Today
Fri 7 May 2021

Russell Jackson with a primer on the surprisingly radical traditions of the British press and the 200 hundred-year-old battle cry ‘information is power’

With the rise of online and print publications, I believe we are experiencing something of a renaissance akin to the radical press of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

In 1550, only 15% of the adult British population could read. It took until 1850 for 75% of the population to learn to read and write. Developments in print technology in the 17th Century gave rise to early journalism, focused on self-improvement, law, medicine, events and entertainment.

While sensationalism was often favoured over accuracy, large audiences had the opportunity to hear dissenting voices. The middle classes were early adopters of what we now call journalism. 

In 1605, The Relation in Strasbourg became the first weekly newspaper see above). In the 1620s, England got the Weekley Newes, arguably the first regular English newspaper, focusing on international news.


Perfect Diurnall of The Passages in Parliament, 31 January 1642. Source: Folger Digital Image Collection

During the English civil war of 1642-1651, dozens of weekly ‘newsbooks’ were circulated in London, aimed at the privileged classes. Recognisable propaganda emerged with insider stories planted, and personal attacks made, and there was a nationwide debate over ‘freedom of expression’. 

The Levellers, a political movement demanding suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance, grew out of the first Civil War, pioneering techniques such as petitioning and pamphleting to reach wider audiences. The concept of a ‘free press’ was born.

The Moderate Intelligencer, 24 May 1649. Photo: Rare Newspapers

By 1655, rattled elites attempted to control the flow of ‘subversive’ information. Oliver Cromwell banned newsbooks, introducing severe penalties enforced by the Army. Publications were censored, illegal books were seized, publishers imprisoned and printers had to be licensed.


As direct state censorship waned by 1700, the journalistic floodgates opened. The Daily Courante in 1702 was the first British daily – a single page – with adverts on the back. Between 1700 and 1705, London had 20 newspapers. By 1760, there we 89, and by 1782, 12 million people could read and there are 50 regional newspapers.

The second edition of the Daily Courant, 12 March 1702. Photo: Alamy

The seemingly insatiable appetite for news made newspapers highly profitable. However, there was no organised system of news-gathering: journalism was still in its infancy and was unreliable.

The 1712 Stamp Act introduced a ‘tax’ on newspapers and, between 1712 and 1815, there was a crippling 800% increase in taxes on newspapers, which unsurprisingly resulted in the decline of news critical of the government. 

The period between 1750-1850 saw a series of revolutions which shook the world: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution saw the emergence of new classes. Working people started experiencing a sense of class belonging what Marx called ‘class consciousness’ and print media gave voice to this. There was a struggle over participation in the political system – and struggles too over control of the system of mass communication. Print media – then as now – became a battleground for competing ideas and political interests.


There was a huge growth in radical literature. Tom Paine wrote The Rights of Man in 1791 and before long 200,000 copies were in circulation. It included ideas on democracy, welfare, hostility to the aristocracy, and the rights of individuals to speak for themselves. Working-class interest in politics and the possibility of self-determination increased exponentially. 

The burgeoning radical press included William Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register (1802-1835). Cobbett was also extremely critical of the government: he denounced the money made by bankers during the Napoleonic Wars and decried the state of the country. He pushed the idea that the labouring classes were, and must be considered equal with, others. 

Cobbett wrote about ‘The Two-Headed Monster’ and ‘THE THING’ – expressing the accumulated evils of the old system – namely the privileges of church and state and their hatred of the poor, and the corruption of bankers and mercantile classes imposing an intolerable burden on the poor.

Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 2 Nov 1811. Source: Newspapers.com

In 1816, a loophole in stamp duty laws was found – if pages were not folded, then it was not considered to be a newspaper, and radical newspapers increased further in number and in reach.

In 1819, only landowners could vote and elites were becoming terrified of losing control to the masses. The biggest demonstration of working people Britain had ever seen took place at Peterloo: 80,000-strong, the cavalry charged into them, leaving 15 dead and 700 people injured. It became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

Following this, the Government introduced the despicable and highly punitive ‘Six Acts’ which aimed to suppress all meetings for the purpose of radical reform and to reduce the amount of radical literature in circulation, effectively ending the first phase of the radical press. However, by 1850, 75% of the working-class could read, and brave publishers continued with their objective of radical reform.

First edition of the Manchester Guardian, 5 May 1821. Source: Science Museum

The early winners were the middle-classes, who deployed their newspapers, The Times and the Manchester Guardian, to demonise both the aristocracy and the working-class as feckless, drunken and debauched, calling for an expansion of middle-class values to all: although they did not want universal suffrage for the ignorant and brutish working-class. This period coincided with a shift toward the age of mass circulation and huge advertising revenue. 

In 1821, the Leeds Mercury proclaimed that “never in any country under the sun was an order of men more estimable and valuable, more praised and praiseworthy than the middle class of society in England!” But this period also, importantly, gave rise to the radical press, which articulated resistance to this dominant narrative.


From 1830-1836, 56 radical newspapers launched. They kept costs low by introducing subscriptions, using volunteers to distribute them and by avoiding stamp duty. The ideas in these newspapers took time to translate into concrete benefits for the working-class but, from 1862-75, the average wage increased by 40%.

 The Penny Papers for the People, Published by the Poor Man’s Guardian, 1830. Source: Google Books

The radical press helped foster another working-class political movement: Chartism, which articulated the aims and objectives of the working-class, including universal suffrage, secret ballots, and the removal of the need to be a landowner to be an MP. 

Henry Hetherington’s unstamped Penny Weekly displayed on its front page that it was “published contrary to ‘law’ to try the power of ‘might’ against ‘right'”;

“KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!” Hetherington declared: “It is the cause of the rabble we advocate, the poor, the suffering, the industrious, the productive classes… we will teach this rabble their power – we will teach them that they are your master, instead of being your slave!

Cobbett’s Two-Penny Trash or Politics for the Poor 1830. Source: Archive

Other influential radical newspapers at that time included the Twopenny Trash; Black Dwarf; Political Register (which eventually led to Hansard); The Republican; and The Gorgon. They all advocated for the working-classes to organise, providing a huge boost to unionisation.

By the late 19th Century, Britain saw the rise of the mass-circulation popular press, owned by wealthy elites, and the reassertion of their dominance was undoubtedly aided by their pioneering techniques to shape and control public opinion which remain with us to this day. 

While we might not have the resources of the billionaire elites who seek to relentlessly scapegoat and demonise certain minorities and the left, we urgently need to provide accurate, evidenced and persuasive critique of the failing free-market system, the disproportionate representation of news and ideas framed to benefit the wealthy, and to present a convincing alternative vision for a much fairer, less polarised, and greener future. 

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