AMONG the mass of penny periodicals the one that made the most stir was unquestionably the Poor Man's Guardian, the publication of which had preceded the Penny Magazine by several months. In those days of intense political excitement the working-classes hungered for political news, and this was the kind of intelligence the paper chiefly gave. It boldly announced in each number that it was `established contrary to law . . . and published despite the laws, or the will and pleasure of any tyrant or bodies of tyrants'. It attacked kings, lords, and commons all round, protested against the new civil list and the proposed extra grant to the Duchess of Kent and her daughter, and denounced the Reform Bill as an accursed measure promoted in the interests of the middle classes.
Still, on the whole, the language of the Guardian was far less violent than that employed by several of its unstamped contemporaries, such as the Republican, which talked of `the diabolical machinations of the villains in power', and the Prompter, which proclaimed `down with kings, priests, and lords, whose system is a system of murder, plunder, and spoliation'. The most reprehensible article published in the Poor Man's Guardian was one which professed to be a review of a book by the aide-de-camp of the King of Naples, and gave what it called `Defensive instructions for the people', the illustrative engravings to which showed how civilians armed with long lances might rout cavalry successfully, and parry bayonet charges.
Before, however, many numbers of the Guardian had appeared, Hetherington, its publisher and proprietor, was summoned on the charge of publishing a newspaper without a stamp — every copy of a newspaper was then required to be impressed with a fourpenny stamp. Instead of obeying the Bow-street mandate, Hetherington sent a note to the magistrates informing them that he could not have the pleasure of the proposed interview, as he was going out of town; and he at once set off on a provincial tour to push the sale of his publication. In a second summons that was issued Hetherington was apprised that if he failed to attend, the court would proceed ex parte. To this he responded by a chaffing note asking the magistrates the meaning of the phrase, and why the English language, which he could understand, was not made use of.
This was too much for the Bow-street justices, and runners were started on Hetherington's track. They soon discovered from the public meetings he had been holding that he was at Manchester, but owing to their having invoked the assistance of a couple of local constables to assist in his capture, Hetherington was forewarned, and as the officers made their entrance at the door of his lodgings, he sprang out of the window and made his way to Macclesfield. His mother being seriously ill, he returned secretly to London; but spies were on the watch, and he was seized the very moment he laid his hand on the door knocker, and lodged in the police station. By the Bowstreet magistrates he was ordered to be imprisoned for six months in Clerkenwell jail; and soon after the expiration of his sentence he was again consigned to the same prison for a like term. Still the Poor Man's Guardian continued to be published, and every week newsagents and street hawkers were sent to jail for selling a paper which it was contended ought to bear a fourpenny stamp.
But these repressive measures were of no avail; people suffered imprisonment again and again, and yet still went on selling the Guardian. Nor was this remarkable pertinacity confined to the humble vendors of the publication. Cleave, a fairly well-to-do radical newsagent in Shoe-lane, whom I knew very well in after years, and from whom I gathered many of these particulars of the dangers and difficulties which beset the vendors of the unstamped press in the days I am speaking of, was more than once incarcerated. So was Guest, the largest newsagent in Birmingham, and so, I believe, was Mrs. Mann of Leeds. Abel Heywood of Manchester, a man of considerable substance, who subsequently had the honour of being chosen chief magistrate of the city, after suffering alike in person and in pocket, resolutely refused to discontinue the sale of the Guardian.
Many of the more humble distributors of the paper sought to argue both the law and the justice of the case with the magistrates, and on being promptly silenced, hurled defiance at the bench, although they knew that by so doing they were increasing their sentences fourfold. One sapient city alderman sent a little boy, who had sold a copy of the paper, to prison for three months, on the pretence that a severe sentence was necessary, otherwise children would be made use of wholesale to set at naught the supreme majesty of the law.
All manner of ruses were adopted to evade the vigilance of the stamp-office officials, who were ever lying in wait to seize the Poor Man's Guardian in the hands of the London retailers, or on its way to provincial newsagents. Dummy parcels used to be made up and sent out of the office by apparent stealth, the bearers glancing furtively around before proceeding on their way. They had received instructions to throw themselves, as if unconsciously, into the officers' arms, and then to argue and dispute with them with reference to the contents of the parcels they were carrying, so as to detain the officers as long as possible, while the genuine parcels for country customers were being smuggled out the back way. The authorities, finding themselves foiled in this fashion, took to seizing parcels of the Guardian at the carriers' receiving offices, and from vans and stage coaches; but in order to baulk them in these proceedings the papers were packed, by arrangement, in cases containing shoes, chests of tea ordered by country grocers, and bales destined for provincial haberdashers, and were claimed by the newsagents on reaching their destination.
Bundles of the Poor Man's Guardian were also conveyed privately at night time from the printing office to private houses and other `safe places' in various quarters of the metropolis, where neighbouring retailers were enabled to obtain their supplies. These they wrapped round their bodies beneath their waistcoats, or stowed away in capacious pockets, and concealed in tall top-hats, for so vigilant had the authorities become that people were stopped in the streets, and compelled to open any parcels suspected to contain unstamped publications. Hetherington announced that he lent the paper out to read at the charge of a penny, being able, he said, by this means to evade the stamp act, which only related to papers `published for, and exposed to sale'. After his painful prison experiences—he having had to endure all the hardships to which a common criminal was subjected—Hetherington took every possible precaution to avoid being rearrested. He lived out of town, and entered his place of business in the Strand by a roundabout way through the Savoy, and generally in the disguise of a drab-coated quaker.
His time, however, came at last; but instead of being again dealt with by police magistrates, he was tried in a superior court before Lord Chief Baron Lyndhurst and a special jury. He made a clever and sensible defence, urged the jury not to accept a mere lawyer's definition of a newspaper, whether given by the Solicitor-General, or even by the Lord Chief Baron himself, insisting that his opinion as to what formed a newspaper was quite as good as theirs. Lyndhurst laughed heartily, and in the end left the matter entirely to the jury—the prosecution being instigated by the Whig Reform government, the Tory Chief Baron, likely enough, was not particularly anxious for it to succeed. To Hetherington's surprise the jury acquitted him, and he jubilantly announced in all future numbers of the Poor Man's Guardian that the paper, `after sustaining a government prosecution of three and a half years, during which five hundred persons had been unjustly imprisoned for vending it, had at a trial in the Court of Exchequer, before Lord Chief Baron Lyndhurst and a special jury, been declared a legal publication'. Henceforth Hetherington gave no quarter to his Whig prosecutors, `those knaves', he said, `who use to split the ears of the groundlings with talk about the palladium of our liberties, and of a free press being like the air we breathe; which, if we have not, we die'.
From Vizetelly, Glances Back, i. 90-94.
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