLA who later became mayor of Victoria; Robert Beaven, who had just completed a term as premier; and Dr. George Lawson Milne, a local physician. John Campbell McLagan became the editorial manager, and the first editor was Thomas Gardiner.

McLagan sold his one-third interest to Harry Munn, who then dealt it to William Templeman, who quickly assumed full control.

Templeman invested heavily in his daily, and as it grew, its office was moved three times. In 1893, he installed the best typesetting equipment available in Canada. In 1900 he set up the first photo-engraving plant in B.C., and 10 years later built the new Times building at Fort and Broad streets. That remained the newspaper’s home for more than 40 years.

In the 1890s, the Colonist moved to the east side of Broad Street between Yates and View streets with a press that could run 20,000 copies in an hour.

When Higgins retired in 1886, the paper went to W.H. Ellis and A.G. Sargison, who sold it in 1892 to James Dunsmuir. Dunsmuir, the son of coal baron Robert Dunsmuir and a future premier, bought the newspaper to bring its editorial policy more in line with government views.

In 1906, it was sold to Sam Matson, who set the conservative policies of the paper. He died in 1931 and his sons — first Jack, who died in 1934, and then Tim — took over. The paper retained its conservative bent.

Templeman, the owner and publisher of the Daily Times, became a senator and cabinet minister under prime minister Wilfrid Laurier. When he died in 1914, the evening paper was run by three trustees before a local businessman, Griffith R. Hughes, took it over.

There were, however, financial irregularities at the Spencer family’s chain of stores, where Hughes was in charge of the books. When the dust settled, Hughes was in jail and the Spencers owned the Times.

In 1950, Calgary businessman and publisher Max Bell bought the Colonist and the Daily Times and brought them under a single corporate umbrella, Victoria Press Ltd.

In May 1951, the papers moved from their old downtown locations to a new building at 2631 Douglas Street, next door to the present operation. Bell brought the two papers into the new FP Publications Ltd. national chain in 1959.

The two newspapers moved again in 1972 to the current location at 2621 Douglas, the site of the old North Ward School.

In 1980, Thomson Newspapers bought FP and merged the Victoria papers into the Times Colonist, with a morning and afternoon edition. The first edition of the new newspaper appeared on Sept. 2, 1980.

In 1983, the afternoon edition was dropped and the Times Colonist became a seven-day-a-week morning newspaper. A new press enabled it to add colour in 1989.

In 1998, Southam Newspapers bought the Times Colonist from Thomson, and in 2000 CanWest Publications became the paper’s owner when it bought the Southam group. After CanWest, the newspaper was briefly owned by Postmedia, and since 2011 it has been part of Vancouver-based Glacier Media.

This year, the Times Colonist has moved production of the newspaper to the Black Press plant in Ladysmith.

Many other changes have been made in recent years. The Times Colonist has launched several magazines and is expanding its digital reach through its website and through social media.

Technology has provided us with new ways to view the world, and the Times Colonist has been providing a window to the world for 160 years.

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