THE second and current Helensburgh Advertiser was launched by Craig M.Jeffrey and his brother Ronnie in 1957, and the paid-for weekly has since become one of Scotland’s mostly highly respected local papers.
Few have made a greater impact on the life of Helensburgh and district in the past half century than Craig — a talented writer, a consummate salesman, a man of real character with a tremendous sense of humour, a 100 miles an hour man to those who knew him or worked for him.
Ronnie, while not so flamboyant, was the production man who made sure everything happened when it should.
From the first issue on August 30 1957 (right) until the business was sold to Express Newspapers on September 3 1985, Craig made a significant contribution to the area and to the local newspaper industry in Scotland.
The Paisley ‘Buddie’, who was twice to become president of the Scottish Newspaper Publishers Association, served his apprenticeship as a linotype operator with the Paisley Daily Express, where he also first came to grips with writing through compiling cricket reports to the exacting standards set by the paper’s editor.
He left after eight years to become a freelance journalist. Soon after he met Margaret Slater, who was to become his wife, and before long he abandoned the precarious life of the freelance to settle for the regular income of linotype operater for the then Glasgow Evening Citizen.
Three years later, in June 1956, when the young couple were about to buy a home, Craig decided instead to buy a small letterpress printing business at 4 Colquhoun Street, Helensburgh. For a year he handset small commercial printing jobs until he amassed enough money to buy an old secondhand linotype machine from the Scotsman in Edinburgh.
Helensburgh already had a weekly newspaper, the long established Helensburgh and Gareloch Times. Privately-owned by Macneur & Bryden Ltd., the stationers, printers and gift shop opposite the station in East Princes Street, it was a respected but conservative publication, and Craig began to dream of taking it on with his own paper.
In January 1957 he had been joined by his younger brother Ronnie, a time-served compositor, after he was demobbed from the Scots Guards. Printing work was increasing, and they took on a young lad, Howard McWilliam.
Soon they bought a flatbed printing press and a second linotype machine from the Scotsman, and on May 24 1957 the first Helensburgh Advertiser appeared. It was not a newspaper — it was a one-page coloured wallsheet, containing the steamer and bus timetables and paid advertising, which was published weekly and appeared on the walls of shops and businesses.
After 15 weeks enough regular advertising had been generated to justify launching a four-page, five-column broadsheet newspaper, and the first issue went on sale on Friday August 30. Some 1,500 copies were printed and sold. Soon after their first journalist employee, very talented feature writer Betty Wood, joined and began a highly popular weekly column.
The bright, breezy and humorous Advertiser — reported, subbed and typeset by Craig, printed by Ronnie and hand-folded by both with the help of Howard — had arrived in douce Helensburgh, and battle was joined with the Times. Soon a reporter was needed, and Graham Williams, another Paisley man, joined the firm.
It was a competition which lasted till the mid-seventies, when the Times was turned into a free newspaper and then closed by then owners Scottish and Universal Newspapers, who had acquired it from Macneur & Bryden.
Within a few weeks of the Advertiser’s launch the circulation had reached 3,000, compared with the 4,500 of the Times, and it was some eight years before the Times was overtaken. The secret was punchy, fearless and fun editorial, backed by campaigns such as to gain admission to meetings of the Town Council of the time.
Amazingly, aged only two and designed with a ragbag of old typefaces, the paper was highly commended in the sixth annual United Kingdom Newspaper Design Awards, the first of many awards to be won by the paper and its staff over the years.
On Friday August 4 1961 Craig was in Glasgow when he suddenly thought that he should return to the town. As he drove past Cardross Crematorium he saw a pall of smoke in the air over Helensburgh town centre . . . the Colquhoun Street printshop was on fire. Firemen saved the building, but the roof was lost and all the printing machinery was in a foot of water.
Friends and other local firms rallied round, everyone rolled up their sleeves, and by Monday they were back in business with the machines working, but over ten tons of paper lost.
The following year Craig and Ronnie moved the business to a former coalyard at 7-9 East King Street, and a new printing press was installed. Next year the paper went tabloid and reached 12 pages for the first time, and in 1964 they launched a sister weekly, the Dumbarton County Reporter (later to become the Dumbarton and Vale of Leven Reporter).
As Craig (pictured left with the chain of office of president of the Scottish Newspaper Publishers Association) was fond of saying, like Topsy the company, which now included a significant commercial printing operation, just grew to the point where it had 60 employees and was the area’s biggest private employer.
There were, of course, difficulties, not least when almost all the local advertisers pulled out because the paper ran an advertisement for a one-day sale in the Victoria Hall.
The bright content of the paper appealed to local people, although in the early days many would not admit it — gardeners were sent to buy the paper, or it was discreetly placed inside the Glasgow Herald. Craig and Ronnie were undismayed, so long as they bought it and advertised in it.
Summing up the early years, Craig wrote in typical flamboyant style in the 21st birthday edition in 1978: “It can be fairly said that there was a time when the editorial team at the Advertiser were at risk. The paper came out once a week, but never weakly.
“From a policy of honest, straightforward reporting uninfluenced by money or muscle came the inevitable threats. Yes, we were burgled. But we sat knowingly in the dark with sceptical police officers and four intruders fell through a skylight into our arms.
“Yes, we were threatened by influential Helensburghians. But we ran their court cases like everyone else’s and in the end finally reaped their respect. Yes, we were confronted by physical violence. But we managed to avoid injury, printed the expose and made our locality a better place.
“Yes, we were offered bribes. But we steadfastly refused, did our job and rested well with a clear conscience.
“Yes, we were subjected to a form of blackmail by advertisers. But we stood firm against unreasonable demands, kept the paper free to publish and be damned, lost a bit of money as a result, winning in the end a reputation for straight reporting.”
Once the business moved to East King Street and although he gave up the editorship after 12 years, Craig could not get away from his work — he and his wife moved into the adjoining house Eastburn, and from 1966 when a new rotary press was installed, as soon as it was switched on the vibration could be felt in the sitting room floor.
Craig's few outside interests were dominated by Helensburgh Rotary Club and the SNPA. He was a founder member of the rotary club, of which Ronnie is still a member, and later president and honorary member, and he was particularly associated with the very successful Helensburgh 80 and Helensburgh 90 exhibitions run by the club in the Victoria Hall. Later in life he took up golf.
When the four shareholders felt in 1985 that the time had come to sell the business, Craig deliberately sought out a buyer who would continue to develop the titles, ultimately choosing to sell to Express Newspapers, whose Scottish chairman Sir David McNee was an old friend.
Three months after the completion, Express Newspapers were in turn bought by United Newspapers, and the Advertiser and Reporter became part of United Provincial Newspapers. Craig served as a non-executive director for a year, and brother Ronnie was appointed managing director. In due course both left the firm, with Craig retiring and Ronnie and his wife Tillie buying and running for some years the Helensburgh Fine Arts Gallery on West Clyde Street.
In 1991 UPN sold their Scottish interests to the Clyde and Forth Press Group, owned by Iain and Deirdre Romanes, and the Advertiser returned to Scottish private family ownership.
Under UPN the business moved to a shop and custom-built office premises at 15 Colquhoun Square, embracing new and ever-improving technology.
Since then, as part of the Clyde and Forth Press Group, and benefitting from massive investment in computer and network hardware and software, the Advertiser has continued to produce award-winning journalists and photographers, and to dominate the local market place, selling over 7,000 copies a week.
Now it has its own regularly updated website, a concept which would never have been thought of in 1957, has a sister radio station Your Radio, based in Dumbarton, and is well placed to continue to prosper in the multimedia age.
- The picture above right was taken outside the East King Street premises the day the paper was sold to Express Newspapers. It shows (from left) Helensburgh man Ronnie Fowler of Express Newspapers, an Express executive, Craig Jeffrey, Sir David McNee, Advertiser chief cashier Mrs Freda Aram from Garelochhead, another Express executive, Ronnie Jeffrey, and managing editor Donald Fullarton.