Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Ponteland Observed, part two

By the start of 1984, the Ponteland Observer was circulating in Ponteland, Darras Hall, Belsay, Stamfordham, Matfen, Heddon, Whalton, Prestwick, Dinnington, Kingston Park, Woolsington and Kenton Bank Foot. Its masthead strapline had changed to reflect this fact: no longer was it only 'Ponteland's own independent newspaper', but 'Castle Ward's independent newspaper'. This might seem an odd decision. Castle Ward Rural District, based on Ponteland, had been broken up in 1974, with most of the area remaining in Northumberland within the new Castle Morpeth Borough district, but the most populous areas (other than Ponteland and Heddon) joining the enlarged City of Newcastle upon Tyne within the new metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear. Nevertheless, for many years Castle Ward still existed on the ground, with notices of by-laws and other regulations issued by Castle Ward slow to disappear if they were not superseded, and most obviously the sports centre in Ponteland, which hosted many of the activities covered by the Observer, still carried the name 'Castle Ward Sports Centre'.

Most importantly, the Castle Ward identity pointed towards where Michael Sharman planned to take the business. The circulation and advertising base needed expansion, and a sister title in Gosforth was intended. Gosforth, a distinct community immediately north of Newcastle until its incorporation in the city in 1974, was larger than Ponteland, with many more businesses, but a comparably wealthy demographic. Launch of the Gosforth Observer was scheduled for May; local gossip suggested that it would be a freesheet rather than a paid-for title, but this was never set down in a printed source. In order to devote himself to the Observer, Sharman resigned from the Hexham Courant.

Issue 84, dated 4 May 1984, proved to be the last regular edition of the Observer in its old format. This was a twelve-page issue, the four centre pages being taken up by an issue of High-Lights, the Ponteland High School newspaper. The main story concerned the possibility that a Castle Morpeth Borough Council depot could be converted into a permanent youth centre, superseding the small Ridley Youth Hut in the grounds of Ponteland High School. There were plans for a private hospital on Callerton Lane; and the two smiling young women were from Kirkley, north of Ponteland, having been chosen by the Milk Marketing Board to be 'Dairy Maids' for Northumberland and Tyneside respectively. On the back page, football team Ponteland United were celebrating a 4-0 victory over Annitsford Welfare in the Heddon Homes cup; Ponteland and Kirkley cricket clubs and Ponteland 1st XV rugby clubs celebrated victories too, while six-year-old Scott Dixon had joined Ponteland Golf Club and was pictured practising his swing with his father and grandfather assisting. Inside, the Windsor pub in Kingston Park had seen its leek club undertake a charity bike ride in costume; Ponteland businesses condemned the introduction of trade refuse collection charges by Castle Morpeth council; the Northumberland Theatre Company visited the Memorial Hall with Educating Rita, and assistant editor Susan Calvert interviewed D-Day landings veteran Leslie Salkeld of Dinnington, leaving 'laden with plants', but having heard about his plans to donate his collection of documents, photographs and equipment (pictured) to a new museum at Inverary Castle.

The next issue did not appear as planned on Friday 11 May, only reaching newsagents in the middle of the following week. It was produced under crisis conditions. The first of the 'triple tragedies' announced in the headline was the death of the editor-publisher himself. Michael Sharman had been found dead in the Ponteland Observer offices on the morning of 9 May, with a shotgun beside his body. The story reported that the Gosforth edition of the paper, due to be launched on 11 May, had been put back because of 'production difficulties'. Acting editor Simon Wallace - a business neighbour of the Observer, and a regular columnist - apologised for the 'curtailed edition' but felt sure that readers would understand the conditions under which the paper had been produced. Some of the copy - including the main article on page 3 concerning Gosforth rent arrears, and the article on the property pages about Granvilles estate agents - had clearly been intended for the Gosforth paper. The editorial described Michael Sharman as 'a dynamo whose boundless energy and enthusiasm inspired those who worked with him' and 'who with single-minded determination, proved that a paid-for newspaper serving Ponteland and the surrounding area was a viable proposition.'

Within two or three days of the belated 11 May edition, a further Ponteland Observer appeared, numbered 87 in what may have been a correction to a mistake earlier in the run, but which laid an unintentional emphasis on discontinuity. The differences with its predecessors were immediately apparent. The size of the paper when it was printed at the Bensham Press in Gateshead or (as had been normal for several months up to and including 4 May edition) Compuprint in Swalwell had been 440mm in height by 310mm in width, with the Ponteland Observer logo highlighted within the masthead by the use of blue spot colour. From now on the use of spot colour disappeared, as the paper's new owner had its own newspaper printworks which didn't have that facility. The new size of the paper was 460mm in height by 287mm in width; the paper stock was rougher and the print of a lower definition, with photographs being screened to a lower dpi. The new format could only accommodate five columns of text per page instead of seven.

The main story announced the sale of the title, offices and publishing of the Ponteland Observer to the Tweeddale Press Group of Berwick-upon-Tweed. The new proprietor was Colonel J.I.M. Smail, the seventh generation of his family to own newspapers since the establishment of the Berwick Advertiser in 1808. Much of the story was taken up by a potted history which introduced Ponteland Observer readers to the new sister titles, the largest of which was the Southern Reporter in Selkirk, Galashiels, Hawick, Jedburgh and Kelso, followed by the Berwickshire and Berwick Advertiser in Berwick, Duns and Dunbar, the Alnwick Advertiser in Alnwick and (reflecting Colonel Smail's own background) New Zealand News UK. Most important for the future development of the Observer, though, was the Morpeth Herald, founded in 1854 but acquired by the Tweeddale Press Group from J. and J.S. Mackay of Morpeth in 1983. As Colonel Smail explained, the Herald and the Observer were to be closely linked, sharing advertising and together with the Berwick and Alnwick papers giving 'advertisers by far the biggest coverage available in any weekly newspaper in Northumberland.' Michael Sharman's widow Christina was reported as endorsing the new plan for the paper. The most obvious change would be that the Observer would be broadsheet, but readers were promised it would have the same masthead.

Colonel Smail described the Observer as 'this well produced, independent community paper' and hoped 'we can prove that we warrant the support and encouragement of the people of Ponteland and Darras Hall for this, their own newspaper.' The exploration of the prosperous north-west Tyneside liminal was forgotten and evidently not part of the Tweeddale Press Group's strategy. For the moment, though, this was all; though it was noticeable that the section headings on the tops of pages had all been redesigned, with the rounded lozenges and Souvenir text being replaced with squared corners and the less dignified Cooper Black Condensed.

Other news was reported, of course. The Department of the Environment was accused of not following its own regulations in preparing Belsay Hall for opening to the public. Ponteland Local History Society were planning the first of their series of books about Ponteland history. The women's page included a promotion for Ponteland wool and thread shop Cast-On. Darras Hall Estate Committee were campaigning against Castle Morpeth's decision to name the new retirement homes 'Darras Mews' rather than the estate committee's 'Haigh Court'. Two horses and riders from the Ponteland Equestrian Society's one-day event and the winning football team from Dobson's sweet factory were pictured on the sport page. Returning to the front page, the coroner returned a verdict of suicide in Michael Sharman's death. A few weeks later the paper reported the winding up of Ponteland Observer Ltd, and noted the Tweeddale Press Group had bought the newspaper only rather than the company itself.

The interim period for the Ponteland Observer begun with the 18 May edition ended with that dated Friday 29 June. Tucked away on the front page, between stories on the participation of Ponteland WRVS in rescue activities following the derailment of an Aberdeen-London train at Morpeth, plans to merge Runnymede and Greenlea first schools in Darras Hall, the impending opening of the Pele Rest Home in Ponteland village, and a car theft, was the promise of a 'BIGGER PAPER NEXT WEEK!' as the move to a 24-page broadsheet format in line with the Morpeth Herald was confirmed.

The editorial on page six acted as an epilogue to the Ponteland Observer's existence in its compact form over the previous 21 months. It promised that 'the format of the paper changes - but that is all. It will remain your newspaper, with the present level if not increased news coverage. There will be an added bonus of district and county based news and features on certain pages due to the link up with our sister paper, "The Morpeth Herald."' However, other features such as the leisure and women's pages would remain.

Complaints by readers were anticipated and met with the paragraph 'But at least Ponteland still has its own paper. For it must be said that while the independently owned "Ponteland Observer" launched by the late Mr. Michael Sharman in October 1982 to provide a community with its own newspaper, succeeded editorially, it was sadly not financially viable and did not attract sufficient advertising revenue.' The editorial ended by urging more reader participation - 'events for our diary, ideas for features... items involving your family, weddings, or the activities of organisations with which you are connected.... A village correspondent? Please call in and see us.'

This editorial read as defensive at the time, and did not augur well for the relaunched paper which appeared the next week, of which more in the next part.

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