Chris Game: Bright's time at the birth of Birmingham's newspapers
Bright times for the printed word
Agendas should normally be forward-looking documents – particularly so at the start of a new era.
However, the passing of eras also stirs our sense of history, additionally jogged recently by the unveiling of the Museum and Art Gallery’s wonderfully restored statue of John Bright, Birmingham’s great 19th century Liberal MP and radical reformer.
I hope, therefore, that on this exceptional occasion you will accept another small helping of retrospection.
Given how so much journalism nowadays is ‘pegged’ on the commemoration of anniversaries, it would have been nice to link the Birmingham Post’s transformation with, say, the 150th anniversary of the paper’s foundation, or Bright’s first parliamentary election in Birmingham.
But unfortunately, both of these took place in 1857. So I turned to the usually guaranteeable Synchronopsis – the timeline feature on Andrew Spencer’s excellent Workshop of the World website at www.bham.de. Synchronopsis can generally find something worthwhile that occurred in most years of certainly the 19th Century.
The 1850s have a noteworthy opening for almost every year. 1850 – Gem Street Free Industrial School, on what is now Aston University; 1851 – St. Martin’s market; 1852 – Winson Green workhouse; 1854 – New Street station; 1855 – Birmingham and Midland Institute; 1858 – Aston Park; 1860 – Woodcock Street (also now Aston University) swimming baths.
Every year, that is, except 1859. So I’m going to cheat, and focus not precisely on 1859, but on the years immediately preceding it, starting with 1855.
As we know, today’s cultural and economic climate could hardly be more hostile to the production of local daily newspapers. By contrast, the conditions of the late-1850s could hardly have been more favourable. Literacy levels were rising and production costs falling
But biggest catalyst by far was the 1855 abolition of newspaper Stamp Duty which was introduced as a temporary tax to finance wars with France. Transferred documents had to be physically stamped, and a duty paid, before being classed as legal.
Chris Upton, writing at the time of The Post’s 150th anniversary, estimated that the duty-inflated seven pence (3p) cost of an average newspaper in the 1830s could be several pounds in today’s money – a deterrent that had the additional benefit for governments of keeping the radical press well beyond the reach of the working classes.
The Duty’s abolition opened the publishing floodgates and Birmingham experienced almost the reverse of this week’s events. The existing weekly, the Birmingham Journal, slashed its price and increased its frequency of publication. A new, liberal-progressive paper, the Birmingham Daily Press, was started by George Dawson, Unitarian preacher and close associate of Joseph Chamberlain. Then something even more historic happened.
Birmingham Journal proprietor, John Frederick Feeney, an emigré from Ireland in the 1830s – adding an extra ‘e’ to his family name Feeny to emphasise his break with Catholicism – decided to compete not only against Dawson’s Daily Press but also against himself. He launched in December 1857 a four-page paper, the Birmingham Daily Post, to be “circulated early every morning in Birmingham, and all principal towns and districts of the Midland Counties”.
Historical price conversion tables are notoriously problematic, but, using the retail price index (rather than average earnings), the Daily Post’s cost of one penny might equate to about 30p today. Anyway, the combination of affordable pricing, reformist values, and extraordinary proprietorial commitment enabled the new paper not only to survive, but to see off most of the local competition, and to serve too as a model for other cities – a record that surely justified Feeney’s only recently abandoned daily name check on the paper’s editorial page.
The Post’s appearance narrowly missed the by-election that first returned John Bright as a Birmingham MP. Which was a pity, because, while Feeney rarely let his personal views intrude into his papers, he would surely have approved of the city’s ‘capture’ of this already nationally famous reformer, orator and parliamentarian. And, like The Post’s own birth, Bright’s arrival in Birmingham had its surprising aspects.
Born in Rochdale and Quaker-educated, Bright’s first major campaign had been against church rates – the taxes paid by all parishioners, chapel nonconformists included, towards the upkeep of their parish church. It was obviously a cause that would play well, 20 years on, with Birmingham’s own Liberal, nonconformist municipal leaders.
He then turned, again successfully, to the repeal of the notorious Corn Laws – the protective farming tariffs that limited imports of cheaper foreign corn, but at the alleged cost of raising the price of manufactured exports, like Lancashire cotton, and urban unemployment.
A Manchester MP by 1847, having initially represented Durham, Bright was the leading member of the ‘Manchester School’, advocating free trade, lower taxes, extension of the franchise, and a cheaper, more pacifist foreign policy. It was this last cause – specifically his outspoken opposition to the Palmerston Government’s pro-Turkish intervention in the Crimean War against Russia – that brought his temporary downfall and, more remarkably, his amazingly swiftly negotiated move to Birmingham.
He became politically isolated, suffered a nervous breakdown – or ‘sprained brain’, as it was euphemistically described – and lost his Manchester seat in the election of March 1857. But then, immediately following the death on 30 July of one of Birmingham’s two Liberal MPs, a group of prominent Liberal businessmen proposed offering the seat to Bright and, furthermore, paying all his election expenses.
Birmingham Liberals, themselves mainly Unitarians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers, gained a high-profile MP, who gave the growing city a respected radical, nonconformist voice in national debate for nearly 20 years before the parliamentary arrival of Joseph Chamberlain.
Bright, for his part, was able to pursue his all-encompassing reformist agenda – universal suffrage and the secret ballot, state funding of education, the American abolition of slavery, independence for India – and eventually achieve Cabinet office from a much more politically congenial base than Manchester.
Suppose, however, that a modest time journey to the 21st century had Bright seeking a Birmingham seat to contest at the next General Election. Would any party, especially perhaps the Liberal Democrats, adopt him? I rather doubt it, given the characterisation of his parliamentary life by the historian, G.M. Trevelyan:
“As formerly at Durham and Manchester, he refused, and soon ceased to be asked, to subscribe to bazaars, hospitals and other local objects. He was always a ‘distinguished stranger’ in Birmingham. He took no part in local politics, [but] came down once or twice a year and made his great orations in the Town Hall, a full return, so his audience thought, for all the advantages he drew from his connection with their city.” It was indeed a different era.
Chris Game works at the Institute of Local Government Studies, at University of Birmingham