By Dr Alex Benchimol, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Co-Convener, Scottish Romanticism Research Group, University of Glasgow

THIS year has marked the 200th anniversary of the death of a figure who played a key role in facilitating Glasgow’s development at the end of the 18th century into Scotland’s largest city and main industrial and trading hub as editor of the Glasgow Advertiser, forerunner of today’s Herald. This legacy was marked by the newspaper 10 years ago, when the Herald funded a memorial stone for the pioneering editor to mark his grave site in Irvine Parish Churchyard, where Mennons was buried after his death on February 2, 1818.

Through his dynamic stewardship of the Glasgow Advertiser, Mennons charted the rise of Glasgow as an enterprising industrial metropolis, using the newspaper to champion campaigns for social, political and economic reform.

He sought to identify his newspaper with the material progress of the city it served, dedicating the first number in 1783 to leaders of the town council, and offering his “industry and labour” as editor to support “the foremost commercial city in Scotland”. He publicised the activities of the new Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, founded the same month as the Glasgow Advertiser, linking both developments in a shared effort “to lay a foundation for such general and comprehensive conclusions, as may serve as guides” to “both the merchant and manufacturer”.

This was a critical time for the development of the Glasgow economy, with the recently ended American Revolutionary War (whose final peace negotiations were reported on the Advertiser’s first back page) effectively closing off valuable tobacco markets, necessitating a recalibration of trade strategy towards the West Indies and new investments in industries like textile manufacturing in the areas surrounding Glasgow. True to his 1783 editorial commitment to “preserve his mind as free as possible from any prejudice, which, without meaning to impose upon the public, might lead him to partial representations of facts”, Mennons also challenged the political views of his elite commercial patrons, publicising petitions to abolish the slave trade so integral to the city’s new textile industries through the supply of raw materials like cotton.

Mennons was a staunch supporter of constitutional reform in a pre-devolutionary age, championing efforts initiated from Scotland’s burghs and expanding cities to ensure efficient, transparent and accountable local government and parliamentary representation commensurate with the population and economic influence of places like Glasgow, which had a tiny base of 29 electors for its sole M.P.

He was a courageous editor and pragmatic printer-publisher, keeping his newspaper’s pages open to the views of reformers like Thomas Muir, who sought radical parliamentary reform in the years of political crisis after the French Revolution. Such openness exposed Mennons to an indictment for sedition in Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary in February, 1793 for publishing a notice from the Partick Sons of Liberty praising the ideas of Thomas Paine. Mennons’s “apology” to his readers only re-affirmed his commitment to editorial independence.

His Advertiser helped to materially improve the city’s quality of life, supporting campaigns to establish the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1794 and what became Britain’s first police force with the passing of the Glasgow Police Act of 1800.

We should all pause to remember this multifaceted legacy in the bicentenary year of his death, in the pages of the newspaper that he founded with a wooden hand press some 235 years ago.