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The middle class campaign for the repeal of the newspaper stamp duty

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.

The campaign against the stamp duty was waged at parliamentary level by the middle-classes, but not so by the working classes. The Reform Act of 1832 had persuaded them that their interests, once betrayed, were not likely to be further satisfied by the narrowly elected parliament. The working class demanded redress of grievances, and most of the agitation against the newspaper duty was conducted through illegal journalism.

Francis Place was the leader of the parliamentary movement for repeal of the newspaper tax, mainly stemming from his advocacy of the doctrines of political economy which he sought to disseminate to the working classes. He repeatedly attacked Henry Hetherington, James Watson and other printers and publishers of illegal newspapers. Place organised delegations to plead with members of the Government for repeal of the stamp duty. His extensive library of source material on working-class history was placed at the disposal of radical MPs and he provided ample matter for MPs for their parliamentary speeches on the subject. He also conducted an extensive correspondence with reformers in many sections of the country on the subject of taxes on knowledge, aiming to stimulate a genuine national agitation against them. Place's closest ally in the Commons was the MP Joseph Hume.

Place possessed extensive contacts with a segment of the London artisan class and with several working-class journalists including William Lovett, Richard Carlile and John Cleave. However, his influence with the politically articulate segment of the lower orders remained minimal. His adverse attitude to the trade union movement and opposition to the unstamped press made too many enemies. Neither Place nor Hume was sufficiently popular with working-class reformers to provide leadership for a unified campaign to repeal the newspaper tax.

In parliament, few Government supporters attacked the proposition that the duties should be repealed, while the Conservatives under Peel took no official position. Peel believed that the duty should be retained but he rarely intervened in debates on the subject. Perhaps he hoped that a policy of silence would help to increase tensions between Whigs and radicals. The Whig ministers were reluctant to appear as opponents of any measure that might strengthen the freedom of the press, and affirmed the undesirability of the newspaper tax in principle although they got considerable revenue from it.

Pressure from Without

By the spring of 1835, many middle-class reformers were convinced that the Government was unlikely to repeal the newspaper duty unless more direct methods of agitation were used. Consequently a massive national movement for repeal was launched and conducted by middle-class reformers between 1835-6, centred around the activities of a Westminster association directed by Place and his supporters. The organisational abilities of a political genius of Francis Place were needed - although he was even more unpopular among the working classes since his application to become a Poor Law Assistant Commissioner.

Middle-class extra-parliamentary pressure already existed in the shape of the Birmingham Political Union and the National Political Union (Place), besides the Society for the Diffusion of Political and Moral Knowledge. In April 1835 Place organised the Association for the Abolition of the Stamp Duty on Newspapers, using the techniques of earlier pressure groups and foreshadowing the Anti-Corn-Law League. The Association's immediate objective was to arouse a national feeling on the subject of newspaper tax repeal. This was to be accomplished by a mass petitioning campaign and through numerous public meetings.

Place undertook to raise funds from his many contacts in parliament, and he asked labourers to contribute at least ¼d to the campaign. The response of the lower orders was not notable. The total sum raised from the public in 30 months was only £110. In April 1835 some 20,000 circulars were sent out through the Post Office using parliamentary franking privileges. Letters also appeared in the press, and instructions as to how to devise petitions was included. Blank petitions forms were sent to leading radicals and a large number of were petitions sent to parliament during 1836. The Association attempted to establish provincial branches in order to promote the growing agitation.

In January 1836, Place published an essay, 'A Repeal of the Stamp Duty on Newspapers' in Roebuck's Pamphlets for the People, in which Place attacked reformers for their apparent willingness to accept a partial reduction of the tax. Shortly after the pamphlet was circulated, Place and his supporters commenced a correspondence with provincial reformers. It led to the calling of a large number of public meetings in favour of total repeal, and petitions were sent to parliament from Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh and other major industrial and urban centres. "Respectable" elements dominated these meetings, which were often presided over by civic leaders.

The Association failed to tap working-class enthusiasm and so a massive national agitation could not be launched successfully. Consequently, working-class repeal sentiment continued to move further towards the illegal war of the unstamped.


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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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