George Walford: Taxes on Knowledge

From 1815 to 1836 British newspapers had to pay taxes or duties on every sheet they printed, on each advertisement they contained and on every pound weight of paper used. From 1820 to 1836 both printer and publisher had to to enter into recognizances of £300 and also find sureties for the same amount, and the effect of all this was to push up the price of a paper to six or seven pence, a quite startling amount at the time. In his book on the Philosophical Radicals, [1] recognized precursors of moderate liberalism, William E. S. Thomas devotes a chapter to these charges and the effect of their abolition.

The radicals condemned them as “taxes on knowledge,” a brilliant phrase of Chadwick’s. These impositions, they argued, forced the newspapers to cater for the rich; their removal would not only enable treatment of subjects of more general interest but also permit much bigger circulations, making information more widely and more cheaply available.

As commonly happens in social affairs, the effects of the taxes were not entirely one-sided. Instead of simply restricting circulation they produced a hiring trade; newspapers were widely available in taverns, reading-rooms and clubs, and could even be hired for reading in the street. Stamped newspapers enjoyed free delivery to every, post office in the kingdom, and advantage was often taken of this to redirect them repeatedly. In some ways the taxes were a positive help to newspapers, so much so that the many vendors were alarmed by the prospect of their removal.

It was sometimes suggested that the taxes made it more difficult to start a new paper, but this seems unlikely to have been so, for they did not increase the capital required; most of a newspaper’s expenses, then as now, were incurred in the gathering of news. (Thomas seems uncertain of his argument here, saying also that the cheaper papers reprinted their news from others). Illegal unstamped papers were sold openly on the streets for one penny or two pence, but they probably did not enjoy larger sales than the stamped ones. There are no statistics to support the suggestion that they did, and price for price the stamped papers, with their much larger amounts of information, were a better buy. The Times rejected the arguments for abolition, claiming that it would increase circulation generally but leave the competitors in much the same relative positions; in the outcome this proved to be so.

There were grounds for the abolitionists’ claim that their meetings were not well reported in the stamped papers, but this was partly because they themselves were divided, making accurate reporting complicated.

As so often happens in such agitations, the doctrinaires with their compellingly logical arguments and their narrowly theoretical conception of what newspapers should do, led the way, and the moderates followed with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Place and Roebuck, two of the more active radicals, held that men (women did not appear in this connection) ought to read newspapers only for self-improvement, never for entertainment. Favouring the puritanism so common among reformers and revolutionaries, they reckoned that repeal of the newspaper taxes would put an end to the scandal sheets taking their tone from the frivolity of the ruling classes.

The great motive force behind the movement for abolition was the belief that there existed, among those excluded from the political process, a thirst for the sort of knowledge and propaganda the radicals wanted to spread. Unable to afford much expensive news-gathering the unstamped papers printed mainly argument, advice, and abuse of the government, and some radicals, like Hetherington, wanted to extend this activity in full legality.

Only the doctrinaires like Wakley and Roebuck and Place, whose idealized picture of the poor drew its life from their hatred of the rich, thought of repeal of the newspaper duties as a means of severing the (stamped) newspapers from their obligations to the rich minority and making them, at a stroke, responsive to the needs of the masses.

In discussing public opinion Thomas recognises that although newspapers help to make it, they also reflect it, and do so more faithfully than do election results. A newspaper editor who comes to present opinions unpopular among his readers quickly feels the response as a drop in circulation, with which papers depended for survival then as they do today. The journal may shape its readers but they in turn shape it.

In 1836 the duties and taxes were removed except for one penny retained as a postal charge, and the number of London newspaper stamps sold – that is, the circulation of the London stamped press – leaped from 19 million to over 29 million, an increase of some 55 per cent. The provincial press grew in proportion, jumping from 8 to nearly fifteen million. In the year following the reduction the number of provincial papers grew from 197 to 239 and of London ones from 71 to 85.

But the hopes of the radical politicians and popular educators were disappointed. Charles Knight, a publisher who produced a great deal of cheap and solidly informative material, had held that it was the existence of the duty that made the unstamped papers commercially viable in their existing form and he proved to be right. When its virtual abolition brought the two types into direct competition the proprietors of the unstamped found that in order to survive they had to make their papers either more sensational or more frivolous. The great unsatisfied demand for cheap, serious newspapers wasn’t there. In 1838 Thackeray examined fifteen of the cheapest, and found only two aiming to instruct their readers; the rest disgusted and saddened him. Thomas sums up:

The newspaper-reading public, then, was by no means revolutionized by the reduction of 1836. It was at most given an extension, just as the electorate had been in 1832; and like the electorate, it turned out to be much less radical than the reformers had anticipated. . .It was the radical papers, which had taken most seriously the political rhetoric about popular emancipation, and had tended to assume that the classes for whose political recognition they campaigned would eventually become their readers, who were most disillusioned after 1836.

Since then the means of mass communication have been extended by near-universal literacy, cinema, radio and – the most powerful of them all – television. Each in turn has aroused the same hopes in the radicals of the day, and each in turn has produced the same disillusionment. The mass of the people are separated from the reformers and revolutionaries much more by their mode of thinking than by any difficulties of communication to be overcome by social, technical or mechanical developments.

[1] Thomas W.E.S. 1979 The Philosophic Radicals; nine studies in theory and practice 1817-41 Oxford: Clarendon Press. All quotations are from the chapter entitled “Albany Fonblanque and the March of Mind.”

RESPONCES to drugs get weirder by the week. We know that it is the wicked capitalists, big industry and government that use destructive chemicals, the peasants who care for the environment and cooperate with nature. But now the US government, in its efforts to eradicate the coca plant in the Andes, is proposing to use malumbia, a moth of which the caterpillar feeds on the green coca leaves. This will oblige the many peasants growing coca for traditional local consumption to protect their crops by using large amounts of poisonous insecticides, which will inevitably enter the food chain. (Reported in Anthropology Today, Aug.p.27)

APPLICATIONS of Marxist class-theory include the assertion that slavery disappeared when it ceased to be profitable for slave­owners. So far as the USA is concerned, for some decades now this proposition has been under serious attack by historians. Reviewing two recent books on American slavery Duncan Macleod notes that while disagreements still exist about the role played by slavery in the ante-bellum South, on a number of big questions there has been a striking convergence of opinion: “That slavery was profitable for its operators, and that its profitability was in part a function of its efficiency, is now generally agreed. The productivity of slaves exceeded that of freemen.” (TLS 9 Nov)

from Ideological Commentary 51, May 1991.