We should thank a Devon shoemaker for freedom of the press

Originally published in the Guardian · 2 May 2015

In the fuss surrounding the anniversary of Magna Carta, one might be forgiven for thinking that a bad king’s signature exacted on a document by a bunch of rich barons 800 years ago miraculously secured our rights to fair trial, representation, free speech and a free press. The truth is obviously more complicated. But aside from the suffragettes, there has been little coverage of the slow, painful struggle by which those rights were wrested from governments never keen to give them up, and made reality, generation by generation, bit by bit.

I’ve been particularly taken with a generation of largely forgotten working-class radicals politicised by the fallout of the French Revolution and the British government’s ugly authoritarian response to it. Everyone has heard of the Chartists. This generation, the one that preceded them, was different, wilder, angrier.

They had good reason to be. The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 ushered in an economic depression. The British government, fearful of civil unrest, became obsessed with the threat of sedition. It suspended habeas corpus, passed the Six Acts, which among others things banned public meetings and the work of radical writers such as Thomas Paine, and put an impossibly high seven-pence stamp duty on newspapers and journals with the specific aim of killing the working-class radical press and discouraging newspaper reading by the poor.

The great forgotten hero of this generation was Richard Carlile (1790-1843). A Devon shoemaker and self-described ‘Infidel’ – an atheist and republican – turned publisher and writer, he fought stamp duty and lived a precarious existence, hounded for his campaigns for a free press and his criticism of the government. He was a passionate champion of Paine, resurrecting his reputation in Britain, and named one of his sons after him.

In 1819 he witnessed the Peterloo massacre in Manchester, where over-zealous local magistrates sent armed soldiers to disperse a peaceful public meeting in support of universal suffrage. At least 11 people were killed. Carlile rushed to London and published an outraged account in the Weekly Political Register. The paper was immediately shut down and its printing press confiscated. He published another account in his own newspaper, the Republican. For this and his publication of Paine’s writings, he was eventually arrested and tried for blasphemy and seditious libel.

The definition of seditious libel and its fellow charge sedition was extremely broad: it could mean anything that criticised or encouraged criticism of the ‘natural social hierarchy’ – church, government or aristocracy. That what one said was true was no defence. A court simply had to decide that danger might ensue from what had been said.

At his trial Carlile argued that the jury could only judge whether Paine’s work was seditious and blasphemous if they heard it for themselves, and splendidly read out the whole of Paine’s The Age of Reason, an attack on institutionalised religion and church corruption. This was a sneaky ploy to get the book into the public domain: verbatim trial proceedings could legally be published. It later sold 10,000 two-penny copies. Carlile got six years in Dorchester jail. There he read voraciously, became a vegetarian, and orchestrated the distribution of his unstamped newspaper across the country with the help of his first wife and then sister (both of whom served prison terms themselves), and hundreds of vendors and booksellers who risked their livelihoods to sell it. It seemed he might become a national figurehead for reform, or even revolution.

But Carlile was only the best known of his generation of working-class agitators. George Cannon set up a philosophical journal, had links with William Cobbett, and published Shelley’s politically controversial ‘Queen Mab’. (Shelley, ever a snob, privately called him a ‘vile beast’ with ‘coarse pretensions’.) John Duncombe was a self-taught classical scholar who helped publish the Republican, William Dugdale a former Quaker and free-thinking basket-weaver whose innuendo-filled songs later became famous in the music halls. Samuel Waddington was a shoemaker and ‘Infidel’, who performed notably filthy burlesques satirising church, government and aristocracy at his ‘Hayloft Chapel’.

Unlike Carlile’s, their radicalism had a ribald, blasphemous, Rabelaisian flavour. In the 1810s and 20s their treasonous unstamped pamphlets, radical ‘Infidel chapels’ and illegal debating clubs, where speeches were made in support of republicanism and utopian dreams of dividing up the land equally, drew considerable working-class support. Waddington had links with the Cato street conspirators who failed to assassinate Lord Liverpool’s cabinet in 1820. They also drew the avid attention of the Home Office, which unleashed its spies on every aspect of their activities, which is why we know about them.

Carlile never capitalised on the foment created by his time in prison, but continued to fight the stamp duty, publish banned authors, denounce government corruption, and campaign on a series of issues, the importance of which seems obvious to us: universal suffrage, the regulation of child labour, the rights of agricultural workers (his support of the Luddites earned him another a prison sentence), women’s right to birth control, and most of all for a free press. He was in and out of prison for years. He never joined the Chartists. One suspects he found them a bit milk and water.

Parliament seemed eventually to respond to working-class anger: it passed the 1832 Reform Act – a disappointingly timid step on the way to universal suffrage but a step nevertheless, and began to reform the most egregious church failings. Carlile’s persistence in defying the ‘tax on knowledge’ also bore results: other publishers followed and by the mid-1830s the six most popular unstamped newspapers were outselling the Times tenfold: 200,000 copies a day. In 1834 the government gave in and stamp duty was reduced from 4d to 1d. Prosecutions for sedition fell away.

But as the 1830s progressed, and Chartism began to grow, the careers of many of Carlile’s wilder contemporaries took a surprising turn. Cannon, Duncombe and Dugdale, along with others, set up as pornographers in Holywell Street (now where the Aldwych stands), centre of London’s vice industry. They were, after all, well used to distributing underground publications. Cannon specialised in expensive flagellation or ‘birchen sports’ porn – even then seen as a peculiarly upper-class pursuit. It was a good living: all three were still at it in the 1850s. Other ex-comrades turned to fraud, brothel-keeping and blackmail, extorting money by threatening to publish damaging stories about the rich and titled. Waddington was expelled from the National Union of the Working Classes for a series of rape convictions. He was not the only one. The old generation were embarrassments to the young, respectable Chartist movement.

To Carlile’s horror, his own sons Alfred and Thomas Paine Carlile set up as pornographers a few yards from Holywell street in the Strand. Nor can he have been delighted by the consequences of the reduction of stamp duty: not a flourishing radical press, but the beginning of a mass-market one with its diet of sensationalism, titillation and censure. He died a pauper in 1843.

Carlile’s case demonstrates how similar the faultlines surrounding a free press now are to those that existed in the 1830s. The Leveson Inquiry and the Charlie Hebdo massacre remind us how we must constantly fight to maintain and renew this freedom; but also that the price of this is that among other things it will be titillating, frivolous, sensationalist and even cruel.