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The Unstamped Press

In 1815, the Tory government of Lord Liverpool had increased the stamp duty to 4d but could not stop the increasing numbers of unstamped papers. It was not until June 1855 that the final remaining penny of the British newspaper duty was removed; 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. In addition to the campaign for the removal of press restrictions, this period also saw

It also marks the development of a class consciousness among British labourers. The movement for the repeal of the newspaper tax was led primarily by working-class reformers, and involved an overt attempt to violate the press laws by means of the publication and dissemination of hundreds of illegal tracts and newspapers. Government authority was directly challenged in the pages of William Carpenter's Political Letters and Pamphlets, Henry Hetherington's Poor Man's Guardian, James Watson's Working Man's Friend and many others.

Between 1830 and 1836 the number of illegal journals published between 1830 and 1836 exceeded 550. The unstamped papers circulated throughout England and Scotland, retailing at between 1d and 3d. The publication and distribution was referred to by contemporaries as the "War of the Unstamped" and was undertaken almost exclusively by the working classes. It overshadowed the repeal agitation of the middle classes, and Government prosecutions merely increased the number of periodicals, increasingly tinged with near-revolutionary bitterness. Techniques of defiance embodied in the production and distribution became more sophisticated, posing an additional challenge to the Government.

The first notable challenge was launched in October 1830 by William Carpenter with his Political Letters and Pamphlets. At this time:

Carpenter produced 33 numbers of the periodical with an estimated circulation of 10,000. He was prosecuted in May 1831, ending its publication.

In October 1831, Hetherington began to distribute the Poor Man's Guardian. It carried less news than the Political Letters and had a smaller circulation but advocated radical doctrines and led to Hetherington's arrest on several occasions. Between 1831 and 1835 Hetherington also published the Republican, or Voice of the People.

Allen Davenport was one of the moderate Spencean socialists. He was involved in the activities of the National Union of the Working Classes and published articles and poems to at least four of the more important illegal journals: Man, Poor Man's Guardian, Prompter and Lorymer's Bonnet Rouge. He propounded the theme of an alliance between the working classes and the lower middle class in order to secure political concessions from the Whigs.

Many of the illegal papers also served as a medium for advertisements for radical associations' meetings, particularly for the NUWC, set up by Hetherington in 1831. Branches of the NUWC circulated copies of these papers free in return. Country areas remained relatively unaffected by the illegal press - it was too difficult to get them into rural England. The provinces played a striking role in the war of the unstamped. Manchester and its surrounding area took about 10% of the total number of them. In Manchester, John Doherty was at the forefront of the war of the unstamped, with the United Trades' Co-operative Journal, an illegal 2d periodical. This bemoaned the evils of economic competition and concentrated its energies on the exposure of factory abuses. He also published the Poor Man's Advocate. Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Glasgow and Huddersfield gave substantial support to the radical penny press. Birmingham rivalled Manchester as a distribution centre but the moderating influence of Attwood and the failure of the factory system to take root meant that there was no strong sense of class grievance. A similar link between factory and newspaper issues was forged in Huddersfield by Joshua Hobson, editor, printer and distributor of the Voice of the West Riding.

To a large measure, the success of the illegal press campaign is attributable to the sheer good fortune of the repeated Stamp Office prosecutions: these made the papers popular. The Government's policy of repression led to the imprisonment of almost 800 persons for violations of the stamp laws. Sentences varied between seven days and three months, depending on the inclinations of the magistrates involved.

Political themes of the unstamped press

Ulterior measures

The Government's decision to reduce the stamp duty was primarily due to the success of the 'war of the unstamped', and in 1836 the duty was reduced from 4d to 1d, in order to take the unstamped newspapers off the streets while allowing legal newspapers wider circulation. The reduction became known as the "Gagging Bill" among the working classes. Many of those involved in the war of the unstamped became Chartists within months of the 1d duty being imposed.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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