Some may have seen it coming, but when the Mid-Ocean News folded in 2009, with one day’s notice, it was a shock. The paper had been a news staple for nearly a century. Then in 2014, the Bermuda Sun folded, just as abruptly, after half a century in business, leaving Bermuda with one newspaper, the Royal Gazette.
The closure of two newspapers in six years was a reflection of the fate of newspapers around the world. With the emergence of the Internet and other forms of social media, newspapers are struggling to stay afloat. It is against the background of such sweeping changes in media that we look back at the lives of three pioneering publishers from previous eras: Donald McPhee Lee, the first editor of the Royal Gazette, Samuel Seward Toddings Sr., founding editor of the Mid-Ocean News and A.B. Place, founder and long-time manager of the Bermuda Recorder.
The Royal Gazette was the sixth newspaper to be established in Bermuda. With the exception of a four-month period in 1964 when the Bermuda Sun was a daily, the Gazette has been the only daily since 1921. First published as a weekly on January 8, 1828, as the Royal Gazette, Bermuda Commercial and General Advertiser and Recorder, it dominated the media marketplace for most of the twentieth century.
Founded to print official government documents, it was and has remained (with the exception of the period between 1998 and 2012 when the Progressive Labour Party was the governing party) the newspaper of record, and is regarded as pro-government.
Depending on one’s political viewpoint, it is either loved or despised, but like Donald McPhee Lee, the Gazette is, without question, a survivor.
Donald McPhee Lee
Lee’s tenure as editor lasted 55 years, but before even taking up the post, he was lost at sea and given up for dead. He was born in Prince Edward Island, and learned the printing trade in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His father, Robert, had worked with the British military in Bermuda and put his son’s name forward after learning of a vacancy on the island for a King’s printer.
The post was publicly funded as the chief responsibility of a King’s printer was printing government documents. As Marion Robb wrote in A Brief History of the Royal Gazette: “In the simpler days of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the surest way to get a newspaper started in the ‘remote Bermudas’ was merely to import a printer who could be depended on to bring along his type and press and who was expected to shoulder the incidental responsibilities of editor and publisher. Even on a four-page journal, these were considerable.”
Lee was hired and arrived in Bermuda in late 1827 with his whole family—his parents, brothers and sisters—and his printing press. He then returned to St. John’s to pick up his type. On October 29, 1827, he set sail for the return voyage to Bermuda, the only passenger aboard a Bermuda schooner, the 80-ton Sally Ann, expecting an uneventful journey. The harrowing trip lasted nearly three months.
Lee and the crew of six encountered the first of three storms on their third day at sea and things went from bad to worse. With an illiterate navigator and a captain who went blind, Lee was forced to pilot the ship. They ran out of food and water. Lee was certain he would die at one point. Fortunately a ship came to their aid. When the Sally Ann was escorted into Bermuda on January 10, 1828, by a pilot gig, his family was overjoyed to learn of his miraculous survival. The first two editions of the newspaper were put out by his brother David Ross Lee on January 8 and 15.
Lee had recovered enough from the ordeal to publish the next edition on January 22, 1828. From then until his death on his 79th birthday, February 11, 1883, the Royal Gazette came off the presses without fail every Tuesday.
During his nearly 50 years as editor, Lee bore witness to major events of his era: wars, coronations and the abolition of slavery. He wrote an editorial about Emancipation, which said in part: “The rubicon is passed, the step from slavery to Freedom has been taken, a step which for confidence and honest boldness stands unequalled in the Annals of the World…”
In 1848, he called for the construction of a causeway to connect St. George’s to the mainland. He was in the editor’s chair when the causeway opened, 23 years later, in 1871.
Lee published overseas news, weeks after the event, cribbing most of it from foreign newspapers arriving on ships, and from first-hand accounts of ships’ crews.
He published reports of parliamentarian proceedings, court cases and news from Dockyard to St. George’s, much of it filed by correspondents.
The work was long and laborious: he wrote editorials, set type and trained apprentices. The four-page paper was set on manual type by candlelight. The position of King’s printer, abolished during the early twentieth century, gave him the right to use “royal” in the newspaper’s title. Lee also ran a stationery store—as the Gazette’s parent company does today—and published an annual almanac.
Lee, who had a strong work ethic and took few vacations, settled in Bermuda permanently. He married Anne Lightbourn and had nine children, five of whom lived to adulthood.
He was on the job until two weeks before his death. He had started work on the January 30, 1883, edition when he took sick. Upon his death, the Royal Gazette paid tribute, saying he was “a man of practical ideas, and endeavoured to get at the reason of things. He was at once Editor, foreman, and journeyman.”
A subsequent obituary published two weeks later said his long tenure as editor was unusual, “if not altogether unequalled anywhere.” Lee was succeeded by his son Gregory Vose Lee, whose death in 1898 brought an end to the Lee connection with the Gazette. The Gazette became a bi-weekly paper in 1900. In 1911, it stepped up publication to three times a week. In 1921, it merged with the Colonist to become a daily.
Somehow, despite his relentless work schedule, Lee found the time to put the story of his harrowing journey to Bermuda on paper. It was published several months after his death.
These days, his name is familiar to few, but Mid-Ocean News founder S.S. Toddings was a legendary and multi-faceted newsman. A gifted editor, he was also a member of parliament and a church organist, first at St. Peter’s, and following his conversion to Catholicism, at St. Theresa’s in Hamilton.
Samuel Seward Toddings Jr.
He was born in St. David’s in 1847, and according to historian and former Royal Gazette editor William Zuill, his black ancestry was an open secret. But to all intents and purposes, he functioned as a white man.
“At the time, the level of segregation was not what it became,” said Zuill.
Toddings attended the military school in St. George’s and then Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, graduating in 1866 with a B.A. degree. At Mount Allison, he met his first wife, Jane Allison, the niece of the university’s founder. She died two years after their marriage.
Toddings started his career as a junior reporter at the Halifax Herald. He worked there for three years, and then returned to Bermuda. In 1869, he and his brother Lindsay purchased the Colonist, which had been f
ounded three years earlier. He also served as the paper’s editor.
Shortly after buying the paper, he increased publication from every two weeks to weekly. In 1871, he began publishing full reports of parliamentary debates, a critical contribution to the island’s historical record. The Royal Gazette said his reports were never “questioned for their accuracy or fairness.” Toddings travelled from St. George’s to Hamilton taking notes in a shorthand he developed, wearing formal dress, including a top hat, according to William Zuill. He eventually received a government grant for his efforts.
Toddings remained owner of the Colonist until 1907 and served as editor until 1911. He either quit or was fired as editor following a dispute with the new owners over editorial policy. In August 1911, he founded the Mid-Ocean News. As its editor, he enjoyed a reputation for fearlessness and was sued at least once for libel.
Toddings served in parliament from 1904 to 1911 and again from 1923 to 1928. A proponent of widening Town Cut to allow bigger ships into St. George’s, he made his views known in parliament and in his editorials and lived to see his dream become a reality.
Toddings’s tenure as newsman was longer than Lee’s, a record 69 years. Like Lee, he was editor up until the time of his death at age 88, and was highly productive, putting in 10-hour days. Toddings, who had been a strong advocate of a railway for Bermuda, died as a result of a railway accident. He was travelling by rail from his residence in St. George’s to his office in Hamilton and fell while disembarking from the train, sustaining foot fractures and other injuries. He died of gangrene a month later on April 24, 1935.
In its obit, the Royal Gazette described him as “an exceptional, able and far-seeing journalist; the public life of the colony is the poorer for the loss of a citizen of the highest calibre and integrity.” His death was also reported in the New York Times.
Toddings was succeeded by his son S. Seward Toddings Jr., one of two sons he had with second wife, Agnes Costello. In 1962, the Mid-Ocean News was acquired by Bermuda Press Ltd., owners of the Royal Gazette.
Toddings’s death was front-page news in the black-owned Bermuda Recorder. Noting his “distinguished career” and “fearless editorials,” the report also said that “for years Mr. Toddings had been our newspaperman,” perhaps a reference to his black ancestry.
The founders of the Recorder were James Rubain, David Augustus, Henry Hughes and Joaquin Martin, all carpenters and masons, and Alfred Brownlow “A.B.” Place. But it was A.B. Place, a printer who learned his trade at the Colonist (post Toddings), who was the newspaper’s driving force.
The youngest of 12 children, Place was raised a member of the Salvation Army. In 1904, as an 11-year-old, he attended the third International Congress of the Salvation Army in London, where he got to see the Salvation Army founder, William Booth, in person.
But it was another international figure, Marcus Garvey, a man he never met but greatly admired, who was the inspiration for the founding of the Recorder.
Jamaican-born Garvey came to prominence during the early twentieth century, electrifying black people all over the world with his message of black pride and empowerment. When the Bermuda government denied Garvey permission to land in Bermuda and the Royal Gazette declined to print a letter protesting this, Place decided that the time had come for black Bermudians to have their own media outlet.
“It was then that I made up my mind that the black people of Bermuda should have a newspaper and voice of their own, because you know, there was complete segregation of the races in those days,” he told the Workers Voice in a 1977 interview.
The five founders raised £750 to purchase equipment, and the first edition, a four-page, was printed on July 18, 1925, with A.B. Place as manager. Naysayers said the paper wouldn’t last six months. Place would be at the helm as publisher for 47 years, serving primarily as manager and ad man, but also as managing editor, as the need arose.
The Recorder began as a weekly, and was a twice-weekly publication from the 1940s to 1965, when it reverted to a weekly. It grew from a four-page to a 12-page edition and at its height enjoyed a circulation of 5,000. Place recruited a distinguished roster of editors. They included George DaCosta, the first headmaster of The Berkeley Institute, E.T. Richards, the future lawyer and premier, who was then a Berkeley teacher, and lawyer and parliamentarian David Tucker. The support from his wife Julia, with whom he had four children, was invaluable. She put her hand to whatever was needed, from selling advertising to helping put the paper together during the early hours of the morning on press nights.
Veteran journalist Ira Philip got his start at the Recorder and was its parliamentary reporter for many years. His coverage of key battles in the struggle for black Bermudian rights, from the Gordon years in the 1940s to the battle for universal suffrage during the 1950s and early 1960s, put the Recorder at the front and centre of current affairs. Stories about distinguished black visitors who were denied accommodation in hotels received prominent coverage. It also printed international news, with a focus on news affecting blacks in the US, the Caribbean and Africa.
According to Place, the Recorder bested the competition by being the first to print Christmas greetings and the first to run a sports page. He also told a reporter the Recorder’s biggest scoop was reporting the US entry into the Second World War. He heard news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on a radio and published a special edition on the same day.
A.B. Place was also a musician and a golfer and served as president of Ocean View Golf Club. Getting advertising support from white-owned businesses in segregated Bermuda was his biggest challenge, but he was successful at keeping the paper going until his retirement in 1971.
The Royal Gazette praised him on his retirement, noting his courage in starting the paper. “Since then, his ability and tenacity have maintained the newspaper through thick and thin, until it has become a Bermuda institution.”
Place sold the newspaper in 1974, and it was subsequently purchased by Sir John Swan. The newspaper didn’t survive. The last edition was published on July 12, 1975.
A.B. Place died on November 11, 1986, at age 93. Ira Philip said Place’s contribution was “tremendous.” And in his book Freedom Fighters: From Monk to Mazumbo, Philip wrote: “The Recorder developed a personality and a soul which gave dignity and opportunity to the black people of Bermuda that was not forthcoming from other sources. It celebrated their achievements, mourned their losses, defended their rights and articulated their needs.”
In 2008, Premier Ewart Brown honoured A.B. Place with the opening of the A.B. Place Media Room in the Department of Communication and Information as a venue for government press conferences.
Past issues of the Gazette, the Mid-Ocean News and the Bermuda Recorder are available on microfilm at the Bermuda National Library, although the most complete set are Gazette newspapers.
Issues of the Bermuda Recorder (from 1933–July 1975)
and the Royal Gazette (1784–1922) can be accessed digitally through the Bermuda National Library website, www.bnl.bm.