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The ‘Tuppenny Press’ And The Birth Of The English Newspaper

An earlier feature I wrote mentioned in passing, regarding Highcliffe estate, that: 'It was the seaside residence of George III's first Prime Minister the 3rd Earl of Bute, John Stuart (1713-92), who had risen to power through his connections with the Royal family. The ex-Prime Minister had retired here in 1770 after being brought down by a lengthy rabble-rousing press campaign which marked the birth of crusading newspaper journalism in Britain.' Here we explore this saga, of what was in fact the birth of independent — some would say radical or political — journalism in this country.

 

In 1762 began a chain of events that would have consequences for press and parliamentary freedom extending to the present day. Then, the Earl of Bute, about to be put forward by George III as Prime Minister, decided that as he was not a good parliamentary speaker, he would publish his views via a weekly newspaper, called 'The Briton'. Its editor was to be his fellow Scotsman, Tobias Smollett, the novelist and playwright.
At that time, the government and political establishment controlled the press largely by means of criminal prosecutions brought against those criticising its members. Charges of sedition, blasphemy, or libel could be used - libel being until recently an imprisonable criminal offence, and truth being then no defence. (Smollett himself had served three months for libelling an admiral in a naval memoir, and had had to edit from his gaol cell his own periodical, the British Magazine, for which he held a Royal License to publish.) Any independent or critical current-affairs reporting or commentary was therefore usually published either anonymously or using a colourful pen name that would leave people guessing. During the upheavals of the mid-17th century Cromwellian era, over 30,000 such ‘news letters’, ‘news books,' and 'news papers' appeared, but none could not survive long, given the government’s zeal in suppressing them and the legal means at their disposal.
Safer were ‘pamphlets’ which could be produced as one-offs as they editorialised on a single issue. For lack of any other independent source, such pamphlets could be influential. For example, a 1750s pamphlet proposing legal reforms published by Henry Fielding, author of the satiric novel Tom Jones, led to the creation of the first police force. The official over-reaction against them over the next few centuries would show how much pamphleteering was regarded as a threat by the official establishment.
The ‘father of English journalism,’ Daniel Defoe, wrote a satiric one in 1702 proposing religious ‘dissenters’ be suppressed, and was put in the stocks and then in Newgate Gaol when it was realised the pamphlet was meant not to encourage religious intolerance but to discredit it. The 1789 Commons speech by William Wilberforce that launched the anti-slavery movement quickly appeared on the streets as a lengthy pamphlet which is now one of the ‘Twelve Books That Changed The World’ compiled by TV presenter Melvyn Bragg, a member of the House of Lords. For a ‘pamphlet’ could be an almost book-length tract. Milton wrote a 40-page scholarly ‘pamphlet’ called Areopagitica, which is still studied in journalism courses today, arguing a need for the “Liberty Of Unlicensed Printing.” A related development was the periodically-published 'miscellany,' for which the generic label 'magazine' was coined by The Gentleman's Magazine in 1731.
In 1762, within a week of the launch of Bute’s The Briton, another newspaper appeared, an independent rival called The North Briton, published by London MP John Wilkes, with consequences to press freedom in this country that are still with us today. Early licensed ‘newspapers’ like The Briton were not newspapers as we know them today. They were printed records of parliamentary motions and summaries of debates. As any outside reporting was technically a breach of parliamentary privilege, this could only be done under the protection of powerful political patrons. Although Smollett and Wilkes had been friends, Smollett’s The Briton was in this tradition, representing Lord Bute‘s official views. It was akin to the sort of PR publication local councils produce today to tell taxpayers how well their council is doing in serving them. John Wilkes’s The North Briton was however a new phenomenon, an ‘Opposition’ newspaper.
The North Briton‘s similarity of title was no coincidence: the addition of the word North was to play on the popular hatred many Englishmen – Wilkes included - had for Scotsmen like Bute who came south to run England. The North Briton ran story after story about official corruption and related tittle-tattle, mainly about Bute and his cabinet, and was soon selling 2,000 copies a week, ten times as many as Bute and Smollett’s The Briton, which ceased publication.
John Wilkes (1727-97) was the son of a London brewer who had become independently wealthy via an arranged marriage of convenience to an older heiress. As owner of a Buckinghamshire manor, this also gave him his entry to public office, as a local JP, and in 1757 he was able to bribe his way into Parliament. He was encouraged to stand as MP by Pitt the Elder, whom the new King, George III, would replace in 1762 with his own man - Bute.
Like Wilkes, Bute had married into money. Originally he had been ‘finishing tutor’ to the future George III, whom he had met at the races in 1747, though his main official post at the Palace was being in charge of looking after the Prince’s toilet arrangements. When crowned, the new king made him a Privy Counsellor and put him forward as Prime Minister in 1762. As today with new Labour's 'Scottish Raj', there was resentment regarding the number of Scots officials in the government. Bute was accused by Wilkes and others of gaining his advancement by means of a sexual liaison with the young King’s mother. As PM, he would become generally unpopular in 1763 over the way he had failed to obtain suitable terms when Britain won its war with France over the North American Colonies. A decade later the King himself would be in trouble for related reasons, as heavy taxation needed to compensate for the lack of French peace-treaty concessions provoked the Colonists into acts of defiance that would culminate in their Revolutionary War of Independence. By then, Bute would be gone from office, brought down by popular hatred inflamed by Wilkes’s press campaign, pursuing an interest in botany at his summer retreat, Highcliffe.

Idol Of The Mob
While the rising tide of democratic anger in America was a new force to be reckoned with, Government also feared – on sound historical grounds – the London mob being stirred up. To pay for the war, the commodity Bute’s government had decided to tax heavily was alcohol – specifically wine and cider. Although the taxes would prove uncollectible and only boost the already-booming smuggling industry, his Chancellor of the Exchequer ‘Hellfire Francis’ Dashwood, being unable to do maths, managed to make matters worse by getting his calculations disastrously wrong. Other news-sheets of the day began to attack Bute, calling him "the Northern Thane" (i.e. Macbeth) and "Sir Pertinax MacSycophant". Bute resigned, but Wilkes would pay a price for his attacks on Bute and the ‘King’s Friends,’ in a lengthy campaign Wilkes termed the “progress of ministerial vengeance.”
Within weeks of Bute's resignation, Wilkes had issued the next issue of The North Briton, Number 45, wherein he claimed the King’s Speech endorsing the Treaty Of Paris meant the Crown had now “sunk even to prostitution.” Although it is public knowledge today the Queen does not write the “Queen’s Speech,” the issue angered the King (who called him 'that Devil, Wilkes') and got Wilkes and 49 other ‘conspirators’ (printers and distributors) arrested for seditious libel and put in the Tower of London. Wilkes himself was released on the grounds that, as he was a sitting MP, his arrest on a ‘general’ royal warrant was a breach of parliamentary privilege. The affair became a cause celebre and Wilkes was acclaimed as a champion of civil liberty, particularly in America, where citizen groups voted to send him 45 hogsheads of tobacco, drink 45 toasts to him etc., and his actions helped inspire the US Bill of Rights. (Several towns in the US are named after Wilkes, and Lincoln’s assassin was christened after him - John Wilkes Booth.)
As his status as an MP shielded him from arbitrary imprisonment, the government switched to a strategy of first trying to have him removed as an MP. The Secretary Of State, the Earl of Sandwich, the card-playing aristocrat credited with inventing the sandwich (so he could eat without stopping his card game), found a means. They were onetime fellow Hellfire-club members, but now there was no love lost between the two. Sandwich told Wilkes, ‘you will die either on the gallows, or of the pox,’ to which Wilkes replied, ‘That must depend on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.’ It would become Wilkes's best-remembered quip, summarising an era when Parliament was little more than a gentleman's club and a means for country squires and the king's circle to protect their interests.
Wilkes had co-written a poem whose title was a parody of Pope's famous Essay On Man. "An Essay on Woman" was a send-up he co-wrote with another former Hellfire club member, an MP who was famous for being seen copulating with a cow on Wingrove Common. He had privately printed a few copies and the government now obtained these. Sandwich indignantly read it aloud to the House of Lords, who ruled it a blasphemous libel. At the same time the Commons expelled Wilkes for seditious libel over issue 45, and for taking part in a duel with another MP, a royalist. This MP had been seen practising with a pistol that summer, and seriously wounded Wilkes in the stomach in a duel some regarded as a thinly-disguised attempt at political assassination, especially when it emerged he had been paid £40,000.
Friends helped spirit Wilkes out of England, and he spent four years in exile on the Continent, Parliament having declared him - using laws dating back to the era of Robin Hood - an outlaw. The Attorney-General ordered Issue 45 of The North Briton to be burned outside the Royal Exchange by the public executioner, which led to a mob gathering and wounding the supervising sheriff. When a French acquaintance (possibly Voltaire) asked him how far the freedom of the press extended in England, he replied: "I cannot tell, but I am trying to find out."

"Wilkes And Liberty!"
Wilkes, facing massive debts in France due to his expensive lifestyle, returned in 1768 to London, his carriage pulled through the streets not by horses but by a crowd chanting " Wilkes and Liberty! " He was arrested and sentenced to a year for each of the two offending publications. A crowd of 15,000 gathered outside King's Bench Prison, chanting pro-Wilkes and anti-monarchist slogans. Afraid they would storm the gaol, troops opened fire, killing both protestors and bystanders, leading to riots across London. Lord Bute fled the capital after mobs chanting "Wilkes and Liberty!" smashed the windows of his London townhouse, and other government politicians were stoned in the streets.
Wilkes was released from prison in early 1770. Now began a political charade where Wilkes kept getting elected as a public hero, and Parliament kept nullifying the election results - prompting a campaign for parliamentary reform via a Bill of Rights. He also began to campaign for the freedom of the press. Parliament was still claiming exclusive privilege on reporting debates, with any outside reporting an imprisonable offence. When Parliament arrested two of Wilkes’s printers for this, Wilkes openly challenged the law, and a crowd surrounded the House of Commons, who resolved to take no further action to avoid another fatal confrontation. Barred as an MP, Wilkes instead got himself elected to City offices – Alderman, Sheriff, and then Lord Mayor of London. Now, when Parliament ordered London newspaper printers arrested, Wilkes had City magistrates nullify the warrants. Parliament finally withdrew their resolution barring him, and Wilkes again took his seat as an MP.
Although an able administrator, Wilkes was never (according to his acquaintance Horace Walpole) a prepossessing public speaker, and he became less of a radical politically. When a woman called to him in the street "Wilkes and Liberty!" the aging Wilkes replied, "That's all over long ago." The mob who had considered him their spokesman now turned on him, and it was turn to have his windows smashed. He left politics in 1790.
His old enemy Lord Bute, although he had only been PM for a year, never returned to public life, having lost the King’s favour. He retreated in 1774 to his new purpose-built clifftop sea-view house at Highcliffe. One account of the time notes: “Here his principal delight was to listen to the melancholy roar of the sea; of which the plaintive sounds were probably congenial to a spirit soured with what he believed to be the ingratitude of mankind.” Bute died in 1792 after an accident on the clifftop there. A keen botanist, he fell over the crumbling cliff while picking flowers, and was left crippled and in pain for over a year before dying. Bute’s Highcliffe House had to be abandoned as the clifftop eroded. (All that remains today of the original complex is the gatehouse buildings, today The Lord Bute Hotel and Restaurant.) George III would outlive Bute, but his own time in office was cut short as he began to suffer bouts of madness (leading to his visits to Weymouth to take the waters for his health). Some blamed the public hostility Wilkes stirred up for disturbing the balance of his mind.
The man who relentlessly portrayed the Prime Minister as a ‘blackguard’ (in the phrase of the time) was regarded by some to be himself a blackguard, who made public mischief in the name of English patriotism, out of opportunism or for the sheer devilry of it. Some suspect Dr Johnson’s famous comment that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’ was made with Wilkes in mind. (Johnson wrote a pamphlet supporting the Commons resolution not to readmit Wilkes, and another called ‘The Patriot’ criticising self-professed ‘patriot’ opposition MPs who behaved just as corruptly when in power.) Benjamin Franklin said he was "an outlaw . . . of bad personal character, not worth a farthing." It’s claimed that this ‘father of the free press’ only started his newspaper career after Bute, when appointed PM, did not offer him a Cabinet post. It’s also said he pursued political advancement as a way out of the debts his lifestyle accumulated – including the many legal actions brought by or against him. He did win some actions against the Crown which set a precedent for cases today, though in the end he would die almost penniless.
He too would end up on the South Coast. He had acquired a summer villa at Sandown on Wight he named ‘Villakin’ (Russian for "little villa"). This was one of the first "seaside villas" to come to notice, and it's claimed by some historians he helped popularise the idea of these retreats. Towards the end of his life Wilkes was seen there, walking to church, his ‘hellfire’ days of black masses, dissolution and profligacy now behind him. He wasted away of an unknown disease and died in 1797. Today there is a memorial plaque on the site. The official persecution of Wilkes as an anti-Establishment newspaper publisher is regarded by some as the starting point of English Radicalism and in this regard, the start of a free press.

The ‘Paper Tigers’

By this time, other newspaper titles familiar today had begun to appear. (The first regular English daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, begun in 1702, did not survive.) Some regional titles were already going concerns, like The Hampshire Chronicle (1772-), The Scotsman (1817-), The (Manchester) Guardian (1821-). Among the ‘national papers’ (i.e. London-based) were The Times (1785-), Observer (1791-), and (believe it or not) The News Of The World (1843-). The Stamp Act tax on newspapers was finally abolished in 1855, and that year regional weeklies The Manchester Guardian, Liverpool Post, and The Scotsman became dailies, while The Daily Telegraph started up as the first “penny national.” It was followed by the Daily Mail (1896-) and Daily Mirror (1903-).
The intemperate Cobbett had regarded the new broadsheets as upstarts and paper tigers, calling the conservative Times ‘The "Bloody Old Times" … the most infamous piece of printing that ever disgraced ink and paper,’ but they began to take up popular causes, if only to increase their circulation, and hire professional journalists who did more than just report the news, analysing it as well as editorialising about it. The distinguished essayist and political commentator William Hazlitt wrote for The Times, having married the editor's sister in 1808. The weekly The Spectator, founded in 1727, offered current-affairs essays from a conservative viewpoint, as it still does today as ‘the longest continually published magazine in the world.’ The Economist magazine was founded in 1843 to campaign for an end to restrictive trade practices. In 1881, The Newspaper Libel and Registration Act was passed to regulate those newspapers that were neither daily or weekly.

Conclusion
Today, newspapers are not licensed but registered. As well as the dozen national dailies and weekly ‘Sunday papers,’ there is a strong regional press, mainly of weeklies, read by 40 million adults a week. On the other hand, sponsored publications paid for by the taxpayer or by large corporations and produced for public-relations purposes but giving themselves newspaper-style names (such as ‘Journal’) are more prevalent and sophisticated than ever.
The charge of criminal libel is no longer used (since 1977) against troublesome publishers, being superseded by enormous suits for civil libel, where contrary to general principles of law the onus remains on the defendants to prove their innocence. The weight of this burden can be gauged that the longest case in English legal history was one brought in 1994-7 by McDonald’s against two pamphleteers, the trial alone lasting 314 days. In the so-called ‘McLibel’ case, US fast-food giant McDonald’s claimed damages they had no hope of recovering against two working-class environmental pamphleteers. McDonalds were assisted in this civil case by the police, who furnished unauthorised private information on the defendants, who were denied any legal aid. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year the denial of legal aid was wrong; the government view was, and is, that it is too costly to fight cases on this scale (McDonalds spent £10 million on it).
Other such cases are settled simply because the defendants lack the resources to prove the truth of the matter. Yet the scale of libel claims has ironically prompted newspapers not to settle but to defend against them, and use investigative-reporting methods in doing so, and several high-profile libel suits brought by politicians have ended with the plaintiffs imprisoned for perjury. And the scale of the information available on the Web now provides even the independent writer-publisher with a wealth of resources, allowing a new breed of current-affairs commentator to appear - the blogger, who in some countries (such as America, where there are no national newspapers, and where criticising ‘the Administration’ can easily be seen as unpatriotic) is almost the only generally-accessible source of independent news commentary.
While in Britain the large newspapers appear on the surface to represent a politically independent press, some doubt about this must remain, due to the fact the usual fate of a ‘press baron’ is to end up being literally that, elevated to the House Of Lords. While a Freedom Of Information Act is now in place, Official Secrets Acts legislation (1889-) still does not permit British citizens to disclose certain matters to their MPs, and the Act can prohibit a newspaper under injunction even from disclosing the fact it is being prosecuted and having its data seized (the so-called super-injunction).
And in regard to the press’s right to report reasonably on public issues, there is still no general acceptance of this by the mainstream political parties, who continue to regard the press as simply a means of getting their message across. The Conservative hard-line attitude was summed up by Mrs Thatcher, who regarded investigative reporting as ‘trial by media’ - when you allow that, she said, it was the death of democracy. The current Labour government’s obsession with media control does not stop short of creating fabricated evidence, as shown by the ‘dodgy dossier’ (plagiarised from a student’s online thesis) which led to war with Iraq. (And in the resulting official enquiry, the government was entirely cleared and the BBC was censured.) The Prime Minister’s own private attitude to public-service reporting is indicated by his comment to newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch (who revealed it) that the BBC-TV coverage of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath showed the BBC to be "full of hatred of America and gloating." Under both Conservative and Labour governments, retired civil servants and soldiers who author politically embarrassing memoirs are pursued, sometimes overseas, by the Treasury trying to seize their royalties on grounds of Crown copyright, whilst higher-ranking members of government services, who submit their memoirs for government clearance, and agree to censorship of ‘sensitive’ details, are not.
What is surprising is how little concern is expressed about these developments by the mainstream media. Yet the Habeas Corpus Act which got John Wilkes released by a court in 1763 can today be suspended on grounds of state security. The demonstrations and speeches which surrounded his arrest would, even if non-violent, today be an offence if done without police permission. William Cobbett, who was found not guilty of seditious libel when prosecuted for praising those destroying farm machinery in 1830, could today have been arrested for glorifying terrorism, be made subject to indefinite detention or house arrest without trial, or have any right to know any actual evidence against him, this being withheld on the grounds it might prejudice other such official covert activities.
As another ‘World Press Freedom Day’ comes and goes, we have good reason to celebrate what press freedom we do have, for without it there would be no democracy at all. But on the other hand after two centuries of newspaper publishing in Britain, there is still some distance to go before we can describe Britain as having a free press.  §

The Poor Man's Guardian, an 1830s example of an independent newspaper aimed at the working class.

John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty by Arthur H. Cash
Wilkes's story is finally being told, in a recent biography.
(Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon UK.)

 

A handbill from 1792 contrasting English stability with French revolutionary injustice.
A handbill from the era: the background was official fear of popular revolution of the sort that had happened in France and America.

 

A detail from a Gillray political cartoon of the era.
A detail from a satirical print by Gillray,"New Morality." This was the age of the political cartoon, which would become a mainstay of the modern newspaper. (Gillray in fact was being paid secretly by the Tories to satirise opposition figures.)

 

The Hellfire Club Scandal And ‘Political Electricity’
Ironically, Bute and Wilkes were former friends, both scholars, both members of the same gentlemen’s club, one of those clubs young ‘Regency rakes’ often joined to indulge a hell-raising cult of drinking, carousing, wenching, and practical jokes. When his friend the young Scotsman James Boswell (Dr Johnson’s future literary companion ) asked "What shall I do to get life over?", Wilkes suggestion was "Dissipation and profligacy," a creed biographers say Wilkes pursued all his life. Based at West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, this out-of-town gentlemen’s club was also in ways a secret ’brotherhood’ that held mock-Catholic rituals. The Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, alias the Medmenham Monks, performed ‘black masses’ at ruined Medmenham Abbey nearby, the ‘brothers’ dressing as monks with prostitutes dressed as nuns, acting out fantasies that were then criminally blasphemous. The generic name used for such gentlemen’s clubs would soon become a familiar one - Hellfire Club.
Founded by a friend of Pitt the Elder, its members were among the most influential figures of the era. These were men such as the millionaire Dorset squire Baron Melcombe; the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich; William Hogarth, the political caricaturist (after they fell out, he sketched Wilkes as a grinning demon in a horned wig). The club founder, Sir Francis Dashwood, was Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was the fashionable club for top people to be a member of, and as today, you could obtain guest membership if you had the right contacts. Rumour had it that various royals from Britain and Europe visited on guest memberships, including the Prince of Wales.
Wilkes’s newspaper brought its activities to light when in 1762 it revealed some tittle-tattle about one of Wilkes’s key political enemies - the cabal known as ‘The King’s Friends’ - who was also a club member. According to Daniel Mannix's book The Hellfire Club, the resulting political scandal was the biggest in British history, with resignations right and left. Some historians speculate the scandal even frustrated negotiations that could have prevented war with America. For one of Dashwood’s regular guests (1764-75) was the American Benjamin Franklin. (It’s not clear if Franklin, a Grand Master of Freemasonry, was an actual member of this ‘brotherhood’. He and Dashwood did produce a book together, an abridged Book of Common Prayer in 1773, as they felt the official version was too long and boring.) A colonial agent, Franklin was on a diplomatic mission to convince the King to allow the Colonists reasonable terms. The 1765 Stamp Act, designed to make the American colonists pay off the war debt, was a particularly inflammatory issue, for it imposed a tax on all documents including newspapers. (Franklin was America’s first independent newspaper and magazine publisher.) But the Hellfire Club scandal cost him any chance of an audience at court, and he ended up instead negotiating vital French support against England, support which some historians argue cost England the Colonies.
Franklin was also a scientist famous for his experiments with electricity, then a novelty as a controllable force. At that time, the fashionable set would attend shows where they would join hands and a low-amp current would be passed between them, creating a pleasant tingling sensation. Awareness of this new force, the electrical charge, inspired its use as the metaphoric title for a work illustrating the power of the new politically charged organs like The North Briton, in the ‘buzz’ it created. ‘Political Electricity’ was the title of a 1770 publication which was not the usual pamphlet, but a large-format broadsheet –the forerunner of the modern newspaper-style page-long comic. (This would also be the age of the political cartoonist, of Hogarth, Cruikshank, and Gillray.)
Created by an opposition MP under a pen-name, Political Electricity was in the form of a narrative tableau showing 31 scenes or frames connected by a thread representing an electric circuit. The first shows Bute as a headless ‘Electrical Machine’ shaking hands with the “Principal Nobles in France", a reference to "the late inglorious peace" - his failure to obtain suitable peace-treaty terms. Other frames show such scenes as his cronies “Playing at Cards With The Public Money," the King having protestors shot, and Wilkes being held in gaol, Franklin flying his lightning-conductor kite on the French coast, London in flames, and Bute at table carving up the British Lion, with its genitals on his plate. (An illustrated article on it can be viewed online here.)

The 'Political Porcupine' - William Cobbett

Parliament burns in 1834, watched by a jeering crowd. In the crowd is William Cobbett, regarded today as the first modern journalist, who had become an MP to try to correct some of the injustices he had long written about.

Since 1689, the government had largely relied on general illiteracy and the Stamp Acts to keep books as well as newspapers out of the hands of the general public. (The stamp duty was originally a penny a printed page plus a shilling per advertisement.) When William Godwin, the political writer buried in the Shelley family tomb in Bournemouth, published his 1793 book Political Justice, there were official demands it be suppressed (it discussed revolution and advocated ‘free love’). Prime Minister Pitt famously responded that there was no need, since its price (over £1 with stamp duty) was so high the general public could not afford it. Pitt described Stamp Duty as an ideal tax, saying it was easy to impose and a small burden on the” lower orders” who were largely illiterate. Pitt had not reckoned on the new working-class adult-education movement, which set up a network of private lending libraries called "corresponding societies", who bought and circulated copies, and held readings for the illiterate. In the case of Political Justice, it sold over 4,000 copies and established Godwin as a political commentator, one who inspired his son-in-law Shelley and other young members of the Romantic Movement to take up political pamphleteering and writing. Pitt doubled the Stamp duty in 1797, which made newspaper publishing more difficult, but did not stop one man, who took up the banner of crusading newspaper journalism from Wilkes.
From 1802 onward, the radical journalist and publisher William Cobbett would campaign, in the name of common sense and the common man, for the "digging and rooting up of all corruptions." Cobbett actually started his career to America, having fled, for legal reasons, to France and to America (later on, he would flee from America, and later back to America again). He began with a pamphlet, but was soon producing a successful conservative newspaper called Porcupine's Gazette (he wrote under the name ‘Peter Porcupine’). He returned to England bearing the coffin of a like-minded expatriate, Thomas Paine, whose The Rights of Man is regarded as a foundation of American constitutional democracy. Setting up on a farm outside Southampton, he began to publish a two-penny newspaper to which he gave a less prickly and more mainstream-political name: The Political Register. It started out as a conservative weekly but as Cobbett looked around him at his home country, it became more radical. He also began publishing in 1803 parliamentary reports which evolved into the official record we know today, named after Cobbett’s partner in this, Hansard.
Cobbett was soon known by the nicknames "John Bull, incarnate" and "The Poor Man's Friend." In his British History In The Nineteenth Century, G. M. Trevelyan commented, "In his Register and other publications he had devised and conducted, single-handed, a system of political education for the masses, at a time when they had no serious political writings within their reach." Cobbett kept publishing The Political Register despite being imprisoned in Newgate for two years for criticizing the use of German troops to put down rioters. Discovering a plan to have him re-arrested for sedition in 1817, Cobbett fled to America, but soon returned. On losing his farm to pay his legal debts, he moved to London but, in a series of journeys 1822-6, rode across southern England to see the state of the country first-hand, for what would become his most famous column, Rural Rides. He also stood as an MP and echoed Wilkes’s call for an end to aristocratic "pocket boroughs" like that of Christchurch, which was then controlled, and owned by Pitt’s minister and factotum George Rose and his sons. Cobbett is credited with laying the groundwork for many of the political reforms of 19th century. (See The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett by Richard Ingrams, 2005.)
Despite The Political Register suffering reduced circulation due to price increases owing to the raised Stamp duty, and being arrested three times for criminal libel, Cobbett kept publishing it till near his death in 1835. He refused Pitt’s offer of subsidy to produce a pro-government newspaper akin to Bute’s The Briton, and kept his independence to the end. (At the end of his life, he was working on a play called Bastards In High Life.) Ultimately Cobbett too would pay a personal price. He succumbed to the fate of many who bear the burden too long of standing alone against powerful interests: chronic paranoia, to the extent he came to suspect his own family of collusion with his enemies.
To those who opposed reform, Cobbett’s Political Register and the papers it helped inspire, were "two-penny trash." There were dozens of working-class periodicals with titles like The Twopenny Despatch and The People's Conservative. The top half dozen sold 200,000 copies a week, and the two best-selling titles, The Police Gazette and The Poor Man's Guardian, sold more copies per day than The Times did per week. In 1815 the government imposed a new Stamp Act which increased duty to sixpence a page to ensure only newspapers aimed at, or published by, the wealthiest could survive. Those who defied the Act might also be prosecuted under the same criminal laws as Wilkes.
One who refused to pay duty, Richard Carlile, the Devon-born atheist who published a newspaper with a similar name to Cobbett’s, Sherwin’s Political Register (renamed The Republican after it was shut down), was sentenced to three years in Dorchester Gaol for blasphemy and seditious libel … and then on his release, to another three years for failing to pay the accompanying £1,500 fine. Over 150 other men and women, including his wife, were sent to prison for selling copies of The Republican on the street or in shops, their sentences totalling over 200 years. This was not an isolated case: a destitute man was given 4 years in 1835 for selling copies of The Poor Man's Guardian, and its masthead [pictured at bottom of page] claims over 500 people were unjustly imprisoned for this.
These prosecutions became another cause celebre, leading to organisations being formed to support freedom of the press. Carlile himself, who had been present as a speaker at the infamous 1817 Peterloo Massacre, continued to campaign against the Act he and others called a ‘tax on knowledge,’ until 1836, when the duty was reduced back to a penny a page, and the tax on pamphlets was abandoned.
Cobbett got around the 1815 Act by registering his own newspaper as an unfolded ‘pamphlet,’ allowing him to still sell 40,000 copies a week at tuppence each. But in 1819, Government passed ‘The Six Acts’ designed to put Cobbett’s and other radical newspapers out of business. Publishers now had to deposit a bond of £200-300 to pay fines for future convictions, and the law now imposed a minimum price, which put an end to the ‘tuppenny’ press. Having to pay four-pence duty on a two-penny newspaper made publishing hopelessly un-economic. Cobbett had to raise his price to sixpence and his circulation fell off dramatically, as did those of every newspaper of the day.

Early news-sheets were often read and discussed in city coffee-houses, which flourished from the Restoration onward.
Early news-sheets (here, the "London Gazette") were often read and discussed in city coffee-houses, which flourished in the 18th century.

 

A front page from a 1930 edition of what was then the Manchester Guardian.
The Guardian began life in 1821 as the Manchester Guardian. Note the price [top right] on this facsimile of a 1930s edition - still tuppence.

Police watching a demonstration in downtown London.
Police watching a post "9-11" antiwar demonstration in downtown London. Such activities are now banned anywhere near the seat of government. 



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