Extra! Extra! Read All About It! The Origins of the Guardian Newspaper

Jane Speller, Project Archivist for the Guardian newspaper foreign correspondence cataloguing project, writes:

The Manchester Guardian was first published in Manchester 194 years ago this week.

In 1815 a group of Manchester liberals most of whom were involved in the cotton industry began to meet regularly to discuss their shared passion for social and electoral reform, specifically the question of why the great industrial cities such as Manchester and Birmingham were denied proportional representation in the House of Commons. The group became known as the Little Circle and was influenced by the thinking of Jeremy Bentham and Joseph Priestley. Cotton merchant John Potter led the group which had a core membership of Unitarians. Members included Potter’s sons Thomas (later first mayor of Manchester), Richard (later MP for Wigan) and William; Joseph Brotherton (Bible Christian Church minister and pioneering vegetarian, later Salford’s first MP); John Edward Taylor (cotton merchant); John Shuttleworth (industrialist and municipal reformer); Absalom Watkin (parliamentary reformer and anti-Corn Law campaigner); William Cowdroy Jnr (editor of the Manchester Gazette), and Archibald Prentice (anti-Corn Law campaigner and later editor of the Manchester Times). Brotherton, Shuttleworth and Thomas Potter went on to found the Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

The Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819 was one of the catalysts for the founding of the Manchester Guardian. Peterloo which began as a peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty demonstration in St. Peter’s Fields ended in bloodshed when Magistrates ordered the Manchester Yeomanry to disperse the 60,000 strong crowd using their sabres. The ensuing violence left 15 people dead and hundreds injured. Taylor and Prentice interviewed the eyewitnesses and were shocked by their stories.

Plaque marking the location of the Peterloo Massacre, Peter Street, Manchester M2. © J. Speller

The Government responded to Peterloo by passing the Six Acts (1819). The acts were aimed at gagging radical newspapers, preventing large meetings, and reducing what the Government saw as the possibility of armed insurrection. Manchester’s most radical paper the Observer was closed down permanently. Taylor, Prentice and Shuttleworth were radicalized by these events and convinced the Little Circle to start its own newspaper as a mouthpiece for their liberal views. The group (without Cowdroy) raised £1,050 for the venture. A prospectus was drawn up to outline the aims of the paper and the founders signed a document pledging their support for the venture. Accommodation was eventually found below a cutlery maker’s shop at 29 Market Street in central Manchester for a rent of £31 per year. From this address the first ever edition of the Manchester Guardian appeared on 5 May 1821.

Manchester Guardian Prospectus, [April] 1821.

The Prospectus promised that the paper would amongst other things, ‘zealously enforce the principles of civic and religious Liberty…’ and ‘…warmly advocate the cause of Reform’. In foreign affairs, the Guardian would follow with ‘intense anxiety’ the ‘magnificent experiments’ which various countries were making in trying to replace, ‘antiquated and despotic Governments’.

Taylor became the Manchester Guardian’s first editor and Yorkshireman Jeremiah Garnett was recruited as its first printer and reporter. Prentice and Shuttleworth also supplied regular articles. The paper was initially published weekly at a cost of 7 pence. The front page of the Manchester Guardian was made up entirely of advertisements (news did not replace advertisements on page one until 1952), thus the first words in the first Manchester Guardian of 5 May 1821, ‘Taken up, a black Newfoundland bitch’ describe the finding of a lost dog.

The high cost of the newspaper (due to Government tax) meant that circulation was around 1,000 copies although the actual readership was much higher with a large number being purchased by newsrooms (public libraries). Taylor’s account books show that newsrooms as far away as Glasgow, Hull and Exeter purchased the newspaper. By 1835 the circulation was up to 3,000. Some 500 copies were sold in the shop, around 1,000 through local newsmen and the rest were posted (the Government stamp covered this cost).

A hundred years later Charles Prestwich Scott, a Unitarian, and owner-editor of the Manchester Guardian wrote an essay commemorating the centenary of the Guardian. In it he stated ‘the voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard’ and pledged that the principles laid down by the founders would be upheld.

Charles Prestwich Scott (left) and his brother. Guardian Archive, 317/1/17. © Guardian Media Group.

The Guardian Archive was acquired by the John Rylands Library as a gift from the Guardian in 1971. It is one of Special Collections’ largest and best used archives, constituting an invaluable primary source for the study of nineteenth and twentieth century political, social and cultural history, as well as of British journalism of the same period. In addition to the substantial business archive of the Guardian, the collection holds thousands of letters and dispatches in various series, such as the Charles Prestwich Scott series and the foreign correspondence series.

Guardian archives dating later than 1971 form part of the Guardian News and Media Archive which is housed in the Guardian offices in London.

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