When John Mitchell arrived in Newcastle in the final year of the eighteenth century there were already three newspapers produced in the town. The first newspaper on Tyneside - ‘The Newcastle Gazette or The Northern Courant, Being an Impartial account of Remarkable Transactions, Foreign or Domestic’ - was published in 1710 (copies can be found in the Advocates Library in Edinburgh dated Saturday 23 December to Monday 25 December 1710). While most towns in eighteenth century struggled to support a single newspaper, Newcastle published three ‘respectable family weeklies’ (the Courant, the Chronicle and the Advertiser) as well as ten periodicals. None of these publications had advanced views on political subjects. By the nineteenth century the press performed a political function, not simply as a campaigning arm for the middle classes but a voice for progressive reform. The first such organ was John Mitchell’s Tyne Mercury (the ‘only newspaper published on Tuesday betwixt York and Edinburgh’), which first appeared on 1 June 1802 and whose offices were originally on Dean Street.
John Mitchell, who arrived from Carlisle in 1799, was born in Ayr and apprenticed to Wilson, the Kilmarnock printer of Rabbie Burns. In Newcastle Mitchell set up shop on Pilgrim St and published chapbooks and moral tales for street hawkers. His statement of arrival was the publication of a directory of Newcastle in 1801 (‘printed and sold by J Mitchell, Dean St, Price Two Shillings’). By this time Mitchell had moved to larger premises, finally moving to St Nicholas’ Churchyard in 1811. Mitchell was a substantial bookseller, with an extensive stock, but gave up retail in 1809. His politics were radical, and at first he struggled against opposition from pamphleteers who disliked his politics. He was lampooned in the theatre and a public war with an actor started up when Mitchell responded by publishing a pamphlet. He struggled to find a readership and had difficulty getting customers to advertise. His friends rallied round including the Rev William Turner and a number of able writers contributed to the paper.
By the time of its tenth anniversary the Mercury was established among the political organs of the north. Indeed, in 1812 Mitchell could point to a circulation of 1,550 copies – a figure more than double that of any other Northumberland or Durham newspaper. Current events, notably the wars with revolutionary France, played a part in the success. The established papers published at the end of the week, but Mitchell would travel to London to pick up the latest news then head back to Newcastle to publish on Tuesday, before any of the London papers had arrived. The low cost - the Mercury cost 6d – helped too. Papers could be found in reading rooms, and a single copy might be shared between a group of men over a pint and the contents discussed. In April 1814 – the month Napoleon surrendered - Mitchell claimed that his circulation stood at 2,475 copies.
Mitchell was editor, sub-editor, reporter and publisher: his writing was described as ‘strong, vigorous and trenchant’. During the winter of 1818 he fell ill and died, aged 47, on 24 April 1819 at his house Chimney Mills. He was radical in religion as well as politics and had chosen his burial plot at the bottom of his garden where he’d planted lilacs, laburnums and other shrubs. The Unitarian Rev William Turner of the Hanover Square Chapel conducted the service. Mitchell’s obituary described him as an ‘ardent advocate of the principles of civil and religious liberty’. His sons carried on the paper with W. A. Mitchell as editor who, writing as ‘Tim Tunbelly’, waged war against the excesses of the Corporation. The brothers, William and Henry, sold the paper in 1842. They founded the Newcastle Magazine in 1820 which ran for 11 years. In 1836 William became a member of the Town Council.
M. Milne, 'The Tyne Mercury and Parliamentary Reform', Northern History, 14:1 (1978), 227-42.