Today in London’s media history, 1814: Times proprietor John Walter bypasses printers to instroduce new steam-press

The first edition of the Daily Universal Register was published on 1st January, 1785. It was in competition with eight other daily newspapers in London. Like the other newspapers, it included parliamentary reports, foreign news and advertisements. Proprietor John Walter made it clear in the first edition that he was primarily concerned with advertising revenue: “The Register, in its politics, will be of no party. Due attention should be paid to the interests of trade, which are so greatly promoted by advertisements.”

However, he was happy to negotiate a secret deal where he was paid £300 a year to publish stories favourable to the government.

In 1788 John Walter decided to change the name and the style of his newspaper. Walter now started to produce a newspaper that appealed to a larger audience. This included stories of the latest scandals and gossip about famous people in London. Walter called his new paper The Times.

John Walter handed over the running of The Times to his son John Walter II in January, 1803. He died in 1812.

In 1810 John Walter II’s harsh response to a printers’ strike gave The Times another advantage – a tradition of ‘flexible’, ie non-union labour. Walter prosecuted 21 printers for conspiracy for organising a strike, and they were jailed (one man died in prison).

As a result, the paper was boycotted by the printers’ societies. The highly skilled printers and compositors were gaining a stranglehold on printing, because without their skills, the presses wouldn’t run.  Although still in its infancy, the power of the Fleet Street printers, expressed through their strong sense of solidarity, and insistence on their control over the working practices, often came up against the newspaper employers’ interests. Walter wasn’t the first – or last – media mogul to attempt to circumvent the workers with new technology…

In 1814 Walter installed a steam-powered Koenig printing machine in his printworks, which increased the speed that newspapers could be printed. By the end of that year, the Times was selling over 7,000 copies a day.

At the end of the 18th century printing was still performed on wooden presses. These ran very slowly, producing inconsistent impressions of varying quality, and could only be operated with a great deal of physical human effort and strength. In addition, the small size of the platen, the plate in the press which forced the paper against the type, slowed down the process of printing on a large scale – a handicap for a newspaper. (Some printers got round this by composing pages in duplicate and working them on separate presses.)

The development, in 1800, of the Stanhope press went some way to increase pressroom capacity. Made of iron, the Stanhope took advantage of new techniques in casting metal, had a platen double the size of the wooden press and allowed a full-size forme to be printed at one pull, allowing a vastly quicker print run.

The Stanhope was a significant advance in the pressroom; it was, however, still based on human pulling power and not on mechanical energy, which inevitably limited its speed.

The solution emerged with Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer’s development of the Koenig and Bauer steam powered cylinder printing machine, in 1810-12.

This was first applied to book printing, but had obvious implications for much larger scale printing of newspapers than was then possible. Several newspaper proprietors were invited to see Koenig’s new cylinder machine, among them James Perry of the Morning Chronicle and John Walter II of The Times. Walter saw the potential in Koenig’s idea, and ordered two steam-driven machines for The Times; but so as to ensure a monopoly he demanded that no other such machines were to be for newspaper production during the life of the patent within 10 miles of the City of London.

Walter still had to launch the new press in the face of the established practices of the Times printers. Don’t forget that working class attitudes towards new technology were, at the time, justifiably suspicious: new machinery almost always benefitted the masters, resulting in loss of skilled jobs, cut wages, cheaper labour. The period when Walter was planning his revolution in newspaper printing was the era of the Luddites, smashing the mechanised looms that were impoverishing them. In London, too, there was a recent tradition of machine-wrecking, among the Spitalfields silkweavers and before that, the sawyers of Limehouse

To avoid this provoking a strike, disorder, or getting his new press smashed up, Walter arranged for the parts of the machine to be shipped secretly to a workshop adjoining The Times offices on Printing House Square; where they were put together, hidden away from the composing and pressrooms.

The printing of the first issue was a clandestine affair. Bauer [Koenig’s business partner] bound his men over with a £100 bond to divulge nothing of the new press. Still, rumours were rife on Printing House Square and some of the compositors and pressmen threatened to withdraw their labour. Walter tricked his staff on the evening of 29 November 1814, telling them that the presses had to be held for important news expected from the Continent. At six o’clock in the morning, Walter entered the press room and astonished the men by announcing the issue of 29 November 1814 had already been printed by steam, that if they attempted violence there was a force ready to repress it, but if they were peaceable their wages would be paid until similar employment could be procured. In the event, the edition passed into circulation with little agitation from the workforce.

170 years later, of course, Rupert Murdoch reprised this trick, planning to beat the Fleet Street printers (whose power over the presses had grown mighty) by introducing new professes and shifting to a fortified HQ in Wapping – thus sparking the 1986-7 News International lockout

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