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John Cleave: A Radical Irishman in 1835
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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


Chartist March, 1848.

Elma's TIP!
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 for 1835:

Cleal, Jacob, Mercht. 52 Dean st. Soho
Cleasby S. & Son, Whale Fishery, & Russia-brokers , 80 Old Broad st.
Cleaton Edw. Haberdasher , 118 Great Portland st.
Cleaton Edw. Welsh Flannel manuf. 37 Cateaton st.
Cleave John, Bookseller & Publisher , 1 Shoe lane, Fleet st.

An Entry in the Post Office Directory for John Cleave, Bookseller and Publisher, 1835.
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 to Greenwich Railway, 1833.
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.

Stamp duty

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 that contained

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 believed:

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 Parliament
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.

Front Cover of The Labourer, 1847.
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 were.

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.

The Inner Court of Newgate Prison, c.1700.
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.

Men Hold a Meeting, 1830.
A meeting

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 suffered.

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.

Chartist March, 1848.
Chartist rally

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.

[More about John Cleave]




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