Today in radical publishing history, 1817: first issue of the Black Dwarf newspaper

On 29th January 1817, the first issue of the radical Black Dwarf paper was published.

“Prospectus for the Black Dwarf

It may be required of us to declare whether the Black dwarf emanates from the celestial regions, or from the shades of evil – whether he be an European sage or an Indian savage – whether he is subject to the vicissitudes of mortality, or a phantom of the imagination – in what shape he appears, by what authority he presumes to write – what object he has in view, and whether his designs are wicked or charitable. In answer to all these probable topics of enquiry, our simple reply is, that we are not at liberty to unfold all the secrets of his prison house, to ears of flesh and blood. We have, besides, no wish to perplex the mind, or draw to largely upon the faith of the enquirer. Were we to state what he is, the infallibility of the pope, the miracles of Mahomet, and all the wonders that wanton fancy ever drew, would appear probable and consistent to the story we should unfold. But these disclosures we must reserve, until better times ensure the civil treatment of so singular a stranger.

In the interim, however, the Black Dwarf will not be idle. He intends to expose every species of vice and folly, with which this virtuous age, and enlightened metropolis abounds. To political delinquency he will give no quarter, even if royalty were to sanction it by private favors and reward it with public honors. He will shew no mercy to spiritual imposition, even though decorated with lawn. Neither the throne, nor the altar, will be sanctuary against his intrusion. Secure from his invisibility, and dangerous from his power of division, (for like the polypus, he can divide and redivide himself, and each division remain a perfect animal) he will be engaged at the same instant, in listening for evil at the portals of the temple, under the canopy of the throne, and in the gallery of the lower house; in weighing the patriotism of our patriots; in comparing the disinterested independence of our journalists; besides the stranger occupation of seeking for honesty in the mazes of the law, and humility on the bench of bishops.

The lighter and ore agreeable business of the Black Dwarf, will be a survey of the DRAMA, and the literary world in general; to foster genius, and chastise impudence; to encourage the modest, and prune the luxuriance of the redundant fancy; in short to exhibit, unbiassed by the spirit of any party, a correct reflection of merit in the mirror of impartial criticism.

To fools, and to men of sense, the Black Dwarf hopes to be equally agreeable; the former will imagine they understand him when they do not; and the latter will be able to comprehend him more than he means to utter. To the ministry and the opposition he may be equally serviceable, by teaching the latter to begin, where they leave off, and the former how dangerous it is to oppose the progress of a deluge. A well-wisher to all, but an uncourtly friend, the Black Dwarf will steadily hold up a glass, in which no honest man need be ashamed to look, and every fool and knave may readily trace his resemblance.


HOPING that he will awake to full knowledge of Himself, his MINISTERS, and his People, before it be too late: –

TRUSTING that a grateful people may ultimately appreciate, and properly reward the merits of all who compose it: –

AS a proof that even judges may be mistaken; –

AS a record of his benevolent intentions, and the advantage of his persecution: –

AS a warning against precipitate conduct, and rash prediction; and in evidence that the Liberty of the Press is not entirely destroyed in England: –



In January 1817, Thomas Jonathan Wooler, a journalist, established a new radical unstamped journal, the Black Dwarf. Wooler, from Yorkshire, was a printer, who had served his apprenticeship in Shoreditch and become politically active in the numerous political debating clubs (eg the Socratic Club, which met in the Mermaid Tavern, Hackney), and had been involved in helping to produce reformist publications in the years of the Napoleonic Wars. He worked for the radical journal The Reasoner, then became editor of The Statesman. Wooler’s interest in legal matters led him to write and publish the pamphlet An Appeal to the Citizens of London against the Packing of Special Juries in 1817.

Wooler had previously founded The Stage in 1815, a paper featuring a mix of heavy satire and libertarian rhetoric, which foreshadowed the Black Dwarf’s general approach to politics.

The Black Dwarf first appeared in January 1817 as an eight page newspaper; it later became a 32 page pamphlet costing 4d. At this time it was possible to make a living from being a radical publisher. “The means of production of the printed page were sufficiently cheap to mean that neither capital nor advertising revenue gave much advantage; while the successful Radicalism, for the first time, a profession which could maintain its own full-time agitators.” Radical journalists like William Cobbett, Wooler and Richard Carlile became beacons of the reform movement, hugely influential, but also exposing themselves to repression, censorship and arrest, in an era when the government tried every method of closing down dissenting voices.

Within a few months the Dwarf reached a circulation of 12,000 and received the backing of the reform movement’s senior politician, Major John Cartwright.

The newspaper gave its support politically to Cartwright’s network of Hampden Clubs. Cartwright’s main objective was to unite middle class moderates with radical members of the working class to build a movement that could successfully press for reform of the corrupt, class-based British political system. Through his links to Cartwright Wooler became for a while one of the main leaders of the movement for political reform in Britain.

Wooler composed regular letters from the character named the Black Dwarf to various fictional correspondents. The Dwarf’s content consisted of satire, parodies and humour, attacking the political establishment and promoting Reform and working class interests. The paper drew on the emerging and evolving popular working class culture of poetry, ballads and songs, and reported speeches and quotations, questions, answers and parodies. At the heart of its method was to undermine lower class deference to the political classes, to encourage plebeian literary sophistication.
Its satire and parody also reflected the – then shocking and cutting edge – radical form of pisstaking of religious liturgy. For instance, an 1817 biblical parody attacked the House of Lords: “The LORD giveth, and the LORDS taketh away. Blessed be the way of the Lords”.

When the radical William Hone was tried for publishing a parody of parts of the Book of Common Prayer and acquitted in January 1818, Wooler based his response on “This Is the House That Jack Built“:

“This is the verdict recorded and found,
By the Jury unbiass’d, unpack’d and unfrowned
That frighten’d the Judge so choleric and old,
Who swore “by the oath of his office” so bold, ‘
Twas an impious, blasphemous libel, and so,
The man should be ruined ex-oficio,
By the servant of servants who blustered so big,
With his ears in his hand and his wits in his wig;
To please the Ministers
Who hated the truth
That was told by the man
Who published the parodies.”

“Did the title refer to the European sage or the Indian savage? Wooler teased, “We are not at liberty to unfold all the secrets of his prison‑house.” Here was the motley in both its forms, rags and fooling. The black dwarf was a trickster against throne and altar, secure from his invisibility, and dangerous from his power of division”Wooler might be describing the hydra‑”for like the polypus, he can divide and redivide himself, and each division remains a perfect animal.” (Linnaeus had given the name Hydra to a genus of freshwater polyps in 1756).
The Black Dwarf was international and multiethnic, featuring reviews of Oroonoko, news of the wild abolitionist dances of Barbados, the latest on struggles in South America. The dwarf of the frontispiece had his right hand raised in a fist of victory, and his left firmly on his hip in a further gesture of determination. A barrel‑chested Pan clasped the dwarf’s arm in comradely alliance and pointed to the symbols of vanquished Powers‑a royal scepter, a stack of money…’ ” (Peter Linebaugh)

For a few years, Wooler and the Black Dwarf commanded the largest radical audience, (particularly after William Cobbett fled to the US, after the passage of the 1817 Coercion Act and fearing arrest for his arguably seditious writings). The ruling class, petrified that the reform movement would become powerful enough to overthrow their power, saw in the Dwarf and other radical papers the inspiration that might bring that terrible time about. In 1819 Viscount Castlereagh, England’s Foreign Secretary and perhaps the most hated member of the Government, complained in parliament that T. J. Wooler had become “the bugleman of the Radicals”, and that The Black Dwarf was circulating from radical Westminster to northern colliery districts, where it could be found “in the hatcrown of almost every pitman you meet.”

Wooler was a capable orator and writer; when putting together articles, he worked directly from thought to press, composing directly as he typeset, rather than writing a draft first. This was cutting edge stuff – the words flowing from his mind to the hot type to the press.

Politically Wooler backed constitutionalist radical organisation, through local clubs. And education classes of not more than 20, a weekly penny subscription, meeting to sell and discuss radical papers and pamphlets. He thought large meetings didn’t work well for discussion; he was against secret actions and proclaimed open organization would defeat the workings of government spies.
In many of the clubs that were beginning to spring up, men would meet to listen to someone read out news and views from the Black Dwarf, Cobbett’s Political Register, and other papers, and discuss what they heard.

Wooler argued in the first issue of the Dwarf that the real freedom of Englishmen lay in their power and their will to uphold their liberties, not through the Constitution which was simply the “recorded merits of our ancestors”, but by deeds. He warned “the higher orders think the best mode is to destroy the Constitution altogether and then their cause can run no further risk.”

Cartoon attacking the radicals demanding parliamentary reform. It shows Henry Orator Hunt in the centre, next to him is the Black Dwarf (Thomas Wooler) and a pig dressed as Napoleon (Thomas Spence)

Wooler compared working class political clubs to the work of the Quakers: “Those who condemn clubs either do not understand what they can accomplish, or they wish nothing to be done… Let us look at, and emulate the patient resolution of the Quakers. They have conquered without arms – without violence – without threats. They conquered by union.” He attacked the erstwhile hero of the radical press, Cobbett, who had denounced the clubs: in contrast, Wooler asserted that people needed to organise themselves, and that the clubs were thus a necessity: “good men should associate when the bad combine to injure them. Our enemies are clubbed in every direction around us. Do military clubs and naval clubs and clubs of boroughmongers do no good to the cause of corruption? Are not all associations clubs; and is it not quite evident that the associated powers of a number are more likely to produce an effect than the individual exertions of twice or three times the number?”

Like Robert Wedderburn, Wooler took a dim view of Robert Owen’s attempt to create a model community in New Lanark. In August 1817, Wooler wrote: “It is very amusing to hear Mr Owen talk of re-moralizing the poor. Does he not think that the rich are a little more in want of re-moralizing; and particularly that class of them that has contributed to demoralize the poor, if they are demoralized, by supporting measures which have made them poor, and which now continue them poor and wretched? Talk of the poor being demoralized! It is their would-be masters that create all the evils that afflict the poor, and all the depravity that pretended philanthropists pretend to regret.”

Wooler was critical of capitalism: “Let him abandon the labourer to his own protection; cease to oppress him, and the poor man would scorn to hold any fictitious dependence upon the rich. Give him a fair price for his labour, and do not take two-thirds of a depreciated remuneration back from him again in the shape of taxes. Lower the extravagance of the great. Tax those real luxuries, enormous fortunes obtained without merit. Reduce the herd of locusts that prey upon the honey of the hive, and think they do the bees a most essential service by robbing them. The working bee can always find a hive. Do not take from them what they can earn, to supply the wants of those who will earn nothing. Do this; and the poor will not want your splendid erections for the cultivation of misery and the subjugation of the mind.”

George Cruikshank, Funeral Pile, published in 1820. Thomas Jonathan Wooler is the one with the bellows.

The development and growth in circulation of the Black Dwarf reflected the turbulent times it operated in. the post-Napoleonic War economic slump and resulting upsurge in demands for political and social reform, provoked only refusal and repression from the political establishment, which in turn led to increased agitation. State violence, police infiltration, legislative crackdowns, arrests and prosecutions were all used to try to beat down the pressure for change. In turn this pushed a minority into plans for uprisings and plots for revolution, though these proved abortive. Wooler himself argued in favour of the more constitutional wing of the movement and against taking up arms.

Tumultous events abounded. In December 1816 the third mass reform rally in a few months in Clerkenwell’s Spa Fields ended in a riotous attempt at insurrection. A month later the Prince Regent’s coach was attacked as he rode to open Parliament. In response to the agitation, the government passed the repressive Six Acts, banned large meeting and suspended the law of Habeus Corpus. William Cobbett fled to America to escape arrest. Thomas Wooler was arrested in early May 1817 and faced two trials for seditious libel for two articles published in the third and tenth numbers of the Black Dwarf. He was tried at the London Guildhall before Justice Charles Abbott and two special juries on 5th June that year. Read his Trial statement
The attorney-general, Samuel Shepherd, led the prosecution; however, Wooler defended himself brilliantly, advised by Charles Pearson, a young City radical, and was eventually acquitted of the charges.

The government repression inspired rebellion in Derbyshire in 1817; and continued, to culminate in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in August 1819. At least 18 people were killed and about 500 were wounded during a meeting calling for parliamentary reform. This event in itself sparked rage and riotous rallies across the country, but abortive plots for revolution ended with failed uprisings in Scotland and Yorkshire and arrests in Cato Street in London. Spies had been at he heart of all the plans and ensured that they went ahead to gather in the radicals but had no chance of succeeding.

Wooler himself was arrested for taking part in the campaign to elect Sir Charles Wolseley to represent Birmingham in the House of Commons. As Birmingham had not been given permission to have an election, Wooler and his fellow campaigners were charged with “forming a seditious conspiracy to elect a representative to Parliament without lawful authority”. Wooler was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment.

On his release from prison Wooler modified the tone of the Black Dwarf in an effort to comply with the terms of the Six Acts. This lost him some support from other radicals, including Richard Carlile, the editor of The Republican, who refused to reduce his radicalism.

To survive, Wooler had to rely on financial help from Major John Cartwright. However, on Cartwright’s death on 23rd September 1824, he was forced to close the newspaper down. The movements had not subsided, but the ferment of a few years before had dwindled, and Wooler was despondent. “In ceasing his political labours, the Black Dwarf has to regret one mistake, and that a serious one. He commenced writing under the idea that there was a PUBLIC in Britain, and that public devotedly attached to the cause of parliamentary reform. This, it is but candid to admit, was an error… Whereas in the past they had demanded reform, now they only “clamoured for bread”.

For a while, Wooler edited the British Gazette, but, after the Reform Act 1832 was passed, he gave up politics to become a lawyer. Wooler went on to write books and pamphlets on the British legal system, including Every Man his Own Lawyer in 1845.

Read some articles from the Black Dwarf 

There’s a partial archive of Black Dwarf


An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online



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