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The campaign for a free Press

In June 1855 the final remaining penny of the British newspaper duty was removed and in September the Daily Telegraph appeared at the price of 1d. For the British working man, the newspaper became what reformers in the 1830s had predicted: "the readiest, the commonest, the chief vehicle of knowledge". The campaign against the "taxes on knowledge" concentrated in the critical years of 1830-36, culminating in the reduction of the newspaper duty from 4d to 1d.

Although the campaign was led predominantly by working men, concurrently middle class reformers also waged a struggle against the newspaper taxes, although it was less spectacular, and was restricted to legal and parliamentary channels. Even Edwin Chadwick opposed the tax, and has been attributed with coining the phrase "Tax on Knowledge". The number of illegal journals published between 1830 and 1836 exceeded 550.

The first newspaper tax was imposed in 1712 as part of a measure which encompassed taxes on advertisements and pamphlets; intended to place a curb on newspapers, the initial tax of ½d was not prohibitive. In 1797 it was raised to 3½d and in 1815 to 4d. This meant that the average paper cost 6d or 7d. After 1815, in an atmosphere of increasing violence, radical journalists began to publish a spate of cheap periodicals with titles like The Cap of Liberty and The Black Dwarf (Wooler). In 1816 William Cobbett began his Weekly Political Register in an open, unfolded version at 2d per copy, selling it as a pamphlet. It soon reached a circulation of more than 40,000, and Cobbett was joined by other working-class journalists such as Thomas Wooler and Richard Carlile.

In 1818, in a letter to the Prince Regent, the writer (unknown) commented that

The Constitution is shaken to its foundation by the license of the Press, and the licentiousness of the Press is incited and upheld by the only means prescribed by the laws for its control....

There appears to me to be but one channel open to our security - a bold, steady, manly appeal from these innovations and breaches in the Constitution, to the sober sense of the country, a late but vigorous determination of adopting preventive measures, and Parliamentary interference for the purpose of enforcing existing laws; or if necessary of making new enactments to prevent the publication of unstampt journals. That there is nothing chimerical in the notions I have constantly entertained upon this subject may be inferred from the mere notoriety and popularity of men like Hone and Wooller. Had preventive measures been adopted a few months ago the public would not have known that such beings existed. By penal prosecution they are raised up and armed for any mischief to any extent they may think fit to carry it...

Sedition and blasphemy are triumphant at a period in which the hands of Government are strengthened beyond the legitimate usage of the Constitution, overt acts are only just restrained within the strictest limits. If something be not done before the suspension be taken off what is to prevent the fearful encroachments of popular disaffection, heated by seditious harangues and drawn forth by new and triumphant leaders? [A. Aspinall (ed.), The Letters of George IV, 1812-30, vol. 3 ( C.U.P., 1938), pp.492-494].

The Six Acts of 1819 began to suppress these papers. Every publisher was compelled to deposit a bond with the Government as surety against any future conviction: the bond was £300 if the publisher lived in London, £200 if he lived in the provinces. Another of the Six Acts applied the 4d newspaper duty to all periodicals that appeared more frequently than every 26 days, that sold for less than 6d and that contained "any Public News, Intelligence of Occurrences, or any Remarks or Observations thereon, or upon any Matter in Church or State". The penalty for publishing or selling an unstamped newspaper was £20 per violation. Only the Attorney-General or a Stamp Office official could initiate a prosecution under the provisions of the law. This meant that the decision as to which publishers of publications faced legal punishment was made frequently for political reasons. Pro-Government weeklies were often encouraged, irrespective of the amount of 'news' that they printed, whereas critical journals faced the prospect of suppression.

William Cobbett, against whom the Act of 1819 principally was directed, adopted the stratagem of issuing the Weekly Political Register in both stamped (in the provinces) and unstamped (in London) editions, but the price never fell below 6d in either edition. The readership declined immediately and Cobbett's importance as a moulder of public opinion likewise declined. The tax hit all newspapers: the consumption of newspapers per head of population was actually stationary between 1815 and 1835 at a time when elsewhere in the world, newspaper readerships were increasing. So long as the 4d duty remained in existence, only a publisher of independent wealth could even consider the possibility of publishing a legal newspaper. Thus the stamp duty created an effective monopoly which sharpened animosity between supporters and opponents of the law. Advertisements were also taxed, as was the paper on which the news was printed. Richard Carlile tried printing his periodicals on calico to avoid this duty, but it was prohibitively expensive also. Repeal of the taxes on newspapers was favoured by both middle-and working-class reformers, at a time when they agreed on little else. Had the two groups been able to trust each other, perhaps a joint campaign would have achieved success earlier.

The middle class campaign involved several strands of thought that dominated moderate reform thinking in the early 1830s and composed the core of the middle-class movement

Many of the propertied reformers were alienated from the working class campaign by doctrines such as those published by Man:

"Any doctrine that may be promulgated, which falls short of an utter and total annihilation of Priestcraft, Kingcraft, Lordcraft, Profit, Monopoly, and Competition, is an absolute mockery of reason and common sense".

The middle-classes objected to the monopoly of the 'demagogue' and the stamped press, which were seen as equally undesirable, and argued that respectable, propertied, moderate persons had the best qualifications to disseminate cheap journals. The middle-classes alienated working-class opinion because it was their journals which came in for the condemnation, since the ideas expressed in the radical press was anti-class and was unsettling to persons of property. Also the middle classes (including Francis Place) were reluctant to break the law, a problem not obvious among the radical writers.

Benthamite Utilitarianism

This was a leading intellectual impulse behind the attempt of middle-class reformers to repeal the stamp duty, because it would allow the dissemination of facts. Francis Place was one of the major advocates of this approach, as was John Arthur Roebuck. It was believed that newspapers could be used as a teaching medium for the working classes: knowledge could be diffused to the artisans and skilled mechanics, and the latter were to serve as teachers to the semi-literate base of society. This would lead to unlimited progress. It was anticipated that through the free press, the working classes would adopt the doctrines of political economy. The unqualified faith in the power of the printed word as the vehicle of truth attracted the Utilitarians. The Utilitarians believed that working-class readers would prefer a better class of journal which counselled "the right course of conduct" to their own publications, despite evidence to refute this assumption when many illegal working-class publications had considerable circulations.

Despite being placed at a disadvantage by the reduction of the stamp duty to 1d in 1836, ultra-radical newspapers such as the Northern Star and the London Dispatch were to outdistance in popularity many of their more restrained competitors during the late 1830s and 1840s. According to Place, in the absence of restrictions on the press, the ordinary people would soon understand the doctrine of profit and wages, which was important to the happiness of the country as well as of being important to working people.

It was regarded as essential that the Ricardian doctrine of the wages fund be disseminated through the cheap press, and would result in the abandonment of rick-burning, machine-breaking, trade unions and all the other anti-social behaviours of the working classes. This was in spite of the fact that the majority of the lower orders were believed to be illiterate. A cheap press would also discourage drunkenness, thought Place - although most literate workers went to the pub to read the newspapers.

The Educational Reformers

Newspapers were also seen as the vehicle to educate the masses - elevating their minds. These reformers stressed the process of reading and learning, and hoped to stimulate the development of newspapers because they saw them as essential requirements to the spread of literacy. The Society for the Dissemination of Useful Knowledge, sponsored by Lord Brougham, Lord John Russell and Thomas Spring Rice (Whig Chancellor after Althorp, in 1835) began to publish the Penny Magazine in an attempt to educate the masses. The periodical, with a weekly circulation estimated to 200,000 was an object of derision and contempt among the working class radicals.

Free Trade

The movement for repeal of the stamp duty was part of the broader campaign for free trade. The duty on advertisements was a large obstacle to the free traders' campaign, and the duty on newspapers was anathema to the operation of free market forces, since it was a monopoly.

The Postal Reformers

The movement for rationalisation of the Post Office and for the correction of postal abuses was linked closely to the middle-class repeal agitation. Under the provisions of the 1819 Act, periodicals and newspapers which bore a 4d stamp were permitted free use of the postal service, whereas other publications had to pay high and uneven duties. This assisted the powerful London dailies and weeklies - and aroused the wrath of reformers including Francis Place.

In January 1831, Place proposed a small uniform postal duty should be substituted for the 4d newspaper stamp. He supported a ½d postal duty dependent on the number of sheets sent through the mail. Demands for a postal duty were ignored until the adoption of Rowland Hill's penny postage in 1840. In any case, working-class journalists increasingly set up their own system of transmission of their illegal newspapers without the help of the postal service. In 1831, this was recognised by Althorp who allowed stagecoaches to carry newspapers for less than 1d, nullifying the advantage of a penny post.

Artisans

Skilled workers connected with journalism and publishing formed one major pressure group. They usually founded their demands upon arguments drawn from the middle-class reformers, and their emphasis was usually moderate. Leading provincial newspapers such as the Leeds Mercury, the Manchester Guardian and the Leeds Times opposed the tax on knowledge, mainly because it allowed a monopoly by the London dailies.


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Last modified 26 October, 2013

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