The tax on newspapers was first introduced in Britain in 1712; at the same time similar taxes on the price of paper, on adverts and on pamphlets and almanacs were brought in. Originally the statute regulating the tax, the Stamp Act, was trumpeted as being aimed at raising funds for the English state lottery, to monitor the circulation of newspapers and other periodicals, and to restrict publication of writing intended to stir up political opposition of any kind. But at heart it was designed to curb the production of newspapers, or make them unviably expensive to buy, especially for the plebs, who the authorities thought should definitely not be either aware of what was going on in the world, questioning the social order, or improving their mind – they should be reading the bible, and only the bible. Not getting ideas above their station. “All periodicals were already required by law to state the address and name of the owner, making taxation easily enforced on publishers, and allowing the government to see where legally printed publications were coming from.” Government-sponsored publications were exempted, and discretion was almost always used to allow pro-establishment papers to go unpunished if they did breach the rules, but to press hard against oppositional ones. “In order to exempt themselves from the tax, periodical authors pledged their patronage to members of Parliament, leading to publications rising and falling based on the party in power and a general distrust in periodicals of the time.”
The Act was not specifically aimed at raising revenue for the state; at least at first. But an initial stamp duty of a half old pence in 1712 rose, gradually increasing to 4 pence a century later. Adding such a cost to the publishers meant it was inevitably added to the price of the paper, and when wages were low, a price of a paper rising to 6 or 7 pence put it out of many working people’s reach.
As oppositional voices, movements for political reform and radical groupings emerged, expressing satires, critiques and outright rejection of the political system, personalities, and the establishment, government nervousness of the spread of ideas only increased. If in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the pamphlet conveyed the main bulk of radical and oppositional ideas, the birth of the daily newspaper in 1702 in London spawned a massive expansion. Over the next few decades political papers and journals became widely read; under the influence of the late 18th century pressure to reform the political system, and the French revolution, the number of radical newspapers proliferated exponentially.
This expansion, and the dangerous ideas it spread among the lower orders, was the main reason for the increase in the stamp tax. And the working class movement, in particular, that emerged as in the industrial revolution took hold, resented the stamp, as being aimed at keeping them down. As literacy increased, cultural expectations and aspirations evolved, the need for more educated clerking strata and so on developed, the Stamp continued to deny millions access to daily news. Of course, there were ways around it – not just the old practice of one literate person reading a paper to a less literate group, or people clubbing together to buy one… (In fact one of the factors that contributed to the development of radical clubs was the advantage of sharing the cost, through co-operative access, to papers and other reading materials…)
But also from the earliest times of the stamp on papers, there were attempts to dodge the stamp, putting out papers underground. This was not seen as in any way unethical – dodging the government’s Excise and Revenue officers was widely regarded in many levels of society as somewhere between a basic necessity and a national pastime. Smuggling of basic commodities was widespread; the 1730s also saw mass agitation against the introduction of the excise on Gin production, which involved demonstrations, the odd bomb, and several murders of informers grassing people up for selling the old mothers ruin… Some publishers were bound to attempt to avoid putting the tax on their papers, and many folk could be relied on to help them distribute them, if only to annoy the powers that be…
In response of course, the government, in April 1743, introduced an Act which laid down punishment for the publishers of unstamped newspapers (up to 3 months imprisonment in the Bridewell), offering rewards of 20 shillings per person jailed to informers who dobbed them in.) Of course there were always desperate lowlives available and happy to make a living collecting cash for snitching; but increasingly, especially in the early 19th century, there were a greater number willing to risk going to prison to write, print, sell and transport the unstamped papers. To many, the stamp on a newspaper was central to the ‘taxes on knowledge’, it was the ‘slave mark’, the sign of subservience to a government representing the upper class interests, hostile to change… Evading it was a badge of honour as much as anything. But even denouncing the stamp tax got you in trouble; Henry Hetherington, radical publisher of the Poor Mans Guardian, was jailed for calling the stamp duty ‘a tax on knowledge’ – his printing presses were ordered to be destroyed.
In the era of the French Revolutionary/Napeolonic War of 1792-1815, and in the period immediately following, the ‘war of the unstamped’ rose to fever pitch. Radical journalists who published papers, that refused to pay the stamp, the ‘shopmen’ and shop women who sold them, went to prison, in increasing numbers. As a post-war depression helped revive the long agitation for reform of parliament and more representation for the middle and working classes, and riot and insurrection grew, political repression from the state included a tightening on political newspapers. In particular the stamp was increased, under the draconian Six Acts, to include all publications which sold for less than six pence, contained an opinion about news, or which were published more frequently than every twenty-six days, and specifically banned papers “tending to excite hatred and contempt of the Government and Constitution of these realms… also vilifying our holy religion”; another of the Acts targetted publishers deemed guilty of “seditious or blasphemous libel”, ie questioning Church doctrine at all, or advocating political reforms.
Radical Richard Carlile was a central figure in ignoring the law, continuing to publish his newspaper, the Republican without paying stamp duty. Through the 1820s his shopworkers carried on when he was, as he often was, in prison… By the early 1830s, and into the 1840s, the struggle was led by men such as Henry Hetherington, James Watson, John Cleave, George Julian Harney and Bronterre O’Brien; many of whom ran radical bookshops, and were also active in the radical movements like the National Union of the Working Classes and later Chartism. Much of the huge agitation for reform and revolutionary undercurrents of these decades involved activists who had cut their teeth resisting the stamp. Tactics and methods of dodging the informers and government agents were legion: publishing your paper but calling it a pamphlet, smuggling copies around by numerous tricks (including inside a coffin at least once), printing on wood to avoid the paper excise…
At the beginning of 1836 the two leading unstamped radical newspapers, the Poor Man’s Guardian, and John Cleave’s Police Gazette, were selling more copies in a day than The Times sold all week. It was estimated at the time that the circulation of leading six unstamped newspapers had now reached 200,000.
In the House of Commons, John Roebuck led the campaign against taxes on newspapers. In 1836 the campaigners’ pressure became so overwhelming, they forced the government to reduce the 4d. tax on newspapers to 1d, a huge cut which allowed many radical and popular publications to reach wider audiences. The same year Parliament agreed to remove the tax on pamphlets. But the campaigned continued and in 1849 a group of publishers led by Henry Hetherington formed the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee. However, it was not until 1855 that the newspaper stamp duty was finally abolished.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.