There was a great transformation of Britain from an essentially agrarian country to an industrial power during the nineteenth century. This enormous shift was beset by political, economic, and cultural transformations, which can best be described as turbulent. As observed by some historians, this period witnessed an upward trend of mass readership for newspapers, books, and other forms of reading matter (Endnote 2005). It’s been observed that in the beginning of the twentieth century, there was an average of one British newspaper circulated among 300 inhabitants (Endnote 1949).
British journalism however, developed at a tremendous pace. Endnote (2001) points out that a ubiquity of the press was clearly manifesting towards the end of the century, and as was argued by him, the growth of newspapers was an important catalyst in the ‘fostering of reading’. Thus, the trend suggests that Britain had steadily become a nation of readers in the nineteenth century. This essay attempts to have a distinctive look at the rise of British journalism in the nineteenth century.
Attempt has been made to integrate the growth of readerships with the rapid development of the press and also to take into account the wide circulation of the newspapers as a whole. The essay begins with an overview of the British pre-Victorian era and analyse the catalytic factors which initiated the process of change during the industrialization. Another factor to be highlighted will be the underlying reasons for the astonishing growth of the press from technological, political, cultural, and institutional perspectives.
Finally, the significances of these transformations in the history of Britain will be discussed. As is apparent, the changes were neither fortuitous nor miraculous, and their ‘genealogy’ was traceable to the Industrial Revolution. (IV) POLITICS (A) Deregulation One of the major reasons which reinforced the expansion in the numbers and sales of newspapers was the reduction and abolition of taxes from the 1830s onwards. The decade saw the inabilities of the British Government to regulate and control the newspapers. Stamp Duties
The Government had long adopted a ‘hostile attitude’ towards the press, and newspapers were regarded as luxuries rather than necessities. Consequently, people revolted in two ways. Firstly, journalists ignored the law by publishing unstamped papers. It was estimated that the unstamped press published in London had an accumulated readerships of about 2 million in 1836 (Endnote 1997). Secondly, social and educational reformers of the Victorian era, who considered the free press as essential requirement for the spread of literacy, campaigned against the ‘taxes on knowledge’ (Endnote 1998).
The parliamentary campaign was successful and the Stamp Duty was reduced from 4d to 1d in 1836. This paved the way for increased circulation, enabling the publishers to lower the prices of the newspapers, increase their size, and publish them more frequently. Immediately after the reduction, the number of stamped papers sold rose from 31 million in 1835 to over 48 million in 1837 and, subsequently, the per capita consumption increased to three in 1841, and to four in 1851. In quantitative terms, the number of published newspapers also rose from 267 by 1821 to 563 by 1851 (Endnote 1978).
In 1855, the last remnant of newspaper duty was finally removed; and that year regional weeklies namely, the Manchester Guardian, the Liverpool Post, and the Scotsman became dailies, while The Daily Telegraph started up as the ‘Penny National’. Subsidies and Prosecutions To prevent the spread of radical ideas, the Government attempted to influence individual papers by granting subsidies on official advertisements. The value of subsidies and advertisements were, however, dubious as the amount did not allow a newspaper commercially to be viable.
Moreover, the Government also found itself increasingly difficult to prosecute and impose fine the press. In fact, the law of libel was rarely used because it was mostly found to be counter-productive. Virtually freed from prosecutions, provincial papers grew rapidly and the numbers rose significantly from 150 by 1830 to over 230 by 1851 (Endnote 1978). (B) Press as a Political Organ Unrest and reform were common issues in British Victorian era. Several factors such as the impact of the French Revolution, social and economic hardship, and political repression helped in a significant way to contribute to the rise of the radical press.
The radical press was treated as a propaganda agent to increase the radicalism of the discontented middle-class. Despite the 1832 Reform Act, under which a large chunk of the population became eligible to vote, the demands for electoral reform continued in the 40s, and campaigners called the Chartists submitted a huge petition to the parliament (Endnote 2006). For their sustenance, newspapers continued to address their readers who were being increasingly politicized along class lines. They also began to reflect the radical ideas by appealing in favour of the parliamentary campaigns (Endnote 2004).
The Chartist group of newspapers had emerged at that time and conducted as a unifying force in the organization of the national political movement. These papers were extremely popular. Curran and Seatan (1997:18) remarked that on the day when the Northern Star, the leading Chartist paper, was due; “the people used to line the roadside waiting for its arrival”. It became clear that the regulatory control of the press was slackened, which was evident by the repeal of taxes and the decline of prosecutions.
This led to a proliferation of daily provincial papers, the weeklies, and the cheap penny press. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, had created a new urban population who considered the right to vote as “an inalienable right” (Endnote 1993). They regarded newspaper-reading as a form of participation in politics and as a propaganda vehicle. The emergence of radical journalism catered to the needs of this new ‘news readers’. This along with Britain’s active political movements escalated readerships across the nation.
Nevertheless, before the advent of free press, there were in fact some remedial measures undertaken by the activists in an effort to increase newspapers’ circulation. However, these moves didn’t bring any significant results. (V) CULTURE One important factor which paved the way for Britain to emerge as a nation of readers was the habit of newspapers-reading among the middle-class and the working-class in the subscription reading rooms and reading societies. These rooms which were found in several parts of the country usually charged a guinea a year for the services rendered.
Newspapers, pamphlets, and books were available for the readers. According to an estimate, in 1929 every London newspaper was read by at least thirty people (Endnote 1949). Additionally, the leisure of newspapers-reading cultivated a new type of ‘Coffee and Newsroom’. According to Endnote (1949), there were not more than a dozen coffee-shops in London in 1815, which had increased approximately to 1,600 in 1840. For instance, the Crown Coffee House took in 43 newspapers; and the keeper explained that the reason why his shop had more than 1,600 customers daily was partly due to the excellence of his supply of newspapers.
Indeed all classes of people frequented this type of ‘Coffee and Newsroom’. The passion for ‘a taste of newspaper-reading’ was further fuelled by the political movements concurrently. In 1829, the Birmingham Political Union introduced the practice of having newspaper read at large public gatherings (Endnote 1978). Since then, coffee-houses in the towns, public houses in town and village, and gin-shops became important agencies for the dissemination of newspaper information.
Endnote (1949) argued that the public houses had become the labourer’s University. Furthermore, the illegal practice of hiring out newspapers continued almost unchecked. A single copy would be hired out to 20 or 30 readers at a small charge in London (Endnote 1978). These expedients, with hindsight, resulted in the formation of a reading culture and the multiplication of newspapers readers. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that there were indeed some institutional changes made to the press which helped the newspapers develop even faster than before.
(VI) INSTITUTION The profitability of running a newspaper business in Britain had already been proved and a well-run regional press selling 1,000 copies a day could make its proprietor between ? 1,500 and ? 3,000 profit a year (Endnote 2005). In fact, the proliferation of the press was facilitated by the changing pattern of ownership at that time. The capital investments, such as the installation of printing equipments and the recruitment of editors and skilled labours, grew beyond the means of any individual speculator.
The investors were then encouraged to invest in the press in syndicated pattern which could raise the necessary funds. For instance, the number of shareholders in The Times, which was divided into sixteen shares, increased from eight in 1816 to fourteen in 1827. Another change in the pattern of ownership was the growth of a few newspaper chains (Endnote 1978). It was common for a proprietor to own both a morning paper and an evening paper and also to acquire declining newspapers and incorporate them in his chain.
Last, but not least, the Companies Act in 1856 made it easier to form joint-stock companies and in the fifty years subsequent to the Act, more than 4,000 newspaper companies were formed (Endnote 1978). On the other hand, the development of British journalism led to gradual segregation between the functions of ownership, management, editing and reporting. The press had gradually matured from a craft into an industry (Endnote 2005). Furthermore, the process of ‘specialization’ led to the rise of professional editors. As Endnote (1978: 115) notes that a newspaper is commonly benefited for having a “strong and consistent editorial character”.
In short, there were significant transformations to the press and the commercialization and institutionalization provided the necessary funds and news management that journalism required for expansion. (VII) CONCLUSION This essay is a penetrating account of how and why Britain had become a nation of readers in the nineteenth century. It is my contention to relate the rising readerships with the rapid development of newspapers. Indeed the reasons underlying the press developments are neither simple nor one-dimensional.
Rather, a set of political, socio-economic, and cultural forces, driven by technological advancements, converged to bring about these ground-breaking transformations. Nonetheless, the development of British journalism in the nineteenth century is of historical significance. Politically, the relationship of media and democracy was evidenced in Britain for the first time (Endnote 2005). People began to realize that they could make the government accountable and could change society through the press. Media and democracy formed a relationship which was mutually exclucive.
Curran and Seaton (1997:8) argued that British press at that period made a “vital contribution to Britain’s maturing democracy”. Consequently, Britain attained universal suffrage in 1928. Economically, the period saw journalism’s rise to a political and social legitimacy based on the establishment of its commercial status. This was because the growing profitability enabled these newspapers to develop in its own rights independent of politics (Endnote 2004). Furthermore, the Victorian era had seen the emergence of journalistic professionalism and the conglomeration of the press.
Although it would be premature to talk of monopoly, it was obvious that some sorts of press oligopoly were formed. To an extent, the British journals as we know them today, owe their existence to the developments in that particular period. Endnote and Endnote (1993) refer to Lord Northcliff, who launched the Daily Mail in the late nineteenth century, as the first modern media mogul in Britain. Another important newspaper was The Provincial Manchester Guardian which continued to grow and is now called The Guardian which is a world-famous newspaper.
From the cultural point of view, it is widely accepted that Britain had experienced a substantial transformation in mass literacy in the nineteenth century. A study by Endnote (2000) shows that the rates of male illiteracy and female illiteracy hovered around 40% and 60 % respectively in the early nineteenth century. However, the rates dropped for a brief period and rose again to become nearly universal in 1900 as 97% of both brides and grooms were able to sign their names at marriage (Endnote 1983). Different reasons for this upward trend had been cited by historians.
Some historians attribute this to the expansion of public education. Yet, the Education Act of 1870 alone would seem less convincing and cogent to account for this rise. In fact, Britain lagged behind other European countries in providing general education during that period. The lower class generally had access to primary schooling for three to five years, but the schools were of low quality and women often complained that they were chiefly taught to sew rather than the three R’s of reading, writing, and arithmetic (Endnote 2005).
At the same time, the use of newspapers rose markedly throughout the country. A more plausible cause, according to Endnote (1983), was the large fall in the price of newspaper. Perhaps it is safe to conclude that the rise of readerships brought by the popularity of newspapers was an essential requirement to the spread of mass literacy. Admittedly, this article has only been able to touch on the most prominent factors of making Britain a nation of readers. The popularity of books and periodicals, to a lesser extent, may also have accounted for it.
While Britain in the nineteenth century was indeed known as the ‘age of periodicals’ (Endnote 1952), the abolition of Excise duty on paper in 1861 made books more affordable (Endnote 1998). Nevertheless, individual’s contributions to the press will require more elaboration as individuals like Rowland Hill advocated the postal reforms, William Cobbett and Richard Carlile fought for free press, and Thomas Barnes editorship made The Times popular. The distinctiveness of British journalism in the nineteenth century welcomes further studies.