Thomas Latimer

A plaque commemorating the association of campaigning journalist Thomas Latimer with 143 Fore Street, Exeter, was unveiled on 16 August 2013, by journalist and crime writer Simon Hall on behalf of Exeter Civic Society.

The plaque is on the frontage of 143 Fore Street, Exeter, EX4 3AN.

The inscription reads:

Exeter Civic Society. Charles Dickens, 1812-1870, Novelist, stayed here, the home and printworks of Thomas Latimer, 1803-1888, campaigning journalist. 

Thomas Latimer was superbly qualified to be a journalist because of his enormous physical stamina, driving passion for justice, and excellent shorthand note. It was through possessing the latter that, in 1827, he got his first job as a reporter in Exeter, on The Devonshire Chronicle and Exeter News, a weekly paper campaigning for the Whig cause of parliamentary reform. He proved his stamina by walking from Honiton to London after being offered the job and then back to London to start within a week.

Latimer was born in Bristol on 9 August 1803, son of a merchant’s clerk. The family moved to London when he was still a child. After leaving school, he was apprenticed to a printer and at the same time launched himself into the movement to provide educational opportunities for working men by joining Dr George Birkbeck (1776–1841) in founding the London Mechanics Institute. Through this he became involved in a project to popularise gymnastics.

His first newspaper jobs were not promising—he was employed on the Morning Post as chief jester to write jokes and smart sayings at seven lines for 6d., and then worked on the ultra-Radical Albion until the government closed it down. Sick of London, he sought respite in his native West Country and arrived in Exeter with an unrealistic plan to establish an institution for athletic training to serve all the colleges and schools in Devon.

However, his shorthand, rare at the time, and his reporting skills were what made him attractive to employers. By 1830 Latimer was acting editor of the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette. When his zeal for reform became too much for that paper’s proprietors, he was taken on by the Western Times.

Latimer and Charles Dickens

The story of his meeting with Charles Dickens is told in his biography, The Cobbett of the West, by R. S. Lambert. A parliamentary election was taking place in Exeter and on nomination day, 1 May 1835, the Morning Chronicle sent its ablest shorthand writer and reporter from London to cover the hustings at Exeter Castle. He was the 23-year-old Charles Dickens, and he and Latimer met in the courtyard, surrounded by an unruly mob of eight thousand onlookers split into gangs of rival supporters, to report the speeches in a violent downpour of rain and hail. “Whatever might be the character of the speeches, the notes could not be charged with dryness,” Latimer said.

Dickens used Latimer’s shoulder as a rest for his note-book while he took down the speeches and afterwards the two reporters compared notes. Latimer regarded it as a triumph that his version was found all correct by Dickens. After that the two men were firm friends, and Dickens visited Latimer at least twice at 143 Fore Street, Exeter, which was both Latimer’s home and the Western Times office and printworks.

Latimer versus the Bishop

Latimer was the epitome of a campaigning journalist, challenging every corner of civic privilege and secrecy and giving his paper the Latin motto, Tempora quaeram, “I will seek out the times”. However, the chief target for his outrage was Bishop Henry Phillpotts (1788–1869), who became bishop of Exeter in 1831.

Phillpotts angered just about everyone in Exeter by choosing to leave the city during the cholera epidemic of 1832, and by his unscrupulous use of patronage to provide for his family. Victory over the bishop came some years later as the result of the bishop’s campaign in the courts to oust an evangelical curate, the Rev. James Shore, from his job. Phillpotts’ actions led to the clergyman being imprisoned for debt. Latimer lambasted the bishop in a Western Times leader with phrases such as “A consecrated, careless perverter of facts” and “One who does no credit to the mitre,” and, not surprisingly, the bishop sued.

He charged “Thomas Latimer, labourer” with criminal libel. Latimer refused to apologise and when the trial came in 1848, Alexander Cockburn QC, later a lord chief justice, defended Latimer without fee, arguing that what his client had said had been true. The jury at Exeter Assizes acquitted Latimer and the cheer in the court spread throughout the city.

Under Latimer’s control, printing of the Western Times changed from a horse-powered press to a new steam-driven machine that enabled him to increase circulation, reduce the price of the paper, and eventually in 1866 turn it into a daily. As he grew older, Latimer was afflicted by deafness and retired from editorial duties. He had also been an Exeter councillor, an overseer of the poor and an improvement commissioner, and in 1851 was made a magistrate. He died at his home in Fore Street, of cancer on 5 January 1888, survived by his wife Frances and five of their twelve children. A commemorative window “in memory of Thomas Latimer, journalist and magistrate” in the south aisle of Exeter Cathedral was destroyed in the air raids in 1942, at the same time as windows in the Lady Chapel honouring his old opponent Bishop Phillpotts. JM