The Star 150th: First Four Ships, fist fights and a grand history

Few Christchurch companies can boast they were in business within weeks of the First Four Ships anchoring in December 1850.

The Star can.

Former sports reporter Nick Tolerton.

This year The Star celebrates its 150th birthday – but its roots go further back.

A printing press and print workers came out on the Charlotte Jane, and on January 11, 1851 the first issue of the Lyttelton Times appeared – only three weeks after the first pilgrim ship reached Lyttelton. And the Lyttelton Times was to spawn a feisty, provocative child in the form of The Star.

The owners of the Lyttelton Times, William Reeves, W J W Hamilton, and T W Maude, decided to start an evening newspaper in 1868 (May 14 was the first issue, of four pages) – and it was an instant success.

A fortnight after our start Christchurch was created a borough and elected its first mayor. And with the opening of the Lyttelton railway tunnel, the museum, the start of construction of the cathedral, the extension of railways north and south, and the abolition of provincial government, plus issues like the absence of proper drains which led to annual outbreaks of typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases in Christchurch, the fledgling paper did not lack issues to tackle.

Current Star Media staff at the Lincoln Rd office. Star Media’s management team (from front left), Charlotte Smulders, Nick Smith (board chairman), Steve McCaughan, Andrea Hollman, (second row) Barry Clarke, Kate Preece, Philip Austin,
Neil Baker and Shane Victor.

In its first year The Star was scrapping with its parent, expressing misgivings about university scholarships that The Times supported, in case they benefited only the sons of the wealthy because of hidden extras.

The Lyttelton Times finally closed in 1935, but The Star survived three major newspaper wars in the city and continued to flourish. We are proud of having the longest newspaper heritage in Canterbury.

Newspaper competition reached its peak at the end of the 20s with The Times and The Press (mornings) and The Star and Sun (evenings) spoiling readers for choice. In 1935 New Zealand Newspapers, the owner of The Star, the Christchurch Times (formerly Lyttelton Times), and the Auckland Star, closed the Times, purchased the goodwill of the Sun, and relaunched The Star as the Star-Sun.

That title was retained until we became The Christchurch Star in 1958 – and our telephonist for a long time still got occasional callers wanting the Star-Sun!

There have been more changes of name. The Christchurch Star in 1958, Christchurch Star in 1970, The Star in 1980, Christchurch Star again in 1989, and in 2005 a reversion to The Star again. We’ve also moved – from Cathedral Square to Kilmore St (where the convention centre now stands) in 1958, and then to Tuam St, destroyed in the February quake, with temporary lodgings at operation’s manager Peter Grueber’s Burnside home, then the cricket pavilions in Hagley Park, before settling in Venture Pl, Middleton and since early 2017, 359 Lincoln Rd.

We’ve weathered changes of ownership, world wars (more than 50 Star staff served in World War II), and times of prosperity and depression. But through all those changes one constant has been the paper’s eagerness to fight for its community.

In the past we fought battle after battle to retain open spaces for public use. If you admire Hagley Park, remember that The Star successfully resisted several attempts for the park to be used for other purposes. Once it mustered 600 women for a sit in on the site of a planned building in the park, to thwart the council.

Back in 1949 The Star was the first paper to object to all-white rugby teams being selected to go to South Africa, and it campaigned successfully to stop live-bird shooting from traps and coursing.

Other community initiatives included introducing the South Island secondary schools art exhibition in 1951, and being the first newspaper in New Zealand with a separate section for teenagers. But The Star has always been a leader in the industry.

It was the first New Zealand paper to introduce news to the front page instead of a dense front page of classified ads (1917), the first to have back page sports news, the first to use wire photos, and the first with RT in the news cars. And when evening newspapers went to the wall one after another, it’s been a unique survivor in a new format as a twice-weekly newspaper since November 1991.

In the daily paper days, evening papers were invariably full of strong-willed and exuberant characters in all departments in contrast to their greyer brethren of the morning papers, and The Star was no exception. A book could be written on just the personalities at The Star over the years.

They worked hard and played hard – the old New Albion Tavern flourished for years on custom from around the corner in Kilmore St. But times change in the newspaper world.

It’s at least 25 years since the last stand-up fist fight in the newsroom.