On the 22 May 1839, a small group of men connected with the sale and distribution of newspapers met at the Crown & Anchor in the City of London to establish the Newsvendors’ Benevolent & Provident Institution, a charity offering help to people working in the distribution side of the newspaper industry.
The life of a newsvendor 180-years ago was an arduous one and Charles Dickens, that tireless champion of the poor, became one of the earliest supporters of the organisation. He was made President in 1853 and held the position for the rest of his life. Under his influence, support for the charity gradually grew; its work attracting particular public sympathy during hard winters when newsvendors were forced to endure freezing early-morning temperatures while most of their customers were still tucked up in their warm beds.
After Charles Dickens’ death in 1870, the Presidency of the charity passed to William Henry Smith, grandson of the founder of Britain’s best-known firm of stationers, W H Smith. Two years earlier, Smith had been elected MP for Westminster and in the mid-1870s he became First Lord of the Admiralty. This appointment elevated his public profile to such an extent that Gilbert & Sullivan used him as inspiration for their character, Sir Joseph Porter, “The ruler of the Queen’s navee”, in HMS Pinafore (1878). Smith’s celebrity also helped to keep the Newsvendors’ Benevolent & Provident Institution in the public eye and donations to the charity remained at a very healthy level throughout his incumbency as its President.
By 1929 it was decided that the charity should make its activities more widely known and Provincial Sub-Committees were set up to spread the word. The first was formed in Edinburgh and many others followed, giving welcome assistance in fund-raising and publicity activities. The charity was also helped by many famous personalities of the Press, including Fleet Street publisher and newspaper distributor, Lord Marshall; owner of the Daily Telegraph, Lord Burnham and Lord Riddell, the managing editor of the News of the World.
By the time the charity celebrated its 100th Birthday in 1939 over £150,000 had been distributed to colleagues in need, earning it the affectionate nickname, “Old Ben” derived from its wordy name and the benevolence it gave. The advent of the Second World War temporarily curbed promotional activities, but when the conflict ended in 1945 the regional sub-committees quickly sprang back into action, organising all sorts of fundraising events from garden parties to cinema screenings. Dances were particularly popular and across the land Old Ben’s supporters whirled around ballrooms to the strains of big band music. Another innovative initiative was the Inky Way Annual – an entertaining look at the inner workings of Fleet Street. Profits from its 8s 6d cover price went straight into Old Ben’s coffers.
In 1955, the Sub-Committees’ tireless fundraising schemes enabled the charity to purchase land at Seaford, Sussex for the building of homes for aged and needy members of the newspaper trade. At that year’s annual dinner, the Chairman of the Management Committee proudly announced that they hoped to erect 40 bungalows on the site along with a community centre and a warden’s house. Another home in Lilleshall, Shropshire was purchased from the NFRN and renovated in 1978, with a second phase of flats opened by the Princess Royal ten years later. Homes in Great Dunmow and Southport were also opened during this time but have since been closed. Old Ben Homes was incorporated as a separate charity for legal reasons in 2008 and is now run independently of NewstrAid.
After much wrangling, the Newsvendors’ Benevolent & Provident Institution altered its unwieldy official name to the catchier NewstrAid Benevolent Society in 1996 (changed to NewstrAid Benevolent Fund in 2007), but its aims remained the same as they were back in 1839. In a world that is experiencing rapid change, the charity continues to be a beacon of hope for those experiencing hard times in Britain’s historic newspaper trade.