A history of the book in Devon, by Ian Maxted
54: The newspaper in the age of reform
The foundations laid by Exeter newspaper publishers like Andrew Brice during the 18th century were built on in the years after the Napoleonic wars when, after a period underground, radical literature began to be circulated more openly. One of the most famous radical publishers was Richard Carlile who was born in Ashburton, Devon in 1790. He was one of the reporters at the Peterloo massacre on 16 August 1819. On 12 October 1819 he was fined and imprisoned for republishing Thomas Paine's The age of reason, and in all he spent nine years in prison for his publications.
One of the radical periodicals which Carlile helped to distribute was the Black Dwarf which on 7 July 1819 printed a letter from an unnamed pamphlet seller in Exeter who had fallen foul of the authorities:
On Monday I opened a shop in South Street, for the sale of political pamphlets on the side of reform, and exhibited the contents of the Dwarf, on the outrage of the magistrate. In a short time it met the eyes of the parties concerned; and I had sold but few of them, when an officer of the excise, and a constable, entered the shop, with a warrant, and arrested me, not for selling the pamphlets, but for a fine of ten guineas for having sold cider, without a licence, some months ago! They made a seizure on the goods, and took me before the mayor, (a terrible fellow this mayor!) at the guildhall. He said it would have been better had I never been born; that I had done more injury to the morals of this city than I could do good while I lived. I was forthwith committed to the new prison, which had been opened for the first time that morning. Some friends immediately came forward, and opened a subscription to pay the fine, which was done on the Wednesday. At about five I went to the Mayor to demand my goods, but he told me it was an unseasonable hour, and I must wait until the following morning. When I saw him in the morning, he stated the inaccuracy of some points mentioned in the Black Dwarf, and I promised they should be corrected. He then endeavoured to persuade me to decline selling the publications; in reply to which I told his worship that I was determined to persevere in the sale, as I had fortunately some enlightened and able friends to support me. I was desired to name them; but I did not feel it necessary to satisfy his worship. My goods were delivered to me again, and I recommence business to-morrow.
This incident is part of a continuing attempt to suppress radical literature in Exeter. The writer later refers to a shoemaker's premises which had been raided. Shoemakers were particularly active in radical politics in that period. The unnamed pamphlet seller was presumably James Tucker who in August was committed to gaol charged with selling Cobbett's Political register (EFP 26 Aug 1819 4c). His sister burned his stock in the market (16 Sep 1819 4c) and various people stood bail for him, but in September he was charged with "vending blasphemous and seditious documents" including pamphlets accusing the Manchester magistrates of murder during the Peterloo massacre that August. Tucker admitted that he had sold one hundred pamphlets and claimed that he could have sold many more from his shop "The Black Dwarf". Tucker as a consequence became one of the first occupants of the new prison (EFP 30 Sep 1819). Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth gazette found it melancholy that even in Exeter some persons encouraged such publications. He was remanded until the next assizes (21 Oct 1819) and was convicted of blasphemous libel in January 1820 (EFP 31 Jan 1820 4b).
But in Devon it was not to be the distribution of individual radical tracts which was to be of greatest influence but developments within the newspaper press. The second quarter of the eighteenth century was to be a time of gradual reform rather then revolutionary upheaval and in the years around 1830 the battle lines were beginning to be drawn up, not only among the politicians and various social classes but also within the ranks of the newspaper press. The traditional Whigs and Tories of the 18th century were transforming into the Liberals and Conservatives of Victorian politics. In Exeter the term "conservative" was probably first used in a political sense by the Exeter flying post on 17 May 1832 when reporting a political meeting at the New London Inn. On 29 August 1833 the same paper employed the term "liberal" in relation to Sir James Hamlyn William's candidacy for the North Devon constituency (Newton 1984, 165).
|Exe & Ply Gazette||1447||2173||2298||2385||2144||2337||2356||2308||2500||1740||1885||1907||2279||2250||2308|
|Flindell's W Luminary||606||606||537||613||673||692||655||654||558||692||577||635||59||635||519|
|North Dev Journal||-||585||458||413||394||490||545||500||554||702||702||817||735||1012||984|
|Ply & Dev Weekly J||356||635||567||648||625||558||481||552||490||635||769||673||888||1246||1321|
|Trewman's Ex Flying P||933||1510||1154||2000||1385||1750||1712||1904||1519||1783||1538||1692||1558||1923||1913|
|W. of Eng Conservative||-||513||668||885||606||808||596||596||548||635||567||636||529||650||769|
During the 1820s and 1830s the press in Exeter had a wide range of attitudes to reform. Through the returns of newspaper stamps made to the House of Commons it is possible to chart the changing fortunes of the Exeter press up to 1850. After the death of Thomas Flindell the circulation of his Western luminary had declined from the 1720 recorded in the subscription list of 1815 to about 600 in the 1830s. Indeed much of the decline must have set in shortly after the publication of the list as on 2 November 1816 Flindell wrote to Tipper and Fry, the London wholesale stationers who supplied him with stamped paper "Please send me only 4,000 stamps per month till further notice" (DRO 48/26/13/DC6338). The Tory sympathies of Flindell were maintained and the paper was opposed to reform and a high church supporter, being favoured by Bishop Phillpotts and the Exeter clerics (Lambert, 73). From 1832 it was edited by George Hogarth whose daughter married Charles Dickens and who left for London in 1835 after being offered a post on the Morning chronicle. Newton describes the Western luminary as being "somewhat dull" (1984, 147).
The most prominent newspaper in the 1830s was Edward Woolmer's Exeter and Plymouth gazette, established in 1790 and with a circulation which had risen to over 2,000 by 1837. Edward Woolmer was a pillar of the Tory establishment, being one of the members of the unreformed Chamber of Exeter, acting as Receiver in 1830-1. Although a Tory he was of an independent mind. He was opposed to parliamentary reform for fear that it would open the sluice-gates to a flood of radical attacks on all public institutions.
The oldest newspaper in the 1830s was Trewman's Exeter flying post, established in 1763 and whose circulation varied between about 1,000 and 2,000. Like Woolmer, Robert Trewman was prominent in Exeter politics. In November 1814 when sheriff he had successfully moved that a body be set up to improve the regulation of committees to accelerate the work of the Corporation. The Navigation, General Purposes and Finance Committees appointed as a result of this move foreshadowed the committee structure of the reformed Corporation of 1835. The Flying post was aimed at the agricultural interest and, being low church in its sympathies, was no friend of Bishop Phillpotts (Newton) While inclined toward reform the Flying post became progressively more conservative as the century wore on.
There were two radical newspapers for both of which Exeter's leading radical journalist Thomas Latimer (1803-1888) plied his trade. The Devonshire chronicle had been established by Thomas Besley in October 1821 and survived most of its career with an average circulation of between 200 and 500 until it ceased in 1853. In January 1827 Thomas Latimer walked all the way from London, where he had worked on the Morning chronicle, the Morning post and a radical paper called the Albion. He was taking up a post as reporter for the Devonshire chronicle funded by the Devon County reform Club as he had the rare gift of fluent shorthand. His early reports included an attack on the Exeter workhouse, described as a "nuisance" and a graphic account of the Epiphany Assizes and the executions. However the Reform Club tired of the arrangement after a year and the Devonshire chronicle could not afford to retain him. After two years reporting for the Plymouth journal Latimer's stenographic skills overruled Edward Woolmer's Tory reservations and he was engaged by the Exeter and Plymouth gazette for a trial report of the Spring Assizes of 1830. At the 1830 election, when the Whig reformer Ebrington won the Devon county contest Latimer reported the hustings speeches verbatim. Latimer soon entered into controversy, attacking those opposed to the project for a county lunatic asylum, and when he made a series of allusions about the true political motives of Phillpotts in supporting Catholic emancipation Woolmer, anxious not to jeopardize his prospects of the mayoralty, swiftly dispensed with Latimer's services. The Gazette went on to become the chief Tory organ in the county.
Latimer meanwhile was soon snapped up by the Western times which was conducted by James Terrell. Established as the Exeter weekly times on 6 October 1827 it had changed its name to the Western times in January 1829. Its circulation was less than 1,000 and it had recently been prosecuted for libelling the magistrates of Newton Abbot by complaining about their exclusion of the press. After a short period of caution Latimer weighed in for the second round of this contest with Bishop Phillpotts, attacking his opposition to what Phillpotts termed the "detestable Reform Bill". In 1832 Latimer gave graphic accounts of the suffering during the cholera epidemic and was at pains to point out that Bishop Phillpotts was absent from the City for the duration of the epidemic. He also campaigned that the Exeter Improvement Commissioners be democratically elected and that the press be admitted to their proceedings. It was significant that the chairman of the Commissioners at that time was none other than Edward Woolmer (Lambert 50-56). When in June 1833 the Select Committee of the House of Commons issued its report on corporations and was found to echo Latimer's ideas of more open government he claimed triumphantly that "It is to the energies of a free press that the people owe the exposure". In 1835 the first elections after the Municipal Corporations Act secured a narrow Tory majority on the new Exeter City Council and in the parliamentary election of the same year Liberal fortunes were also on the wane when Lord John Russell was defeated in his campaign for South Devon. Latimer was joined in the crowd at the hustings by Charles Dickens, braving the rain to report for the Morning chronicle. Dickens used Latimer's shoulders to support his notepad, they compared their shorthand notes afterwards and Dickens raced the Times reporter back to London. It was at this time that Latimer's friendly rival on the Tory Western luminary George Hogarth left for a post on the Morning chronicle after his daughter had married Charles Dickens. Latimer turned down an offer of a post on the same paper, writing "I know London, and I never knew a man who was not working to get out of it". He stayed in Exeter, now as managing editor of the Western times which was purchased from James Terrell by the Liberals of Devon in June 1835 (Lambert 65-73).
One of the first actions of Latimer as managing editor was to introduce the first steam printing press in Exeter. Previously the Western times, like all other newspapers, had been printed on a mixture of wooden hand-presses and the metal framed printing presses introduced by Lord Stanhope. These hand-presses could produce about 300 impressions a hour when operated by two men. Later a horse was introduced to the yard to supply additional power to the newer flat-bed presses but the steam powered press constructed by Dryden & Sons of London "on a very beautiful and improved principle", once installed at the premises at 143 Fore Street, could print 1,400 copies an hour on a larger sheet size. In September 1836 stamp duty was reduced and Latimer brought down the price of his paper from 7d to 4½d (Lambert 97-8). The circulation increased rapidly from 1654 in 1837 to 2163 in 1839, approaching that of the Exeter and Plymouth gazette. During the 1840s, while the circulation of the Exeter and Plymouth gazette stayed level at around 2,000 the Western times increased its circulation to 3,500.
A number of other changes affected the production of the newspaper. The arrival of the railway in Exeter in 1844 with its speedier links with the capital brought with it the electric telegraph and the prospect of instantaneous communication of news from London. However it was too expensive to use except on very special occasions. Provincial newspapers in Devon had to rely on links with London newspaper publishers who would forward advance copies of their publications to the provincial press. The Western times acted as a clearing house for copies of the Sun and the Times, particularly for such matters as Anti-Corn Law League activities, and from 1846 Latimer could use his personal links with Charles Dickens, now at the Daily news. These improved communications seved to cram the four pages of the Western times to bursting point, often resulting in the need for supplements. Latimer had to upgrade his equipment for the second time in little more than a decade, installing a second steam press so that each issue could be doubled in size from four large pages to eight smaller ones. Instead of issuing supplements Latimer now began to issue successive editions to update the news (Lambert 121-4).
It was Latimer's vigorous campaigning style and his cutting though sometimes unfair attacks on his adversaries which did most to give the Western times the most extensive circulation west of Bristol - as Latimer was at pains to point out on his letterheads which detailed the statistical information supplied by the government's published returns of stamp duty. Once espousing a cause he was tenacious in seeing it through. His attempt to prove the innocence of Edmund Galley, convicted for the murder of Jonathan May at Moretonhampstead in 1835 and transported in 1839 after lengthy exertions to prevent it on the part of Latimer and his friends was only successful in 1881 when Galley was compensated for wrongful conviction. A generous tribute to Latimer's efforts was made by the rival Exeter flying post at that time: "Many times and oft has the veteran penman of the Western times issued his broadsheet advocating the claims of the wronged and oppressed, and pleading in the cause of justice. Making known Galley's injustice and long-suffering is no isolated case in his labours." R.S.Lambert deals extensively with this campaign in his biography of Latimer The Cobbett of the West and devoted a separate volume to the case in The innocence of Edmund Galley (1936).
His vigorous articles landed him in trouble on several occasions, perhaps the most notable being the prosecution brought against him by the redoubtable Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts. On 25 July 1846 Latimer reported the speech of Lord Seymour, MP for Totnes, attacking Phillpotts for refusing to renew the licence of the Rev. James Shore, the curate of Bridgetown. This speech came at the end of a complex history involving Lord Seymour's father the Duke of Somerset's reluctance to endow Bridgetown chapel. Latimer added an editorial to his report in which he described the Bishop as "a consecrated, careless perverter of facts, and one who does no credit to the mitre, which he is paid £200 a week, or thereabouts, to wear" and as being "everlastingly in hot water but never clean withal". On 30 July a prosecution for criminal libel was set afoot. The Bishop obtained a bill from the court in which he described the accused as "Thomas Latimer, labourer". This was intended as an expression of contempt but Latimer soon turned it to his advantage.
He wrote in his paper "We claim a right, as one of the public, to discuss the public affairs of public officers". He returned from a holiday in Scotland to find that the Bishop had applied to the Court of Queen's Bench to have a special jury, as a result of which 37 of the 48 persons called were Conservatives. The Bishop had also hired Montague Smith, a leading counsellor. Alexander Cockburn offered his services to Latimer without fee and Latimer chose to plead that the libel was justified and in the public interest, the first time that this defence was used. It had only been made possible by Lord Campbell's Libel Act of 1843. If convicted Latimer would have to face up to twelve months hard labour including sessions on the treadmill, no mean punishment for a man then aged 45.
The trial did not open until 27 March 1848. In the meantime the High Church clergy of the Diocese had been preaching against Latimer. A jury of eleven Conservatives and one Liberal was assembled. In the court a pile of marked-up copies of the Western times confronted a collection of Phillpott's published speeches and pamphlets. Despite a very partial summing up by the judge, the jury found that the statements in Latimer's articles were true, that the Duke of Somerset had not violated an undertaking to endow the chapel as the Bishop had claimed, and that the publication of this fact was for the public good. There was celebration everywhere at the verdict. Church bells were rung from Ashburton to Barnstaple. The Daily telegraph pronounced "we believe there are only two men in the kingdom, the Bishop and his secretary, who will regret the result". Latimer underlined the importance of the decision: "The result establishes this fact, that no matter how high a man may be in station, or lofty in bearing, whether lay or clerical, peer or prelate, on all public matters his conduct may be freely discussed."
But Latimer was not universally popular and sometimes it must have appeared to the Devon readership that editors devoted as much time to attacking each other as to informing the public or high-mindedly pursuing worthy causes. In 1836 Alderman Woolmer saw his opportunity for revenge after Latimer's repeated snipes against his dull establishment newspaper the Exeter and Plymouth gazette. Latimer had insinuated that "A gallivanting contemporary who is a Tory alderman is the hero of a tale of scan. mag. in which the kept mistress of a town councillor is also concerned." Despite an apology published in the Western times the case was heard in the Court of Exchequer on 18 February 1837. Moved by the tears shed by Woolmer in court the jury awarded £100 in damages. In addition some £400 in costs was incurred. As in the case of Flindell 17 years previously, a subscription was raised which met three quarters of the costs (Lambert 103-4).
It was a regular occurrence to see editorials or correspondence in which Latimer was involved. In the Exeter flying post for 11 January 1855 there is for example an editorial headed "Mr. Thomas Latimer and his slanders" which starts "We have lived long enough to know that editors' squabbles, for the most part disreputable in themselves, are extremely distasteful, not to say obnoxious, to a well informed and intelligent community", but this does not prevent him from continuing with a closely printed column of attacks which clearly form part of a long-running personal feud. Among other matters he accused Latimer of using "the influence he possessed as a newspaper proprietor to gibbet Mr. Trood, as a man who starved his labourers till they were driven to commit felony, and then prosecuted them at the sessions for such felony. Perhaps in the estimate of our facetious contemporary that was a very good joke; and probably to his mind the fun was enhanced when an infuriated mob, fresh from the excitement of the pot-house, and with Mr. Latimer's libels still ringing in their eas, they hurried off to Marsh Barton, commenced their work of plunder and destruction, and would, in all probability, have added murder to their other offences but for the timely arrival of the magistrates and military." There is much more in a similar vein. Nevertheless, like Trewman and Woolmer before him Latimer had begun to find his position in the ruling establishment. He had been sworn in a justice of the peace on 26 January 1851 having previously in June 1849, been unanimously elected on of the guardians of the poor after being elected to the City Council in 1845.
In Plymouth too there was a lively press with titles current throughout the second quarter of the century: the Devonport telegraph, the Plymouth and Devonport weekly journal, on which Latimer worked for two years and the Plymouth herald. These were joined later by the Devonport independent (1833-91), the West of England conservative (1836-54) and the Plymouth times (1842-58). There were also several short-lived titles.
Outside Exeter and Plymouth the spread of the newspaper in Devon was slow. In 1824 Barnstaple obtained the first newspaper in the north of the county when the printer John Avery established the North Devon journal on 2 July. The paper remained in the hands of the Avery family until 1852 when William Avery left for Bristol and was succeeded by Hayman and Petter. In the 1850s the newspaper was attacked several times by the Exeter flying post and it was accused of plagiarism on 1 February 1860. Nevertheless it continued its career and, after a merger with the North Devon herald in March 1941 it survives today. It was not until 1839 that the first south Devon newspaper appeared in the newly developing coastal resort of Torquay when Edward Cockrem established the Torquay and Tor directory on 1 November. This was also a long-running title, surviving to 1973. From 1847 the spread accelerated, with newspapers appearing in Teignmouth and Tavistock in that year, in Sidmouth and Dawlish in 1850 and in no less than five centres in 1854: Kingsbridge, Dartmouth, Crediton, Bideford and Newton Abbot. Chudleigh followed in 1855, in which year the stamp duty on newspapers was abolished, Ilfracombe in 1856, Tiverton in 1858 and Totnes in 1860. The tourist industry played a major part in this spread, as can be seen from the large representation of coastal resorts in this list. Some titles appeared only during the summer season or were published less frequently in the winter. They would often include a local directory for the use of visitors and a list of the more fashionable holiday makers. This catering for the tourist is reflected in such newspaper titles as Wreford's visitor's guide for the town and neighbourhood of Torquay and Tor (1849) or the Dawlish & Teignmouth advertiser, arrival list and general directory, published fortnightly from June 1849 until at least December 1852. Banfield's involvement in publishing a visitor's list in Ilfracombe has already been mentioned.
But it was to Exeter that the world at large looked for examples of vigorous journalism in Devon during this period and its reputation was such that the Athenaeum in its issue of 14 August 1869 described the Exeter press as "a credit to literature". It was especially during the thirties of the century that the foundations of this reputation was laid, with journalists like Latimer building up communities of readers who could take an informed interest and acitivity in the developments of the age. As Latimer himself wrote in the Western times on 30 January 1863 "It is then a great privilege to be one of the guides and teachers of the people. This privilege is conferred on the journalist."
This page last updated 12 Mar 2001
© Ian Maxted, 2001.