Ritchie, William (1781-1831) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 48
Ritchie, William (1781-1831)

by George Stronach
Contains subarticle John Ritchie (1778–1870).

RITCHIE, WILLIAM (1781–1831), one of the founders of the ‘Scotsman’ newspaper, was born in 1781 at the village of Lundin Mill, Fifeshire, where his father had a flax-dressing business. At the age of nineteen he came to Edinburgh. After being employed for some years in the offices of two writers to the signet, he joined the society of solicitors before the supreme courts in 1808, and soon acquired a good legal business. His first literary essay was a paper entitled ‘Effect of Taste on the Heart,’ which appeared in the ‘Scots Magazine,’ 1808. In 1810 he printed an address to the 1st regiment of Edinburgh volunteers, of which corps he was a member, successfully dissuading them from consenting to the proposal to change the volunteers into local militia. At the age of twenty-one he planned a ‘Biographia Scotica,’ but, after writing one or two lives, abandoned the task owing to stress of other work. Between 1806 and 1813 he contributed articles on the national debt and other subjects to the local newspapers.

In 1816 the local papers refused to insert a criticism by Ritchie of the management of the Royal Infirmary. Thereupon he joined a friend, Charles Maclaren [q. v.], in founding the ‘Scotsman.’ It was projected as a weekly newspaper, price tenpence, advocating liberal reforms. The prospectus was issued on 30 Nov. 1816, and the first number appeared on 25 Jan. 1817, Ritchie writing a ‘preliminary note’ and three articles for that number. ‘He assisted,’ wrote Maclaren, ‘in forming the plan, suggested the title, drew up the prospectus, and, by his exertions and personal influence, contributed more than any other individual to establish the paper.’ Till his death in 1831 Ritchie acted with Maclaren as joint editor, providing the paper with ‘all the articles on law, the reviews of novels and poems, and biographical works, with few exceptions, many papers on metaphysics and morals and political subjects, nearly all the notices of the fine arts and of the theatre, with numerous articles on local and miscellaneous matters.’ After six years the ‘Scotsman’ was converted from a weekly into a bi-weekly in 1823. In 1855 it was first issued as a daily, the bi-weekly issue also continuing till 1859. The ‘Weekly Scotsman’ was started in 1860. In 1823 the price was reduced from tenpence to sevenpence, and later became fourpence-halfpenny. ‘From 1817 to 1830,’ writes Grant in his ‘History of the Newspaper Press,’ ‘the “Scotsman” rendered greater service to the cause of reform than all its Scottish liberal contemporaries taken together’ [see Russel, Alexander].

In 1824 Ritchie published his ‘Essays on Constitutional Law and the Forms of Process’ (Edinburgh, 1824, 8vo). In 1827 he was appointed a commissioner under the Improvements Act, and did good service on the board. He was instrumental in improving the Edinburgh police system, and interested himself deeply in the amelioration of prison discipline, in the institution of a house of refuge, and in the establishment of the society for the relief of poor debtors, all of which causes he assisted by labour and money. He was an ardent phrenologist and supporter of George Combe. He died on 4 Feb. 1831, and was buried in Greyfriars churchyard. He was survived by his wife, Alison Sandeman. His elder brother,

John Ritchie (1778–1870), born at Kirkcaldy on 3 Feb. 1778, was sent to service as a boy with a small farmer near Largo. After some years of farm work he returned to Kirkcaldy, where he worked as a hand-loom weaver. He went to Edinburgh about 1800, and started business as a draper. He contributed to the foundation of the ‘Scotsman.’ On the death of William in 1831, he relinquished the drapery trade, and devoted his time, capital, and energies to the newspaper. Within a few years he acquired the shares held by Maclaren and others, and became sole proprietor of the ‘Scotsman.’ Under his direction, on 30 June 1855, the paper first appeared as a penny daily. He entered the town council of Edinburgh in 1844, and was a magistrate of the city from 1845 to 1847. In 1849–50 he was chairman of the chamber of commerce. He was one of the founders of the united industrial school. He died on 21 Dec. 1870, at the age of ninety-three. His wife died in 1831.

[Biographical Sketch of William Ritchie, by Charles Maclaren, reprinted from the Scotsman, 1831; The Story of the ‘Scotsman’ (privately printed, 1886); Memoir of Charles Maclaren, prefixed to his Selected Writings, 1869; Obit. notice of John Ritchie in Scotsman, 22 Dec. 1870; information supplied by Mr. J. R. Findlay, proprietor of the Scotsman, and grandson of the only sister of William and John Ritchie; cf. art. Russel, Alexander.]

G. S-h.