Watford Observer: Static HTML image

The Watford Observer was first published on January 24, 1863, by Samuel Alexander Peacock, son of Watford printer and bookbinder, John Peacock, one of the founders of the town's printing industry in the early 19th Century. A copy of the very first front page is pictured right.

Samuel Peacock was born into the printing industry and saw the area grow and prosper, particularly with the advent of the railway, but was struck by the absence of a newspaper to record parochial matters.

In a leading article on the front page of the first issue, Samuel Peacock explained his vision to provide Watford with a journal to give full and accurate reports of the courts, civic events and affairs, religious and scientific meetings, political issues and overseas news.

The four-page newspaper, called The Watford Observer and General Advertiser for Watford, Bushey and Rickmansworth, was intended to be a paper for the people and by the people. More than a century later, this sentiment holds true.

In those days, almost all small weekly newspapers were printed in London. Three pages of the Watford Observer were produced in the capital and were transported to Watford. These contained the week's general news, political and foreign affairs. The front page, with local news, court reports, parish affairs and general advertising, was produced at the paper's Queen Street offices on a handpress.

Watford Observer: Static HTML image Every week, until 1880 when the paper was printed entirely in Watford, there was a period of tension before the pages from London arrived in Watford: would they be delivered in time for press day? Or would the intrepid delivery boys pictured right be kept waiting? Pages from London may be thing of the past for today's newspaper team but the worries about looming deadlines will always be there.

A cylinder printing machine was introduced in 1865 to speed up production and, by 1866, the circulation increased to include Hemel Hempstead, Harrow, Kings Langley, Aldenham and St Albans.

Samuel Alexander Peacock died in 1880 and the business was left to his widow, Maria, and carried on by his eldest son, Thomas John Peacock. In 1894 Thomas sold his interest to Charles Herbert Peacock who became the sole proprietor.

By 1896, the paper had been expanded to eight pages and the following year the Herts Leader was bought and absorbed. In December 1902 the Berkhamsted Times, Tring Telegraph and Chesham News were incorporated and the title of West Herts and Watford Observer was adopted.

Watford Observer: Static HTML image The company moved to 101 High Street, Watford, where it remained until 1961 when the printing works was transferred to premises in Rickmansworth Road where it was based until 2002. The editorial and advertising departments moved to Rickmansworth Road in 1973.

The move from the High Street was partly economic. The newspaper had grown and was selling around 46,000 copies in the late 1960's. There was a need for a bigger press and the High Street offices were too small to cope. It was uneconomic to run two centres and, although the High Street spot seemed prestigious, the number of callers with advertising and editorial had fallen considerably over the years and nearly all transactions were undertaken by telephone.

The newspaper's offices in Hemel Hempstead and Rickmansworth were closed in the 1970's. Up until then, The Watford Observer had produced a front page for Hemel Hempstead and had a reporter permanently based there.

But newspaper economics were changing. The Evening Echo and Evening Post were launched from a Hemel Hempstead base in 1967. The Echo covered an area from Chesham to Bushey to the borders with St Albans and Hemel and Berkhamsted. The Post covered an area from St Albans to Bedford. Naturally, they took a slice of the advertising revenue.

But another threat to The Watford Observer was on the horizon: the development of free newspapers. In anticipation of a free rival in the town, The Midweek Observer was launched in 1969 and came out on a Tuesday. The strategy was to fill the void a potential rival might seek to exploit and protect the position of The Watford Observer. This publication later became the Watford Free Observer, and is now simply known as the Watford Free.

Another sister newspaper, the St Albans Observer, was launched as a broadsheet free newspaper in 1985. It turned tabloid, only to be relaunched as a paid-for broadsheet in September 1998.

Limited Edition, an upmarket community lifestyle magazine, joined the portfolio of titles in May 1995, and there are now three editions produced from the Watford centre.

In 1973 The Watford Observer scrapped the long-established 'hot metal' technique in which type was set in metal braces and introduced an off-set litho system.

The new system involved copy being keyed on computer terminals and output to a printer on special filmed paper. This would then be waxed, cut and pasted onto the page. The completed page was then photographed to create a negative.

Watford Observer: Static HTML image The company's presses had closed in the mid-1960's. Printing machines were too expensive to lay idle for four or five nights a week, so newspaper groups developed printing centres.

By 1984 the Observer became one of the first regional papers to introduce direct input. Reporters keyed copy on computers rather than typing it out and then handing it to copytakers to rekey.

More progress was made in 1994 when computer setting was introduced allowing sub editors to create the news pages directly on computer screens.

Along with the change in premises and technology, there were a number of changes in ownership.

In 1910 a private limited company was formed and, on the death of Charles Peacock ten years later, his son, D.C. Kim Peacock, became chairman. Kim Peacock played private investigator Paul Temple in the popular radio programme.

In 1957, the Peacock family sold the business and in 1961 the entire share capital was acquired by printers and publishers Merritt and Hatcher Ltd of London and High Wycombe. They in turn were taken over by the Westminster Press division of Pearson, which owned the Financial Times.

In 1996 Westminster Press was sold to Newsquest. The new owners bought the Review Group of titles in St Albans and Watford in May 1998 and later launched a new Review title to cover Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield.

Newsquest was acquired by Gannett, the biggest newspaper publisher in the United States of America, in 1999. Watford Observer: Static HTML image

In 2002 the newspaper moved to the specially built Observer House in the Watford Business Park's Caxton Way.

The Watford Observer's 140th anniversary in 2003 was marked with the production of a limited edition of miniature delivery vans. Just 140 were made, one for each year.

The Watford Observer made a radical change to its appearance when it followed The Times and Independent newspapers and adopted compact format on September 10, 2004.


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