Press stamp 1827 4 pence.png
Press stamp 1827 4 pence.png


Newspapers in the 18th century had to be 'stamped' - they needed to be marked to establish that they had paid the duty which all vehicles for news were required to pay. The Stamp Act of 1712 (a time of heightened political controversy) taxed all newspapers @ 2 pence per sheet and required the lodging of copies and the identification of printers. The tax doubled in 1757. Following Peterloo, the Government passed the Six Acts,  one of which the scope of publications liable for stamp duty to papers publishing opinion rather than just news, and required newspaper publishers to post a bond against their good conduct.  This set the stage for a series of confrontations between publishers of material aimed at a wide popular audience, which the Stamp  duty made unaffordable, and the government.  In the 1820s, but espcially the early 1830s, a mass press defied the Stamp duty, with a range of popular newspapers appearing until they were prosecuted, and publishers and printers were jailed. Over 500 illegal journals were published between 1830 and 1836.  Among the most famous were:
William Carpenter,'s Political Letters and Pamphlets (1830); Henry Hethrington's The Poor Man's Guardian (1831); and  The Working Man's Friend and Political Magazine (1831-2).

A number of key Chartists, such as Hetherington, George Julian Harney and others earned their political laurels by spending time in jail for publishing and cirulating unstamped papers. 

In 1836, the government reduced the stamp duty to 1 penny, which both broke the back of the unstamped opposition by reducing the penal rate, while successfully ensuring that mass circulation papers directed at a very popular audience would still be a luxury for their intended readers. 

The freedom of the press was both secured and withheld - and it remained an issue for many in the Chartist movement, becoming a central plank, for example, of the East London Democratic Association.