Monday, 12 May 2008

The Northern Star

Although the Northern Star has been available for several months on-line via the British Library, unfortunately access is limited to institutions or within the British Library itself.  On 13th May, as the culmination of a three-year project entitled Nineteenth Century Serial Editions, a free, fully searchable online edition of the Northern Star and five other newspapers will become available.  This will be a real boon for anyone interested in Chartism.

The Chartist press provided an important unifying force within the movement[1]. The press provided a bridge with earlier movements, especially the ‘unstamped newspaper’ campaign involving Henry Hetherington, Bronterre O’Brien and John Cleave[2]. There was some continuity between the ‘War of the Unstamped’ and Chartism with the same people acting as agents, distributors, journalists and publishers. O’Connor was a prominent speaker for the unstamped press both in and out of parliament. In 1836, the Newspaper Act reduced the stamp duty to 1d. The Northern Star said the reduction “made the rich man’s paper cheaper and the poor man’s paper dearer”. The Northern Star was the most important and long-lived of the radical newspapers, published weekly[3]. It was important because it gave an understanding of Chartism to the working classes. It was in print before the Charter was drawn up and before the establishment of the National Charter Association. Initially it advocated factory reform and supported the Ten-Hour Movement and anti-Poor Law campaigns. These merged into Chartism. It also gave Chartism some semblance of unity. The London Working Men’s Association did not lead the way in print media.

The Northern Star existed for about fifteen years and sold at 4½d a copy in 1837, rising to 5d in 1844, a high cost, considering the targeted group. Because it was so expensive, it was common for people to contribute halfpennies towards the cost and then share the paper. The sales figures should be multiplied by about twenty to give some idea of its true audience.

How did the paper begin?

Initially, it was a Barnsley newspaper produced by William Hill in Peel Street. Hill, a preacher from Hull, was in financial difficulties so he sold the paper to Feargus O’Connor. O’Connor moved it to Leeds where he raised funds by popular subscription besides putting in his own money. O’Connor owned a landed estate in County Cork that gave him an income of £750 per annum. Comments from contemporaries suggest that Hill was a rather unsympathetic individual but under his editorship from 1837 to 1843, the Northern Star was an excellent paper. There is little doubt that in its most successful years, the paper owed an enormous amount to Hill’s guidance. Joshua Hobson and George Julian Harney then took over. In November 1844, it was moved to London.

Its full name was the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser. The first issue appeared in Leeds was on 17th November 1837 as a stamped paper at a cost of 4½d. It was published and printed by Joshua Hobson. The Northern Star was aggressively radical in tone. It was concerned with radical reform, violently opposed the Poor Law Amendment Act and supported the unstamped press and the Ten-Hour Movement. Even before the publication of the Charter, the Northern Star established the movement, which was to become Chartism. Other (later) editors included John Ardill, a Leeds brass-moulder, clerk and milk-seller, and Bronterre O’Brien, who had edited Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian.  Distribution was a popular movement in its own right. Agents became local organisers and local organisers became agents. Its circulation in some areas was enough to provide the distributor (who might also act as a reporter) a living. The paper thus gave Chartism a semi-professional local leadership. People were encouraged to send in reports of meetings, articles, letters and comments -- and did so by the hundreds: the Northern Star therefore gave a national perspective to Chartism.

How was it financed?

O’Connor sank much of his own money into the paper, but public subscriptions were raised at £1 per share with 10% interest. The paper’s success was immediate and the subscribers got a good return on their investment. Some eventually got their money back, which usually was unheard of. £690 was subscribed; £500 of this was from Leeds, Hull, Halifax, Bradford and Huddersfield. Because the Northern Star was a stamped newspaper, accurate records of its sales are available.



Average sales per week


1839 17,640
The average sales for 1839 36,000 copies a week - the height of Chartist activity. Sales did rise to 50,000 copies a week during 1839









6,000 or less (6,000 probably the break-even point)




5,000 and less


Throughout most of its career, the Northern Star was a financial asset to O’Connor, who seems to have poured the money straight back into the movement.


The Northern Star initially was not a vehicle for Chartism because Chartism did not exist at the time. It only became a Chartist paper after 1838. Its readership is likely to have been in excess of sales because the paper was bought by groups or placed in coffee houses and/or public houses and it was read aloud for the benefit of the illiterate. The Northern Star was a mixture of education, encouragement and advice. It reported on all aspects of Chartism and gave a complete picture of what was going on. It even included articles from rivals and opponents of Feargus O’Connor. It was a full-sized paper and had a greater circulation than the Leeds Mercury[4]. It contained advertisements, general and commercial news, national and local reports, letters, editorials and reviews. Because it had so many local reporters, its news coverage was one of the best in the country for the sort of events that interested Chartists. It was a good, professional newspaper.

How did the paper develop?

O’Connor was central to its existence, and it was an important factor in his leadership of Chartism. The Northern Star kept him in the forefront of people’s interest, even when O’Connor was in York gaol between 1840 and 1841. He emerged from imprisonment with his reputation much enhanced. There is some discussion as to whether he used the paper merely to advance his own political career or because he really wanted to educate the working class. A daily evening paper, the Evening Star, was attempted between July 1842 and February 1843 but it failed.

In November 1844, O’Connor moved the Northern Star to London as the Northern Star and National Trades Journal in an attempt to broaden the base of support. Hobson went as editor but disliked London. Harney then took over, helped by G. A. Fleming and Ernest Jones. In 1849, O’Connor and Harney quarrelled over ‘red republicanism’ and Harney left. William Rider, a Leeds radical, took over for a few months and then in 1850 Fleming took over. In 1852, he bought it for £100. On 20th March 1852, it appeared as just The Star, a radical paper but no longer a Chartist medium.  In April 1852, it was taken over by Harney for a few months as the Star of Freedom, and then it collapsed. The end of the Northern Star in many respects marks the end of Chartism. Donald Read says of the sales figures for the Northern Star: “As well as showing the extent of working-class political enthusiasm, these [sales] figures prove that illiteracy was not an obstacle to the success of a working-class newspaper, despite the low standard of educational provision for the poor at this time”[5].

What was the importance of the Northern Star?

  1. It kept Chartism alive, with a sense of continuity. Chartism was held together by the Northern Star, which welcomed and reported all radical initiatives of all types: Owenism, co-operation, trade union activity and so on. Its readership was larger than its circulation and it had a high quality of staff and news.
  2. The circulation of the Northern Star, taken together with the many smaller or short-lived journals amounted to an enormous number of pages of print. If the great mass of pamphlet literature is added to this, it becomes clear that Chartism was in many places a movement of literate people. How far the printed word was a unifying force and how far it was divisive is a difficult question. The press provided a sense of national unity that the platform could not provide. It reached districts regularly, which would have been inaccessible to speakers or organisers. But it also allowed oppositional views to be circulated and some papers, like the National Reformer published in the Isle of Man between 1844 and 1847, were largely concerned with carrying on personal vendettas against other leaders.
  3. Its popularity helped O’Connor to dominate Chartism. His letters and speeches were given prominent coverage.
  4. It played on the baser instincts of the workers and encouraged class conflict by flattering the virtues of Chartists, and hence was opposed by such men as Lovett and Place. The paper appealed at some level to most of the active people in the movement.
  5. As an early exercise in mass working-class propaganda, it alarmed the government.

[1] Dorothy Thompson The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution, Wildwood Press, 1984, pages 55-70 contains an excellent discussion of the Chartist press.

[2] Short biographies of John Cleave can be found in J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume VI, 1982, pages 59-64 and Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 138-141

[3] Stephen Roberts ‘Who wrote to the Northern Star?’, in Owen Ashton, Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Duty of Discontent: Essays for Dorothy Thompson, Mansell, 1995, pages 55-70 is a valuable study of readership.

[4] Donald Read Press and People 1790-1850: Opinion in Three English Cities, Arnold, 1961 examines the development of the largely middle class press in Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. He also discusses the Northern Star, pages 49-50 and 98-102.

[5] Donald Read Press and People 1790-1850: Opinion in Three English Cities, Edward Arnold, 1961, page 101.

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