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Henry Hetherington (1792-1849)

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).

Henry Hetherington, a printer and publisher of unstamped newspapers, born in Compton Street, Soho, London, in 1792. He was apprenticed to Luke Hansard the parliamentary printer. He afterwards went to Belgium, but soon returned to London. Hetherington was one of the most energetic working men engaged with Dr. Birkbeck in establishing the Mechanics' Institution in London. In 1830 he drew up a Circular for the Formation of Trades Unions, which formed the basis of the National Union of the Working Classes and led eventually to Chartism. On 9 July 1831, at his house in Kingsgate Street, he began to issue The Poor Man's Guardian, a Weekly Paper for the People, price one penny. On the title appeared the words ‘Published in defiance of the “law” to try the power of “right” against “might.”’ It was edited, printed, and published by Hetherington. Politics as well as news were then taxed, but Hetherington refused to pay. Working men needed knowledge, and Hetherington was their foremost champion in procuring the repeal of the newspaper tax. He published many weekly papers, but the Poor Man's Guardian remained to the last his principal achievement.

In 1832 Hetherington was imprisoned for six months in Clerkenwell gaol, and a second time for six months for issuing his newspaper in defiance of the law, but the regular issue of the Guardian was not affected. Hetherington's was by no means a profitable business. He had to leave his shop disguised and return to it disguised - sometimes as a quaker, a waggoner, or a costermonger. After one of his flights he returned to London to see his dying mother, when a Bow Street runner seized him as he was knocking at the door.

To distribute his paper dummy parcels were sent off in one direction by persons instructed to make all resistance they could to constables who seized them; in the meantime real parcels were sent by another road. His shopmen were imprisoned, his premises entered, his property taken, and men brought into the house by constables, who broke up with blacksmiths' hammers his press and his type.

Hetherington started a new weekly paper called The Destructive and Poor Man's Conservative on 2 February 1833. The Conservative, as his new venture was jocularly called, was a journal in defence of trades unions. The Guardian was still appearing, and for the publication of that journal and of the Conservative he was indicted anew in 1834. The case came for trial before Lord Lyndhurst. Hetherington defended himself with force and relevance. The verdict was for the crown on the Conservative, and the penalties were £120. On the Poor Man's Guardian, Hetherington was acquitted. At last No. 159 of the Poor Man's Guardian bore these words: ‘This paper, after sustaining a persecution of three years and a half duration, in which upwards of five hundred persons were imprisoned for vending it, was declared in the Court of Exchequer to be a strictly legal publication.’ Politics were henceforth free, but news unstamped remained illegal, and the taxes on the press, in addition to the stamp, were still serious. Hetherington stated to the jury ‘he paid £500 a year duty on the paper he consumed.’

In December 1840 Hetherington was indicted for publishing Haslam's Letters to the Clergy of all Denominations, whose arguments were mainly directed against passages which the writer thought cruel or immoral in the Old Testament. Hetherington defended himself, and Lord Denman, who was judge, spoke of his defence ‘as one to which he had listened with feelings of great interest and sentiments of respect too.’ Mr. Justice Talfourd afterwards said that ‘Hetherington conducted his defence with great propriety and talent.’ Sentence was deferred, but he was ultimately imprisoned for four months. Acting on the advice of Francis Place, Hetherington, to ascertain whether the law had an equal application to gentlemen and workmen, indicted Moxon, the publisher of Shelley's works, for blasphemy in June 1841. Serjeant Talfourd, who was engaged for the defence of Moxon, contended that there ‘must be some alteration of the law, or some restriction of the right to put it in action,’ but Moxon was found guilty. Hetherington was not less active in trades unionism and in Chartism. Besides drawing up the Circular for the Formation of Trades Unions, he sat in Chartist conventions. He died at 57 Judd Street, London, on 24 August 1849, of cholera, through trusting to his temperance, and not accepting aid in time.

At his burial at Kensal Green two thousand persons were present, his friend G. J. Holyoake delivering his funeral oration from the tomb of Captain Williams, the ‘Publicola’ of the Weekly Dispatch, who had defended Hetherington with his pen. Hetherington was ready of speech, with an honest voice, disinterested earnestness, strong common sense, and indignation without anger, which he owed to discipleship of Robert Owen.

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