Course Module: 
History of Journalism

 

THE NEWSPAPER PRESS IN BRITAIN, c.1620-c.1780
One could be forgiven for supposing that Britain by 1780 was a nation of newspaper readers. Foreign observers: Cobbett, born in 1765, noted that newspapers were easily available where he lived in Surrey. Dr Johnson in 1773: `Of all publick transactions the whole world is now informed by news-papers'. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, the Privy Purse accounts of George III show a regular bill for £10 per month to a `newsman' for delivery of newspapers at Windsor. And although George III deplored what he called `the licentiousness which disgraces the freedom of the press', he warned his eldest son in 1796 to avoid behaviour which the press would seize upon. `You know there is so great a jealousy of any infringement of what is called the liberty of the Press'. Not surprisingly, politicians were often strongly critical of particular newspapers: Henry Fox, Lord Holland, 1770 wrote that `he does not remember that he ever saw his name, in the news papers but with a lye about him'. Yet politicians also recognized the influence of the press by subsidising friendly newspapers: every government did so in the eighteenth century and most opposition parties also did so.
 
But there is a danger of reading back 19C developments too much into the 18C. Even by 1780 it would be realistic to say that most people in Britain did not read, let alone buy, a newspaper. That is not to say that most people did not have access - through oral communication - to the contents of newspapers. But newspaper reading was a minority affair. Even in 1780, Britain was primarily a rural society; barely one quarter of the population lived in a town with a population of more than 2,000; agriculture was still by far the largest employer of labour. Newspapers were largely urban phenomena; printed and published in towns. The significant exception was London, where almost ten per cent of the population of England and Wales lived. And studies of the press which concentrate on the period of this lecture, 1620-1780, have to focus - cannot avoid focusing - on London, the most populous city, by far, in Europe, and the centre of power.  
 
Key underlying themes governing the history of the newspaper press in this period. For the purposes of this lecture, there are five such themes: Literacy, Censorship, the Laws of Libel, printing techniques, and consumer demand.
 
Literacy: presupposition of literacy. Historically: literacy levels higher in towns than in the countryside; higher among men than among women; and high in some professions (clergy, lawyers, merchants) - very low in other occupational groups, notably male and female agricultural labourers. But by 1780, somewhat over half of the male population, and perhaps just under half of the female population were literate in terms of ability to sign the marriage register, and these proportions were growing.
Censorship:
Regulation of the press, through a licensing system, from the 1620's, when the first appearance of `corantos' - news-sheets, or broadsheets, or newsbooks - appeared. Importance of connections with the Dutch (some early newspapers produced in Amsterdam), where there was quite a large English mercantile community. But with the breakdown of the Stuart government in the 1640s, and the abolition of the Court of Star Chamber - outburst of printing, news-sheets, broadsheets, etc - Royalist and parliamentary newspapers (cp. early 1790s in France). But with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, licensing/censorship was also restored. An official government newspaper, the London Gazette, 1665, put forward the official point of view. But in London - demand for, and availability of news, foreign and domestic: London a major port - news from abroad, growing interest in colonies, especially in North America; and coffee-houses where unofficial, often manuscript, newspapers, were available. And Exclusion Crisis, 1679-81: origin of Whig and Tory parties.
 
And it is from this period that we obtain some evidence about early journalism at the end of the 17th century. The word `journalist’ was not in use in the late 17C – when was its first recorded use? – and the word `intelligencer’ was its nearest equivalent. Many 18C newspapers were called the `Intelligencer’; Cambridge, Leeds, etc. Many of the earliest newsletters were in manuscript and were written for a small circle of aristocratic, gentry and MP clients. We now have a published version of the diary, or `Entr’ing Book’ of Roger Morrice (1628-1702), a Whig, Dissenter and writer, who compiled manuscript newsletters for his patrons. Many of these manuscript newsletters were in manuscript precisely because they were seditious (cp the samizdat form of publication in Soviet Russia).They provide evidence of interest in, and eagerness for, news.
 
But with the Revolution of 1688-89 there were significant changes. 1695 - lapsing of the Licensing Act. Thereafter, there was no system of pre-publication censorship in 18C Britain - unlike most of continental Europe(except theatre censorship, against anti-Walpole plays, 1737). The non-renewal of the Licensing Act should not be seen as a consciously liberalising measure (more to do with technical reasons and complaints about the privileges of a small number of government printers). But because it followed so soon after the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Toleration Act, also of 1689, it came retrospectively to be regarded as a symbol of liberty - all the more so when it came to be taken as a cause for British self-congratulation, distinguishing GB from papist France. This was a view strengthened by praise of English freedom by such as Voltaire and Montesquieu.
 
But there is also the suggestion that censorship operated less directly, i.e. by price. 1712 Newspaper Stamp Duty. Note - wartime and National Debt. Robert Harley - one of the first politicians to use the newspaper press on a systematic basis - saw its propaganda value. Rather than an attempt to price newspapers beyond the reach of the lower orders, the Stamp Act of 1712 was a revenue-raising device (note that it was passed when GB was at war with France). The stamp duty was raised five times in the 18C, including 1780 - on each of those five occasions, GB was at war. In 1797 it was raised by one and a half (old) pence), so that many newspapers cost 6d (2.5p). Famously, in 1798 the (London) Morning Post and Gazetteer put under its heading the words `Price in 1783 3d. Taxed by Mr Pitt 3d. Price 6d'. The Stamp Duty also influenced the physical form on newspapers: 1725 Act, half-penny stamp per half- sheet, leading to the four-page, rather than the six-page, newspaper. More broadly, the Stamp Duty was part of a process whereby the burden of taxation was gradually moved from the direct to the indirect taxes. Moreover, although heavy fines and imprisonment were prescribed for the publication and sale of unstamped newspapers, as with the Newspaper Act of 1743, this was very difficult to enforce. Harder to document is self-censorship on the part of newspapers owners/editors. In any society there are things which one cannot say, either because it is illegal or because it would not be tolerated by public opinion.
 
 
The laws of Libel:
From 1695, successive ministries relied on the Libel laws to impose at least some restraint upon newspapers. But these were post-publication methods. In additional to individual libel, there were available laws against Seditious libel; blasphemous libel: Blasphemy Act, 1698. Daniel Defoe was prosecuted (and had to stand in the pillory) for his satirical pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, which was actually an attack on the High Churchmen of the established church – Defoe was a Dissenters and a Whig.   Under Walpole's long ministry (1721-42) - numerous attempts to close down opposition newspapers. For example, Nathaniel Mist: Mist's Weekly Journal; it was prosecuted in 1728 for articles strongly critical of George II and for praising the Jacobite pretender. It then re-appeared as Fog's Weekly Journal; a Tory, anti-Walpole newspaper. As we shall see, the laws of seditious libel were used unsuccessfully against the newspapers associated with John Wilkes and his friends among the newspaper editors and publishers.
 
Printing techniques:
Cost of paper and print remained relatively high: the printing industry expanded, mainly by more extensive use of traditional means than by dramatic technical breakthroughs: still labour-intensive, but employing far more people by 1780 than in 1712. The steam-press not used on a regular basis until the early 19C. Newspapers were closely associated with the periodical press. The bookseller-publisher often the same person
How much did a newspaper cost? Two pence half-penny or three pence.
 
Consumer demand
1702: the first daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, was founded. The first provincial newspaper seems to have been started in Bristol. It has been estimated that c.70,000 copies of newspapers per week were being sold by the time of the Stamp Act, 1712.
 
More than 50 provincial newspapers founded between 1700-1727: mainly in older towns, e.g. Cathedral cities, Lincoln, Hereford, Gloucester. But also expanding industrial areas, Leeds, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. By 1740, there were at least 30 provincial newspapers, which operated weekly. It is noteworthy that post-1750, most of the newly-formed provincial newspapers were started in newer areas of population growth: Aris's Birmingham Gazette; Manchester Mercury; Leicester Chronicle, Sheffield Iris. Increased importance of advertising: some of the most interesting features of newspapers are the advertisements which often, although not always, occupied the whole of the front page. They were aimed primarily at the educated, promoting books and magazines - `This day is published' - medical remedies, teaching of science, arithmetic, French, dancing, fencing.
Who read newspapers: propertied, male elite? I.e. those who possessed the franchise?
Growing numbers of professional people, skilled artisans and craftsmen, clerks, shopkeepers, apothecaries, land surveyors, apprentices, formed a growing market. The diary of Thomas Turner (East Hoathly, Sussex) - shopkeeper and part-time village schoolmaster, regularly received the London press in the 1750s and early 1760s, and disseminated the contents to his fellow-villagers.
 
By the early 1760s, about 9.5 million newspaper stamps were sold annually by the Post Office (which was then a government department, not a nationalised industry). And that only accounts for the legal, stamped, press. Hannah Barker's work on the later 18C press, based on papers and accounts of owners/editors, shows a remarkably high degree of financial success. Number of newspaper stamps issued by the Post Office. And in 1779: the first Sunday newspaper in London, the British Gazette and Sunday Monitor was published.
 
This all the more remarkable because newspapers in this period were high-risk ventures. Many folded (sic) after only a few numbers. Others failed to survive because of competition. This helps to explain why many copies of some numbers do not survive: hence importance of the periodical press: mainly monthly: Gent. Mag. (1731) which outstripped its competitors, the shorter-lived London Mag., Scots Mag - which often quoted from newspapers - and from issues of newspapers which no longer survive. G.A. Cranfield’s book on the provincial press of the early eighteenth century shows that for much of the time it plagiarised the London press: but that post-c.1740, it became very much more independent/autonomous. Note: provincial newspapers, not local newspapers. Provincial newspapers did not carry much local news: much foreign news, diplomacy, courts, war; news from London. The Salisbury Journal, 1763 - its front page dominated by John Wilkes and the North Briton. There would always be some local information (e.g. prices of commodities - very significant) and of course advertisements were mainly local.
 
Importance of the post-1763 period:
In the post-1720 period, the most successful provincial newspapers were those which supported the opposition (such as those of Nathaniel Mist). The Craftsman, late 1720s, early 1730s – was an anti-Walpole publication, campaigning on a `Country' platform against corruption, patronage, over-mighty government, etc - the traditional targets of opposition.
Wilkes cases, 1763-74:
North Briton: General Warrants.
The London newspapers began to gain five-figure sales daily: Middlesex Journal, General Evening Post; while the `Letters of Junius’ in the late 1760s and early 1770s won the Public Advertiser: c. 10,000 copies per day? Readership was of course much more than that - the factor by which we should multiply sales to estimate the number of readers is not easy to determine for the 18C. What might it be today?
Publication of parliamentary debates - Lords and well as Commons.
Note that, again, the most successful papers were those critical of the government: Kentish Gazette, 1770s - highly critical of British policy towards the North American colonies.
 
By 1780s, politicians could not afford to ignore, or fail to use, the newspaper press, even when they railed against its supposed irresponsibility. There is much evidence that they watched it carefully. In the 1790s the Whig opposition of Charles James Fox bought and ran their own friendly newspaper, the Morning Chronicle. The government of William Pitt, and its Home Secretary Henry Dundas, ran a newspaper campaign against the French Revolution and its supporters in England. There were several pro-government papers at this time. One of them was called The Sun.
 
So I will conclude with a quotation from a report from Francis Freeling, joint secretary of the Post Office in 1798: `The Sun has decidedly the greatest circulation, if we except the General Evening Post, a paper of good principles …. and it is not unpleasant to see that there are very few places indeed in which the Sun is not read'. 
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Year 1

04 Lecture 3 The Press 1620-1780 (Prof Ditchfield's Notes)