The Essex Free Press: A History

The Essex Free Press as it existed in 1890-95. R.R. Brett and W.H. Auld purchased the business from Mr. Ed Lovelace in 1896. None of the men in the photo have been identified as Brett or Auld.

The Early Days

The history of newspaper publishing in Essex dates back to 1879. According to available records, we know that the first paper published in the settlement that would officially become Essex Centre on January 1, 1884 was The Essex Centre Chronicle. Publisher Robert Fair printed and distributed the first four-page issue in May 1879.

According to his memoirs, John Milne, an industrious pioneer, constructed a two-storey building around 16 Talbot Street in 1878 and persuaded Robert Fair of Leamington to install a printing press and all the machinery needed to publish a newspaper. The Talbot Street office would be the location of the town’s newspaper through numerous changes in editorial leadership and ownership over the next 65 years.

A photo of the Essex Industrial Works, published in the March 5, 1892 edition of the Toronto Mail, shows a prominent sign on the side of the building that says “Essex Free Press”. Given the logistical difficulties involved in moving printing presses, it is unlikely that Milne moved the operation to his factory (but not impossible). It is more likely that Milne used the walls of his buildings merely as advertising. Another photo from 1890-95 clearly shows the Free Press operating at 16 Talbot Street, but other Milne enterprises are advertised on the face of that building.

Fair’s tenure at the Chronicle was short-lived. By the end of 1879 he had sold the newspaper to Milne, who changed the newspaper’s format to an 8-page, 5-column paper.

In July 1882 Milne sold the paper to John Curran, its editor, who continued as owner until 1884 when he sold to A.E. Lovelace.

A second newspaper called The Advance was founded in 1882 by John Stafford. In early 1885, Stafford and George Laing bought The Chronicle from Mr. Lovelace and amalgamated the two newspapers into one, The Argus.

By the end of 1885, ownership of the newspaper had changed yet again, this time assumed by a joint stock company with Dr. James Brien as chief stockholder. The name was changed to The Essex Liberal.

In August 1886, management passed to J.M. Kennedy, and then to J.E. Johnson of Leamington in 1888, who sold it a year or two later to Henry and Frank Walters. The Walters carried on until 1892 and changed the name to the Essex Free Press around 1889, a name suggesting an independence from all political affiliations.

The Walters subsequently sold to Ed J. Lovelace, who then sold to Richard Ruddy (“Bert”) Brett and William H. Auld on June 1, 1896.

R.R. Brett & W.H. Auld, Publishers

Richard Ruddy Brett

Richard Ruddy Brett made his way into the newspaper business when he was only 15. In 1884 he had already received a second-class teaching certificate but was too young to teach, so he went to work as an apprentice printer at the Western Herald in Amherstburg. Three years later he received his full teacher’s certificate and left the Western Herald to work as a teacher, first in Harrietsville in Elgin County, followed by a one-year appointment at the Webb schoolhouse in Colchester South.

Brett left teaching in 1890 to join the staff of the Amherstburg Echo. Owned by William Douglas Balfour and John Allan Auld, the Echo was an important newspaper in Essex County, with prominent politicians at its helm. Balfour and Auld were both only 21 years old in 1874 when they left their jobs at a St. Catharines newspaper to found the Echo. Balfour had some experience in writing and Auld in printing. By 1878 Balfour was elected Reeve of the town. In 1882 he became the Liberal member of the Ontario Legislature for South Essex, a seat he held until his death in 1896. Auld was also politically inclined, serving as Reeve of Amherstburg from 1886 to 1896, and then winning the provincial by-election for South Essex after Balfour’s death. Auld retained the seat until 1908.

R.R. Brett’s formative years at the Echo prepared him well for a life as a newspaper publisher (and politician). In 1893, R.R. Brett and William H. Auld (brother of Balfour’s business partner John A. Auld) learned that the Essex Free Press was for sale. Like his brother, William Auld was a printer. He had formerly partnered with H.J. Pettypiece, a reporter who had learned the trade at the Amherstburg Echo, to purchase the Forest Free Press. Auld and Pettypiece eventually dissolved their business arrangement, paving the way for Brett and Auld to form a new partnership. In June 1896, ownership of the Essex Free Press passed to Brett and Auld. This partnership faired better than any other in the volatile history of newspapers in Essex and lasted until Mr. Auld’s death in 1932. At that point in time, R.R. Brett bought Auld’s interest in the business and his son, Kenneth E. Brett, joined him in the business.

Before Mr. Auld’s death, Ken Brett worked in the office of the Essex Canning and Preserving Company (later bought by Stokely-Van Camp). Although he never held public office, he followed in his father’s footsteps in many ways. He attended council meetings with his father, a councillor at the time, and assumed the task of looking after the town expenditures. He continued in these duties on a voluntary basis until being appointed Clerk and Assistant Treasurer in 1933, succeeding his father who had been Clerk since 1916.

When R.R. Brett passed away on October 5, 1937, he left the entire business to his son Ken. In a letter Ken wrote to his brother Marwood a week after their father’s death, he reproduced some of the will:

I give, devise and bequeath unto my son, Kenneth Elliott Brett, my business known as the Essex Free Press, together with the lands and premises occupied by the said business and all machinery, type and equipment of the said business, including all stock of paper and other chattels, together with all accounts and notes receivable and all monies and bank accounts belonging to the said business, for his own use absolutely forever; subject to the payment by the said Kenneth Elliott Brett of all the debts of the said business.

The will gave the residue of R.R. Brett’s estate to his wife, Frances Lillian Brett, and appointed his wife and son Ken as the executors.

K.E. Brett, Publisher

A fire consumed the original Free Press building on Talbot Street on January 19, 1943.

Kenneth Elliott Brett owned the Essex Free Press for over 40 years – from October 1937 until January 31, 1979. Although he lived through the war years and must have reported on many local, provincial, national and international developments, one of his biggest challenges came in January 1943 when a fire destroyed the Free Press building.

According to a report that appeared in the Free Press on Friday, January 22, 1943, the fire started at 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday, January 19.

Mr. Hunter had been in the back room about five minutes earlier and had lighted a gas fire under the metal pot in order to cast some cuts for this week’s issue when on going back to see if the metal was hot enough to pour, he was met with a burst of flame as he opened the door, however, in the meantime Bruce Beam and John Dodson, of Hicks Furniture, next door, had noticed the fire and turned in the fire alarm. We doubt if there was ever a fire fought in town under worse atmospheric conditions the day being extremely cold.

This editorial appeared in the July 20, 1979 edition of the Essex Free Press. K.E. Brett had passed away just a few days earlier on July 14.

The letterpress survived the blaze and was moved to the backroom of the town’s bowling alley where the paper was published until construction of the current office on Centre Street was completed in the mid 1940s.

At the Centre Street location, production of the paper progressed from “hot type” set on Linotype machines, to “cold type” produced on Compugraphic phototypesetting machines. A busy commercial printing operation ran alongside the weekly newspaper, producing business stationery, flyers, posters, signs, small books and an assortment of ephemera.

Ken Brett and his wife, Gertha, ran the Free Press operation until Ken was over 80 years old.

W.R. Brett & G.W. Ramsay, Publishers

On February 1, 1979, two longtime employees of the Essex Free Press joined together to purchase the paper. K.E. Brett’s nephew, Wilber R. Brett, and commercial printer Garth W. Ramsay took over the operation and continued to build the business, transitioning from Compugraphics to Apple computers in the late 1990s.

Both men were civic-minded. Ramsay served on the Essex Public Utilities Commission for many consecutive years, while Brett served on town council, first as a Councillor from 1970 to 1974, as Deputy Reeve from 1974 to 1976, as Mayor from 1976 to 1980 and once again as Reeve from 1985 to 1999. When the amalgamated Town of Essex was formed in 1999 (joining Essex, Colchester North, Colchester South and Harrow), Brett was elected as Councillor for two consecutive terms and retired from politics in 2003.

In the year 2000, after 21 years of partnership, Garth Ramsay sold his shares in the business to Brett. By the time he retired in 2004, Wilber Brett had earned the singular distinction of being the only Brett publisher to work in every production mode – hot type, cold type, and digital.

L.A. Brett, Publisher

On January 1, 2004, with nearly 50 years of newspaper experience under his belt, Wilber Brett sold the Essex Free Press to his daughter, Laurie Brett. That, of course, is me.

With the help of a very talented and hard-working staff, we transitioned the paper from paste-up to digital layout, added full colour to our advertising options, and streamlined our pre-press production. To much acclaim, we launched several new publications, including the quarterly newspaper Crafter’s News, an annual tourist guide called Discover Essex, and the quarterly magazine Spotlight on Essex County. We also built (and rebuilt) the Free Press website and created websites for the Fun Fest Guide and Discover Essex. In 2007, we were honoured to win the Ontario Community Newspapers Association’s Best Newspapers Award in the Heritage category for a spread on the 1907 explosion at the Essex Railway Station.

Working for his uncle, K.E. Brett, Wilber Brett watches as the 8-page weekly edition of the Essex Free Press rolls off the press.

My father continued to work in the business, labeling newspapers every Tuesday afternoon and delivering them to post offices and newsstands on Wednesday morning. His knowledge of the business was vast and he readily shared it with me as I transitioned from law librarian and educator to newspaper publisher and commercial printer. In mid-2009 my dad became ill and passed away in November of that year.

As the fourth-generation owner of the Essex Free Press, I can tell you that it has never been easy to be a publisher of a community weekly newspaper. It’s not hard to find editorial content; it’s generally abundant and overflowing. The harder task is to find enough advertising and other revenues to cover your costs. It’s the same struggle that I believe scared off many of the early Essex newspaper publishers and a persistent problem that continues to challenge the industry. In 2006 the Ontario Community Newspapers Association reported that the Essex Free Press was the third oldest family-owned community newspaper in the province and was among only 25 community newspapers in Ontario that continued to be family owned and operated. Large media operations had by that time purchased many of the oldest community weeklies or launched competing newspapers in key markets. The tide had already turned in favour of corporate ownership.

In May 2011, the Essex Free Press was purchased by London Publishing, a new media company that had recently purchased a controlling interest in the Essex Voice, a competing newspaper. Nearly 115 years after Brett & Auld purchased the Essex Free Press from Ed Lovelace, the family legacy has come to an end. The merged operations, however, continue to publish a weekly newspaper called The Essex Free Press, a name that is now over 123 years old.

7 thoughts on “The Essex Free Press: A History”

  1. Ms Laurie Brett,

    For several years I have from time to time returned to “Hanging on a Limb”. I always find wonderment in all I read about your family. Today, John Alexander Brett caught my eye, and gave me even more wonderment.

    Are you familiar at all with the Brett History in England, and in Normandy, France?

    While names are always there for parents to select and name their children, I again find the wonder how parents, either knowingly or unknowingly name their children as unknown ancestors were named.

    John Alexander is not that familiar of a name (at least to me). I am privy to know some history of the Brett family in England after the Battle of Hastings, Hastings, England in the year 1066. Also I am aware of some of the ancient family members names.

    There were nine Brito knights and warriors that returned to England in October, 1066 with the Duke of Normandy, to assist the Duke to become king.. Of course the Duke won the fall battled, and was crowned King William I on December 25, 1066, with many of his knights and warriors in attendance. King William was also known as William the Conqueror.

    The name John and Alexander was prevalent from several lines of these Brito warriors. Several of these knights were related, that returned to England with the Duke and new King William I.

    Should you be interested further about my knowledge of the Brett name and history, please do not hesitate to contact me.

    With Warmest Regards,

    Sgt Raymond L. Britt, USMC (OAMAAM)
    United States Marine Corps Veteran (1965 – 1971)
    Vietnam Veteran (1965 – 166)
    Decorated US Marine (18 Awards in 7 years)

  2. I am a descendant of Michael Brett , son of John and Cecelia Brett (and it mentions – 1st marriage on the marriage certificate) who immigrated 1865 to Boston. There seems to be no record of him and I contacted the Bretts of Sligo man in Ontario. I looked at the photos and my father- Thomas Brett looked a lot like Kenneth and Wilber- he has the same nose. I am going to go to Ireland to do some research but want to go well armed this time.Bev Brett . And I would be interested in any info on Brett name.

    1. Hi Bev. I don’t have any knowledge of John and Cecelia having a son named Michael. That doesn’t mean much, however, since the records confirming family connections are mostly destroyed and we’ve been piecing details together using letters and anecdotal details. Virtually everything I know is on this blog. Do you have any specific questions? ~Laurie

      1. Thank you for responding so quickly. I’m on holiday right now in New Zealand and am planning a genealogical trip to Ireland . I don’t have exact data with me. Bill Mcgee who has the Bretts of Sligo site said they didn’t know of him. I wondered if he could have been a child produced from the former wife- Catherine Walker’s death in childbirth maybe. It would appear that he went to Boston on his own- with relatives maybe – but not parents. My biggest question is – do you know where – John and Cecilia Brett lived. I live in Cape Breton.

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