The Caren Archive is one of the great private collections of newspapers and manuscripts. Bonhams is offering some of its treasures. Harold Evans, the greatest newspaperman of his era, delves through the history of news

News is never over. Every event has a prolog, a happening, and a sequel, the sediment of history waiting to be stirred again. We have entered the digital age, but papyrus, parchment and paper have been the indispensable couriers for centuries. They have not just been the means of conveying and multiplying written messages; they have been the means by which news is preserved so we may reflect on the happenings and the people who advanced or retarded civilisation.

Hence the significance of the volumes of treasures in the great libraries and museums, and the immediate visceral thrill of The Caren Archive, where we are a fingertip from a million original experiences. The paper artifacts of 500 years testify to an unquenchable spirit of adventure and the extraordinary resilience and ingenuity employed to 'get the news out' through war, turmoil and oppression. We are in at the discovery of the Americas and the birth of a new nation.

In my imagination I see a crowd at the Plymouth dockside in 1580, eager for the first sight of the Briton who set out to circumnavigate the globe three years earlier and is returning aboard the one surviving ship. The broadside [the precursor of a broadsheet] the archive has put up for sale celebrates Francis Drake's triumphant return to Plymouth with his Golden Hind. He will be knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. He kneels before her. The sword she will use to dub him will honor him as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

The imagined scene shivers again; this time it is memory, recalling the excitement of the late Saturday afternoon in 1967 when I sent The Sunday Times to press with a photograph taken from a small plane by our reporter, Murray Sayle, of another Francis – this one, Chichester – trying to round Cape Horn in his ketch Gypsy Moth. We knew he'd almost capsized crossing from Australia because we'd sponsored his voyage to sail single-handed round the world and he'd radioed us. The world's press raised alarms that a lone man of 65 could not survive Cape Horn's treacheries, but on 28 May, 1967, a huge flotilla waited outside Plymouth and 250,000 people were there on land to welcome home Sir Francis, as he shortly became, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II with the sword used to dub Drake.

Fifty years ago as a reporter visiting Virginia, I retraced the lives of the first English settlers in the New World. They anchored their three sailing ships in the James River on 14 May, 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I sailed in the bay on a replica of the Susan Constant, saw archeologists around the original palisaded fort of Jamestown sift through thousands of fragments of the armor, rapiers, and cooking vessels of the 104 settlers – men, women and children. And here in The Caren Archive I can touch (with permission!) a pamphlet about the affairs of the Virginia Company printed in 1620, and a German newsbook illustrated from drawings of the Indians around the Roanoke colony, including a princess of the Pomeiooc who resembles the future Pocahontas. The rebellion of those settlers in the following century is also in The Caren Archive. In 1770, Paul Revere dares to engrave and hand color his denunciation of eight British Red coats shooting unarmed colonists. In 1776 the New England Chronicle carries Boston's first sight of the full Declaration of Independence.

The illustrations in the broadsides and newspapers, so cherished by Caren, are altogether memorable. The copper-engraved broadside of the Great Fire of London is as fine as anything in any medium today.

Indeed, readers, viewers and historians are the poorer for the contemporary neglect of reportorial drawing and the graphic arts by which artist and journalist work together to satisfy the hunger of the reader for information and understanding. The Caren Archive would do well to seek out the work of the late Peter Sullivan, Edwin Taylor, John Grimwade and Michael Rand at The Sunday Times, and Nigel Holmes at Time magazine. Sullivan, working with Insight reporters, was the designer of the stunning Sunday Times graphic of the raid on Entebbe, a bold attempt to show how Israeli commandos carried out 'mission impossible' on the night of 3 July 1976 to rescue 104 hijacked hostages held by terrorists and the mad dictator Idi Amin.

By Sunday morning, in London and around the world, everyone knew the Israelis had done it. That was old news but my experience editing big stories is that 'old' news has a lot of life in it. The public is never satisfied with the first account or two or three or four which may or may not be accurate. A full week after the event, The Sunday Times article with Sullivan's graphic was a sell-out.

Through written paper records like these, we have been able to experience the shock of the new, but importantly check one account with another and write the continual revisions of news we call history. We can be there with the invaders trying to land on a hostile shore, one of them writing: "These perils frightened our soldiers, who were quite unaccustomed to battles of this kind, with the result that they did not show the same alacrity and enthusiasm as they usually did on dry land." We know that here, too, the landing was successful. The invaders were Roman centurions arriving in Britain in 55BC, but it is the reporting from the battlefield that illuminates, thanks to the raw honesty of the commander who was also the 'war correspondent', Julius Caesar, initially writing about the event in letters to Cicero.

The soldier reporting his own battles was the commonplace of journalism for hundreds of years, by arrangement with newspapers. The unarmed civilian with a pen, supposedly mightier than the sword, does not appear until the Crimean War (1853-56), most colorfully in the person of William 'Billy' Howard Russell of The Times. The British-Irish reporter, despised as vulgar by the military brass, exposed the scandalous treatment of the wounded and inspired Florence Nightingale.

The story of news from the time that writing superseded word of mouth is a story of acceleration in collection and dissemination (the telegraph); enrichment in reporting detail (the professional reporter); growing confidence in presentation; and a continuous re-definition of what constitutes news for the newly literate masses.

For generations news was confined to events, the observable speeches, laws, battles, accidents, trials. We didn't see much of News as defined by Lord Northcliffe: "what somebody somewhere wants to suppress, everything else is advertising".

The greatest breakthrough was by W.T. Stead (1849-1912) who saw the newspaper as an agent for change. When I occupied his editor's chair in the Sixties at The Northern Echo in Darlington, I was confronted every day by a letter he'd written to the owner that his editor's job was "a marvelous opportunity for attacking the devil". And so he did, but it was in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 that he published his coup, a searing story he wrote – The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon – exposing the prostitution of children. Many thousands fought for copies outside his office. Victorian society and Parliament could no longer resist raising the age of consent for sexual relations from 13 to 16, but got its satisfaction in seeing Stead jailed for three months on a technicality. He became a spiritualist and pacifist.

In 1886, Stead had another reform in his sights. He dramatized it by publishing a short story about the fictional mid-Atlantic collision of a mail steamer and another ship. Hundreds without lifeboats supposedly died. Stead added: "This is exactly what might take place and will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats". When the Titanic hit an iceberg on 14 April 1912, Stead was aboard on his way to lecture at Carnegie Hall. He was last seen reading his bible as the ocean flooded in below; he'd given his lifejacket and place on a lifeboat to someone else.A report by a survivor from the Titanic is among the lots offered in the Bonhams sale of The Caren Archive.

Sir Harold Evans, Editor at Large for Reuters, was Editor of The Sunday Times and The Times. His most recent book is the memoir My Paper Chase.

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