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John Cleave
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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.

East India Wharf, c.1790.
Dockside scene

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.

Panoramic View of London, 1807.
London, c.1820

Radical campaigner

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 much money.

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.

The Living Conditions of the Poor in Houndsditch, 1872.
A 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 ships.


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