John Cleave's parents were Irish. Otherwise, we know very little about his
early life. We don't know exactly where he was born. We don't even know when,
though it was probably during the early years of the 1790s.
When he was young, he was a sailor for a while. At one point he visited the
USA. However, for most of his life he lived and worked in London.
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.
In 1829 the association changed its name to the Radical Reform Association
and began to campaign for everyone to have the right to vote. It also campaigned
for secret ballots and for parliamentary elections to take place every year.
Another member of this group was Henry Hetherington, who became Cleave's friend.
Involvement in publishing
Cleave's involvement with radical publishing began in the late 1820s. He worked
for several years as an assistant to William Carpenter, who edited the Weekly
Free Press , a stamped paper. In 1830, Carpenter and Cleave brought out
an unstamped newspaper called Political Letters . This was the second
unstamped newspaper to appear.
The first was Henry Hetherington's Penny Papers , which became the Poor
Man's Guardian , the most famous of the unstamped newspapers. When Hetherington
was in hiding from the police, or in jail, as he often was, Cleave and James
Watson, another radical publisher, helped to manage the paper for him.
In December 1832 Cleave and James Watson launched an unstamped newspaper called
the Working Man's Friend . It ran for about nine months. The paper
campaigned for the repeal of the union of Ireland and England , an issue that
was very important to Cleave.
Cleave opened his bookshop in Shoe Lane in March 1833. Almost a year later,
in February 1834, he launched Cleave's Weekly Police Gazette , which
ran until October 1836. This was one of the most successful of the unstamped
radical papers. It had the largest circulation of any of them.
'Warmhearted and benevolent'
William Lovett, the founder of the Chartist Movement, a close friend of John
Cleave's, has left us a description of him in his autobiography. He says that
he was 'warmhearted and benevolent', despite the fact that he did not have
Lovett describes how Cleave and his wife Mary Ann would rescue the starving
street boys who hung around Smithfield Market. They took them into their kitchen,
fed them and cleaned them up. Cleave would visit his friends to beg for some
old clothes for these boys, in place of their filthy rags.
group of poor people
Cleave and his wife would feed and take care of them until they had found
some way for them to earn their living. Cleave still had some connections from
his time as a sailor, and several of these boys were found places on board