Colonial Illawarra was floundering under the weight of dilapidated roads, filthy drinking water and a poor system of leadership when the Illawarra Mercury was founded in 1855.
The newspaper, which was the first on the South Coast, was established by Thomas Garrett to provide not only a conduit for information but an advocate for change in a community that had little or no means of advancing its cause.
Today the Mercury is the second oldest newspaper in NSW, behind the Maitland Mercury (1843).
There are no longer any copies of the first 13 editions of the Mercury but archives indicate the paper was greeted with much excitement.
Published every Monday for 6d (six cents), it contained a mixture of local and Sydney news, advertisements, the state of the markets, an account of Sydney shipping movements and of the coasters laden with colonial produce - essential information for the region’s citizens.
Control of the Mercury was passed from Thomas to his father John in January 1856, the older man dispensing his duties with conviction.
His attitude towards reporting was to educate and stimulate the community to action. Campaigning for better roads, he said that unless residents demanded attention, the region would be reduced to 'a system of primitive barbarism'.
In another edition he accounted for the strong reliance on court and police reports as a means of inducing readers to 'do right, when they know if they do otherwise it will be recorded in the columns of the Mercury'.
As the paper grew, the Mercury relocated to larger premises on the corner of Market St and Market Place in March, 1857, and increased in size from tabloid to broadsheet.
The proprietor and editors of the Mercury played an integral role in the early development of the region, not only through their editorial campaigns, but their involvement in public affairs above and beyond the call.
John Garrett not only led the Illawarra’s call for local government, he also was elected the first mayor of Wollongong Council in March, 1859.
The first council meeting was held in the Mercury office; the newspaper’s editor John Curr was elected Wollongong’s first town clerk.
After spending 52 years on the corner of Crown and Kembla streets, the Mercury office was relocated to a new, two-storey building in Church St in June, 1928.
In January, 1950, the paper was renamed the Illawarra Daily Mercury, the editor proclaiming that the move to daily publication was evidence of Wollongong reaching its 'manhood'.
Further expansion led to another relocation, to the corner of Auburn and Ellen streets in 1955.
John Fairfax Ltd became the major shareholder of The Illawarra Newspapers Co Ltd in 1962, before merging the Mercury with the South Coast Times in 1968.
In October, 1979, on the eve of its 125th anniversary, the Illawarra Mercury officially became a metropolitan daily.
In 1982, the Mercury embarked on a massive 18-month upgrade, investing $1.8 million in computer technology that swept away hundreds of years of printing tradition and processes.
One of the greatest outcomes of the computer upgrade was the launch of a new weekly publication, the Wollongong-Shellharbour Advertiser, on February 17, 1982.
The Mercury pioneered daily newspaper colour in Australia when its colour press was commissioned in 1986.
In June, 2004, the Mercury relocated to Auburn St, the move capping a highly successful year during which the newspaper won two of Australia’s most prestigious media awards - the Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism and the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association Marketing prize.
Mercury offices, circa 1900.