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The Northern Star

Chartism spread so fast and acquired its national dimension through the press. The movement was built on the press and the press was a bridge with earlier movements, especially the 'unstamped press' campaign involving Hetherington, O'Brien and Cleave. There was a continuity between the 'War of the Unstamped' and Chartism through the use of the same people as agents, distributors, journalists and publishers. Feargus O'Connor was a prominent speaker for the unstamped press both in and out of parliament. In 1836, the Newspaper Act reduced the stamp duty to 1d. The Northern Star said the reduction 'made the rich man's paper cheaper and the poor man's paper dearer'. The Northern Star owed its popularity to O'Connor. Chartism was held together by the Northern Star which welcomed and reported all radical initiatives of all types: Owenism, co-operation, Trade Union activity and so on. Its readership was in excess of its circulation and it had a high quality of staff and news.

The Northern Star was the most important of the radical newspapers and was the only authentic organ of Chartism; it was important because it gave an understanding of Chartism to the working classes. It was in print before the Charter was drawn up and before the establishment of the National Charter Association. Initially it advocated factory reform and supported the Ten-Hour Movement and anti-Poor-Law campaigns. These merged into Chartism. It also gave Chartism some semblance of unity. The London Working Men's Association did not lead the way in print media.

The Northern Star lasted for about fifteen years and sold at 4½d a copy in 1837, rising to 5d. in 1844 - a high cost, considering the targeted group. Because it was so expensive, it was common for people to contribute halfpennies towards the cost and then share the paper. The sales figures, therefore, should be multiplied by about twenty to give some idea of its true audience.

The Significance of the Northern Star

Developments

Initially, it was a Barnsley newspaper produced by William Hill in Peel Street. Hill, a preacher from Hull, was in financial difficulties so he sold the paper to Feargus O'Connor. O'Connor moved it to Leeds where he raised funds by popular subscription besides putting in his own money. O'Connor owned a landed estate in County Cork which gave him an income of £750 per annum. Hill was the editor of the Northern Star from 1837 to 1843 and then Joshua Hobson and George Julian Harney took over. In November 1844 it was moved to London.

Its full name was the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser. The first issue appeared in Leeds was on 17 November 1837 as a stamped paper at a cost of 4½d. It was published and printed by Joshua Hobson. The Northern Star was aggressively radical in tone. It was concerned with radical reform, violently opposed the Poor Law Amendment Act and supported the unstamped press and the Ten-Hour Movement. Even before the publication of the Charter, the Northern Star established the movement which was to become Chartism. Other (later) editors included John Ardill, a Leeds brass-moulder, clerk and milk-seller, and Bronterre O'Brien, who had edited Hetherington's Poor Man's Guardian.

Distribution was a popular movement in its own right. Agents became local organisers and local organisers became agents. Its circulation in some areas was enough to provide the distributor (who might also act as a reporter) a living. The paper thus gave Chartism a semi-professional local leadership. People were encouraged to send in reports of meetings, articles, letters and comments - and did so by the hundreds: the Northern Star therefore gave a national perspective to Chartism.

Finance

O'Connor sank much of his own cash into the paper, but public subscriptions were raised at £1 per share with 10% interest. The paper's success was immediate and the subscribers got a good return on their investment. Some eventually got their money back, which usually was unheard of. £690 was subscribed; £500 of this was from Leeds, Hull, Halifax, Bradford and Huddersfield. Because the Northern Star was a stamped newspaper, accurate records of its sales are available.

By January 1838 it was selling 10,000 copies a week
By January 1839 it was selling 17,640 copies a week
The average sales for 1839 were 36,000 copies a week - the height of Chartist activity
Sales did rise to 50,000 copies a week during 1839

Average sales per week

1840 18,000
1841 13,000
1842 12,500
1843 9,000
1845-6 6,000 or less (6,000 probably the break-even point)
1847-8 12,500
1850-1 5,000 and less

Throughout most of its career, the Northern Star was a financial asset to O'Connor, who seems to have poured the money straight back into the movement.

Policy

The Northern Star initially was not a vehicle for Chartism because Chartism did not exist at the time. It only became a Chartist paper after 1838. Its readership is likely to have been in excess of sales because the paper was bought by groups or placed in coffee houses and/or public houses and also it was read aloud for the benefit of the illiterate. The Northern Star was a mixture of education, encouragement and advice. It reported on all aspects of Chartism and gave a complete picture of what was going on. It even included articles from rivals and opponents of Feargus O'Connor. It was a full-sized paper and had a greater circulation than the Leeds Mercury. It contained advertisements, general and commercial news, national and local reports, letters, editorials and reviews. Because it had so many local reporters, its news coverage was one of the best in the country for the sort of events which interested Chartists. It was a good, professional newspaper.

Progress

O'Connor was central to its existence, and it was an important factor in his leadership of Chartism. The Northern Star kept him in the forefront of people's interest, even when O'Connor was in York gaol between 1840-41. He emerged from imprisonment with his reputation enhanced rather than neglected. There is some discussion as to whether he used the paper merely to advance his own political career or because he really wanted to educate the working class. An daily evening paper, the Evening Star, was attempted between July 1842 and February 1843 but it failed.

In November 1844, O'Connor moved the Northern Star to London as the Northern Star and National Trades Journal in an attempt to broaden the base of support. Hobson went as editor but disliked London. Harney then took over, helped by G.A. Fleming and Ernest Jones.

In 1849, O'Connor and Harney quarrelled over 'red republicanism' and Harney left. William Rider, a Leeds radical, took over for a few months and then in 1850 Fleming took over. In 1852 he bought it for £100. On 20 March 1852 it appeared as just The Star, a Trade Union/Owenite/radical paper but no longer a Chartist medium. It had a new Six Point programme of progress:

In April 1852, it was taken over by Harney for a few months as the Star of Freedom, then it collapsed. The end of the Northern Star marks the end of Chartism.

Donald Read says of the sales figures for the Northern Star: 'As well as showing the extent of working-class political enthusiasm, these [sales] figures prove that illiteracy was not an obstacle to the success of a working-class newspaper, despite the low standard of educational provision for the poor at this time'.

Other Chartist newspapers were:

The Northern Liberator

1837-1840. This paper was established in the north-east of England by Beaumont.

The Charter

1839-1840. This was established by Lovett

Western Liberator

1839-1842. This was established by Vincent in the West Country

The Democrat 1840. This was Harney's paper in London

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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