Print, Politics and the Provincial Press in Modern Britain

by Ian Cawood (Volume editor) Lisa Peters (Volume editor)
©2019 Monographs X, 248 Pages
Series: Printing History and Culture, Volume 1


The provincial newspaper was read by peers, politicians and the proletariat alike. It is striking, however, how limited a range of newspapers and journals are offered for analysis in most historical studies of the political media in modern Britain. The predominance of the London political press and Punch in academic discourse appears to derive largely from the easy availability of these papers and journals to modern scholars rather than their actual distribution and popularity. Consequently, there has been hitherto a distinct lack of attention given to the British regional press by historians. This collection aims to correct this imbalance by investigating the development, maturation and persistence of the provincial political press in the British Isles in the modern era. Chapters covering aspects of the Irish, Yorkshire, Welsh, Scottish and Midlands political press are included to ensure a representative geographical spread of provincial Britain. These chapters cover previously neglected aspects of print culture, political literacy and reading practices across the regions of Britain in the late eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to offer an introduction to research in this burgeoning field of study.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Introduction (Ian Cawood / Lisa Peters)
  • 1 ‘That Nefarious Newspaper’: The Dublin Evening Post, 1789–179 (Duncan Frankis)
  • 2 A ‘Paper War’: John Rann, George Walters and the Political Print Culture in Dudley, Worcestershire, c. 1814–1832 (Judith Davies)
  • 3 ‘One of the Most Extraordinary Publications Which Has Ever Appeared …’: George Edmonds v the Monthly Argus (Susan Thomas)
  • 4 ‘Mr O’Connor, Famous Chartist, Visits Town’: Reporting Chartism in South-west Scotland (Helen Williams)
  • 5 Hopeful Words and the Neighbourly Order of the World: Revealing Radical Language Practice through Traces of Temporary Ownership (Paul Wilson)
  • 6 ‘We Must Get In Front of These Blighters’: Political Press Culture in the West Midlands, 1918–1925 (James Brennan / Ian Cawood)
  • 7 ‘We Defy Mr Watkin Williams to Point to a Single Instance … Where His Personal Character Has Been Assailed’: The Wrexham Guardian v Watkin Williams, MP (Lisa Peters)
  • 8 Identifying the Readers and Correspondents of the Northern Star, 1837–1847 (Victoria Clarke)
  • 9 The Freeman’s Journal, Evening Packet and Saunders’s News-Letter: Musical Identities, Political Identities (Catherine Ferris)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

| vii →


Figure 2.1. The vestry book and the celebrated secret order (Dudley: G. Walters, 1823?) (detail). Reproduced with permission of Dudley Archives and Local History Service.

Figure 2.2. Rejoice! Rejoice!! Glorious Victory! (Dudley: Walters, 1831). Reproduced with permission of Dudley Archives and Local History Service.

Figure 5.1. Busts of Joseph Rhodes and Ludwik Zamenhof, located at the entrance to Keighley Reference Library.

Figure 5.2. Rhodes’ English-Esperanto Dictionary (Reference Copy and Lending Copy).

Figure 5.3. The English-Esperanto Dictionary’s due-date list (top copy).

Figure 5.4. The English-Esperanto Dictionary’s due-date list (bottom copy).

Figure 6.1. The Town Crier, new series, no. 1, 3 October 1919. Reproduced with permission of Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham.

Figure 6.2. Straight Forward, no. 1. September 1920. Reproduced with permission of Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham.

Figure 6.3. Front cover of Home and Politics, no. 28, August 1923. Reproduced with permission of Conservative Party Archive, Bodleian Library.

Figure 6.4. ‘Everywoman: Dress, the Home, Women’s Work and Play’, Birmingham Mail, 3 November 1919.

Figure 6.5. The Liberal Flashlight, no. 25, January 1924. Reproduced with permission of the National Liberal Club Library, London. ← vii | viii →

Figure 7.1. ‘Aelodau Seneddol Cymru’ [Members of Parliament for Wales] XII – Watkin Williams, Trysorfa y Plant [The Children’s Treasury], Rhagfyr 1876 [December 1876], rhif. 180 [no. 180].

Figure 8.1. Self-identified occupations in the Northern Star readers and correspondents column, 1837–1848.

| ix →


Table 7.1. Occupation of North Wales Constitutional Press Company shareholders, 1871.

Table 8.1. Length of R&C column in total words, then average by month and year.

Table 8.2. Adult populations of Radical townships, towns, and proto-cities according to 1841 census data.

| 1 →



Why do all modern historians, cultural critics and literary analysts (especially those who tread in the swampy, inter-disciplinary mud of ‘Victorian Studies’) eventually find themselves confronting the intimidating bulk of the newspaper archives? In these days of the ‘cultural turn’ with its focus on the behaviours, mentalities and representations of life, this is simply because no other source can provide such a rounded view of the priorities, the principles and the prurience of public experience in early modern and modern Britain. The British press can trace its history back to the ‘newsbooks’ of the English Civil War and, as literacy advanced, newspapers and their readership grew. The lapse of the 1662 Licensing Act, which had restricted printing to London, Oxford, Cambridge, and York, in 1695 paved the way for the creation of newspapers outside these four cities and a provincial press was established. Politicians were quick to recognise the value of supportive newspapers with Robert Harley (1661–1724) and later Robert Walpole (1676–1745) supporting the creation of pro-government newspapers and offering financial subsidies. Politicians also understood that the press was a potential threat and took care to restrict press circulation through the introduction of the ‘taxes on knowledge’, otherwise known as stamp duty, advertising duty, and paper duty. However, these taxes were never as effective as the government of the day hoped, and even the increase in stamp duty to 2d in 1789 did not stop the production of the pro-revolutionary Dublin Evening Post, as discussed in the chapter in this collection by Duncan Frankis. In contrast to the revolutionary fervour of the Dublin Evening Post, Catherine Ferris examines the press coverage of musical events in the Dublin press in a six-month period in 1840, using this to examine how political and communal rivalries even divided the social activities of the Irish capital. ← 1 | 2 →

Despite the crippling stamp duty, the number of provincial newspapers slowly increased. Numbers rose from around twenty-five in 1735 to thirty-five by 1760 and over fifty by the early 1780s. By 1830 there were over 150 provincial newspapers in England.1 However, the provincial press displayed a high casualty rate as the ‘taxes on knowledge’ meant that newspapers were usually only marginally profitable and most nineteenth-century provincial newspaper proprietors were printers whose first concern was their printing business.2 Some 130 newspapers were launched outside London between 1701 and 1760 but only around half of them lasted for at least five years. Stamp duty fell from 4d to 1d in 1836 and one of the first newspapers to benefit from this reduction in stamp duty was the well-known Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, which was founded in 1837. This newspaper and the political activities of its founder, Feargus O’Connor, contribute two chapters to this collection. Victoria Clarke takes an original approach to the Chartists’ leading newspaper, the Northern Star, by exploring how it was used as a tool for the formation and maintenance of radical working-class literary identities in the early Victorian period whilst Helen Williams explores the reasons why Dumfries was the centre of radical print politics in mid-nineteenth-century politics and a major hub of Chartist activity.

The ‘taxes on knowledge’ were repealed over a period of eight years, with the last tax, that on paper, ending in 1861. Frank Manders described the period from the repeal of stamp duty in 1855 to the First World War as the ‘great age’ of the provincial newspaper.3 This ‘great age’ saw the production of yet more newspapers, with newspaper and periodical titles doubling between 1853 and 1913 (albeit with a considerable underestimate of the total number of publications)4 as more and more of the population looked to the local newspaper for news of local, national, and international events. ← 2 | 3 → Estimates of the number of provincial magazines suggested that these trebled between the 1860s and the 1890s.5 In 1887 the Journalist noted that there were several long-lived provincial journals that rivalled the London press, such as Glasgow’s Bailie, Liverpool’s Porcupine (1860–1915) and Manchester’s City Lantern (later the City Jackdaw) (1874–1884).6 This outburst of print culture provides a wealth of source material that has never really been fully exploited by historians and literary scholars. Most of these publications, at the centre of the vibrant urban life of the Victorian era, lie undisturbed in provincial public libraries, archives and record offices, undigitised, unscanned and unread. One of the editors was amazed to be told by the late Chris Upton, a champion of West Midlands history, that at one point in the 1880s, no fewer than four satirical periodicals appeared every week on the streets of Birmingham. On reading the Dart, the Owl, the Town Crier and the Gridiron, he was staggered to discover that they presented a far fuller and richer representation of the political and cultural heart of the Victorian age, the cities of provincial Britain, than any more studies of Punch or The Times could manage.7

With the widespread digitising of certain sections of the press, beginning with the Times Digital Archive in 2003, the range of journalism available to the historian, both professional and amateur, has considerably expanded and access to this material has become immeasurably easier. There ← 3 | 4 → are still serious methodological problems with the study of the press, of course, not least the relatively limited information regarding the proprietors, the journalists and most of all the readers of the press, which only scholars such as Graham Murdock and Peter Goulding, Martyn Lyons and Philip Waller have attempted to investigate.8 This issue is not helped by the growth in the satirical press in the nineteenth century, where the anonymity of editors and columnists (but oddly not cartoonists) was established and which persists today in publications such as Private Eye. Even in more respectable monthly and quarterly periodicals, it was only in the 1860s that magazines such as Macmillan’s Magazine and the Fortnightly Review began to name all their contributors.9 Many newspapers also published correspondence under pseudonyms, but this is a problem which, as Victoria Clarke demonstrates in her chapter in this collection, can actually provide some valuable material in the self-identification and the values of a newspaper’s readership.10

Although much is known about such details for the major London newspapers (and periodicals such as Punch), the interactions of the provincial, regional and ‘underground’ press has remained largely unexplored.11 The comprehensive Freshest Advices: Early Provincial Newspapers in ← 4 | 5 → England by R. M. Wiles, which covers the early decades of the English provincial press, is now over fifty years old, whilst Newspapers, Politics and English Society 1695–1855 by Hannah Barker focused on London-produced newspapers. Early influential print historians, such as Arthur Aspinall, dismissed the provincial press as being of little significance, at least until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the pre-millennium scholarly gazetteer of the Victorian press, Vann and Van Arsdel’s Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society, included no references to any of the non-London journals of that period.12 Even Stephen Koss, usually the most fastidious of historians, asserted that he had neglected the provincial press in his surveys of the political press because they were of little lasting significance.13 Although not quite as dismissive, the 1986 collection, The Press in English Society, edited by Alan Lee and Michael Harris, only included a single chapter on a provincial affair and largely curtailed any analysis of the non-London media to the eighteenth century.14 The pioneering inter-disciplinary studies of the provincial press by post-war scholars such as Asa Briggs and Donald Read were largely forgotten and left to gather dust on the shelves of academic libraries.15

Recent research has largely over-turned this London-centred approach however and confirmed the suggestion of Hannah Barker that in this period ‘the provincial press was increasingly neither small scale nor amateurish’.16 It has discovered that the British public tended to buy local media rather ← 5 | 6 → than national media (largely owing to the price, the currency and breadth of the news reported and the appreciation of local perspectives on national questions). Scholars such as Andrew Hobbs at the University of Central Lancashire have managed to correct the previously rather peculiarly lop-sided view of the Victorian political media.17 As Hobbs has recently proved, there were twice as many provincial than metropolitan newspapers in 1800 and more than three times as many in 1900. They also saw far greater circulation figures than the London press, with a largely unstudied paper such as the North-Eastern Daily Gazette regularly outselling The Times by over 50 per cent. On this basis Hobbs has suggested that, ‘using provincial publications as sources for almost any nineteenth century topic, literary or historical, produces a genuinely national picture, often quite different from work based on narrowly metropolitan sources’.18 With the arrival of Rachel Matthews’ valuable introductory text, the scholarly community might, at long last, finally deign to examine the provincial political press on equal terms with that of the London press. After all, as Matthews points out, ‘the London daily papers could hardly claim national circulation’; even as late as the 1950s the ‘national’ titles produced regional editions from locations outside the capital.19

The articles in this collection aim to explore the regional identity of the provincial press, as, even in the studies of the national media, there is little understanding of the complex and changing relations between proprietors, editors and readers, to match those between politicians and journalists, which have been well delineated in a number of studies, largely (but not exclusively) focused on the national histories of Wales, Scotland ← 6 | 7 → and Ireland.20 From its early beginnings, the provincial newspaper was a political instrument, wielded by Tory- or Whig-supporting printers and publishers before the political parties themselves recognised its power and took to using party funds or enlisting the financial help of supportive aristocrats to establish their own newspapers. Lisa Peters examines one such newspaper, the Conservative-supporting Wrexham Guardian, as it sought to prevent the dominance of Gladstone’s party in north Wales at the pinnacle of the ‘Liberal Ascendancy’. The West Midlands, often overlooked, provides a plethora of examples of the link between print culture, newspapers, and politics. Judith Davies’ chapter on the print culture in Dudley during the reform crisis and Sue Thomas’ chapter on the press battles between Radicals and Tories in 1830s Birmingham illustrate that there is much yet to be explored in the history of the region before the coming of the ‘Civic Gospel’. Equally, James Brennan and Ian Cawood’s chapter on the ferocious newspaper battles in West Midlands towns in the years following the First World War offers clear evidence that regional political identities did survive the war, with the local press the chief means of sustaining these. Moving away from political party skirmishes, Paul Wilson looks at two expressions of working-class utopianism in the manufacturing town of Keighley, spiritualism and Esperanto, in the late nineteenth and ← 7 | 8 → early twentieth centuries and how print culture sought to promote the idealism of a ‘universal language’.

Different methodologies, a wide variety of sources and a sustained scholarly analysis feature in all the chapters in this collection, offered by a range of established and emerging scholars. Yet all the chapters focus exclusively on the provincial media and they attempt to fulfil Barker’s hope that we should ‘explain the appeal’ of the local press, in light of our rediscovered appreciation of its central position in the lives of the modern British reader and the politics in his or her local environment.21

1 Donald Read, Press and People, 1790–1850: Opinions in Three English Cities (London: Edward Arnold, 1961), 59.

2 Read, Press and People, 61.

3 Frank Manders, ‘History of the Newspaper Press in Northeast England’ in Peter Isaac, ed., Newspapers in the Northeast: the ‘Fourth Estate’ at work in Northumberland and Durham (Richmond: Allenholme Press, 1999), 1–14; 8.

4 Alan Lee, The Origins of the Popular Press (London: Croom Helm 1976), 131.

5 See, for example, Simon Gunn, The Public Culture of the Victorian Middle Class: Ritual and Authority in the English Industrial City, 1840–1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000); Henry Miller, ‘The Problem With Punch’, Historical Research, 82, 216 (2009), 285–302; Aled Jones, ‘The Dart and the Damning of the Sylvan Stream: Journalism and Political Culture in the Late-Victorian City’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 35: 1 (2002), 2–17.


X, 248
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Print culture in modern Britain Local cultural identity in provincial Britain Provincial political publishing
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. X, 248 pp., 13 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Ian Cawood (Volume editor) Lisa Peters (Volume editor)

Ian Cawood is Reader in Modern History at Newman University, Birmingham, UK. He is the author of The Liberal Unionist Party, 1886-1912: A History (2012) and the editor of Joseph Chamberlain: Imperial Statesman, National Leader and Local Icon (2016). Lisa Peters works in academic administration at the University of Chester, UK. She is the author of Politics, Publishing and Personalities: Wrexham Newspapers, 1848-1914 (2011).


Title: Print, Politics and the Provincial Press in Modern Britain