This month sees the centenary of the death of one of the founding fathers of the Newbury Weekly News.
Walter James Blacket was born in Newbury in 1842, the oldest of the three sons of James Blacket, a Londoner who had moved to Newbury the previous year to take over the late Mr Vardy’s ailing stationery business at 34 Northbrook Street.
The Blacket family lived at 6 Porchester Road, a large house overlooking Newtown Road Cemetery.
Walter was educated at Woodspeen Academy (one of Newbury’s most expensive schools). He appears to have been a keen scholar, with an attention to detail which stood him in good stead when in 1858 he entered his father’s business, showing much promise, together with “an unlimited capacity for taking pains”. From 1860 for a period of three years he worked at the London wholesale stationers’ business of Messrs De La Rue, returning to Newbury as a partner in his father’s stationery, booksellers and printing business, which by then was thriving.
Within three years Walter was in sole charge of the business, and keen to start a local newspaper, despite, (or perhaps because of) the failure of his father’s short-lived venture The Newbury Advertiser, which both launched and folded in 1859.
Walter sought an editor for his new venture and found one in Thomas Whieldon Turner, a former printing apprentice at Blacket’s, who had become a reporter on the Cheltenham examiner. TW Turner returned to Newbury and so began a long-standing business partnership which was “altogether intimate and cordial”. On 7 February 1867, the Newbury Weekly News was launched to an expectant public, and its subsequent success led to the two men’s recognition as being among the most prominent of Newbury residents.
Throughout his life Walter Blacket remained a committed Christian. With his wife Louisa he ran the Bible classes and Sunday School at the (Non-conformist) Congregational Church, where he also played the organ. Later in life he became a lay preacher.
He was active in a long list of public offices and worthy institutions, including as a member of the Board of Health, a trustee of a handful of charities, secretary of the Literary and Scientific Institution and a governor of Newbury Grammar School (St Bartholomew’s). He was also connected with the Penny Readings, a movement which helped to popularise the reading of literature amongst all sectors of society, before the days of public libraries. His politics were Liberal, but though he was not active politically (for fear he might damage the NWN’s reputation for impartiality), his ability to act in the public interest was frequently exercised.
For all his undoubted good qualities, Penelope Stokes in her book “…no apology is needed.. the story of the Newbury Weekly News 1867-1992” writes “he[Walter] seems not to have been a man of memorable warmth or humour in private relationships. He occasionally attracted ridicule; Arthur Davies of the china shop family noting in his diary that Blacket’s religious devotion and unfortunate prancing gait gained him the nickname of “Jumping Jesus”.
In his early seventies Walter began to show signs of failing health; a recuperation period in Bath was of little help. On his return home he developed a “very distressing cough” and breathed his last on Wednesday 5 July 1916. He was 74 years old. A simple funeral was held on the Saturday afternoon at Newtown Road Cemetery, with more than 120 mourners. The Reverend J Harford, pastor of the Congregational Church, in a short address, spoke of Walter Blacket as a “worthy and honoured citizen of the town in which he had spent the whole of his life”.
He told how, in a variety of ways, Walter had sought to make his religion a real and practical thing, engaging in many philanthropic and social efforts to uplift the lives of the people., saying his life “should be an incentive to all, especially the younger men, to try and do something for the benefit of their town, their country and the cause of the Kingdom of God”. A fitting epitaph.