John Cleave's parents were Irish. Otherwise, we know
very little about his early life. He began to be active as a campaigner in 1828,
when he became a member of the Civil and Religious Liberty Association. This was
a group of Irish and English radicals who organised in support of Catholic Emancipation:
to end the laws that denied full political rights to Catholics. He was an important
political campaigner in the early nineteenth century.
Author: Gillian Spraggs
Think about this...
Contrast John Cleave's fight for liberty for Irish people with
that of Ottobah Cuoano and Olaudah Equiano.
This is part of a page from a London business directory
Cleal, Jacob, Mercht. 52 Dean st. Soho
Cleasby S. & Son, Whale Fishery, & Russia-brokers , 80 Old
Cleaton Edw. Haberdasher , 118 Great Portland st.
Cleaton Edw. Welsh Flannel manuf. 37 Cateaton st.
Cleave John, Bookseller & Publisher , 1 Shoe lane, Fleet
John Cleave's entry in a London business directory,
1835 . His name appears last on the page.
It looks very respectable, doesn't it? 'Cleave John, Bookseller
& Publisher '.When John Cleave paid for this entry he was the printer,
publisher and editor of an illegal newspaper, Cleave's Weekly Police Gazette
. This had a huge circulation, for its time, of about 40,000. Cleave printed
it himself at his bookshop in Shoe Lane . He managed to distribute it despite
the fact that the police were watching him very closely.
Fooling the police
The London Greenwich Railway, 1833
He had a clever ruse for getting the copies out under their
noses. He persuaded a nearby undertaker who shared his political opinions to
make him some coffins.
These were filled at night with copies of the Weekly
Police Gazette . The undertaker and his men then carried out the coffins
and left them at the houses of sympathizers in various parts of London .
To help fool the police, these houses would have their curtains
drawn to look as though someone had died. (It was usual to draw all the curtains
when there was a death in the house.)
The newspapers would be removed from the coffins and sent
off by rail to every part of the country. The coffins were returned to the undertakers
to be used again.
Why were the police trying to stop the distribution of Cleave's
newspaper? The answer is because he was selling it without paying the stamp
duty imposed by the government.
This was a tax that was imposed on all newspapers and magazines
• any news
• any opinions about events in the news
• any comment on political or religious affairs.
The main point of stamp duty was not to raise money for
the government. It was to make sure that ordinary working people could not afford
to buy a paper.
The government's point of view
In 1835, the overwhelming majority of British people were
not allowed to vote or play any part in running the country. The government
wanted to keep things that way. They thought that everything should be decided
by people like themselves: men who owned a certain amount of money and property.
The government preferred that as far as possible ordinary
people should be kept ignorant of what was happening in the world. They did
not want people to be aware of political debates. They particularly wanted to
prevent radical political ideas from being publicly discussed.
The government considered that unless the working classes
were kept ignorant, they would become dissatisfied with their lives. They were
afraid that this would lead to violent disorder and even revolution.
The radical point of view
Political radicals wanted big changes in the way British
society was governed and organised. Here are some of the things John Cleave
• that everyone should have the vote
• that the monarchy should be abolished and replaced by a republic
• that Ireland should be governed by the Irish, not by the British
• that the working classes produce all the wealth in society, which
is then unfairly taken from them by an alliance of capitalists and landlords.
The radical activists of the 1830s did not always agree
with each other over the changes they wanted to see. For instance, some (including
Cleave) believed that women should have the vote as well as men, but others
thought this was a ridiculous idea.
Radicals were strongly opposed to the stamp duty on newspapers.
They called it a 'tax on knowledge'.
'Knowledge is Power'
John Cleave was only one of a number of radical publishers
who defied the law and sent out their newspapers without a stamp. These men
believed that there was a basic human right to access information freely. They
also believed that information was an essential tool to help ordinary people
gain power over their lives.
Cleave and his friends thought that access to information
was crucial for working people to fully understand
• their own importance to society
• their rights as human beings
• how to organise to obtain their rights.
These ideas are summed up in the motto of one of the most famous of these papers,
The Poor Man's Guardian . This was published by Cleave's friend Henry
Hetherington. On the front of every copy, in the place where the government
stamp was supposed to be, Hetherington printed the slogan 'Knowledge is Power'.
Cleave, Hetherington and their friends would have loved
the possibilities of the World Wide Web.
As it was, in order to bring the sort of knowledge they
valued within reach of ordinary working people, they risked imprisonment and
ruinous fines. Cleave himself was imprisoned twice, in 1834 and 1836.
The Labourer, a radical publication from 1847
The street sellers
One of the biggest problems for the publishers of the unstamped
newspapers was distributing their papers to the public. People who sold them,
from shops or in the streets, were liable to be imprisoned, just as the publishers
Between 1830 and 1836 there were over a thousand prosecutions
in London for selling unstamped publications. Those who were convicted were
given sentences of up to three months in jail.
Prison exercise yard
Men, women and children sold the newspapers, but most were
boys and young men between the ages of 15 and 25. Many of them, though not all,
were poor and ragged. Some of them sold the papers as an easy way to make money.
Others believed strongly in the principles behind the unstamped newspaper movement.
Henry Bennet, arrested for selling unstamped papers
in February 1835, was reported to have shouted out slogans in the street:
'Success to cheap knowledge! No taxes! Liberty !'
When Joseph Swann, charged with selling unstamped
papers, was asked what he had to say in his defence, he stated: 'I sell
them for the good of my fellow countrymen; to let them see how they are
misrepresented in Parliament.' The magistrates gave him three months'
hard labour, for being 'insolent'.
The Victim Fund
In 1831 Cleave and several other radicals organised a Victim
Fund to make payments to street vendors who were jailed for selling unstamped
newspapers. When the system was working best, the fund paid out 5 shillings
a week for every week in jail. This was a very worthwhile sum of money for a
poor person in the 1830s.
Money for the Victim Fund came from donations from individuals,
from boxes placed in coffee shops, and from collections made at radical meetings
and lectures. On such occasions, Cleave would stand at the door and shake a
collection box at the people who were attending.
Cleave had not yet opened his bookshop in Shoe Lane ; he
was running a coffee shop in Smithfield . The committee that managed the Victim
Fund met there. The vendors came there, too, as soon as they were let out of
prison, to collect their money. Many of them were ragged, poor and unwashed.
Cleave's respectable customers were put off by seeing them and his business
The end of stamp duty on newspapers
In 1836 stamp duty was reduced from four pence to one penny
per newspaper. Cleave did not see this as a victory but as a device by the government
to put an end to the campaign for a free press.
He soon stopped publishing his radical newspaper. He had
to increase the price to pay for the tax stamp, and he found that a lot of his
old customers could no longer afford to buy it.
He continued in business as a publisher, but he mainly stuck
to subjects that were safer than politics. More and more he began to publish
fiction. Like most of his friends, he channelled his political efforts into
the Chartist Movement.
Stamp duty was finally removed from newspapers in 1855.
By that time, Cleave had been dead for several years.
Since then, there has been no 'tax on knowledge' in Britain
– no tax imposed on the purchase of newspapers, magazines or books.
about John Cleave]