Canada’s first newspaper

John Bushell: Canadian newspapering’s unlikely father

By Stephen Kimber

Truth to tell, it was hardly an auspicious beginning; certainly not the event you would choose to become one for the history books.

But it was.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on March 23, 1752, in a newly opened print shop in the heart of the freshly founded city of Halifax, John Bushell ran off the first few copies of a modest little publication that consisted of one single half-sheet of foolscap printed on both sides. Today, we celebrate that first edition of the weekly Halifax Gazette as the true beginning of the newspaper industry in Canada. But in the delicate phrasing of a later historian, John Bushell’s newspaper was “not calculated by either its size or character, to produce much of a sensation in the world.”

The closest to an acknowledgement of the historic nature of the event was a brief note from Bushell in the Gazette itself explaining elliptically why publication had been “so long delayed.” There was no local news; most of what passed for world news – a “madman” had thrown a stone at the pope’s head, London had a new Lord Mayor – was already months old by the time it was published.

“The advertisements,” noted one critic, echoing a complaint common among some newspaper readers even today, “are perhaps the most interesting department of the paper.”

Proctor and Scutt, for example, were peddling “choice butter” by the quarter barrel while Leigh and Wragg could provide the newspaper’s readers with everything from tutoring in spelling, reading and writing to instruction in the “true Italian Method of Book-keeping.”

Part of the problem for anyone trying to divine historic journalistic meaning from the first edition of Canada’a first newspaper is coming to terms with Bushell himself. He was certainly no Joseph Howe, the legendary Nova Scotia editor and statesman who won freedom of the press in Canada. Neither was he even any Batholemew Green, Jr. Green, the man who almost went down in history as the founder of Canada’s first newspaper, would have been Hollywood-perfect for that role. He was the Massachusetts-born grandson of one of America’s first printers, not to mention the son of the founder of the Boston News-Letter, the first continuously published newspaper in the United States. Green himself apprenticed at his father’s newspaper before launching his own, the Boston Gazette.

But the Boston printing world was crowded and cut-throat. In 1751, at the age of 50, Green decided to start over in a less competitive place. There were no printers in Halifax, the new port town the British had founded two years before as a bastion against the French forces at Louisbourg. And the government there was anxious to have a printer who could get its message out to the new settlers. So, in August 1751, Green loaded his printing press and his belongings aboard the sloop Endeavor and set sail for Halifax.

Unfortunately for him – and for history – he died within five weeks of setting foot in Halifax. Though his own two grown sons were also printers – fourth generation – neither apparently wanted to take over from their father in the Halifax venture. So Green’s former business partner, John Bushell, moved from Boston to Halifax in January 1752 to assume control.

Bushell, 36, had been Green’s printing partner for at least seven years in the late 1730s and ’40s. His imprint was on at least 25, mostly religious titles.

Bushell was a competent printer but as Isiah Thomas, who wrote a history of early printing in North America, put it: “The proportion of liquid groceries in his bill was much larger than it should be in any well ordered household.” Bushell often owed money and was prosecuted several times for unpaid bills.

In fact, some suggest Bushell’s business wouldn’t have survived at all if not for the hard work of his daughter Elizabeth, a “swift and correct compositor.”

The colonial government helped too, employing Bushell as the King’s Printer. That may explain why Bushell hired Robert Bulkeley, who also just happened to be the Provincial Secretary, Judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court and Brigadier General of Militia, as his editor.

By the time Bushell died in January 1761, the Gazette was well and truly established. Though it briefly lost its government patronage in 1766 when it challenged British authority by publishing an issue of the paper without the required official stamp during the lead up to the American Revolution, the Gazette eventually managed to get itself back in official good graces.

The newspaper is still published today, though under a different name – the Nova Scotia Royal Gazette – and now as the official voice of the Government of Nova Scotia “for proclamations and legal notices.”

More importantly, John Bushell’s modest little newspaper spawned a newspaper industry that today boasts more than 100 daily and 1,000 community newspapers with a total circulation of five million daily and 11 million weekly papers from coast to coast to coast.

As Bertha Bassem put it in a monograph marking the 200th anniversary of that first publication: “Regardless of [Bushell’s] limited achievement, he is one of our first printers and he . . . played an important part in the communications story across the country.”

He did. His Halifax Gazette’s beginnings may have been anything but auspicious but they were certainly historic.”