Ronald Sturt, a librarian from Wales is credited with bringing Talking Newspapers to the UK after a visit to Sweden when he was greatly impressed with the new cassette news service to the blind and partially sighted. He returned to Aberystwyth where he produced the first news tape in 1970. An important factor giving rise to the Talking Newspaper movement was the invention, in the late 1960’s of a small tape recorder which used cassette tapes. This made it cheap and fairly simple to provide a news service to blind people. The Government assisted by introducing regulations making such services free of postage and local newspapers allowed their copy to be used without charge.
Charities soon sprang up all over the country and Doris Boston, who was on the committee of the Hailsham Care Group, part of East Sussex Association for the Blind (ESAB), joined forces with Roger Payne to seek funding for the first Talking News in East Sussex. They applied to the Lions Club and were given £1,500 to buy basic equipment and more importantly, met and inspired Lions member Ted Davis who was to carry the Talking News forward in huge strides.
Heathfield was started in February 1975 producing 90 minute cassettes weekly. In the 1976 Annual Report it was stated that the organisation was set up by the Lions Club at Heathfield with Ted Davis as Chairman. The TN had, in its first year to September 1976, registered as a charity, installed and paid for all the equipment for recording and copying, and supplied over 130 cassette recorders to blind listeners. It had also enlisted Cyril Fletcher among its volunteers. During the year the HQ was shifted from the home of Kathleen and Ted Davis at Woodhatch, High St. Heathfield to a caravan which was stripped and refitted to provide a permanent home for the editing, copying and office work. Heathfield provided a talking newspaper and magazine. The TN used Wollensak fast cassette copiers in those days.
A different facet of Heathfield life was that a coachload of listeners were taken to the Tate Exhibition of sculpture for the blind.
It was recorded that by 3rd September 1975, the Heathfield & District Talking News Association committee was formed of:
Ted David – Chairman & Editor in Chief
Margaret Pitman – Secretary
Roger Payne – Treasurer
Kathleen Davis – Magazine Editor
John Jarvis & Reg Payne – blind listeners
Nigel Jarrett & Patrick Murray – Press Representatives
Audrey Payne & Dennis McCullock – ordinary members of the public
Gordon Fogg– President of the Lions Club
Heathfield and District Talking Newspaper Association (HTNA) issued its first news tape on 31st October 1975.
Very soon up to 200 tapes were created each week and sent out to blind and partially-sighted people across the Wealden area. One edition was produced with the Courier being read in full first and followed by the Sussex Express. A magazine was also produced and featured cookery, gardening, music, radio and natural history. Interviews were conducted and actor, Cyril Fletcher gave a 3 minute talk every week.
The production and editing continued to take place in the caravan by Hazel & Jack Mitchell and Jay Lush, and the recording was done in Ted Davis’s dining room. In 1976, Ted met Dorothy & Wayne Bottje and they quickly became involved to be described as ‘Head Slaves’ for the next 10 years. At that time there were 60 – 70 volunteers. In 1994 (1,000th issue) there were between 250 and 300 listeners.
Ted, however, had higher ambitions – the success of the Talking Newspaper concept led him to envisage a national operation, to cover not only news, but also magazines and other publications. This led eventually to a split of the local organisation, and the formation in 1983 of the Talking Newspaper of the United Kingdom (TNAUK), also based in Heathfield. HTNA continued to produce local news under the direction of Bob Slattery (Chairman) with Wayne and Dorothy Bottje, and new premises were found above the Oxfam shop in Heathfield, 68a High Street, in 1992.
In about 1993, Derrick Trueman joined as an editor and quickly realised that HTNA would benefit from more business-like methods. He put in place a number of improvements and in due course persuaded the Trustees to change the name to Wealden Talking News. At the same time the output expanded to include separate magazine tapes, edited by blind listener Richard Foster.
When cassette tapes began to give way to CDs, WTN held off, and our confidence proved to be spot on, as the next upgrade to the technology, the memory stick, came along at a point when our funds were sufficient to allow us to abandon tapes completely. Not only was it possible to equip our studio with the hardware to produce the sticks, but we were also able to supply every listener with a player.
The advent of new technology has to some extent reduced the attraction of the Talking Newspaper and together with local newspapers declining and advances in ophthalmic surgery and treatment, our news listener numbers have now fallen to around 120.
In 2016, TNAUK, who were taken over by the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) in 2013, was very sadly, obliged to close it’s Heathfield operation due to the decline in finances and listener numbers A new studio was set up in Peterborough frequently making use of computer generated voices and the list of publications offered severely restricted.
WTN are however, evolving to the next stage in the history of the Talking Newspaper with the first edition of the WTN being published online on the website on Friday 28th April 2017.
The discontinuing of many of the RNIB publications and the Lottery funding that enabled a full studio refit in 2017, resulted in an exciting new initiative in the history of WTN. In October 2017 the first edition of Sussex Life was published and Sussex Living (then Magnet) was added in December 2017. On Thursday 19 July 2018 the first Sussex-wide sticks (containing 3 magazines including the WTN own compilation Listeners’ Sussex) were published and sent to 12 listeners across East and West of the county. The SWP initiative is thought to mark a new era in Local Talking News Associations, being the first to start the move into county wide publications of mainstream magazines, without cost to the recipients. Once again, WTN spearheads change to widen the horizons of those whose lives are restricted by visual impairment.
SWP publications includes, Sussex Life, Peoples’ friend and their own compilation Listeners’ Sussex which features Sussex history, wildlife, listener’s letters, poetry and a wealth of other articles of special interest to the sight impaired. Plans are afoot to cater for a wider diversity of interests as the new service beds in and listener numbers rapidly increase due to the hard work and enthusiasm of the dedicated committee of seven volunteers, four of whom are trustees. They are:
Di Steele (Chair)