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"The War of the Unstamped" 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.

Most working-class reformers were in agreement with Richard Carlile, that "the most virtuous patriotism of the present day is a resistance to bad laws. More good is likely to be worked through this medium than through any other". To most working class radicals the existence of the illegal periodicals was important because they challenged the monopoly of the stamped press. To the readers of these papers, they represented cheap knowledge. Also, the papers were critical of the government, as the following parody, John Wilkes' Catechism of a Ministerial Member by Hone, shows:

The Ten Commandments

  1. Thou shalt have no other Patron but me.
  2. Thou shalt not support any measure but mine . . . for I thy Lord am a jealous Minister
  3. Thou shalt not take the pension of thy Lord the Minister in vain; for I the Minister will force him to accept the Chilterns that taketh my pension in vain.
  4. Remember that thou attend thy Minister's levee day . . .
  5. Honour the Regent and the helmets of the Life Guards, that thy stay may be long in the Place, which thy Lord the Minister giveth thee.
  6. Thou shalt not call starving to death murder.
  7. Thou shalt not call Royal gallivanting adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not say, that to rob the Public is to steal.
  9. Thou shalt bear false witness against the People.
  10. Thou shalt not covet the People's applause, thou shalt not covet the People's praise, nor their good name, nor their esteem, nor their reverence, nor any reward that is theirs.

The working-class demand for political knowledge reached unprecedented proportions during the 1830s and was also a product of increasing literacy. Reading rooms where newspapers could be read at 1d per hour were opened, discussion clubs and mutual improvement societies were formed and well-known writings were reprinted in weekly numbers.

An increased self-consciousness was spreading among the labouring population, and the publication of large numbers of illegal and ultra-radical periodicals during the years 1830-36 accelerated this process. Many working-class radicals thought that following the repeal of the newspaper tax would come a democratic society based on universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot and annual parliaments. The unstamped press was the original panacea for the working classes.

One major grievance was the discretionary and arbitrary imposition of the 1819 law. The Penny Magazine was illegal, but Brougham was not arrested, when other unstamped publishers were. The criterion seemed to be, as Joshua Hobson - editor of the unstamped Voice of the West Riding - said: "They are rich; I am poor". The class ingredient in the newspaper agitation frightened many parliamentary reformers because only a segment of the working-class support for the war of the unstamped remained moderate.

Many endorsed violation of the law on this particular issue. William Benbow was advocating a Grand National Holiday against the newspaper duty in 1831. The cry of "Taxation without representation is tyranny and ought to be resisted" became commonplace, as were the theoretical justifications for revolution by Locke and Paine. The publishers and printers who were on the sharp end of the struggle - Hetherington, Cleave and Watson - became folk heroes. Hetherington attempted to sell every kind of printed material other than obscenity or works that cast aspersions upon private character. In 1835, a 6d edition of Milton's Areopagitica (a pamphlet arguing against restrictions on the freedom of the press) was published.

It has been claimed that Richard Carlile did more than any other man of his day for the freedom of the press. He tried to reform the obsolete laws relating to seditious libel which resulted in several terms of imprisonment for him, totalling nine years and seven months. He openly published a number of illegal journals such as the Prompter, Gauntlet, A Scourge for the Littleness of "Great" Men, and the Isis. Others, like the Political Soldier and Cosmopolite were published covertly. All of Carlile's journalistic activities were concentrated upon achieving a free press, which he saw as the panacea for all society's ills.

Carlile rejected resort to physical violence as a means of redressing grievances and subsequently condemned the Chartists for this. He had no resort to class consciousness as part of his approach to reform. Carlile exemplified the best and worst aspects of the individualist in politics. He lacked a substantial following and quarrelled with nearly every other prominent working-class leader. He condemned the glaring abuses of society and wanted the improvement of the people, but he did not see that political economy nor co-operative utopias could eliminate the bulk of the grievances. Freedom of the press was his solution, for the spread of 'true' knowledge.

William Lovett was not a journalist and his talents were mainly employed on the organizational side of the unstamped campaign. He was secretary of the "Victim Fund" which supported the families of hundreds of imprisoned vendors (including George Julian Harney). In 1836 he worked with Francis Place to raise subscriptions for Hetherington, Cleave and other publishers who faced prosecution. He wrote articles and speeches for a number of the illegal journals, articulating a concept of the liberty of the press that became an important concept of working-class thought. He saw a free press as the means of attaining freedom, peace and brotherhood. Place condemned Lovett's adherence to Owenite doctrines but described him as 'honest, sincere and courageous'.


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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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