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Print Culture


Any analysis of print culture should consider the reach, audience and reception of the printed word. National literacy rates were steadily rising throughout the 18th century. By 1800 around 60% of men and 30% of women were signing their own names in marriage registers although there were wide regional variations. Literacy can be measured in a more qualitative manner by looking at the demand for reading materials. Reading aloud to others was common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Reading rooms, Coffee Houses in the towns and public houses in towns and villages were important agencies for the dissemination of news.

Print culture

The total production of print culture also needs to be considered. Alongside the more serious and intellectual books, broadsides and debates were the popular verses, ballads, songs and cartoons. Verses moved between printed versions, home-made, handwritten song-books and oral forms. A popular tune was ‘Chevy Chase’. It had circulated in printed form since at least 1700 and featured in the The Beggar’s Opera a ballad opera composed by John Gay in 1728. The most frequently cited tune for political songs was ‘Heart of Oak’ written for the London stage in 1759 by William Boyce with words by David Garrick:

Heart of Oak

Come cheer up, my lads! 'tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year;
To honour we call you, not press you like slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?

Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men;
We always are ready, steady, boys, steady!
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.

National Press

The national political press, based in London began to emerge in the 1780s although London had a thriving local press from the early 18th century. The Westminster Review calculated in 1829 that every London paper was read by 30 people. The Times was founded in 1785 and distinguished itself for the accuracy of its news and the independence of its opinions. The first proprietor was John Walter who had begun a newspaper primarily to advertise his printing business. In 1803 Walter’s son took over control of the paper. He introduced technological change such as the steam press and also gradually established the paper’s independence from external control. From 1806 he fought the system of party and government subsidies, braving the frequent threats of legal action. In 1817 Thomas Barnes was appointed as editor and earned the Times the nickname of the Thunderer, by his leading articles which ‘thundered for reform’.

Provincial Press

By the mid 1740s there were 381 printers, booksellers and engravers at work in 174 towns across the country, by the 1790s this had risen to almost 1,000 firms in 316 towns. Over the course of the 18th century, the larger provincial printers had increasingly turned to newspapers to consolidate their position in the locality and provide a consistent form of income amidst their more seasonal business.

The first provincial newspapers can be traced back to the Norwich Post Boy founded in 1701 but it was not until late in the century that they proliferated. Advertising was essential because of the high tax on newspapers due to the Stamp duty. Publishers also had to pay tax on the paper. The average price of provincial papers in 1815 was 7d per copy which fell to 4d after the reduction of stamp duty in 1836.


Newspaper Stamp Duty

Advertisement Duty

Pamphlet Duty


1/2d (half sheet)

1d per whole sheet

1s each

2s per sheet


1d per whole sheet








2s 6d











3s 6d


Number of Newspaper Stamps sold in Great Britain









No successful English provincial daily newspaper appeared until the repeal of stamp duty in 1855. Freedom to publish parliamentary debates did not occur until 1771. Until Fox’s Libel Act of 1792 judges rather than juries decided if issues were libellous.

The rise of the provincial press was based around middle class, reform based papers of the emerging industrial towns. These newspapers were very different from their early eighteenth century cousins. They used editorials and local reports. The first newspaper to develop these techniques was the Sheffield Register published by Joseph Gale from 1787-94. The most enduring and enterprising provincial paper of the later eighteenth-early nineteenth century was the Leeds Mercury founded in 1801 by Edward Baines. In 1806 and 1807 he published reports of the speeches of the Whigs at the county elections and in 1806 he began sending a reporter to the York Assizes. Sales increased from 700 copies in 1801 to 5,500 by 1833. The success of the Mercury was mirrored by that of the Manchester Guardian founded in 1821. The editor was Taylor another Unitarian and reformer. Its circulation was 1000 copies in 1822, rising to 4000 by 1834.

Radical Press

Between 1790 and 1840 a radical unstamped press emerged as part of the political reform movement. The foremost paper was Cobbett’s Political Register which advocated a radical programme including the reform of taxation, the end of sinecures and corruption and the extension of the franchise. The paper achieved a circulation of around 40,000 copies per week. Other important radical papers included the Cap of Liberty, the Black Dwarf, the Medusa and the Republican. The Black Dwarf and the Republican were edited by Richard Carlile. Most of these unstamped papers had brief lives and vanished without a trace but others such as the Poor Man’s Guardian remained in existence for the duration of the conflict.

Any study of print culture in the long 18th century must therefore contend with a paradox: in many ways the 18th century was an age of satire, of press freedom, of the expansion of the printed medium, and witnessed the rise of mass literacy (especially if compared with France). On the other restrictive legislation, a hostile government, censorship, the imprisonment of printers, publishers, and proprietors and heavy taxation countered this impression of an unfettered print culture. However, the inexorable rise of the three strands of the newspaper press discussed above coupled with the radical reformist agenda they increasingly publicised provided an atmosphere in which only a change of government was necessary for reform to be placed on the parliamentary agenda.

Important Websites

Bodleian Collection of ballads:

The Times Digital Archive:

Eighteenth Century Collections Online:

Last two are accessible via the Warwick website